Donald Worster

University of Kansas

One of the great, intriguing figures of American history, especially of western American history, has been John Wesley Powell, a one-armed veteran of the Civil War who became one of the major figures in the West and in the conservation movement.

We associate his name today with the Colorado River, and rightly so for it was Powell, along with a small group of men, who in the summer of 1869 became the first Americans to descend the Colorado, exploring its awesome canyons, surviving its wild and dangerous rapids. I don’t quite know how they managed to do that in their small wooden boats; it was pure luck, Powell said. In succeeding they unlocked the mysteries of the last large unexplored area of the Lower 48, not only the river itself but the surrounding plateau country, a country that even now remains fairly unpopulated, unsettled.

That condition is changing fast. In 1963, less than 100 years after Powell’s expedition, the federal government completed the building of Glen Canyon Dam, 710 feet high, right in the middle of the Plateau country. The dam began to back the Colorado River up--more than a hundred miles in fact, creating Lake Powell. Subsequently, the lake has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Utah, rivaling the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. And where tourists come, so does development of all sorts, including whole cities of retirees and snowbirds. Today, the banks of the lower Colorado River from Las Vegas to Yuma are filling up with trailer houses, marinas, etc., at a blistering pace. Above Las Vegas much of the river flows through national parks and federal land, so the real estate development is not so rampant there, but even in that section the influx of people and their technology has been phenomenal.(1.)

The American people have had a passionate love affair with Powell’s river--or is it that they are really in love with their own creations, the dams and hydroelectric generators, the reservoirs and canals, the irrigated golf courses, the motorboats, the neon casino cities that draw energy from the river?

When we were in Las Vegas last March for the biennial meeting of the American Society for Environmental History, we were told that the city now has over one million people, and that 60,000 more are coming in every month. Whole new subdivisions roll out across the landscape regularly, with lawns and streets all complete, and some of those newer subdivisions include man-made lakes and condominiums lining their shorelines--this in a desert environment that gets less than ten inches of rain a year.

Las Vegas, like Los Angeles, like Phoenix, like Bullhead City, Arizona, is the product of man’s drive to conquer the Colorado River. The river provides both the water and the electricity that make modern urban desert life possible, and so too the whole agricultural complex that has grown up in the Southwest, which consumes most of the river’s water. Other western rivers feed the booming Central Valley of California, the Front Range of Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, even Garden City, Kansas, and its beef packing empire.

What would John Wesley Powell have thought about it all? Would he see what we have done with water in the American West as the happy fulfillment of our national dreams? Or would he decide we have gone crazy, maddened by an insatiable thirst, driven to spoil what we thought we loved?

People have been trying to answer that question for a while now. The Bureau of Reclamation and the whole fraternity of water engineers and planners is sure that Powell would be delighted by their technological achievements. On the other hand, there are other Americans, including a few radical environmentalists, who keep seeking that older, wilder Colorado that Powell knew. They travel with his book, The Explorations of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, in hand, sure that he would agree with them that we have gone too far in our attempts at mastery and control.

At this point I don’t know who is more right about Powell’s views, nor does it probably matter greatly. Powell’s chief interest to us today is what he reflects of his own time and of its ambivalences about nature, the West, our growing civilization. And that is the focus of my research into Powell and his times.

Powell was born in 1834 and died in 1902. Then, as now, the country’s many tangled attitudes toward rivers and water were impossible to reduce to simple categories. Nonetheless, in the interest of clarity, I want to discuss two sets of attitudes that appeared during that period and show how they have intensified down to our own time.

The first set is what I will call “instrumental” attitudes toward water. I will explain what I mean by that word and will follow those attitudes through history, from the first efforts to create industrial water power in New England down to the present-day Colorado River. I have no doubt that this instrumental attitude has been, decisively, the dominant one over the last two centuries.

The second set of attitudes I will call “intrinsic,” a word that will also become clearer in a little while. Undeniably, it represents a minority attitude in our society, represented most captivatingly in Henry Thoreau’s writing about Walden Pond. That writing is even now the source (the headwater) for what one might call a gathering stream of alternative thinking about our relationship to nature.

I. The Instrumental Tradition

Europeans first penetrated the North American continent by means of rivers flowing from the interior: the James of Tidewater Virginia, the Susquehanna, the Hudson, the Saint Lawrence. Some were sure that eventually they would find a river that would take them straight through to the Pacific Ocean and to Asia, where they could trade and make money to their heart’s content. For a while the St. Lawrence seemed to be that river, but it only led them halfway into the continent.

Finding a water route to China was part of the motive for the most famous river exploration in our history: the travels of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri in 1804, a voyage that also ended in some disappointment, since they too did not find that easy water passage through the continent.

Rivers, from an early point on, were means to ends brought here from Europe. Sometimes the end was colonization or settlement, sometimes it was trade and wealth. Rivers became the key to America’s economic development. That was true in the South, where rivers carried the produce of slave labor to the consumers of Europe. It was true in New England, where rivers brought furs and lumber down to the port cities. And it was also true over the Appalachian Mountains, where a vast inland river network formed by the Ohio and Mississippi and their tributaries became the key to western expansion. This remained true until the coming of the railroads in the 1850s and even beyond.

One of the most important responsibilities of the federal government of the new American nation was improvement of water transportation--“internal improvements,” they were called. Mostly, that meant financing man-made rivers, or canals, to make the vast river network even more useful and efficient. I want to examine that role of government in more detail later on, because increasingly government became the dominant agency in water policy and planning in the U.S., the core embodiment of our instrumental attitudes. But now let us notice the rise of another powerful institution that early took on the shaping and managing of rivers: the private business corporation of industrial capitalism.

The prototype of an industrial corporation was the Boston Manufacturing Company, a group of capitalists who joined together in 1813 to extract from New England’s rivers the energy they contained and to use that energy for making textiles. Water in the form of rivers is more than H2O; water is also a great source of energy, deriving from the sun, from the fall of rain, from the force of gravity, and so forth. That energy concentrates at certain points in the river’s flow--at water falls, for example--and men have been devising mills to capture and use that water power for a long time. What the Boston Manufacturing Company did that was new, beginning in the 1820s, was to think on a grand, comprehensive scale about water: to think about an entire New England river, the Merrimack, from its headwaters in New Hampshire’s White Mountains to its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean, as a single source of power and then work to achieve control over that entire river. They wanted that total control to make cotton into cloth at places like Lowell, Lawrence, and Manchester.

Of course, there were people who objected to that corporate scheme, whose fields were flooded by the company’s dams or whose fishing prospects were ruined. But eventually the objectors lost; the courts and the New England legislatures gave the corporation virtually all that it sought: a free hand in redesigning the New England waters to flow according to the logic of capitalism. It is not too much to say, in fact, that the origins of American industrial capitalism lie in getting control of water and in redesigning the flow to suit their economic purposes.

That relationship between water and power continues on down from 1813 to the present. Its environmental consequences are easy to see on almost every river we have: they have all become, in a real and not merely a metaphoric sense, machines of production: forms of technology more than of nature, generating the energy needed for the industrial economy.

I call this transformation a triumph of instrumentalism in our relation with nature. Now let me explain what I mean. Instrumentalism is a way of thinking that ignores the problem of ends and focuses on means. Or we could say that it involves taking the ends for granted. Those unexamined ends have been basically profit, wealth, money. Nature, it is simply assumed, exists for the purpose of gratifying those ends. In whatever form it occurs, whether as soil, water, minerals, etc., it is seen primarily as a means, an instrument, a tool for humans to use, and the final purpose of that instrument is not discussible. Whatever people want, nature exists to furnish.

Since nature is granted no purpose or meaning or value in and of itself, the instrumentalist focuses his or her reasoning capacity on the how question. How can we use this thing? How can we make it pay? How can we improve its efficiency? How can we get it to market?

You start that instrumental reasoning going by finding an appropriate language. Water becomes, for example, “acre feet” (a quantitative measure of how much of it is needed to cover an acre one foot deep). Or it becomes so many cubic feet per second passing a given point, or so much horsepower or so many joules of kinetic energy. Water, in that initial conquest by language, loses other meanings: a source of food for pickerel or raccoons, a sculptor of beauty in the landscape, a mystery of grace and beauty, a subject of mythology and poetry. All of these other meanings the Boston Manufacturing Company put aside in order to concentrate on the work the river could do for them.

We might also call this kind of instrumental reasoning “technological rationality.” It has an end, which is the domination of nature for material gain, but the tendency of instrumental reasoning is to drive out all other reasoning. It overpowers critical analysis of our motives, our goals, and makes those purposes of domination, conquest, economic growth the ruling but largely unexamined ends.

When do we ever really have a probing discussion about economic growth in America? The economists and other technocrats who dominate policy discussions don’t see any point in that discussion; economic growth is obviously good, and it is obviously what everybody wants, so let us get on with how we are going to achieve it. Nature, likewise, is obviously out there for us to use to improve our material existence. It is obviously the raw material for exploitation. And any further probing discussion of the purposes of nature would be a waste of time.

Our whole industrial society rests on this instrumental approach to nature, and since industrial expansion is, in the eyes of most of our experts, commonsensical, to challenge that instrumental thinking would be to challenge common sense itself.

Now let us turn the pages to a point a little farther on, and come into the American West after the Civil War. Powell was one of the most farsighted people to come into this region in the 1860s and 1870s, and it was he who first provided Americans with a unified explanation of its natural conditions. Nine years after his first trip down the Colorado he produced a government report that warned Congress and everybody else that the bedrock condition in the West was aridity. The West was a desert or near-desert over most of its extent. And a people who had spent hundreds of years, thousands if you remember their European origins, living and farming in high rainfall conditions would be complete novices there. How would they live, settle, farm here?

Powell’s own approach was to encourage small-scale, self-financing irrigation communities, communities that would combine limited irrigation with extensive grazing away from the river valleys. They would need government land surveys and technical advice to achieve that balance, but they themselves should be primarily responsible for their relations with water.

That, however, was not what happened, for many complicated reasons. What happened was that settlers turned increasingly to capitalists to bring them water--a kind of western version of the Boston Manufacturing Company--until the time when those capitalists found out that they could not make a profit in doing that. Then most of the companies left. The task of conquering the major rivers of the arid West proved to be far too big a task for corporate capitalists. The technology needed was too expensive and too complicated. The resources of private capital were too limited. The economic return on investment, the profits to be made from irrigating corn and alfalfa, were just too small to justify the effort.

Failing to get the private sector involved, western boosters turned to the federal government. The famous act of Congress that authorized, for the first time, federal water projects was the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, named after Congressman Francis Newlands of Nevada. Since that point virtually every major river in the West has come under federal control. The federal Bureau of Reclamation has built over a thousand dams, along with thousands of miles of canals, etc., while other government agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Authority (this last in charge of the Columbia River) have worked with similar determination. Backed up by the federal treasury, they have succeeded where private capital failed.

The big dam building era, however, did not really start until the 1930s, under the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt. He and his supporters were well known as liberal democrats, and they saw in the technological conquest over rivers the means to achieve a more democratic society. They saw dams providing jobs for out-of-work citizens. They saw irrigation water from the reservoirs going to support thousands of small farmers, many of them refugees from the Dust Bowl. They hoped that an abundance of hydroelectric power from the dams would make urban life more comfortable and prosperous for the many. Not least of their hopes was simply the old American dream of developing the West into an industrial giant, a dream that both liberals and conservatives shared.

It is pretty hard these days to understand those hopes, or even to credit them. At least it is for me and for a lot of other folks, who simply cannot see how the conquest of water in the West was ever supposed to fulfill its promise of a more free, democratic society. Looking back on their ambitions, I think the dam builders were naive where they were not cynical. The naive ones were those who believed that big technology for the conquest of nature would be a sure means for the liberation for people from whatever enslaved them. The assumption was that people were enslaved by poverty or lack of opportunity in the East, that western water projects would be their salvation. The cynical ones were those people, including many in business and engineering, who really didn’t care about the liberation of poor folks but were quick to wrap their dams in the old well-worn rhetoric of freedom. We can, and we must, try to understand both types. We have to acknowledge that those attitudes and hopes are still very much alive in this society, including among many historians. But I think the cultural attitudes of that era have begun to shift a little toward a more critical view.

I have called this western water empire, based on instrumental thinking about nature, based on an ideology of conquest, a “hydraulic society.” The phrase comes from a long line of European sociologists, from Karl Marx to Karl Wittfogel, who have made connections between the conquest of water in arid places and the rise of despotism--that is, the rise of tyrannical governments that demanded unquestioning obedience from their subjects. Their argument has been that in arid regions only such a powerful centralized government could mobilize the labor needed to construct and maintain the irrigation canals and dikes on which agriculture depended. It was a matter of sheer survival.

Karl Wittfogel began to argue in the 1950s, in essays and in his book Oriental Despotism, that the modern Chinese and Soviet communist states had their origins, not in Karl Marx’s writings, so much as in those ancient irrigation regimes going back thousands of years, the regimes of ancient China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Less controversial is the fact the giant dams and hydroelectric power stations that both those communist states built and celebrated become emblems of the collective power of the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat. In reality, they were emblems of the power of the Joseph Stalins and Mao- tse-tungs. Stalin liked to think of himself as the master of the waters, and he launched a grandiose scheme to turn the rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean around and make them flow south to water the desert. More recently, China’s premier Deng Xiaoping has been pushing ahead with the world’s largest water control project, the Three Gorges Dam, and he likes to portray himself as the successor to first China’s ancient dynastic ruler, Emperor Yu, who first tried to harness the Yellow River.

We Americans, looking on these evil guys and their arrogant plans to control water, see pretty clearly the relation between water and power. Even Patrick Buchanan can see the relation; he began to sound like an environmentalist when he criticized those former Soviet policies. But we Americans have a lot of trouble seeing the same, or at least a similar, meaning in our own attitudes toward water. Republicans and Democrats alike have voted to spend billions on water control projects, some of them as ambitious as anything in Russia, and no country, ancient or modern, rivals us for the size and expense of our hydraulic technology.

Why should we differ in the effects of that technology? We like to believe that our government is more benign than that of the Soviets, and it surely is. We do not live in a despotic state. Nonetheless, government has assumed enormous power in this country through its manipulations of nature, and we, like the Soviet Union and the Chinese, have set up elaborate technical elites and bureaucratic regimes to carry out the conquest of water. We have our own, the masters of instrumental reasoning: the masters of how, not why. And if not despots, they enjoy a lot of power within this country.

Now, good conservatives probably see that fact, and they talk passionately about breaking that concentrated government power down, restoring power to the grassroots. But what they don’t see is that the power of government rests to a great extent on the conquest of nature. Who will carry on that conquest if government does not do it? And most assuredly our conservatives do want that conquest to go on.

Turning much of the control of water over to private capitalists would be, I suppose, a good conservative remedy, whether in agriculture or urban manufacturing. It too is something we have been doing for a long while now. If private capital did not want to build those expensive hydraulic engineering works, it certainly was there to use the water that government provided at so cheap a price. So there is the conservative alternative. And that is the principal difference between the American and the Soviet or Chinese relationship to water. Does that alternative liberate us from concentrations of power, technical expertise, wealth? Surely it does not; it merely changes their location.

These are extremely complex historical questions that we have gotten into, and we cannot go any further with them here. I want to end this section simply by saying that attitudes toward water, indeed attitudes toward nature in general, have profound consequences for any society. We become in some sense what we imagine for nature, and conversely what we become as a society has had profound consequences for the natural world.

II. The Intrinsic Tradition.

An alternative set of attitudes toward water can be summed up under the heading “the intrinsic tradition.” By this I mean a belief that nature has its own purposes, or its own logic, or its own beingness that we are obliged to acknowledge and respect. Nature is not merely material for our purposes, with no purposes of its own.

Now, I am not unaware that most individuals do not look on the world with one set of ideas or the other. We usually mix up our attitudes, now tending this way, now that. But some people do seem almost constitutionally unable to think regularly in the intrinsic tradition, while others just as regularly have written and acted in that tradition with considerable conviction. And so I divide the world of attitudes into two halves.

The first person I want to consider from that second way of thinking is the so-called lonely hermit of Concord, Massachusetts--Henry David Thoreau. He was actually neither lonely nor a hermit nor was he a total misanthrope, as some have charged. But he certainly had radically different ideas about water from those of the Boston Manufacturing Company.

Thoreau spent a lot of time in a rowboat on the Concord, the Sudbury, and yes, even the Merrimack rivers. But the day he moved out to another body of water, Walden Pond, was the day that a new set of attitudes really began to enter the American stream of consciousness. That was the Fourth of July, 1845. It was there, in a cabin he built himself, that he wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, about his exploring of the very same river that was turning cotton into textiles. It was in that cabin that he began his second book, Walden, or Life in the Woods. Thoreau lived by the pond for two years and two months, returning to town in September 1847.

I suppose everyone has encountered the student who thinks Walden was the name of the author-- Mr. Walden. The Thoreau Lyceum in Concord now and then gets mass mailings addressed to that interesting person. But it’s not such a silly mistake by the uninformed who confuse author with subject. In a very important way, Walden Pond did become a character, the central character indeed, in the book of that name. To my knowledge no earlier American writer had ever gone so far in giving a part of nature its own distinctive personhood. But Thoreau did with the pond. He also measured it in good surveying fashion: 61 plus acres in extent, 102 feet deep. But then he got on with probing the pond in its many “moods.”

The pond does not actually speak to him, as a person would nor think thoughts that he expects to learn. He does not go that far in committing the so-called “pathetic fallacy.” All the same, Walden does seem to take on a life of its own for Thoreau, changing through the seasons, and Thoreau seeks to know that life. He looks into what he calls “the earth’s eye.” He makes only modest use of the water--bathing, boating. More often he uses the pond as mirror of his own thoughts. When he leaves, the pond is what it was when he arrived.

Now Thoreau did not advocate at any point in his life or any of his writing that we should not use nature. Obviously, that would be an advocacy of suicide. Human life depends on use, somewhere at some time. Thoreau put a bean field near the pond, and he cut pine trees, collected firewood, ate huckleberries, drank water. It was, remember, an experiment in human economy going on at the pond-- an effort to simplify wants and satisfy them by his own labor. But the pond nonetheless was granted an independent existence, a purpose even beyond that of furnishing a writer with tropes and images.

It is good Christian doctrine that nature has purposes that go beyond human devising, though it is hard to find in American history many examples of where such a doctrine has ever restrained anybody. More precisely, that doctrine assigns meaningfulness to nature, and the meaning, the purpose is supposed to originate beyond nature, in the mind of God. It is God’s purposes that we are supposed to find and respect in nature. Thoreau, however, was rather weak on conventional religious doctrine. He hardly ever refers to God. The meaning of the pond for him is something intrinsic, not a mere reflection of the divine. This sense that nature in the form of a pond or river or mountain or bird may have its own

intrinsic purpose or value gathered momentum after the work of the British evolutionist, Charles Darwin appeared in 1859. One of the most important ideas that many took from reading Darwin was that man is not the center of creation, that things have evolved apart from human interests or needs. And it was only a short step from there to granting the things of nature a right to exist, a freedom to pursue their own destiny.

Such was the view of nature taken by Thoreau’s successor in American nature writing, John Muir of California. You have a selection from him in the Thomas Lyon anthology, called “The Water- Ouzel,” first published in 1894. If you want an introduction to Muir’s sense of what he himself was doing in nature, then this piece is all you really need to have. It shows that he saw himself a kind of ouzel without feathers, darting in and out of the plunging waterfalls and the icy mountain streams, singing joyfully no matter how cold or wet he was. While all the other little birds (and people) were huddled in a warm sunny spot in winter, he wants us to see that he was out there flitting about with the ouzel, oblivious to discomfort.

That Muir saw himself reflected in the bird and in its humble (and yet rather proud) relation to the mighty force of nature is pretty clear. He was a bit of bird himself, and he wanted to be part of the river’s flow. On the other hand, he went as far as anyone has in history anywhere to grant the obverse too: the bird is a bit of humanity, a person in its own right, just as the river is. We have no right to assume or act otherwise.

Tracing this intrinsic tradition on down, we come once more to Aldo Leopold. I stressed yesterday his indebtedness to the philosophy of agrarianism and its emphasis on farming as a virtuous occupation. But Leopold was also a scientist and one of the first Americans to connect the new science of ecology to the conservation movement. In one of his essays, entitled “Round River,” he tried to explain the ideas of ecology in a fable about the flow of water. The Round River was a river that, in Wisconsin lumberjack lore, flowed into itself, “and thus sped around and around in a never-ending circuit.” Paul Bunyan discovered the river and “floated many a log down its restless waters.” Leopold’s addition to the fable was this: Wisconsin didn’t just have a round river, it was one. All of nature, according to the science of ecology, is a flow of energy in a never-ending circuit of life. It flows out of the soil and into plants, then into animals, then back into the soil.

That is the whole science of ecology captured neatly in a watery metaphor. But applying that scientific knowledge is the province of conservation. Conservation, Leopold defines in that same essay, is “biotic navigation.” It is people trying to voyage without destroying the river on which they ride.

Start thinking about nature in this way, informed by ecology, and the implications for behavior are enormous. Leopold questioned not only American use of wildlife and soils but also what the country was doing to its real waterways flowing across the landscape. The lesson being preached here was (1) to leave the natural world alone and (2) where we had to interfere with it, to imitate the flow of that world, not destroy it.

So by the time of World War Two that was where Thoreau’s and Muir’s thinking had gotten too. For them the recognition that nature has a personhood of its own was essentially a moral act. They stepped outside of the human community in what was a radical assertion of self against the group, and when they got outside, what they found themselves confronting was a world of purpose and meaning and value that was not exclusively human. Freedom from society became a way into complexity and otherness, into a world that bounded, limited, confronted, and at times humbled them. They gained a more “ecocentric” perspective on themselves. They came to see, that is, that they were part of a larger than human whole, a whole ecosystem, and that human purposes must be seen as only a small part of that greater whole.

Leopold, as a scientist, put the idea somewhat differently. He too took the attitude that nature is a larger whole to which we belong and one that puts moral obligations on us. But he also, more than Thoreau or Muir, insisted that the whole of nature expresses a kind of logic or rationality. It was not the logic created by humans and imposed on nature; rather, it was the logic of evolution, of natural processes, a logic that science could discover and humans could learn to appreciate and emulate.

The modern environmental movement has been a coming together of many attitudes, some of them in conflict with one another. But I see those two strands in the intrinsic tradition, the moral and the scientific, as centrally important. Among environmentalists there apparently is a widespread willingness to grant some intrinsic value or meaning to the natural world. Call it a granting of a right to exist, call it a faith in nature’s self-regulating powers, or call it a respect for diversity and otherness in the world. It is a recurrent theme, and it no longer seems so quixotic or outrageous as it once did.

And now the intrinsic attitude has also become more political.

We can go back to the Colorado River country to see what that means. I want to end this section by looking at the activities of a group whose very name acknowledges a nature that has meaning beyond us: Earth First! It was founded (if one can speak so of an anarchistic organization, one that never really had a single leader) by Dave Foreman, who had grown up in New Mexico and, for a while, was a student campaign worker for Senator Barry Goldwater in his 1964 conservative bid for the presidency. Later, Foreman went to work for an organization that Leopold had helped found in the mid-30s, the Wilderness Society, whose mission is to preserve and safeguard America’s remaining wilderness areas. Foreman soon got impatient with that group, feeling that they were too quick to compromise with the exploiters. He left them, seeking some more uncompromising political stance.

At a critical point in his disillusioned mood, he read a book by the Arizona novelist and nature writer Edward Abbey--old Cactus Ed, the desert rat from Oracle, Arizona. One of the most interesting, controversial, charismatic, influential figures of this century, Abbey has stirred up a lot of bitter hatred, but also a lot of worshipful adulation, and some of that came from Dave Foreman.

Abbey was author of such books as Desert Solitaire, The Brave Cowboy, and (published in 1975) The Monkeywrench Gang. This last book was about a group of radical environmentalists who undertake to sabotage land and water developers in the West. Their ultimate dream is to blow up the ultimate outrage, Glen Canyon Dam. They prepare a houseboat as a torpedo, loaded with explosives, and float down Lake Powell to the dam. They want to let Lake Powell drain out, recovering the spectacular canyons now silting in with mud.

Foreman and friends liked these ideas and, riding in a Volkswagen van back from Mexico across Arizona to New Mexico one day in the year 1980, they conceived of a new environmental group, Earth First! The new organization would put the defense of wilderness and of endangered wildlife and forests above any human self-interest, and they would do whatever it took to defend the vanishing beauty and diversity of the planet. They would not only defend, but they would also liberate lands already developed (i.e., spoiled). They would seek to have them restored to their pristine natural state. They quoted Abbey’s angry words: “We have yielded too much too easily. It is time to start shoving cement and iron in the opposite direction before the entire nation, before the whole planet, becomes one steaming, stinking, overcrowded high-tech ghetto.”

Some of the group’s exploits, taking their model from Abbey’s novel, included pulling up stakes of survey crews, sabotaging bulldozers and helicopters. But their most famous moment came in the spring of 1981. In Abbey’s novel the guerrillas torpedo the dam at great risk to their own lives. Earth First! was more sensible and more symbol-conscious than that. A group of them drove up onto the road that crosses Glen Canyon Dam, with Edward Abbey in their midst, and they unrolled a huge black piece of plastic down across the face of the dam. From a distance it looked exactly like an immense crack in the dam! They had performed not the ultimate sabotage but the ultimate joke on ultimate outrage. The Bureau of Reclamation did not do much laughing.

But the eco-guerrillas were threatening to create more than a fake crack. Here is Abbey again: “I think we are morally justified to resort to whatever means are necessary in order to defend our land from destruction, invasion. I see this as an invasion. I would advocate sabotage, subversion, as a last resort when political means fail.”

I cannot imagine Thoreau or Muir or Leopold going quite that far, or showing up for the pranks or the sabotage parties of Earth First! But I can see where such pranksters come from, what the philosophy is behind them, where it starts and how it has evolved to the present day. And it runs back to that pond in Massachusetts. The ideas coming out here are ideas that have behind them a century and a half of expression, refinement, intensification.

Earth First! seems now to have become disorganized and quiet (and probably they are a little scared--they have been heavily harassed by the FBI and the police). I cannot imagine that we have heard the last of them.


Were we talking about attitudes toward water? Well, yes, we were, but those attitudes have repeatedly led us into broader attitudes toward nature, toward technology, toward progress, and economic growth.

Perhaps we are not talking even about those topics alone, in isolation from everything else. Much of the conflict that I have sketched here in terms of thinking about water and nature could be given parallel treatment in terms of gender, race, abortion and many other burning social issues. Some have said we Americans are fighting these days a series of cultural wars--wars of ideas, values, perceptions-- wars that are getting more and more intense. It may even be a new Civil War of potentially huge dimensions.

Recently, I have been reading about the ante-bellum period of American history for my research on John Wesley Powell, the period of tumult that ended in the Civil War. His parents were immigrants from England who soon were caught up in the conflict over slavery--a conflict that seemed by the late 1850s to be irrepressible. A house divided against itself, Lincoln warned, could not stand. We are in many ways in a similar situation today, more so than at any point I can find since the Civil War. Many of the very same issues are dividing us now, though some occur in rather different terms: we talk about affirmative action now rather than chattel slavery.

There are some big differences between then and now. In the 1850s the cultural wars solidified into a single sectional war, the North against the South. The issues were far more complicated, but sectionalism gave them focus. Today, where is the equivalent of the Old South? Who is the North? Our cultural wars go on within every community over such matters as school prayer, immigration, government regulation, environmental preservation. Sometimes it goes on within the same household.

In the cultural war going on over nature, beyond the tradition of instrumentalism toward nature and the tradition of intrinsic value, there is no question about which side holds the greater economic and political power. Though as a nation we have preserved a few wild and scenic rivers, mainly at the urging of Thoreau’s followers, the vast majority of our rivers, and almost over their entire length, have become highly technologized for flood control, power production, or irrigation. The Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. Its flow has all been extracted, except in unusually wet years, before it reaches its old delta. The Missouri is a series of manmade lakes stairstepping down from the Rockies.

If the issue in the cultural war over nature is about liberation--setting the rivers free to flow in their natural way, just as the slaves were set free by the Civil War--then what are the chances for success? Pretty small, I must say. Glen Canyon Dam still stands there, the plastic crack is long gone. As the desert continues to fill up with people, the demands on the limited water supply grow larger and larger, leading to more water management, not less. We talk of shifting a scarce supply from agricultural to urban consumption, and that would certainly be a gain in efficiency. The idea of using ninety percent of the available water in western states for agriculture, or of using half of that amount merely to raise cattle, is not rational even by the standards of instrumental thinking. Increasingly, if we follow the dictates of that instrumentalism, water will go to those who can afford to pay the highest price for it. But that is not liberation.

I don’t see anyone out there these days, despite the popularity of Thoreau and Muir, Leopold and Abbey, who can bring about a truly fundamental change in the way in which we use water. Ideas can only bring us part way, and then other factors must be considered. However, I do believe that some change in water management is likely to occur, and that not too far off in the future. The most likely source of that change will be nature itself as much or more than any set of attitudes or ideas. We cannot stop the cycles of erosion, flooding, hydrology that have been going on for hundreds of millions of years. They are already at work destroying all the manmade creations and projects Americans have engineered--the levees along the Mississippi, the dams from coast to coast. It would be naive to think that we will always be able to maintain those structures of control, to keep our control intact forever.

So looked at over the long span of earth history, the prospect of big changes in our relation with water is more than a little threatening or promising, depending on your perspective. It is bloody well inevitable. Those natural forces in combination with changing cultural attitudes were bound to bring about a new era on America’s waterways, sooner or later.


1. To be sure, Glen Canyon Dam was only one manifestation of a drive to dam and master the Colorado River that began much earlier, with Hoover Dam, dedicated in 1935.

Sherow's Homepage
Kansas State University | K-State History Department

Proceedings and Resource Guide: Table of Contents