Ever since those first fur trappers, wagon trains and locomotives crossed the continent, the landscape has posed a riddle for Americans to solve. The prevailing answer has been to mine the mountains, farm the lands and divert the rivers -- and that has created an unprecedented way of life. But to men like John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, the land has limits -- limits we are now bumping up against.
"In the West today, we're at a proverbial crossroads -- a big crossroads," says environmental historian Donald Worster, who will appear as part of Get Lit! on Wednesday at 7:30 pm at SCC. "What comes next? For many years, we have tried to conquer all the water and make every drop count for economic growth. Now we're reassessing that whole history and asking what it produced."
Worster, the Hall Professor at Kansas University, has written extensively on these subjects, in books like Nature's Economy, The Wealth of Nature and A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. His current project is a soon-to-be-published biography of John Muir. On Wednesday, Worster will discuss Muir's life and the timeless lessons he taught.
"Muir was one of the most charismatic figures in American history -- he was even chosen to be on California's state quarter, overlooking Yosemite Valley," says Worster. "He opposed slavery and prejudice, supported women's suffrage, opposed war. We need to understand him and his times and where he came from."
Muir grew up in the Midwest in an evangelical Protestant family, but became a world traveler and finally settled in California. Like John Wesley Powell, the influential director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Muir quickly detected that the West was arid -- a desert in many places. Not surprisingly, water continues to be the commodity that defines the West, from reclamation projects to water pipelines to dams. And Worster sees the West facing even tougher times as the impacts of global warming take hold.
"The American West is going to be hotter and drier than anything we've known," says Worster. "After being in denial for so many years, the whole country is beginning to awaken to how that is going to have serious negative impacts. The United States is not likely to be the same country -- and we still have a long way to go. In another 40 or 50 years, we'll see significant desiccation."
But still, he says, there are those who want to just go on with business as usual. Even California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who actually accepts global warming as fact, sees the solution in pouring more concrete; he wants to build even more water diversion projects.
Worster says coping with reality starts with challenging our dearly held myths. "We need to start taking this word 'empire' seriously. Will we replace old empires with new, better, more decent and virtuous empires? Every empire has to change at some point, because all empires rise and fall. Some make an adjustment and find new ways of thinking about themselves."
This American empire will need to do such soul-searching, he says, because cultures built on squeezing water out of sand rise and fall more than most. The Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt fell after a 20-year drought, and the Anasazi people of the American Southwest vanished from the scene in the 12th century, researchers believe, because of a 300-year drought.
But to Worster, understanding that history can empower this generation to change.
"The harder we run, the more thirsty we seem to be," Worster says. "I hope this will be a good conversation."