Rebecca Solnit on The West and climate change

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes Apr 04, 2019

This article reminded me of the powerful story Rebecca Solnit told at Pop-Up Magazine a couple years ago. She presented photos taken by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe at Lake Powell over several years, along with unfolding a compelling narrative expression of climate change as told through one geological place.


She also tells a cautionary tale of The West, in her companion piece later published in California Sunday magazine.

Glen Canyon Dam is a monument to overconfidence 710 feet high, an engineering marvel and an ecological mistake. The American West is full of these follies: decommissioned nuclear power plants surrounded by the spent radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for 100,000 years; the bomb-torn land of military testing and training sites; the Nevada Test Site itself, cratered and contaminated by the explosion of a thousand nuclear devices. Las Vegas and Phoenix, two cities that have grown furiously in recent decades, are monuments to the conviction that stable temperatures and fossil fuel and water could be counted upon to persist indefinitely.

You can regard the enormous projects of this era as a continuation of the Second World War. In the West, this kind of development resembled a war against nature, an attempt to conquer heat, dryness, remoteness, the variability of rainfall and river flow — to triumph over the way water limits growth. As the environmental writer Bill deBuys put it: "Thanks to reservoirs large and small, scores of dams including colossi like Hoover and Glen Canyon, more than 1,000 miles of aqueducts and countless pumps, siphons, tunnels and diversions, the West had been thoroughly re-rivered and re-engineered. It had acquired the plumbing system of a giant water-delivery machine. ... Today the Colorado River, the most fully harnessed of the West's great waterways, provides water to about 40 million people and irrigates nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland." Along the way, so many parties sip and gulp from the Colorado that little water reaches Mexico.


It's a longread so I recommend finding someone with a voice as soothing and clear as Solnit's to read aloud to you (and then hold you when you realize what it all means).

N.B. Pop-Up's spring tour tickets go on sale on April 9. It's always an interesting show. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always poignant and well-produced. And never recorded so you must be there in person!