Monday, August 3, 2009

I've seen the future baby and its murder

The ductus of American history is, supposedly, North/South. However, perhaps the real prime fact about America, the one upon which its prosperity has been built and by which its prosperity will be buried, is the East/West divide. James Lawrence Powell devotes a chapter in the Dead Pool, his book about the water that the West is running out of, to John Wesley Powell’s fight to prevent the government from doing what it did – supporting a vast infrastructure of water-using projects in the West. As head of the Geological Survey in the 1880s, Powell produced a map of the U.S., differently colored according to the annual rainfall received by the land. Gray meant that the land received more than 20 inches of rain per year. More than 20 inches meant that there was no need for irrigation. White meant that the land received less than 20 inches of rain per year. Given a European diet heavy in meat and grain, the Gray areas of the land would be where you would predict that most of the agriculture would lie. The map shows an almost evenly divided country. Gray goes west from New England to the Mississippi, where it stops. From the West side of the Mississippi to California, white takes over, save for the Pacific Northwest.

Using that map, and our knowledge that it is precisely in the white areas where American agriculture is now predominantly located, you can make a prediction: the State must have a giant hand in shifting agriculture to country which is inherently inimical to it.

And so it happened. Superimpose the gray and white over our political blue and red, and you can see, too, that the white is very red. Why? Such has been the success of the state in becoming a natural part of the political landscape that it has disappeared in the consciousness of those who depend on it most. In a technical sense, you could call them freeriders, but that would not quite cover the complexity of the culture that has grown up in those vast, barbarous tracts.

One thing is for sure, though. Just as the state has fallen below the surface of the consciousness for this region, so too, has climate change. One of the funnier – as in ha ha, the end of the world is funny – things done during the Bush regime was the directing of the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency charged with managing water in the west, to pay no mind to science. Thus, the Bureau decided, to its own satisfaction, that Colorado’s river flow would perhaps increase in 2040, filling our good reservoirs up to the brink. Unfortunately, during the past eight years, the Colorado has flowed at 60 percent of its flow, in relation to the Bureau’s standard. In reality, most scientists believe we do have very good evidence for the average flow of the river, which is different than it was when back in the extraordinarily wet years of the 1910s and 1920s. So even if the flow was normal, it would be much less than the Bureau projects. But, given the fact that the amount of CO2 now in the atmosphere will lift temperatures over the next two to three hundred years to heights never seen before by humans, it is probable even that even average flow is way too much to expect. Given the rises in temperature so far, by 2100, Phoenix will have the average temperature of Death Valley, for instance. Arizona Republicans, if there are any still around in the ghost town Phoenix will surely be by then, will have a hard time twisting these facts into the pretzel logic they so love.

B-B-B-B-B-B-BOOM! We’re all gonna die!


northanger said...

interesting book!

you've mentioned this blue-red dynamic before. i've noticed interesting patterns for 1776-1876-1976 (so of course, Carter had to be "broken"). 1876 election led to Compromise of 1877. Steve Cummings writes:

The development of a Red-state dominated government was a long time in coming. At its core were the slave states of the Old South. The Civil War and Reconstruction formed what became known politically as the "Solid South," the bloc of states from the Old Confederacy and allied states that voted consistently for the Democratic Party from 1880 to 1944. The event that created this alliance was a political deal after the 1876 election in which three disputed Southern States (Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina) agreed to cast their electoral votes for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the pullout of federal troops in the South.

Cummings points out how this blue-red dynamic impacts California budget:

The debate going on over the current state budget is essentially a referendum over whether the current blue state culture shall continue. The Democrats in the legislature are fighting to maintain the blue state culture and the educational system, in part through raising taxes either by higher rates or expanding the tax base. The Republicans in the legislature say that any tax increase is a deal breaker, even though the tax cuts during the Davis Administration have not been restored. This is classic red state culture thinking. Where it has been applied in the country, it has stifled real economic development, exploited workers, impoverished states and communities, and created a neo-third world economic environment in many parts of the country where it has been dominant.

Roger Gathmann said...

Oh, your california, North - or actually southern california. Have you read Joan didion's book of essays, back where I come from? Excellent california book. Joan from the beginning has been fascinated by where the water comes from.

Meanwhile, in Sacremento, housing projects are a flash flood away from disaster as they dissolved the laws keeping houses from being built in flood plains. Money, money money...

northanger said...

people who've never been here think california=hollywood. it's more than that, it's… oil noir.

California belongs to Joan Didion.

Not the California where everyone wears aviator sunglasses, owns a Jacuzzi and buys his clothes on Rodeo Drive. But California in the sense of the West. The old West where Manifest Destiny was an almost palpable notion that was somehow tied to the land and the climate and one's own family—an unspoken belief that was passed down to children in stories and sayings.

P.M.Lawrence said...

"Given a European diet heavy in meat and grain, the Gray areas of the land would be where you would predict that most of the agriculture would lie".

No, actually, it's a lot subtler than that. You would get that intensive pattern with a land constraint, but when land is cheap the constraints are capital and labour. When (say) 5 units of low rainfall land with 1 unit of labour and 1 of capital yield the same as 1 unit of high rainfall land with 1 unit of labour and 0.5 of capital, the pattern is reversed - because the land is more than 0.5 units of capital cheaper, even though more is used. Of course, if you fold land into capital as we typically do these days, the logic is more apparent but the land use is not as apparent. When the land constraint hits, low rainfall land costs more and high rainfall land does too, but not in the same proportion, so the optimality switches (historically, there have often been problems changing institutions, methods, etc. to match the new optimality when intensive land use became better than extensive land use).

We see the extensive pattern here in Australia, where agriculture is usually not high yielding in terms of land but is among the most capital and labour efficient in the world.

northanger said...

ah, the land use system.