This land was your land

Pub date January 7, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

Anyone paying any kind of attention has a deep-gut feeling that things aren’t going well for Earth. No matter how fancy or technologically advanced we get, everything humans make and break is fashioned from the resources at hand — water, air, petroleum, minerals, soil and its nutrients, and plants and trees and their fruit. Your MacBook may look space age, but it didn’t fall from the sky. "Nearly everything you use every day is based on minerals mined somewhere, often leaving behind disfigured land and a toxic mess," Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, and Richard W. Hazlett write in The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery (Oxford University Press, 619 pages, $35)

"Mining is the prow of America’s consumer-propelled ship. Its whole purpose is to dig up resources for transformation to consumer goods," the authors go on to note, with the kicker that such resources are nonrenewable. "A three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house of about 2,000 square feet, with a two-car garage, central air conditioning, and a fireplace, contains more than a quarter-million pounds of mined metals and other minerals."

The American West at Risk explains the exact effects mining has on Western ecosystems — in other words, the other living things trying to survive alongside humans. Beginning with forests, the authors outline the history of logging and how the right to do it on public lands was weasled from a weak Environmental Protection Agency made even weaker over the last eight years. All professional geologists, the three authors draw upon science in their argument for preservation.

An EPA library in condensed form, The American West at Risk presents a coherent survey of forestry, agriculture, water use, outdoor recreation, road building, military operations, garbage disposal, and nuclear power. "Western US public lands, about 47 percent of the region, are this nation’s patrimony — the bulk of its remaining natural capital," the authors observe. In each of the book’s 13 chapters, they study a single major resource and its uses. The chapters are tidy and stand on their own, but read together, they reveal an abuse of public lands and resources for the benefit of a very few. They also reveal how government science has been warped to perpetuate myths — for example, the idea that grazing on rangelands doesn’t harm the soil, or that military testing shouldn’t have bothersome effects on downwind populations.

The conclusions reached by Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett aren’t all doom and gloom — solutions are included — but amid climate change, the authors deserve great credit for not mincing words. The American West at Risk is being marketed as a textbook, and although schools are one ideal realm for its ideas, they aren’t the only one. This book appeals to anyone with an interest in environmental issues, and is essential bedside reading for any environmentalist or activist. It should be read by all Westerners — and by anyone who cares about this great, vast, once bountiful planet, now on the brink of death.

HOWARD G. WILSHIRE, JANE E. NIELSON, AND RICHARD W. HAZLETT read from The American West at Risk. Thurs/8, 7 p.m. at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness, SF. (415) 776-1111,

>>Read Amanda Witherell’s interview with the authors here