American Obesity And The Doomed Desert Civilization Of The Southwest

The American Intermountain West was on fire in May and June, following one of the driest springs in memory (I have lived in Wyoming since 1979).

In a reversal of the usual pattern, the early drought was followed by a wet July. But now, in August—traditionally the hottest and driest in the Rocky Mountain area—a warm, dry air mass has moved in and the red flags are up once again, indicating extreme fire danger.

New fires are already burning around Wyoming, the fire restrictions of last spring are being reimposed everywhere, and the streets of Laramie are filled with smoke again, this time from wildfires burning in western Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and California. A week or so ago, the New York Times published an extensive article describing drought and the water crisis in the West. Though a fairly comprehensive job, the piece had nothing new to say to Westerners who are experiencing these things.

It is possible that the Western drought, like that afflicting more than half the United States, is the result of the “global warming” trend said by the international scientific establishment to be a direct result of industrial pollution since the latter half of the 19th century.

Alternatively, it may be simply a manifestation of a weather pattern documented by the historical record and modern scientific investigation of tree ring growth in the American Southwest carried out in the past few decades.

Both modes of study show, without question of a doubt, that since the 14h century severe periodic droughts have visited the Southwest. In the late 1300s, lack of water was a chief factor in causing the Anasazi people to abandon Mesa Verde and other ancient villages and migrate south into Mexico. Drought persisted throughout most of the 15th century, led directly to the revolt by the Pueblo Indians against the Spanish in 1680, and returned at the middle of the 18th century. In recent times, devastating drought struck the West in the 1930s and in the 1950s.

Beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the 21st century, prolonged drought, plus one hundred years of federal mismanagement of the national forests, has produced superfires advancing as fast as four miles in three hours in central Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado: fires that have burned at previously unheard of temperatures and done unprecedented damage, both in natural and economic terms.

Two months ago, the High Park Fire, burning within five miles of the central business district of Fort Collins, Colorado, broke all records to become the state’s most destructive in recorded history while submerging the Front Range from Cheyenne south to Denver in heavy smoke and biting ash a quarter-inch long.

Weeks later, it was surpassed in destructiveness by the Waldo Park Fire, burning in the foothills above Colorado Springs and forcing the evacuation of 30,000 people.

No-one foresees an end to the superfires, either in this fire season or in summers (and springs, and falls) to come. If anything, the beetle kill that has decimated forests across the Mountain West ensures that it is a matter not of “if” but “when” further vast tracts of Western forest explode in flames, either from natural causes (mainly lightning strikes) or human ones.

Last summer, a fire ignited on the Mexican border was tentatively attributed to a campfire lighted in tinder dry brush land by illegal immigrants. No one, of course, is blaming immigrants, legal or illegal, for the devastating fires that have followed (and preceded) this incident. Nor can immigration be held responsible for the periodic drought that has afflicted the American West since the 1950s.

But mass immigration, whether legal or illegal, critically contributes to the water shortage endemic throughout the Southwest, and to the effects that shortage is currently producing in the urban and rural populations of the region: Texas and New Mexico included, but Arizona and California particularly.

A study—“Population, Immigration, and the Drying of the American Southwest,” written by Kathleene Parker and released by the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. in November 2010–recounts the history of water and water management in this vast area of the country and examines the demographic trends that underlie population growth across the United States generally and the Southwest in particular.

Parker, a journalist whose specialty is environmental and water issues, concludes that “there is insufficient water for the region’s current population, much less the larger populations that will result if immigration continues at its present high rate.”

Today, about 60 million people inhabit the American Southwest. This compares with several hundred thousand in 1900. In California, immigration produces nearly all the state’s population growth. In other Southwestern states, immigration was responsible for 30 to 60 percent of growth, and 50 percent regionally, in the first decade of the 21st century.

Parker’s figures show that the American Southwest is the

fastest-growing region of the world’s fourth-fastest-growing nation, part of a demographic trend that—with little acknowledgment, media coverage, or national debate and discussion—has quietly moved our nation into the forefront of global population giants. Few ask if the nation’s high growth rate—which continues despite a decades-long, near-replacement birth rate and which quickly transformed the Southwest from one of the most sparsely populated regions of the world to one holding the nation’s second largest city and another larger than Paris—is sustainable.

(In its geographic extent, Phoenix is larger than Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Paris combined.)

The great, never-to-be-surpassed work on the history of water and the American West is Cadillac Desert, published in the 1980s by the late Marc Reisner—absolutely necessary reading for anyone with an interest in the subject. All that needs be said here is that the Southwest relies on two principal sources for its water, the Colorado River and the Rio Grande, both of whose flows were apportioned among the regional states by the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the drafters of which substantially overestimated the number of cubic feet per second delivered by the system in most years.

Thus, from the very beginning of the interstate water management system, the Colorado River was considerably oversubscribed. In the nine decades since 1922, the Southwest’s water supply has become progressively threatened by huge population increases downriver and by drought.

Under the system established by the Compact, river water is banked for times of emergency in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both of which could be emptied in the next decade or so.

Yet the vast cities of the Southwest and the huge regional agriculture industry that support their populations, as well as a significant percentage of the rest of the country, depend upon the complex of irrigation networks, aqueducts, and tunnels constructed since 1900 in Arizona, Nevada, and southern California. Should the reservoirs run dry and the river fail, the entire Southwestern corner of the United States would simply collapse—cities, farms, military bases, everything but a happy habitat for a few thousand confirmed desert rats, who could obtain the little water they would require from creeks and small streams.

(The environmentalist writer Edward Abbey wrote a novel 30 years ago envisioning this catastrophe. He called his book Good News

Where would 60 million displaced Americans go, on what would amount, in historical terms, to overnight notice? Not into Mexico as the Anasazi presumably did.

Kathleene Parker’s article invites two reflections.

  • Arizona’s much-denounced SB1070 bill (the most important part of which was upheld by the Supreme Court last June) was about far more than neighborhood crime, illegal aliens receiving free education and other services, and jobs lost to native Arizonans: It concerned the future of Arizona as a place habitable by human beings.
  • The willful shortsightedness of state and national politicians in their response to population growth and water use in the Southwest is of a piece with their criminal irresponsibility in respect of American immigration policy.

Lee Green, writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2004, noted that

The discussion [here] is always about accommodating growth, never about slowing, limiting, or stabilizing it. Mention the idea of somehow trying to limit the population and politicians react as though you have suggested that our society eat cats and dogs. [Infinite Ingress, January 29, 2004]

The reason, Kathleene Parker suggests:

Leaders have a worried eye cast toward long-term bonded indebtedness undertaken, sometimes years ago, predicated on growth projections decades into the future. That growth—based on hope for more people to “spread the pain”—cannot be covered without undue hardship on current residents or the risk of governments running into financial problems if growth projections are not met, although California’s current financial woes are, in part, linked to its high growth.

One hundred and seventy-three years after Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1832, the French writer and public intellectual Bernard-Henri-Lévy retraced his predecessor’s route (and necessarily extended it in a country that had extended itself since the early 19th century) to write a book, American Vertigo, describing his impressions.

Chief of these was what he perceived as the modern American tendency to obesity:

A social obesity. An economic, financial, and political obesity…A global, total obesity that spares no realm of life, public or private. An entire society that, from the top down, from one end to the other, seems prey to this obscure derangement that slowly causes an organism to swell, overflow, explode.

America, M. Lévy concluded, is a nation that

has strayed from, or broken, that secret formula, that code, that prompts a body to stay within its limits and survive.

In America today, the political obesity of which Lévy speaks is dramatically illustrated by the fatal convergence of American conservation, population, and immigration policy—on what appears, increasingly, to be the doomed desert civilization of the American Southwest.

Chilton Williamson (email him) is an editor and columnist for Chronicles Magazine, where he writes “The Hundredth Meridian” column about life in the Rocky Mountain West, and the author, most recently, of a novel, The Education of Héctor Villa, and After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy. Previous among his books are The Hundredth Meridian: Seasons and Travels in the Old New West and The Immigration Mystique: America’s False Conscience.