Undoing the myth of Western exceptionalism

  • Matt Jenkins

  • Ocean-front property in the mountains

    Park, Caglecartoons.com

Despite vociferous opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, and Democrat state legislators cemented a deal Aug. 30 to pass the Global Warming Solutions Act. California is the world's twelfth-largest producer of global-warming causing greenhouse gases, and the bill commits the state to cutting those emissions 25 percent by 2020.

It’s a tremendously hopeful sign, by far the strongest commitment that U.S. citizens have made to attacking global warming at its root. It may also signal the death of the great myth of Western exceptionalism — the idea that the West, somehow, is simply different.

For more than a century and a half, we inheritors of the Anglo frontier-conquering spirit have wanted desperately to believe that the West was a place apart. We nurture the myth because it makes us special. But Western exceptionalism has always come with an insidious and largely unacknowledged corollary: The belief that we are immune from the problems of the rest of the world. Historian Patricia Limerick underlined this in her book Legacy of Conquest, when she noted that the history of the West has largely been one of people running away from their problems, only to re-create them wherever they flee.

The environment stands squarely at the center of the myth. Indians are said to have lived in perfect harmony with it; cowboys tested themselves against the harsh and arid landscape; environmentalists have fought boldly to preserve it.

There was a time when the West really was different, but we’ve become more like the world that we set ourselves apart from. We think of the West as rural communities in the midst of wide-open spaces, yet the region is the most urbanized part of the nation. We think of sprawl as a Western phenomenon, yet sprawl is much worse in the Southeast. We think of water as the limiting factor in the West, yet four-fifths of the region’s water is used to grow food and fiber — a valiant pursuit, until you consider that much of it is surplus crops, like cotton, and feed for cattle, like alfalfa. The West, in truth, is awash in usable water. It’s an engineered abundance, however, and it only encourages growth, which exacerbates the problems of air and water pollution, traffic jams, sprawl, crime — problems characteristic of anonymous metropolises everywhere on earth, not the so-called "frontier."

And therein lies the West’s real paradox: These days, survival demands that we confront not the rigors of the landscape, but the consequences of our own societal metabolism.

No place has proven that better than Los Angeles, which, in the 1980s and 1990s, disappeared under a cloud of smog and bullets. Rather than attempt to solve the problem, a wave of Californians sought refuge in the Western dream — a new start somewhere else. But a deteriorating environment erases the notion that refuge can be found anywhere.

This is not a new idea. But we in the West would do well to consider it again. For global warming has finally rendered the myth of Western exceptionalism obsolete. If we continue to insist, even unconsciously, that our cherished exceptionalism confers immunity to — and blamelessness for — global warming, the myth could undo the place we love.

That is why California’s taking the lead against global warming is such a hopeful sign. The great writer and historian Wallace Stegner once wistfully dreamed of Westerners laboring to create a society to match the scenery. Yet California may have done something that goes far beyond. The state may be ill able to afford it, yet it is — in defiance of the impulse that has driven the past century and a half of Western history — moving to solve a problem whose causes lie largely at home, but whose effects are truly planetary.

Matt Jenkins, based in Oregon, is West Coast correspondent for High Country News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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