California steps up to lead the nation

 

Despite vociferous opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, and Democrat state legislators cemented a deal on Aug. 30 to pass the much-heralded 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 its greenhouse-gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.

The move is a tremendously hopeful sign: It is by far the strongest commitment that U.S. citizens have made in attacking the cause of 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, those of us not native to the West have wanted desperately to believe that the region was a place apart. We have nurtured 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 elsewhere, and of the world at large. Patricia Limerick pointed out the problem best 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 has stood squarely at the center of the myth: First, with the notion of heroically testing ourselves against the landscape in the manner of the cowboy. Its more recent incarnation is environmentalism, which, regardless of whether you're a Sierra Club stalwart or public-lands rancher, has done more to shape the regional psyche than anything else.

There was a time when the West really was different from everywhere else, but the world that we set the West apart from no longer exists. That outside world has become ever more like the West, and the West more like it. We think of the West as rural communities in the midst of wide-open spaces, yet we cluster in urban areas more than in any other part of the nation. We think of sprawl as a Western phenomenon, yet the Southeast sprawls worse than anywhere else. 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. Meanwhile, the East Coast and the Southeast are — unbelievably, to us — running out.

The paradoxes of water help lead the way to the paradoxes of the exceptionalist view of the West. The engineered abundance of water encourages growth, which creates problems less characteristic of the frontier than of anonymous metropolises anywhere on earth: air and water pollution, traffic jams, sprawl, crime.

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 its brown cloud of smog and bullets. Rather than attempt to solve the problem, a wave of Californians sought refuge in that great Western promise — a new start, somewhere else.

But there is another paradox: Our vast landscape — the very thing that we in the West have always insisted sets us apart — ties us together with the rest of the world. And ultimately, a deteriorating environment erases the notion that refuge can be found anywhere. This is not a particularly new idea. But we in the West, particularly, may 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, or unthinkingly, that our cherished exceptionalism confers immunity to not only the effects of, but also responsibility 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 Western 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 lay largely at home, but whose effects are truly planetary.

Matt Jenkins is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper's Northwest editor, based in Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.