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Know the West

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.