The History of (un)Sustainability from Ken Burns

For those who don’t know me, I LOVE anything Ken Burns does. He is my favorite documentary filmmaker and all of his work is fantastic; it is visually stimulating, emotional, and always thought provoking. I always find myself learning something interesting. This past week I’ve been watching The West episode 8 in which the story of the “taking” of Western land is explained as being done without any thought:

                    “The West was settled without logic. People settled where they wanted to settle, with no regard whatever to the ecological      consequences or the ability of the land to support them. Los Angeles is probably the preternatural example of a place being where it has no business being. There’s absolutely nothing in the immediate environs to support it. But people wanted to live in Los Angeles. And they depleted the ground water in Los Angeles over several decades, to the point where they had to go elsewhere for water in order to continue supporting the city that had no business being where it was.” – T. H. Watkins

The narrator goes on to describe the enormous effort (both political and physical) it took to build an aqueduct system from a water source over 200 miles away. I was taken aback thinking how stubborn we(Americans) are in that we decided to use technology to harness nature instead of migrating to a place that is better suited for habitation. But, unfortunately, we still feel the scars from these decisions today.

I began to think about this incident as I was reading an article in the NYT today. There’s a battle brewing over water rights between native tribes and the decedents of homesteaders in Montana. The water flows from reservation land to irrigate many farms; so much so one family’s farm is 85% irrigated and many like them are concerned their crops would dry up. I have to wonder if Flathead, MO was one of those places where people decided to settle simply because they wanted to. I suppose they must have thought that the water would last forever.

In retrospect, the world we know today is different. Climate change is altering where land is arable, but we also need to consider the possibility that many areas that we have chosen to grow crops were not suitable in the first place. This becomes very important when we remember the deep drought much of the US has seen in recent years. Which lands do we continue to irrigate? Which were (already) a lost cause? Who deserves the right to choose those who will have water access? Do we waste dwindling resources because our own ignorant nostalgia?

The West, as a concept, will always play a role in the American psyche. However, let this unsettled dispute in Montana be a lesson: water is our most precious resource and even those using it un sustainably will fight for it. We’ve  consciously allowed a dependence on a plethora of unsustainable livelihoods and practices. And still, we have yet to see its full repercussions.


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