Cadillac Desert

Non-fiction that makes you think is rare. Rarer still is a work non-fiction with legs that makes you think, decades after it was written. Marc Reisner’s 1986 environmental classic, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water is one of those exceptional works. Updated in 1993 and recently re-issued, it’s a massive tome, chock-filled with history, passion and a powerfully unique perspective on American history and development. Reisner writes with rage and urgency. While some things are very different in 2023 than they were in 1986, many of the same issues remain, shaped by the same history and forces. It remains an important and relevant book.

Reisner’s big picture approach starts with a fundamental fact that many Americans have ignored for decades: much of the western half of the United States has little rainfall and water. “Desert, semidesert, call it what you will,” Reisner stresses, the vast majority of the American west will never be changed simply because of limited water. Where there has been development – in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas, in the Imperial Valley – it has happened because of massive human effort. Each of these initiatives, many implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, came with tremendous costs – and not just dollars. In fact, that is one of Cadillac Deserts big takeaways: the distribution of water in the American west has been about money and power, not conservation, common sense, or sound engineering. The book may be about the environment, but it’s even more about politics. He quite carefully chose the title of Chapter One: “A Country of Illusion.”

Some of the chapters in Cadillac Desert talk with each other, reinforcing a larger story. Others, though, stand on their own. These are set pieces, history framed with an angle. Reisner writes beautifully throughout, well-researched but miles away from pedantic. The chapter on the creation (or theft, depending upon your point of view) of Los Angeles’s water supply is a gem. Reisner highlights the deals, the contingencies and the ambition (naked and clothed) necessary to develop the city’s infrastructure. The book’s larger thread, a critical look at the Bureau of Reclamation, emerges in Chapter Three and again later. I had no idea of the tremendous push to build dams. It was extraordinary. The complicated history of the Colorado River is the backbone of one chapter, but it is a history that emerges again and again. The power and influence of the Army Corps on Engineers emerges in the work’s latter half. Founded during the Revolutionary War, the Army Corps’ impact on the west truly took off after World War II. They all wanted to build dams – for power, for irrigation, and for political capital. The eventual impact reshaped economics in the west, heavily subsidizing larger entities and reshaping politics. Larger than life characters drive the action. Floyd Dominy, for example, headed the Bureau of Reclamation, was a notorious womanizer and power broker. His leadership was essential in the decision to construct the Glen Canyon Dam and its progeny, Lake Powell, one of the largest man-made reservoirs on the planet when there’s consistent precipitation.

Digesting all of Cadillac Desert took time to process and think through. More than once, while going through a chapter, I reached for the laptop to gain a broader context on the issue at hand. Reisner’s history is far from dry. He has arguments to make, and while they sharpen the prose, they also raise questions and heighten curiosity. This is a book that will make you reconsider traditional history of American expansion and development in the west.

David Potash

Pulling The Climate Thread

Most Americans are concerned about changes to the climate. The percentage of folks paying attention has been steadily climbing over the decades, in sync with rises in temperatures and episodes of extreme weather. So we now know more. But what can one individual do? Is it possible to be an informed “green” consumer, to live an ethical life that does not unduly contribute to climate change?

It’s an extraordinarily difficult question to answer as I learned in Tatiana Schlossberg‘s engaging book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. Schlossberg is a science journalist who writes for the mainstream press and did a stint as an environmental reporter for the New York Times. Her first book, Inconspicuous Consumption is a rambling effort that nevertheless finds a way to strike home. It won awards and for good reasons. Schlossberg loves details and her cheerful curiosity that loves to dig deeper renders her a complete guide to gaining an appreciation of the complexity of modern life and its impact on the environment. She aims to inform and to do so in a way that does not overwhelm – all the while making sure that the reader appreciates the absence of easy solutions. That is a difficult and impressive line to walk.

The book is organized into four sections: Technology and the Internet; Food; Fashion, and Fuel. For each, Schlossberg writes in the first person, sometimes intimately, about her questions and the difficulty in untangling environmental issues from those of economics, culture, politics, business, history, and much more. The internet, as an example, can be an extraordinarily inefficient consumer of energy. Schlossberg provides some history (power lines following telegraph lines, which in turn were strung to follow the railroads) as well as laws, policies and economics that create our current state of affairs. That’s just the internet as a physical thing. Schlossberg moves beyond direct costs to explore internet consumption and delivery. This relative new way of shopping has led to all manner of changes – in business, in supply, in patterns of consumption. The number and cost of consumers returning goods has soared. Consumption extends to viewing, too, and I learned that Netflix accounts for 15% of all internet bandwidth.

Schlossberg researches “common sense” rules as well. For example, when it comes to food, buying local does not necessarily reduce the carbon footprint. Some foods are more “green” when they are single source and shipped large distances. Polyester and cotton are both made with significant back end energy costs. Pick the subject and Schlossberg effectively problematizes it, highlighting the deep interconnectedness and complexity of the modern economy.

While all that may feel overwhelming, a difficulty Schlossberg acknowledges up front, she also works to humanize her quest for better understanding. This is a book with many asides and direct appeals, from writer to reader. If she is stumped, she tells us – just as she lets us know when facts depress or intrigue her. There’s a cheerfulness to her account that is sometimes in conflict with the information she imparts. More than anything else, Schlossberg wants us to comprehend that climate change is about everything we do as humans. If we grasp this, we will be much farther along in talking about it, appreciate it, and be willing to look for answers about how to lead a more just life.

An ambitious agenda – and well worth considering.

David Potash

Toms River – A New Environmental Classic

Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, my family would drive down the shore in the summer months to enjoy the Atlantic beaches. Our favorite spot was Ocean County. We would get up early in the morning and head to Island Beach State Park for a morning and afternoon of sun and surf. Folks would tire of the sand by late afternoon and we would then head to beach communities and boardwalks of Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant. The shore is a sanctuary and a breath of fresh air in a Garden State that is often less than verdant.

Toms River

The beach towns of NJ are located on a spit of land separated from the mainland by miles of sea, inlet and marshland. One the mainland side, most travelers to Ocean County head take a bridge on Route 37 from Toms River to beach communities. Toms River has developed over the years. When I was a child I remember farmland and the occasional diner. Today it dotted strip malls, many subdivisions, and ceaseless traffic. For many of us in New Jersey, Toms River has been a town to drive through, a traffic bottleneck on a journey somewhere else. We should have stopped and paid attention. Many bad things were happening in Ocean County.

As Dan Fagin chronicles in his outstanding book Toms River: a Story of Science and Salvation, the town has a sinister and literally, toxic history. Fagin is a science journalism professor at NYU. A longtime environmental reporter at Newsday (a Long Island newspaper), Fagin has written for many publications and garnered many awards. Toms River received the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and many other awards. All of them are well deserved. It is superb book.

The story of Toms River that Fagin chronicles consists of multiple distinct, yet interrelated, strands of history, knowledge, and action. Toms River’s historical and political development, from its basic geography and topology to the settling of the area and its demographic growth in the 1970s and later is one thread. Farmlands and woods gave way to industrial development, suburban homes, and then more and more homes. Another strand is the phenomenal growth and influence of the chemical industry. Starting in Germany and Switzerland and extending to the United States, the industry made great profits from the manufacturing of dyes for textiles and other products. The genesis of this whole income stream was a desire to do something with the detritus of a burgeoning petrochemical industry. The science around hydrocarbons, and the hard work that went into understanding them and the many ways that they interact with flora and fauna, is another strand in the book.

Fagin explains more than the bench science. He provides a wonderful explanation of large-scale environmental causality and probability. A dry topic in less skill hands, statistical probability and its role in making hazard and risk clear and actionable is extremely important. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for people to believe connections between illness and action if they are mediated by time and lifestyle. Cigarette smokers do not die of cancer within days. However, rigorous science can prove a causal relationship. If the arguments are persuasive and there is sufficient political and public will, policy can change. Determining the connection between a soup of dumped chemicals that leech into a water supply and a statistical increase in childhood cancer is a much harder lift. Fagin methodically uncovers the links, debates, and actions in government and public health circles in another history.

Finally, and perhaps the most compelling part of Fagin’s book, there are the stories of all the people involved in Toms River. We meet childhood cancer victims and survivors. We hear the voices of their parents. Greenpeace takes the stage for a while, as do environmental activists, small-time crooks, overworked bureaucrats, corporate leaders, union workers, lawyers, and the hundreds of people whose live have been caught up in the legacy of chemical waste in New Jersey. At the heart of the book are Linda and Michael Gillick, a mother and son whose live were completely reshaped by Michael’s devastating cancer and treatments. The truth about what happened in Toms River would never emerged without their passion, skill, and commitment.

Fagin subtitled the book “As Story of Science and Salvation.” Thanks to the untold efforts of Gillicks and many others, governmental agencies were roused after decades of indifference, if not out-and-out collusion. Fines were levied, indictments made, and eventually, noxious dumping practices in New Jersey were halted.  Cancer rates have decreased and the community has been delivered from the sins of chemical companies and toothless regulation.

Difficult questions, though, remain. How could companies that poisoned water, towns, and workers for many years escape the legal consequences of their actions? While the difficult science of linking environmental poisons to specific maladies was not always crystal clear, chemical companies like Ciba (the parent company of Novartis) had experienced many years of complaints and lawsuits. Ciba’s Toms River plant was built with minimal environmental concerns as Ciba fled regulation and attention from their Cincinnati factory. Companies like Ciba willfully avoided looking at long-term consequences as they dumped all manner of noxious waste. What sort of ethical expectations, if any, do we have for companies? Who takes responsibility and why.

The saga of Toms River is a powerful counter argument to libertarianism. Without governmental action, untold numbers in the Toms River area would be sick, dying or dead. Yet governmental officials are no more heroic than the families struggling to save their children. There might be salvation, but there are no happy endings here.

We will be reading and thinking about Dan Fagin’s Toms River for decades to come.

David Potash