Date of this Version
Science as Culture 21:1 (March 2012), pp. 129–134.
The richness and variety of the western landscape is what is at stake in hot political contests for the resources of the West: much of this public land is available to economic activity, including for mining, grazing, logging, and recreation. These uses threaten to outpace the land’s ability to renew these resources along with others, like air and water. Now in the first decade of the millennium with a new environmental awareness emerging partly from media coverage of global warming and peak oil, The American West at Risk offers a wide-ranging look at the degradation of the environment in the western states, primarily on public lands.
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No doubt some issues with The American West at Risk relate back to the authors’ efforts to cover so many aspects of land use in a single text. The main problem with Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett’s ambitious work isn’t that it is wrong to look at these uses of land as sites of environmental degradation, but that it precludes many of the interesting solutions invested actors in the West have been working on over the last 20 years or more. This contributes to the sense that the book is already outdated. By posing the problem as one of antagonism—people who care for the land who have science on their side versus people who abuse their land and who play on ignorance and mythology—the authors miss some of the interesting and unlikely alliances that have emerged in recent years. The premise of the text—that the West’s beautiful, fragile, and unique resources are at risk and in many circumstances mismanaged and ill-used—is amply supportable, but as Thompson asks, “How can one move beyond adversarial deadlock, where entire ‘moral universes’ face off, neither side even being able to engage the other?” (2002, p. 186).
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