Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Our War Against the Past

The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.—Edward Abbey

In 1966 construction was completed on the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. The beautiful Glen Canyon was flooded with waters that eventually formed Lake Powell, now the second largest artificial lake in the United States. The purpose of the dam was to generate hydroelectric power, a large percentage of which went to Las Vegas, Nevada to help keep that city’s bright lights illuminated all night and its fountains flowing around the clock. One of Edward Abbey’s best-known novels was a dark comedy called The Monkey Wrench Gang, which featured the antics of a team of environmentalists and anarchists determined to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.

Throughout the time of the dam’s planning and construction, opposition was mounted by people concerned with the impact the dam would have on the delicate ecological system of the Colorado River, while advocates of the dam heralded the recreational revenue that the reservoir would provide, not to mention the electricity the facilty would generate. The argument was made that in its wilderness state, Glen Canyon was accessible only to a handful of outdoors enthusiasts capable of navigating the often-difficult Colorado River by boat or to a few hikers capable of the arduous walk into the remote area, whereas Lake Powell would be accessible to everyone via paved roads. To favor a handful of physically fit individuals who could visit the Glen Canyon wilderness over the thousands of vacationers who would visit Lake Powell, said the advocates of the dam, was elitism, perhaps even anti-democratic.

I remember the arguments well, for the effort to prevent the construction of the Glen Canyon dam was the first environmental campaign in which I participated, to the limited extent that I was in a position to act as a student in high school. My father, one of those hardy few who had gone through Glen Canyon by rowboat, was much more involved than I in the opposition campaign. The completion of the dam was felt as a bitter defeat within our family. (Little did I know then that many more would follow.)

Despite my taking sides against the construction of the dam, no doubt heavily influenced by my environmentalist father and all the literature of the Sierra Club that lay on coffee tables around our house, I did experience a conflict over the issue mentioned above. It did make sense to me that Lake Powell would bring pleasure to a large number of people, and I had just enough of a Hedonic Utilitarian streak in me that I was then not quite able to find a good response to the charge that wanting to preserve the wilderness for a few was a form of elitism. I knew that I personally strongly desired for the geological record of the canyon’s wilderness to remain intact, and I knew that I thought that leaving the flora and fauna of that region intact was more important than the opportunity for hundreds of vacationers to race around an artifical lake in speedboats. But why should preference be given to what I personally desired when so many other people clearly had different desires?

Five decades after the completion of the Glen Canyon dam, I find myself once again wrestling with the same issues and taking the same side in the seemingly endless war against the past being waged by denizens of the present. And although I have taken sides, I still experience an intellectual conflict lurking beneath my unambiguous emotional clarity. The war is being waged on many fronts. I will mention only one.

I was born and spent my youth in New Mexico, a land that has been populated for at least ten thousand years by various peoples. Europeans began coming relatively recently, around 1540, and they promptly claimed the land for Spain. As a New Mexican of European (mostly English) descent, I have always felt it important to learn as much as possible about all the peoples who have been in this land before my own ancestors came in the 1930s. No doubt this feeling was reinforced by the strong influence of an uncle who spent most of his adult life studying the archaeology of the ancestral Puebloan people of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. It has always been axiomatic to me that the Euro-Americans have a moral responsibility not to obliterate the traces of those who first settled this land and learned how to survive the challenges of an arid region that only begrudgingly tolerates human occupation. Like most things that are axiomatic to a person, that conviction of moral responsibility is not something I have questioned very deeply. My instinct is, whenever possible, to leave traces of the past intact, whether it is the relatively recent human past or the billions of years of geological past. Even my decades of Buddhist indoctrination in the principle that everything is impermanent have not made much of a dent in my instinct not to let the past slip entirely into oblivion.

Always encroaching on the past is the present and the future (or at least present fantasies about the future). People in the present desire petroleum, natural gas, uranium, copper and various other resources found in the lands that were once occupied by the ancestors of the Pueblos, then by Athabascans migrating from the north and Numic migrating from the Great Plains. Extracting these resources requires building roads, digging and drilling the earth and leaving large waste deposits and scars, all of which degrade or destroy the archaeological evidence of past settlements and, to a lesser extent, the geological record.

One part of the Southwestern United States in which this conflict is strongly felt is southeastern Utah. Elected Senators from the state have said that the the stark landscape of the region has no use other than to provide raw materials for manufacturing and the fuels needed to provide the energy for manufacturing. Preserving the history of the area—especially the history before Europeans settled the region—is not a high priority for those who wish to stimulate the industrial economy. Preserving wilderness is, in their view, a job-killing enterprise and a power grab on the part of bungling bureaucrats in Washington.

There are thousands of recorded archaeological sites in southeastern Utah, and it is estimated that those recorded sites represent about 10% of the sites that are still in the area waiting to be catalogued. Obviously not all of them can be preserved. In fact, archaeological resources are so strained that only a tiny fraction of the recorded sites will ever be studied. Archaeological study is limited not only by a lack of adequate funding and a paucity of qualified archaeologists, but also by the fact that the most probable descendants of the Basketmaker and early Pueblo people who lived in the Four Corners area from 2000 to 800 years ago do not necessarily want their ancestors studied by outsiders. Many tribes, for example, forbid DNA analysis of human remains, probably because such DNA studies as have been done have shown that the Pueblos probably came from Asia rather than being created in North America. Further DNA studies could (but probably would not) show that the ancient peoples in the Four Corners area are not really the ancestors of the modern Zuñi and Hopi and Keres people after all, and a finding like that that would conflict with the oral histories those people have carefully preserved for centuries. Moreover, some tribal elders say their ancestors abandoned their former settlement sites for a reason, and they want those abandoned sites to return to nature. Perhaps, some may say, the past is really none of our business. It should just be allowed to slip away while we pursue those things that really are our business.

Although I have had several decades to find ways of convincing people who do not share my views on the importance of preserving evidence of how those who came before us lived their lives (and how the earth was before much of anything was alive on it), I still have nothing to offer but what many would probably deem feeble sentimentality. But supposing some good reasons could be found not to lay waste to traces of the past, the question arises as to who should do the preserving. Since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, preserving wilderness and historical monuments has been the responsibility of federal and state governments. Those who follow Edward Abbey’s anarchist sentiments might find it alarming that governments involved themselves in such business. After all, Abbey wrote

Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.


A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

Such sentiments as these could easily come from the mouths of today’s Tea Party Republicans and Libertarians.

The most obvious response to such anarchist convictions is the observation that if governments do not take measures to conserve wilderness and historical sites, it is unlikely that anyone will. As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, government should do only those things that only government can (and is willing) to do. Protecting wilderness and historical sites is a perfect example of something that only government can do.

Private enterprise is unlikely to find any economic incentive to pursue archaeological or historical research or preservation of wilderness, and in the absence of economic incentive, private enterprise is unlikely to find any incentive at all. People with a strong ideological bias might sponsor research that finds evidence to support their particular dogmas—one thinks, for example of the wing of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History sponsored by David H. Koch, the message of which is that every time there has been climate change in the past, the human race has evolved to a higher level (leaving the viewer to conclude that climate change, and anything that brings it about, is therefore good).

Leaving the interpretation of the past only to those with vested commercial or ideological interests is not much of an improvement to leaving archaeological evidence of Buddhist Afghanistan in the sole custody of the Taliban or leaving the physical remains of Akkadian and Assyrian civilization in the care of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). If wilderness and artifacts of early human settlements are to be kept intact for the present and future generations to study and contemplate, no one is better suited to carry out that mission than the National Park Service, the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. That said, what remains to be seen is whether we who live here now will have the collective will to give our government the power it needs to preserve the past for the future.


Jayarava said...

Sadly I think the predominant values in the societies we inhabit are moving ever further away from the values you express here. I do have some sympathy with you. Personally I find the ancient past fascinating, though I suspect that this is at least partly because I find the present unbearable. Long dead people are a much simpler prospect than the current lot. And then there is the joy of sifting the evidence for patterns and sense. The exhilaration of discovery. On the other hand the more I learn about contemporary human beings the less I like most of them.