RIVERS OF EMPIRE: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West by Donald Worster

RIVERS OF EMPIRE: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An iconoclastic look at the history of the American West. While the cowboy and his wide-open range are the symbols of the mythical West, according to Worster the irrigation ditch is far more representative of the real one. He shows how the West has become the greatest ""hydraulic society"" in human history, one shaped by and completely dependent upon its dams, reservoirs and canals. The 1902 National Reclamation Act was supposed to be a triumph of democracy, providing water for small homesteaders. Instead, it entrenched an agribusiness elite and an underclass of exploited farm workers, creating a social order as hierarchical as those of Egypt and other hydraulic empires of the past. Reclamation helped make America a global power. But the system is already breaking down as dams age, reservoirs silt up, water quality declines and Americans increasingly question the system's moral legitimacy. Worster's thesis is armed with the theoretical baggage of the professional historian: Karl Wittfogel's notion of the hydraulic society: Max Horkheimer's view that civilization's skewed relationship with nature is the central problem of our time; French social theorist Andr‚ Gorz's contention that the total domination of nature inevitably entails the domination of people by the techniques of domination. Worster's brief blueprint for a more democratic and ecological West owes a great deal to contemporary bioregionalists' vernacular vision of decentralized, locally oriented communities cognizant of their environments' natural limits. His theory may be familiar and his alternative West utopian, but Worster's scholarship is solid, as is his assertion that Americans must face the fact that they cannot continue to maximize wealth and empire and maximize democracy and freedom, too.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 1985
ISBN: 0195078063
Publisher: Pantheon