Friday, February 27, 2009

Environmental About-Face

Nancy Holt
"Sun Tunnels"
1973 - 1976

A supporter of many environmental non-profits, I'd grown accustomed to receiving distressing memos detailing the Bush administration's environmental transgressions, large and small. Reading these emails and letters, my disappointment was compounded by the knowledge that Bush's irresponsible environmental policy was no more reckless than his economic or geo-political program; the Bush presidency was for me, as for so many others, a long, sad eight years.

It is with great delight (and relief), then, that I receive so much positive environmental news in these, the first weeks of the Obama administration. I won't recount all of the progressive developments in this space, but I will share one happy turn around.

David Gessner's essay "Loving the West to Death: A Story of Drill Rigs, Mountain Bikes, and the Fight to Save Our Last Wild Lands" was published in the Winter 2009 issue of OnEarth magazine, a publication of the National Resources Defense Council. Gessner writes,
"At the moment the West is growing faster than any region in the country, and it's here that the cries of 'Drill, baby, drill!' resound most loudly. And drilling is just part of the picture. A few weeks before I boarded my plane, a 2,000-page document landed with a thud on the desks of environmentalists in Utah. This was an 11th-hour surprise from the Bush administration, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the latest installment in a plan to open up millions of acres of public land, not just to the extractive industries but to off-road vehicles."
What a difference a few months can make! Gessner's spirit was surely buoyed four weeks ago, when President Obama cancelled "all oil drilling leases on more than 130,000 acres near two national parks and other protected areas in Utah." Robert Redford, speaking on behalf of the NRDC, said, "I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands."

Yet there are countless Joe-Sixpack Americans (and many politicians in Washington, D.C.) that rankle at the notion of federal protection for our public lands. Their skepticism of "big government" interference is especially apparent in the West. The pursuit of freedom is high on the list of principal American virtues, and most contemporary Westerners fancy themselves members of a vanishing, but free pioneer tribe. No surprise, then, that George W. Bush's cowboy mentality is commonplace in big-sky country. Gessner writes,
"This, I thought, is the crux of it, the reason so many are resistant to restraint, to regulating and policing our public lands. 'Lawlessness, like wildness, is attractive, and we conceive the last remaining home of both to be the West,' wrote [Wallace] Stegner. Yes, we come West for that feeling of wildness, of lawlessness, the sense that we can do what we want and do it on our own."
But Gessner argues that this "Live Free Or Die" stance is no longer tenable; it has been rendered obsolete by our burgeoning population.
"[In] these days of crushing numbers, one person's freedom has an impact on the freedom of a hundred others...[With] greater numbers and greater use, it may just be that championing regulation and restraint, while not quite as sexy as championing freedom, is the key to preserving the smaller freedoms that are left...The larger reality is that it will require some restraint and some laws -- the legislative embodiment of restraint -- if we are to preserve these final wild patches, these final strands of hope in a diminished geography...And while old myths are hard to abandon, there is no reason why the cowboy myth of George W. Bush can't turn back into the cowboy myth of Teddy Roosevelt."
Well said, Mr. Gessner.

On a tangentially related note, resource extraction doesn't threaten "only" species and landscapes. Although artwork is by no means endangered, individual land works are. Michael Heizer's "City" and Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels" are just two of many land works threatened by BLM development in the western United States. For more on this subject, read "Land Art: here today, gone tomorrow?," in The Art Newspaper.

Photo credit: ripped from Utah Division of Arts and Museums


Donald Frazell said...

Personally, I find these so called "land works" highly destructive and environmental hypocrisy. As is Burning Man. Think of all the waste involved, thousands going to party in a delicate desert, huge amounts of energy and resources wasted building constructs which are truly self absorbed pyramids of self adulation in areas that cannot sustain damage. This has absolutely nothing to do with ecology or saving our western lands from development, it IS development, with no purpose. Waste.

And that is what we cannot have here in the West. I live in LA, and water is our most precious resource, and scarcer everyday as other states take their shares now, growing ones like Nevada, Utah and Arizona. We are drier and drier, plus water diverted for ecology saving deltas fish and farmers. we must become more efficient, as all those big box McMansions are a complete waste of land, water, energy and extended transportation to bring them into their city jobs.

No, Bush is not a Westerner, he is a Texan, out of Houston. That is not the West, which is the other side of the Pecos. He represents gulf and eastern businesses, not ours. We do use the land, for crops, timber, mining, and need them to keep the econmy strong. Raw resources, but have also led against off shore drilling, shale mining, coal burning.

Nuclear power also, which must change, we must use it as no matter what you do in life there are negative repurcusions, it has far less than any ohter, no global warming gasses involved, and far better equiptment to monitor and protect, just need a site to dump the stuff, which is in smaller and smaller quanitties. plus those who oppose disposal sites are leavig huge quanttities or radioactive material in hospitals and businesses, unguarded though little of true danger to either man or the environment. If disposed of properly. You gotta weigh the pros and cons, there are always cons, get over it.

No, many of us here in the West are into our lands and resources, saving what we can, using efficiently what we must, and minimizing waste, but our distances are so huge we must find ways to save energy in transportation, though we are the home of small cars, Prius and Hondas everywhere.

The weekend partiers gotta get it under control however, all those toys, motor homes, boats, off road vehicles, wasteful art and rave parties in the desert. We do love our land. But must work it, live with it, not just look at it, and have arrogant ideas about its value, which is often tied to that individuals ego. Leaving trash and absurd monuments to a generation of the self involved all over it.

This is the land of Ansel Adams and the Range of Light, more National forests and Parks and Wilderness areas than in all the area east of the Mississippi. Plus huge military areas, most of which is untouched, used as buffer zones from where bases and firing ranges exist. Look at a map of California, you Easterners have no clue as to how much is in public hands already.

One must make hard choices, you cant have everything, adults know this. We gotta decide both our priorities, and theh necessities of life. Cut back on waste, but not living. The future belongs to the most efficient. And those who work for US, for We, not I and Me.

art collegia delenda est

Peter Cowling said...

I was talking to some Republicans the other day, who told me something that surprised me: That the US, has a whole load of oil that is not being drilled, and should be. The people I talked to believed what they said as fact, and, not living in the US, I took what they said at face value.

I just took a look at Wikipedia (okay, not always reliable, but I doubt to be too far wrong on this). It shows a table of reserves - A few points stand out:

1. The US apparently has enough oil to meet its own consumption rate for eight years. I wonder if one in a 100 know this?

2. The combined reserve to consumption life of the top 17 producers is 54 years.

3. Given that the whole of Europe does not make this list, and that neither does Japan, is it reasonable to guess that we have somewhere less than 54 years worth of oil available - barring significant unexpected discoveries?

With regards to 3, my honest answer is that I am not sure, but I do think two things:

1. The figure should be well known.
2. Oil pricing should be re-modelled. Pricing Based on some pretend supply and demand figures of the day makes no sense. Pricing to ensure that oil last long enough that it lasts for long enough for alternate power to be put in place does.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Depending on the individual project, I disagree with your negative take on land works. Many of them, including Holt's "Sun Tunnels" serve as totemic reminders of our connection to the land and, in the case of that particular piece, to the Earthly cycles. I think that there is much value in that.

Moreover, you should not be so quick to dismiss Easterners' knowledge of the West. Some Easterners are ignorant of your area of the country, certainly, but many are not.

I live on the East coast but, like many Easterners I know, I've been fortunate enough to visit incredible places in the West. Those brief introductions left a mark, and I will continue to support non-profit groups working to protect those areas. I am familiar, too, with the ecological value of military bases (which also protect endemic species on this side of the country).

I do know how much Western land is "in public hands," but that doesn't necessarily protect the land, especially in this time of burgeoning (and poorly regulated) ATV and ORV use on those same lands.

I agree, though, with your comments about efficiency and nuclear energy. We must move soon on both fronts.


The peak-oil folks have made much of the numbers you cite, but I think they usually preach to the choir, or at least their worries are reported in environmental magazines and major newspapers, but don't receive much (if any) coverage in the popular media outlets.

Donald Frazell said...

No one knows how much oil is out there, and oil reserve figures by other countries are very unreliable, probably overblown for political puposes or never bothered to calculate, as it takes time and money to figure out. Yes, we have only about a 8 year supply if all we used was oil for energy needs. But we have other sources of power, Coal, wind, dam turbines, nuclear. We will get that oil someday, my thing has always been lets use the others oil while cheap, and save that for a rainy day. If prices go too high our economy will grind to a halt, if too low, there is no incentive, profit, for creating new forms.

The Arabs have always known this, and tried to keep prices in check while they invested in the West. Most Saudi money comes back to us in investment, they were the poorest people on earth before oil. And will be again, without revenue from outside sources. We wil get that oil, when is the question. just having it lower the price for the consumer, who needs to drastically reassess his "need", and look to conserve as much as possible til other forms take over.

And sorry, but disagre with you about the "totems". No one outside of a limited artiste world knows anything about them, or cares if they do. They are a huge waste, and monuments to the creators egos. One can create art with a piece of wood, gargantuan works are completely decadent and wasteful. They are symptoms of the Age of Excess. And must end. True beauty is in nature itself, stop scaring it. Yosemite is our Cathedral. Ansel Adams photographs have done far more for protecting our land than all the silly totems combined, for a tiny fraction of the cost and waste of resources. Our publics lands out here were created from such works, not a single acre from this nonsense.

Spiral jetties are absurdities. So tiny and insignicant compared to hiking up to Vernal and Nevada falls. They are about a Man, not mankind. And uses nature for his own desire. Not working with it. And Burningman is nothing but a rave party, destroys the land beneath it and the living quarters, and creates pollution in a fragile eco system. One must get ones own house in order before we accuse others. Use the mirror, the last decades of Meism have created a portrait of Dorian Gray. Most artistes would not like what they see, if they ever bothered to look for Truth. That stopped being creative arts goal long ago. It is career, lifestyle and a business complex now, nothing to do with Mankind, Nature and God.

art collegia delenda est

Donald Frazell said...

And i am connected to the ladn everyday, I raise much of my food. Nothing is more creative than that. And keeps ones head and heart in reality. Our Earth. Tending it, nurturing it, harvesting its bounties without destruction to it. These totems are toys, one must follow Voltaire in so many ways.

Tend to your garden.

Josh Dooley said...

Oil's cost has already out-weighed its benefit. The challenge is to replace it as quickly as possible. Besides the damage that fossil fuels do to out environment, I like to think of all of the damage that we do to fossil fuels.

Think of how marvelous they are as chemical compositions. Fossil fuels hold tremendous amounts of energy that is easily accessable.. That accessability has led to such waste on our part. We have been using those precious, irreplaceable fuels in the most simplistic manner since we discovered their use, and we will continue to waste them in that manner until they are exhausted.

But, God, what a waste. Consider the amount of time, pressure and principle involved in creating a single barrel of oil. We receive it as the benefit of milleniae of work--- that we then use to move ourselves around the world by means of controlled explosions..

I think the real loss here is yet to be seen. What if we've used up the only resource that was capable of propelling us through the stars at speed.. or the central pillar of fusion.. or.. well.. who knows what?

I mean, land is beautiful. It should be preserved, but not just because of the amazing vistas.. But, as Teddy imagined it--- as a way of preserving our natural resources so that future generations could appreciate them--- and use them more effectively.

Donald Frazell said...

Like organized religions, we never would have gotten to where we are without cheap energy. The problem was we were lazy and didnt pursue what we knew we had to when times were good. Not that we used oil, but that WE abused it. Like I said before, I was glad to save the oil for later, we will need it someday, but when we have no alternative and our technology had advanced to be safer and more efficient. It is like a much bigger strategic reserve, and we can tap it when we must, but it will take years to get it going, creating the platforms and drilling, plus pipelines.

We do need to create more and better alternatives, and fuel efficiency, but doubt we will be able to ignore it altogether. You gotta do what you gotta do, but we need to focus on energy now more than anything, it will give us a great business advantage to sell to other countries once we get the prices down by doing it for ourselves first. And change our habits and how we view life, now is an important time, the most since the scientific and industrial revolution in how we will view and live in our world. And art is now called for. It must have purpose, and this is it, being at one with the world, each other, and what we call god, our very reasons for being.

And CR, I do appreciate your site, is is positioned perfectly for what lies ahead, the art world as we knew it is over. You have as your focus exactly what we need to pursue. Science, philosophy, theology. They are one. Tried to pump you up on culturemonster, the LA Times blog site, but they didnt post it, this time. Most other art sties wil fall away, as they have no true relevance to life, yours does. Playtime is over. Lets get to work.

art collegia delenda est

Hungry Hyaena said...


Rarely has a man so committed to the utilitarian value of natural resources articulated so concise, amusing and reasonable an argument. Cheers.


Thank you for the kind words.