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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for October 2013

Rain follows the plow

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When explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell came back from exploring the Colorado, he reported that the land was arid and unfit for farming.  This was greeted by howls of derision and indignation in Washington: an insult to progress and American know-how, they said.  Railroad companies who stood to gain much by conveying settlers and goods to the west publicized the slogan: “Rain follows the plow!” 

And this seemed to happen, indeed, as the west was entering one of its wettest decade ever, giving the pioneers false hope.  Then came the droughts.  The soil that had until then been held in place by native grass blew away.  People wore goggles and masks.  The worse event, Black Sunday, started as a clear sunny day, giving the homesteaders hope that things were finally changing, especially with the towering black clouds at the horizon, sure to bring rain.  Settlers removed the drapes from their windows, hoping to finally get some fresh air.  But these weren’t thunder clouds; they were clouds of black Kansas soil, 800 meters high and 300 kilometers wide.  As the dust storm rolled over the homesteads, people couldn’t see as far as their hands in the ensuing darkness.  In the storm’s wake was respiratory disease and lost livelihoods; farmers gave up and became migrants.

This was one early case where ignoring scientific evidence led to tragedy; and, while poor families suffered, moneyed interests (the railroads, in this case) did well enough, thank you.

I can’t help but be reminded of this when I read other instances of wishful thinking, particularly evident in the Vancouver Sun’s opinion pages.  Today we’re told by Greg D’Avignon that BC could be a world leader in safe transport of oil; Keith Sashaw tells us that innovation leads to responsible mining; and Kenneth Green of the Fraser Institute hectors Canadians for not understanding the importance of oil exports.    

Sigh.  I wish it were all true.  But what we’re told is some equivalence of “safety follows the pipeline”.  A lot of wishful thinking, a lot of looking away from evidence.  To say nothing of climate change.

By the way, if you’d like to learn more about climate change in the west, read climatologists Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam’s fascinating The West Without Water (2013).  They bring to life climate change in the west since the end of the ice age, describing droughts and floods during the settler era, and laying out what is understood about the future climate for the western US – a good guide for us in BC, too.

I picked up visiting Seattle last weekend.  Saw the Bullitt Building, greenest in North America.  Noticed more solar panels than in Vancouver.  In BC, we should look evidence square in the face and emulate Seattle, instead of being distracted by wishful thinking politics.


Written by enviropaul

October 15, 2013 at 10:45 am