Time And the Endangered River; Or, The Public Good Is For Chumps, And You’re Not a Chump, Are You?


Image courtesy of americanriver.org. Support it!

Yesterday, the good people at American Rivers released their annual “Endangered Rivers” report, ranging from the Green-Duwamish in Washington to the highly-contested Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin in the southeast, where Atlanta gets most of its supply, and which is the darkhorse candidate for “first actual US water war”.  Rivers on it include major ones like the St. Lawrence, the Susquehanna, and the San Joaquin.

The culprits are what you’d expect: outdated dam systems, the paving over of floodplains which leads to excessive runoff, over-tapping, poor upstream management, and pollution. Often, these work in concert to dry up rivers and posion what is left. A lot of this was done in good faith, or ignorance. Dams were needed, and land had to be built on. The effects of this took years to see, but now the bill is coming due, exacerbated by the multiplying impact of climate change.

Rivers are our heritage. They are how we traveled the nation in its early days. The original West, just beyond the mountains, were based around river cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Chicago is Chicago because the convergence of the Lakes, the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi connected the bulk of America with the Atlantic. But decades of expansion, development, and pollution, and overuse have threatened many of our main waterways. Vast ecosystems are being destroyed, and we’re undercutting our own water supplies. There have been people banging on heroically about this for decades, with some great successes. But the vastness of the problem needs bigger solutions.

Rivers are the essential public good: while they define some state boundaries, they are beholden to none. They wend through our country and its history without any respect for borders or politics. While we can dam them up and control them, they still ultimately control us. Unfortunately, it is because they are a public good that the people who can do the most to protect them simply won’t.

ThinkProgress had an interesting look yesterday at the Tea Party-driven “anti-parks caucus” in Congress, which are exactly as lunatic and obnoxious as you’d expect. These are people who are driving the government to divest itself of federally-protected land, so that there can be more mining, logging, and development. It’s a revolt against the very concept of public good.

You’ll note that this is the same driving force behind the Bundy standoff. The animus against the federal government wasn’t based in constitutional principle; it was based on greed and the belief that all land should be exploited by whomever has the means to do so. They had no interest in opening up their ranching land to the people. If the Bundy’s had gotten what they want, do you suppose that transversing their land and saying it was free for everyone would be welcomed with a Founding Father grin? Or an ass full of buckshot?

Exactly. The animating principle here is the idea that there is no such thing as “the people”, that we don’t exist as an actual political body, but a series of independent orbs competing with each other, and those who can buy off enough legislators to get their way have the god-given right to win that competition. It’s why the idea of preserving our rivers, of preserving our public parks, is so far-fetched. Because they aren’t part of our shared heritage and our mutual future, and aren’t part of the delicate relationship we have with the earth- they belong to whomever can get there first. It’s the philosophy wich drives much of the Republican Party, and it is literally destroying our country.

River exploitation has of course been bipartisan, and often has been used for the common good- the TVA, in which the wild and untamed Tennesee was straightened and harnessed, with Mussel Shoals becoming a tourist rather than death trap, is a perfect example of that. We can’t, nor should we, reverse it. But we need to practice better management of our rivers, for the present and the future. Doing so should be the most bipartisan no-brainer there is.

It’s a sign of our benighted and stupid climate that, for many, it is seen as a liberal concern. Most Americans, in the main, would agree that preserving our rivers is a good thing. It’s just that when push comes to electoral shove many still vote for the hippie-punching contingency. But they are are deeply ahistoric, anti-American and anti-earth. Rallying around the rivers is a tangible way to showcase the weird and unhealthy greed that dominates the Right. It could be an actual winning platform, in every way.

(Note: I’m kind of obsessed with rivers, and if any rich publishers are reading this and want a wide-ranging and super-important project in which I’ll do all the work, send me a message. Do it now!)

9 thoughts on “Time And the Endangered River; Or, The Public Good Is For Chumps, And You’re Not a Chump, Are You?

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