"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, March 30, 2012

Eng. 150: How Do We Measure the Value of a Place?

Today was actually the third day of our WP3, on human-caused disasters, but we didn't have class on Wednesday because we went to Don Worster's terrific lecture titled "An Unquenchable Thirst: How the Great Plains Created a Water Abundance and Then Lost It." (The video is 84 minutes long, but it's worth watching if you can make the time.) But the larger questions we're asking ourselves include "what is the value of a place? How do we measure the value of a place?"

The crux of Worster's lecture was that Americans have been living in this "culture of abundance" for so long, a culture supported by ingenuity and technology and straight-up American exceptionalism that we cannot begin to conceive of a time and culture where we cannot have everything we want. The consequences of ingenuity, he said, "required a lot of cultural change. What do you do when the natural world does not treat you the way you should be treated?" The Homestead Act assumed the benevolence of nature, which is interesting considering that the Plains were the Great American Desert, a place of no value, a place that stood between us and our destiny to possess both coasts of the continent.

"We have become a mining economy," Worster said. We mine coal, oil, gas, and water. The rate of consumption of the Ogallala Aquifer means we will mine it dry very soon--something that is complicated by rising global temperatures. All the projections, he said, indicate that the Plains and the central US will be hotter than the global mean and will be accompanied by decreased summer precipitation. This drought will last centuries, be permanent.

What was particularly interesting during his lecture was the irony I noticed between the "Bureau of Reclamation" and the role of Mother Nature in thwarting those efforts, the idea of Mother Nature as a bitch. But Worster's larger question was what happens, then, when we turn water into a commodity, rather than a resource? Our culture is shifting from a American individualism to a community, and he spoke of the "moral economy of water." He discussed solutions to the water problem, that one is a market-based approach to water distribution, to let the markets put a price on the water and then buy and sell it like any other commodity. But what's interesting about that is the people who can afford the water will not be in the agriculture industry. And, as I question, when ever has putting a price on nature ever protected it? Is money the only thing that holds our society together?

He did propose some solutions, most of which will take an incredible mental shift: a movement back to dry-land farming, reconsidering how we define wealth and affluence (and our role as a consumer society, with our transportation, the size of our houses, etc.). He spoke of "learning new ways to be rich."

In class this morning, we put that up against the interesting interview Stephen Colbert did with Mark Ruffalo on Wednesday:

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And through the humor of the interview, which is about hydro-fracking, brought up some issues that my students and I then applied to our conversations about human-caused disasters and what we're reading in Erik Reece's Lost Mountain, about radical strip mining and mountaintop removal. If you watch this interview, a few things are important: how do we place a value on places? Are they only valuable if we can get something from them? Who is affected? Who has the power to act? One of the things my students pointed out--and it's only briefly mentioned at the end of the interview--when Colbert points out that Ruffalo is the Hulk, that comment is larger than a role that Ruffalo played. It brought up a really important issue of class. Ruffalo can buy a solar system to power his house. Those who live in the houses that could blow up don't have the money to fight those tracking companies.

As we moved into talking about Lost Mountain--and we were running out of time by this point--we talked about what we thought answered "how do we measure the value of a place?" and what we put up on the board boiled down to two categories: what it can do for us and location. (I didn't know what I would get when I started this activity, but again my brilliant students surprised me.) When we talked about valuable locations and what it means that a place can give us something, the issue of "pretty" came up. We talked about how we define pretty, how somebody from the mountains may not think the Plains is pretty, etc. And then we talked about how our own place was described in its infancy, as the Great American Desert. Once it became able to give us something, then it became valuable, the Breadbasket of the World. Rhetoric matters, people.

One of my students remarked that he's trying really hard not to hate humanity as this class progresses and it's true, there is a real danger of fear and disillusionment in starting to understand what's happening in the world. Over and over my students will comment that they had no idea that any of this was happening until my class. Well, I think they're being too hard on themselves. They're eighteen. Nobody knows anything by that age. But the larger question, I asked this particular student, is not how not to hate humanity, but to question how we got to this point, because if we can do that, then the next question, "what do we do about it?" is actually a step of hope.

(And then I told them about my parents buying a new house (having just sold theirs) and me trying to convince them to think differently about what they want and need in a house, because they're Baby Boomers, growing up in a culture that told them that they deserved this, that the American Dream equaled a certain size house, and what it might mean to think outside the box in terms of housing. And then I pulled out the floor plan of my dream house, because, yes, I do carry it with me, put it under the document camera, and told them my dream house was a tiny bit over 300 square feet.)

I can't wait till Monday.

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