Fluid Mosaic: the City, the West and Water John F. Ross and Patty Limerick in conversation with Marcus Moench

A racy and provocative conversation between John F. Ross, American historian and author, recipient of the 2011 Fort Ticonderoga Award for Contributions to American History, with co-panelist Professor Patty Limerick, author, Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

Moderated by Marcus Moench, Founder of the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition, who works with communities, non-profit, government, and international organizations on adaptation and resilience to climate change, urbanization, water, and energy.

Marcus opens the conversation saying that water sustainability should actually be an area of optimism, and that it should not just be about top-down control. Change is possible since in some areas of the world, the paradigm has flipped. He invites John Ross to give his comments in the light of his latest book “The Promise of the Grand Canyon” that explores the perilous journey of John Wesley Powell, American explorer, geologist, and ethnologist. Best known for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first official US government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon, Powell is a visionary, who wages a bitterly-contested campaign for environmental sustainability in the American West.

Ross takes the audience through a quick recap of Powell’s historic expedition approximately 150 years ago, as a one-armed Illinois school teacher setting out to explore the Grand Canyon, “the last piece of the puzzle”. As Powell goes through one of the most extraordinary gashes on the Earth, he reads the different layers of volcanic rocks as indicators of how continually fluid the Earth is and in a space of constant change.

Powell now starts looking at the US continent through the lens of land-use and sustainability, drafting the 100th Meridien West, an invisible line running through Texas all the way up to Canada that he identifies as the boundary between the humid eastern United States and the arid western plains. Wary of settling in this harsh region, Powell tries convincing the Congress to lay outwater and land-management districts crossing state lines to deal with environmental constraints. Congressmen hate the idea fearing it might limit development and their own power, and aggressively lobby to reject Powell’s views on land conservation resulting in untold suffering associated with pioneer subsistence farms that fail due to insufficient rain and water.

Marcus marvels at the personal transformation John Powell goes through as the son of a Methodist teacher who grew to look at the world from a geological perspective, as he turns to Patty to bring the audience up to speed on all that has happened in the area of water sustainability since Powell. 

An energetic, funny, and engaging public speaker, Patty views Powell as leaving behind a split heritage - as St. Powell, the environmentalist, the forefather of advocacy for wild and untamed rivers, and St. Powell of the water infrastructure builders, who believes in putting water to use in expanding irrigated agriculture, even if that requires de-watering the West’s streams and rivers. She speaks of Powell’s “agrarian preoccupation” as he believes that it is not possible to have a democracy unless the majority can support themselves. Only then can they vote with integrity. This seems to be part of US heritage since even now, most of its water goes towards agricultural usage.

Climate change and global warming are harsh realities that we are facing across the world. Water scarcity, allocation of water between agriculture and urban spaces, the ability to address groundwater overdraft, the swing between optimism and pessimism – the story is similar everywhere. Marcus asks the panel whether they can see points of entry that can move the needle towards a greater balance between innovation and transformation.

Patty is tired of the “duality and polarities” she sees all around, urging the need for watershed coalitions and a healthy agreement between engineers and society, so as to not preoccupy the engineers with producing infrastructure that provides greater material comfort, but allows them the space and ingenuity to address critical issues of climate change.

Patty Limerick has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between academics and the general public and deftly applies historical perspective to contemporary dilemmas and conflicts, often interspersing her comments with the pithy limericks she writes.

On a lighter note she jokes about launching a party for “Utopian Pragmatism”, asking for sign-ups from the audience!

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

Powell would be sad if he could register the mood of today. Perhaps due to his religious background, he remains an amazing optimist till the very end, hopeful that humanity will triumph in the end.

“I have faith in my fellow-man, towering faith in human endeavor, boundless faith in the genius for invention among mankind, and illimitable faith in the love of justice that forever wells up in the human heart”.

Is it time to take a leaf out of John Wesley Powell’s book or are we at a point of no return?


Leave a comment