Posted by: GeekHiker | July 22, 2009

What We’re Losing

It’s not often I post about books.  Maybe because I don’t have the time to read nearly as many as I’d like (the list of books to be checked out from the library alone would make your head spin), or because I don’t consider myself much of a book reviewer, or simply because a number of books I’ve read lately, while interesting, haven’t really warranted passing along.

So, happy day then that I come across a book that motivates me to sit down and write a post about it, and encourage y’all to read it, eh?

Vanishing America Cover“Vanishing America – In Pursuit of our Elusive Landscapes” is one of those well-written, fairly quick, utterly fascinating reads that does what all good books should do: makes one think.  A series of essays by James Conaway, the book talks about the things that make America, well, America.  And how we’re losing them right before our eyes.

Perhaps this paragraph from the introduction says it best:

“Everywhere I travel in America, I encounter a deep sense of loss; Americans have come to believe that growth and entitlement matter more than health and happiness in a country that, paradoxically, diminishes in prospect and comity even as it grows richer.  The gap between ideals and means gets larger while access to public institutions – and public land – essential to our identity becomes more difficult.  No piece of the nation goes unassigned to market forces.  So-called traditional values, including those relating to the earth itself, are altered beyond recognition or swept away.”

America’s growth, most if its history in fact, has been dominated by the concept of Manifest Destiny: the idea that it is our birthright to expand and use the land for whatever we see fit.  It’s no longer true, given our size and populace and how quickly we’ve done those things, but the idea of it still holds sway over our national consciousness (especially our politics, naturally).  It’s an idea that’s perhaps strongest in the west, but Conaway travels from coast-to-coast, finding examples everywhere he goes.

(It should probably be noted that the book was written during the Bush years in the White House, when assigning a market value to anything and everything was quite paramount, and the writing is colored by this on occasion.)

Conaway’s writing puts forth the basic question to the reader: how much are we losing to the altar of capitalism?  Open public lands being valued only for the oil or gas or minerals beneath them.  National Parks being cut of at the ankles monetarily, their images and land sold off to private companies to turn profit on them.  Free flowing rivers dammed, destroying salmon runs, used as sewers and, ultimately, harming us.

How much, Conaway is asking us, are we willing to give up, and for who’s gain?  When the landscape and neighbors near his own property change, with those moving in less or unwilling to sacrifice anything that might lessen their own prosperity or even to benefit the general good, Conaway muses on the issue with his wife, Penny:  “At one point, I said to Penny, ‘Let’s just enjoy it here for as long as it lasts.’ Later, I marveled at how natural those words sounded, and at how readily Americans accept them.

Sadly, it’s true: we do readily accept them.  How often do we enjoy open land, a park, vistas, scenery, cultures, or some other part of our country, before it’s bulldozed and a (very expensive) hotel and gift shop are constructed next to it?  We lose the views, someone else, often far away, gains a little more profit. It happens so fast, we end up shaking our heads and muttering “well, it was nice while it lasted.”

Pushed by government and the private sector (often working hand-in-hand), it’s happening around the country.  Conaway’s travels range from Oregon to Florida to Maine.  From cities such as New Orleans to desolate streches of Colorado.  And his subjects range from archeologists to backcountry guides to wine growers in Napa.

At one point he even touches on Barbie.  And how the National Park Service might profit from dressing her obscenely unobtainable figure in a Park Ranger’s uniform.

And all this outside the places where it seems so obvious, such as New York or Los Angeles.  The point is, it’s everywhere.

It’s not just a matter of what we do, Conaway argues, but our whole thinking process.  We, as a nation, must grow beyond the idea that endless growth is good, of Manifest Destiny itself:

“More than a century ago, the notion was widely promulgated that America’s destiny was the spreading of its people across and seemingly inexhaustible country, without much attention paid to what would come after.  Now it is abundantly clear that the land is exhaustible and that many citizens want what’s left of the country preserved in a recognizable state.  Today, those two visions collide on the outskirts of cities and towns, even in the heart of Napa’s ag preserve – one developmental and blatantly show-biz, the other agricultural and historic.

The valley’s heritage – like the country’s – is no longer to spread the populace and new enterprises everywhere, but to mitigate them.  To survive as a place, America must instill in citizens an awareness of the evanescent qualities we once knew and loved, and of the dangers of Manifest Destiny’s hangover.”

The question is: will we?

A thought provoking read I highly recommend.



  1. I would love to think that the current financial crisis might be opening people’s eyes to what is really important in life. I would like to think that the lesson the country is learning about indulgence and the perils of overspending will cause them to look outside of consumerism to find happiness. If a shift like this could occur, maybe we could stop destroying everything beautiful around us and realize that all that beauty is the real key to happiness. I think there are a lot of people prepared for this sort of shift…but I’m not sure a lot is enough.

  2. This sounds like a terrific book. I think “entitlement” sums up the American way of thinking about…well, about almost everything. We want what we want and the hell with everyone else and the future.

  3. To be very honest, when I look south of the border, I see a civilization in decline. Hopefully Obama can save America from going the way of the Romans but I can’t think of any history where a great nation was rescued from extinction.

  4. Mel Heth – I don’t think the recession will go on long enough for that to happen. As it is, people are only just starting to wake up to the idea of helping each other. I suspect the land, like so many things, is only lamented after it’s lost and replaced by a strip-mall.

    Dingo – I agree. I think part of it, too, is leftover from our history. After all, for the first 200 years or so after independence, America was always about moving outward, dominating the limitless expanse of land and resources between the coasts. Those days are over, but some habits are hard to break.

    Ms Behaviour – One thing I have to say in Obama is that he seems to get the concept that America is a player in the world, vs. the Bush neocon idea that America is a dominant force and everyone who doesn’t like what we do is the enemy. But in terms of Conaway’s book, I don’t think America is alone. China is destroying its land and air at an alarming rate. India and other developing nations as well, a combination of both Manifest Destiny and keeping up with the Joneses (i.e. America). And Canada is destroying great swaths of wilderness just to extract oil from shale, an enormously energy and water-intensive undertaking. Maybe not the decline of Canadian civilization, but certainly a nudge in that direction, wouldn’t you agree?

  5. That’s true but, aside from the environmental issues, Chinese, Indians and Canadians generally do not possess that sense of entitlement. Certainly, I know people who are in sales or marketing or finance who drive big cars and have expensive houses but they are the minority and most of us view them as arrogant and short-sighted. But that’s the American dream, isn’t it?

    Ironically, you have managed to simultaneously disparage my entire cultural identity in one comment so I think it’s time for a hiatus.

  6. Ms Behaviour – I agree with you that China and India don’t fit into that sense of “entitlement”, but I think that they may have inherited the sense that the land can be used and used up (for which we can look to the long history of the British Empire, I suppose). Canada I’m not as sure of; perhaps I’ll reserve comment until I get to the book on my shelf about the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

    Of course, I had no intention of disparaging you in the course of an intellectual conversation on the current ramifications of Manifest Destiny, and as such I apologize.

  7. it’s sad that everything today seems expendable. a new version comes out and we toss the old one. we are trained to strive for excess. the media plays a huge part in this. everything is about “me”. it really is short-sighted and disgusting. if everyone just did a little something (even as small as using bagging groceries in their own reusable bags) it would add up to a huge difference but most people are too lazy 😦

  8. I find the conversation between Ms. Behavior and GH really interesting! As someone that grew up in China, I must admit that environmental degradation in the country is truly horrendous and maddening/saddening. However, there is definitely a difference (or disconnect) between “the government” and “the people.” Even though “the government” is made up of “people”, there is a huge difference.

    I agree with Ms. Behavior that Chinese, Indians, and most Asians, as “people”, don’t really have a strong “sense of entitlement”, because in these countries, this sense is frowned upon, or at least traditionally. We were brought up to be modest and grateful, instead of flaunting our material possessions. However, in terms of caring for the earth and your fellow human beings, I think in modern China this sentiment is in the minority when people are all about making money, getting quick results, satisfying their short-term desires, basically, just like mainstream America.

    There is also the issue of the law. There is at least a pretty huge voice of environmentalism in the US (even though it’s still in the minority). There are laws and regulations and I think most of the time people do respect the law, while in China, the laws are so lax and officials so corrupted that offenders are free to do whatever they want.

    On the flip side, sometimes China is actually more “advanced” in some areas. For example, China banned plastic shopping bags back in 2008, and in the US? Still plastic bag galore. Why? Heavy lobbying from the plastics industry? Business & politics are inseparable, and lobbying from big businesses is really the bane of the existence of this country (think the shaky healthcare system?)…

    Enough of this rant… I am going to bed! Thanks for the thoughts!

  9. Oh, I guess I am too worked up to go to sleep now, but there is another issue that I want to bring up. Today’s environmental problems are largely created by the “industrial countries”, namely, European countries and the US. However, now that the earth is slowly dying, people in these countries wake up and start to freak, and then blame the developing countries for polluting the environment. Guess what, THEY put their factories in these developing countries for the cheap labor and whatnot, and while they are enjoying the fruits of those countries’ hard labor, they turn around and say “it’s you that’s destroying MY planet”, forgetting that these “factory countries” are merely just doing the dirty work FOR the now suddenly morally superior “developed countries.”

    I often find this rather ironic. It’s like, “we have polluted the earth enough and now we are ready to stop. How about you take over the polluting, so that I can enjoy my smog-free cities while criticizing you?”

    Granted, a lot of countries are doing a poor job in balancing the need for low-cost high-speed “development” AND making sure our offsprings have breathable air. However, if businesses in the US are not so eager to get the cheapest goods, but actually impose some sort of green standards (even at the cost of higher price), things will work out better for all parties. Are they willing to do that? I doubt it.

  10. This sounds like a very interesting book! I’m going to see if it’s in the library this week!

  11. BlakSpring – Even more irritating, I find, than the “new version” is trying to make old things exciting. I mean, how does one make Yosemite “hip” when it doesn’t really need to be? But we live in the “i” culture now, I suppose…

    K – I see what you’re saying, although the idea that the US government is for the people is something of a myth that most US citizens still hold dear (the Constitution, sadly, doesn’t make mention of lobbyists). I think, though, that I was talking about two disparate ideas that I didn’t make clear. Anyway, I will trust you so far as the corruption in China, but I wonder, do corporations have the same influence there as here? After all, in the US, corporations not only have the greatest lobbying power, but they have the rights and protections of a human citizen (True!).

    K – It is, sadly, a race to the bottom. I keep finding myself wondering if we’ll ever actually hit the bottom, but then I suppose there are still whole continents to try for lower wages. *sigh* All for cheap i-pods.

    MissMcCracken – I hope you’ll e-mail me a review!

  12. GH — I don’t know much but I think politics and business are closely linked EVERYWHERE in the world! 😉

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