Water and Cadillac Deserts

California Aqueduct near Kettleman City. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

My lengthy experience at the US Environmental Protection Agency brought me face to face with the terrors of our “modern” times. One of those awful realizations was that the leaders of America – and the leaders of other countries — are not telling the truth about the impact of people and industries  have been having out there, on the natural world. For example, water.

The degradation, poisoning, and the disappearance of water is, first of all, the result of too many people inhabiting the planet. Despite perpetual wars and plagues, world population is steadily rising.

However, an even bigger force has been undermining water and life on Earth: industrialization: the machine power man acquired and employed to reshape the world to his interests.

This engineering power spread to plantation owners and modern oligarchs who rushed and grabbed land from indigenous people or small family farmers. Water has been absolutely necessary for “landscaping” the natural world and the production of cash crops in large farms and plantations. In addition, developers, miners, river-dam builders, and large cities want lots of water.

Before I tell the story of what “moderns” are doing to water, let’s turn to an earlier age when the Greeks treasured water.

Sacred water and Greek cosmology

Water was sacred to the Greeks because nature and the cosmos were sacred. The gods, and the universe those gods represented, demanded that the Greeks understand their power, which meant an understanding of nature and the cause and effect of phenomena in the natural world and the universe. Mythology informed them that:

(1) the god of southern wind, Notos, was the father of rain, Zeus having given him the prerogative of sending rain-giving clouds from the sky to earth.

(2) Hephaistos, son of Hera, is fire – the all-devouring, all-taming, and all-haunting part of the universe. Hephaistos – the god whose craftsmanship sparked metallurgy in Lemnos and Caucasus — is the eternal artisan who brings light to mortals who see the ether, the Sun, the stars, the Moon and pure light through him. Hephaistos in fact lives in mortals and, because of that, nature itself burns in their bodies. In other words, Hephaistos, the god of fire, is reason in the cosmos and in the world of men, he surpassed all the other gods in craftsmanship.

(3) Nomos – a cosmic principle – is all about reason and order in the cosmos. It sets limits for life on Earth as much as it arranges the stars in the universe  and

(4) Okeanos, the mighty river around the Earth, was where all life, including the gods, came from. Okeanos was also the father of all seas, rivers, and streams of the Earth from his marriage to his sister Tethys.

Aristotle confirms that the ancient Greeks considered Okeanos and Tethys the parents of creation. The gods themselves took their oath by the water of the Styx, a river in northeastern Arkadia in Peloponnesos. Hesiod says that the gods would pay a terrible price if they swore a false oath by the primeval and immortal water of Styx.

Water was at the heart of the Greeks’ cosmos. It became the key, which Thales associated with origins of the cosmos. Thales was a sixth century BCE Greek cosmologist from Miletos, a famous Greek Ionian polis on the coast of Asia Minor near the mouth of the river Maiander. The fifth century BCE father of history, Herodotos, says Miletos was the pride of Ionia.

Aristotle considered Thales the founder of natural philosophy. Thales made water the foundation of the universe. He said the Earth rests on water.

Water in modern times

Is this true today? Not really.

Modern man has carefully catalogued and, occasionally, used for his own uplifting the scraps of Hellenic civilization that survived the tsunami of monotheism. But, for all practical purposes, he ignores the Greeks’ love of nature.

An April 2020 PBS documentary about water, H2O, the Molecule that Made Us, takes the unusual and admirable position that water, perhaps, is still sacred:

“Earth is alive because of water, and humanity’s relationship with this simple molecule is everything.” This is paraphrasing of Thales.

Kelly McEvers, a radio journalist reporting the story of water, becomes ecstatic in praising the Earth:

“Our blue planet. The only planet in the solar system that’s surface is covered in liquid water. But less than 1% of that is freshwater. Drain the salt-water away, paint a picture of our freshwater world, and these are the [river] veins that carry the precious lifeblood we all depend on. A liquid with an almost mystical importance to humankind. And when you look at our human story through this water lens… you start to see the extent to which the water molecule has shaped our destiny. And while our water history is an epic success story… it’s also a story of a dangerous dependence with an uncertain ending. Because now, we face a difficult question: Are we about to become victims of our own success?”

I would not describe human control of the natural world, including that of water, as success. It has been an unmitigated disaster.

Egypt: gift of the Nile

Yes, farming sometimes requires river water. The Nile River flooded and fertilized Egypt for millennia, making the country rich in food and material wealth. Herodotos, the fifth century BCE Greek father of history, described Egypt as the gift of the Nile.

McEvers and her colleague, Giulio Boccaletti, also went to ancient Egypt and the Nile:

“Today, The Nile is dammed, but at one time it flooded so far it reached to the pyramids and beyond! The waters engulfed areas by up to forty times the size of the river! When it receded, it left behind a carpet of fertile soil that fed the world’s first great civilization.

“Ancient Egypt was, to the ancient world, what the United States has been for the 20th century. One of the reasons it was so powerful is that just like the United States today, it was able to provide much, much more food than its population required. It seemingly didn’t have a ceiling of how much it could actually produce.”

However, modern Egyptian rulers rushed to imitate “developed” countries and destroyed this prosperity by damming the Nile. Unfathomable amounts of silt are trapped behind the cement walls of the dam. Suddenly, the fertilizing silt is being transformed into a waste that has to be removed and burned or buried or dumped into the Mediterranean Sea.

The teachers of Egypt, Russian, European, and American, have been damming their rivers furiously in order to convert dry lands and deserts into gardens of Eden or, better yet, Cadillac deserts.

In the United States, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers have been assisting small and especially large farmers to abandon traditional irrigation. They funded and built endless dams for the control and exploitation of most of America’s wild water rivers, selling water very cheaply to farmers and skyscraper cities.

In addition, when that cheap water was insufficient, farmers and cities and landscapers dug deep into the land for ground water.

All this river and ground water flooding gigantic cash crop plantations brought salts to the surface, damaging the top soil and the crops.

Saudi colonization of Arizona

The Saudis studied in America and learned about America’s irrigation practices. In fact, next to oil, foreign and Saudi engineers had discovered enormous ground water lakes in Saudi deserts. The Saudis attacked that water immediately. They mined it for the production and export of wheat. Their Cadillac desert wheat farming lasted from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Once the tapping of their desert water was over, the Saudis turned to their American teachers who encouraged them to “invest” their money in America. The Saudis did in the deserts of Arizona. They purchased land and built elaborate and high tech Cadillac farms in the shape of gigantic green circles. These “farms” are equipped with irrigation technologies sucking the ancient ground water at a rate of 3,000 gallons per hour.

The Saudis have been producing wheat in the desert of Arizona. State and federal government officials are coconspirators in this ecocide. Why did they sell land in the Arizona desert to Saudi companies? Are they so ecologically illiterate and greedy for money to risk the disappearance of water that has been accumulating in Arizona for thousands of years? Do they value life at all?

Abandoning Cadillac deserts 

Like fighting climate change, reversing this barbaric practice of depleting aquifers and damming rivers, will challenge our political institutions to the outmost. Agribusiness oligarchs are certain to resist being put out of the business of mining water.

If Joe Biden becomes the next president, he must face the water crisis immediately. The Israelis and the Dutch use much less water in growing crops. We should learn from them. Besides, we have the knowledge and experience of agroecology, the science of growing food without abusing nature, much less water.

We cannot afford to use 26 gallons of water for growing a pound of tomatoes. And neither can we continue with an industrialized agriculture using 92 percent of the Earth’s fresh water for producing crops. This is ecocide on a colossal scale.

The vast mining of ground water is causing earthquakes, sinking the ground in California, Mexico City, Tokyo, New Orleans, and Shanghai. Cadillac deserts are dangerous.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.