Fish versus Farms 1: Oversimplification

Oversimplification is the touchstone of advocacy politics in California’s water debate. Doug Obegi, of the Western Water Project, touches on this here.

When it comes to California water management policy, the fish versus water false dichotomy is the best topical example of the oversimplification principle. When implemented, the principle provides a very useful tool for an interest trying to ignore an opponent.

On the pro-Delta, pro-environmental side, Dan Bacher has written a piece that advocates fish in the fish v. water argument. Bacher crunches the numbers on the importance of fishing in the state’s economy, 11.7 billion dollars in 2006, not an insignificant number. Unfortunately he chooses not to mention that this is approximately 12% of the contribution agriculture makes to the state’s economy.

Bacher’s decision to oversimplify is necessary if he wants to make his case. He knows that lots of people, including lots and lots of poor people, rely on agriculture to pay for food and shelter. Does he believe that the commercial and recreational fishing industries can take up the slack and increase their employment of all of these out-of-work farmworkers by something like 800 percent? Progressive journals like Counterpunch could do a better job dealing with the complexities of this issue.

On the pro-water supply and, one would infer, pro-peripheral canal side, Sean Hannity, one of Fox News’s regular anchors, has taken a particular interest in California water management issues, especially their impact on San Joaquin Valley. Hannity seems particularly focused on how environmental protection regulations affect water management practices, and in turn how these impact farmers in the Westlands Water District area of the San Joaquin Valley.

Agleader announces that Mr. Hannity will be visiting the land of a WWD almond farmer on August 11th. The farmer has apparently bulldozed under 300 acres of almond trees, undoubtedly due to lack of water supply. This YouTube clip nicely describes Hannity’s scapegoat for the reason why farmers like this almond farmer are destroying their orchards - “all because of a two-inch fish...” This is code for the continued work conservatives do to undermine environmental regulations, which they deem to be a threat to sacrosanct private property rights, a core part of their American myth.

I’ve recently blogged about the astroturfing strategies at play in the Delta. Hannity and others have expanded from the core of their coalitions to embrace other victims of California’s water crisis. Generally, these are the visible and preferably photogenic poor, or those unemployed by lack of agricultural work.

At the end of his piece, Bacher quotes Alex Hildebrand, a smart and thoughtful South Delta farmer: “Societies rise, flourish and eventually crash because they misuse their water,” said Hildebrand. “As those ancient civilizations fell, they trashed their environment.” If Hildebrand’s statement ended by saying “trashed their environment and their political culture,” then I would concur. But again - an overly simple conclusion to reach for such a complex past, present and future.

Many advocate “restoring,” or “preserving” the Delta. They promote environmental restoration, but use it cleverly as a fulcrum to maintain cultural preservation. They forget or don’t understand that the Delta is the least rural natural landscape along the pacific coast of the Americas. They choose to oversimplify the implications of restoration and preservation.

Keep in mind that the first of the many many steps in the rise and fall of the Delta’s ecosystem and California’s “civilization” took place in the 1850s, when corporate land companies began diking slightly higher areas of Delta estuary. Much of the ground those original land speculators / reclaimers produced has now subsided 20 or more feet. The places that today resemble the pre-Reclamation period Delta comprise perhaps 5% of the Delta’s area. That land is threatened by rising sea levels, so it may very well disappear. The rest of the Delta will inevitably become a brackish inland sea if technology doesn’t intervene to preserve it as it more or less is today.

What was nature has become the technology of nature. What was once culture is now the politics of culture. California will fail, collapse under its own weight and immobility, if the capitalist model of Ayn Randian self-interest prevails, whether the interest is directed at endangered fish or water supply. But the state has a chance to renew itself if a post-capitalist model of exchange and compromise rises to take its place.

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Posted by John Bass on 10 Aug 2009 | Comments (0)

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