I suspect that very few of us living in the Southwest's urban heat islands these days think much about the idea of "commons" unless we're talking about the pool and hot-tub controlled by the proto-fascists on our HOA's board of directors.
Indeed the very idea of commons—those resources that, ideally, we would all own together: the water, the land, the air—is anathema to the radical right wing that controls Arizona and seems to get its ideas about private property and public policy from the black-and-white Westerns made at Old Tucson in its heyday. That the Southwest, especially Arizona, has over the last century or so been one of the most "socialized" landscapes in American history tends to be willfully forgotten when it comes to making utilitarian political myths out of real history.
The truth is that the big public works projects of the last century, those great monumental dams that ruined the Colorado River delta, the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon (to name just a few casualties of the Era of Reclamation), were just as bad an idea, in hindsight, as the current retro-Libertarian mood that pervades Maricopa County. But we can do nothing with the lessons of hindsight. Perhaps it's too late for us. Surely there is too much against us at this point. Instead of addressing climate change, drought, outmoded water laws and all the other problems that our region faces, our absurd, naive and dangerous political class worries more about reaching pre-2008 growth numbers again. We will all be judged harshly by the future.
There was once a model for the settlement of arid America that many believe, in hindsight, of course, would have made human society in this desert far more sustainable than it is today. Before the West had been overrun by settlers and speculators and there was no turning back, the great one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell famously imagined a region dotted with small Jeffersonian farming communities, founded and governed based on the land's own language.
Powell "forwarded the notion that the arid lands west of 100th meridian should be seen as a mosaic of watershed commonwealths governed largely from within," writes Jack Loeffler, a radio producer and writer who has been exploring and chronicling the many moods and personalities of the Southwest for decades. Loeffler's new book, which he edits with his daughter, Colorado-based writer and producer Celestia Loeffler, is a kind of guide to taking back Powell's ideas and using them to change the region's current no-win paradigm.
"What we are forwarding in this project is governance from within the commons rather than from the top down," Loeffler writes. "This is not to say to take out the federal government but to really increase the sense of responsibility from a population base within the commons and reorganize the system of laws that were erroneously wrought in the first place."
Through a series of interviews with, and essays by, regional luminaries such as Gary Paul Nabhan, William deBuys and Stewart Udall, the Loefflers explore what once was and what could have been. The book includes excellent essays on the history of Western water law; the watershed ethos and cultural adaptations of the Hopi, the Navajo, the Tohono O'odham and New Mexico's Hispano culture; current trends in food culture; and the best practices for ranching in arid lands. Like most books of its kind, it's both very depressing and stirring in its call to action and its insistence that bottom-up change is still possible.
There is something so very attractive, so very calming about Powell's and Jack Loeffler's contention that the Southwest can be saved through rural lifeways. I don't necessarily believe that—it all seems so Utopian—but the Loefflers certainly make a good case for it.
"I do not find hope and light in the seats of centralized political power held in sway by corporated economics anywhere in this world," Jack Loeffler writes in the book's conclusion. "Rather, the great hope that I find lies in rural communities attuned to respective homeland where self-sustainability has been traditionally maintained for long enough to become a resilient culture of practice."
Perhaps the Southwest's heat islands are done for, and those of us of who want to stay here post-exodus are going to have to learn how to do things differently, which means going back to first principles, reinterpreting the land's own language and "reorganiz(ing) the system of laws that were erroneously wrought in the first place." That's a tall order indeed. Maybe we should all just go back to Detroit, to Chicago, to Milwaukee. But if you want to stay for the aftermath, let this book be your guide to a new life.