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400 Years Of Freethought
Samuel Porter Putnam
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Jon Meacham
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Philip Pullman, Jacob Grimm
Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson
Jennifer Michael Hecht
The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America
Paul E. Johnson, Sean Wilentz

Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West

Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West - Donald Worster Worster draws heavily on Wittfogel’s idea of the hydraulic society, to argue that despite American myth, the western states really grew as a result of “authority and restraint, of class and exploitation, and ultimately of imperial power.” (4) In the process of harnessing nature in the form of water, to raise cities and farmlands where local conditions would not allow them to be, Americans created in the West “a culture and society built on, and absolutely dependent on, a sharply alienating, intensely managerial relationship with nature.” (5) This culture “was increasingly a coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical system, ruled by a power elite based on the ownership of capital and expertise.” (7) But the public or private nature of ownership isn’t the main issue, because even in Wittfogel’s ancient examples (Egypt, China) a society that centralizes to conquer nature finds itself organized around “the qualities of concentrated wealth, technical virtuosity, discipline, hard work, popular acquiescence, a feeling of resignation and necessity…[not] what Thoreau conceived as freedom.” This organizing thought of Rivers is both its best and worst feature. Worster points the reader toward important questions about the nature of societies that live far from a natural equilibrium with their environments — and the majority of 21st century communities increasingly fit that mold. The west may have been an early example, but eastern cities like New York, Detroit, and Miami live just as far from nature as does Los Angeles. Even with respect to water, as illustrated by the 1930s construction of the Quabbin reservoir, to supply Boston’s taps. But the best solution Worster offers to the region’s overpopulation and political centralization is “redesigning the West as a network of more or less discrete, self-contained watershed settlements” where people could live a quieter, less acquisitive lifestyle. (333) So, while Worster provides a valuable introduction to the idea that “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument,” the task of figuring out what to do about that (or even what history might suggest) falls to others. (Quoting C. S. Lewis, 50)