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High and Dry
The story of how 20th-century politicians turned Native American lands into strip mines (in order to build unsustainable cities in the desert).

Nineteen sixty. I was 5 years old and talking politics with my best friend’s mom. No, I chattered, my mom had never voted for Barry Goldwater, former city councilman and now U.S. senator from Arizona. She just didn’t trust the man. Whoa! My best friend’s mom seemed to expand like a red balloon. Didn’t I know that the future of Phoenix, my hometown, depended on men like Barry Goldwater? Gulp. Well, no, I didn’t. I was still in kindergarten.

by Judith Nies, Nation Books, 320 p.p., $25.99

In the 1960s, the desert cities of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles needed more water and electricity in order to grow. In Unreal City, the journalist Judith Nies tells the gripping story of how “the magic of the Southwest Boom” required the underground coal on Hopi and Navajo reservation lands in northern Arizona—and how a coalition of lawyers, businessmen, and politicians engaged in “legal theft” to turn this high desert, called Black Mesa, into one of America’s largest strip mines. The energy from that coal would power the excesses of Las Vegas and pump the Colorado River over three mountain ranges to Phoenix as part of the Central Arizona Project, the world’s most expensive water system.

All this took a lot of political influence—and patience. In 1882,  Black Mesa was a Hopi reservation with provision “for other Indians.” By the time Goldwater and others decided they wanted the mineral rights to that land, thousands of Navajo lived on top of the coal beds, with a smaller number of Hopi in nearby villages. Nies details how business interests manufactured a supposed range war between the two tribes. In 1958, to resolve that spurious conflict, Goldwater and the freshman congressman Stewart Udall co-sponsored a bill to force the question of who owned what on Black Mesa; by 1966, coal leases were being negotiated by a Hopi tribal council manipulated by outside interests. In 1974, the Navajo and Hopi Land Settlement Act, also co-sponsored by Goldwater, mandated the removal of Navajo who had lived on Black Mesa for generations. In a kind of sinister House that Jack Built, the area’s aquifer would now be steadily drained to turn coal into slurry, which would be piped to generating stations built by companies like Bechtel. Some people got very rich, although that didn’t include the Hopi or Navajo.

“We’re in the climate casino now. Who will win? Who will pay?”

For Nies, Black Mesa is not a local story but a global one, a tale of transnational corporations having “the power to separate indigenous people from their energy-rich lands with the help of host governments.” In one evocative scene, the Navajo activist Roberta Blackgoat stands in her isolated hogan before a large map of the world, its colored tacks marking locations where other native people are fighting similar battles.

Nies’s writing can be lively as she explores water shortage and energy use in the Southwest, learning about the construction of Hoover Dam, the declining level of Lake Mead, and expensive new schemes to pipe water to Las Vegas, a city she describes as so brightly lit that “night is interchangeable with day,” a place “divorced from nature—and proud of it.” On the downside, the book is oddly repetitive and confusingly organized. In particular, I wanted a clearer time line and an update on exactly what is happening on Black Mesa today.

In the end—spoiler alert!—glittering, resource-sucking, water-draining megacities in the desert are unsustainable. My mother was right. Some dreams are not to be trusted. As Nies concludes, global warming trumps the best-laid plans: “We’re in the climate casino now. Who will win? Who will pay?”

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image of Sharman Apt Russell

Sharman Apt Russell is an award-winning nature and science writer whose most recent book is Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (Basic Books). She teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and Antioch University in Los Angeles.

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Comments (2)
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yep, a modern tragedy. both for the screwing over of native peoples and the ecological devastation. but while phoenix, las vegas, etc. are totally unsustainable, i would argue that large cities in very cold areas (regularly below freezing) are equally unsustainable for the huge amounts of heat and cold-proofing needed. one sucks energy in the winter, the other in the summer. true, the colder areas have more "resources" to draw upon, but the huge energy demands have to come from somewhere. it is certainly possible to live "low-impact" in either hot or cold climates, but few are willing to do so.
Glenn, I'm in one of those cold areas, Michigan. Last winter was brutal and my first with my new, closed loop (water sparing in water-abundant MI) geothermal system. It's hard to muster the cash to install these systems - I know no one who is reluctant, but many who can't afford it. As costs rise that balance will necessarily change. I was warm and cosy all winter, and am using air-conditioning this summer entirely from the geo-thermal system. When I can afford to add wind for electricity for the heat pump, I will… and heating and cooling will be free for the next 25 years. Taming the weather in sub-freezing temperatures without using fossil fuel is not only possible, but highly desirable. If the banks were as willing to loan money to individuals for these systems as they are to commercial consolidators, nearly everyone would already be on board.