and rain follows the plow…

Posted February 19th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Ignorance of Ignorance, Paradox

Did you know that, in the late 1870s, there was “scientific evidence” that “rain follows the plow”? At least from observations based on a few wet years. Except at that time, those in denial of the findings of a more comprehensive survey and more credible scientific findings, presented by John Wesley Powell in the 1878 Report on Arid Lands, did claim a human role in climate change – in case
you thought the war on science reality and reason, or flip-flopping, was anything new, here is an excerpt from a biography of Powell by Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell:

Powell’s land reforms failed to get a hearing mainly because many politicians were in the grip of a dream of their own. It promised that the West would become another Eden of easy, abundant wealth and happy, innocent, people. They ignored the warnings of journalists such as Colburn and the sobering hardships of real, on-the-ground settlers. No matter how arid the climate or how limited the water, they insisted, the West was sure to become another promised land. God would make it so. His chosen people would never
suffer denial.

The world of science included a few believers in that Edenic dream. Ferdinand Hayden, for example succumbed-eager, as he admitted he was, “to report that which will be most pleasing to the people of the West, providing there is any foundation for it in nature.” More than a decade before Powell’s reform proposals, Hayden thought he had evidence that the planting of trees on Nebraska homesteads was ameliorating the climate. Rainfall had increased with agricultural settlement and was becoming more equally distributed
through the year. Plant enough trees across the Great Plains and aridity would give way to well-watered fertility. A member of Hayden ‘s survey team who became a professor at the University of Nebraska, Samuel Aughey, also bought the dream of unlimited bounty and paired up with a town promoter, Charles Dana Wilber, to sell the idea that “rain follows the plow.”

Whether tree planting or plowing could work such magic across the entire arid region was never addressed by Hayden or his disciples, but the Powell survey did give it serious consideration. Gilbert, in his chapter on the Great Salt Lake, allowed that the lake might be rising due to human agency. He went on, however, to criticize the Hayden circle for leaping to conclusions about plow agriculture, nor did he take seriously another popular argument, that telegraph wires were affecting precipitation. What he concluded,
and Powell followed him, was that stream flow was being enhanced by deforestation in the highlands. They did not expect that the desert would vanish any time soon.

The West, according to Wallace Stegner, “has not been so much settled as raided-first for its furs, then for its minerals, then for its grass, then in some places for its scenery,” and with every raid the raiders have ignored consequences. Powell warned about those consequences, ecological and political, that persistence in old land policies must bring, and the raiders and boosters fought him as they fought reality. But it must be added that the failure of the arid lands report was more complicated than a losing
confrontation between popular myth and scientific reality. Powell was himself responsible for some of the resistance he met, for he made a strategic mistake in trying to sell his reforms. He tied them to a scientific establishment in the East that was beginning to demand that the West be brought under their intelligent control. They called for more centralized authority that could bring greater efficiency in the use and development of the region’s resources. Powell wanted their support and approval. Where they
led him, however, was not exactly where he wanted to go.

After a few subsequent dry years, development was made possible by feats of engineering. But even under the plan that was proposed by Powell, little if any water from the Colorado River would have flowed across the border into the Green Lagoons of the Colorado River Delta, which only exists now because of a failure to control every last drop. The Delta, with 5% of its original 2 million acres of wetlands remaining, was brought back to life in the 1980s, when El Niño brought some exceptionally high rainfall.
It owes its continued existence to “waste water” from the Mexicali Valley, which has been the beneficiary of leaks from the unlined All American Canal that diverts water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley in California. Now facing prolonged drought, current efforts to eliminate this waste and inefficiency would come at the expense of environmental flows. As pointed out by Matt Jenkins in a High Country News article, The
Paradox of Efficiency
, (available here in pdf):

…instead of vanquishing the demons of aridity, efficiency has only chased them into the dark. And it has now run up against the quintessential problem of the West…. Untangling the competing demands on the river will be an incremental and possibly perpetual endeavor. It is tempting to argue that the enterprise of developing the Colorado was made feasible in the first place only by writing off he cost of its environmental effects on the Delta. But that simply is not true. Those costs are mere fractions of the
total amount of water in the river and the money spent to develop that water. They are so small that including them in the dealmakers’ calculations from the very beginning would have never come even remotely close to breaking the entire river-development proposition. And so we are now left with a choice: endlessly pursuing yet one more house-of-mirrors fix – or, finally, trying to set the equation right.

John Fleck also has a post about Powell, commenting that: “He’s revered because he understood, more than those of his days, that there were limitations to the exploitation of the West’s resources. But it’s important not to miss his central purpose, which was to squeeze every bit of human use possible out of West.”

The same arguments can be made about energy efficiency…. I’m starting to trail off onto another subject but, there is a name for this phenomenon – here is an excerpt from some jargon-laden stuff I wrote in graduate school: … the “Jevons Paradox”, after William Stanford Jevons who, in 1865, argued that greater efficiency through technological progress would not reduce coal consumption, but would instead increase it because of human addiction to exosomatic sources of comfort (Mayumi et al, 1998). Greater efficiencies
also reduce the ability to adapt to changing conditions because of increased dependencies on particular inputs. A similar observation is found in the work of Georgescu-Roegen (1971) who stated: ‘a technical evolution leads to an increase in the rate at which a society “wastes resources” . . . the economic process actually is more efficient than automatic shuffling in producing higher entropy, i.e. waste. In other words, the more developed is a society the higher it is its rate of generation of garbage
per capita (in Giampietro 1997).

Then there was Gregory Bateson who argued that the characterization of natural processes in terms of energy flows, in a single level analysis that regards ecosystems as simply extensions of matter, that respond mechanically to inputs and outputs of energy, is inadequate for living systems because organization or relationships among the system elements are greater limiting factors than energy. He also thought it would only increase the likelihood of “runaway ecological degradation,” because the increased ability
to predict and control the factors of interest would only make a pathological system more efficiently pathological, leading to more rapid self-destruction, as it does not address the false premises upon which the model is based. Clearly, it is time for a new vision.



Georgescu-Roegen,N., The entropy law and the economic process. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971

Giampietro, M., Energy Efficiency and Sustainability in Human Societies: What can we learn from energy efficiency studies in human societies in respect to regional and global sustinability?, 1997, Istituto Nazionale della Nutrizione, Rome, Italy

Harries Jones, P. A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson. University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1995.

Mayumi, K., M. Giampietro, and J.M. Gowdy, Georgescu-Roegen/Daly versus Solow/Stiglitz Revisited. Ecological Economics, 1998.

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