Interview with Char Miller

Interview with Char Miller
Courtesy photo

At War Over the Environment: Two Experts on the Politics of Parks and the Natural World with George Bristol and Char Miller
Moderator: Weir Labatt
Public lands might not seem like the type of topic to get your pulse up, but after listening to conservationist George Bristol and historian Char Miller, formerly Director of Urban Studies at Trinity University and currently head of Pomona College’s Environmental Analysis program, you might find your heart racing. Miller is particularly adept at tying our common sense of place back to critical issues like water conservation, immigration, natural disasters, and even beer, demonstrated adroitly in his new collection of essays On the Edge. Hear him, Bristol, and moderator Weir Labatt, a longtime champion for water conservation issues, discuss some of the biggest environmental and social challenges we face today. 2:45-3:45 p.m., RHR Lecture Hall, Navarro Campus.

Interview with Char Miller
By Callie Enlow

Can you give us a preview of your panel topic?

I think the larger sort of thrust of the book, and thus what I’m interested in talking about, are the central social and environmental issues, and the intertwining of those issues throughout the Southwest. The subtitle of the book captures some of that – water, immigration, and politics. I would add to that climate change and what that might do to the landscapes themselves, to our supply of water, to the pressures that are on places like El Paso, Albuquerque, San Antonio — seeing I-10 as the spine for this larger story. Everything that’s attached to that from Los Angeles to San Antonio is sort of functioning at a similar kind of situation. Using that narratively, but in environmental and social situations ask ‘what is going to happen?’ What are the historical precedents that might help us understand some of these dilemmas? One of the key aspects in that respect is that the Southwest has long been dry, it’s pretty arid, that it gets drier only adds to the difficulties that we face. But it’s also true that as we face these problems, the region is able to teach and exemplify for areas that are not used to this but will be going through it. We have a really interesting set of challenges, but also an interesting set of opportunities for trying to live more carefully in a landscape of diminishing resources.

I’m so glad you brought that up. Water issues seem to finally be on the table in the Texas legislature this session. Do you have any advice for our politicians here looking to deal with water issues? It’s a bit contentious so far.

It is contentious, and I think the contentiousness of water issues in Texas, lawsuits with NM and OK for example, those are going to escalate. Whatever border you’re on, including the Rio Grande border with Mexico, those legal battles are going to increase dramatically in relationship to the fall of rain, that is to say the lack of it. That’s one set of complications. While we think about the fight to get whatever we can get our hands on (in terms of water), the other piece of this story, which SA has in some ways been on the cutting edge of, is recognizing that the water under our feet is the lifeblood, and protecting that heart, in a sense, of the community is absolutely essential. That means conservation, conservation, conservation. It means, unfortunately, ratcheting up the cost because the market is one of the best ways to drive use. It means therefor that all the good stuff that SAWS and others have done is just going to be accelerated more across the century, when we expect the drought that South Texas has been experiencing is going to get a bit more intense.

I read one of your recent articles about the relationship national forests have to water conservation. In this region we don’t have national forests, but are there any lessons we can learn from how that agency protects the watershed?

One of the things that’s quite impressive to me about what the Forest Service is trying to do is not so much the techniques that they’re employing to protect watersheds, it’s who they’re working with. It’s a collaborative process that now includes all sorts of public and private agencies and organizations and foundations. The recognition is throughout the West, with the exception of Texas, about 60 percent of all water flows off of national forests. If you’re worried about what that water quantity and quality looks like, then you’ve really got to start thinking about watersheds.  That for me is the new language, the conception of a watershed really needs to frame our politics and our environmental policies.
What does that mean for San Antonio? It turns out that San Antonio River is deeply connected to the much broader watershed in the Hill Country and the Edwards plateau. None of that is federal land, very little is state-owned. What you see as possible is a collaboration between federal agencies like Fish and Wildlife, who are responsible for a lot of the plants and animals in those streams, and state and local organizations to really regenerate the landscape, so that when water hits the ground, it doesn’t just flash off and disappear.
The example for me is not the West but the East… there’s an organization called Common Waters which is a multi-organizational collaborative conservation project for the Delaware river watershed, which provides 15 million people with water… The collaboration includes the Forest Service, which has no land anywhere near there, but it’s got the expertise for watershed restoration projects. The goal is trying to help all the private land owners along the tributaries that flow into the Delaware, to regenerate their part of whatever stream they’re on, to see in restoration a way of helping downstream entities receive better water, cleaner and more of it. The incentive for the land owner is that they’re getting the expertise, they’re getting funding from federal, state, and local organizations, and their properties become that much more valuable. This is a win-win-win-win thing that is really taking off along the Upper Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey… That’s a better model, it seems to me, for Central Texas where again it’s mostly private property, but what the state and the feds have is the expertise, some of the capital and the capacity to raise other monies in collaboration with other organizations, to help people do the work that benefits upstream and downstream users.

I mean, that sounds good, but Texans historically have such a private-ownership philosophy toward how they are stewards of their own land. Do you think that’s something that would get a lot of buy-in here?

That’s the interesting thing. Those battles, which are as you say quite historic, nonetheless can be tweaked in this respect, if they’re really stewards of their landscapes and if they want to bequeath that to their progeny or just sell it to someone else, what’s gonna be more valuable to them but a watershed that is actually healthy? That has the capacity to help the human economies along its banks but also the wildlife and others that partake of those waters as well? It will require a person to be savvier about what it means to be a private land-owner. The folks up in the Upper Delaware are every bit as contentious, insular, and capital-driven as anyone in South Texas, but what they’re sensing is that they’re stewardship requires collaboration because otherwise, the don’t survive either. They’ll have to get rid of the property because there’s little way to do anything on it. The clever rice farmer’s gotta figure out that the maintenance of that agricultural activity depends upon relationships upstream, and good relationships upstream that benefits both groups. If the good lord decides that the rain isn’t coming, or however these systems function, then you either go bankrupt or you reach out to people who can help one another. I’m betting on the latter.

If you can expand on that, one of the themes in On the Edge was that political borders don’t really matter in the face of natural disasters and environmental pollution. Can you talk about how we’ve helped or hindered ourselves with borders, and going forward if there are different models that we might pursue?
I think the model was available in the late 19th century, it wasn’t going happen, but it was a really interesting attempt to call to question. It came from John Wesley Powell who was the second director if the U.S. Geological Survey, and the great famous explorer who went down the Colorado River. What he understood when he was in Colorado and running that river, which had enormous volume of water, is that the ability of anyone to live along that river and to irrigate whatever it is they were going to do on the basis of that, it would be necessary to have a very different conception of how people organize themselves on a landscape… Everything in the humid East, you don’t really have to care about a watershed as a defining feature on a landscape and as an organizing feature for social life, but in the West you do. He argued that county lines and state lines made no sense if they didn’t take into account the riversheds. If you look at the battles, let’s just take Texas, the battle between Texas and Oklahoma over the Red River, the battle between Texas and New Mexico over the Pecos, and the battle between Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico over the Rio Grande, all of them are around watersheds that are bi-national or bi-state. Powell’s argument was, you’re setting up the political organizations wrong. If you put on one side of the boundary one state and on the other side of the boundary another one, their interests are going to be framed on where their side of the line is in that river, instead of it being framed around the river. His argument was, if we’re going to populate the West, what he called for was hydraulic districts, effectively states. So you would have a Colorado watershed state such that everybody had an interest in that river, upstream, downstream, and midstream. Instead, with the Colorado, seven, maybe eight states have access to that water and claim parts of its tributaries as their own, and they fight like hell. It doesn’t really solve problems, it creates problems. We’re well beyond that part, but what’s interesting to me, not only is that crazy, but it turns out if you look at the collaborative models that are emerging along the Rio Grand, along the borders, people are acting in a way that counteracts the boundaries that we’ve set up. You see it in rivers across the West, where all of these small organizations are beginning to organize around rivers and tributaries that cross state boundaries and they reach across, because they know full well that the water coming off the Colorado Rockies is slowing down, but they’re in, say, Nevada, or California, you’ve gotta share these things.  I’m not saying that’s happening quickly, but there is a dawning consciousness about the collaborative nature framed around water in this very arid area. That would not shock John Wesley Powell at all, he prophesied it.

In On the Edge you also discuss wildfires raging simultaneously in California and Mexico and storms that impact all the Gulf of Mexico states as well as parts of Mexico. In terms of that, how can states and nations work together in the face of these commonly shared disasters?

That’s been one of the insightful things, watching those events take place and then asking “are we totally kidding ourselves?” Weather maps on any weather station in San Antonio or Southern California end at some border. It’s like, ‘really? The storm just stopped? It just disappeared?’ Our imagination is pretty hobbled by the physical borders that we etch into our mental geographies of place. What I’m trying to argue in On the Edge is two things: One is that place does matter, where you live really matters and the issues that frame that place help define your life, and yet that specificity has to be fit within the bigger, global picture. Getting to the point where we can collaborate across whatever those borders are will alter how we respond to those events and maybe also soften our sense of how hard and fast we think the borderlands ought to be. An earthquake doesn’t care. Trying to understand why the political dividing lines that we throw up to, as we say, ‘protect ourselves’ from those others, is kind of a waste of energy. If I had a dream there would not be those boundary lines, there would not be those fortified borders, because they inhibit our capacity to think in collaborative and collective ways that would be to everybody’s advantage.

Can you expand on that in terms of immigration?

The politics of immigration, which have always been true in the U.S., talk to any Irish family in the 19th century and they can tell you just as desperate story as any new immigrant coming from Asia or Latin America or Africa today. It’s a very old tale. I use this film in one of my classes called Made in L.A., it looks at contemporary sweatshop workers in Los Angeles. There’s this vivid moment where an organizing group goes to New York to pitch their case and they go to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side and they see these photographs of Jewish and other sweatshop workers in 1890 and suddenly, you could see it in their eyes, that they suddenly realized that that past is their present. As a historian I’m really interested in the ways that that history speaks to us currently. So immigration in the U.S., although always fraught with tension, argument, and disagreement, almost always ends with the realization that without that immigrant pulse into the country our economy would be considerably less powerful than it is today. In the Southwest, much of our economic activity, whether it’s in construction, domestic care, landscape business, and all sorts of other things is really done by people who are “illegal,” they’re only illegal in the sense that we argue that this place is separate from some other place, but the global economy and global capitalism has demonstrated that that’s not true. In an ideal world, I would have a border that’s far more porous, because it’s already porous. The crossings that we allow and don’t allow waste an enormous amount of time and energy and money that could be much better spent on healthcare, education, social issues that would be of advantage to the entire community. I think our policies in that regard are miscast, they’re framed by politics as they always have been and always will be, but that doesn’t mean you just simply acknowledge them and say ‘that’s just the way it is.’ I think the protest is essential.

We do put an enormous amount of time and money into these physical borders, like you said, and it seems like we haven’t thought about the environmental impact too much. Can you explain that a little bit?

One of the fascinating things for me when we moved from Texas to California, was that we were basically following the border. It had become the most contentious landscape between 2005 and 2010 or so, it kind of disappeared in the 2012 election. In the seven years prior to that point it was really the hot button issue. What was really much less reported about, as opposed to the social consequences of immigration, were these uncalculated, unacknowledged environmental deficits that occurred when we started to build that wall. There’s a series of essays in the book that look at the divisiveness in every sense of doing that along the Rio Grande valley, through New Mexico and Arizona and getting into California.  An essay that didn’t make it into the book actually focuses in on a section of the wall that punches about half a mile into the Pacific Ocean, as if we are going to stop people by so doing. It’s the fence to nowhere in a sense.
Then you look at actually how this thing was constructed. There’s an essay in there where the data that was coming out from Homeland Security blew my mind, about simply the filling in of canyon after canyon, flattening the landscape and then putting in this wall. Within the Border Patrol they were sort of shaking their heads going ‘no one’s going through that canyon.’ The canyon’s its own wall. The planners decided that it should look a certain way, so the landscape go militarized, making anyone who was in it a criminal, and in a sense, in addition to the wall sending a signal, the flattened landscape sent a signal to every animal of ‘this is not a place to be.’ To turn that into a fortified border was really startling to me. Ten years after, 15 years after the Berlin Wall came down, and we saw it as a triumph of openness and transparency and the collapse of Easter/Western Europe, we then replicate that process in Mexico and, to my mind, have devastating impacts on nature as a consequence. There are a couple of essays about various species that we think are suffering as a consequence of that. If you total up the environmental costs, the social costs, the political expenses of doing that kind of work, very little of which gets calculated into Homeland Security’s budget, it’s way, way more expensive to have done what we’ve done than if we had come up with another way of imagining the border and living within its natural landscape.