The Atlantic

How the West Was Lost

In America’s first climate war, John Wesley Powell tried to prevent the overdevelopment that led to environmental devastation.
Source: Associated Press

One hundred thirty years ago, an immigrant froze to death during a blizzard that hit southwestern Kansas. A flyer tucked into the pocket of his light linen overcoat advertised Kansas as the “Italy of America”; it promised a verdant land full of opportunity. This unfortunate man, duped by powerful boosters who sold the undeveloped West as a serpentless Eden, was among the first victims of America’s earliest climate war.

Modern climate wars are new in that they revolve around global warming, but scientists have been battling against deniers since at least the 19th century. The tale of John Wesley Powell, an explorer and geologist who tried and failed to stop the policies that led to the immigrant’s death, is especially resonant today. Before his time, Powell understood that unbridled optimism and headlong land development would lead to environmental ruin and mass human suffering.

For the first half of their nation’s history, Americans had virtually ignored the West, believing it to be a vast wasteland. Dispatched there by President James Monroe in 1819, Stephen H. Long described the Great Plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma as “wholly unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture.” The map accompanying his three-volume report labeled the area as a “Great Desert,” terminology that soon morphed into the “Great American Desert,” a colorful appellation that would stick for a generation.

In the 1840s and ’50s, most pioneers reckoned that the nation’s great opportunities lay beyond this parched region, at the end of the trails, in Oregon and California.

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