How the West Was Won and Lost

Oh, here we are in the Hanford Reach, where we find a bit of Canadian Water going home. No, wait, it’s American water. No, wait, it’s everyone’s water! Oh, heck, just look…




Every day, a volume of water equal to the flow of the Okanogan River, one of the major tributaries of the Columbia, is piped into this irrigation system. This is what is left at the end of its long journey through the fields of the shrub steppe, returning to the Columbia at Richland, Washington. For this sleight of hand, which turns water first into a universal value, belonging to all, and then into a commodity, we have to thank the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, darling of the scripters of the American Constitution. Locke claimed many things, but one of them was that consciousness was the result of experience. At birth, we are blank slates. Perception, education, training and action create individuals out of that, says John Locke. The same applies to land and water: it is a blank slate as well, which only belongs to someone as the result of his labour upon it, which is what is called an “improvement” in the parlance of the Canadian and American governments: all the land of the plateau peoples did not belong to the plateau peoples because they had not built fences, barns, roads, telegraph lines and so forth upon it. Under the umbrella of Locke’s principle, the dispossession of the people’s land was all perfectly legal: a prospector or settler could move onto it, anywhere, build land and then instantly have the right to defend the privacy of that land with a gun. When objections were made, even if out of pure ignorance, there were more guns, and even the army, to keep the peace. The men who ran the army in the early days of this process went on in their careers to lead the Confederate Army in the American Civil War, to defend slavery. No lie. The thing is, we no longer believe that we are born without any character or identity, or that we are blank slates to be written upon by will, and yet we still consider private land, and privatized water, to be legitimate concepts, and they are still defended by armies. Amazing. One suspects that this bluff is what armies are for.

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