Wallace Stegner : Environmentalism Remains the Key For the Emblematic California Writer

<i> Steve Proffitt is a contributing reporter to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." He interviewed Wallace Stegner from the author's home in Los Altos Hills, Calif</i>

As a pioneer on the frontier of environmental consciousness, Wallace Stegner recognized 50 years ago that the West was not a limitless Land of Opportunity. He understood our behavior toward the land would create just the kind of social, economic and environmental problems that plague California today--overpopulation, depleted resources, pollution, social unrest. He came to these conclusions not as a politician or scientist, but as a writer. Today, as California confronts a future barbed with problems of growth and depletion, many find themselves examining Stegner’s work.

Stegner published “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” a half-century ago. The novel is a study in self-deception, the tale of one man’s fruitless search for the American dream in the American West. The title refers to an old hobo song about a place where there is a lake of stew and whiskey. Stegner used it as a sad metaphor for a West that exists only to be exploited.

Stegner knew what he wrote--his father chased his own American dream across the West, trying to cash in on get-rich schemes. George Stegner died alone in a fleabag hotel, having done, in his son’s words, “more human and environmental damage than he could have repaired in a second lifetime.”

As if to atone for the sins of his father, Stegner made a career debunking the myths of the West, while promoting the environment. He’s published 29 books and earned a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. In his writing, he argues for a Western environmental ethic, “a civilization to match its scenery.”


At the heart of Stegner’s crusade is the necessity for understanding that we in the West live in an arid region, and that technology will ultimately fail to provide the water nature denies. He believes the policies of the past--subsidized land and water, the boom-bust cycle economy and the sense that resources exist to be exploited--created a society and an ecosystem strained to the limits.

While insisting that sound environmental policy should be a moral rather than political issue, Stegner is not above making a political statement. Last month he refused to accept a National Medal of Arts award from the National Endowment for the Arts, citing his distaste for “the political controls place upon the agency.” Now 83, Stegner recently published a new collection of essays, “Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs.”

Question: Many years ago you called the West “the native home of hope.” Do you feel that still applies in 1992?

Answer: No. I don’t know that the decline is permanent, because these are bad times, and in bad times you can’t always tell what is permanent and what is temporary. But the general course of the West is away from hope. I grew up in the West a long time ago, and I suppose I have a rather 19th-Century view of it--as opportunity--but that opportunity seems to be changing because of the serious overpopulation. Too many people. That makes hope a little harder to come by.

Q: Someone else said California wasn’t part of the West--it was west of the West. How does the state fit into your concept?

A: It’s both within and without the West. It shares that quality of aridity that defines the territory. But it also tips toward Japan, sitting on the Pacific Rim, and is so beautifully endowed that it doesn’t have the same sort of austerity that the rest of Westerners have always had to live with. So I would say that it is something of a separate region . . . .

Q: You have battled against the myth of the West -- the cowboy on the open range, man conquering nature . Is it that you see that myth as in many ways destructive?

A: It is. It’s also very romantic, the horseman is always a romantic figure. It is destructive when it is applied, as (former President Ronald) Reagan applied it, to all the functions of life. It celebrates the ruthlessness of individualism. I think we do a good deal of harm to ourselves with this myth of pioneering self-reliance. I grew up in pretty frontier circumstances, and what let us survive was not self-reliance, but the cooperation of neighbors. Sometimes, I wish we could go back to the Middle Ages, when individualism had not yet been born.

Q: You wrote almost 50 years ago, in “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” about the great American desire to get something for nothing, and about looking at the country as a big real-estate transaction. Have we learned anything in the last 50 years?

A: I think some of us have, but not enough. Maybe none of us have learned enough. The people who still think of the West as a kind of warehouse, to be raided and exploited, are, I think, the people who are going to do it in. That has to change, because there is nothing in the history of the exploitation of the West that indicates any great concern for the environment or for the renewability and sustainability of the economy. Nor for the labor force used for that exploitation. Those are all serious mistakes.

Q: You’ve said the West “encourages a fatal carelessness, a destructiveness, because it seems so limitless.” Have we come to the limit of limitlessness?

A: We have. We better begin to see those limits. I think a lot of people don’t want to admit that. And a lot of people don’t want to give up the privileges that came with the belief that there were no limits--the cattle and sheep people who are used to the federal subsidies for cheap grazing land, and the people who are used to cheap federal water for irrigation. These are subsidies which grew up with that original carelessness, and they are running out. But the claim on the subsidies is still there.

Q: You once wrote that before we build as much as an outhouse, we should have to file an environmental impact statement, and that we should file it with our conscience. How should we go about redeveloping our attitudes toward the land?

A: Well, you know, I also said that Columbus should have filed an environmental impact statement when he sailed. We really took over a continent which we assumed was empty, and which was not. We took it over by conquest, and had no sense of responsibility for it, because we hadn’t lived with it long enough. The longer we do live with it, the more responsibility we are bound to develop toward it, and, in some ways, that is the grain of hope that I cling to. Because the very fact that much of the West is in federal ownership--that is to say, single ownership and therefore a little more controllable--means that changes can be applied to it more easily. That’s the hope. And the hope that we will learn to live in the West in some sort of sustainable way, not doing the kind of damage to the land and water and air that we have done in the past. But that’s a big hope.

Q: So this might be what you have termed “a civilization to match its scenery?”

A: Yeah, and it would leave the scenery pretty much alone. Any desert--and much of the West is, or is very near desert--any desert society that I know of has been either mobile, sparse or both. It’s been an oasis society. What we’ve done is try to engineer the whole thing to fit our own notions--to transport water instead of ourselves. I don’t believe in transporting water out of its own basin. Because what you are doing is creating an hydraulic society, and history tells us that these societies always collapse.

Q: So are you saying that we are guilty of a sort of fatal hubris?

A: Oh, yes. You could say that in capital letters. It’s partly because the country itself is so stimulating, and it enlarges the soul. You think, “God, anything is possible here,” and so you go out and try--often with disastrous results.

Q: Let’s move the discussion to politics. What about Ross Perot? In some ways, he fits into the portrait you have painted--a picture you say we are to avoid--of someone who sees the world in terms of opportunities for enterprise.

A: Yes, he scares me because of that entrepreneurial, competitive drive of his. If by any freakish chance he should be elected, I’d bet he would be impeached within two years. He seems the kind of person who is going to be an outrage to every democratic principle, because all of his principles are about business. I think he is a very shrewd manipulator, and he has enough of the populist feel to him to scare me even more. Many demagogues have a populist feel of that kind.

Q: How do you rate George Bush in terms of his efforts on the environment?

A: His claim to being the Environmental President is a farce. There has never been a President more environmentally negative.

Q: Including Ronald Reagan?

A: Yes, because Bush inherited eight years of Reagan and just went on even worse. Look at the record--he fights the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, he wants to drill in the last wilderness area in Alaska, he doesn’t want to participate in the World Environmental Conference in Rio until he has gutted it in advance. This is no Environmental President.

Q: Do you think a political leader can solve the sort of environmental mess we are in, or do we need some “Earth messiah?”

A: I think we are going to have to have some sort of mass conversion--it’s got to take hold of more people than it has taken hold of yet. But you know, during the ‘70s--particularly during the Carter Administration--we had a lot of really good environmental laws passed. Most of those have been systematically subverted or undermined in the last 12 years.

I don’t think we need a messiah so much as we need a change of parties--because the Republicans lately have not been good conservationists. They’ve been pro-business, pro-profit and not pro-environment.

Q: Is it simply a function of capitalism to be unable to exist within a sound environmental policy?

A: No, I think it’s the basic failure of a certain kind of capitalism--a kind which began to be restrained in the United States about 1902, with the antitrust laws. I think, over time, capitalism has learned a great deal, and there are plenty of corporations which do have a responsible attitude toward the environment, because they see their own interest in it. Like Southern California Edison and PG&E--they; have power-conservation programs, which are both profitable for them and good for the environment.

Q: What do you say to those many people in cities like Los Angeles, living desperate lives in poverty -- people who find environmentalism irrelevant -- who say an environmentalist will drive past miles of human suffering to save a tortoise?

A: There is no excuse for driving by miles of human misery to do anything. But with the increase and condensation of population, there seems to be no solution to human misery--except the control of population, and nobody wants to talk about that. Overpopulation may be one of the biggest problems we face. In the Everglades, when things get dry and the alligators get cooped up in one pool, they begin to eat each other. You have to deal with the human misery, but at the same time you have to prevent the increase of that misery. You cannot forget the environment so you can solve social problems--they must be addressed as a whole.

You have to have jobs. One could be working to clean up the environment. I really believe (Sen. David) Boren has a good idea when he wants to rejuvenate the CCC and the WPA. That will support people and do some good. It may not support profits, but it will support society. The effort to clean up is a tremendous job-making opportunity. Who pays? Either the present or the future, and I would rather see it be the present.

Q: We began by talking about hope. Where do you look when you need to find hope for the future?

A: I guess to the environmental movement at large. It’s much more than just an attempt to clean things up--that’s just treating the symptoms. The real work is to somehow generate Earth health, rather than just patching up illnesses. And that idea seems to be very widespread among the young. Very slowly, we are creating an environmental ethic, and that is where my hope lives.