"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Long Run (eventually a Yemen post, so be patient)

A week or so ago I was at the library and was thinking how I didn't really know much at all about American expansion into the west- the outlines, sure, and I was a big fan of John Wayne movies, but I know vanishingly little about the details.  So I grabbed a couple of books more or less at random- thinking I can go for big and broad to start with, and if this obsession lasts beyond a couple of weeks then dig deeper.  The books I grabbed were Into The West by Walter Nugent (which is not the basis for the Spielberg mini-series) and Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides (which is not Blood And Thunder, the "all-girls roller-derby magazine", though I know you all thought it was.) 

I've read through Into the West and just started Blood and Thunder last night.  Into the West was amazing- it sort of disdained the so-called "heroic era" of cowboys and injuns, cattle drives and gunfights, rootin and tootin.  Instead, it focused some 500 years of European conquest and population displacement- looking at the big picture of migration, habitation, irrigation and farming.  It talked about the cities that were growing even as the west was "still being won."  (In something that blew my mind, he mentioned that the University of California had been having classes for ten years before the Shootout at OK Corral).  Mostly, though, it is the story of people- how they changed the land, how the land changed them, how generations of different cultures met and adjusted and created reality.  It showed how the world works outside of myths- even while showing the role that myths play.

Blood and Thunder seems a little different- it looks like it is tracing the "heroic era" through the story of Kit Carson.  I'm enjoying it, and it is an important story, but strikes me as one of those books that focuses obsessively on a little thing that might make a good story but doesn't reveal much of the whole- in this case, a short time frame and a relatively narrow geographical space (if the book doesn't turn out this way, I apologize, but you all know the kind of book I am talking about).  Of course, the Indian Wars were hugely important (morally neutral statement), but they were a small slice of what we really mean when talking about the story of the west.

I was thinking about this when reading this Reuters story, linked to through Nasser Arrabyee's blog.

As men and women pick corn and roll up the withered stalks in the fields of their tiny village near Sanaa, Humeid al-Masajidi says goodbye to a way of life his family will abandon forever.

"Starting next year there won't be any farmland here. This is the last time this land will be harvested. We've all sold the land," the 35-year-old farmer said, pointing to the fields around the village of Beit al-Masajidi, nestled beneath mountain peaks and dotted with scraggy sheep.

Yemen is grappling with an increasingly dry climate and a booming population. Harvests are shrinking as rainfall declines and groundwater dries up.

Farmers, 70 percent of the population, can no longer subsist on their own crops. Youths are flocking from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs to provide for their families.

This is one of those seemingly human-interest stories that, in the long run, plays a far bigger role in shaping Yemen's destiny than the fate of Anwar al-Awlaki or the next election.  Droughts, and the mismanagement of resources, have a way of making politics seem ephemeral- which in a very real sense they are.   This is far more than a sad story about farmers losing their way of life; we might be seeing a fundamental shift from a rural populace (currently about 70%) to an increasingly urban one.  Even if there is a solution to the water problem these are trends that are very difficult to reverse. 

Overcrowding and the creation of slums- violent places full of the world's most dangerous resource, unemployed and desperate young men- are a huge problem all over the third world (and many parts of the first, so no nose-looking-downing).  But even aside from that, a shift like this changes the very nature of a country in ways that are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to predict.   If Yemen survives the next 50 or 100 years (which in one form or another it will, barring the unpredictability of water), it could be united and untied a dozen times, but and increasing urban nature will be the most important thing.  Migration patterns matter, but they are often too slow to be appreciated, especially these days.  Looking at the history of the world, the moving of people, the destruction and creation of farmland, the handling of resources, are what eventually drives things.  Of course, leadership matters, especially in resource management, but the slow population trends will affect its politics far more than any one president or jihadist ever could. 

I guess I don't really have a point.  Maybe it is just fascinating to think that while we ponder statesmenship and parse statements and agonize about drones, the factors that really affect long-term destiny are slowly grinding under our feet, and this first draft of history will be barely noticeable when papered over humanity's palimpsest.  

(Incidentally, at some point I'd like to post my scatter-shot thoughts on the Homesteader and Newlands Reclamation Acts, which were the might of the federal government creating the land for farmers, and what that means for today's politics- essentially, the myth of the "real Americans who don't need the government" and how liberalism can work with and help independent, hard-working industrious people.  If you guys will indulge me.)

1 comment:

  1. A note on your potential scatter-shot thoughts on the two acts: Those are two great examples (and less well-known)of exactly what you're talking about. However, you are probably aware that the Homestead Act was widely abused by land speculators and turned out to not be as good of a deal as it sounded for a good amount of people moving west.