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Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West Paperback – 1 Apr 1992


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Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (1 April 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195078063
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195078060
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 2.7 x 15.6 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,312,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'It is of enormous help to those who campaign against giantism in water resource schemes in the developing world ... Worster writes vividly ... much of his material is carefully deconstructed documentation and if the quotations read as larger than life, so were the key actors ... it is for the reviewer (a scientist) to muse, after completing this magnificent and significant text, that the true value of Worster's critique is for all our futures, under scenarios of climate change and population growth.'Malcolm Newson, Ecumene 1994

...classic... (New Internationalist)

About the Author

Donald Worster, who won the Bancroft Prize for his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford, 1975), is Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas. He is also the author of The Ends of the Earth, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, and the forthcoming Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (Oxford, 1992).

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In his 1862 essay "Walking,"Henry David Thoreau described a daily ritual that was characteristically American in his time. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
A Cautionary Tale of Water: Intriguing, Readable, Important 2 Jun. 2000
By Billy D. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Donald Worster's "Rivers of Empire" is a superb work by the environmental historian, though his critique of California's "hydraulic society" is more a social history. Worster chronicles the exploits of the agribusinessmen and engineers who financed and built the system of damns, reservoirs, and canals which transformed the American West from a sparsely inhabited desert to the site of massive fertile farms and sprawling urban metropolises. Worster argues that the control of scarce water resources gave rise to a symbiotic capitalist/bureaucratic elite and to a modern day empire like its ancient predecessors on the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Huang Ho. This imperial elite, in turn, established and perpetuated itself on the backs of impoverished wage laborers usually of minority or immigrant descent. As an environmentalist, he rails against the wanton waste of water for swimming pools, casino fountains, and ill-suited crops like alfalfa, the depletion of aquifers, and the salinization of rivers - all byproducts of the US government's ambitious 20th century reclamation projects. Worster points out the vengeance of nature in the form of the sedimentation and collapse of dozens of dams. He suggests that these processes and events presage the decay of a socio-economic system which long ago forsook the more harmonious ideals of agrarianism and democracy. This doomsday prediction and Worster's idealistic alternatives are a bit hard to stomach. Also, for all of Worster's sympathy for the underclass of farm laborers, this group never emerges as a real actor in his story. Rather, this is a history of great men, albeit a critical one. Nevertheless, Worster writes with passion; his narrative is fascinating and his contentions are compelling. The book is a fine counterpoint for fans of Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert," and an extremely worthwhile read on its own.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Wow! A Must Read, a Pathbreaking Analysis! 20 Jun. 2004
By Roger D. Launius - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I can count on two hands the number of truly pathbreaking works of history published since 1980. "Rivers of Empire" is one of them, and must reading for anyone who seeks to understand the history of this critical region of the United States.
Donald Worster, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas, has been producing outstanding history of the American West and environmentalism for more than a quarter century. When the so-called "New Western History" was avant-garde in historian circles in the early 1980s he was dubbed one of the "Gang of Four" who transformed the field of study--the others being Patricia Nelson Limerick, William Cronen, and Richard White. Worster's work, as well as that of the other three historians, was indeed pathbreaking, and "Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West" is by far his most influential publication. It demonstrates well why Worster was one of the "Gang of Four."
In "Rivers of Empire" Worster argues that the core reality of the American West is its aridity. To make it suitable for large-scale human habitation required the complete transformation of the region; Americans harnessed the rivers and brought water there, irrigating the land and creating great cities. As Worster writes, "The ecological and social transformation of the Great Valley is one of the most spectacular, and more revealing episodes of the American West" (p. 11). The organization and structure of every institution associated with the West reflected the need to control the environment. It brought profound changes to both the region and the people who lived there. This is the story that he tells in this superb book.
Ironically, the supposed individualistic and democratic westerners willingly conspired with the government to create a hydraulic civilization under the suzerainty of the federal government. In order to flourish in the arid West Americans had to build an agricultural system that was dependent upon large-scale government-managed waterworks--productive (for irrigation) and protective (for flood control). This not only made the West habitable, it brought urbanization and wealth there as well. Ancient Egypt first engaged in this type of civilization, and became a dominant power in the process. But always, there were winners and losers in this situation and those left out harped on the inequities of the system. In the American West the "Sagebrush Revolution" of the latter twentieth century pitted the presumably individualist West against the organization and power of the federal government. Ironically, the very organization and power that had created the modern American West was under attack from those who had so benefited from it.
Worster notes that the dominant myth of the West needs to be replaced with a more realistic understanding. He asserts that it is best understood as a story "of people encountering difficult environments, of driving to overcome them through technological means, of creating the necessary social organization to do so, of leading on and on to indigenous bureaucracy and corporatism" (p. 11). He is so right.
This is a wonderful book. Don't miss it!
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
essential reading on the West 22 Mar. 2001
By isaac - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
'Rivers' presents an extensive yet accessible history of Western development based on the author's unique 'hydraulic' thesis -- a hybrid framework that adds an environmental dimension to traditional socio-economic analysis. Essentially, the idea is that the relationship between humans and environment dictates social structure. Whether or not one buys the theory on the strength of this book alone is beside the point. The importance of 'Rivers' lies in its singular, alternative perspective that, when combined with others, reconstructs a more complete story of the West. With that understanding, the reader may appreciate this work without being bothered by its occasional lapses into the kind of flat ideological analysis that seems inevitable in social histories like this.
'Rivers' offers a number of invaluable insights. Contrary to the idealized vision of the West as the last hope for freedom and democracy, the West birthed a rigid, hierarchical society combining big capitalism with big government. Yet the reason behind this was not the environmental condition of aridity per se, but the romantic capitalistic notion of the desert as something to be subdued and exploited. On an even broader level, therefore, 'Rivers' begins to shed light on the dynamic interplay between the relationship between human and nature and the relationship between humans themselves. In the end, this work's highest value may lie in its contribution to the development of this critical but still largely ignored point.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A good complement to "Cadillac Desert," but a notch below 26 April 2006
By S. J. Snyder - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
However, while I appreciate other reviewers' passion, Marc Reisner has a broader scope in that book, covering the aquifer-driven irrigation of the High Plains as well as the river-fed irrigation of the Southwest.

Plus, his book has a 1993 revised edition, making it newer and more informative.

Above all, though, as a journalist, rather than an academic. Reisner is simply the better writer. His book is more of a story than "Rivers of Empire," and reads that way, as well as having the broader and more updated coverage.

Indeed, with an older-style typeface (at least in hardcover), Worster's book looks much more dated.

For somebody new to this subject, this is still a very solid four-star book. But, having read and re-read "Cadillac Desert," in that context, I rate "Rivers of Empire" at 3.5 stars.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A perfectly fine book but trumped by Reisner's "Cadillac Desert" 21 Dec. 2006
By Arthur Digbee - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In this book, Worster extends Karl Wittfogel's theory of the hydraulic society to the United States - - a task that Wittfogel, despite having emigrated to the US, never attempted. Since Wittfogel emphasized the authoritarian consequences of large-scale irrigation system, so too does Worster, finding an authoritarian "empire" in the American West.

Certainly there are authoritarian elements of western agriculture, especially in the treatment of farmworkers by large farms and corporations. Worster mentions this, but oddly enough does not give this issue as much attention as one would expect.

Worster gives much more attention to the symbiotic relationship between landowners and the water engineers at the Bureau of Reclamation. Like most relationships between government and business, this represents a conspiracy against voters and consumers. That said, it doesn't seem any more hierarchical or autocratic than any other area of regulation, and Worster doesn't really make that case.

Theory aside, the book tells its story well. Unfortunately for Worster, he's competing with a masterpiece, Mark Reisner's "Cadillac Desert", and he covers essentially the same ground. (Reisner's book was published a year later.) Without Reisner, I'd have given this book four stars and recommend for general readers interested in this particular corner of human experience. But Reisner tells the story so well that Worster's book has to stand or fall on the theoretical apparatus - - and this just isn't convincing. As a result, I think that "Rivers of Empire" will really only be interesting for specialists.
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