Dave Simmons left a comment on the “Fish, food, feedback loops.” post that I want to talk about for a second. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using it as a discussion point, Mr. Simmons.
3. Westlands has become the most productive in the nation and the most efficient in the state. We get the most crop per drop. That is why! We should be held up as an example to the rest of the state. If all other farmers were as efficient as us maybe there wouldn’t be a crisis.
But instead, our reward is death by strangulation.
First, it is true that farms in Westlands have tremendous irrigation efficiency. They have the capital to put in very nice irrigation systems; they’re the only place I know of where you can’t assume as a matter of course that they’ve undersized their filters. That said, I want to address his closing rhetorical flourish: “our reward is death by strangulation.”
This is why I hate metaphors and analogies. I know that Mr. Simmons did not mean it literally. Mr. Simmons doesn’t really think that as a reward for having very high irrigation efficiency and great yields, state or federal enforcers will systematically strangle all of the 600 growers in Westlands to death. Mr. Simmons is just using dramatic language to make a point. But nevertheless, there are a few problems with these kind of statements.
1. Now we know and Mr. Simmons knows that there will be no death by strangulation involved in any part of the on-going water conflicts. But you know who doesn’t know that? Mr. Simmon’s own un-thinking limbic system. His own body doesn’t know that, and when it hears “death by strangulation,” it thinks that is VERY VERY IMPORTANT and SOMETHING TO FIGHT. Mr. Simmon’s calm and measured mind understands metaphor, and that we are talking about the sequential retiring of fields as state water supplies dwindle. But people’s bodies are acutely concerned with things like “death by strangulation”, and after hearing things like that, bodies will stay activated and on-guard. It will feel the echo of that death-threat, and the next time retiring Westlands comes up, the body will remember that we are in a FIGHT TO THE DEATH! The body is not that bright, but it knows what it knows, and it knows that “death by strangulation” is VERY BAD. Identifying the well-being of Westlands with one’s own fight for life will make Westlands farmers fight sooner, longer and harder, more frantically than a business decision about resource use deserves.
2. The second reason that I don’t like “death by strangulation”, even as metaphor, is related to the first. Frankly, it spooks the horses scares the authoritarians. They’re already fearful; they see the end of the world at every turn. They’ve been permanently triggered; their shows shout at them, telling them about constant dangers and the chaos to come. I read the comments on Hannity’s show, and people are talking about black helicopters and jackboots cracking down on salt-of-the-earth farmers (I am just this second thinking about parallels between the fall of the Garden of Eden and pictures of bulldozers taking out trees). Now water scarcity may be having an inexorable effect on marginal farming operations in California, but the mechanism is not strangulation, nor killing farmers by any means. Rather, pump operators a hundred miles away are intermittently slowing down 13 huge pumps. No one is in any physical danger. But when fearful people see words like “death by strangulation”, even if they know it isn’t literal and discount it some, their permanently terrified perception is going to be closer to ‘DANGER DANGER DANGER’ than it is to ‘making hard planning decisions about crops, fields and water availability.’
3. Mr. Simmons, and every other farmer on the west side, your life is not at stake. Here are some things you can do when the climate changes and these drought shortages become permanent. You can farm in the Sacramento Valley. You can farm on the east side of the San Joaquin. If you aren’t bankrupt, you could (try to) cash out and retire somewhere. You can try to turn your land into solar energy farm. You can go to college and start a new career. You could be a foreman on someone else’s farm. Your existence is not at stake. Your lifestyle is at stake. Your emotional investment in your land is at stake. (Actually, those are both already gone, but I’m trying to be kind.) What you are used to is at stake. But you, as a thinking and self-determining person, will live past the end of Westlands Water District. You can move and adjust, because you are an intelligent human. The sooner you get working on that, the easier the transition will be.
You might also think about who you want to be as you face the end of what you have known. To keep farming the west side for a few extra years, what are you willing to destroy? Would you destroy salmon for everyone else in the state, so that you can keep driving around in a white truck on the land you are used to? Would you end a species of small fish, so that you can keep going to the diner in Three Rocks? Would you drown Sites Valley, just so you can look at the same horizon you’re attached to? Is that how you want your last few years in Westlands to be? Thrashing around, destroying beautiful places, killing small pieces of the creation, so that you can keep farming where you’re used to? Remember, you aren’t doing all those things to preserve your life, even if you’ve unconsciously linked those in your head. You aren’t even doing those to preserve your identity as a farmer. You, a fully functional person with a lifetime of skill, could move and farm elsewhere. You, if you keep up with your losing lawsuits and futile battle against climate change and salt, would be breaking all those things just to stay in place a few years longer. People will judge you for that.
4. There are participants in all this who do face death as a result of our collective decisions. They aren’t strangled. They are sucked into giant pumps and pulped. This is not a metaphor for the end of a way of life, or very hard decisions, or bankruptcy. They are physically drawn into pumps, crushed and mangled. We gather their broken bodies and try to guess whether we’ve killed so many the species will end, or if we can kill a few thousand more. You will outlive the end of Westlands, Mr. Simmons. Death by strangulation is not a threat to you or any farmer in Westlands. But a horrible death to smelt and salmon is a certainty; happened by the hundreds just this week. They wish death were a metaphor.