Be careful with your words (lest they get overanalyzed by a blogger).

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.


Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change

8 responses to “Be careful with your words (lest they get overanalyzed by a blogger).

  1. A Westlands solar energy empire is a good idea. The region isn’t quite as good as the CA desert (Owens) vallies for pure solar power potential, but it is good nonetheless.

    The Westlands has junior water rights and will as long as all of the rest of the state’s urban and agricultural regions want water. Even Westlands knows this.

    As Westlands cultivates productively it also cultivates toxic elements elsewhere and to itself. The whole district is being exposed as a dystopian, anachronistic dream from a time of abundance. It is the poorest congressional district in the entire country, with nothing but prisons as a viable growth industry.

    This is not a sustainable situation, and despite their political power, this reality will ultimately out.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    What’s that quote? “What can’t be sustained, won’t be.”

  3. dfb

    John said: “The Westlands has junior water rights.”

    To be technically correct, Westlands has no surface water rights so it really does not have junior water rights. It subsists almost entirely on contracted water and (not very good) ground water. Even if it did purchase some appropriative water rights from elsewhere, it will be wholly dependent on the pumps, as that is how it is delivered.

    I concur with OTPR about the Hannity viewers. Message boards that discuss his Delta Smelt piece are filled with statements of jack boots, black helicopters, rahowa, obama is the anti-christ, and the rapture is coming. It is not pretty. BTW: that Hannity piece was so filled with factually incorrect statements and hearsay it qualifies as anti-environmentalist/Obama/liberal/reality propaganda.

  4. Dave Simmons

    HA! Wow your weren’t kidding when you said “overanalyzed”.
    But seriously, I don’t know about Salmon but the smelt are on a death spiral no matter what happens to us they will continue to decline. Because even the most respected scientists point to the fact that it is probably a combination of factors that is effecting them. The whole picture is not being looked at. No one really seems to focus the smelts’ myriad of other problems. How can you solve any problem when you are only willing to look at one narrow view of the situation. It is easy to just blame the farmers. Radical environmentalists have know to be wrong before. I sure as heck don’t trust them. They have their own agenda.

    It is amazing to me that you can be so certain that it is the farmers that are the ones at fault. Is it easy for you to overlook the sewage wastewater pollution, numerous non native species, acres of wetlands gone, pharmaceuticals and the latest pytheriods (sp) form urban sources and many other stressors? In fact, it is getting to something like 95% of the life in the delta isn’t native! But you are sure it is the export pumps and your willing to have us “strangled” to find out. It maybe to late for the fish by then. I say we need to find and fix the problems and not “strangle” people till we find the right problem. Today it is us. Tomorrow it might be you!!!

    Read this critical assessment especially page 60. It is a little dated but still accurate. There is still much to know.
    The author is William A.Bennett.

  5. Dave Simmons

    I just realized I left you with another metaphor “Today it is us. Tomorrow it might be you”. Not as good as yesturday but, it is one you can take to the bank. Ok I’ll quit now.

  6. onthepublicrecord

    Thanks for being a good sport about my commentary. I’ll try to answer the question you posed in a day or so.

  7. Daddy-yo

    I’m just starting to study these issues and trying to be as openminded to both sides as possible. What I appreciate most about this post and the subsequent response by Mr. Simmons is the joint civility. Am I missing something here? No where in all the research I have done have I come across a forum in which two opposed sides can speak with passion and emotion and do so civilly. It’s almost like you are trying to work out the issues, rather than just standing on talking points. As a student of dispute resolution, the lack of personal attack (albeit light ribbing) and soundbiting is almost hard to believe. I find that you both make valid and thought provoking points. I also would like to point out that I am a huge fan of the rhetorical flourish, even if it does call on our more emotional side. To both of you, well put and well argued. Keep it up.

  8. onthepublicrecord

    I think I’ve fixed that now, Daddy-yo.