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Charles Palmer

The Atomic West

The relationship between westerners and their environment has been defined by conflicting images of what land is for and what it means to those who depend upon it. By degrees, a Promised Land to be possessed, a wasteland to be improved upon, and a reserve of raw materials to be exploited, the West has long played a central role in the shaping of the "American Dream," a dream that some argue is dissipating.

To encourage new thinking about the relationship between westerners and their region, a conference was sponsored in 1993 by the Arizona Humanities Council. Reopening the American West, edited by Hal K. Rothman, is a collection of papers presented at that conference by ten writers in western and environmental history. A similar, though more narrowly focused collection, The Atomic West, edited by Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay, grew out of a symposium sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington, the chief aim of which was to consider the immense impact of federal dollars and atomic energy programs upon the postwar development of the West.

In Rothman's text, the West is portrayed as a region deeply afflicted by the loss of local communities in which men and women were closely attuned to their environment and by the advent of the profit-driven exploitation of resources. In his chapter titled "Environmentalism and Multiculturalism," Dan Flores wonders "how much of real importance [has been] sacrificed" in the West, where "information about living simply on the American land" has, in his view, given way to forgetfulness and consumption for its own sake. With considerably more stridency, Mike Davis presents what he regards as the ultimate geographical consequence of consumption as a lifestyle. "Las Vegas is the terminus of western history," he writes, "the end of the trail." That self-centered city has no real identity, Davis maintains; it exists merely to help consumers consume and spenders spend.

In a similar vein, but with ...

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