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The Too-Much Mistake

It hardly seems possible, but it’s been 25 years since Frank and Deborah Popper, two academics from New Jersey, hit the Great Plains with a force greater than an F5 tornado simply by publishing a paper. Observing persistent trends of population decline, they proposed re-opening the Plains to the buffalo. They called their idea the Buffalo Commons.

Anne Matthews provides an easy-to-read and entertaining look at the early years of the Buffalo Commons in her still-relevant 1992 book, Where the Buffalo Roam. The Poppers still tour the Plains, and I confess to being something of a groupie. I first heard them in a Salina barn in 1990, and more recently in Manhattan in 2004 (when ex-Governor Hayden confessed to being wrong, and joined the Poppers’ camp), and in Salina a year and a half ago. They—and yours truly in a passing cameo—also appear in an excellent DVD about American bison called Facing the Storm.

Well, the Poppers are news again, launching an excellent piece by Wil Hylton in the July issue of Harper’s, called “Broken Heartland: The Looming Collapse of Agriculture on the Great Plains.” Several things about the article grabbed me: The lovely photographs by Terry Evans. The description of Larry Haverfield (who should be recognized as a hero for his part in the return of the black-footed ferret to Kansas). Texas Tech professor Kevin Mulligan (see below). The section about the Kansas Farmers Union Convention, which I witnessed, and the subsequent scene when Land Institute president Wes Jackson says, “Ten thousand years we’ve been waiting for that.”

(Dr. Jackson’s latest, Consulting the Genius of the Place, is an engaging excursion, worth the trip.)

Two other things persuaded me to buy Harper’s–which you don’t need to do if you come to the library: “A Letter from Brownbackistan” by Thomas Frank, who takes a fresh look at What’s the Matter with Kansas; and the cover. Look closer: see that thick clot of wind turbines stretching across the horizon? In Hylton’s piece, Kevin Mulligan rails against them: “You drive and you drive, and there’s endless machinery as far as you can see, in every direction? That scares me.” I’m with him. A few years ago I took a long roadtrip south and west, and encountered lots of wind farms and 18-wheelers hauling big blades across remote areas. I could see it coming, and now there’s no turning back.

In discussing the Buffalo Commons, the Poppers often refer to historian Elwyn Robinson’s concept of “The Too-Much Mistake”: too much infrastructure for the state to support; too many people for the land to support. And now, just as we get word that the SLT is a go, comes cantankerous ol’ James Howard Kunstler with a book called Too Much Magic—as in magical thinking, what he also calls the Jiminy Cricket syndrome: belief that wishing makes it so. Since I read The Long Emergency and heard Mr. Kunstler in that same Salina barn a few years ago, I see him as a stern but well-meaning Zen priest, quick with the bamboo cane. (The fact that he’s bald and dresses in black just reinforces the image.) Examine your assumptions, he says. You assume endless cheap oil and a stable climate? So sorry.

A new trafficway? SMACK!

Read the book. – Jake, Reference

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