The Spill and the Drought: Restraint, Regulation, and This Beautiful Country

categories: Cocktail Hour


misssissippiToday is a doubly significant day for me. It is both the pub day for my new book about the American West and the fifth anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the pleasures of writing the book was spending a few years studying not just the work but the thinking of Wallace Stegner, and Stegner wouldn’t have wasted too much time making the connection between the drought in California and the spill in the Gulf. That they can be connected, and not just by the one-size-fits-all cudgel called climate change, seems obvious enough. Both events push us to think harder about resources and energy, not in a cliche or soft manner but in a real way, and in both cases both are deeply tied to the specific geographies of the places: one a near-desert that has long been in denial about its own aridity, and the other a near-tropical wonderland that has been long treated as a dumping ground and resource colony.

As I thought about the two places, after dropping my daughter off at school, I also found myself thinking about that most un-sexy and un-American of topics: regulation. When conservatives rail against “regulation” they are tapping into a very deep vein in the American psyche. It is an American myth that we still are what we once were. To put it in psychological terms, it is the desire to be young again. To be a muscular young country that spilled over with resources to be exploited and land where few lived. To continue the metaphor, moderation is to the human life what regulation is to the country’s. As you get older you know your limits. You use discipline and restraint, tools to make the best out of what you now have. Of course the myth of limitlessness–no restraint necessary!–is a lot more exciting. It’s no wonder many still cling to that dream instead of looking our reality in the eye. 

I was back down in the Gulf this past January and will be writing an article on the state-of-the-Gulf for Audubon magazine that will come out in early summer. At first we, caught up in the anniversary fever that seems to have gripped the news world, planned on having it come out this month. But for several reasons, some practical and some more philosophical, we decided to wait. Which means that I will be out in the thirsty west when I finish the piece on oil-soaked Gulf while checking in to see how the beginning of the new hurricane season is proceeding back on the southeast coast. That all these places are unique, and yet all connected, is perhaps too simple to repeat. As is a fact that anyone who really spends time in these places– and not just perusing editorial pages or on-line screeds–can tell you: this is still a beautiful, beautiful country. Will it still be in a hundred years? Two hundred? I suspect the answer will depend less on what we are able to do than on what we are able to keep ourselves from doing.


David Gessner is the author of All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, due out today.


  1. Mark Ancker writes:

    Great insight, well written.

  2. james campbell writes:

    Great analogy. Well said.

  3. George de Gramont writes:

    You are definitely on a mission .

  4. Jeff writes:

    Good insights on regulation and our desire to be young and free…