The American Future: A History With Simon Schama

Season 1 Episode 1

American Plenty

Aired Friday 9:00 PM Oct 10, 2008 on BBC Two
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Episode Summary

American Plenty
America has long been the "land of the plenty", but things are changing and it's never more apparent than when looking at water consumption in the West. Simon travels by auto and foot the trail of westward expansion in post-Civil War America, showing how water drove the push to California, and the birth of conservation. Focusing on the early battles over Colorado River rights, Simon shows – from presidents to farmers – how water is a microcosm of both American opportunity and its mismanagement of resources.moreless
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    Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


    • TRIVIA (0)

    • QUOTES (8)

      • (Regarding water conservation efforts in Las Vegas.)
        Simon: Do you think there might be conflicts between the town and the country?
        Pat Mulroy: There has always been some friction between agricultural areas and urban areas as the West has developed. We in the cities can't simply say, "Well, they use 85% of the water. We have the money, why don't we go in and we buy out their water resources and just move them to the city?"
        Simon: You tried to do that a little bit, didn't you?
        Pat Mulroy: We– I think, to som– there are going to be, on the edges, some of that happening. But we have to be very careful what we buy.

      • Jim McConnell: The big fear for all of us, all the farmers in Imperial Valley, is the fact that people in Las Vegas or Los Angeles will make our property so valuable, they'll buy the land and take it out of production just to utilize the water for other things. Everybody out there wants to live in paradise, basically. But it takes tilling the soil, it takes water to make food, and food and water are the basics of life. If the people don't start thinking about water conservation in a bigger way, food's gonna become more valuable, I think, than petroleum and oil and all of the luxuries of life.

      • (About his early life as an Okie in California.)
        Richard 'Babe' Henry: We lived in what we called a tent house. The floor was wood, and about four feet up the, uh– it was all wood, and on the rest of that, from the– up to the top, and it was sort of into a tent; it was canvas. We always had clothes, and never went hungry. We just didn't have the other things, the finer things in life. But which, if you don't– if you don't have 'em, you don't miss 'em.

      • (Discussing the dust storms that blew from the Midwest as far east as New York and Washington, D.C. inside an abandoned Dust Bowl house.)
        Simon: This is what happened to the Little House on the Prairie. It's the ruin not just of a physical structure, but the ruin of a particular idea. Andrew Jackson's idea that if you just had the gumption you could get up and go West, you could have a piece of American land, you could homestead with 100, 160 acres, and you make a go of it as a virtuous democratic citizen on the land of America. And then it all came horrifically undone. 1933,'34, '35 – huge, filthy great storms that blew in from the horizon. No escaping it. So dense that they blinded cattle, choked everyone who got in their way. Can only imagine the terror– mums and dads trying to get their children out of the way of this nightmare, this huge, kind of, cloud of horror coming their way. And when it was done, maybe after a couple of hours, maybe after a couple of days, there was nothing left, really. Your soil had gone, your farm had gone, your money had gone, your hope in the Great Plains pretty much had gone. (footage of Okies packing up) There was only one thing left to do, wasn't there? Just get up, and go.

      • (Standing in front of Hoover Dam in Nevada, discussing its construction.)
        Simon: It was a beacon of hope in an absolutely awful time in American history. When American plenty seemed out of the question. People hard hit by the Depression came from all over the country to try and find work. Building the American future, that's what they were part of, and they were doing it in shocking circumstances. I'm incredibly hot now, and it's springtime. In the summer, when these people worked, the temperatures never fell below 100 Fahrenheit at night, and sometimes went up to 140. Seven people died of heat stroke early on in the work. 112 people died altogether during construction from everything you can imagine – drowning, electrocution, being crushed by rock, pieces of concrete. Yet, amidst all this, the work went on. It was a triumph of American resourcefulness, American skill, and, above all, American determination.

      • Simon: By 1869, you could travel the entire breadth of America by train, from New York to San Francisco, and the country had become a truly continental nation. Which is what made the persistence of areas on the map marked "unknown" almost an affront to America's invincible sense that it could know it all, do it all, and take it all.

      • Simon: This is a story of paradise lost; the American garden is withering on the vine.

      • Simon: Just when you think you've got an answer to one problem, up pops another. Biofuels, like ethanol, may replace oil, but they're made from corn which needs water, which isn't there.

    • NOTES (7)

    • ALLUSIONS (1)

      • Simon: This is what happened to the Little House on the Prairie.

        Likely a reference to the third book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series, where she told the story of her family's three year attempt at staking a claim in Indian Territory, near Independence, Kansas. However, the analogy is flawed. While the Wilder family at times resided near the Great Plains, they never settled anywhere on either the Great or High Plains parts of the United States. All the agricultural disasters that occurred (grasshoppers, blizzards, black birds, etc.) were nature-made, not man-made as with the Dust Bowl.