Column, 596 words

Riled West

There's just too much corn and coal.

William A. Collins

Seeing life,
As West we roam;
Sometimes best,
To stay at home.

For a Yankee, driving to the West can painfully confirm many previously unverified suspicions. First, of course, one must stifle guilt for driving at all. This burden is fortuitously lightened by discovering that the car, which normally gets 40 mpg around home, ramps up to 45 on the road.

But energy matters never stray far from mind. Across Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming the road parallels the Union Pacific. Here one is treated to an endless sequence of oncoming coal trains, 90 cars at a clip, hauling fodder for the maw of mighty Midwestern power plants. It’s as if all Wyoming were one gargantuan mine where soon nothing will be left but a blackened pit. It’s dispiriting to witness climate change zooming past, one freight car at a time.

Climate change stares out from the roadside too. Botanists have contrived a corn variety so tightly clustered that those ghostly ballplayers from the movie could no longer emerge from between its stalks to play on their true believer’s magical field. Plainly, we Americans can never consume that much corn ourselves, even with the help of our modern beef cattle, which by rights should be eating grass instead.

Consequently we have invented ethanol, and ethanol factories do indeed dot the West’s industrial skyline. Farmers unquestioningly believe in this product, even though it eats up as much energy in production as it squirts out through the gas pump. Still, it’s our energy, and we have the subsidy receipts to prove it.

But even with all that wasteful ethanol there’s still too much corn. Thus we also devised corn syrup, prevalent as a sweetener, especially in junk food. This innovation has spread the waistline of much of low-income America. Syrup also accounts for another bunch of the West’s blessed factories.

Nonetheless, even with that, we still get too much corn from all those close-knit stalks. Hence NAFTA. That clever trade agreement allows us to ship subsidized, under-tariffed kernels to Mexico at a price low enough to drive farmers south of the Rio Grande out of business. Which in turn helps drive them up here.

But not to worry. Our highway tries to deal with immigrants too. The only Help Wanted sign for a thousand miles was on a meatpacking plant–you know, for jobs Americans won’t do. And why should they? Such jobs have become dangerous, filthy, underpaid, and under-inspected ever since the unions were driven out.

Unfortunately as these immigrants arrive in the Corn Belt to do the scut work, older folks pack up and leave. No jobs. Those sardine-packed corn rows are now tended by machines, as are the endless hay fields. Empty stores and consolidated farms dominate the scene, despite the yeoman’s work of countless inspired local officials. Gas stations, once the source of most travel guidance, are now totally automated and often staffed by slack-jawed teenagers.

College kids don’t catch a break either. Tourist areas, where once many of us earned our summer’s keep, are now heavily staffed with bright-eyed foreign students on J-1 visas. They’re much cheaper for the proprietors.

Even water out West is depressing. Each travel day reveals a hundred more giant irrigation wheels, swiftly draining the juice from the massive Ogalalla Aquifer. One day, it will run painfully dry.

Canada, by the way, is no cheerier. On the airwaves, businessmen defensively demean the ongoing environmental attack on Alberta’s unconscionable tar sands oil mining, an attack heightened just now by graphic comparisons to the BP oil disaster.

In short, to avoid getting depressed, don’t drive west.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. He recently drove to Banff in Alberta, Canada and back.