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November 27th, 2014

Down by the Sea

BY Christian Ford

This thanksgiving, I’m choosing to be thankful for not living on the shores of the Aral Sea.  It wasn’t always that way.  In point of fact, for centuries Aral seaside living has been the best choice for inhabiting the arid heart of Central Asia, where the immense lake — fourth largest in the world, half the size of England — was effectively a massive oasis.  So massive, that it once had its own navy.

That started in the 1850s, when the Russian Tsar decided he needed a survey ship and a warship to look after it, and so both ships were taken to pieces and transported to the shores of the “Sea of Islands” by camel caravan.  The Tsar’s interest in this landlocked and remote world stemmed from the interesting things that grew there, like the engine of nineteenth century industrialism, cotton.

Cotton had sprouted on the shores of the Aral Sea for at least 2000 years.  But this was the age of industry, and industrial quantities of raw cotton were needed by any empire wanting to get rich off mechanized weaving.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, the epicenter of all that raw cotton was the American South and its slave plantations.  But the outbreak of the Civil War changed all that, as the North blockaded the South and created a cotton famine in the mills of Europe.

Imperial Russia knew an opportunity when they saw it, and by the end of the Civil War, they were producing 90% of their own cotton.  But the wilds of Central Asia were a long way from the centers of Imperial power and even though there were grand plans for “modernizing” cotton production, they proved persistently inferior to the local and indigenous understanding of how to grow cotton and manage water in this dry and demanding landscape.  For nearly 70 years, the modernizers failed to produce, but in the 1930s, powered by oil and — in a moment of massive and wincing irony — advised by sixteen African-American agronomists, they finally began to convert the hinterlands of Uzbekistan into a Western form of industrial agriculture.

They spoke of cotton as “white gold,” on the shores of the Aral Sea and just like the Forty-Niners of California, they needed water and lots of it to produce that gold.  Starting in the 1960s,  Soviet engineers finally  diverted the two main rivers feeding the Aral Sea to provide irrigation water.  It was considered a miracle;  they were “growing cotton in the desert.”

There were side-effects.  The lake shrank, the waters became saltier, the fishing fleet brought back fewer and fewer fish.  The water table dropped, and shoreline oases and wells dried out.  The lake began to divide, eventually becoming four separate bodies of water.  The fish died out and the fishing fleet, employer of 60,000 people, source of one-fifth of the Soviet Union’s catch, vanished, leaving their boats careened across what were once their harbors.

The Sea of Islands became a sink for pesticides and fertilizers from the farms its water irrigated.  Millions and millions of tons of pesticide-laced salt were turned into dust and sent skyward, blowing off the ever-growing dry bed to settle onto the farmland, which then needed more water to flush away the toxins, or at least some of them.

The fingerprint of Aral dust has been found as far away as the Arctic, but if you lived closer to the Aral, you were breathing it.  Millions of people in the zone of the Aral learned to lived with chronic respiratory illness and watched throat cancer become a commonplace.  Everyone who could leave, left.  And, irony of ironies, without the lake, winters got colder, summers got hotter, and the growing season got shorter — meaning that many cotton farmers had to abandon the white gold business and take up growing rice.

So it went for decades.  But suddenly, this last year, the Aral Sea stopped shrinking — because it was gone.  The one-time fourth largest lake in the world had dried up, leaving behind only an empty bed the size of West Virginia to churn out more toxic dust.  True, there’s a doomed vestigial lobe remaining in the west, dying a little more slowly.  And the tiny “north” lake, walled off by a dyke, is staggering onward because of efforts to restore it.  But 2014 marks the first time in modern history that the Aral has been dry.

What strikes me, gazing at the satellite time-lapse of the Aral Sea in the process of unbecoming, is how the decisions and the actions that finally killed the Aral represent the will and agenda of a nation that doesn’t even exist.  Long-dead Soviet engineers and bureaucrats no longer devise plans for the Aral, but their desires still form the reality that the living must exist within.

Now, you could say that this is all of history and all of life, that time is a practical joke that existence plays on us.  And you wouldn’t be wrong to  note that this is typical of the Soviet Union, an example of its master narrative of rationality and control and you could even feel a little condescending in thinking of how it all collapsed.

But it would be a mistake not to notice how completely the tragedy of the Aral Sea is paralleled in the ostensible opposite of the Soviet Union, the United States.  We have our own Aral Sea.  In fact, we have a number.  One goes by the name of Owens Lake.  Nestled spectacularly at the foot of the eastern Sierra Nevada escarpment, within sight of the highest peak in the Lower 48, bridging the high Mojave Desert to the Basin and Range lands east of the Sierras, Owens Lake was, in its time, a spectacular flowering of life in a hard, dry land.

And its time was a long time; Owens was much smaller than the Aral, but it stood for 800,000 years until the twentieth century came and with it, the “public works” that drained it dry.  Today, Owens Lake is the largest single source of particulate pollution in the United States and if it’s not completely dry, that’s because lawsuits have forced those who drained the lake to spray just enough water back onto it to keep the dust from flying. The major difference between the Aral and Owens is that Owens’ water went to grow the city of Los Angeles instead of cotton and the best thing we can say about the debacle is that it inspired Chinatown.

Owens was a long time ago, but no one was going to learn anything from it.  So today the Colorado River, water lifeline of the entire American Southwest, no longer reaches the ocean.  Like the Aral, it’s been thoroughly modernized, the victim of endless dams and reclamation schemes intended to make the desert bloom, but which have mostly served to fuel development of desert cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix which, it is now blatantly apparent, cannot be sustained at anywhere near their current size.

And then there’s the Salton Sea.  In a cosmic prank, the Salton, California’s largest lake,  was created by a colossal hydraulic engineering accident in 1905.  But now it’s going the way of the Aral.

The point here is not that we’ve been haplessly destroying the natural systems our agriculture depends on by misusing water since agriculture’s dawn in ancient Mesopotamia — which we have — but how much better we got at it in the twentieth century.  The age’s great division into capitalism and communism turns out not to matter at all when it comes to how we relate to the world that supports us.  They were simply different flavors of an underlying system of belief.  That’s alarming because, in the cogent words of Robert Jensen, “an economic system that magnifies human greed and  encourages short-term thinking, while pretending that there are no physical limits on human consumption, is a death cult.”

Every society gets the film noir it deserves.  The plotline of ours is about the Invisible Hand of the market becoming visible as a Dead Hand locked on the steering wheel.   The Aral Sea lies in its dusty grave not because the Politburo approved a Five Year Plan, or because Abraham Lincoln chose to blockade the Confederacy, but because the living, somehow, cannot bring themselves to wrest back control of the wheel.

Not that it would be easy to.  After all, the Dead are the ones who built the car, paved the roads, printed the map, hired the cops and wrote the rules, which they encouraged us to think of as laws.  But there’s only so much respect we owe to our forebears, as we rocket down the highway to where the Dead sun themselves at the beach-front property of their dreams, the shores of the Aral Sea.


Aral Fisher on the Sand Sea by Evan Harris
Keeler Beach by Tom Hilton
Salton Sea Fish by Margaret Killjoy
Hull of a Fisher by Mark Pitcher
Salton Sea Sunset by Alejandro C
Aral Sea from Space by NASA