The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 90, July 1986 - April, 1987 Page: 427
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wisdom of devoting so many pages to a discussion of Karl Wittfogel's
ideas about water and power, only to conclude that they were inade-
quate to explain developments in some parts of the world.
The author contends that, through control of water, an empire ruled
by an oligopoly of capital and technical expertise developed in the
American West. The harsh environment of the arid West, he contends,
created a relentless push for power and empire, more so than in the
more humid, and hence less hostile, areas of the East. While Worster
argues his case masterfully, the reader still wonders if the push to
power is not considerably more independent of environment than he
implies. Most of the modern European empires, as well as the powerful
groups in the eastern United States, did not face "the special advantage
of water scarcity to justify its rule, to enhance its authority, to give it the
imprimatur of necessity" (p. 261). Worster describes the condition of
power in the American West as that of the capitalist state; resource de-
velopment in that region, he claims, necessitated both capitalism and
Specifically, Worster's study is a sustained critique of the federal gov-
ernment's reclamation policy in the West. Claiming that reclamation in
the West has been and continues to be a generous public subsidy for the
affluent Anglo "accumulators," he maintains it has done little to help
the dispossessed, such as Hispanics, Indians, and others who need op-
portunity. This, despite the fact that supporters of western reclamation
justified the enormous expenditures as a means of assisting a vague
and distant urban mass in fulfilling the agrarian ideal. Branding the
reclamation policy of the government "an overextended . . . program
that was neither economically rational nor ecologically sustainable"
(p. 323), the author concludes that the government could have better
spent its money by helping improve the production of poor farmers in
the East, where production costs were cheaper. In fact, Worster appar-
ently believes that the wisest course for agricultural production in the
United States is to return farming to the naturally wet areas. The au-
thor seems to strain at times to press home his point that all attempts at
developing irrigated water resources in the West, especially through
the Reclamation Act, were motivated by the desire to increase authori-
tarian control for the ends of power and profit.
Rivers of Empire is so well written and well reasoned that in some ways
it is insidious; one wants to read it through without stopping to ponder
the author's premises. In particular, the author has an unusual facility
for keeping the disparate threads of water resource history unified. In
addition to being impressively well read, the author has an ironic and
witty style that maintains the reader's interest throughout. This is re-
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 90, July 1986 - April, 1987, periodical, 1986/1987; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117152/m1/493/: accessed October 19, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.