Why The American West Is A Hotbed Of Extremism And Misinformation

One of the things that I feel is really important is the fact that we need to be in dialogue with one another. As Westerners, we’re on the forefront of climate change. We have fires, we have drought, we have floods, and we’re running out of water. If people are not in dialogue, that’s really problematic, because even people who don’t believe that climate change is human-caused, they’re still experiencing the impacts. These are still decisions that we need to make as communities.

So I think this idea of endless resources is extremely problematic. This idea of rain following the plow, which predates any idea of climate change, was a myth that somehow if you brought agriculture to a land, that was going to make it rain more. That’s very dangerous.

Also, these ideas of the West as a homeland. That, to me, is really fraught too. As I talked about in “American Zion,” when the Latter-day Saints came out West, they had a notion of homeland, and that was placed on top of Indigenous homelands. So there were these layered homelands.

Now you have the American Redoubt [a conservative, Christian movement whose followers are relocating from blue states to Idaho, Montana and other inland northwest states], coming in, trying to create homelands here. So you have this Christian nationalism, that really does feel like they’re waiting for a civil war or the second coming. That’s really, really impacting communities. I happen to have just incredibly fierce friends, who are conservative Republicans, who are fighting tooth and nail against extremism in the Idaho Panhandle. The myth of homeland is really dangerous. 

In terms of climate change, if you [accept] biblical literalism, “God will provide, we don’t really have to worry about it. It’s God’s plan.” That was sort of the way people were thinking about COVID, too.

4. Are there any personal misconceptions were you forced to confront while researching this book?

The thing that I really had to come to terms with is that I moved out west because of the idea of wilderness. That is a myth. We had this idea that the West was an untrammeled place, the West as pristine, and that is an erasure of Indigenous people. 

I’m on the board of WildEarth Guardians, which is a conservation group that just does really wonderful work. We, as so many other conservation groups, are trying to understand how we see landscape and how we have to appreciate the fact that public land is Indigenous land, in the sense that when early preservationists came in to establish parks and whatnot, there was this tendency to erase the cultures that had lived there. I think it’s been a good exercise for me to really look at the sort of myths behind the Wilderness Act, for example. That said, I absolutely one million percent love the West for the public lands. I’m just so grateful for them. And I’m also very, very devoted to, in my small way, habitat and making sure these lands continue to be viable for wildlife populations.

In terms of mythology, it’s really incumbent upon all of us to be always looking at how we see things and unpacking them and better understanding them.

5. Throughout the book, you spotlight several movies and TV shows that portray the West in certain lights — “The Patriot” being your least favorite, “Dead Man” being the most accurate. One you don’t mention is “A River Runs Through It,” the 1992 film that popularized Montana fly-fishing. I’m wondering how you think that film impacted our collective thinking of the West?

It did put Montana on the map. I’m pretty ambivalent about fly-fishing. Norman Maclean’s book [that the movie is based on], it’s exquisite. It really is, and the movie was lovely. But when you have something in pop culture that really appeals to people, and they come to a place with certain expectations or a very narrow way of seeing things, I think it’s problematic. I really think that people moving in with expectations based on what Hollywood is telling them creates a lot of problems. 

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