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Conservative Government Destroys Atlanta Like Gen. Sherman Never Could

The colossal mismanagement of water in Georgia has produced an urban crisis with no clear solution other than a return to smart government.
 
 
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Most our media have been far too busy following the news of what kind of fist bumps terrorists favor, and Luke Russert's exceptional poise under pressure, to notice -- well, much of anything. Least of all, the Biblically proportioned drought in one of our nation's fastest growing regions, which is only getting worse, and more civilizationally consequential, by the day.

Atlanta magazine could no longer ignore it. The cover of their "The Water Issue," which I picked up on a recent swing thorugh Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is graced by a water glass that's one-quarter full -- scratch that, three-quarters empty. The entire magazine is a fascinating document, a potsherd for future archeologists seeking answers to the kind of neuroses that allowed a civilization let itself be run according to an ideology -- conservatism -- so singularly unfit to govern a complex, modern society. Amidst all the schmancy department store and Cartier watch ads, the columns on "Scent marketing" ("among Advertising Age' s top ten trends to watch in 2007") and enticements to purchase property at marquee destinations like The Inn At Palmetto Bluff ("50 beautifully appointed waterfront cottages, full-service spa, inspired Lowcountry, cuisine, exlusive Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course...") -- the landscaping ad featuring the gushing backyard waterfall alongside the furnished stone gazebo was an especially decadent touch, directly across fro a full page ad for "Brookhaven Retreat, treating both addiction and mental health challenges" -- these 176 pages document a narcissistic metropolis on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but not quite able to admit it.

In a letter to subscribers, the editor describes what it was like growing up in the Third World, as a child of missionaries: "In one of the places we stayed, water was piped in only one hour a day -- we had to run around with buckets and pots to catch every drop. in another, water that collected in rooftop tanks would turn scalding int he midday tropical heat. No matter where we traveled, flush toilets were a rarity." That's what she's been thinking of, walking into all the Atlanta bathrooms with "empty buckets near the tub": Atlantans, you see, have begun flushing their toilets with recycled bath water.

The fashion shoot, lithesome models swaddled in this summer's "bright colors and bold lines," is apocalyptically staged in an empty swimming pool. Equally apocalyptic is the comic-book style feature about Atlanta ca. 2050 as a civilization straight out of Soylent Green ("Inevitably, water thieves find a way to get around the system, but penalties are draconian. The water corps has the legal authority to SHOOT TO KILL"). The accompanying features on what happened and why are exemplary -- save for the absence of one concept Atlanta (which on page 26 endorses, tongue only half in cheek, libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr) can't quite bring itself to utter: conservatism.

One phrase they do manage to use: states rights . Portentously, in 1990, Governor Hunt of Alabama, joined by the governor of Florida, sued Georgia, "with its endless development" and "unquenchable thirst for water," to keep the Army Corps of Engineer from sharing "their" water resources. All told over the entire United States, the Army Corps of Engineers built and runs 464 lakes in 43 states, one of them Atlatna's life-giving Lake Lanier; but the notion of the federal government actually coordinating all these resources for the common good would just be too, too un-American to contemplate. Instead, this civil war has ratcheted up to Israel-Palestine levels. "In March, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kepthorne finally put the bickering governors in a collective time-out after they missed a deadline to come up with a tri-state agreement." There hasn't been any agreement yet. Southerners are a prideful pack, after all, loath to take dictation from pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington.

States rights : that fetish of generations of Southern politicians desperate for a rhetorically innocent way to institutionalize their rage at federal demands for equal racial justice. It has come back now to bite Dixie rather soundly in the ass. Actually, the ideology is more pathological than mere states rights: the zero-sum war of all against all has descended to the level of the localities, with Augusta's blessing. "To Perdue, water is a local issue. 'The state can be there to help...but we should not be in the business of directing and instructing communities on how to do their business," [press secretary Bert] Brantley says.... Last year, Alabama went to court to stop the city of Canton and the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority's (CCMWA) construction of the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir in Cherokee County -- four weeks shy of the dam's projected completion." One of the package's articles narrates the Hatfield-and-McCoy-like feud between the counties of Douglas and Cobb, when an administrator in the former had the forsight to plan for a possible drought, building a new reservoir, banning outdoor watering -- only to see the Cobb connive in the state legislature, like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood , to siphon off Douglas's suddenly flush water resources.

Missed opportunity after missed opportunity are adumbrated therein. Yet the magazine blames not ideology but "bureaucracy." That's all right for our purposes, because the ideology hides in plain sight. Atlanta boomed in the wake of the monster capital investments made in anticipation of the 1996 Olympics, the magazine reports; "In 1990, the Atlanta area was projected to draw 800,000 new residents over the next twenty years; in the ten years following the Olympics, the total population increased by almost 1.4 million .... But in that same ten-year period, the reservoirs that supply our most vital resource grew not a bit."

Nobody could have anticipated the breach in the infrastructure : "In 1969, a study by the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission...determined that significant infrastructure changes would be required to avoid critical water shortages when the metro area's population soared to between 3 million (reached in 1993) an 5 million (2006). In the 1980s, water planners mapped out a proposed network of reservoirs throughout North Georgia to shore up water for inevitable droughts. Yet the reservoirs never got off paper. By the nineties, the projects were not only deemed to costly to pursue once rainfall returned in abundance, but they also threatened to further antagonize Alabama and Florida in the tri-state water dispute." What did the Atlanta metropolitan area do instead? Issue building permits -- 48,262 in 1996; 68,240 in 2006. That's the free-market way. The conservative way.

"The drought of 2002 was another wake up call, and then-Govenror Roy Barnes said 2003 would be the 'Year of Water.' Would his plan to build reservoirs and aid municipalities in fixing leaks have worked? No one knows. That year's gubernatorial election came down to Confederate stripes on the state flag."

Like I said, the magazine tells this story well, as far as it goe; but again, what Atlanta magazine can't bring itself to probe is the reason for the season -- the ideology that made it all possible, even inevitable. [ Why no planning? Why no commitment of resources? Why did politics in Georgia at the most crucial possible juncture come down to the images on a flag? "Eighteen years, fourteen governors, and endless posturing and finger-pointing" brought on his "tri-state water war," we learn; what we don't learn is that Roy Barnes, the guy who actually stuck his neck out to solve the problem, was a Democrat, and the man who replaced him was the Confederate Flag-baiting Republican; and that besides Barnes, eight of these eleven governors were Republicans; and that the remaining three Democrats were either conservatives or hobbled in whatever enlightened reforms they might have proposed by conservative and/or Republican legislatures. That when Roy Barnes was governor, 61 of Georgia's state legislators, about a quarter -- Georgian readers, help me out: is that enough to stymie a tax reform in your state? -- signed Grover Norquist's pledge never, ever to support a tax increase, no matter what civilizational collapse might befall the Peachtree State as a consequence (the numbers are now 34 percent of Georgian senators and 30 percent of Georgian house members). And that, by the time the Olympics might have inspired them to reasonably call on the nation's collective coffers to shore up their infrastructure the House was being run by Cobb County's own anti-public investment zealot, Plank Seven of whose "Contract With America" demanded a three-fifths congressional majority to pass any tax increase, and "A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control congress." Who promptly shut down the federal government when he didn't get his budgetary way. Newt Gingrich used to love to talk about saving "civilization." Well, Newt: thanks to you and your boys, in Atlanta, we are beginning to see how civilizations begin to die.

Can you imagine having to go back in time to 1969 -- the year before the Nixon Administration bid for permanent conservative allegiance from Georgia by sending Vice President Agnew to dedicate a Confederate Memorial (the Atlanta Constitution was insulted when Kent State kept President Nixon himself from keeping the appointment -- and trying to explain to the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission's planners that their Confederacy-addled conservative state elites would prove so feckless as to utterly ignore their urgent, wise counsel? To do, simply, nothing but nothing?

Nobody could have anticipated the breach in the infrastructure

Metaphors of babies and bath water, bathtubs not even full enough to drown a government in (we have to save the water to make the toilets work), a dynamic regional economy spiraling down a drain proliferate at my fingertips, all too cheaply. They'll keep proliferating, in Atlanta and everywhere, until we defeat conservatism, and economic individualism, and "free market" madness," as "governing" philosophies.

Atlanta magazine can't make itself understand this; such are the powers that be, the broken right-wing culture within which it aspires to civic leadership, and in which it is, ultimately, complicit. The package's tone will be familiar to any student of the city's history. It is the cry of the "enlightened" business-boosterism class against the bubbas at the State Capitol in Augusta who cramp downtown's mojo with their silly wingnut ways: "Last fall, Sonny Perdue prayed publicly for rain. In February, he gave the okay for area pools to open -- an interesting and perhaps foolhardy decision given that Lake Lanier at the time was only two feet above its lowest level ever and adequate summer rainfall is unlikely." Perforce, the editors can't quite bring themselves to implicate the region's ür-Booster Business, Coca-Cola: did you know that the bottled water branded by Coke as "Dasani" ("Purified water enhanded with minerals for a pure, fresh taste") is actually pumped from Atlanta's municipal water supply (and is chemically indistinguishable from it); that Coke's flagship plant's monthly water bill from the city is only $27,000; but that, not to fearthe plant is working stalwartly to cut its water consumption by ten percent, and doesn't use as much water as the nearby chicken-processing plants, and has pledged to "replace every drop of water used in its beverages and their production"?

Apparently they're only replacing it in America. To its credit, Atlanta magazine points out the moral evasions in such claims: the "offsetting" is happening "in places such as India, where in the last few years more than fifty communities have complained of water shortages due to nearby Dasani bottling." In the end Atlanta magazine is far too busy to hate Coca-Cola Inc. The market made them do it: "In a way, though, we may all be to blame for how much of our water Coca-Cola is bottling and selling right back to us. It's a simple matter of supply and demand. Look around -- at the food court, at the ALTA match, at the Dogwood Festival, even here in Atlanta magazine's vending machines. It's perhaps pointless to build a case for Coca-Cola rethinking its Dasani production in a time of drought when we're the ones swallowing, literally, the idea that we can't live without the bottle."

And for all their mockery of crazy old Governor Perdue and his misplaced affection for swimming pools, they do coo sympathetically of his new allowance for the hand-watering of lawns "to alleviate the $2 billion-plus [ sic!] hit the local landscaping industry took last year because of the draught."

Those poor, poor landscapers. But no worries: another feature in the package, "Ripple Effect," reminds Atlantans that there's money to be made in them thar empty reservoirs; "In the economics of water, some win and some lose." The landscape and timber businesses gets downward arrows, but things are looking up, no joke, for "rain barrel merchants," "rain recyclers," "roofers, "arborists," "car warshers" (at-home car washing has been banned), "stump grinders" and, yes, "golfers": "When a golf ball lands on hard, dry ground, you can get an extra thirty to forty yards off the tee with the bounce. Sweet!"

Rick Perlstein is the author of "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fall of the American Consensus" (Scribner, 2008). Read more at Rick Perlstein's site .

 
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