Savage Dreams

Solnit, Rebecca. Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 420 pp.

Reviewed by Nadia van der Watt.

Many individuals think of nuclear warfare as a thing of the past. Although it was mostly the Cold War that represented a nuclear threat, the history of nuclear warfare is still being written. Nuclear technology is the biggest threat to human existence, and yet it continues to grow and intensify in its effectiveness. In her book Savage Dreams, Rebecca Solnit makes readers aware of those realities that are changing the structure of the earth and jeopardizing the future. This is a book which takes readers along on a journey through the past, present, and future. Solnit artfully weaves experiences of spirituality and factual history in an insightful and unique way in her attempt to mobilize readers to become socially engaged.

savage dreams

Solnit expresses faith in the power of civil disobedience, particularly in the forms of passive resistance and demonstrations as tools to change the future. She believes that such activities will show a growing public concern about the continued danger nuclear testing poses for the earth’s future. Solnit uses instances of her own civil disobedience to help her readers understand the importance of actively opposing injustices. She says, “civil disobedience…asserts that we are the public, and that as the public we will be actors in history, not an audience to it. Direct action takes back history from the corridors of power and gives it back to the public gathered in public places” (69). She explains that the government has depended on continued public disinterest and ignorance of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site to assert its power to destroy the land. In this sense the government is making a decision that actually belongs to the people of this country; if the land belongs to the people, it follows that they should be the ones deciding what happens on said public land. Solnit’s book is an attempt to educate the American public, as well as her worldwide audience, about an issue that has been hidden behind a curtain of secrecy and sanctioned by a public lack of interest.

In another argumentative strain Solnit asserts that there are other things more important than absolute power. She sees nurturing one’s relationship with the earth as being of the utmost importance. Thus she expresses her belief that human beings should live in harmony with the earth. The idea that cultivating stewardship of nature is more rewarding than exercising supreme power over it goes hand in hand with this point throughout her book.

Solnit has an easy to follow writing style. The language she uses is simple and to the point. Because her goal is to educate as many people as possible of the growing crisis the American West faces, she does not use elevated language. Any word or term that may alienate a part of her audience she explains thoroughly. After finishing the book the reader is left with a feeling of having circled from the beginning to the end and back again, creating an overall sense of closure. Solnit leaves no stone unturned as she explains the science behind the history of the most destructive force on planet earth. Because she uses a narrative form to explain this history, the reader experiences, and not only reads about it. This leaves the reader with a broad understanding of a subject that otherwise could get easily lost in mathematical formulas, graphs, and tables. Throughout the book she relates experiences of her own and others in their active fight against the nuclear testing currently underway in the American West.

Because this book covers a history of nuclear testing in Nevada, Utah, and surrounding areas, it is particularly important for those who live in these areas to read Solnit’s book. Solnit asserts that it is possible that if the current generation does not pay attention and learn about the consequences of nuclear testing, future generations will be greatly affected by the radiation and pollution caused by continued nuclear testing. Already the world is not sure what to do with the waste from all the nuclear testing of the past decades. Most are looking to Utah to become the dumping ground of this waste. It is important for individuals who are seeking to provide the best future for their offspring to read Savage Dreams, because if one does not understand the issue, one cannot hope to overcome it successfully. Solnit states, “It’s terrifying that we may destroy the land before we learn to live with it” (182).

Although this book is very well-written and informative, some readers may not appreciate Solnit’s activist encouragement. However, we need to remember that the book is ecocentric, and was written for the purpose of educating the public on matters concerning land usage in the West. Readers will discover that Solnit cares deeply about the land and its uses and hopes only for the best for the Western land and the people which reside there.
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