Review of "Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S."

The presence of fresh water, be it in excess or in scarcity, and the politics connected to it is the primary concern of Cynthia Barnett’s book Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.. By presenting an account of problems faced by Florida in a comparative setting, she helps highlight the unique factors that inform the particular regulatory assemblage the helps compose resource management policy. Barnett first illustrates how the general, national trend is towards large water projects. Massive federally funded public works programs create construction sector employment so as to reapportion material to fit the immediate logic of capital, be it intensive agriculture, dams to power industry, etc. Following the creation of irrigation and drainage canals, farming commences in regions that previously would have been considered inappropriate for such an activity.

While the consequence of this are new sources of economic production, it also creates conflict over access, especially during times of drought, potentially devastating economic conditions and landowners that seek to externalize costs by exploiting public coffer money to ensure the continuous running of their enterprises. Conflict forms not just between preservationists and capitalists but among industries as well, with housing, ecotourism, manufacturing and extractive industries each struggling for access or control of the water. From this framework, Barnett is able to then highlight the political hypocrisy in government administrators seeking to preserve a quantitatively diminishing resource that is simultaneously deteriorating in quality due to agricultural and industrial adulterants all while simultaneously promoting economic growth through market-planned housing development. While she does address the fact that the state is able to control the market at time, as a whole she shows how it is predominantly collusive and rarely if ever punitive. The county, state and Federal system foot costs created by housing developers’ limited scope of planning. The irony embedded in this situation, that as more people move to Florida for a specific form of life the less that this habitat exists, isn’t something lost on Barnett. She states it plainly and even provides a short psycho-geographical and environmental exegesis of the fluctuating relationship between place and personality.

In close, I would think it would have been productive for Barnett to compare not just the judicial form of rights, conflict resolution and management issues related to water permitting and allocation across the US. but to delve into development planning in non-Federal regions or those where civil government has a longer tradition of bureaucratic excellence rather than base economic subservience. Barnett hints at something akin to this when she points out how Miami Lakes was “well planned,” and contrasts this by stating that the restrictions enacted by Florida legislature placed upon large scale planning projects were circumvented by patchworks of smaller size housing developments but does not pursue it. This is particularly puzzling as she clearly sees the ease at which large industries are able to circumvent local prohibitions through appeal to higher positions in the bureaucracy. Lacking the legal capacity such that ALL Florida regions disallow the continuation of low-density, suburban development and have genuine local control over use means that private property developers will continue to burden the public sector’s resources. To coin a turn of phrase, density informs destiny, and the over-reliance on state-assisted capitalist development in the region has created redundancies, reduced efficiencies, and encouraged a fragmented and individualist patchwork of communities not truly tied together. All this at a time when a greater sense of civic virtue is direly needed to address serious problems that Barnett has lain out.