What did John Oliver say on his HBO show about Utahns? † opinion

The historic drought ravaging the American West received national attention Monday night when John Oliver highlighted it in a 24-minute monologue on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” While drawing attention to the dire situation, Oliver also excoriated the policy failures that have made it worse, especially in Utah.

In Oliver’s telling, Utah’s efforts to curb the effects of drought have been limited to the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline and interfaith calls for prayer by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.

Yet anyone who has paid attention to Utah’s efforts to curb drought knows that Oliver’s story is far from complete. Moreover, it is unlikely that Oliver’s bombastic account of the Western drought will actually improve conservation. If water conservation in Utah is ever to be achieved, it must come with the buy-in of most Utahns. Treating these Utahns as naive rubes makes that buy-in near impossible.

Oliver’s extended monologues, a popular feature of his show, often highlight an underappreciated or little-known problem facing American life. His best monologues present a new problem in a humorous way, and parts of Monday’s sketch did just that. The Colorado River is massively oversubscribed, with cuts as high as 4 million acre-feet necessary as soon as possible. Changes to the legal doctrines and agreements governing Colorado River water are past due. To paraphrase Oliver, the problem is dire, and the solutions will be drastic.

When faced with such a crisis, then, it is puzzling that Oliver chose to proceed with his criticisms of Utah the way he did. First, his characterization of Utah’s drought response was incomplete at best, dishonest at worst.

Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature has mandated and funded the use of secondary water meters for irrigation connections. It also created a pathway for water rights holders to keep their water rights instream without losing those rights (something Oliver rightly credited Arizona for, but inexplicably not Utah). Innovative, water-saving, agricultural practices are also conducted throughout the state, while the state allocates millions every year to water-related research.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but one need not go on to understand: Utah is not taking the drought lightly.

Still, this misses the bigger problem with Oliver’s message Monday night. What was communicated to the viewer was not just that Utah was doing nothing, but that Utah is full of rubes who pray to a mythical sky-god and are deserving of mockery.

This is not just a criticism of Oliver’s tone. Mockery seemed, by the end of the sketch, to be its primary purpose: In the closing minutes of the monologue, “god” (played by actor Brian Cox) makes an appearance onscreen telling the people of Utah “you can’t pray your way out of a drought. Frankly, I’m insulted you even asked me. You got yourself in this (expletive) mess.”

Even if the people of Utah really were a bunch of superstitious rubes who used prayer as a way to avoid taking action, these rubes still vote, and the elected leaders of this state are still accountable to them. For this reason alone, they are worth being taken a little more seriously.

If activists concerned about drought use Oliver’s condescending tone, they will be shunned by a voting bloc that has, so far, shown a willingness to listen. This does not mean that Utah or its drought response are above criticism, but nothing will come from mockery.

Perhaps the most telling moment of Oliver’s monologue comes when he offers up a solution: to stop calling it a drought and start calling it “aridification.” Mere minutes after mocking Gov. Cox for inviting all Utahns to join in prayer, Oliver’s only solution is to give the problem a different name. How is that any different than uttering a prayer for the drought to cease?

To be fair, this period of aridification is an extremely complex and difficult problem to tackle. For precisely this reason, we should treat each other with a little more grace and less suspicion. For John Oliver, however, those traits do not draw viewers.

Micah Safsten works as communications and outreach manager at the Utah Water Research Laboratory. He holds a master’s degree in political science from Utah State University and has worked on Capitol Hill and has been a research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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