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April 08, 2012

FDL Book Salon Welcomes William deBuys, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest

Posted in: FDL Book Salon

Welcome William deBuys ( and Host, Brad Johnson (Think Progress)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest

William DeBuys’ A Great Aridness is a love song and keening lament for the American Southwest in our era of man-made climate change. He manages to capture the romantic allure and the scientific observations of the desert, transcending both perspectives in a fiercely living narrative. His search for wisdom takes him from reservations to mountaintops, from university halls to boom-and-bust exurbs.

“There’s nothing that looks good for the Southwest, I’ll tell you that,” Debuys quotes Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona.

“What’s going to happen to the West can be summed up in three things: fire, dead trees, and dust,” Dave Breshears, professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona, tells the author.

The Southwest is a land of growing population already stretching the limits of water resources, and climate change models are practically unanimous that the region will grow much hotter and drier as the planet warms and rainfall patterns change. But that picture of an arid landscape tipping into desert hides great complexities.

A Great Aridness is a master class in narrative, leaping nimbly from moments that capture the region’s colorful history to clear descriptions of how the transformation of our climate by the unlimited burning of fossil fuels is shaping our future:

The prospect of bigger, more violent storms coupled with increased effective aridity is part of the bundle of effects predicted for the Southwest as a result of climate change. . . .

Notably, the interdependence of energy and water assures that the droughts of the future will sorely limit the availability not only of water, but also of kilowatts. Future brownouts in people’s lawns will likely be mirrored—with far more consequence—in the regional electrical grid.

DeBuys contrasts the coherent picture he builds of a complex, interconnected ecosystem in which man plays a crucial role with the simplistic, blindered perspective most people use to try to address problems.

Climate change is not a ramp. Its increments will not necessarily be linear and smooth. More often than not, its effects will be choppy and chaotic. If the cycles of algae and shrimp, or a plant and its pollinator, fall out of phase, if the cues for mating, migration, molting, feeding young, or some other essential function “decouple” from the timing of phenomena vital to the activity’s success, a cascade of negative effects can ensue. Under such pressure, systems can and will collapse.

The uncertainty about the future lies less in the climatic trends — the Southwest will get significantly hotter and drier — than in how its people respond.

“History has shown repeatedly that famines result as much from warfare as from lack of rain, and that wars are often the spawn of environmental stress,” he writes.

DeBuys doesn’t mince words, finding little reason for confidence in the wisdom of our collective decision-making in our present track record. “If one were to write a survey of all the instances in the history of civilization when societies accepted difficult medicine in order to spare their descendants worse pain in the future, it would make a very short book,” he writes.

Present-day decision makers don’t seem to have learned that lesson. “Las Vegas, a city built on odds-making and risk-taking, is betting the moon on its water projects, even though its billfold is suddenly slim.”

Instead of facile hope or nihilistic despair, however, DeBuys describes the responsibility we share to build resilience through a mature acceptance of reality. To survive the wind and fire of climate change, DeBuys writes, we need to do what we should have been doing all along:

In a way, our decisions for the future should be the same, no matter whether we are a few years inside a megadrought or lucky enough to have decades of relative abundance ahead of us. Deep, crushing cycles of drought are part of the natural history of the Southwest and, for all practical purposes, they always have been. Building resilience against drought into the region’s water systems and cultural practices would be a wise course, irrespective of the cause or timing of the next emergency. Perhaps the dangers now arising from anthropogenic climate change will goad us into doing the things we should have been doing all along.

“Growth must be limited; the train must be stopped,” DeBuys warns. “But who is willing to stand on the tracks and flag it down? The economy of the region is predicated on continuous growth. Conversion to a new paradigm will require revolutionary economic change. In all likelihood such change won’t come until the train runs out of track. And—although saying so causes the metaphor to melt from sight—the track won’t end until the water does.”

“There is only the age-old duty to extend kindness to other beings, to work together and with discipline on common challenges, and to learn to live in the marvelous aridlands without further spoiling them,” DeBuys concludes.

Part cowboy poem, part analytical travelogue, A Great Aridness communicates through silences — the inhuman vistas of Arizona desert, the secrets of disappeared Native American civilizations hewn into New Mexico rock, the uncomfortable pauses of scientists asked what climate change models foretell, and the uncomplaining resilience of the people who have embraced the harsh beauty of the Southwest and look unflinchingly to an even harsher future.

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