New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

A Great Aridness

June 07, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Evaggelos Vallianatos

Thirsting for Water and Justice in the American Southwest

by Evaggelos Vallianatos

I have traveled extensively in America’s Southwest. I have visited cities like Austin and El Paso, Texas; Denver and Boulder, Colorado; Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona. I have walked in the great deserts of Sonora in Arizona, Mojave in California and Chihuahua in Mexico. In fact, I live in Southern California, not very far from Los Angeles, a monster city built in the desert.

When I went to the Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, I thought I was on another planet. Massive boulders, one over the other like pancakes, of great diversity in size, shape and form, and spread all over the desert landscape, give the impression that this is a place the gods created only recently, or that it was made in the beginnings of time but forgotten for countless millennia. The cacti stand next to these giant stones like witnesses of an extraordinary story never told. Bushes and exquisite flowers add luster to this gem of the natural world.

The Southwest is a beautiful country of blue skies, little water and plenty of land, most of which is semi-arid, arid or desert. Deserts are by definition inhospitable to human habitation. These are places reasonable people abandon quickly. The land is dry, sand-like, harsh and unforgiving. Even the vegetation and wildlife are sparse, accustomed to little moisture and nutrients, save for plenty of sunshine and heat.

The Southwest is not exclusively desert, but it contains an unusually large number of deserts. Only some of the surviving fragments of Native American populations live in the deserts. The rest — mostly white — live in the deserts because they have the illusion that the panoply of their civilization can defeat the aridity of the land and either mine the aquifers or bring water from elsewhere. As for the unbearable heat, the denizens of the deserts bring with them air-conditioned cars and homes, pretending nature — the hot nature of the deserts — can be domesticated, perhaps defeated.

I never understood that. I puzzle over people living in the dry land of the deserts, or what used to be deserts, using water for lawns, car washing and swimming pools in the same extravagant fashion as those living in places where, at least, it rains pretty regularly. They even resort to irrigation to make the deserts “bloom.” And, of course, air-conditioned cars, homes and hotels give them the illusion that outside temperatures can be ignored – and they are ignored. As for the phenomenon of global warming — new, massive and anthropogenic — it has yet to touch the consciousness of the inhabitants of Southwest.

For example, California is all about cars. Nothing matters more than millions of cars. I walk and bike in the small town of Claremont where I live. The number and large size of cars spoil my day. It does not help that governments at all levels dream of a fool’s paradise, where such things as the inconvenient truth of rising temperatures can disturb the ceaseless burning of coal, natural gas and petroleum, which are the main triggers of the warming of the earth profoundly affecting the Southwest, the rest of America and the world.

William deBuys took it upon himself to explain the tragedy of global warming in his beloved Southwest. He is the author of six books and lives on a small farm in northern New Mexico. His new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford University Press, 2012), is a mirror to public illiteracy, casualness and deep corruption in the face of danger. DeBuys says, “In apocalyptic visions of global climate change, the North American Southwest is an easy protagonist, the geographic equivalent of a stalled car on railroad tracks with a speeding train approaching.”

DeBuys did his homework carefully. He learned the science of global warming, describing in great and convincing prose the intricacies of how climatologists measure temperature through time and figure out the human component in the recent (Industrial Revolution era) rise of world temperatures. He traveled extensively in the Southwest and interviewed the scientists who know the most about wildlife, water, land, aridity and natural history.

He even recounted the pre-contact life of Native Americans at Chaco Canyon or at Mesa Verde in Colorado. He searched and found the destabilizing forces in that civilization, hoping to illustrate a similar process going on right now in the Southwest. He says drought killed the medieval Mesa Verde. He warns of another mega-drought in the offing. Rising dry temperatures, he argues cogently, will tighten the screws of want and thirst throughout the Southwest.

Of all his stories documenting the choppy and chaotic effects of global warming in the Southwest, especially the rising temperatures and the plagues of droughts, fires, and bark beetles killing thousands of acres of forest trees, I found the natural history and political drama of Mount Graham the most compelling. This is an example where political corruption and higher temperatures collude in unleashing the decline and fall of the Southwest.

Here’s a 20-square mile mountain surrounded by desert for at least 10,000 years. The Apaches worship Mount Graham and affectionately call it Big-Footed Mountain. In contrast to the love of the bureaucratically unenfranchised Apaches, the real managers of Mount Graham, the University of Arizona and federal agencies, look at the mountain as an object of manipulation, exploitation and experiment.

In the 1980s, the University of Arizona concocted a scheme of converting the top of Mount Graham to a site for telescopes and astronomical observation. Here you had a mountain beleaguered by developers and loggers threatening its rare wildlife, and especially the endangered red squirrels, and the University of Arizona wanted tons of big science right in the home of the red squirrels. The international consortium of telescope enthusiasts for Mount Graham included the Vatican.

Lots of people objected to the University of Arizona’s outrageous project, including the Apaches, who decided to appeal to the pope. After all, the Apaches reasoned, Mount Graham was their St. Peter’s Basilica; the pope was bound to respect their sacred place. So, the Apaches went to Rome, only to be mocked and ridiculed by Vatican officials, who gave them the runaround, sending them from one cardinal to another without any positive result.

Next to the Apaches, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for endangered species, issued its warnings about the red squirrels. But the University of Arizona paid 1 million dollars to lobbyists and won swift Congressional approval for its ill-conceived and badly executed large binocular telescope project. Such sleazy conduct infuriated DeBuys, who thought the behavior of the University of Arizona “dishonorable.” After all, the University of Arizona circumvented the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act while torpedoing any credible recovery plan for the endangered red squirrels.

These vulnerable animals were caught between the Scylla of the telescope and the big-science pushers on one side and the Charybdis of global warming on the other. Higher temperatures simply accelerated the usual ills and destruction from bark beetles, as well as the wildfires of 1996 and 2004.

DeBuys says the combination of biopolitics (the corrupt policies of the University of Arizona and the government) and global warming were catastrophic for the red squirrels. If the winter, for example, is not cold enough to refrigerate their food caches, or midden, the squirrels don’t survive the winter. By 2010 — 23 years after the red squirrels were declared endangered species — the government had yet to ensure their survival and well being. Their home, Mount Graham, had been under “intense manipulation” for over 100 years. Such chronic mismanagement weakened the mountain and, necessarily, the red squirrels.

According to deBuys, if we cannot protect the red squirrels on the relatively small and isolated island of Mount Graham, how are we to deal with similar threats to Americans and other humans? The squirrel, says deBuys, “has its mountain; we have Earth. And that’s all. Our small planet is a habitat island, too.” In other words, in the context of global warming, we are no different than the red squirrels. Their fate is a prologue to our fate.

This is an important book. I found it interesting, absorbing, thoughtful. DeBuys sums up both the science and the biopolitics (ruthless politics) sealing our fate. He sees the triumph of corporate power as a resurrection of the 1520 Requerimiento, Spain’s legal justification for the enslavement and murder of the resisting indigenous people to clear the way for Spanish plunder and political control in the Southwest and Latin America. Indeed, the Requerimiento marked “the momentum of Spain’s imperial impulse,” no different than “the momentum of contemporary climate change today.”

The connection of past colonialism with its present variety, triggering and making global warming possible, is an insight into and a lesson on how the future is likely to be. The Zuni River, plundered by the Mormons in New Mexico, “endured” what other rivers and arid lands will also endure — only if we do nothing to disrupt present colonialism.

DeBuys talks of mitigation and adaptation to global warming. The colossal dams, reservoirs and aqueducts that took water from the Colorado and other rivers created a hydraulic cornucopia in the 20th century. The irrigation and hydration potential of that so-called “development” is shrinking in the 21st century. Global warming is accelerating the day of reckoning.

It’s not surprising that deBuys is not optimistic about a safe landing for humans in the Southwest or the rest of the world. Governments — and especially the US government — failed to control greenhouse gas emissions. He accuses industries’ intransigence for this political paralysis. The prospects, he says, for the control of atmospheric pollution are “dim.” He ends his book with this advice:

“[W]e need to get on with what we should have been doing all along, including limiting greenhouse gases. We need to take care of unfinished business on the border, in our forests, and in water management. It wouldn’t hurt to love the desert, too — there will be so much more of it — and to protect the rivers and to give the diversity of nature our serious respect. No silver bullet will make the coming decades … more tolerable.”

Read this book. It’s well written and very valuable. It documents why political corruption and its accompanying higher temperatures are having a deadly effect on nature and society in the US Southwest. It should become required reading for all those inhabiting the Southwest.

Clearly, A Great Aridness will not rid us of this legacy of perpetual destruction that brought us global warming. In fact, the book is too gentle to those responsible for environmental depredation. For example, I found the behavior of the University of Arizona unbecoming of an academic institution, sharing more with a criminal organization than a society of educated people. The University of Arizona actions that proved catastrophic for the red squirrels and Mount Graham merit severe consequences for their authors and the university itself. Still, A Great Aridness helps to clear the mind of corporate myths of continuing business as usual.

If we love our children and grandchildren, we must also love Mount Graham and the natural world. That love ought to inspire us to end global warming — rather soon. Terminate the momentum of fossil fuels and replace it with the momentum of solar energy and small-scale human development.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author of numerous books, including This Land is Their Land and The Passion of the Greeks. His new book, Poison Spring, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press.

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