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A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest by William DeBuys.

April 14, 2012

A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest,em> by William DeBuys. Oxford University Press, USA (2011), Hardcover, 384 pages.

A beautifully written, well-researched account of climate change in the American southwest in the past, present, and future.

Not many environmental writers can be said to write with grace and skill, which is why, despite my deep concerns, I seldom read them. Their books are too full of anger, pain, fear and incomprehensible data to be pleasant reading. William DeBuys is an exception. He offers engaging stories and metaphors along with clear explanations of everything from complex changes in global weather patterns to the ongoing irrationalities of the allocation of water alleged to be in the Colorado River.

In The Great Aridness, Debuys lays out the increased risks those of us who live in the American southwest face as temperatures warm. As the region become hotter and drier, a new order of drought, heat, bug-infestation, fire, and increasing population—both legal and illegal—interact to bring unprecedented risk to the region. But the problem is not simply global warning. Humans living in deserts have always had to keep their needs in delicate balance with their environment. We have lost that balance and lack the resilience to face the increased challenges climate change will bring. Global warming is a catalyst forcing us to address issues we have been avoiding.

DeBuys is not a fatalist, or even a pessimist. The metaphor he uses is that we are like rafters about to enter the Grand Canyon’s biggest rapid. On shore scouting the rapid, we feel its powerful rumbling and see the obstacles we need to avoid, though maybe not as clearly as we wish. Our job is find ways to adapt to the dangerous, partially known conditions ahead. Living in the southwest, I evacuated in the face of unprecedented fires twice last year. I share his sense of urgency that we find sustainable ways to adapt.

One of the spectacular features of the desert southwest is its variability. DeBuys uses different locations within the region to focus on the problems we need to address. Consistently, he reveals how the real danger is how one problem intensifies others until situations spiral out of control. He uses the Jemez Mountains to show how heat and dryness contribute to the spread of pine beetles and fire, which in turn contribute to more heat and dryness. Looking at the increase in massive fires in the southwest, he explains how hotter fires make their own climates and can destroy forests rather than lead to regrowth. He points out that fires of over 100,000 acres were six times more likely in the 1990s than in the 1970s, and continue to increase in size and destructive power.

DeBuys takes us inside a small pueblo near Mesa Verde to explore how extended drought increased immigration and violence in communities. In the past, humans have had to abandon civilizations that had emerged at places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde as climatic changes intensified human problems. In recent centuries, conditions have allowed our oasis culture to thrive there, but that veneer of civilization is fragile in the face of increased and re-enforcing dangers. As he concludes, lack of water and the inability to raise food contribute to competition and conflict. DeBuys urges us to resolve our problems with water and over-population in the region before tempers flare even more.

Water has always been a critical factor in the desert, and DeBuys explains how proposed solutions to resolve the water wars of the lower Colorado River Basin create new insolvable risks. Plans for piping water across Arizona will work only if Lake Mead does not run dry, as it is now doing. Desalinization and transferring water long distances takes energy; at present 10-20 % of our national electric use goes into pumping water. If dams go dry, the hydroelectricity we depend on will end. If Phoenix runs out of water, its nuclear power plant cannot function. In fact, technologies which might provide more water and energy demand impossible amounts of water and energy to function, which means they cannot resolve our problems.

DeBuys has long lived in northern new Mexico. He has explored and written about it for decades. He obviously loves the region and is not ready to give up on its sustainability. He holds out hope for humans, believing individuals and governments will adapt to the risks that the near future holds. His book is an attempt to provide us with some intellectual tools for undertaking that project. What he says about his own home region holds true for other regions around the world. Specific new risks will differ in different regions, but the need to address long-term problems in the face of climate change will be constant.

I strongly recommend The Great Aridness for all who live in and love the American southwest and all who want insight and information about the challenges ahead. And want to get from an elegant, trustworthy, and readable source.

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