A book review: A Great Aridness

Colorado River Basin Map. By Shannon1 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
DeBuys’ book, A great aridness: climate change and the future of the American southwest, examines how the West will adapt to drying and warming in an era of climate change. Despite the complexity of the issues involved, deBuys is able to convey his key ideas in poetic language, while never oversimplifying his topic. This is a book written by someone with a deep knowledge and love of the southwest. He begins his work by discussing the earlier peoples of the Southwest -such as the Ancestral Puebloans/Anasazi and Hohokam- and their own experience of drought and water management. He then moves on to discuss the central issues of water distribution in the modern era. Why are Arizona’s water rights junior to those of California, so that that in a crisis California will receive its allocation of water, while Arizona’s will be cut? The answers are as fascinating as they are strange.

The central theme of denial runs throughout this work. People don’t want to know the details of how they receive water, or how vulnerable Lake Meade may be. Real estate developers in particular do not want an informed community discussion of this topic. Meanwhile, pragmatic water managers are working to build a water intake drain at the very bottom of Lake Meade. While the book focuses on the American southwest, its central issue is that of climate change, which is why I am reviewing it in a course on global studies. The American southwest is a case study for the future, with applicability from Portugal to Iraq.

The U.S. southwest faces sustained warming and drying, even as more people move into the sunbelt in coming decades. The environment that these people enter will change drastically within their lifetimes. In Chapter 2 “Oracle: Global Change Type Drought,” deBuys examines the impact that climate change will have upon entire ecosystems. On page 46, deBuys has a map of Western forests that are being decimated by the spruce beetle, the mountain pine beetle, and the Piñon Ips beetle. The damage extends as far north as the Yukon. My own family lives in British Columbia, where entire swathes of the north have turned red with the needles of dying trees. De Buys describes what may lay in store for the north: …

Book Review of Nicholas Arons’ Waiting for Rain

Dry earth in the Sonoran desert, taken by Tomas Casteleza. Obtained from Wikipedia Commons at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drought.jpg
Dry earth in the Sonoran desert, taken by Tomas Casteleza. Obtained from Wikipedia Commons at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drought.jpg

Last fall I taught a hybrid course on Modern Brazil, in which I sought cover all of Brazil’s major regions. I assigned Nicholas Arons’ Waiting for Rain: the Politics and Poetry of Drought in Northeast Brazil, because of it examines many facets of life in this vast region. While the focus of the book is drought, Arons uses this theme to talk about all aspects of northeastern society, because he believes that drought is not only a natural phenomenon. If societies can be made either vulnerable or resilient to natural catastrophes, then a study of drought entails a rich description of society. The inequality of landholding, self-serving elites, and indifferent government, have all exacerbated the impact of drought in the region. The review that follows is shaped by not only my reading, but also the thoughts of my students.

Many students liked the fact that Arons described his own experiences during fieldwork, which were sometimes reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s prose. During the class discussion their was some concern about how these passages should be read. Could these events really have happened as he described them, or was this a stylized, gonzo journalism rendering of his experience? Most students agreed, however, that the levity of these stories lightened the tone of what would otherwise have been a bleak work. The absurdity of his personal stories also mirrored the ludicrousness of government efforts to fight the drought, which led to such outrages as water containment facilities for wealthy ranchers, and rain seeding experiments in northeastern skies. His stories also evoked a sense of compassion for the ordinary people living in the region. …

Climate Change and War: the origins of the Syrian Conflict

Climatologists and social scientists have been debating whether a severe drought in the MIddle East may have led to the outbreak of war in that country for at least two years. I discussed this topic in a blog post published in 2013. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is now receiving a lot of attention for its detailed study of the question. So far, the best coverage that I have seen of the topic has been Andrew Freeman’s article, “The Seeds of War,” which combines text with photographs and graphics. I highly recommend this piece. You can also read the abstract for the original article here. Of course,  few questions are trickier than the causation of a war, which are multi-factorial. The anniversary of the outbreak of World War One last year led to a plethora of academic studies about that war’s causation. By its nature, it’s almost impossible to do counter-factual history; that is, to demonstrate what would have happened if something had not taken place. Nonetheless, the causal link in Syria between the collapse of the agricultural economy, the explosive growth of urban populations, and the breaking of social bonds, is a persuasive one. …

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