For the dance of the future climate calls the tune

January 10, 2019

Responding to A Great Aridness: Climate and the Future of the American Southwest, by William deBuys (Oxford University Press, 2011)

 For seven years beginning in 1995, I lived in Sun City West near Phoenix and by bicycle explored much of Arizona’s Central Valley of the Sun and the canyon country north of the Mogollon Rim. In more recent years I have bicycled extensively through the “Sky Islands” east of Tucson and the border region near Sierra Vista, Bisbee, and Douglas. This desert wonderland fascinates and troubles me, which is why A Great Aridness, which I found in the Indianapolis Public Library was a book I had to read.

The jacket photo is arresting. Photos, graphs, and maps accompany the closely printed text of the book, which with notes and index, is 369 pages long. I agree with the publisher’s statement that deBuys writes “with an elegance that recalls the prose of John McPhee and Wallace Stegner [and] offers an unflinching look at the dramatic effects of climate change occurring right now in our own back yard.”

The author explains that the “book had started out, years ago, as a general environmental history of the Southwest, but environmental change intervened. The dynamics of the past never lost their fascination, but the galloping dynamics of the present overtook them, and I resolved to follow the action” (p. 317).

Each of the eleven chapters and the introduction is based on an event—a murder in 1919 at Cedar Springs in Navajo Country, a canoe trip over Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, and a drive along Highway 79 through the Sun Corridor from Tucson north to Florence Junction. The purpose of each chapter, however, is to discuss in considerable detail some aspect of the climate challenges now facing the Desert Southwest. The most frightening, especially given recent fires in California, is deBuys’ description of the Rodeo-Chediski Burn along the Mogollon Rim in 2002. He includes a persuasive explanation of the fact that our actions intended to improve an existing condition often make it more dangerous.

The author draws extensively upon his research into the history and climatic science related to the events and places that he describes. He deftly describes locations, such as the observatories on Mt. Graham and the steel beams and barbed wire fencing on the border near Apache Pass. Several chapters describe the author’s trips to these locations with people of expert knowledge, sometimes at considerable risk. Although the book bristles with information, ideas, and strongly stated opinions, it pulls readers along from beginning to end.

In coming years, deBuys writes, the Southwest will become hotter, drier, and more vulnerable. He offers three “big ideas”—no big thing happens for just one reason; the human contribution to change in the natural world more often catalyzes than dictates the outcome; and the enormity of the human capacity for adaptation (pp. 15-16).

The chapter on border crossings is especially pertinent, given current political debates in the United States. The border “is an inherently violent ‘structure’ [marking] one of the steepest sets of social and economic gradients on the planet: material wealth and a white-dominated society on one side, poverty and a brown-skinned world on the other. . .As long as they exist, there will always be a current between them, and people will move along that current, irrespective of the risks” (p. 222). deBuys describes the immense cost of building and maintaining these physical barriers, the serious environmental impacts associated with them, and persuasive evidence that they don’t work.

As climate change intensifies already serious problems, he writes, pressures along the border will intensify, raising questions similar to those debated seven and a half centuries ago at the Sand Canyon Pueblo: “do we find ways to accommodate the new waves of homeless, or do we fend them off? Lately the United States has pursued the latter strategy at exorbitant cost while distorting its legal traditions to an unprecedented degree. . . .“If the test of character for individuals is to remain true to their ideals even in times of trial, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that the same may be true for a nation” (p. 235).

In his concluding chapter, written at the Zuni Pueblo, deBuys discusses a report issued in 2008 by the London Geological Society, which suggests that we are entering a new geologic era—the Anthropocene—that is replacing the Holocene epoch that has endured since the melting of the last great ice age. In the earlier era, humans were able to alter ecosystems. What is happening now “is something new under the sun: a cumulative and determinative human effect on core planetary processes, primarily climate” (p. 306).

This book closes with sense of urgency. World civilization has to make dramatic changes if we and the world as we know it are to survive. “Taken together, the fateful combination of present inactivity, rising energy and resource consumption, and climatic vulnerability make it difficult to envision a safe landing for humankind. Still, we know where to begin if we would soften the crash” (p. 315).

Ancient societies were forced to “dance with the facts of place” and so must we, wherever we live. “Climate is not the only such fact, but it is central and implacable. It calls the tune” (p. 312).