A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest by William deBuys
“The central issue of the region…is formed by the tension between ‘the aridity that breeds sparseness and the denial of that condition, which leads to overdevelopment.'” (p. 310) If there is a single concern at the core of this wonderful book, the above passage probably states it most succinctly, though to reduce such a complex work to one statement seems almost a disservice. A Great Aridness is, perhaps, the best book I’ve read on climate change because it is so varied—it is a text that deftly balances extensive erudition, compelling writing, and a deep knowledge and passion for the American Southwest.
I spent a couple of months working through this book, in part because the information presented here is vast and convincing. DeBuys realizes that, even when examining climate change from the vantage point of a single region, the issues at hand are complex and multifaceted. Each chapter examines how we arrived at the region’s present state from a variety of angles—ancient history, culture, border conflicts, politics, fires, endangered species, and, of course, drought and water management—in hopes of glimpsing what the future may hold. The topics tackled, and amount of evidence put forth, in each chapter could justify an entire book, and, yet, deBuys presents all of this information in lyrical and potent prose that moves the reader along at an often dizzying clip. In other words, A Great Aridness at once reads like an encyclopedia of climate change issues in the Southwest as well as a cultural, environmental, political, and historical gloss on the region.
What draws me most to deBuys’s writing, in this book and in others, is his deep commitment to the power of place. For all of the impressive research and convincing facts here, it’s deBuys’s passion for, and knowledge of, the land itself—this strange and wonderful region that can exert such a permanent and personal hold—that drives home the urgent need for us to act now if we are to adapt in a meaningful way to the challenges posed by climate change. In the second half of the book, there is a moving chapter about the havoc wreaked upon the tribes of Western Apaches in Arizona by the Rodeo-Chediski fire. The damage to the land was extensive and costly, ruining the livelihoods of many in the region. However, deBuys reminds us that, for people such as the White Mountain Apaches, the damage wasn’t simply financial or environmental. Recounting the spiritual importance of place to the Apaches, he writes:
“…wisdom was deemed to ‘sit’ in places, and the knowledgeable individual, whether seeking insight, guidance, or reassurance, might go to a place and ‘drink’ from that wisdom and be helped…The right place, at the right time, could be a powerful ally. But then came Rodeo-Chediski. The fire blazed across the places where wisdom sat…The fire seemed to be an indictment of how people were living their lives, and it left them wondering where they might now turn for guidance.” (p. 266)
Whether or not one draws an overtly spiritual fulfillment from place, deBuys feels that we all have an obligation to the land, one that is of moral concern. I wholly agree. He reminds us that:
“There will be a lot to carry on with in the aftermath of the fires of the future. Reconstruction of homes and restoration of watershed stability will top the list of priorities. Right next to them, re-moralization of the landscape will deserve its own place, as people struggle…to find meaning in the events that changed the land…These ecological communities will develop in a new climatic environment, and we will be fortunate indeed if we discern that any kind of wisdom resides in them.” (p. 267)
Returning to the larger issue of climate change, A Great Aridness continually reminds us that there aren’t any easy answers. Yet, this isn’t merely another doom and gloom treatise. DeBuys’s text is a labor of love in the face of great odds—a very personal book about the place he has long called home. His passion for, and faith in, the region is most clearly evidenced in his belief that the very diversity and tenacity that makes the Southwest such a unique and compelling place is what will ultimately be drawn upon to save it. This text is essential reading for anyone who lives in, cares about, and or is fascinated by the American Southwest and the environment.