The Washington Post
A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwestby William deBuys
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With its soaring azure sky and stark landscapes, the American Southwest is one of the most hauntingly beautiful regions on earth. Yet staggering population growth, combined with the intensifying effects of climate change, is driving the oasis-based society close to the brink of a Dust-Bowl-scale catastrophe. In A Great Aridness, William deBuys paints a compelling picture of what the Southwest might look like when the heat turns up and the water runs out. This semi-arid land, vulnerable to water shortages, rising temperatures, wildfires, and a host of other environmental challenges, is poised to bear the heaviest consequences of global environmental change in the United States. Examining interrelated factors such as vanishing wildlife, forest die backs, and the over-allocation of the already stressed Colorado River--upon which nearly 30 million people depend--the author narrates the landscape's history--and future. He tells the inspiring stories of the climatologists and others who are helping untangle the complex, interlocking causes and effects of global warming. And while the fate of this region may seem at first blush to be of merely local interest, what happens in the Southwest, deBuys suggests, will provide a glimpse of what other mid-latitude arid lands worldwide--the Mediterranean Basin, southern Africa, and the Middle East--will experience in the coming years. Written with an elegance that recalls the prose of John McPhee and Wallace Stegner, A Great Aridness offers an unflinching look at the dramatic effects of climate change occurring right now in our own backyard.
The Washington Post
"DeBuys delivers thoughtful portraits of efforts to ameliorate conditions . . . readers will appreciate this intelligent account of water politics, forest ecology and urban planning in a region seriously stressed even before global warming arrived to make matters worse."
"With wide-eyed wonder and the clearest of prose, deBuys explains why we should care about these places, the people he portrays, and the conundrums over land and water he illuminates. No longer are aridity and climate change in the Southwest only of regional interest; deBuys is writing for America and we should all listen to what he has to say." Booklist (starred review)
"Drawing on the work of climatologists and other scientists, deBuys's analysis of the eco-crisis - rising temperatures, wildfires, water shortages, disappearing wildlife - is a reasoned warning to heavily populated arid regions round the world." - Nature
"A Great Aridness is his most disturbing book, a jeremiad that ought to be required reading for politicians, economists, real-estate developers and anyone thinking about migrating to the Sunbelt." American Scientist
"Non-experts who want a concrete sense of climate change's impact - and a lyrical reading experience - should turn to A Great Aridness." - Washington Post
"DeBuys's research takes place in the field, one of the real strengths of this book. In lyrical prose rich in place and politics, his stories take us from the Navajo reservation to research labs.... A Great Aridness is both fascinating and frightening." Orion
"Across the board global warming in the Southwest will challenge us morally, artistically, economically, politically, and socially. DeBuy's triumpth is to summarize, in clear and elegant prose, those challenges as they appear today." Western American Literature 49:3
"William deBuys, one of our finest environmental historians, offers a narrative that follows the trajectory of Keeling's awesome arc. ... The story deBuys tells is informative, thought provoking, and elegantly written." Western Historical QUarterly
New Mexico writer and conservationist deBuys (The Walk, 2007, etc.) offers a more-in-sadness-than-anger history of the land he loves and those who have exploited it, studied it and tried to fix it.
An immense arid area that includes a chunk of Mexico, it has usually supported farming and ranching. After 800 CE, a rich Native American culture flourished, ultimately building great cliff houses and roads before abandoning them after 1250 in the face of increasing drought. White settlers streamed in after 1800; 100 years ago, experts began warning that the area's water resources could not support its population. There followed massive dam and canal construction since the 1930s, which tapped the Colorado River, allocating water to six states and Mexico. Most readers will be unsurprised to learn that the original allocations were too generous and that dwindling flow will produce a crisis within decades. Increasing dryness has also produced the Southwest's worst forest fires in history, and increasing warmth has stimulated bark beetles, which have killed huge swaths of woodland. DeBuys delivers thoughtful portraits of efforts to ameliorate conditions, but some require controlling the region's burgeoning growth, a strategy with little political support. No Pollyanna, he admits that the list of societies willing to accept difficult medicine in order to spare their descendants worse pain is extremely short.
Although they may miss the traditional upbeat ending, readers will appreciate this intelligent account of water politics, forest ecology and urban planning in a region seriously stressed even before global warming arrived to make matters worse.
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Meet the Author
William deBuys is the author of seven books, including River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction in 1991; Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range; The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize in 2008), and Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California. An active conservationist, deBuys has helped protect more than 150,000 acres in New Mexico, Arizona, and North Carolina. He lives and writes on a small farm in northern New Mexico.
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If you have time to read only one book on the probable impact of global warming on the US in general, and the Southwest in particular, this would be a good candidate for that one book. Written much like John McPhees explorations of American geography --- DeBuys travels with scientists, naturalists, urban planners through the areas they work in --- the book looks at the potential for a coming drought in the American Southwest [caused by a return of historic cyclical periods of great drought in the region], how global warming already under way will increase the severity of the drought, , and increase the probable consequences across a variety of topics: impact on desert cities like Phoenix, on agriculture, on forests and fire seasons, and more. A very chewy read that carefully avoids generalizing beyond what the evidence we have at this point will support. If the topic interests you, this one is I think well worth a read. Includes, again much like McPhee's American geography books, looks back into history to describe how the current condition of the South West arose, which snippets are fascinating environmental history in their own right. His chapter on the fire history of the southwest and its relation to the arrival of sheep herds among the Navajos and the relationship between exterminating prairie dog communities and the shifting of grasslands to mesquite shrub lands were I thought especially interesting.
William DeBuys offers an unsettling description of the developing climate crisis in the Southwest. It's especially disturbing as those events are indicators of future crises in other regions. His book is a heartfelt study of a distressing man-made and climate-made downward spiral of this beautiful and fragile land and its inhabitants. It's a poignant plea to take adaptive conservation action in the Southwest now. A must read for those who love the Southwest, and a should read for all others.
This book looks at climate change from another perspective: i.e., water scarcity in the Southwest. Because of this focus in depth on just one aspect, it provides new details to consider. The author ties each chapter to some aspect on Southwest history which, depending upon your particular feelings, can be interesting or odd-putting.