369 pages, illustrations
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.
"This is on the short list of key books for anyone who lives in or loves the American southwest – with scientific precision and understated emotional power, it explains what your future holds. If you live elsewhere: it's a deep glimpse into one place on our fast-changing planet, and you'll be able to do many extrapolations. Remarkable work!"
– Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"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."
"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
"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."
- Kirkus Reviews (09/15/2011)
"The untenable water situation in the Southwest has been the subject of several notable titles (Cadillac Desert, 1986; Running Dry, 2010). Now deBuys takes a broad approach in a manner that affirms his standing beside John McPhee and Wallace Stegner. While he focuses on the environmental science of heat and aridity, he also acknowledges the uncertain nature of climate variability itself. As deBuys wanders from Las Vegas to Mesa Verde to the Glen Canyon Dam, he gives the past and present their due as he maps our way to a drier future. As he walks the Mexican/American border, ground zero for the immigration debate, he addresses both countries' undeniable dependence on the Colorado River. At a mountaintop observatory in Arizona, he faces head-on the complicated biopolitics concerning land that is home to an endangered squirrel, crucial to university astronomers, and held sacred by a local tribe. 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 (10/15/2011), Starred Review
""The story of the West is essentially a story about water, and its lack." Although this quote appears toward the end of this compelling account of the past, present, and likely future of the great American Southwest, it is the controlling thesis of this well-written, cogently presented, and extremely well-researched presentation. DeBuys, a conservationist, resident, and longtime published student of the Southwest, offers a most thorough review of the dependence of this region on an ever-decreasing supply of water, illustrated by, among other examples, the drying of Lake Mead and reduced water flows of the Colorado River. Riveting accounts of the great fires of recent times, such as the Rodeo-Chediski, portend their increased likelihood due to anthropogenic global warming. The hotter temperatures and consequent drought, coupled with increased forest destruction by wood-boring insects, lead to desertification. The interaction of politics, economics, and ecology are well exemplified in the development of the Mount Graham International Observatory, as well as the Central Arizona Project, which allocates and delivers water from the Colorado River to Arizona and California. The volume includes excellent maps, numerous dramatic photographs, valuable supporting notes, and a comprehensive index. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Academic and professional readers, all levels."
- E. J. Kormondy, chancellor-emeritus, University of Hawaii at Hilo, Choice (08/01/2012)
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William deBuys is the author of six 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; TheWalk (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.