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A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest by William deBuys

by Doug Pushard

William deBuys’ A Great Aridness examines the history of drought in the American Southwest while offering a primer on the potential consequences of climate change in the future. The book explores historic droughts and their impact on long-gone civilizations, tells the stories the great rivers of the area, and examines the likely outcome of current and future drought on the major metropolitan areas in the Southwest.

DeBuys also explores the likely repercussions of drought on animals and plants, and draws effective correlations between the animal and human experience. For example, he compares the plight of mankind to that of the red squirrel whose habitat on Mount Graham in Southern Arizona is dwindling due to temperature changes and fires. The differences between mankind’s future and that of the red squirrel “may be more in scale than kind,” writes deBuys, as both live on islands that are their only home.

DeBuys covers important historic material including the beginning of the US Forest Service during the Roosevelt presidency. Roosevelt designated more than one hundred million acres of national forest, and the agency employed more than 1,500 men by the end of his presidency.

Later, Roosevelt’s adversaries in Congress and his successor tried to starve the agency for funds, but a major fire changed all that. The winter of 1909 – 1910 was a good snow year, but a very dry spring. “The snows melted early, creeks withered and stilled, the forest leathered and baked,” wrote deBuys. A perfect storm. The fires engulfed whole communities, thousands fled, hundreds died, and every able person in the region was put to work on the fire lines. In the end, more than three million acres burned. This horrible national tragedy enshrined the need for a permanent and funded national Forest Service that actively managed forests. It also helped create the agency’s long-standing aversion to prescribed burns.

While A Great Aridness brings an important historical perspective to the discussion of climate change in the Southwest, it also examines several potential strategies to mitigate the progression of climate change going forward. DeBuys stresses that these strategies sound simple but will be difficult to implement as they will require a great deal of coordination between multiple state and federal agencies, across many administrations, and on a scale that we have not previously been able to accomplish. Long-term agreements will have to be hammered out and honored across many administrations, and funding must be secure as short-term difficulties arise.

As deBuys so eloquently argues, climate change is an enormous, long-term problem that will require long-term structural changes, not in the timescale of decades, but of centuries. A Great Aridness is a great read for those interested in how the history of drought in the American Southwest can inform our current understanding of climate change and shape our response in the future.

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