By Ari Phillips
William deBuys is the author of seven books, including most recently “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest,” for which I wrote a Dot Earth book review last month.
As part of my summer reporting project on energy and climate change in the Southwest, I had the pleasure of driving deep into the heart of the Santa Fe National Forest and interviewing deBuys at his home about an hour and a half from Santa Fe.
We discussed how he ended up in a far-removed mountain hamlet in New Mexico, what drove him to write his most recent book, and what the biggest takeaways from the project were, among other things.
When did climate change become a focus of your work?
I remember being in a conference in January 2006 in Albuquerque and climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck was giving a talk. He put a slide on the screen about predicted stream flow for the world. I realized this land that I love, the Southwest, is going to be transformed.
I always had this sort of abstract appreciation that it’s going to be hotter and that the climate is shifting and so forth. But seeing that map as a graphic drove it home. Something very very big was afoot. Something truly transformative. And in a sense it was sitting there looking at that map that planted the seed that later grew into “A Great Aridness.”
How did the book develop? How did you choose topics?
I had planned for a while back to write an environmental history of the Southwest. In my grant proposals I said I would write a general environmental history of the Southwest and use the perspective of climate change to organize it. I was fortunate enough to get a Guggenheim Fellowship and as soon as I began working on the book I realized I needed to flip it around – I needed to write about climate change in the Southwest and use the perspective of environmental history to try and understand it.
Were you surprised by your findings relating to ancient cultures and drought?
I’d been aware for some time of megadrought and the impact of drought on Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde culture. A primary thing I took away from the research was that drought isn’t the only big factor. One of main themes of the book is that nothing happens for just one reason. The collapse of the Sand Canyon culture was as much a result of warfare and strife as it was of drought. Warfare over resources, driven in part by refugees flooding the area probably as other regions suffered from climatic shifts.
Climate was a big driver but not the only driver. We’re not just puppets of climate; the things we do to ourselves count a lot too.
You say energy is the most unreported story in the looming water crisis of the Southwest.
Almost all the ways we have of producing electricity require a lot of water, with photovoltaic and wind being exceptions for the most part. Coal-fired thermal production is very water intensive, nuclear is very water intensive. At same time dealing with our water resources is very energy intensive. Well over a fifth of all electricity in United States is used for moving water around.
Anytime we start talking about meeting new energy needs in the Southwest that ups ante in terms of water availability. And anytime we talk about increasing water availability that increases the amount of energy we need to get water from where it is now to anywhere in the Southwest. The water resources we live next to are already being used to their fullest extent. So any increase in water resources has got to come from somewhere else, and that means a whole lot of electrical juice.
The feedbacks reinforce each other. The more water you need the more electricity you need the more water you need etc. It’s not a sustainable relationship. We’ve got to break that circle at some point with renewables and new ways of water budgeting.
I think in the end somehow we’re going to have to level off and maybe even shrink population in the region. As Edward abbey pointed out, continuous growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. How can we add four million people to the Tucson-Phoenix corridor? How can we add more people to Santa Fe and Albuquerque forever and ever and ever? There’s got to be a place that we stop. Read more