Monday, March 22, 2010

Water Wars

If you love the beauty of the desert, you’ll enjoy reading books written by Craig Childs. Childs is a natural history writer and hiker. Recently I re-read the “Secret Knowledge of Water.” Childs has always lived in the desert, and has a unique understanding. His books aren’t academic, they’re poetic. The subtitle of “Secret Knowledge” is, “There are two Easy Ways to Die in the Desert: Thirst and Drowning.” Childs discusses this paradox throughout the book. The first section of the book discusses his expeditions in the state and national parks of Arizona. He is charged with finding natural water sources for the wild sheep, verifying that they don’t need human intervention. (They don’t.) Animals have a knack for finding water in the driest places, and Childs often discovers artifacts from native peoples in the water formations that act as natural cisterns for the rainwater. These natural cisterns are called tanks or tinajas. Tinajas are most often cone shaped, and can hold gallons of water in the driest places. Immigrants and hikers often perish in these unforgiving lands, but older peoples knew of the existence of these tinajas. The human artifacts are indecipherable, but clearly the same spots have been used for centuries. Childs describes the difference between a spring and a drip: to be labeled a spring, a source must produce a litre of water per minute. Drips, more common than springs in the desert, produce far less, and are sometimes just a trickle. Desperate hikers look for water in desert valleys, but it isn’t there. To find water, you have to look in the mountains, where water can often be found.

Just as dangerous as lack of water, too much water can kill. Flash floods claim as many lives as dehydration. Sudden summer thunder storm, incorrectly called monsoons, drown hikers in arroyos. These sudden storms are called “chubascos.” They account for much of the desert’s annual rainfall, and target certain spots unpredictably. Again, native peoples have a healthy respect and fear of water; Tohono O’odham Indians sing a lullaby which advises children “Do not drink too much water.” If you see dark clouds in the desert, again, your best and safest bet is to seek elevation. Rainwater can collect fast and furiously in arroyos and ditches, and often hikers are drowned in a matter of seconds.

California, like the rest of the Southwest, is in the middle of a ten year drought. In the early 1990’s, San Diego politicians and leaders called for mandatory water conservation. Many of us remember the days of “if it’s yellow it’s mellow….” You know the rest. Unwisely, this rationing was lifted when there was a very wet El nino winter. The bottom line is, San Diego is in the desert. This isn’t the Midwest. There isn’t enough water, period. San Diego, especially, is at the tail end of water pipelines. We are experiencing extreme rate hikes for water use, but there has been no wise plan proposed by city leaders. That’s short sighted. Phoenix and Las Vegas have water rationing, and residents no longer plant grass lawns there. Ironically, both Phoenix and Las Vegas have access to more water than San Diego, yet no one will have the leadership here to outlaw grass lawns.

If you want to know why government doesn’t work, try living in a condo homeowner’s association. My building is the very last one in the neighborhood to have a grass lawn. When last year’s board proposed desert landscaping, xeriscaping, we had a little contingency of Midwesterners throw a tantrum. Most Midwesterners are good, sensible, people. I’m from the Midwest. But we have a certain sociopath here from Kansas City who got himself elected HOA board president, on the issue of keeping the grass. Strangely, all the lawn happens to be in front of said new president’s unit. The rest of us don’t have access to it, but we are all paying higher dues so his grass can remain nice and green.

Future historians will debate the wisdom of irrigation in California. We are a breadbasket for the country, and our fruits and vegetables are delicious. Nonetheless, the irrigation needed for agriculture in the state is not sustainable. Still there are places like San Diego that allow large grass lawns, while farmers are closing their farms due to lack of water. Water rationing is coming, and politicians will have their hands full of people like the HOA board president here. I would like to have water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing clothes. There probably is not enough water long term for those necessary activities, as climate change contributes to the drought.

In the past, wars were fought for salt. Salt, necessary for life, and a preservative for food before refrigeration, was considered sacred. The words “salvation” and “save” come from the Latin “sal” for salt, and the importance of salt can be found in words like salary, salad, sausage, sauce. Today, salt is easily mined, and wars are fought for oil. Scientists and theoreticians foresee a time when wars will be fought for water. In some places, that is already happening. The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has repercussions for densely populated India and China right now. Our time is coming. It may be too late for California now.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Age of Unreason

Susan Jacoby’s “Age of American Unreason,” and Charles Pierce’s “Idiot America” ask fundamental questions about our country, and the disastrous course the nation is on. Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas” was one of the first books to analyze the power of the right wing in America. Frank notes that Republicans successfully used the wedge issue of abortion to inflame otherwise normal people, and make them work against their own economic interest. Pierce traces the history of American “cranks,” and the book’s subtitle says it all: “How stupidity became a virtue in the land of the free.”

Jacoby takes a sweeping historical perspective. She notes that though this country was founded by Enlightenment intellectuals, today “intellectual” is a dirty word. She observes that right wing intellectuals, those neo-liberals or neocons working in think tanks like Cato, Heritage, or AEI, paint themselves as average people. Neocon intellectuals hide in their right wing ivory towers, and label the left “elite” intellectuals. They use the word ‘intellectual” interchangeably with “liberal,” another demonized term. How is that George Bush, a child of privilege and wealth, who went to Ivy League schools, posed as an ordinary Joe people wanted to have a beer with? It’s unbelievable.

Jacoby faults the American system of education with the proud stupidity of its people. When the framers were creating our government, they ceded public education to local, state control. European countries have national education standards, and no European country scores as poorly in math, science, or history as America does. Americans balk at the notion of national standards, but nationalized education should be considered. Students in economically underprivileged neighborhoods don’t do well on standardized tests; usually their school budgets are limited. Local control hasn’t served the country well. With national standards and funding, students in economically challenged areas could do as well as their middle-class counterparts. This is easier said than done. Local control is the sacred cow of the right. Religious fundamentalists have chosen local school boards as the launch pad for their political careers.

Frank, Pierce and Jacoby all fault American religion for instilling ignorance in its adherents. America is the most religious of all the developed countries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; but considering the harm that fundamentalism has done to our politics, it must be examined. Social issues like abortion and homosexuality brought disparate groups together: right wing Catholics joined forces with Protestant fundamentalists and Mormons. It is shocking that a majority of Americans believe creationism should be taught in school, and that so many profess belief in the literal truth of selected Bible verses. Those who claim to believe all of the Bible literally don’t: none are advocating stoning of adulterers or disobedient children. Literal interpretation only covers creation and condemnation of homosexuals. It doesn’t apply to divorce, which Jesus strongly condemns.

Religious extremism has not served the country well. A better education in civics might help the majority understand that we are not a Christian nation, that the founders wanted a wall between church and state. Currently, six of the nine supreme courts justices are Roman Catholic: five of the justices adhere to an extreme form of the faith. While Americans are religious, the majority of citizens are not ardent Catholics. The court should reflect national consensus: this court does not. Americans must have the courage to challenge religious extremism in all forms. We are quick to label Muslims terrorists: we must apply the same standard to our own fundamentalists. American fundamentalism can condone, even encourage violence. Consider McVeigh or Dr. Tiller’s murderer.

Spirituality is personal and individual. Those who have been accosted by proselytizers know how hurtful the experience can be. Evangelizers believe they are following Jesus’ commission to “make believers of all nations.” Attempts to change others’ beliefs must be discarded in today’s world. Missionaries no doubt believe they are doing the right thing, and are surprised to find their efforts appear arrogant and supercilious. Better secular education might discourage parochialism, as would emphasis on foreign language and travel. Jimmy Carter established the “Friendship Force,” a low-cost form of travel and exchange that encouraged Americans to visit other countries. It is too bad the program did not continue after his presidency.

Jacoby, Pierce and Frank don’t give reasons for optimism. They have done the first step, though, identifying the problem and its causes. A majority of Americans still believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. It is not just intellectuals who sense that something has gone wrong. After eight disastrous years of the Bush administration, it is hard to hope that a new president can turn things around. It cannot be done quickly. Some, notably Noam Chomsky, believe that the country’s misdirection is nothing new. Our bloated military budget, and the entrenched power of weapons manufacturers (so-called “defense” contractors) are discouraging. If change is to occur, real, lasting change, we must all work hard. This includes discussion of our educational system, and how to temper the political advances of religious extremists.