January 30, 2022
Lucas Bessire suffers from what Elizabeth Hardwick has called the stain of place. He tried running away from home to become an anthropologist, but after four years in Paraguay he sidled back to southwestern Kansas. There, he began ethnographic field work on his own family. The result is “Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains,” a short beauty of a book that became a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction last year.
“Running Out” joins a growing list of what might be called eco-memoirs, in which habitat destruction is taken personally. Bessire is haunted by the looming depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water supply that meanders through several Western states and supports about a sixth of the world’s grain production.
Alongside damaging policy, he takes on his family’s part in the damage. To sustain his cattle business, Bessire’s great-grandfather unapologetically dug wells that drained a local river. Bessire also confronts his estrangement from his father, with whom he fashions a wary détente. When Bessire returns home, in 2016, drought has hastened pumping for irrigation. While climate change plays a role, he names intensive agricultural practices and population growth as the chief culprits.
Once the aquifer is dry, where will the local farmers turn for water? The question links the American high plains to what Bessire perceives as a global crisis. Aquifers in China, India, and Australia are also being drained.
State laws allowing Kansas farmers to keep pumping have unleashed a literal race to the bottom. Many, like Bessire’s father, have simply drilled deeper. Perverse incentives lurking within federal aid encourage irrigation, compounding the insanity.
Bessire’s encounters with the Groundwater Management District Southwest, which governs his family’s property, leave him perplexed. Formed in the 1970s to encourage conservation, the regional management district appears to be charging in the other direction, ignoring strategies that could slow mounting losses.
At official meetings, Bessire hears the kind of baffling double-speak known to local reporters everywhere. The higher the stakes, the more nonsensical the words.
Taking depletion as a metaphor, Bessire digs for layers of meaning. More extensive than the aquifer itself might be the deep vein of complicity he uncovers. Years of exploitation in the region included the slaughter of game species and native people. Early farming methods worsened the Dust Bowl.
The more Bessire probes, the more he collides with incoherent but ingrained attitudes about economic growth. Some of the biggest water hogs turn out to be corporations that rent land to the locals. Criticism of overuse is decried as smearing family farmers. The few who try to embrace sustainable practices are shunned.
In “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” journalist Dan Egan tells a not dissimilar story of human blunders threatening vital water resources. The Great Lakes are the world’s largest freshwater system, making up 20 percent of the surface supply available for human use. Yet since the 1800s, human meddling has exposed the lakes to multiple forms of destruction.
Egan’s chronicle ranges from ill-conceived plans for welcoming oceangoing freighters inland to well-intentioned interference with native fish species. Invasive mussels and Asian carp are only the latest challenges as nature repeatedly manages to outfox humanity.
By the late 1990s, climate change threatened the lakes with a slow-moving coup de grace, as it drove water levels to record lows. Then, two years of polar vortex blasts lifted them with a vengeance, unleashing flooding and toxic algae blooms.
Like Lucas Bessire, Mario Alejandro Ariza laments the disaster rolling toward a place he loves. But Miami, his adopted home, suffers from too much water rather than too little. Rising sea levels linked to climate change are expected to put most of the city underwater by the end of this century.
Ariza’s “Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe” depicts a leadership class as willfully oblivious as the men of Bessire’s groundwater management board. One prominent developer, accepting that doom is at hand, tells a shocked Ariza he hopes for five or six more good business cycles before the end.
In “Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape,” Cal Flyn ponders how little we still know about how nature will behave. Visiting a dozen wastelands across the globe, she finds hope. Wildlife abounds where the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred; plants grow in abandoned slag heaps outside Edinburgh; coral and fish thrive in the crater left by atomic bomb testing in the Bikini Atoll.
Unnervingly, the saving constant seems to be human absence.
Flyn understands the dangerous fatalism her discoveries could inspire. Plenty of people shrug off climate change as something to be endured rather than addressed. Yet the threat of depleted resources, most fundamentally water, argues for broader awareness and smarter responses. If nature has much to forgive, these books add to the record of why.