Thursday, October 9, 2014

Questions of survival

Flying over an almost bare Mt. Shasta, with several 
wildfires burning up and down the western coast, in August. 
Photo by me.
Okay, so this drought in California has been going on for a while now, and many of us are starting to anticipate the beginning of our rainy season, which is normally somewhere around November through the end of March, with equal parts hope and dread, and that anxiety seems to be coming out in strange ways. Earlier this week, I woke up to this headline: "In virtual mega-drought, California avoids defeat." All of my days are filled with this kind of thing, like "It takes HOW much water to grow an avocado?!" or greek yogurt or other food of your choice, but I still felt a little cognitively challenged in even understanding the idea of a "virtual mega-drought" or what it might mean for California to "avoid defeat."

It's worth reading the article and coming to your own conclusions, but in a nutshell, some researchers modeled another 70 years of drought here in the Golden State and while "traumatic changes would occur," "urban water rates would climb," and "some farm communities turn to ghost towns" with poor people getting poorer until they were forced to up and move, the overall assessment was that California would essentially be fine. But, here's the rub: the experts interviewed here were mostly engineers and economists. This led me to spend the week wondering what would happen if you were to ask a whole other set of people about this question of California "surviving." 

Some ideas: a psychologist might focus more on questions beyond survival, with insights into emotional and affective impacts of drought and ideas of thriving, resilience, or well-being, which would entirely reframe the discussion. A biologist might talk about what it means to have "struggling salmon runs fading out of existence" and the impacts of rivers and reservoirs filled to only "half the historical average" on entire wildlife communities, not to mention recreation and the livelihoods of many small communities that depend on campers, rafters, and fishing. A cultural geographer might see that some farming communities turning to ghost towns is, um, probably not ideal. Someone with a focus on environmental justice might question the idea that some people and communities are seen as being more or less disposable. A farmer might talk about the impact of losing half of the state's irrigated agriculture and the ramifications it would have for, say, the whole Central Valley in terms of people and communities, and maybe not so much the state's overall economy (this really beautiful article with gorgeous photos is a good place to start). And don't even get me started on wildfire (talk about economic losses!). This list could get much longer, but you get the idea.

Today, an opinion piece reflecting on this article ran, with the author ending the piece saying that he'd almost wished the "scientists had lied about what they discovered," fearing the results would lead to further complacency around the drought. This is, to say the least, a solid concern. What I really wish for is a more robust sense of the impacts of the drought, beyond economics and bottom-lines, and much further into the many other ways that we understand the role of nature and natural disasters in human lives. 

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