As the wild and unpredictable effects of climate change accelerate, it’s clear that a culture that prioritizes human activity over environmental care can’t persist much longer. In particular, water is becoming a scarcer resource, and the current system, in which farmers and ranchers are forced to stretch desiccated land and livestock past their breaking point while vital supplies are devoted to food processing and transport, simply isn’t sustainable. This problem has been exacerbated by unrealistic expectations that land can be returned to its former verdant, bountiful state and the effects of human action on the environment somehow reversed.
Gary Paul Nabhan wrote about the moment of clarity he experienced after many years coping with unprecedented dry conditions in the southwestern U.S. “I could not escape climate change, no matter where I moved,” he writes in his new book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. In this thoughtful and purposeful work, the noted ethnobotanist, permaculture expert and cofounder of Native Seeds/SEARCH advocates the necessity of “planning for uncertainty.” While acknowledging that the severe effects of climate change have sent many farmlands on the path to becoming deserts, he stresses the fact that sustainable farming is at once a location-dependent and community-variable issue that resists any sort of one-size-fits-all solution or singular approach.
Nabhan turns his attention to pragmatic solutions, drawing on traditional water conservation practices to show how farming efforts can succeed in different desert environments. In one illustrative example, he shares the story of a Mexican farmer who used a technique in which porous clay pots, called ollas, are buried in the ground. These pots fill up with water, which then seeps into the soil and the plant’s roots. The ollas don’t lose water to runoff or evaporation, which maximizes their effectiveness in dry climates. The farmer was able to live off of the watermelons he grew using the technique.
Using a tone both weighty and practical, Nabhan is able to effectively illustrate the challenges of farming in regions where water supply is limited and unreliable. He draws upon oral histories and indigenous farming techniques to convey how farmers have been able to cope with less than ideal environments throughout human history. However, he frames these insights within an overarching call to action that addresses not only farmers but everyone who values food.
“We must not attempt to imitate, but instead emulate what traditional desert peoples have learned about living with climatic uncertainty,” he writes. “Take inspiration, not recipes.”
Purchase a copy of Nabhan’s book here.