Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A drought of Biblical proportions

End Notes


The Sahara Desert was once forests and rivers and lakes, grass-filled savannahs and vast herds of animals. Then the rain ceased to fall. The landscape caught fire. People and animals died or moved to where there were real clouds that dropped real rain, and to where the rivers still flowed.

Satellite photos reveal ancient riverbeds beneath Saharan dunes along with the marks of long-dry irrigation systems. People once lived and farmed in a place that is now only sand.

It's hard to keep from thinking about the Sahara during fire season in Idaho. It's hard not to look at the mushroom-shaped fire clouds on the horizon and think that the climate has gone awry, that the forests weren't this dry 20 years ago, and that there used to be more water in the well. It's hard not to think that a small semi-desert marked by sagebrush and fir and aspen and trickling rivers is turning into a big full-on desert marked by rocks. It's hard not to look for someone to blame.

I'm blaming God. I think he has an anger problem. I think that people who used to live on the Sahara did some little thing that set him off, and he sent some frogs and locusts and a plague that took their first-borns, and then he had their enemies smite them with swords, and they still didn't get it, so he shut off their water. God's simple equation is that no water equals no life. Drought is what happens when God goes nuclear.

God is messing with minimum stream flows in the American West. He's messing with the residual moisture in conifers and sagebrush. He's messing with snowpack and irrigation and aquifer levels, and causing mortals to fight over water rights that only need a year without snow to become wholly imaginary.

So what have we done to make God so angry?

Some of you non-believers out there will point out that drought is a natural phenomenon and God probably doesn't care about one little dry and windy spot on one small planet in a universe filled with billions of galaxies, each one filled with billions of stars. Some of you trained in geology will say that the stability in the Earth's weather over the last 7,000 years is a weird anomaly, and that even thousand-year droughts in the American West occur in the geologic record.

Historians among you will note that civilization has expanded across the globe during a time of few natural disasters, so if bad things happen to people who depend on rain or the Earth not shaking or volcanoes not going off or normally harmless pathogens not suddenly going berserk, it's just business as usual and God has nothing to do with it.

Some of you will suggest that industrial civilization itself, which has allowed human population to balloon from 200 million at the time of Christ to almost seven billion now, has changed the composition of the atmosphere and as a consequence the world's deserts are slithering north.


I think it's because we're worshipping other gods. The two I have in mind are Mammon, the god of wealth, and Moloch, whose devotees sacrificed their children for their own prosperity. In their urge to become as rich as possible, our business leaders and politicians have mortgaged their grandchildren, sent their sons and daughters into the maw of war, and are in the process of stealing the few dollars that make possible the independence of their old people. Nothing—not even looking down at the sad wattled goings-on in men's room stalls—makes God madder than this sort of promiscuous worship of other gods.

The usual way of appeasing God's anger involves sackcloth and ashes as the outer signs of a total abasement before the terror and majesty of him and his creation. Total abasement is probably a good way to respond to the universe even if you don't believe in a creator, because the universe really is terrible and majestic and dwarfs by whole magnitudes anything that humans can accomplish.

If you're going to try prayer, I'd urge caution. Choose your words carefully and avoid the words my, me, mine, and stock market. Remember, God is in a touchy mood and has his hand on the tap, and at a distance all humans tend to look alike.

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