The vast Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest lies in the political territories of California and Arizona and reaches south into Mexico. Its arid landscape is home to human industry and a complex ecosystem full of unique flora and fauna, mesas, canyons, arched rocks and other processes of deep time. It is thus governed by two competing forces: Political governance and natural boundaries.
In the Sonora, just outside of Coachella, California new development plans call for building tens of thousands of new homes on the landscape, converting wilderness to neighborhoods and town squares.
Media reports coming out of the southwest the past few months, however, note the great drought and water crisis gripping the region. Residents wonder where the water for even more sprawl will come from. NASA satellite mapping the region reveals incredible reductions in groundwater across the landscape. The trend is resource depletion, and we are warned it will only get worse.
But, the water shortage is not the crisis gripping the Southwest.
There is water everywhere in desert. Water flows in braided streams and deep channels such as the great Colorado. Water carves out canyons and gorges against quartz rich sandstone, occupies porous rock and nurtures incredible desert plants such as the flowering cacti. As desert enthusiast Edward Abbey writes in his book Desert Solitaire: “Water, water, water … There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount … There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”
What is imperiling the desert is human domination of the landscape.
Planning, zoning and development ultimately seek economic growth. There are of course guidelines and restrictions, town hall meetings and financial statements, but at the end of the day centralized economic regimes will develop a landscape if there’s a profit to be made.
Landscapes have been divided, not based on the sciences of resource management, geology or ecology, but rather to serve political and economic ambitions. States draw fictional lines in the sand for the sole purpose of claiming landscapes as property to enclose, develop and regulate. The political boundary is a marker of centralized economic planning — an institution that sprouts cities, municipalities, lush green golf courses and dam construction in arid lands.
It is a pity that advocates of central planning, in the name of the environment no less continually deny that high-liberalism is a failed dogma. The market mechanism, however, coupled with common governance offers a fresh take on resource management. This adaptive approach allows us to analyze landscapes in terms of watersheds, ecosystems, capacity for food production, resources available for trade, cultural heritage and resource conservation.
Such an order would ensure that vast landscapes will rarely, if ever, be occupied by our bodies.
The market mechanism, free of sweeping land use policy, would naturally cap resource extraction at its maximum sustainable yield. There would be strong economic incentive for water conservation in arid lands, as opposed to the maximum utility we see today. This respect for natural boundaries would in turn limit the amount of sprawl into the landscape. In the commons, land is not a commodity, but a connection — a place of labor and heritage.
I have long admired the desert. In these lands geologic formations readily display the story of an ancient Earth, streams intricately carve new landscapes while deep canyons and alluvial fans speak to the power of time. The desert should not be subjected to the Anthropocene, but liberated from it.