Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Should I Move to the Southwest, Even Though There’s a Drought?

There’s a right and a wrong way to live in the desert, says Outside’s ethics guru


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Dear Sundog: I love the desert. From my own muggy home, I try to make it to the Southwest every year: Tucson, Santa Fe, Joshua Tree, St. George. I’m considering moving there. But is it wrong to move to a place that doesn’t seem to have enough water to support the people already living there? —Dry Curious

Dear Dry: First we must consider that all desert towns are not equal. Many have managed to restrict their water use and growth to some semblance of balance with nature, while others—Phoenix and Las Vegas—continue to expand, even as their current water supply dries up.

While of course water delivery to millions of people is complicated, in this region, the ecological culprit is obvious: grass.

Sundog loves to run his toes through verdant lawn as much as the next guy. But the modern American lawn—the half-acre of Kentucky bluegrass sprinkled daily, mowed weekly, petro-fertilized seasonally—has no place in the desert, even as it’s become emblematic of a sort of golfy affluence in Sedona and St. George. The EPA says that in the Southwest, 60 percent of household water use irrigates the outdoors. Put another way, for every four gallons used for cooking, washing, and bathing, another six go for preparing the croquet course. Yet another way: a year’s water supply with a lawn would—without a lawn—last two and a half years.

Lawns are a European import, brought to the arid American desert first by settlers from places like the Scottish Highlands and southern Germany, where grass just naturally occurs, and second by the wave of 20th-century snowbirds from places like Virginia and Michigan where, also, grass just grows. Why must the white man turn Scottsdale into Scotland, even as it quickens the decline of his desert colony?

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond relates a story about the first Europeans to occupy North America: the Vikings, who settled what is now Greenland, four centuries before Columbus arrived on the continent. They planted their European crops and brought cows, which didn’t fare well in the new terrain. In the harsh winters, food was scarce. The settlers observed the Inuit hunting seals and then heating their homes by burning blubber, eating the meat—surviving. But the Norse considered this slimy meat beneath their dignity and considered the Inuit to be wretches. They refused to consume it. As a result, they starved and fled back across the sea, ending their four-century stay in the Americas.

Mightn’t we say the same, Dry Curious, about the maladaptive desert grass farmers? They see the water bills. They witness the ongoing drought. They know that the artificial lifelines from Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have existed for just a geological blink of an eye, are filling with silt and approaching dead pool. And still they sprinkle.

Even as the vast majority of these settlers were born right here in the USA, Sundog speculates that their attachment to turf is some sort of emotional inheritance from the Motherland of moors and meadows. Their colonies here are predicated on the notion that their forefathers discovered an unpeopled dry wilderness, which they irrigated into their own slice of Eden.

But it’s not true. Indigenous people built complex, irrigated, agricultural civilizations along the Salt River and the Rio Grande and the Colorado River that sustained them thousands of years longer than our current one. If you visit a reservation or a town settled by the Spanish before the Anglos arrived—think Santa Fe or Old Town Albuquerque or Barrio Viejo in Tucson—you won’t find many lawns. You’ll see cactus and piñons and junipers and native shrubs and rock work and sometimes just plain dirt: a kind of xeriscaping that predates the word xeriscaping.

Long before the advent of gringo water projects, these places were habitable due to natural factors: Santa Fe had a cool high elevation and a snow-fed river, Tucson had the lush summer monsoons and the perennial Santa Cruz River, Albuquerque had fertile soil along the Rio Grande. To be sure, Native people don’t dislike greenery; most of the green parts of the desert were taken from them, along with the water rights. And I should also clarify that modern Americans of all skin tones love themselves a moist lawn: it’s not just a white thing. The point is that the people who have inhabited the desert for centuries are still inhabiting it, and showing others how it can be done.

But for today’s turf warriors to acknowledge all of that would be to question the short-sighted premise of the American petro-state, an experiment that has lasted less than a century. And so instead of ripping up that sod and planting it with native shrubs and grasses, they clench that garden hose more tightly with their sunburned fists.

To continue the Collapse analogy: Anglos can see Natives eating the fish (conserving water) and have the capacity to eat fish themselves (to stop watering lawns), but they would rather go extinct than give up their lush leas that they once saw Mel Gibson charge across in Braveheart. 

The next factor to consider in moving to the desert is your capacity for being hot. Along with cheap water, the modern Southwest was built with cheap electricity to run air conditioners. And it’s only getting hotter. A study from ProPublica reports that six counties in Arizona—including Maricopa, home to 4.5 million people in and around Phoenix—are in danger of becoming uninhabitable in the next 30 years as the planet warms. Does that mean that people will flee? Of course not. They will just use more oil and electricity to cool their homes and cars. Let’s face it: there wasn’t some recent past where Phoenix was a sustainable oasis. Its century-long boom has been dependent on electricity produced by burning coal on Navajo land and a major nuclear power plant, as well as cheap gasoline for driving five miles to get a cup of coffee.

Sundog dreams of a future where all desert dwellers inhabit homes with foot-thick walls made of natural materials like straw bales and adobe, where they run swamp coolers from solar panels on the roof, and capture rainwater in barrels and irrigate native plants with drip lines. While that future has arrived here and there, the vast majority of desert homes are poorly insulated mash-ups of drywall and fiberglass and pine sticks that dump precious water onto a square of sod and burn hot coal to blow cold air at the eternal sun. Warming the planet in order to chill our homes is madness.

In general, yes, it’s ethical to move to the desert, provided that you’re not intent on growing a green lawn and that you can hack the 100-degree summers without cooling your home to 72. Remember that you’ll be moving to Indian Country; be an ally to tribes defending their land and water and sovereignty. Avoid Phoenix and Las Vegas and St. George, which have placed themselves on a one-way path to drought catastrophe. In the desert, small is beautiful, and there are still plenty of shaded creeks flowing through the canyons, providing life for small bands of humans, where you can build the future as you want it. Sundog won’t tell you where they are, but if you look hard enough you might yet find one.

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