Struggle for survival

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It's the water-dependent modern world that needs saving, not Botswana's besieged Kalahari Bushmen.

Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought

Walker & Company: 2009. 336pp. $26.00

Climate scientists know very well that hints of the future may lie in the past, or in what we can glean of it from ice bubbles, tree rings and other proxy evidence. 'Fossilized lifestyles' — such as the ways of Botswana's Kalahari Bushmen — hold similar insights for modern civilization. Living virtually without property or literacy, their communities survive in the Earth's most severe human environment, a place that climate change isn't expected to be kind to. What's more, Botswana has tried now for years to evict the Bushmen from their ancestral home. Having witnessed this searing conflict, James Workman documents it with passion and experience in Heart of Dryness.

A former aide to the US interior secretary under President Clinton, Workman is a water-conservation expert who consults in nations threatened with drought. He's also a journalist who once filed regular reports on Botswana's siege of Bushman lands, an undertaking that earned him a position on the government's blacklist.

In Heart of Dryness, Workman crafts the story of the Bushmen's struggle — environmental as well as political — into dramatic narrative non-fiction. Full of conflict, this is a story with implications for how people far from the Kalahari may choose to live decades hence, when water is in increasingly short supply.

One clear message is that modern society could learn much from observing the Bushmen, whose lives and culture are optimized for conserving water. The community venerates elders in part for their knowledge of the environment: it's good to have people around who can remember how everyone survived the previous drought. In the absence of rivers to sip from, Bushmen gather tsama melons, natural canteens that ripen in dry winter months. Hunters prize eland, swift and nimble ox-size beasts whose meat provides protein and hydration.

The English language couples enmity and water in a word, rival, related to the Latin rivalis, or someone you share water with. Rivers are a common enough territorial boundary. But really, Workman points out, water draws people together, for better or for worse. If you want to separate people, put a desert between them.

Would that it were so easy. Despite their seeming isolation, the Bushmen have always had relationships with the outside world. Pumps built by the state ensured that the most arid regions never became too dry. This arrangement lasted until 2002, when Botswana, frequently heralded in the West as a success story, destroyed the pumps and cut off the desert dwellers' water in a campaign to force them out of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

The country's reasons for doing so, which included pressure from two industries beloved by developed nations — diamonds and ecotourism — were publicly picked over for the next few years. The Bushmen brought a suit against the government, arguing against evictions and for a human right to water, a topic in democratic political philosophy that dates back at least to the Magna Carta. The CKGR holdouts stayed. In a founding insight of the book, Workman realizes, while stranded during a poorly conceived stealth water delivery, that the Bushmen don't really need saving: he does, and by extension, so does modernity.

The Bushmen's story is rich with dramatic elements. Few fiction writers could get away with offering the metaphors that Workman creates from his first-hand observations: Water. Desert. Beasts. Guns. Courtroom drama. In parts, Workman's prose further elevates a powerful sequence of events, and at one point — the close of Chapter 22 — he achieves gold-medal writing in an artful cascade of clauses that aspire to the famous last paragraph of James Joyce's short story “The Dead”.

Workman has a lot of material to cover and synthesize into one tale: the Bushmen and how they live, Botswana and why its democracy falters (hint: water), the foreign influences, the activists, the attorneys, the desert, and why Westerners should take notice. As a consequence the book runs at two speeds, and while the seams are smooth, they're still there. Several early chapters are filled with insightful anthropology, vivid anecdotes and factoids worth jotting down. But their expository nature slows down the narrative propulsion, which resumes as temperatures rise.

The service Workman ultimately performs is to humanize climate change and integrate it with history, human rights, trade and international law. In fact, Heart of Dryness succeeds as a 'climate book' in part because it needn't be read as a climate book. 'Climate' is a category paramount mostly to rich Western nations that can afford science. But going forward, climate change may have less to do with nations cutting carbon and more to do with people cutting water. As with zebras or elephants, when people don't have enough water, all bets are off.

Many authors place in endnotes material they can neither part with nor fit in the book. Workman employs these to graft in discourses on everything from rubber bullets to how to pronounce four phonetic 'clicks' and their typographical symbols. He drops this line into a note to his prescriptive epilogue: “If necessity is the mother of invention, Bushmen have shown us that the real invention lies in social innovation.”

And there's the rub. Electric cars, solar power, and carbon capture and storage are technologies heralded as part of our solution set. But to paraphrase American gunmakers, coal doesn't burn the planet; people do. Workman lays out the “seven habits of highly successful foragers”. Number 7 is “Subordinate taste to survival.” If more people could do that alone, our lifestyle might look less and less like a twentieth-century fossil.

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Roston, E. Struggle for survival. Nature Clim Change 1, 93–94 (2009) doi:10.1038/climate.2009.74

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