A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.
IT IS DECEMBER OF 2021 AND I AM ON TOP of the world. Or close enough. The Chimney Rock National Monument in southern Colorado is a series of relatively well-preserved Ancient Puebloan structures that ride the back of a ridge that juts nakedly into the sky. The site is a spectacular series of kivas and great houses built upon a narrow spine of rock a thousand years ago or so during the years when Chaco Canyon was the center of civilization on the Colorado Plateau in the land some now call the Four Corners. Chimney Rock is one of the outlying structures from the great days of Chacoan glory, about 130 miles northeast from Chaco Canyon itself, and, at 8000 feet, is the highest of those structures. It is also, for my money, one of the most beautiful, in no small part due to the view of mountains in all directions and a direct view of the massive upshot of rock that gives the site its name.
I’m glad I didn’t see any pictures of this place before I came. You hike up to this high ridge and then all of a the sudden you see a wall of chinked stone. Just a remnant wall, you think at first, but then it extends for a hundred feet or so, running straight and true almost a thousand years after it was built. The outer wall is tightly packed yellow, gold, and orange sandstone, spiced with bright orange lichen. The sandstone, obviously, must have been brought from down below, which merits an epic poem in itself. Inside is a series of small rooms and not-so-small kivas, including a great kiva. I peer down into the kivas, perfectly round, where sage and rabbitbrush grow amid patches of snow.
Last summer I tried to visit this place but the gate was locked. Six hours ago, back in Boulder, I checked the website to make sure it was open. The website claimed it was though the gate said otherwise. But today I will not be denied. I parked outside the gate and hiked in, which now gives me the place to myself.
A thin fingernail clipping of a moon is rising. Saturn peeks out of the blue clouds. Soon I should be able to see not just Saturn and the waxing moon but Venus and Jupiter. Perfect for a place that was, among other things, an observatory, or, as my friend Craig Childs puts it, “a giant moon clock.”
Sometimes it’s better when a place is closed.
I have a not particularly profound thought. People lived here. Now they don’t. They built well. They worked hard. They studied the moon. And they left something beautiful behind.
Of course I know nothing gold can stay. Ozymandias and all that. It’s all fleeting in a way that none of us, even the poets, can ever quite bring ourselves to believe. Still, why not try to leave a little something, particularly if that something blends art and science? This place feels like a message sent through time. I’m not sure I have ever seen the past so surely embodied. A thousand years, slowly passing, on display.
We don’t really believe that our own civilization can collapse. I don’t really believe it. It is our great failure of imagination. The case for our demise is fairly strong: the entire history of the world argues for it. The rise and fall of every other civilization that has ever existed. But still. It can’t really happen to us. Can it?
On sinking cities and raging storms: The Angry Drunk
THE LATEST REPORT FROM THE U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is out and the news ain’t good. Some have claimed that the report was watered down by corporate interests, with carbon recapture stressed and fossil fuel reduction deemphasized, but any way you cut it the conclusions are grim. The world’s long-time goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures will likely be out the window by the 2030s. In fact, as the Guardian reports, we are currently on track for more than 3°C global warming by 2100.
In this country two of the places that will be most dramatically affected by this temperature rise—that are already dramatically affected—are the place where I live and teach, and the places I head to when I am not teaching. If you were to fly down into my adopted hometown, Wilmington, North Carolina, you would be struck by all the water. Not just the neighboring ocean or the Cape Fear River, which runs past downtown, but the fact that the whole place seems all but saturated, just a few inches above sea level. Soon we may be the poster child for global warming in the United States. But for the moment that title belongs to the desert Southwest.
William deBuys, one of the most incisive observers of the region, writes in A Great Aridness: “In apocalyptic visions of global climate change, The North American Southwest makes an easy protagonist, the geographical equivalent of a stalled car on the railroad tracks with a speeding train approaching.” There are multiple reasons for this, he tells us, including “catastrophic fires, insect infestations, plant die-off, plant invasion,” but the core of it all is the feature that gives his book its title. I’ll take the word Aridity over Aridness but the point is dry, dry, dry. Bone dry. Dust dry.
This past winter has been a delightful exception. I just spent a month in the Southwest and the snow was thick on the peak, snow that will hopefully be releasing, in time release fashion, throughout the summer. We all pray that this is no aberration, that it will be the beginning of a string of snowy winters. But the facts argue otherwise. The latest studies say that the current drought in the Southwest has surpassed the Great Drought and that the current climate is the driest and hottest in 1200 years. Soil moisture deficit, as gauged by tree rings, surpassed even the civilization-ending droughts that were once held up as unsurpassable. Lack of rain is the obvious culprit but less obvious is the fact that the hotter temperatures increase evaporation, leaving the soil and vegetation desiccated. During the 21st century, average temperatures have been 1.64 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they were during the half-century before. It has grown worse in the last couple of years with the temperature rise now 3 degrees higher in places and the lack of rainfall breaking historic records. And of course the obvious differences from megadroughts past: all but the most cynically political of climate scientists, while citing the region’s historic variability, now admit the drought is human-caused.
Historic dates and statistics can sometimes seem as dry as the southwestern soil, but climate has always determined how people live in this region. Consider what happened between the megadroughts of the year 800 and the Great Drought: a climatic shift to cooler and wetter conditions, that archeologist Ralph Burrillo calls “the roaring 1000s,” a time of “environmental lushness and plenty not matched before or since in Southwest climate records.”
This new climate led not just to the growth of crops but of a complex, vibrant civilization.
Orion’s Summer 2023 issue,
The Deep Dark Burning Woods, is on sale now.
IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE FUTURE, look at the past.
I have driven from the outpost of Chimney Rock to the center of Chaco. It is a cold day as I walk amidst the great houses with Kialo Winters. Storm clouds bulk up in the west, and big winds and snow are predicted. And of course it is, as ever, dry. Snow, or any precipitation, would be welcome.
For a stretch of close to three hundred years the place we are walking through, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, was the capitol of this world. Chaco was the center of a web of culture on the Colorado Plateau in the land some now call the Four Corners. From around AD 950 to around 1250 BC, Chaco’s vast network extended to Mesoamerica, as evinced by the goods that once filled the hundreds of rooms in the greatest of the Chaco great houses, Pueblo Bonito: turquoise, cocoa beans for chocolate and a room just for scarlet macaws.
“They worshipped the elements,” Kialo is telling me. “The big wind and the little wind that we breathe in, that plants also breathe. They had found a way and they believed the fate of the world depended on that way. They were searching for the center place, and they believed they had found it here in Chaco. In the center place they would marry the celestial to the landscape.”
Kialo Winters is Navajo and Zia Pueblo born, raised on the Navajo Nation reservation east of Chaco Canyon. He speaks with the confidence of the teacher he was for over a decade. His knowledge of Chaco runs deep.
He picks up a stick and gets down on one knee and draws a map in the sand. First he makes two crossing lines, signifying the four corners. A small rock becomes Chaco, another the western edge of the Grand Canyon, another the Mogollon Rim, another Chimney Rock in Colorado, another Monticello Utah. He encompasses all these in a great circle.
“150 miles in every direction. The Chaco world was not just the canyon itself. The Chaco world extended out. If an enemy approached the outlying great houses would know.”
The landscape here is dry to the point of crumbling, and it seems at first a most unlikely place to put your center, but to stand in the middle of Pueblo Bonito, the massive hundred room complex that once rose four stories high in the middle of the desert, is to know you are in the center of things. The great houses, the kivas, the high walls, the sprawl of the place. I use the present tense because it is still here, dusty but standing. It is the people who have left.
WHAT WILL THE WORLD BE LIKE WHEN my daughter Hadley is my age? That is one of the questions I have been asking. I try to project ahead. I ask scientists to do the same. But maybe we, trapped in in time, are not up for the task. Maybe we are tiny flecks of foam in a great river. To think that a fleck can control a river or even imagine where the river is heading is a little silly.
In The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, argue for a “stubborn optimism” when looking to the future, and they believe there is a path forward. This is heartening but the part of their book I find most compelling is their vision of a future 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2050, when Hadley will still be in her forties. The West will be on fire of course, it already is, but since this trip has focused on that other wetter element, let me quote their take on where we will find ourselves with regard to water if we don’t make dramatic changes:
The millions who depended on the Himalayan, Alpine, and Andean glaciers to regulate water availability throughout the year are in a constant state of emergency: there is little snow turning to ice atop the mountains in the winter, so there is not more gradual melting for the spring and summer… Even in some parts of the United States, there are fiery conflicts over water, battles between the rich who will pay for as much water as they want and everyone else demanding access to the life-enabling resource. The taps in nearly all public facilities are locked, and those in restrooms are coin-operated. At a federal level, Congress is in an uproar over water distribution: states with less water demand what they see as their fair share from states that have more. Government leaders have been stymied on the issue for years, and with every passing month the Colorado River and the Rio Grande shrink further. Looming on the horizon are conflicts with Mexico, no longer able to guarantee deliveries of water from the depleted Rio Conchos and Rio Grande. Similar disputes have arisen in Peru, China, Russia, and many other countries.
Can this really happen? Will this really happen? We’ll see is the only adult answer. But standing in Pueblo Bonito amidst a civilization that was and now isn’t, I can picture if not quite feel it.
THE WINDS ARE HIGH AS I LEAVE Chaco for Phoenix, home to nearly five million human beings—twice the population of Denver, thrice that of Salt Lake—despite the fact that there are now around 110 days each year when it hits 100 degrees here. Descending through the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, I catch a glimpse of light glinting up in the mountains, and see what looks like a line of reflective glass but is in fact exactly what I have come here to see. A canal. Funneling the water of the Salt River down to the thirsty city.
I am here to see the archeologist Ralph Burrillo, who, despite a deep fondness for his natural home in northern Arizona, and a lingering suspicion of (if grudging fondness for) Phoenix, currently resides in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. I pick up Ralph at his apartment and he guides me out to on Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian land to give me a tour of the past. Did I say Chaco was the center of life in the Southwest? Well, it was one center. This was another. The Hohokam irrigated the city that stood where Phoenix now rises with water from the Salt River, the same water I saw glinting up in the mountains as I drove into town, and the Salt still provides almost sixty percent of the water that courses through the city in a series of canals. The Hohokam were geniuses of irrigation, and not far from his home, Ralph shows me the ghostly remnants of one their canals. A dusty path that once, hundreds of years ago, sated the city’s thirst. The Hohokam’s engineering anticipated the irrigation of modern Phoenix, though they lacked the muscle of electricity.
The canals that weave through this city, Ralph explains, travel atop these dry ghosts of Hohokam canals. In fact, Ralph has moved here specifically to help the city contend with its ghosts. The more the new city builds the more it uncovers the old. In his role as a cultural resource manager, Ralph helps recognize, and if necessary relocate, the ancient burial sites and graves that are everywhere below the city.
The old city existed for 1500 years, reaching its peak at roughly the same time as Chaco, and falling apart a thousand years ago. Why? Climatic change, when the reliable Salt River became less so. Too little water and then, in the form of floods, too much. The final blow being the great drought that hit in about 1200. Too many people, too few resources. Societal breakdown. The usual.
As we drive away from the canal a couple of reservation dogs come running after our car. Not too long after we see a dead dog on the side of the road. We drive from the old to the new, one of the canals that run through the modern city, laid like a grid over the ancient canals. We park in a shopping plaza, ignoring the sign that says German Sausage Parking Only.
“Well, we’ll get a German sausage later,” says Ralph.
As we walk along the canal, I make the jump from the Hohokam to modern Phoenix.
But Ralph cautions me about making that jump too easily.
“For one thing the civilization didn’t ‘disappear,’” he says.
Later today he will send me a chapter from his own book The Backwoods of Everywhere, which elaborates on this point:
Other authors have noted and made much about how most of the canal systems of modern Phoenix are built atop those of the “failed” Hohokam civilization, pointing out how their ambitious irrigation and subsequently explosive birth rate exceeded the carrying capacity of the land until they had to abandon it. Ideas like this are often trotted out alongside pithy observations about how “we” need to learn from “their” past.
The fact is, most ancestral Southwest peoples just weren’t as sedentary as most people in the world are today, partly because they didn’t have anything even close to our private-property obsessions. Americans will stay in a house that’s burning, flooding, and falling apart all at once because they own it—where else are they supposed to go? People like those of ancient Sonora, by contrast, wouldn’t think twice about leaving a place when the weather turned lousy and then returning a few years, decades, or generations later when conditions were good again. Why not? It’s not like they’d be spending the intervening period squatting on someone else’s property, because no property was anyone’s property.
Heeding Ralph’s advice, I will try not to overplay the end-of-civilization card. (Though I hear you saying it’s too late for that.) But after a summer where the temperatures recorded were even hotter than during that modern fable known as the dustbowl, and at a time when I just saw with my own eyes the low and withering (though now filling!) Lake Powell, I think I can be forgiven using the Hohokam not just as a metaphor or parable but as a kind of template for what might happen to this desert city.
Later, when I get back to North Carolina, I will read Ralph’s book, in which he writes, “I love Phoenix for those canals. It’s like a mad, dystopian Venice.” His fine chapter on the city ends: “Above all, though, I love Phoenix for the fact that it’s doomed. Completely and utterly doomed. I find a sort of resigned comfort in that notion. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived where being naïve about humanity’s future is a genuine challenge, and the conservationist in me cannot get enough of that.”