The late Sam Kinison had a routine during the Ethiopian famine of the early to mid ’80s, with the famous punch line:

“YOU LIVE IN A DESERT! YOU LIVE IN A F—ING DESERT! NOTHING GROWS OUT HERE! NOTHING’S GONNA GROW OUT HERE! YOU SEE THIS? HUH? THIS IS SAND. KNOW WHAT IT’S GONNA BE A HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW? IT’S GONNA BE SAND! YOU LIVE IN A F—ING DESERT! GET YOUR STUFF, GET YOUR SH!T, WE’LL MAKE ONE TRIP, WE’LL TAKE YOU TO WHERE THE FOOD IS! WE HAVE DESERTS IN AMERICA — WE JUST DON’T LIVE IN THEM, A$$HOLES!” –From an appearance on Rodney Dangerfield’s “It’s Not Easy Being Me,” 1984.

While I recall the skit being quite funny at the time, Kinison was wrong in two ways:

First of all, and most unjustly, while the Ethiopians he was talking about did live in the desert, for the most part they did not do so willingly. They’d been transported there by the dictatorial government of Ethiopia, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who now lives it up in Zimbabwe under the protection of another fine African despot, Robert Mugabe, after being tossed out of Ethiopia in 1991 when his Soviet backers’ support withered and died. Mengistu was attempting to relieve overcrowding in the traditionally populated highland areas that were free of malaria and sleeping sickness by relocating people to the lowlands. Like many other such Third World Marxist schemes based on a combination of bribery and guns—think the low-budget version of the Great Leap Forward—it didn’t work. And of course, Mengistu’s government took the opportunity to transport people they didn’t like to places they were unlikely to return from… ever.

Second of all, a heck of a lot of Americans do live in deserts, among others big areas of Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Eastern Washington and Oregon, etc. Unlike Ethiopians, who aren’t stupid enough to do so willingly, we choose to live in deserts, and we’re dealing with the consequences of that right now:

  • Regular wildfires in the west, such as what’s going on in Los Angeles right now, as desert foliage—evolved to burn regularly but allowed to overgrow by the intervention of man—burns off. In fact, the Native Americans who lived in the Los Angeles basin before the Spanish referred to it as “Valley of the Smokes” so the problem is far from new;
  • Regular mudslides in the same areas, because the soils cannot handle the drainage when rain does occur;
  • A nearly dry Colorado River, Rio Grande and southeast;
  • Crazy water rights regimes in California and other areas that price agricultural water so low that many farmers let it evaporate in their antiquated irrigation technology
  • Salinated soils

The list goes on. As the planet warms (for whatever reason you wish to ascribe) and fresh water gets more dear, this is only going to become a bigger and costlier problem, unless some big technological breakthroughs, like cheap, i.e., energy-efficient, desalinization, happen.

Thoughts?

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