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Desert Year: Insights on Economy, Energy, and Climate

by Skip Laitner • August 8, 2011 @ 9:29 am

John ‘Skip” Laitner is an economist, enjoying a desert year while on research sabbatical  from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Skip is uncovering some surprising insights from his time in the desert that inform the way one looks at the economy and social systems. In a series of posts entitled Desert Year, Skip lends us his insights, as well as his 40 years of experience as an energy and natural resource economist, to probe the economic, climate, and energy challenges that confront us.

A Most Unnatural Cactus! 

Unlike most economic statistics, this really caught my eye.  A very tall and almost too perfect-looking giant saguaro cactus, perched very high upon the hill just outside Tucson. The desert sentinel.  I wondered aloud whether it was real or perhaps artificial.  My friend leaned over as we drove past and assured me that it might be unusually large but it looked quite real.

Still I wondered.

It took me almost six weeks later, this past weekend in fact, to actually find out.  I was out for a late afternoon jaunt and I first started to scoot along on the road right past the cactus.  But as I again looked up again I suddenly thought, why not turn the outing into a more of an adventure? So I decided to get up close and personal.

As I then detoured and surged the 200 meters up the hill, some of the details begin to unfold.  About halfway up, yes, it began to look like the real thing.  From about 30 meters away I spotted a couple of holes that might have been home to Gila Woodpeckers or Gilded Flickers.  And I thought, why yes, it might actually turn out to be very real indeed. 

But it wasn’t until I was perhaps 10 to 15 meters away that I saw the bolts that held it to its concrete footing, and as I pulled right up to it I spotted the several heavy wires that looked as though they might siphon off a very large current. I’m guessing it was nothing more than a very elegant lighting rod.

I am an economist, enjoying a desert year – very much in the tradition of naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch’s book, The Desert Year.  He wrote it in the year just before he joined the University of Arizona faculty in 1952.  I first read it in the early 1980s.  And as I am slowly making the transition into a year-long research sabbatical with colleagues at the University, the “Desert Year” again informs my thinking. 

There are some surprising insights that emerge from being out in the desert.  If we’re willing to take the time to really look, a deeper understanding of the desert flora and fauna – one might say the biology and the ecosystem of the desert itself – might also inform the way we look at the economy and at our social systems.  

As I began to reflect on my discovery of the unnatural cactus, I also began to think how any number of things will change in aspect or appearance when we look more closely at them, or when we look at them from an entirely different angles or vantage points.  The Kangaroo rat may be an interesting example.

It turns out that this very interesting critter is unique in the animal world.  Nature has provided it with the ability to survive with very little water.  And in the desert it can survive with no free water at all.  It has the ability to metabolize the dry seeds that it eats directly into water.  It neither sweats nor pants like other animals to remain cool.  Moreover, it also has highly efficient kidneys which allow it to dispose of waste materials with very little loss of water.  In addition, it spends its days in a burrow where the air is moist and humid. All of this together means the Kangaroo Rat can survive and be quite comfortable. 

In a similar way, rather than our looking to drill for more water, or to simply throw more water at the economic problems that confront us, how might we learn from this rat, this desert animal, so that we might produce and efficiently use water in new ways that, yes, still provide comfort but that also reduce the incredible waste of our current patterns of consumption?  And how might these insights also apply to the nation’s energy problems?

Over the next year, as I both wander the desert and wonder about the nation’s energy and climate problems, I will try to metabolize my own thinking into useful metaphors and insights that might equally inform real climate economics.  Stay tuned.

John A. “Skip” Laitner is Director of Economic and Social Analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), based in Washington, DC.  Tucson is his family’s hometown, and he likely will be there through August of 2012. He hopes to provide a new posting roughly every week over this next year.  While these columns do not reflect the official opinion or views of ACEEE, its board or its staff, he can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Skip,

    I’m not much for metaphors but I would add to your thoughts here by suggesting that it is also important to recognize how variations in environmental conditions affect the health, the size, and the resilience of different cacti and other organisms. In other words, when a drought occurs, some individuals may thrive because they find themselves in an otherwise supportive environment while others barely hold on and still others die. There are very real similarities when we consider the ability of people to transition to new ways of living. Some have the support structures, resources, and human capital that help facilitate the process while others encounter more difficulties. Ultimately, when we look to people to accommodate transitions, we need to be mindful of the great variation that exists in the resources that they have access to and what that means in regard to people’s receptivity and ability to change.

    Comment by Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez — August 10, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  2. [...] Desert Year: Insights on Economy, Energy, and Climate var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true}; Share this page | [...]

    Pingback by Desert Year: Robust Economy and Lessons of the Sonoran Agave « Real Climate Economics — August 10, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  3. I am fascinated by the opportunities for sustainable architecture offered by nature and suspect this wil take me life-long study and practice. Janine Benyus and her book Biomimicry offer tremendous insight. A spin-off website allows us to ask and contribute answers to the question, “How would nature solve this problem?” Eaxmples from cacti and I suspect the Kangaroo Rat along with hundreds of others reside there.

    Comment by Ralph Bicknese — August 16, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  4. With the ‘too perfect to be real’ cactus, I thought you might draw a comparison to how what we often think is ‘natural’ is actually socially constructed! but that’s my bias as a social psychologist.

    This also had me thinking of how when we engineer something, even when it is meant to mimic nature, we come up with a mechanical, somewhat awkward form. It’s messiness that often makes something great, with unexpected benefits. As humans we seem to be inherently messy – a mix of well ordered systems and chaos at the same time. We need to embrace that instead of trying to engineer around it.

    Looking forward to a year of your observations!

    Comment by Christa McD — August 17, 2011 @ 8:41 am

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