The Water Knife: Contemplating Aridity in the American Southwest

Look: the American southwest is already parched. Much of the early, excellent environmental history I encountered in graduate school straddled subdisciplines of environmental history and the history of the American West. Though I resisted the premise that the West was flat, arid, and treeless—courtesy of Walter Prescott Webb—I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which was geographically west, but none of these things. So I didn’t really relate. Nevertheless, upon reading Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, and Charles E. Wilkinson’s Crossing the Next Meridian, it became abundantly clear to me that my wet West was very much the exception, and that water or its absence was a defining feature of the western landscape and its history.

Below is a brief reflection on another book—a recent read—Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, set in the not-so-very distant future, where water scarcity has become even more severe. Earlier this week, I attended a sci-fi book club at the Ark + Anchor café to discuss The Water Knife. The great pleasure of participating was that my older two children read the book as well and participated, too.

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