A Dry Heat

Gary Nabhan's new book looks at what we're going to eat as our planet's temperature rises

Before tromping through Gary Nabhan's new book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, you must finally acknowledge this creepy truth: Our planet is getting toastier.

If that's overwhelming to you, it was for Nabhan, too. The MacArthur Fellow and longtime ethnobotanist had tried dry-farming in Northern Arizona, only to be driven out by drought. He then decamped to rural hills south of Tucson, where he found shrinking cattle herds on a parched rangeland.

Even his own gardening verged on collapse.

"It was then," he writes, "that I conceded that I could not escape climate change, no matter where I moved. I resolved myself to accepting that it would bear down on us for the rest of our lives, and I began to grow despondent and uncertain as to whether I even had the capacity to produce food anymore."

But Nabhan, a prolific author known for sanguine tomes such as Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods and Gathering the Desert, has a gift for dousing grim reality with roll-up-your-shirtsleeves optimism. So it is with Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land.

Characteristically, we find him probing the past for answers. Hence his subtitle, Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. These pages find Nabhan mingling among the planet's desert savants, whether they are fourth century Saharan monks or the contemporary Sufi mystic, Aziz Bousfiha, who taps traditional practices in reviving a timeless Moroccan oasis.

Despite a scant 20 inches of yearly rainfall, Bousfiha oversees a teeming garden of fruits and vegetables, laced by lush scents of lavender. He relies on a few basic tenets, such as using regionally adapted seeds from ancient strains, and abandoning harsh chemicals. He plans to re-create his achievement across the region, while coaxing others to share his vision. "It is not just about farming with plants [adapted] to a particular desert oasis," Bousfiha says, "it is about cultivating solidarity among people ... as well as a thousand other things that will emerge from that."

Bousfiha's story is one among many "parables" dotting this book, and their light tone belies a deadly serious matter. Nabhan makes this clear from the start. "Weather and food go hand in hand," he begins Chapter 1, "like beans and corn bread or biscuits and gravy. And so it should come as no surprise that the health and security of our foodscapes is a sensitive indicator of our resilience to the vagaries of climate change. Recent climate-related disasters remind us that our modern, 'conventional' means of growing and distributing food have become ever more vulnerable as climate change accelerates."

Appropriately, this book is one of suggestions rather than answers. In its pages Nabhan skillfully weaves together ideas gathered from across the world, distilling them into pragmatic, achievable concepts that converge in a gentle but insistent challenge. Emblematic is the section titled "No Sniveling or Hand-Wringing Allowed: Here's What You Can Do!" Here, Nabhan explains big-picture measures, such as buying local and cutting down on fossil fuels. "Remember," he writes, "that half of your ecological foodprint (and half the waste) is generated between the time your food is harvested from the land and the moment when it reaches your table."

But prying beyond those buzzwords is where Nabhan's latest book shines. Time and again, he brilliantly fuses high concept with everyday practice. Tired of huge water bills for watering your orange trees? Try building them a shady overhang extending from your roof. Vegetable garden shriveling from drought and heat?

It's not coincidental that many of these notions—particularly the preservation of hardy, regionally adapted crop strains—underlie the work of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a pivotal, Tucson-based group that Nabhan helped start in the early 1980s. Back then, fears of a monolithic and ultimately fragile global agriculture system were nascent. Today, they are manifest, as concerns of blight, heat and drought confront crops that are genetically geared only for the good times—in other words, the cooler, wetter planet we used to know.

Today, we need a fresh approach—starting with the willingness to accept reality, and the gumption to work it. In Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, Nabhan starts us down that long path.