Monday, March 30, 2020

Heroes and Hope

I’ve seen and heard the word “hero” more in the last week than I have in the last year. Newscasters use it regularly to describe doctors, nurses, hospital workers, police and fire workers—and grocery clerks. Hero signs show up across from hospitals, and people in cities across the country hang out windows and front doors at 7 each night to bang pots and pans in praise of these workers.

That’s as refreshing as the “play dates” with parents driving and kids hanging out windows and singing and chanting at friends from a distance. Or the retired clown in Portland who set up in a cul-de-sac as kids from several houses stood in their front yards and cheered him on; or the Italian opera singer singing from his balcony.

The financial analysts still make their ways on the news programs, but they get little more time than the weathermen, even as the stock market gyrates crazily and they grope for this day’s answers to explain yesterday. (I’ve always thought their talk largely hooey; they can always explain yesterday’s dips and climbs—after the fact.)

But now: tired doctors and nurses take the mikes—one New York ER doc said she was at the end of five 13-hour days, and hadn’t really slept since it all started; another high-fived his young child through a glass because he is spending his days with the afflicted; and yet another said that she could not wait to get back to work when she was at home, that the meaning of the work and the camaraderie of coworkers are exhilarating. When asked whether anyone had come off a ventilator successfully, she cracked a huge smile and described a 21 year-old patient, “one of our successes.”

Even Dr. Fauci gets more applause than the President, and Dr. Birx is listened to more closely in the press conferences Trump seems to see as campaign rallies. Fauci and Birx struggle and try to use them honestly.

This pandemic reminds us that we are all human together. It strikes rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Hindu, the famous and the humble. Tom Hanks caught it; John Prine is seriously ill; Congressmen and Senators and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are in quarantine.

It appears to have no preference for one kind of government over another—it might have originated in Communist China, but it is expanding rapidly in our democracy and killing mightily in European Union countries Spain and Italy. And while a country’s wealth and power are tools in the fight, their interdependencies ease the virus’s path.

Our parents and grandparents looked back on the Great Depression as a time of want—but also as a time of camaraderie, sharing, and cooperation. The Depression too hit the wealthy and the poor, and reached every corner of the country and the world. Photographer Dorothea Lange and writer John Steinbeck made heroes of everyday people who coped with it with courage and dignity. And President Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for courageous actions and coming into everyone’s radio living room regularly with words of encouragement.

This is our time, our Depression, our Spanish Flu. The pandemic has now touched most continents and countries. It has leveled the rich and famous and elevated the humble. And although some will always duck hard times with their wealth—the New Yorkers who fled to the Hamptons on first onset; and others who will try to profit—the entrepreneur selling $30,000 “drop in the ground” iron bunkers, we’ll not remember them with praise. Our hope and our future is in the quiet heroes.

I see Lange-like photos of them every day, and I wait for this Pandemic’s Steinbeck and its Grapes of Wrath.

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Friday, March 27, 2020

“Modern America and the Indian"

The essay by Alvin Josephy appeared in a book, Indians in American History: an Introduction, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, and published in 1988.  “Modern America and the Indian” is one in a fine collection of essays by scholars--many of them tribal members also--examining American history from the Indian’s side.

Josephy covers the period from the late 1920s until the Reagan Administration. There is a detailed examination of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the biographical background on its author, John Collier. Alvin sees the period as a defining one in the long struggle of Indians to maintain culture and identity against the tremendous pressures of assimilation. Collier was their champion, with support from President Roosevelt, and tried to reverse the assimilation movements of the previous half century. The support was not as strong from Congress.

The IRA did finally put an end to the Allotment Act of 1887, which “had stripped Indians of some 90 million acres of their lands.” The New Deal and IRA gave Indians hope, but it also created divisions. In the next decades, WW II, PL 280, Termination and Relocation all tended to reverse Indian identity movements and advance assimilationist sentiments among white policy makers, the general population, and some Indians. The 60s, Vietnam, and Civil Rights activism then countered, as did the American Indian Movement and other expressions of “Red Power.”

The same period is addressed in more detail from an Indian point of view by David Treuer, an Ojibwe tribal member from Minnesota. Treuer is a novelist and a scholar, and in two books: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee and Rez Life, argues that the popular view of Indians and Indian history still today stops in 1891 at Wounded Knee. He uses written history and personal experience to make his arguments. His work is to tell us what in fact happened in Indian Country 1891-present.

Josephy fought that battle from the white side in his career as writer and activist. In this essay, and throughout his career, Alvin Josephy saw the Indians as unique partners in a broader American and world-wide movement to recognize the dignity and worth of many cultures in a “pluralistic” America and world. Authoritarian nationalism and cultural homogenization have been and continue to be pitted against this pluralistic world view. The essay follows on the link below:

Modern America & the Indian.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Their Vietnam

I have four grandchildren between the ages of 18 and 23. I’ve told them that coronavirus is their Vietnam. It will be the event they will remember when they are my age, as I remember Vietnam for its horror and its impact on my life.

I was born in 1942, so skated by with easy education and Peace Corps draft deferments until 1968, when Vietnam really heated up and the country was running out of volunteers—American Indians volunteered at the highest rate of any American group for Vietnam, an important fact that deserves more attention—and the draft was becoming problematic. In 1969, with reduced volunteer numbers and the number of poor black and brown draftees available growing smaller, the Selective Service Administration was going to have to begin drafting large numbers of white Americans. They came up with the draft lottery.

Going to Vietnam became a condition of your birth date and numbered Ping-Pong balls bouncing in a container in front of a television audience. I was 26 by then—too old to be drafted by the protocols of the day, so I paid no attention to a draft number attached to my birth date, but I’ll guarantee you that any American male born between 1944 and 1951 and not in the service at the time can tell you precisely what his lottery number was. Low and you were on your way to Vietnam; high and you went back to work, school, partying, and feeling some guilt for your good fortune. In the middle—100-150 maybe; I don’t remember the details—and you stayed home to worry.

On the front lines of the COVID-19 war, young people are losing school terms and having to study online; being laid off from their jobs in restaurants, bars, ski areas, hotels, and factories; working scared in grocery stores and at Amazon; or saying to hell with it and partying. If they are working anywhere in the health field, 50 years from now they’ll remember the work they did that helped people survive, and the people who didn’t make it. Although this crisis has only been with us full scale for a month, my guess is that it is already indelible in their young lives.

Vietnam, and the severe negative reaction in the rest of the world to the American war effort there, ended my Peace Corps staff assignment in Turkey—and it ended my dream of being a diplomat. I came back to the US in 1970, and a year later found my way to a small, rural Oregon town to work and live close to the land. We were part of the 70s “back to the land” movement.  And unlike many who went back to the cities and suburbs, I stayed here.

It’s early now, but over the next months the grandkids and their cohort will be examining the world and their own options with different eyes. They’ll jump into health care or politics or biochemical research to find answers; return to familiar surroundings and hunker down; or they will become lost in the shuffle of political and medical opinions and directives, and stumble along in a life of missed opportunities and “might-have-beens.”

My parents and their generation had the Great Depression and World War II. Their parents had World War I and the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which hit 500 million people, about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Over 50 million died. My generation had—and still has—Vietnam.

And American Indians had them all, as they simultaneously battled discrimination and assimilation.  The miracle of their survival continues to astound.

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Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Earth is Tilting

Maybe it is. The lines on charts showing the new daily incidents of COVID-19 infection are still spiking up. Only China has leveled off, an interesting fact given the huge population, but how much to attribute to the authoritarian culture? There is too much randomness, too much chaos, too much short-term hedonism and self-interest, and too much honest open discussion of the problem in most of the world for the China model to hold strong promise.

I cannot stop thinking about the devastation by infectious diseases suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas beginning in 1492—and continuing for hundreds of years. The Indian population of what is now the contiguous United States, which might have been 10 million at first contact, plummeted to about 237,000 at the turn of the twentieth century. That would match the idea held by many demographers today that diseases wiped out about 90 percent of the population at contact. But Indians, a tribal friend reminds me, were still suffering from smallpox a generation or two ago. And, one can imagine, from polio and measles and all else.

That initial contact, like our COVID-19, was quiet, stealthy; the biggest death counts happened before the inhabitants had met the colonizer carriers. The viruses came ashore from Atlantic fishing boats and Pacific fur-trade boats; they marched ahead of the Hudson’s Bay trappers and came up the Mississippi with De Soto’s pigs. And tribal people had no notion of where or how they came down with the measles, smallpox, flu and other European maladies. Oftentimes the sweats and communal closeness that had served them well through injury did the opposite with these foreign diseases.

Indians must have been accustomed to death by scarcity and conflict. The fear of imminent death by disease seems to me qualitatively different from the fear of death in battle or in hunger. There is, in battle, the chance of winning, and the opportunity to go down in glory. There is the opportunity for elective self-sacrifice and honor in living and serving in a starving community. Individual actions must have seemed futile in the case of smallpox and measles.

If disease in our modern era gives us one thing the Indians did not have, it is the opportunity for individual sacrifice and even heroism in the face of disease. Medical personnel across the world are serving—and sometimes dying—as they work to confront coronavirus.

There are other, more global kinds of heroism. The crisis has political and social leaders in Israel and Palestine working together in common cause to halt the spread of the disease. Israelis are finding housing for Palestinian workers so that they do not have to cross the border daily. Negotiations to release Israeli-held Palestinian funds and aging prisoners are ongoing.

Can we hope for such cooperation to infect nations and divisions within nations as we all adapt to this new, tilting planet?

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Immunity--and American Indians

Measles, smallpox, influenza—what a tragic and painful experience the first European contacts must have been for the first Americans!  We now know that huge numbers, unfathomable numbers, of American Indians were killed by European diseases.

Imagine Tisquantum (Squanto) coming back to his homeland after years in Europe as a slave, making his way to England and then coming home, where he finds his village deserted, his tribe gone to disease.

Imagine the families of Willamette Valley Indians dying quickly in each other’s arms from an unknown malady that has crept ashore from British or Russian ships in the 1770s and 80s. Imagine Nez Perce and Umatilla families doing the same in the 1780s—long before Lewis and Clark, long before they saw a white man—dying by the thousands from smallpox or measles, apparently carried by the Shoshone from the Southwest north to the Blackfeet and then along the Columbia River. Author Charles Mann quotes a Blackfoot warrior of the time: “We had no idea that a Man could give [a disease] to another anymore than a wounded Man could give his wound to another.” (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus) Europeans, who had wrestled with the Plague, had the notion of quarantine; the Indians did not.

I think about the anxiety and fears that many Americans feel now with the threat of a disease that has been identified, that leaders are attempting to quell with social distancing and quarantines, that researchers have isolated and now can and do rush to find treatments and vaccinations. There are still unknowns, enough to foster our fears. And there are family tragedies—parents dying alone and isolated from their children. And panics—real ones about how the rent will get paid and the children cared for, and crazy ones that empty stores of toilet paper.

But imagine confronting coronavirus now without rapid communication and the mounting efforts to stem its contagion. Imagine it traveling from Asia to Europe and the Americas without knowing the map.

In Mann’s book he recaps scholars’ arguments about how many people lived in the Americas before Columbus. He talks about “high counters,” who guessed 100 million or more, and “low counters” who thought that too high by factors of 10. The high counters argued that disease had taken as many as 95 percent of the people.

Mann meticulously follows the scientific research of the past 50 or 60 years, which has shown how Native American immunities—or lack of immunities—were due to their lack of contact with the domestic animal incubators of viral diseases. There had been no camels, cows, or chickens, and thus no camelpox, cowpox, or chickenpox. They were further disadvantaged by long isolation and a limited range of genetic defenses against all viral infections that Africans and Europeans enjoyed.

The cynic in me says that our current war footing as re COVID-19 is vigorous in part because the disease pays little attention to rich and poor, color or ethnicity. Old white men, who still control most of the purse strings in America, are at risk; two Congressmen have tested positive! Would the response have been this strong to a runaway version of sickle cell anemia that settled disproportionately on Africans and African-Americans? To some virulent plague that attacked dirty, crowded refugee camps and/or slums in the Middle East and South American barrios?

My better nature joins Nixy├íawii Longhouse Leader Armand Minthorn in asking us all to be strong together. He says that “there is never a wrong time to pray… to do right… to sing.” You can watch and hear Armand here: https://www.facebook.com/Yellowhawk4U/videos/629559570954044/

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass #3 –The Religion of More

The book—and the evening discussion of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants on Monday night is lodged in my mind. And it bumps up against today’s headlines again and again.

“The air in China is cleaner than it’s been in years,” and when China slowed economic and industrial activity that polluted the air for Olympic games, babies were born heavier and healthier. The traffic is light in Seattle, and crowds in Italy, at the Coliseum and the Vatican are small enough so that the few who are there can enjoy. You can, one commentator announced, enjoy a nice restaurant meal in Milan.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Kemmerer gives story after story of American Indians taking what they need, leaving enough to serve others and to replenish the stock of sweetgrass, Black Ash, fish, game, and strawberries. And then giving thanks for the generosity you’ve enjoyed.

We’ve grown addicted to the gospel of more, to bigger and faster. What coronavirus—mother nature’s slap back, as one friend says—is showing us is that uncontrolled growth is not healthy, that linking and interconnecting, finding the cheapest labor here and cheapest materials there to build a car or computer for me somewhere else is creating fragile networks that can collapse with a bat’s version of the flu. The stock market doesn’t know whether to go up or down; we don’t know whether to travel or not, go to work or not, go to the show, or watch the game without a courtside audience on TV.

American Indians were caught unawares with white European diseases 500 years ago. And then there were wars, treaties, boarding schools, and termination policies. But Indians have survived—incredibly, miraculously—in part because there were always elders who remembered that the first salmon goes back, the huckleberry patch gets picked in a different place each year, and that land that has sustained us forever needs us but warns us: take care of water and the fish and the plants, and never take more than you need.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass #2

By my count, there were 14 of us at the Josephy Center talking about Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, writer Robin Kemmerer’s prayer that we look through scientific classification and dissection to indigenous knowledge of plants--and all of mother earth, For her, the earth--all of it--is gift, and we human beings are bound up in it in what can and should be reciprocal relations of gratitude and care. Sweetgrass grows lush when we harvest it.

People took away different lessons--"I’ll look at the world I tramp in with new eyes"; "we shouldn’t worship growth"; "how can I live more sustainably?"; "this book will get passed on--and we will send copies to friends and children.” And all of us got bound up in this discussion of the “Thanksgiving Address" of the Onondaga, which puts gratitude and sharing the gifts of earth at the center of our lives.

A question to blog readers: what books explore relationships of indigenous people to earth and each other in other parts of the world? In Australia. Asia, and the many regions of Africa?

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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass


Our Josephy Center book group is reading Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by indigenous writer and professor of botany Robin Wall Kimmerer.  We’ll have a discussion of the book on Monday night, March 9, at 7:00 p.m., at the Josephy Center, but anyone is invited to listen in—and at least comment by email— https://josephy.org/book-group/.

I came to the book reluctantly. It’s about plants and ponds, and not, at first blush, about the human dramas that always grab my attention. Friends persuaded me and voted when given a chance that this would be our next book. I started slowly, and am still just past the half-way mark. And I love it!

If there’s a lesson in those pages that my human-focused mind can get around, it is that the indigenous way of looking at the earth and its living and un-living occupants—and even at the heavens that surround us—is to see it all as “gift.” This is radically opposed to the modern view of a world of commodities, where the pieces are all interrelated yes, but by rules of economics and physics. There might be awe in the stars, or in the neatly fitted chain of materials and processes that put a car or computer together in China so that I can drive it or Google it in Joseph, Oregon. But where are thankfulness and grace and reciprocity?

I don’t know where I go from here. I’ll finish the book, and listen to others tomorrow night. And to you blog readers and your thoughts on this gift of a book.

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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Resilience of Indians

A friend asked me recently how I remain cheerful. She’s older than my 77 years, and we were both visiting a yet older friend in the hospital. It took me fewer than 30 seconds to almost automatically reply “Indians.”

Indians have put up with every abuse, had their lands taken away from them and their languages, religions, and cultures stripped away. They have been demeaned in every way and described as a “vanishing race,” even by supposed friends.

And they have survived. Some historical periods were harsher than others—think the 1880s with the rise of boarding schools, the General Allotment Act, and the Courts of Indian Offences; think the 1950s and Eisenhower administration efforts to “terminate” all tribes and to “relocate” young Indians to cities for education and work.

Indians have survived with respect for and trust in elders, with ties to lands, diminished lands but tribal lands nonetheless, with adaptation and with humor. They have used traditional lands in traditional ways, and although their fishing and wild rice and root gatherings and buffalo hunting have been mocked and belittled in the past, they now get respect. Indian practices and philosophies are now lauded by white writers, even authorities: maybe fire is a natural part of the biological order; reciprocity demands that we take care of the fish and its habitat and not fish to the last fish. Indians now work to restore beaver, wolf, and lamprey, and many of us, including many non-Indians, do not know now the places they once filled in the natural order of things, but believe that they all have their places and that it is arrogant of humans to take something away without knowing the consequences.

And humor. I tell people who have never spent time with Indians to watch “Smoke Signals,” the bittersweet film written by Sherman Alexie. I don’t, by the way, know or understand what happened between Sherman and some young women writers. Because he is such an observant and fine writer, I wait for him to address it in his own words sometime soon. I also know that Indian men are not immune to practicing the bad behaviors of men everywhere. Nevertheless, the humor with which Sherman has addressed modern Indian living resonates, for me, with the humor I cackle with when I am around Indians. When I tried to explain to my Nez Perce friend Charlie some of the racial treatment that my half India-Indian grandson was getting at school, he said I didn’t have to explain it to him. “I’ve been brown for 80 years,” he explained.

So we find ourselves nationally in a bad situation, with a president who bullies his way around the capital and the world, driven, apparently, by his own narcissistic obsessions. Our corporate leaders build systems to track our private lives for profit and gain riches by helping us degrade each other with tweets and posts. Our government leaders pledge attention to a changing climate, but vote for and with fossil fuel and growth above all.

Indians have had plenty of experiences with bad presidents—start with Jackson?—and dishonest corporations. The railroad empires and their corporate customers that hunted to the last buffalo for hides and bones almost depleted that species forever, and the canneries that scooped fish out of the Columbia kept taking salmon until even the white fishermen made them stop using their giant fish wheels. And the tools and fools of growth and greed as ultimate values in private and public sectors have opposed Indian practices as archaic, unscientific, and uncivilized forever.

But Indians are still here. In these dark times, I suggest you read Indian writers, check out “Smoke Signals,” take in a powwow or a root feast, buy salmon from a tribal fisherman along the Columbia, go to church in a Longhouse.

And, together, thank the creator for getting you this far, and ask the creator to get us all home safely.

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Fire in Australia

In a dispatch from Cooinda, Australia, Robert Fuller writes in the New York Times today:

"Many forests were thinner than those that exist now and were more resistant to hot-burning fires. Early explorers described the landscape as a series of gardens, and they reported seeing near constant trails of smoke from small fires across the landscape.

"As Europeans took control of the country, they banned burning. Jeremy Russell-Smith, a bushfire expert at Charles Darwin University, said this quashing of traditional fire techniques happened not only in Australia, but also in North and South America, Asia and Africa.

“'The European mind-set was to be totally scared of fire,' Mr. Russell-Smith said."

In the end, the aboriginal ways send less carbon into the atmosphere, and allow animals and humans to live and thrive, as today’s conflagurations in Australia do not. The question there—and in California, Washington, and Oregon—is whether reviving ancient ways and wisdom can have a significant impact on hundreds of years of  the “European mind-set” on fire.

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Climate change and migrations

With fires raging and people fleeing to the sea in Australia, and evacuations in the Philippines in the face of volcanoes, I think about all the instances of weather and climate that have changed the shape of world populations. The few that I know about are certainly samples of many.

I started thinking about this when I read that half of the European immigrants to North America from Plymouth to the formation of the U.S. were indentured servants. Europe was caught in the throes of the Little Ice Age. It was cold and crops failed or yielded little. Fathers would take their sons and daughters to the dock and turn them over to a ship’s captain. The captain would sail them to the “new” world and recover their passage with their sale to waiting farmers and settled and prosperous families.

In my research, I read Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming, a history of population ebbs and flows with planet warming circa 800-1400. The Vikings went across the seas, colonizing Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. European populations swelled as farmers grew wheat in Norway and wine grapes in England. The moldboard plow was invented to turn up new ground with the exploding populations.

But in the Americas at that time, indigenous populations were decimated by heat and drought. Half the people of the California coast died as their acorn-based diet died. The Mayan cities, reliant on sophisticated irrigation systems, collapsed with drought and the people scattered and survivors scratched livings in small villages. And I think this was the time that the very sophisticated society at Chaco Canyon collapsed. People dispersed; we have no record of where they went, and how many died in getting there.

The mound cities, including Cahokia, near present day city of St. Louis, and circa 1100 c.e., larger and more sophisticated than London with 10,000-40,000 people, grew and collapsed during the Warming—overuse of resources? Floods? Climate? Not sure.

The planet cooled, populations in Europe shrunk rapidly with the plague, and the generations of survivors literally shrunk in size. Charlemagne, King of the Franks in the late 700s and early 800s—the very beginning of that Great Warming period, commanded an army of six-footers. Napoleon, who ruled, fought, and lost with an army of soldiers of five-footers, had his run towards the end of what is called the Little Ice Age, the period from roughly 1300-1850.

Which is of course a period that encompasses the colonization of the Americas by Europeans (and the demise of the Vikings settlements in Newfoundland and Greenland). North America apparently recovered with the cooling. Population, including that of the Mound cities and the Pacific coast, might have fallen rapidly, but corn and agriculture had moved from Central America north; agriculture, and very sophisticated hunting, fishing, and gathering, served populations well. As crops and agriculture moved, so did people. And until modern genetics, we best traced that with linguistics. John Wesley Powell commissioned a language study in the late 1800s at the Smithsonian, and came up with 45 or 48 language families in North America. Alvin Josephy started with languages in The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, long before modern genetics. The language maps show Athabaskan—or dene—languages in present day Canada, the North Pacific Coast, and in the Southwest, with Navajo and Apache among others. It would be interesting to correlate Athabaskan languages and peoples from north to the south, and the Algonquins from the Northeast to the Pacific coast with climate and weather events.

There were of course conflicts and wars too. But even wars can own to climate. There is now good evidence that the turmoil of the Arab Spring and upheavals and eventually war in Syria had to do with drought. Drought chased farming rural people into cities, where jobs and food were scarce for many and created a swelling population ready for any radical change that might mean bread.

Now the people of Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America scurry north, to milder climates where agriculture and industry still thrive. We can blame mass migrations on corruption, mismanagement, overpopulation, and wars, but somewhere in the mix is drought and hunger.

With heat and drought come fire and sporadic flooding of vulnerable lands. With rising tides, more dramatic shifts of rains, snows, and temperatures; with winds, hurricanes, typhoons, fire and flood (add earthquakes and volcanoes), the populations of the world are probably in the beginning of rapid transformations. What parts of Australia will survive—and where will its populations go? How many islands in the Philippines will go under? How long can New Orleans stay above water? How much air conditioning can Phoenix afford? Where will Phoenix—and much of California—get its water as the Colorado gets overtaxed and evaporation sucks its waters? And where will all the people go?

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