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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.