More than a fifth of the Whooping Cranes that were present at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last spring have since died or disappeared, according to a recent survey. While some new cranes have also been born in this time, the flock’s numbers are still down nearly 10%. Signs point to the ongoing drought as a significant cause, since less fresh water means fewer blue crabs and blue crabs are a major part of the cranes’ winter diet.

The issue of drought in the southwestern US is a painful one, and likely to get worse rather than better. Droughts have always occurred in that landscape, often lasting years or even decades. Many fascinating ecosystems have adapted to cope with this, with a combination of delicacy and toughness that favors dynamic equilibrium and weeds out rigidity.

The ecosystem of the modern, suburbanized American is not one of them.

Our culture reacts to drought by drilling deeper, pumping farther, perpetrating further vampirism on already brutalized rivers, and only imposing the weakest constraints on consumption with the maximum whining possible. The idea that there could be any virtue in doing with less anything is dismissed as hair-shirt environmentalism, a radical plan that would reduce us all to living like serfs of the middle ages the second we think seriously about turning off the tap. Giving up your lawn or refraining from growing alfalfa in the desert is somehow an evil distortion of all that’s good and true in a way that, say, the subsidies that made those lawns and alfalfa fields possible in the first place is not. Go figure.

The thing that bugs me the most is this – how many people seem to think that current conditions truly are basically down to immutable laws of reality, when in fact a bit of history shows that our current conditions – our environmental woes, our patterns of highway and housing development, the gigantic clusterfuck that is our food system, even our ideas of what freedom is (the right to choose what color car you have if you can afford a car) and isn’t (the right to not be given asthma for someone else’s profit and convenience) are often down relatively arbitrary bits of politics which are long-forgotten now.

The cranes have changed their diet from blue crabs to fiddler crabs, which can tolerate the drought-related increases in salinity in the marshes better. This isn’t ideal for them, but it’s better than nothing. The way water is used in the American Southwest in particular is also going to change, either because we decided to change it, or when there simply isn’t enough left to do what we’ve been happy-assholing along doing. This change will include inconvenience and real suffering either way, but we can plan it and try to make it fair, or we can scramble through it and let the devil take the hindmost – both in terms of less-privileged people, the poor, minorities, and in terms of the environment. Right now, our cultural attitudes seem to favor the latter.

If there were plenty of Cranes, after all, these fifty dead ones would be replaced, when the drought is over someday, by young birds from other flocks or independent individuals who fed in outlying areas – areas that are now shopping malls, perhaps. If we had let Nature take her course, the right thing to do would be to let her keep on keeping on. But what we have done precludes that option, unless we want to lose the Whooping Cranes today, and maybe tomorrow ourselves – for want of a better word, our souls.

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