Graeme Wood

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A Desert Moistened

The classic evidence for a wet Sahara comes from the Tassili frescoes, a series of fifty Algerian cave paintings that depict humans living with crocodiles, buffalo, giraffes, and other animals that do not thrive in arid climates. Ten thousand years ago, it appears, our ancestors could have grown rice in the Sahara, or spent their weekends Jet-Skiing at their North African lake-houses. For millennia, they had no reason to fear their water running out, or their settlements’ being reclaimed by desert sands, or of water running out. What the new reports about this bizarre climatological period don’t much emphasize, though, is that the Sahara was wet during a period of comparative global heat, and that it became parched only as the planet chilled.

There are reasons to downplay this side of the story. Global-warming skeptics enjoy pointing out (often with endearingly impish recklessness) that environmental alarmists haven’t got their story straight, and that they’ve foolishly underestimated the cunning of climatological history. A hot-weather Saharan paradise seemingly supports at least the latter point: Even armed with our best models today, I wouldn’t want to bet on which parts of a hotter planet would become pleasant and which hellish, although overall I’d suspect the hellish areas to expand faster than the pleasant ones.

My own vision of the future, at once mildly pro-apocalyptic and emphatically pro-Jet-Ski, leads me to hope that we take both the skeptics’ and alarmists’ positions as a challenge, and consider ways to attack the problem on the margin of human adaptability. We are a durable species, even if we do not inhabit a durable climate. For now, it seems we still can halt global climate change. But if we can’t, we can try other options. Why not prepare ourselves for a future in which we are reconciled, at least temporarily, to a drastically reduced population and smaller physical footprint on the globe? In time, we may winnow our numbers voluntarily and retreat into small areas, living perhaps — but not necessarily — in conditions worse and more pitiful than we enjoy today. Those who love a sprawling and heavily-populated human civilization would mourn the culling, and (assuming my survival) I would mourn it with them. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

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