Environmental, complex, and often emotional dilemmas require a careful approach – Interview with Lucas Piseri

It’s the history of the Ogallala Basin’s groundwater – a massive, protean hydrogeological formation 450,000 square kilometers under parts of eight states, from South Dakota to Texas – but it’s also the story of a family who lived for five generations where the aquifer is most vulnerable today. Lucas Besser traces, with intensity and precision, the path to this moment of crisis, a path marked by the imperative of survival but also the irresponsibility, excess of those who seek profit above the preservation of the natural world. In Glasgow, the rulers of the planet count the minutes until midnight as an ecological night. Many, in good faith, suggest global solutions. Images of carbon wreckage delirium and climate disruption spark legitimate publicizing ambitions. However, Lucas Bessire reminds us, in an intensely personal way, that these solutions must be local, adapted to concrete, and often complex situations. Finding compromise, and reasonable ways to live between the often contradictory necessities of environment and development, is not a simple process. The Besir family’s trajectory, from the extensive and often destructive exploitation of aquifer resources to an understanding of the urgent need for repair, proves this.

Lucas BesserClimate change dilemmas, like other contemporary emotional dilemmas, are not just rational dilemmas. This is definitely the case with my family. My grandfather dug some of the first wells in that part of the world, and my grandmother, Verne, tried to understand the effects of industrial farming and put them in historical context. While searching for the book, I discovered that Verne had brought to light forgotten stories about groundwater and attempted to locate ancient dry springs due to mechanical pumping in which her father played a major role. So it is a layered family history, an attempt to renew the sometimes fractured generational threads, to resume the family dialogue. It is an experience shared by many in the areas of natural resource depletion. Environmental destruction is transmitted from generation to generation. In the book I tried to evoke the personal, intimate, and common aspects of many environmental dilemmas.

Reporter: dilemmas stay often. Southwest Kansas, where you have multi-generational roots, has been and remains the arena of a historic clash between the imperatives of development and the imperatives of conservation. Migration and white establishment in the nineteenth century, then rampant industrialization, including agriculture, upset the balance of ecosystems, dislocating indigenous cultures, and in some cases decimating them. The violation of natural order contributed to the great drought of the 1930s, and these were difficult times. How does your family live?

Lucas Besser: My family came to southwest Kansas at the turn of the century, in the second wave of white settlers. They had the experience of a great drought, when water was the key to survival. For farmers like my great-great-grandfather, groundwater emerged as a way to break out of the devastating cycle of natural disasters and achieve prosperity through irrigation. For two decades, things have gone fairly well, but now, when the reserves of the Ogallala aquifer are significantly reduced, the moment of truth is approaching. It is a moment that requires a way out of amnesia, the deactivation of the mechanisms that blocked the memory of previous eradications. Gaps in understanding these exterminations, from bison extermination to major drought, are repeated with the impending drying of the Ogallala aquifer.

Reporter: Write, “The drying up of the aquifer brings about the most urgent dilemmas and crises of our time.” What are these crises?

Lucas BesserWe live in an age of contradiction and instability. In this context, the depletion of arid aquifers in general, and the Ogalala aquifer in particular, combines three crises: interpretation or truth, democracy and environmental conservation. These crises – the main difficulties of modernity – exist and are addressed in different ways wherever natural resources are threatened.

of reportsA: Do not stop emphasizing this diversity of facts and approaches, from country to country, and in some cases within the same country.

Lucas Besser: Burnout does not follow a single scenario. In southwest Kansas, many are approaching the last point. For a large number, the resources are already exhausted, and in the middle are those who still have some reserves, but they are not very large. There is also a small minority who can pump another 20-30 years. This is the dilemma: the problem is not unique, which complicates matters.

of reportsA: It complicates and slows them down and in terms of common solutions.

Lucas Besser: exactly. It also complicates a political solution. Government programs are, in many cases, tailored to a common and normative problem. However, we need a careful, case-by-case approach to aquifer depletion and a more informed analysis of the conditions for such depletion.

Reporter: Are there alternatives and models for coexistence between environmental urgency and development requirements?

Lucas Besser: Absolutely. There are many models. It’s no surprise, it’s not insoluble. However, it requires a greater concentration of efforts. Sustainable use, like development, has different faces in different places. It is therefore necessary to redefine concepts – profit, true value and sustainability – if we are to have a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with these fragile natural resources.

Reporter: Does your family share this vision?

Lucas Besser: My family, like many others, does not have a single opinion. During the period of documenting and writing for the book, I was able to restore the relationship with my father. We have forged, out of common sense for the revolution caused by the destruction of the aquifer, a common goal, an alliance for reform, and an understanding of what could be done differently. One way, the dilemmas of depleting natural resources can be an invitation to create alliances focused on specific issues. It is possible, and it gives me hope for the future.

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