1 Jun 2015

Rain -- the review

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, and Cynthia Barnett's book (subtitled "a natural and cultural history") delivers exactly what it promises. It reminded me of James Salzman's book, Drinking Water (A History), in the way that she approaches all of rain's various roles in our lives.

I received a review copy of this 300 page book, which is divided into five sections (elemental/chance/American/capturing/mercurial + "rain") that help you understand rain's roles -- famous and not -- in our history.

As someone who has lived in damp (San Francisco and Amsterdam), stormy (Vancouver and Washington DC) and dry (Los Angeles) places, I have a keen awareness of rain's effect on us. The Dutch, for example, do not waste a moment to get in the sun when it's shining. Angelenos, OTOH, run outside when it is raining.

Rain, in fact, may be the most important determinant of how we feel about a place, event or time. Indeed, I would say that is the rainscape, not the landscape, that underlies our impressions of new places and sets our rhythms in familiar ones.

So that's how the book feels, but what lessons or ideas did I take from it? On the one hand, the book could be a series of interesting magazine articles, suitable for cocktail conversation. On the other, it might make you think a little more about how a change in rain might affect your life. This latter role is important, as climate change is likely to "arrive" in the guise of changes in rain patterns (e.g., California's snowpack bare mountains, the killer drought in India, or the killer floods in Texas).

The book also prompted these random thoughts:
  • Farmers may not like rain as much as irrigation for growing crops, but rain's variability forces one to be more conservative with plans, plants, and projects. Irrigation is convenient, but interruptions can doom those who depend on it. (Groundwater is the best buffer for variable rain, but you cannot mine it!)
  • In the eastern US, they practice flood control; in the west, they practice irrigation. Cross those traditions to get unexpected consequences on top of expected failures and complications.
  • Politicians are fools for "gee whiz" solutions (e.g., cloud seeding) -- especially when they are bought with Other People's Money (yay Congress!)
  • Rain is a cultural force that makes people feel good when it fits their younger experiences.
  • People and politicians will act to reduce pollution (e.g., acid rain) when its costs fall back on them (hence the challenge for dealing with GHGs and climate change).
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for being an interesting read for people who want to think more about rain, history and culture than about policy, technology or economics.


Michael. said...

Actually we used to have much longer rainy periods in the Netherlands, not at all the amount of sun we have nowadays, let alone droughts.

David Zetland said...

Yes. I'd like to look at an almanac.

David Zetland said...

I just looked up data on KNMI and Apr/May were much drier than normal, but Jan was wetter, so precip (YTD) is average (1971-2010)

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