When I asked a group of friends a few days ago what issues came first to their minds in terms of the big problems facing our society, the answers were not surprising. International terrorism; the war in Iraq; the scourge of abortion; the definition and disintegration of the family; genocide in Sudan; the monopoly of secularist, statist education; a dismaying electoral process in the United States-it didn't take this alert group long to assemble a list of nearly 20 gloomy things to think about.
To all that darkness, I added still one other possible cause for dismay: drought in the United States. And I suggested that just one more year of shortfall in the usual rain patterns in big regions of the country might well lead to social disruptions of a kind that would eclipse our concern for the list we first assembled.
We modern Americans just aren't used to drought. Geographically, drought is for people in Ethiopia, Sudan, and remote parts of northern Africa. Historically, we've got vague recollections of something our ancestors called a "dust bowl" in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas-but certainly all that was in the day of hand pumps and outhouses. Modern technology has for sure put all that behind us.
Until now. Of all the spigots that the Lord God of heaven and earth could spin shut to get our quick attention, I can't think of any that match his big faucets in the sky that control our fresh water supply. Subprime mortgages? Cut them off, and we'll still adjust. Oil and gas? A lot more critical, of course. Electricity? Black us out, and society goes into shutdown mode. Social Security checks? Cut them off, and you'd trigger a depression.
But there's a difference between shutting down and dying. Without water, life dies and deserts appear.
You get a hint that you're on the edge of a new desert these days when you drive by the lifeless plant and shrubbery section of a Lowe's, a Home Depot, or a Wal-Mart in just about any suburb in Georgia. You suddenly realize that there's a perilous connection between the big "E" for Empty reservoirs throughout the southeastern United States and the "E" on more and more store shelves. You hear that 50,000 people related to the landscaping business in just two or three states are out of work-and you look at the cloudless, rainless sky and wonder just how fast that could spread.
You remember, in a mind's eye that isn't quite as remote as it was before, that throughout history the need for water has driven vast populations to war and to relocation. People become nomads and exiles because they are thirsty even before they become nomads because of political oppression. Nor is that only the case in distant history; go this very week to Darfur in Sudan to see how a dried-up water supply can help to ignite evil on a whole region of the world.
And then when you hear that Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia has declared a state of emergency in 85 of Georgia's 159 counties-where rainfall the last few years has been about half of what is normal-and when you hear hints that the National Guard might have to be called out to enforce the conservation measures that are on the way, maybe then your knees, and those of your neighbors, will begin bending to a kneeling position.
If that happens, it won't be the first time God has used a drought to remind people who's in charge. We humans can drill deeper for oil and gas, and we can build higher kilowatt electrical generators, and we can print money to bluff our way through an economic crisis. We can even, when desperation sets in, send a surge of soldiers to Iraq. But no one has figured out a way yet to hook a fleet of 747s to a bank of rain clouds, tow them to Georgia, Arizona, or southern California's wildfires, and flip a switch to make those clouds drop their rain. Ever since Elijah's showdown with the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kings 17), folks of virtually all religious persuasions have generally understood that the job of getting the earth watered belongs to powers higher than ourselves.
In many ways, I hope we don't need to go as far as Elijah did. So I'm taking shorter showers these days and brushing my teeth more briskly. But I'm not pretending that anything short of a few God-given gulley-washers can help our nation avoid this new and very real crisis.