Taking Our Cues From Africa's Bushmen

James Workman is the author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought -- a nonfiction narrative of the Central Kalahari San's ongoing struggle besieged by Botswana's government, with water deployed as the decisive weapon of last resort.

JG: What inspired you to write this book?

JW: Panic. Thirst. Gratitude.On my way to "rescue" the besieged Bushmen in Botswana's Kalahari, my Land Rover broke down in the middle of nowhere, and I realized, very quickly and irreversibly, that I needed their time-savvy experience more than they needed my help. And while there's no shortage of good studies on drought, climate change, water scarcity and resource competition, most of these emphasize the looming danger for abstract populations, rather than acute risks of people at risk right now. I wanted to humanize the statistics. I wanted to animate the cold amoral forces at work through the lives, and death, of warm, laughing, dancing people. And the inherent drama of the Kalahari (which literally translates as 'Great Thirstland') -- inhabited by the earth's oldest civilization besieged by the surrounding modern, diamond-rich democracy --made this a compelling story that had to be told.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

JW: How the story decides how it wants to be written. Initially I had envisioned a courtroom drama, a clash of legal ideas, filled with competing claims and political intrigue over the pivotal question of a human right to water. And that angle still runs through one or two chapters. But the overarching plot, the narrative flow that kept rising to the surface during the writing, was how these extraordinary people continued to adapt to human and natural adversity outside the Western regulatory structure, and what the contrast reveals about the hopes of and obstacles to humanity. Once I could grasp how we thirsty, vulnerable people were governed by water, not the other way around, the book fell into place.

JG: What would you be doing, if you weren't a writer?

JW: Blowing up old obsolete dams. I'm not being flippant; this incredible undertaking was something I latched onto in the 1990s when I was with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and it revealed how nature, given half a chance, can heal the oldest, deepest wounds. And to coin a phrase, size doesn't matter: some abandoned small dams we tore open from Maine to North Carolina have replenished rich aquatic ecosystems there. Still, there's a real thrill when looking at a large Elwha or Klamath or Snake River hydropower dam that just doesn't make sense anymore and think: your days are numbered, and your destruction would be a profound act of creation.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

JW: In fiction, novels and stories by Rick Bass and David James Duncan speak to me on a very immediate level. And both authors are, not coincidentally, walking the fine line between art and activism, between writing and doing. But in nonfiction I find myself moving from the political books that fascinated me for years toward the evolutionary science of ecosystems, including human nature, and for those I turn to David Quammen's edited version of The Origin of Species and Song of the Dodo, and Robert Wright's Nonzero and The Evolution of God.

JG: What's next for you?

JW: I'm trying to implement the lessons and conclusions from Heart of Dryness into our urban world outside the Kalahari. It's a way of putting my book royalties (such as they may be) where my mouth is. If I really do believe "How the Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought," and I do, then I should invest not just my words but my time and money into a Web 2.0 venture that works with utilities to scale up the secure ownership and exchange system practiced by a band of 45 Bushmen into an arid city of 45,000. Our nascent business is called 'SmartMarkets: Unlocking unnatural monopolies for the conservation of people, water and energy.' If imitation is a sincere form of flattery, then I see this as a way to honor the Bushmen for the extraordinary example they have offered and, in the process, give something back.

  • Jeff Glor

    Jeff Glor was named anchor of the Sunday edition of the "CBS Evening News" in January 2012 and Special Correspondent for "CBS This Morning" in November 2011.