California has been in a State of Emergency due to drought since January 2014. As the map below shows, the U.S. Drought Monitor calculates that as of June 9th, 98.71% of the state is in a condition of “severe drought,” 71.08% is in a condition of “extreme drought,” and 46.73% is in a condition of “exceptional drought.”When it comes to definitions of drought, the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) notes that “research in the early 1980s uncovered more than 150 published definitions of drought.” The NDMC draws upon the work of researchers Wilhite and Glantz to categorize “the definitions in terms of four basic approaches to measuring drought: meteorological, hydrological, agricultural, and socioeconomic.”
Though supply-and-demand or “socioeconomic” aspects of drought can be analyzed through economic and political lenses, droughts that are triggered by a lack of precipitation have historically been interpreted through the framework of another powerful and widespread social force: religion. In History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth, historian Paul Cohen writes that in China during the late 1800s and early 1900s, “where it had been widely believed for centuries that there was a link between human behavior and the actions of Heaven, as expressed through nature, it was not at all uncommon to blame droughts and other natural calamities on official misconduct and to seek to alleviate the crisis by changing either the conduct or the official.”
Cohen provides several examples of drought being attributed to the upsetting of cosmic balance by governmental actions:
‘I have heard,’ one censor commented in response to the drought of 1876-1879, ‘that if one woman suffers an injustice, for three years there will be no rain.’ Another censor, citing the precedent of a three-year drought during the Han dynasty following the unjust execution of a filial wife, connected the 1870s drought to the disruption of heavenly harmony caused by excessive judicial torture.”
As these examples show, drought could be linked to widespread policies such as torture, but also to singular harmful acts against individuals like the execution of an innocent. They also show that two different individuals, even if they both share the basic belief that human actions can lead to drought as a divine repercussion, can reach different conclusions as to which particular action is responsible for the current drought.
Cohen rejects the idea that religious interpretations of drought are “supracultural or intrinsically human,” noting that in the modern era many people speak of drought purely in secular terms. He concedes, however, that “supernatural agency is […] a very widely encountered cultural construction.”
Cohen observes that there are two major categories of attempts to mitigate drought through religious behavior: the “correction of human misconduct in order to reestablish cosmic harmony” and “prayer and other rain-inducing ceremonial practices.” These two approaches can, of course, be utilized either in conjunction or independently of one another. A prayer or ceremony for rain does not necessarily imply a belief in human causation of the state of drought, though it certainly could also be perceived as the right course of action to offset whatever offenses may have been committed. No specific narrative regarding the cause of drought, for example, was included in the description (36) for the “Bring on the Rain! Mojo for Parched CA” ritual that was held at Pantheacon 2014 in San Jose, California.
Cohen suggests that prayer or ritual is common as an initial response to lack of rain, but that if results are not forthcoming, the other category of response may become more prominent: “The first recourse for people faced with drought is, as we have seen, to offer up prayers and perform a range of rain-inducing rituals. But when such conventional means fail to produce relief, and the anxiety occasioned by the drought deepens, people often resort to more heroic measures. The generic element here is scapegoatism, the identification of a human agency deemed responsible for the crisis and the punishment of that agency.”
During the severe drought in Northern China in 1899-1900, participants in the Boxer Rebellion circulated notices explicitly blaming Christian missionaries and converts for angering the gods and thereby causing the drought. One notice, for example, contained the doggerel lines:
They proselytize their sect,/And believe in only one God,/The spirits and their own ancestors/Are not even given a nod/ […] No rain comes from Heaven./The earth is parched and dry./And all because the churches/Have bottled up the sky./The god[s] are very angry./The spirits seek revenge./En masse they come from Heaven/To teach the Way to men. – (translation by Joseph Esherick)
One Boxer placard directly addressed Chinese converts to Christianity, saying that they had abandoned the gods and their ancestors, angering the gods to the point that they withheld rain.
China was not the only traditional society to blame Christianization for drought. Nineteenth-century Botswana blamed a prolonged drought on Christianity, especially when a well-known rainmaker was baptized and summarily abandoned his previous practices. When the local missionary left after several years of disaster, the rain did indeed come back.
Cohen argues that the growing presence of foreigners in 1899-1900 was not a common experience to most Chinese living in the North China plain in the same way that drought was. A villager who had never seen a missionary could be convinced to join the Boxer movement in the hopes of propitiating the gods and bringing back the rain. The drought, of course, also caused widespread unemployment among peasants, giving them both the time and additional motivation—either hunger or fear of hunger—to join the Boxers. Cohen concludes that “it was this factor, more than any other, in my judgment, that accounted for the explosive growth both of the Boxer movement and of popular support for it in the spring and summer months of 1900.”
Scapegoating, of course, is a dangerous phenomenon, especially when one is a member of a minority religion. However, it can be secular as well as religious. California has already seen television commercials by a group that believes that “California’s drought could have been prevented” with anti-immigrant policies. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, William Patzert, a climatologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, points out that blaming the drought on immigrants is illogical. It isn’t caused by immigrants drinking too much water or showering too often, he says, but rather it is due to meager snowpack and poor planning.
Though most people are not so quick to attribute causation of the drought itself to any demographic, the drought has highlighted awareness and criticism of individuals and institutions perceived to be using more than their fair share of water. One group that has been criticized is almond farmers, who grow a popular perennial cash crop that requires watering every year and cannot be left fallow. Another group that has been criticized is Southern California residents, who astoundingly “used more water than ever this February,” according to Amy Westervelt of The Guardian.
Public outrage has also been directed at companies bottling water in California to sell elsewhere, such as Walmart and Nestlé. Nestlé’s CEO recently stated that Nestlé would “absolutely not” stop bottling its water in California and added that “if I could increase [the amount being bottled], I would.” An online trend known as “drought-shaming” has also targeted members of the upper class who still maintain their lawns and swimming pools.
Percentage-wise, agriculture accounts for “roughly 80% of all human water use” in California. Bottled water companies and urban residents have been quick to point out this fact, disclaiming the overall significance of their own water usage. Even among farmers, though, “water scarcity and buckling land have neighboring farmers eyeing one another warily,” writes Matt Richtel in the New York Times. “Buckling land” is a consequence the practice of groundwater pumping, which drains aquifers and can cause the ground to sink, an effect known as subsidence. In areas “where subsidence is the worst, the land can sink as much as a foot each year.”
The heightened awareness around water usage and its consequences has led to an increase in water’s value as a commodity. However, this has not necessarily led to an increased respect for the sacred—certainly not at the level of public policy. The drought has also drawn attention to California’s system of water rights seniority, in which claims “staked more than a century ago” are the last to be subjected to mandatory cuts in water usage. However, this policy ignores the fact that indigenous people have the greatest seniority when it comes to a relationship to the land and watersheds, and instead privileges the heirs of the first colonizers.
One proposed “solution” to water scarcity is a raising of the Shasta Dam. However, this proposal is a reiterated existential threat to the Winnemem Wintu, an indigenous tribe inhabiting “ancestral territory from Mt. Shasta down the McCloud River watershed.” The Winnemem Wintu website states:
The Winnemem not only lost our villages on the McCloud River when the Shasta Dam was erected during World War II, we also lost many of our sacred places beneath Shasta Lake. These are places to which we hold an emotional and religious connection, and their loss remains a void in our lives as Winnemem.
The proposed raising of the dam would have additional disastrous effects. The Winnemem Wintu explain, “A dam raise of about 18-feet, the most likely scenario, would permanently or seasonally flood an estimated 39 sacred sites along the McCloud River, including Puberty Rock, and would essentially end our ability to practice our culture and religion.” The website poses the question as an issue of religious freedom: “If there were only a few hundred people left who practiced Islam or Judaism, would the country support knocking down the last mosque or the last temple? That is what a dam raise would do to the Winnemem.”The initial construction of the Shasta Dam also “blocked the salmon runs,” and the Winnemem “advocate for all aspects of clean water and the restoration of salmon to their natural spawning grounds.” The Winnemem Wintu website promotes salmon restoration as “a far more sensible, cost-effective economic stimulus that will provide long-term rather than short term benefits,” and points out that the proposed dam raise would ultimately “yield a relatively small amount of very expensive water.”
The Winnemem Wintu clearly know what they are fighting for. What stance will other minority religious traditions, especially those that see water as sacred or honor spirits related to water, take on the drought and issues surrounding water usage?
Paul Cohen states the obvious when he writes that “while the basic premise that natural disasters are to be accounted for by some supernatural agency acting in response to human wrongdoing appears with great frequency, the particularities of a society’s response to such disasters…will be shaped by the special cultural forms and historical experience of that society.” In other words, given religious diversity, such as one finds across the spectrums of Neo-paganism or polytheism, one can only expect a diverse array of religious interpretations of and responses to drought. The previously cited example of government officials attempting to ascertain the cause of drought during the Late Qing Dynasty shows that divergence of interpretation can reach even the individual level. Nonetheless, some general ideas about the relationship between religion and drought in the modern day can be considered and discussed.
The idea of “correction of human misconduct in order to reestablish cosmic harmony” does not inherently require the targeting of a specific demographic for punishment. At its core, this idea relies upon the religious concept that there is such a thing as “cosmic harmony” in the first place. Second, a quick look at current events is likely to lead many to reach the conclusion that if such a thing as “cosmic harmony” exists, it has been disrupted, and that drought is a symptom of that disruption. Finally, though definitions of what constitutes “human misconduct” may vary widely, the essential principle behind the idea is that human actions matter; they have unseen consequences.
Based upon these three principles, a great number of religious interpretations and responses are possible. The “correction of human misconduct” could entail changing one’s own behavior, seeking to convince or coerce others to change theirs, direct action to stop specific acts of “misconduct,” or a combination of any of the above. The Boxer placard addressed to Chinese Christian converts advocated both change of personal behavior and joining the larger social movement: “It is a matter of great urgency that you quickly join the Boxers and sincerely mend your ways.”
One recent interpretation of the California drought can be found in P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’s short story “Robigalia 2015,” which marked the annual sacrifice to the ancient Roman deity Robigo or Robigus. Robigo was once propitiated to avert blights on grain. Lupus notes that grain blight is less of a concern in the modern day than it was in antiquity, but proceeds to explore the possibility that “the water shortages of California–an event as much due to human causes as to the waning portion in the cycles of nature–became the outlet via which Robigo was able to come to the fore again.” In a comment below the story, Lupus writes, “I don’t think by any means this is ‘the answer’ or anything of the sort; but, I think given the state of the world, if we thought more in these terms as polytheists, people might want to do something about these matters (insofar as they can) more than they do otherwise.”
In his essay “Restoring Sovereignty and the Path Forward,” Brennos writes about the ancient Irish concept of divinely-granted sovereignty:
The failure of a King to meet their obligations either by breaking their agreements with the Otherworld or their people, resulted in withdrawal of Sovereignty which had disastrous effects such as crop failures and famine, the death of livestock, disease and hardship. In a situation like this, the failed King would step down, die in battle, or be sacrificed to allow a more suitable King to take their place.
The quotes by Qing government officials are related to similar ideas in China about the link between political legitimacy and cosmic harmony. Even more explicitly, in Transcendence & Divine Passion: The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China, Suzanne Cahill writes that drought and rebellions and heterodox religious movements were all seen equally as signs “of the imminent fall of the Han rulers.” Or in other words, these events were seen as symptoms of the ruling dynasty’s loss of the Mandate of Heaven.
What does any of this have to do with people who don’t live in California? As Brennos writes, “At the heart of this type of Sovereignty of the Land is interconnectedness.” This interconnectedness is both natural and divine. It has a social aspect as well.
Everything is Connected
In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis links the worldwide droughts of 1876-79, 1888-91 and 1896-1902 to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather pattern, the rise of the global capitalist economy, and the expansionist land-grabs of the New Imperialism.According to the NDMC, El Niño is a phenomenon involving increased water temperatures off the western coast of South America, while the Southern Oscillation is a “seesaw of atmospheric pressure between the eastern equatorial Pacific and Indo–Australian areas.” The acronym ENSO is used to describe the two phenomena in conjunction. “Atmospheric interactions between widely separated regions,” such as those seen during ENSO events, are termed “teleconnections.” Though not all variations in weather patterns during ENSO years are attributable to ENSO, the NDMC reports that “researchers have found the strongest connections between ENSO and intense drought in Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, parts of east and south Africa, the western Pacific basin islands (including Hawaii), Central America, and various parts of the United States.”
Davis notes that all of these areas, plus China, were severely affected by worldwide droughts during the late Victorian era, though “the instrumental record before 1957 is generally too poor to support” attaching the El Niño label to specific years. He further observes that colonial policy and capitalist economics contributed to many of the resulting famines. During the 1877-78 drought and famine in British-ruled India, for example, “grain merchants […] preferred to export a record 6.4 million cwt. of wheat to Europe in 1877-78 rather than relieve starvation in India.” The British Viceroy, Lytton, further imposed an increase in taxation on salt and on “petty traders (professionals were exempt),” which he claimed would serve the purpose of “insuring this Empire against the worst calamities of a future famine.”
In fact, however, “the whole accumulated fund was used either to reduce cotton goods tariff or for the Afghan war.” Lytton’s increase in taxation demonstrated not merely a policy of laissez-faire, but of deliberate imperial expansion at the direct expense of the starving poor. Thus, Davis concludes, the deaths attributed to the “natural” causes of disease and El Niño-exacerbated drought cannot actually be separated from economics and politics. Davis’s analysis of the Indian famine of the 1877-78 can be applied to the present day as well.
2015 is an El Niño year. American scientists initially described this year’s El Niño as “weak” in March, but Australian scientists disputed this forecast in May. “‘This is a proper El Niño effect, it’s not a weak one,’ David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology, told reporters.” El Niño has been linked to increased rain in California in the past, but Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pointed out in March that “this El Niño is likely too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California, as California’s rainy season is winding down.” However, as always, El Niño is predicted “to increase prices of staple foods such as rice, coffee, sugar and cocoa” around the world.
Mike Davis calls famines “wars over the right to existence.” He notes that the Late Victorian era saw explicitly religious revolts in conjunction with droughts in China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Brazil. And, as the export of wheat from India in the 1870s and Nestlé’s bottling of California’s spring water both demonstrate, famine and drought are inextricably linked with economics as well as with military campaigns and politics. Any religious interpretation of current events, therefore, must necessarily take a global perspective as well; ENSO’s “teleconnections” are not merely meteorological. From a religious point of view, unseen “teleconnections” can be said to underlie the very fabric of reality. As the drought in California continues to intensify, both Californians and non-Californians will be affected by more and more drastic changes. The need for more prayers and rituals—or a perhaps even a fundamental “correction of human misconduct in order to reestablish cosmic harmony”—will intensify as well.