In 1964, Zephaniah Phiri Maseko suddenly found himself out of a job. He had been supporting his family of eight as a railway worker in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), but when he became politically active in opposition to the minority white ruling class of his country, he was fired and told that he would never work again. So he turned to the only two resources he had: a degraded piece of land and the Bible.

Maseko used the Bible as his gardening manual. Taking inspiration from how the Garden of Eden provided for Adam and Eve’s every need, he decided he needed his own Garden of Eden. In order to do that, he needed a Tigris and a Euphrates, but he lived in one of Zimbabwe’s driest regions. So Maseko decided to create his own rivers.

He watched what happened when the rain fell, where it went and what it did. He saw that where the rain sank into the ground, life flourished. Where it ran off, it took the soil with it, leaving little behind for plants to grow. As he put it, “(w)hen there are thunderstorms, soil and water try to elope together and run away from my land. It is my job to persuade them to settle down here and raise a family.”

Maseko imitated what he saw, building little catchment lines of rocks perpendicular to the slope to slow and sink the rain into the ground as quickly as possible, holding valuable nutrients and organic matter so that plants could flourish. He realized that “before you plant trees, you must plant water.” Over time — and with incredible determination and faith — Phiri and his family transformed their scrubby acreage into a beautiful Garden of Eden. 

From the rain that fell on his land, Maseko was able to feed his family and livestock, and grow countless seedlings to share with others. Word spread of his good work, and over succeeding decades, Maseko and his family taught neighbors, farmers and visitors from all over the world how to work with the rain, including Brad Lancaster, who shares Maseko’s story in his invaluable bookRainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond.”

But Maseko, who died in 2015, didn’t learn how to create such abundance from the experts; in fact, his rainwater harvesting plans ran counter to professional water management systems. The government had built diversion swales to mitigate flood damage from the seasonal rains, which meant that the rainwater was rushed off the land to a distant floodplain instead of infiltrating the soil to be available during the rest of the year for growing crops. The result of these expensive, expert-driven projects was an exacerbation of drought conditions.

Also contrary to the recommendations of international aid and government officials, Maseko minimized groundwater pumping, instead husbanding the water that fell from the sky and keeping all but one of his wells unlined. Maseko’s Garden of Eden would have been impossible had he listened to the experts. The Bible proved to be the richer source of knowledge and inspiration.

The temptation of ‘technopoly’

To create so much abundance, Maseko resisted what the late scholar Neil Postman called “technopoly” — a technocratic totalitarianism that crowds out alternative sources of cultural power and knowledge formation, such as religion. Most of us have lived our lives under the shadow of technopoly. As a result, we find it difficult to chart any path outside its totalizing grip — just look at how religious people often justify their faith through social science studies or the way those who pray for rain are roundly mocked. To the technopolist, religion is a hindrance. If only the fools praying to an imaginary sky being would get out of the way, then the scientific experts, whom technopolists believe have the best solutions, can get down to business.

A striking example of this disdain comes from comedian John Oliver’s segment examining drought in the West. The show plays a clip of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s call for a weekend of prayer, then an actor appears as “God,” thundering that you can’t pray your way out of a drought and that what is needed is for “humans of all faiths to come together and act like rational (expletive) adults.” Rationalism is considered the way to salvation in the technopolist age.

While it’s frustrating to hear calls to pray for rain followed by little to no actual repentance, the proposed alternatives to prayer — rationalism and exhortations to follow expert prescriptions — are just as disheartening. Experts alone will not solve our drought challenges; in fact, as in Zimbabwe, they can make things worse. 

Dumpscaping and desertification

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the sterility of technopolist solutions better than what could realistically be called dumpscaping: covering dirt with plastic liners or landscaping fabric and then dumping a bunch of rocks or gravel on top.

Despite the more recent emphasis on “localscaping” (using plants more adapted to a climate), a quick look around shows that plants are clearly optional. By the technopolist’s limited measurements, dumpscaping is a success: the water consumed to maintain the land has been reduced. Dumpscaping may solve the immediate problem of water usage, but it creates a landscape that struggles to soak in the rain or snow, thereby hampering groundwater recharging and leading to increased water shortages down the line. “Excess” water is quickly whisked off by storm drains (our version of Zimbabwean diversion swales) instead of soaking into the ground.

Not only does dumpscaping inhibit groundwater recharging, it affects soil and air temperatures and evaporation rates. Whereas plants, especially trees, shade the soil, keeping it moist and the air cooler, dumpscaping soaks up the scorching sun, raising daytime temperatures and releasing heat long after the sun has set. This increases the need for air conditioning. More electricity to run cooling units means more water used. Nevertheless, dumpscaping remains a seductive solution

Gov. Cox called on Utahns to pray for rain. Some criticized him. He responded
The memory of Great Salt Lake runs deep, even if the water doesn’t

Dumpscaping and storm drains reveal the technopolists’ ignorance of the physical landscape they propose to improve. This ignorance is compounded by their compartmentalized metrics — water use and water diversion — which means we end up with solutions that, in reality, are desertification projects. Though the technopolists would argue that their solutions more accurately reflect Utah’s real climate, they must vigilantly eradicate the pioneer plants — the Siberian elms, kochia, sumac, dandelions and so forth —that would otherwise colonize their desertified landscape. 

If Utah — especially the Wasatch Front — feels like a desert, it’s because we’ve made it into one. It’s a desert maintained by herbicides and their attendant costs to ecology and biology, including human fertility. To solve one problem — water use — technopolists sow countless more. If we blindly heed their advice, we really will find ourselves living in a barren desert.

The role of faith

Let me emphasize that experts can be helpful in addressing our water woes. Indeed, had the expert advice of John Wesley Powell been heeded nearly 150 years ago, the worst of our current water problems would likely have been avoided. As historian Donald Worster explains, Powell (and other contributors) published a government report in 1878 that many believe to be “one of the most important contributions ever made to American conservation.” In the report, Powell explains that given the scarcity of water in the West, the U.S. government could not afford to approach the land like it had in the (more rainy) eastern United States under the Homestead Act. He recommended that political divisions and water management in an area reflect the watersheds, in a way that bound water and property rights together. Thus, settlements must be organized in a way that reflects the water resources in their area, with agrarian villages sharing collective management of their watershed.

Worster finds Powell’s suggestions to be rather “un-American,” running counter to the “individualism and private property that had ruled the day.” However, Powell’s ideas did not materialize out of thin air. Powell indirectly acknowledged his teachers when he wrote, “In Utah Territory cooperative labor, under ecclesiastical organization, has been very successful.”

Ultimately, as Worster explains, Powell’s plan relied on a “more secular organization and secular goodwill ... (he) was confident he could have the colony idea without the theocracy, and he carefully edited out all reference to God or saints in his report on the arid lands.” Powell’s vision of how to meet the challenges of water in the West was the most impressive expert vision expressed in the 19th century, but it was not based on scientific inquiry alone. It also sprang from the lived religious beliefs and practices of early Latter-day Saints in Utah. 

Powell’s vision recognized the need to bring human culture and political systems into greater harmony with the West’s physical limitations, but by glossing over the integral role of religion in his proposed solutions, he was (to repurpose a phrase from C.S. Lewis) removing an organ and demanding its function. Rational technocratic systems are unequal to the monumental task of finding balance in our watersheds, both in their knowledge-making capabilities and in their ability to cultivate within all of us the discipline to nurture the abundance necessary to solve the water crisis. As author Paul Kingsnorth puts it, “Religions impose limits: on our desires, our passions, our will. They require us to live within boundaries, to obey God, and the best of them require us too to respect nature — creation— and our bodies, and the shape and form they impose upon us.” 

It can be helpful to have experts perform rigorous scientific inquiry into our water problems, but we need prayer and religious discipline, too. And we need our Bibles to inspire us. At its heart, our water crisis is a problem of culture; the distance between our physical and cultural landscapes is vast, facilitated in large part by the technology that promises to deliver us from our problems. Surrendering our culture to technopoly only widens and accelerates the disconnect between these two landscapes, procrastinating the day of our repentance. Like Maseko, we can turn heavenward, not just to pray for rain, but for the wisdom to know how to best “plant” it when it comes.

Andrew Skabelund and his family are aspiring subsistence farmers. He holds a doctorate in African history from Ohio State University and writes at Worthless Thoughts on Substack.