This week's Phoenix Laff Riot comes from the Arizona Republic, in a story headlined "Striving to be Green:
The Valley is lashed in national surveys for its poor air quality, derided for its urban sprawl and mocked for its searing temperatures and growing heat island.
But, despite these challenges, city boosters, business owners, environmentalists and academics all say Phoenix has a unique opportunity to become truly sustainable. They also say the Valley could squander that opportunity if it fails to make smart decisions now about growth, open spaces, wildlife and the economy.
Later in the story is the kind of cliche sentence editors wouldn't allow, if only they weren't in endless meetings and trying to put together graphics and assorted crap: "But only time will tell if the Valley can pull it off."
I hate to break the news, but time has told and "the Valley" can't pull it off.
Sustainability issues go beyond poor air quality, sprawl and heat island. The big enchilada is water: there's not enough to continue growing by 40 percent each decade, particularly in "master planned communities" in places such as Greater Buckeye. There may not be enough to sustain the population there now, at least in its current "lifestyle." For one thing, the Colorado River is oversubscribed; its water was divvied out based on historically high flows unlikely to return, and global warming is already diminishing the Rocky Mountain snowpack upon which it depends. More ominously, global warming is hurting the Arizona snowpack even more, meaning the safety net of the Salt River Project is in danger. Even if Colorado water was abundant, the feds won't spring for another canal to slake Phoenix's thirst. Nor will it be likely to build desalination plants, even if they were practical.
Another big problem is Phoenix's complete dependence on gasoline, food and, to a large extent, electricity from the outside world. The scary consequences of this were hinted at a few summers ago when a gasoline pipeline broke, and later a power station burned -- you could taste the insurrection in the air. And as civil defense planners learned in the 1960s, when Phoenix was a fraction of today's population, you just can't get people evacuated -- and where would you take them if you could? The food situation is tragically ironic, considering that Maricopa County as late as 1970 was an exporter of food. Now the soil and climate that created enviable crop yields have been pimped out to subdivisions. (And re power: How 'bout that huge nuke plant upwind, consistently making bad NRC grades and slurping water?)
Yet another sustainability issue is socio-economic: much of the metropolitan area is linear slums populated by low-skilled, first-generation, non-English speaking immigrants who are cut out of the mainstream and increasingly persecuted. Then there's the struggling lower-middle-class Anglo population, filled with bigotry, talk-radio grievances and heavily armed. This is a formula for a Katrina-like collapse. Again, this is a change from Phoenix up until about 1970. It has been cloaked by a low-end housing factory economy that is over. Nobody knows how this will turn out, but one thing is sure: the real players in town have nothing to broaden or increase the competitiveness or quality of the economy.
Many more issues lurk, but you get the idea. Nothing meaningful is being done. ASU can study this stuff until it snows in Yuma or the Sun Devils win the Rose Bowl, but nobody with means is deploying the big bucks it would take to, say, create a solar-powered economy. Sad irony II: solar research began in Phoenix in the 1950s, but was lost to Europe. Reclaiming it would require large amounts of capital, in a stream running from lab to companies -- something Arizona has no means or willingness to do. Nor is there a willingness to, say, require solar panels on all houses.
Another, little-discussed aspect of solar: most of the solar plants being discussed for Arizona would require huge amounts of water for cooling -- and state water regs have big loopholes for industry. I'm already suspicious that the vaunted groundwater law is being undermined, and these solar plants would further (legally) degrade already stressed aquifers.
Wishful thinking abounds, about solar, desalination plants and magic hydrogen cars that would allow the current urban form and habits to continue, for the state and region's "success" to continue being measured by adding large numbers of people. Most of it is fanciful, or far too expensive. Meanwhile, practical steps such as investing in urban districts heavy with shade trees and grass, retaining and reclaiming agriculture, adding much more transit and, most of all, stopping sprawl are dead on arrival.
These issues will only grow more severe as global warming really begins to savage the Southwest -- and destabilize central and South American populations, many of whom will head north no matter the jackboots of Joe and Peyton. And just wait for energy costs resume their inexorable rise.
So all you can do is laugh. Until the tragedy unfolds at greater speed, or sudden calamity, where all the brutal pipers will line up to be paid. And all the rich enclaves of north Scottsdale or Chandler, or the tribal "master planned communities" of Gilbert, won't stop it. But boosters take heart: You can still sing of your millions. All around the Third World are populous urban areas living in conditions almost as awful as Phoenix will become. They just lack derelict swimming pools in the back yards and the remnants of city-provided benches on their front slabs.
Read Rogue's Sustainability archive.