Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Arizona, how big is big enough?"

Just because you can speak, doesn't mean people will listen.

Edward Abbey has to be my favorite environmental terrorist/writer, influencing many of my environmental beliefs and social convictions. I'm currently reading One Life at a Time, Please by Abbey. I've also read Desert Solitude and The Monkey Wrench Gang--an educational staple for many schools--of my own accord. He understands what it is to live, not off nature, but in the middle of it; to observe its majestic beauty and understand its horribly unforgiving ways.

One Life at a Time, Please is a collection of Abbey's essays, many submitted to well-known publications, many not, all lamenting the direction the American Southwest has taken. The inspiration for this post comes from the work "Arizona, how big is big enough?" In it, Abbey addresses the rapid growth of Phoenix and Tucson, asking: why grow?

As a resident of Arizona, this issue hits my most core beliefs. Community leaders advocate growth as an economic necessity, but this can not continue. Arizona's limited water resources can't support much more, not to mention the endless urban sprawl that clogs freeways, pollutes the air, and creates "heat islands" depriving the city of rain.

What's more, growth destroys what I value most about the Southwest: nature. While I am far from a rugged mountain man, hiking provides great spiritual release for me. However, the commute to nature constantly grows as Phoenix expands, increasing my frustration and destroying the solitude that makes my experiences so rich.

Perhaps the most terrifying part of Abbey's comments is their antiquity. He wrote the essay almost thirty years ago and all the apocalyptic preaching has come to pass, and more. The U.S. Census estimated 1,388,416 people resided in Phoenix in 2003, 5,580,811 in Arizona overall. The city covered 475 square miles. Houston, Texas, contained 2,009,690 people spread over 579 square miles. (

The facts should speak for themselves, but in case they're shy I'll spell it out: Phoenix is huge. Not only are we outrageously spread out, the city has grown--continues to grow--at a rate that can not be preserved. It doesn't take an expert to determine collapse is inevitable.

Think of what's been lost. People flocked to Phoenix for its fresh air, dry climate, and gorgeous sunsets. Now, while the air is still dry and the sunsets more gorgeous than ever--due to increased particles in the air--the air quality has dropped to dangerous levels and the heat has increased due to the "urban heating effect." The urban heat island causes monsoon storms to literally split apart, sliding around the city as water parts around a rock. This causes droughts, further exasperating water scarcity in a cyclical vortex of environmental collapse.

So what can we do? Companies like Salt River Project and The Arizona Project are in a race against time to conserve water and unravel the current trends before resources dry up. However, nothing seems to be done to curb urban sprawl. Projects to build light rail lines could combat the effects, but as a resident, I doubt their effectiveness. Phoenicians love their cars too much, and if the amount of gas guzzling SUV's we drive is any indication, locals just aren't concerned. As with most environmental issues, action will only happen after people's lives are affected--a situation that's already a reality for me.

"Phoenix is big enough, Arizona is big enough," said Abbey. "What we need is not more growth but more democracy--and democracy, some other old-timers may recall, means government by the people. By the people."

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