Paul set his mug of wine down and glowered at me over his glasses. Los Angeles? Why would any magazine editor include Los Angeles in a special issue on environmental sustainability?
My friend and former professor had good reason to ask. The camper Paul calls home, where I had stopped for dinner that October night, is parked on the upper edge of the sprawling sage-furred desert of California's Owens Valley. In the early 1900s, L.A. drained the water from Owens Lake, about 80 miles south of here, to feed its own booming growth and glitz. Its thirst left behind toxic dust storms and a bitter grudge among the area's rural residents.
I encountered similar sentiments when I told others about the stories of urban environmental innovation I was editing for High Country News' annual Future issue. Las Vegas? A city like that in a desert is a crime against nature, an environmentalist friend scoffed to me at the local brewery. Phoenix? That, too. Even our student-writing contest got a rise: "While I am very interested in writing an essay that would further our efforts to achieve sustainability in Western Colorado, there is one big problem," wrote one prospective participant. "A modern industrial society will NEVER be sustainable (here). Virtually all our essential supplies are imported from outside our area."
These folks are, in part, reacting to the use and abuse of the already vague word "sustainability" for corporate greenwashing. But they're also right. It's impossible to argue that places like Vegas and L.A. and Phoenix and even the West's far-flung small towns don't have massive impacts. Put lots of people anywhere, especially an arid anywhere, and you're going to deplete local water sources or obliterate native species or compromise air quality or spew greenhouse gases. You will probably do all of the above. Even so, concluding that a community is inherently unsustainable, that its very existence is historically and environmentally wrong, leads to some tricky ethical places once you try to move beyond intellectual exercise to concrete action.
No one is simply going to declare, "No more Vegas," and bulldoze the place, any more than anyone is going to force people to stop having too many babies. And it would be quite a struggle to find a community that isn't chugging along in precarious opposition to its immediate surroundings in some way. Think of the epic flash floods and fires on Colorado's Front Range, San Francisco's earthquakes, the Arctic vortex that recently inhaled the Midwest and Northeast.
Any meaningful conversation about how to solve the West's, and the world's, environmental ills has to start with the recognition that our Vegases and Phoenixes and L.A.s aren't going anywhere. That they will likely only grow. That, in fact, the planet's most gluttonous country's most gluttonous cities may be some of our best laboratories for new ideas, as they are already colliding with very real resource limitations.
We should remember the Owens Valleys of our past, lest we repeat the same mistakes in our future. But we should also remember that most historic wrongs will forever be impossible to undo. There's no going back: What we have is what we have to work with. What we build from it now is up to us.