One man's sustainable city is another's environmental scourge
Usually, the lies we tell ourselves are subconscious and hard to describe. That's why I found two items in HCN's recent "urban sustainability" issue so maddening (1/20/14). In "The Vegas Paradox," Jonathan Thompson informs us that southern Nevada's official goals would have developers building huge numbers of new "Water Smart" homes by 2035 to achieve a certain regional per capita water use. This is the real paradox: that Vegas accepts increasing total consumption, then claims that lower average water use per resident or tourist makes the city "green." Thompson does point out that this is ludicrous policy. Still, he writes that Vegas "may be inching towards so-called sustainability ... not in spite of the raw and uninhibited consumption that has made Vegas a legend, but, ironically, because of it," acknowledging later that a sustainable Vegas is "somewhat absurd." Indeed. Is it possible that the author's otherwise excellent story idea was fatally compromised by having to appear in an issue that celebrates the impossible goal of achieving sustainability for the desert megalopolis?
The madness continues in Sarah Gilman's editor's note, "L.A. is here to stay," which shrugs off old truths and replaces them with a philosophy more amenable to today's frustrated environmentalists. Though aware of the inherent unsustainability of Phoenix, Vegas and L.A., Gilman advises that if we make that our final conclusion, "it leads to some tricky ethical places once you try to move beyond intellectual exercise to concrete action."
Instead, we might admit that some problems are unsolvable as defined. We can't be sustainable without fundamental – and admittedly, likely devastating – changes to pretty much every aspect of how we live. Our society wants to congratulate itself on getting that low-hanging fruit, but the big picture outlined in Marc Reisner's classic book on Western water, Cadillac Desert, hasn't changed. Perhaps we Southwesterners better wallow in the mud of those "tricky ethical places" until we can accept the reality that, as Reisner argued, our Eden is still built on a mirage.