Don't be too self-righteous


Many years ago, in an interesting turn of events, I found myself in the same truck (mine) as a famous environmental writer. I can take no personal credit for her presence there; she was speaking that evening at a literary event sponsored by a local college. A good friend of mine was organizing the event and was much occupied with preparations, so he pressed my spouse and me into giving the famed personage a ride from her hotel to the college. Of course, I was flattered at the opportunity to meet her but also a bit flustered, as I usually am around people I admire. As we drove through the outer Phoenix suburbs, the writer commented on all the newly constructed offices and shopping centers we were passing. I replied that the area had seen extensive growth in recent years, and that, unfortunately, some of the particularly lovely foothills desert nearby had been bulldozed in order to accommodate the infrastructure needed by the new residents. At this, the author turned to me and asked, coolly, “how long have you lived here?”

Ouch! I answered her (“since 1965”), but I also felt the sting of the implied rebuke. Somebody had bulldozed some desert to make room for me, too. Point taken. Luckily we arrived at the event soon after, so I didn’t have any more opportunities to put my foot in it.

I think of that interchange often when the subject of southwestern population growth comes up. Understanding this complex phenomenon requires considerable geographic, economic, and sociological expertise, but even a layperson like me can make out some broad outlines. For one, the recession has added new wrinkles to the old demographic pattern of robust retiree and warmth-seeker influx in states like Arizona and Nevada and it will take awhile for the full effects to be known. In the meantime, much tardy lip-service has been given to the need for moving regional economies away from sole reliance on growth and for preserving what’s left of our water, air, and open spaces. On one level, slower growth makes sustainability initiatives like these seem more feasible. On another level, however, the transition does not come without considerable misery. Macro-analysis of foreclosure figures, in, for example, New Mexico, may reveal significant data about population trends but does not mitigate the heart-breaking, real-world consequences of the 9000 people per year who have lost their homes there.

Those of us who have somehow been able to hang on to our homes and jobs in the west can’t afford to be too smug about seeing fewer “planned communities” or Starbucks encroaching on our favorite hiking areas. As the distinguished writer reminded me on that evening so many years ago, I’m also a part of the problem. For that matter, so is she; she lives in a fashionable corner of a nearby state.  Still, if her eloquent words and those of other nature writers and journalists can inspire us to make sustainability personal – both in the abstract and in the hum-drum – then they’ve earned their keep.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

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