Peak economy

 

Just a few months ago, you could walk into the local hangout in any little Western town and hear the hanger-outers talk dramatically about "peak oil," that long-awaited moment when petroleum production would decline enough to throw the world into turmoil. Someone else might have brought up "peak water," too, what with global warming and so many people moving to the desert. Another might mention the rush to carve more coal out of the hills to feed our appliances, or more copper or molybdenum to fuel China's irrepressible growth. But there was a common theme: Unlimited growth was going to run up against the limits of our natural resources, and economic and social calamity would result.

Today, those same hangouts are still filled with talk about economic collapse. Only now it's not imminent, it's happening. And lack of water, oil or coal is not the problem. Instead, it's credit that has vanished. The world (or at least its financial well-being) is indeed ending, but it's not with a loud resource-imploding bang. Instead, it's with a whimper -- all that's left after an economic bubble pops.

Last January, copper was selling for more than $3 a pound, and an economic development official in Miami, Ariz., crowed to me that the resurging mining economy was insulated from economic downturns by the fact that most of the demand came from China, where growth would never end. It didn't occur to him that even China could be dragged down by the over-eagerness of Phoenix bankers to hand out mortgages to hopeful homeowners. Today, copper's selling at $1.50 a pound. Instead of wringing our hands about unleashed growth, we're worried about entire neighborhoods being abandoned in the wake of a foreclosure epidemic. Instead of writing about the rush to gobble up minerals, we're writing about the rush to the job lines.

When Tony Davis first delved into the murky subject of desalination -- this issue's cover story -- a few months ago, the economy seemed to be merely in a slump. Today, West Coast plans for desalination remain alive, but one wonders for how long. After all, as growth slows down, so will our collective thirst.

Ed Quillen argues in his column on page 28 that the economic illness has its bright side:  The hunger for the West's lands and resources may diminish somewhat. If so, those who are fighting for the region's water, air and landscapes may get a break. Still, we can't be lulled into complacency by the bust. Nor should we become despondent. We have no idea how long it will last or how bad it will get, but one thing is clear: The "new West" is just as prone to booms and busts as the old West was. In other words, a new boom is probably just around the corner -- and a new bust is just around the corner after that. The West has always been a region on a roller coaster. Maybe the rest of the world is just catching up to us.

 

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