Few things have the power to lure me away from my beloved home at the feet of Utah’s majestic Aquarius Plateau; but the chance to spend a couple of days hiking the canyons with my good friend Steve is one I rarely pass up. Despite the searing August heat, I packed up the truck and headed south. Driving the long and empty rural roads of Southern Utah is one of my favorite things to do. The beauty and solitude inspire peaceful contemplation — fertile soil for new ideas and realizations. In recent years I also discovered that this is the perfect setting to listen to interesting podcasts. Among those I happened to have along for this trip was a TED talk by Alex Steffen, described by the host as “an author and futurist”.
To his credit, Steffen attempts to bring a positive message and creative solutions to what he perceives as the challenges faced by humankind in the years to come. According to his bio, he believes that the secret to sustainability in an over-crowded world is not how bad things are but how good they can get. In a world of eight billion urban dwellers, Steffen suggests, “good” means finding ways of increasing urban population density, reducing travel distance, and having “the things we need” close by. By this, he is apparently referring to restaurants, entertainment and a cubicle job to wile away one’s life in the service of corporations. This statement struck me as especially misplaced at the time I heard it. As I was listening to the talk, I was about half way through a 200-mile stretch of scenic rural road. The late afternoon sun hung low in the sky, bathing the scenery in a warm golden glow below a layer of dark thunderstorm clouds. It had been about an hour since I last saw another vehicle on the road. If I had turned the engine off, the only sounds remaining would have been the slight breeze in the grasses and the occasional bird call. The air was rich with the smell of wet sagebrush as a small rainstorm passed just moments before. What about this, Mr. Steffen? I thought. I also need this!
Steve and I spent the night among the sparse conifers and oaks high atop the Kolob Terrace. After a couple of beers and a few hands of poker by the campfire, darkness set. The clear night sky, completely devoid of light pollution, offered a stunning view into the cosmic neighborhood. The faint outline of the Milky Way slowly made its way above us as the night progressed. We took turns identifying the occasional planet or constellation, marveling at the distances traveled by the light to meet us here, at this point in time and space. Flashes of light among the trees caught our attention and we walked in darkness towards the nearby edge, about 8,000ft. in elevation, to witness raging electrical storms on the far horizon. We stood there in silence as bolts of superheated plasma lit the edge of darkness every few seconds, so far that we could not even hear the thunder. This, too, Mr. Steffen… I need this, too.
After a day in the canyons, the time came to drive back. I had to make a familiar choice. From just about anywhere in the region, you can take one of two ways to my home in Torrey: the scenic route or the even more scenic route. I chose the longer of the two. Something about Steffen’s talk still lingered in my mind, churning and begging for an answer. Is this really the future? I listened to it again. Seemingly the premise is simple: given the anticipated size of urban population, an increase in density has obvious benefits. This just seemed like the wrong way to look at it: if we have to live in a toilet, we may as well make the best of the smell. Who said we have to live in a toilet, though? What thinking, feeling, loving, caring human animal wants to live in a sardine can? Is it not time, instead, to wake up from the delusion of perpetual growth? Why continue to spiral when we can strive for a sustainable population level where open space and peaceful refuge are considered right along food, clothing and TV among the “things we need”? Rather than accept statistical projections and find ways to live with them, why not treat them as warning signs instead? Would it not be wiser to reconsider the unsustainable foundations of our social and economic policies and say “enough!” We have grown to capacity. Let’s stop here and, instead, use our innovation to increase prosperity rather than population?
It was interesting to see the choice of data used to support the argument. Greater density means lower per-capita emissions. While a great statistic to use in designing space for machines, does it truly take into account the human experience? Lest we forget, greater population density is also scientifically proven to increase crime rates and reduce happiness. People need leg room and are generally happier and less prone to violence when having the option to unplug from the industrial machinery and from each other from time to time. Do we sacrifice one of the great necessities for emotional and spiritual well being for the sake of accommodating more of us on this already over-burdened piece of real estate? Why?
Let’s not also forget that emissions are a by product of consumption. What about those things we need to consume to survive? Where do we go when there is no more potable water or breathable air? Any solution based on unchecked growth in consumption is no solution at all. A hundred Humvees still pollute less than a million Priuses.
I could let it go now. I knew the argument was based on the wrong premise and the data used to support it anecdotal and incomplete. I was sad, though, because I knew that chances are these predictions may indeed come true. As I have nearly every day since coming to live here, I also felt profound gratitude for having the freedom to roam, to drive, to explore and witness and experience the awe of being alive in these immense and magical places and to have them to myself, as I and every other form of life had evolved to need and appreciate. Another small storm came and passed and the afternoon sun again lit every rock and branch and blade of grass with startling clarity. I was nearing home. I could feel it. I could smell it. Just before sunset, a rainbow appeared as I was approaching my beloved Aquarius, just a few miles from home, as if welcoming me back.
If there is any solace in mortality it is the small comfort of knowing I will not have to be here to live in Alex Steffen’s “how good it can get,” high-density, no-open-space, vehicle-free, all-you-need urban hell.
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