A Drive with a Futurist

| August 21, 2011

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”.

Afternoon GlowTo 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.

Rainbow over the Aquarius



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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (15)

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  1. roteague says:

    Excellent article Guy, and one that hits very close to home for me. I’ve lived in the island of Oahu in Hawaii for about 14 years now, and have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of quiet and solitude. In the past, I found ways to deal with this lack, by taking yearly trips to the Australian outback. But, that has become increasingly expensive, and the cost of living in Hawaii has continued to grow. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it’s time to leave Hawaii. Not sure where yet, but probably somewhere out west.

    Thanks for the thoughts, they really hit home.

  2. Roberta says:

    It’s almost enough to make me want to cry. Not for myself, but for my children, grandchild, and the generations to come that will be raised in this over-populated, mixed up world. I’ve got freedom, solitude, and plenty of leg-room, and know how important such simple things are to my well-being and happiness, and how unimportant all the rest is.

    The alternative to Steffen’s world (without strict population control) would be to see these places of silence and empty beauty occupied, and that wouldn’t be good either. I guess I’m selfish, because I don’t mind having some of these wild places all to myself while others are confined to their urban prisons.

  3. Daniel Ruf says:

    Words of wisdom beautifully written, Guy.

  4. Jim Bullard says:

    Population growth coupled with an economic system that demands continual growth is the elephant in the room. We are outstripping our ability to compensate for our over consumption. Dr. David Suzuki tells a parable about bacteria in a test tube. They can double their number every second and have enough food in the tube to last two minutes. At one minute and fifty nine seconds some smarter than average bacteria realize that they only have one seconds worth of food left so they figure out how to double the food supply but at the two minute mark that is only enough for another half second. Moral? We can’t solve this with technology.

  5. Brad Mangas says:

    In Steffens talk he takes the approach of dealing with the tremendous population growth and carbon emissions produced from human needs of transportation and electricity as the “problem” to solve when in fact it is the by-product of the actual problem, that of population growth. If one is not astute to the deeper issues it could appear to be the perfect solution.

    It is troubling to think an approach of “Super Urbanization” would actually come to pass but this could indeed be the case. To many and sadly many whom may have power to implement such a scenario see open space as just more areas to urbanize. We should not be content with such an outcome no matter what generation it would impact, but as you pointed out it may be our only solace.

  6. Andrew says:

    I think this perspective is somewhat ignorant of the human collaboration required to produce the technology that allows you to live a comfortable life in the open country in the first place. I completely agree that experience nature, and open places is an essential experience for living a healthy life, but there is another side to the story. People don’t move to the city because they want to be overcrowded and breath polluted air – they do so because they want opportunities to collaborate with other people to create things (or possibly just to get any type of job). Why do people need to create things, why can’t they just be happy existing in solitude in the country? Because the things that make civilized country living possible – the internet and communications networks, computers, digital cameras, knowledge of weather and astronomy, modern outdoor clothing, and machinery – were not created by one person on a ranch, but by a collaboration of people, living in a city. Before these things, country living was a different story, and not the walk in the park that we often make it out to be today.

  7. Margaret says:

    Andrew, I completely agree. Although the real problem in the world is overpopulation, most people have no choice but to live in the most crowded, noisy, polluted places on earth, just trying to survive. I guess we could do like China and restrict every family to 1 child. But that didn’t work, either, and led to a great deal of murder of girl babies and/or sale of young girls into slavery because boys were more highly valued.
    Most of the people who live in the overpopulated areas have never been in Utah, i.e. wide open unspoiled places. They may secretly yearn for it, but not even know what the yearning is about.
    In an IDEAL world, everyone would get to experience that great outdoor feeling. I feel fortunate that I was able to work in one of those cities and earn enough money so I can now live in a more open, less populated environment. But, it took those years of less desirable living to appreciate what I now have (including the internet so I can post my thoughts!).

  8. Mark Bailey says:

    Guy, I love the virtual trips I am able to take riding along with you. The way I see your concern is as additional emphasis on appreciating and protecting the open, dark-at-night, 24-7 light show natural places we have left. Population growth is sad but inevitable. According to demographics population will plateau but not until it nearly doubles again, and it will grow even faster in the West. Global population has more than doubled in just my lifetime! Yow, no wonder it seems crowded. Most folks will live in urban places, but for global sanity they will need re-creation access to the sacred, public land places you speak of. Let’s all take care of it. Thanks for the valuable role you play.

  9. Mike Houge says:

    I love your thought provoking blogs. As usual I’m with you on this one too. My wife & I live on 3 1/2 acres in Iowa surrounded by corn & beans fields and we totally love the peace and quiet. We call it our little piece of heaven. I can’t envision living in Steffen’s would. Thanks for your thoughts and please keep them coming.

  10. Morris McClung says:

    One could say you are like “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Maybe not a cry to clean up our lives spiritually as the first one did, but to clean up our social and economic lives. Preach it, Brother!

  11. pj says:

    Great post Guy. Steffens’ view reminds me of the conditions in one of those factory chicken farms — a cubic foot of space, the things you need for survival at hand, but no life. Not something to aspire to in my book… but maybe that’s just me.

  12. Gary Wium says:

    Ditto what Andrew wrote. There is definitely another very real side to the story.

  13. Nice blog Guy, but for me I hope many more people choose the sort of life Steffens talks about as it will leave more open space for the remainder of the population who don’t desire the urban lifestyle, and there are obviously many, many of them. One friend of mine lived his first 53 years without ever leaving the island of Manhattan! His response to my incredulity was why should he ever leave, he had everything he could possibly want there. I find myself amazed with that train of thought, but I’m sure he is just as amazed with my desire to visit the swamps and marshes. To each his own I guess.

  14. I have enjoyed this post and the discussion it stirred up. I was not previously familiar with Alex Steffen’s work. I have heard some of the ideas before and feel they may be necessary, especially if we accept perpetual growth as unavoidable. I agree with Andrew above as far as the development of creative collaboration in cities. However, for example, even in, or especially in New York City, a city dearly loved by millions, nearly everyone I know who lives there is only able to do so by escaping every few weeks or once a month or so to experience some of the qualities that Guy refers to in this post. There have been many studies that show that people need nature and open space, that people who live without these benefits exhibit more psychological dysfunction, health problems and shorter life. It has become clear, as is also exhibited in many comments above, that population growth is THE problem on planet Earth. There is a very interesting book on this subject, “The Growth Illu$ion: How Economic Growth Has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet.” What most people don’t realize is that continued growth is not good for most of us and only produces greater and greater prosperity for the few. What we need is to stop the disinformation campaign that growth is good, period.

  15. Oh, one more thought: living in the “country” in the ultimate sense requires absolutely ZERO technology. I have attended survival training. It turns out that the people who have lived in the wilderness, building shelters and eating with no more tools than a steel knife, have a tremendous amount of free time, very little stress, learn how to survive and trust in the flow of nature to provide and are generally many, many times healthier in every way than even the farmers who live in the “country” and are generally far better off than those in the city.