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Economic boom, environmental doom


Arizona Daily Wildcat

By Deron Overpeck
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
January 19, 2000
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Everyday, it seems, the news media bring us stories of the stock market hitting record highs and the national economy growing at an unprecedented, seemingly unstoppable rate. Americans are enjoying impressive purchasing power and few worries. But these enthusiastic stories of an evidently cost-free economy ignore the dire strain growth is placing on the environment.

As other institutions have slavered over economic expansion, the environmentalist Worldwatch Institute has tallied the havoc wreaked on global ecosystems. The boom on Wall Street has been accompanied by the depletion of forests, coral reefs, and open space. "As the Dow Jones goes up, the Earth's health goes down," notes Worldwatch president Lester R. Brown. Globally, the desires of private capitalists are promoted over the needs of the environment.

These concerns particularly affect us here in Arizona. Although few of us seem to realize it, we live in a desert. Water is a scarce resource, yet too many people waste it on lawns and swimming pools. Our population is already too great for the area's water supply, but business leaders and politicians seem hell-bent on luring more and more people to Tucson. Growth, they say, is "inevitable," and encourage the use of water from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project.

Alas, using CAP water has its own problems. The water quality is poor and in the past has proved incompatible with many plumbing systems in Tucson. Damming the Colorado to divert water to southern Arizona and other states has severely reduced its flow into Mexico, hampering the development of local economies and contributing to the flow of immigrants into the United States. Of course, many of the business leaders and politicians urging us that CAP water is a wonderful option for all parties involved also campaign for get-tough policies on illegal immigration.

In addition to depleting water supplies, growth also demands that more and more open space be given over to housing developments, strip malls and freeways. People are lured to the area because of the beautiful mountain vistas, canyons and stark desert. Yet, increasingly what we present to them are cookie-cutter housing communities, many of which are exclusive neighborhoods. Once public land, where people could walk and experience Arizona in its natural splendor, is urbanized for the private gain of real estate agents and developers.

Think of it in terms of a budget: Fiscal intelligence dictates that we live within our means, that what we spend be equal to or less than the money we have. Of course, we don't, which is why we all have credit cards we have difficulty managing. And instead of reigning in our spending once our credit cards are maxed out, we get even more credit cards.

The pattern continues in our relationship with the environment. If we were responsible, we wouldn't live in excess of our environmental budget. Instead, we overtax the land, water and other resources. And rather than realize what we're doing and cease being so profligate, we import the water from hundreds of miles away and blade and glade more sensitive habitat to construct more elitist communities and roads. And just as blithely buying on credit is fiscally disastrous, blithely putting environmental issues on the back burner can only temporarily postpone disaster.

No one should be surprised by this. Scientists have warned us of the consequences of dangerously increasing global temperatures for a decade. Worldwatch, Greenpeace and other environmental organizations campaign against the loss of species and forests to commercial "progress." Psychologists and naturalists mourn the cost to society brought by the loss of open space. Yet still our society insists on finding new ways to accommodate and encourage the "growth" purportedly essential to the advancement of the human race.

But why must growth be inevitable? Why do we hold dear above all else a system that encourages us to disregard our long-term environmental health in favor of short-term financial gain? Conservatives argue God created a beautiful world for our playground, yet they can think of nothing better to do with it than pillage and deface it, as though a skyscraper is self-evidently preferable to a mountain range, or a freeway more desirable than a lush meadow.

Another Starbucks and its minimum-wage jobs are not more important than the aesthetic and spiritual benefits of unspoiled nature. The time has come to realize that growth is not inherently good, and turn the tide from environmental bust to environmental boom.

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