The folly of envying excess in times of scarcity

It’s a poor showing for humanity that our natural response to scarcity is to feel envious of those who can afford excesses. When a resource is scarce, the rational response should be to use it sparingly and only when necessary. But humans are hardly rational creatures, and scarce resources are thus afforded a certain cachet. “Wow!”, the thinking goes, “Look at that huge Hummer that guy’s driving! He must pay a lot of money in gas just to keep it running!” It’s thought processes like these that make me not so optimistic as others that we can solve the global climate crisis in a decent time frame.

I recently sojourned to Phoenix, Arizona on a business trip. In case you aren’t familiar with the area, let me start off by saying that it’s in the middle of a desert. A real desert. It frequently goes months without any rainfall. It is hot there. The only native plants that would grow in the absence of human activity are cacti. Alas, many humans do live there, and they aren’t content with just cacti; hence the problem.

I was struck by the number of aqueducts I saw. The city is flat, but every so often you drive over a bridge above an aqueduct. Don’t go thinking Roman-style raised masonry aqueducts; thanks to the wonders of electricity and machinery, modern aqueducts are little more than deep artificial rivers, with pump houses wherever a gain in elevation is needed. They’re a lot easier to build than the aqueducts of old and they carry a lot more water. And they need to carry a lot of water in Phoenix, because they use so very much of it.

Never before in my life have I seen so many outdoor fountains. I hail from Maryland, land of the 100% summer humidity, where fountains are few and far between. There isn’t anything particularly impressive about a fountain in an area where water is bountiful. But I saw them everywhere in Phoenix: in front of restaurants, our hotel, even the office park of the company we were there doing work for. In the middle of the desert, with no natural water anywhere in sight, having a fountain is a good way of showing off wealth. “We can afford to waste this water!” they scream. And waste it they do, because when the temperature is above 40 degrees Celcius and the humidity is hovering in the single digits, a lot of water is lost to evaporation.

And then there are the artificial lakes. It seems like every golf course out there (and there are lots of them) has huge artificial lakes to go along with it. The idea of having lakes in the middle of a desert is preposterous, yet there they are, evaporating however many untold gallons of water into the atmosphere each day. They just scream wealth.

Yet I haven’t even covered the single most wasteful use of water yet. Remember how I said that the only native things that grow in the desert are cacti? Yet when you’re traveling through Phoenix, you see luscious greenery everywhere. All of it has to be watered constantly, because otherwise it will die. Keep your eyes on the look-out for sprinkler pipes and irrigation pumping stations. You’ll see them everywhere in Phoenix, literally on every block in most affluent neighborhoods and business districts. As I saw all of the flowers and palm trees and neatly manicured golf greens, all I could think of was a twist on a classic saying: Water, water, everywhere, and all of it to waste.

A big status symbol in Phoenix is simply having a green lawn around your house. And they pay thousands of dollars a year in water for the privilege. It’s ridiculous that so much water is wasted in a place that has so little of it, but that’s human nature for you. When a resource is scarce, using a lot of it is frequently a status symbol. Rather than simply adapt to the desert life, humans pump water from hundreds of miles away at huge cost and from places that cannot really spare it.

Just how do we think we’re going to lower atmospheric carbon emissions when we build a freaking mega-oasis in the middle of the desert?!

5 Responses to “The folly of envying excess in times of scarcity”

  1. Kelly Martin Says:

    All they really need to do is build one of these solar energy collectors and use it to distill seawater. Then they can have as much water as they want, and without any carbon emissions at all.

  2. William Says:

    As a kid who hated mowing the lawn, I wouldn’t object to watering lawns with seawater.

    That said, I don’t see how pumping the water 150 miles to be distilled would help anybody. I agree with Cyde Weys on this one. Besides, cacti are cool.

  3. drinian Says:

    Actually, there is a very large solar energy collector being built just outside of Phoenix, and not a moment too soon.

    Having spent a bit of time in the city, though, I do think it’ll be one of the first places (along with Vegas) to be abandoned if drought conditions ever hit crisis level. There is no natural reason for a large city like Phoenix to exist where it does — no water, no mineral deposits or anything else, just cheap land and clear skies on most days. Maybe that’s why the city government has been so spectacularly incompetent at providing any kind of public transportation infrastructure.

  4. drinian Says:

    Also, building codes are virtually nonexistent out here; until recently, there were lots of houses being thrown up where you could just about punch your fist through the outside walls. Since it almost never rains, I’ve seen a lot of corners cut that lead to leaky roofs, too.

    But, what can I say? People think differently in the Southwest than back home. I think I really started to appreciate this when I took a road trip from Phoenix to San Diego, and drove through some of the massive RV cities that are out there in the middle of nowhere. Folks have different priorities in life, I guess.

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