Yesterday I met Nicole, a lovely woman in her 30s who was visiting from Las Vegas. We had a good conversation, but her words filled me with sadness and fear.
I asked her what it was like living in this summer’s heat, which has reached over 116 degrees F (46.6 Celsius). Nicole’s smile faded and she looked toward the floor. “I’m grateful,” she said. “I’ve got a garage and air conditioning. Things are OK.” I got the sense that she was happy to be in San Francisco where the temperature was closer to 60 degrees (15.5 C), but things were definitely not OK. People in Vegas are dying in the streets from heat and dehydration.
Las Vegas could be the poster city for America’s disconnect from reality, but people continue to move there and use up their fast disappearing supplies of water. The Guardian newspaper reported, “Las Vegas’ population is booming and the city is sprawling into the surrounding desert. On hot days, the highways and roads are littered with broken-down automobiles — commuter cars, ambulances, delivery trucks and buses that overheat as they made their way to and from the city-center.”
Many Americans blissfully ignore the realities of global warming, if they think about Nature at all. Most refuse to accept ecological limits on their lifestyles. For example, Las Vegas has over 70 golf courses consuming precious water. Vegas gets 90% of its water from Lake Mead, formed by the Hoover Dam across the Colorado River. Lake Mead is drying up from prolonged drought and overuse by the thirsty city and other users in the American West.
Las Vegas has over 2.7 million residents in the metropolitan area and 42 million visitors a year, according to Macrotrends.net. Professional football and hockey teams have moved there. Most people spend all day in air conditioned homes, workplaces, or cars, but some cannot. Those who work outdoors, who cannot afford air conditioning or are homeless struggle to survive the heat, and some don’t make it.
People in Vegas live in homes and party in hotels cooled by machines, powered by fossil fuel-burning power plants. The plants’ emissions make warming worse. The replacement of dirt, brush, and desert plants by concrete makes the city hotter. Strip shows, gambling casinos, and spectacular lighting are everywhere, but nature is nowhere to be found.
People move to Vegas for money and jobs. They visit Vegas to take their minds off reality. The local government takes small steps to help people, such as opening daytime cooling centers and recently banning “useless grass.” But the ban doesn’t take effect until 2027 and doesn’t include golf courses, and the cooling centers close at night even if temps stay up.
In 115 degree heat, residential building goes on, pushing the city deeper into the desert. One sweating drywaller told the Guardian, “When the boss is ready to go, you better be ready to work, or he will find someone who is. We have to make a living.”
Not unique; not an outlier
Las Vegas is a high-profile climate change story, but it is far from unique. Other desert cities in Nevada, California, Arizona and other Western states are growing rapidly. Many of them, like Phoenix AZ have multiple golf courses. Because these cities depend on Colorado River water, the river downstream has long dried up and no longer flows to the sea. Surrounding land in Mexico, formerly a lush delta, has become desert.
Other Western water sources are also overused and disappearing. The incredibly productive farms of California are based on pumping water from the ground and piping it in from other places. Their products include water-intensive crops such as rice and almonds that should never grow in a desert, but can with enough irrigation. They grow massive amounts of hay for feedlot cattle. That water mostly comes from aquifers created by hundreds of years of accumulated rainfall. It can’t be replaced in real time. But irrigation of industrial farms continues, and we enjoy the foods it produces.
Rich people aren’t the only ones ignoring natural limits. Last week, I attended a virtual gathering where people were happy that COVID restrictions were being eased. People discussed travel plans, including international flights and cross-country road trips. They had safety concerns about travel, but the fears all concerned COVID. Climate change didn’t come up.
Why would it be different when corporate media broadcasts fear of COVID and political dramas constantly, while scarcely mentioning climate or water? Worldwide, domestic air travel is back to about 60% of pre-pandemic levels and rising. Auto traffic in the US has returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the analysis firm Inrix.
We have been warned
In 1988 NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Director James Hansen told Congress that carbon dioxide emissions were creating a blanket in the atmosphere (called the greenhouse effect) raising global temperatures. His speech caused a sensation. Vice-President George H.W. Bush vowed that he would “use the White House effect to combat the greenhouse effect.” International treaties were passed to reduce emissions. The United Nations set up a permanent panel to deal with climate issues.
But money won and Earth lost. Since Hansen’s speech, global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 70%. Corporations are finding oil in more remote places using ever more-destructive technologies such as fracking, tar sands extraction, and deep sea drilling. Coal companies are blowing tops off of mountains to dig previously inaccessible coal. Factory farms have gotten much bigger and more dependent on chemicals and irrigation. The military keeps flying, shipping, and dropping bombs all over the world.
There are now 1.4 billion cars on the roads, far more than in Hansen’s day, according to carguide.com. Capitalism turns the Earth into products and sells them to ordinary people, and we’re buying them. We’re too busy watching their shows and playing their games to notice what’s happening outside our windows. Will people so separated from Nature voluntarily put down our toys so we can live?
Revolution would be a start
Although capitalism has proven itself incompatible with life, changing economic systems won’t be nearly enough to heal the devastation from 500 years of alienation from Nature. Perhaps nothing will, but Nature has formidable healing powers. If we stop kicking her in the face, stop ignoring and start loving her, she may still recover.
For there to be a hope of recovery, we would need a worldwide spiritual transformation, powerful scientific breakthroughs, and a political revolution. Everything would have to change, including you and me. But it could happen. I’ll be writing about it for sure.
First, we have to come back to Earth. We have to stop living in society’s distorted casinos of the mind and rejoin the rest of creation. We’ll be happier, poorer, and healthier, and our children might survive that way. It’s time to leave Las Vegas.
— — — — — — — — — — — — –