Watering Lawns in the Desert: What Las Vegas Can Tell Us About Climate Change (and Ourselves)

If one were to nominate a poster child for the ecological insanity of Western Civilization, the city of Las Vegas would certainly make the shortlist. Take so much as a cursory glance at the landscape on which Las Vegas rests and it should be pretty clear that people were simply not meant to live there. How could they? Las Vegas’s very existence is an affront to the immutable order of the natural world. It is a city built on silt and sandstone—a metropolis nestled in the caustic furnace of the earth. When viewed from space, the greater Las Vegas area looks like some sort of ill-advised Martian colony; nothing but a vast sea of barren valleys and skeletal ridges with all of the chromatic variation of a box of Crayola multicultural crayons. When experienced at ground level in the middle of the summer, it’s like walking into the moisture free maw of hell. I mean, just look at the land around it. Nothing even vaguely greenish pops up on satellite photography of Las Vegas, which is attributable to the fact that Las Vegas is the driest city in United States. Las Vegas only averages a meager 4.2 inches of rain a year, which means—among other things—that around 90% of the water that the city uses has to be piped in from Lake Mead, a massive man-made reservoir located about 25 miles outside of town.

vegas_tm5_2009_lrgA view of the Greater Las Vegas Area from space. You tell me which part of it looks hospitable.

Created as the result of the Hoover Dam’s construction on the Colorado River in the 1930s, Lake Mead has been hit hard by recent droughts and the increase in Las Vegas’ population over the past few decades, seeing a more than 100 foot drop in the lake’s water level since 2000. Oftentimes, the machinations of climate change and the ways in which it effects us personally are a little too abstract to grasp. For Las Vegans and about 40 million others living in the Southwest, those changes are becoming all too easy to understand. Within the next year, ecologists believe that the water levels of Lake Mead will drop so much that one of the two “straws” that distribute water from the lake to much of the Southwest will be unable to continue working. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is trying to remedy this by constructing a third straw before the water level drops below the reach of one of the original two straws, but that’s just a short term fix to a long term problem. It won’t stop the lake’s water level from dropping and it won’t stop the federal water shortage cuts from happening.

In this era of climate change and increased resource scarcity, Las Vegas has pretty much become the American standard bearer for environmental unsustainability. I don’t care if the US Government gave every single resident in the city a Smart car, redesigned all their buildings to LEED specifications and made littering a felony, Las Vegas would still have the energy efficiency of a stretch Hummer limousine because its founders had the foresight to build this neon-tinted cosmopolis in the middle of the goddamn desert. Then again, assuming that the development of Las Vegas involved anything resembling foresight might be a mistake in and of itself, considering its origins. At the turn of the century, the area we now think of as Las Vegas was nothing more than an abandoned Mormon mission in the middle of an 1,800 acre ranch. Fast forward to today and the population of the Greater Las Vegas Metro area now clocks in at over 2,000,000 residents. At its core, Las Vegas is just a tiny frontier town that got way too big, way too fast.

lake-mead-getty_tx700A look at Lake Mead’s infamous “bathtub ring,” where dried mineral deposits show how far the water level has sunk

When he visited the United States for the first time in the 1880s, the British politician and travel writer James Bryce was troubled by the self-destructive obsession with growth he saw being most fervently cultivated in the western portion of the country. His remarks upon the competitive, hyper-materialistic culture of the American West in his travel narrative, The American Commonwealth, are certainly not the first of their kind, but they get at the imprudent essence of American Frontier culture better than any I’ve ever seen. Bryce was very quick to note that there was a certain productive impatience at the heart of the American character; a restless preoccupation with acquisition and expansion that left us perpetually striving for a future that would only seem inadequate when it was reached. Then as now, to be American is to be in constant motion, afraid that the moment we cease moving is the moment we start dying. Ever the stolid British father figure, Bryce urged us to curb this impulse, rhetorically asking:

“Gentlemen, why in heaven’s name this haste? You have time enough. No enemy threatens you. No volcano will rise from beneath you. Why sacrifice the present to the future fancying that you will be happier when your fields teem with wealth and your cities with people? In Europe we have cities wealthier and more populous than yours, and we are not happy. You dream of posterity; but your posterity will look back to yours as the golden age, and envy those who first burst into this silent splendid nature…Why hasten the advent of that threatening day when the vacant spaces of the continent shall all have been filled, and the poverty or discontent of the older States shall find no outlet?”

Bryce may have been an astute observer of American life, but he wasn’t capable of understanding it. Ask any red-blooded American why they were in such a hurry to make money or better their station in life and they’d look at you like you’d lost your damn mind. The basic tenets of capitalism may have been outlined by a Scotsman, but there is can be little debate that it is a distinctly American ideology. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that all Americans were endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he was actually borrowing from the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke who first outlined man’s natural right to life, liberty and property.

Why Jefferson made the switch is still a matter of debate, but I’m guessing that he decided to substitute in the whole pursuit of happiness bit because saying that Americans have a divine right to stuff comes off as a little dickish, especially when the “stuff” you’re referring to includes other human beings. Regardless, it is not some happy accident that the foremost intellectual father of America started off his nation’s Declaration of Independence by subconsciously equating the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of property. From our very inception, we have been a nation of acquisition; a polity of material things. As Alexander Tocqueville once noted in his Democracy in America, “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where the profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.”

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To many Americans, the idea of sustainability means very little. If you’re on the left, it is often seen as a buzzword thrown around by politicians to advocate energy policies that will never come to fruition or an adjective applied to the free-range, organically fed chicken you get at Whole Foods. For those on the right, it is code for some vague enviro-fascist agenda; a word representing some police-state where gasoline is strictly rationed and the government shuts off everybody’s lights at midnight. Either way, sustainability is usually thought of as an abstraction—something that exists in this nebulous future you will never have to experience because it won’t come about until long after you’re dead. The only problem is that that future became the present years ago and the earth has become increasingly keen on reminding us of that fact.

Never before in all of recorded history have so many natural disasters struck our planet with such ferocity within such a small period of time. If you find that claim dubious, here is just a sampling of the major natural disasters that have taken place since 2004:

Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004) – At least 280,000 lives lost

Hurricane Katrina (2005) – 1,836 dead; $135 billion worth of damages

Kashmir Earthquake (2005) – 87,350 dead

Cyclone Nargis, Burma (2008) – More than 138,000 fatalities

Sichuan Earthquake (2008) – Up to 90,000 dead and millions more left homeless

Haiti Earthquake (2010) – Between 230,000 to 300,000  dead, with more than 1.5 becoming homeless

Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami (2011) – Over 19,000 fatalities along with economic damages of around $200 Billion

Hurricane Sandy (2012) – 234 dead and at least $50 billion in damages

Typhoon Haiyan (2013) – More than 6,000 fatalities and 4 million displaced persons

European Heat Wave (2003) – 70,000 casualties, predominantly among the elderly

Russian Heat Wave and Wild Fires (2010) – 56,000 dead

Not to state the obvious or anything, but this recent spate of environmental catastrophes is not normal. Throughout the course of the 20th century, there were only 15 reported natural disasters that resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 people. After just 13 years of this brave new century of ours we’ve already suffered through 7 such catastrophes. Now, there are certainly many Americans who would chalk up this recent spate of natural disasters to mere coincidence, and they’d be dead wrong. No one can force these men and women to believe the recent findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has come to the conclusion that it is “extremely likely”that humans are the dominant force behind the rise in global surface temperatures over the past 60 years.

Welcome to the new normal: Tacloban City in The Phillipines after Typhoon Haiyan

If folks want to believe, a la Glenn Beck, that Al Gore is a modern day Hitler who is in cahoots with the United Nations to turn the world into some socio-fascist enviro-state, then there is no rational argument that I can proffer that would be likely to persuade them. However, I truly believe that the bulk of Americans who are painted as being “climate change deniers” are simply people who are confused about a complex environmental phenomenon and have proven susceptible to persuasion on the matter from the politicians, pundits and religious leaders in whom they trust. For instance, recent Gallup polls have shown that only a scant 15% of Americans thinks global warming will never happen. The vast majority of the US population isn’t divided on whether or not climate change is real, but on whether or not it has already begun to take effect and concerning how imminent and serious a threat it poses. The American people aren’t stupid, but many of them aren’t in a hurry to accept the fact that the way of life that they have become accustomed to is the primary cause of a literal and figurative sea change in the environmental functioning of our planet.

To be completely honest, I think a huge chunk of the disconnect between the general public and the environmental rights crowd is attributable to piss poor messaging. First off, the name “global warming” does a horrendous job of conveying to a layperson what’s really going on with our climate. Yes, the Earth’s temperature has risen by about 1.4°F over the past century, but nobody can feel a degree and a half change in temperature in the air around them, especially when it occurs over a period of time that’s considerably longer that the average human life span.  If you don’t believe me, go ahead and change the thermostat in your house by 1.4°F when you get home tonight and see if anybody notices. The only thing that referring to climate change as global warming has gotten us are legions of jackasses who insist on screaming, “global warming my ass!” whenever the temperature dips below 45 degrees.

Some environmental rights groups and journalists have tried to remedy the public’s general disconnect with climate change by trying to re-brand global warming as “global weirding,” a term first used by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman to better characterize the bizarre weather patterns that are attendant to climate change. While it may sound even more ridiculous than global warming, global weirding is actually a much more apt description of what’s going on in this little biosphere of ours. As Friedman succinctly puts it, “The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous.” You or I can’t feel a 1.4°F change in the baseline temperature of the earth, but the earth sure as shit can.

We tend to perceive the earth’s temperature as being this wildly oscillating thing because that’s how we experience it in our day to day lives, but in reality, our planet has a baseline temperature that has historically been very stable, rising and falling by tenths of a degree over the course of hundreds of years. The most recent climate change reconstructions show that, before the industrial revolution and all of the smoggy fun that came with it, the Holocene Era(1) had been divided up into 3 distinct stages that are notable for just how bloody boring they were. During the Holocene’s initial 2,000 year warming period, global temperatures rose by about 1.1°F and were in fact slightly warmer than the global temperature today. After heating up, the earth settled into a nice 4,000 year plateau before heading back down around 3350 BC at about the time some folks in Egypt were taking one of humanity’s first cracks at the whole civilization thing. This global cooling continued with limited interruptions until the first half of the 19th century, when temperatures began to rise again. In fact, during the past 175 years or so, the earth’s temperature has risen as much as it had cooled during the preceding 5,500 years.

A look at global temperature anomalies for the time period lasting from 2008 to 2012 (baseline temperature represented by average global temps from 1951 to 1980)

When a not altogether illogical climate denier like Alabama Congressman Robert Aderholt states that he believes, “that the earth is currently in a natural warming cycle rather than a man-made climate change” and cites the warming period of the Middle Ages as proof of humanity’s lack of complicity in the matter, he’s not completely off base. Fluctuations in global temperature are a perfectly normal part of the earth’s life cycle, and very few but the severely logically challenged(2), are disputing that fact. The issue is not if the earth’s temperature changes, but how it changes. The Middle Age warming period cited by many climate change deniers saw considerable warming throughout Western Europe and the North Atlantic, but did not result in significant temperature changes for the planet as a whole.So, while the Norse were busy cultivating herds of cattle during the 11th century on a then actually green Greenland, Native American Tribes in the western portion of North America and the Tropical Andes of South America weren’t subjected to any periods of unusual warmth. What makes the present global warming remarkable is that is truly global in scope.From 2008 to 2012, the average temperature was 1- 4°F warmer for nearly every single patch of land on the planet than it was from 1951 to 1980.

For what it’s worth, I’m pretty damned relieved that humans are the driving force behind global warming, because if we started it, that means we can stop it too.If the 3% of scientists who don’t believe climate change is manmade are right, then we’re pretty much screwed. But, regardless of who bears the ultimate responsibility for the earth’s rising temperatures, the fact remains that the course that the course that the 21st century takes will be determined in large part by a rapidly changing climate and the ways in which humanity responds to those changes. Thus far, we’ve responded by squabbling amongst ourselves and standing idly by as the earth cooks itself from the inside out like a colossal crock pot.

Certain parts of the world will be fairly well equipped to cope with a substantive increase in global temperature. Others will fall into ruin swiftly and painfully, unable to sustain the well beings of the multitudes who once called that bit of land home. Las Vegas is the American standard-bearer for such places. As the global temperature rises and human population swells, the writing on the walls of Sin City becomes more and more clear: the center cannot hold in Las Vegas. In fact, it never could. If nothing is done to curb our consumption there will come a time, maybe during my life—maybe not, when the waters of Lake Mead will dry up and the mighty rush of the Colorado River will dissolve into a trickle. Once that happens, Las Vegas will quickly follow suit; the only remnants of the glitz and the decadence of this former metropolis visible in the sandblasted skeleton of the Las Vegas Strip, with the bust of Caesar playing the erstwhile Ozymandias for the travelers come to visit this antique land. They will look upon our works, and they will most certainly despair.

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(1) The Holocene is a geological epoch that began at the end of the earth’s last glacial period around 11,700 years ago and has continued to the present.

(2) United States Representative (R-TX) and Chairman Emeritus of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Ralph Hall on climate change: “I’m really more fearful of freezing. And I don’t have any science to prove that. But we have a lot of science that tells us they’re not basing it on real scientific facts.”

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Categories: Book Excerpts/News, Environmental News

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5 replies

  1. I’m not disputing global warming, but one big reason why there are now many more disasters with thousands of life lost is because the population density has drastically increased in many places: where there were a few fishing villages 100 years ago, now could be a large city. So when a hurricane strikes the same area today versus 100 years ago, many more lives will be lost.
    One way to notice this trend is to look at the impact of earthquakes, which don’t depend on the climate.

    • Totally agree with you. The only problem I had was that most categorization of natural disasters is done by either death count or damage done in monetary terms, both of which are subject to the vicissitudes of population change and inflation. I couldn’t find reliable source material on the size and strength of natural disasters before (at the earliest) the 1950s, so I used casualties instead, which were reliable. They didn’t exactly have Doppler Radar back in the 1900s so, if there are measurements of that sort of thing, I haven’t been able to find them.

      On the earthquake matter, I have to disagree. I’m not saying that climate change is resulting in increased earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but that I can’t say climate change isn’t effecting them either. This piece (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/02/climate-change-linked-to-volcano-eruptions-earthquakes) written by The Guardian’s Bill McGuire in conjunction with Mother Jones’ Climate desk makes a pretty compelling case that climate change may have an effect on the frequency/magnitude of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.

      I included the earthquakes and tsunamis in the 10 year overview because I wanted to create a more complete representation of the destructive wave of natural disasters we’ve had since 2004 and because the jury still seems to be out regarding the effects of climate change on earthquakes and the like.

      • I read the article. The information I was hoping to find there was whether, historically, warmer climate was correlated with increased seismic and volcanic activity. That information wasn’t there – instead, it’s mostly hypothetical discussion, some of which make sense and some don’t. For example, I get that a kilometer-thick ice sheet, if melted, will decrease the pressure on the tectonic plate. However, given that the continental plates are normally 10 kilometers and made of rock several times heavier than ice, so the pressure will decrease by only about 3% or even less. A 130-meter rise in sea level is less than 1% increase in weight on the ocean plates. But ok, this might be enough to affect the plate dynamics. But the article’s implicit conclusion that today’s global warming will lead to the same results by raising the sea level by a few feet is just ridiculous.
        Or the assertions that permafrost holds mountains together, or ice caps prevent volcanoes from erupting, well, that’s just silly. It’s like saying that it’s the coat of paint that holds the house together. So no, I don’t buy the argument that global warming creates earthquakes or volcanic eruptions – not until there’s actual evidence from historical record.

      • You know, I did some additional reading up on Google about that, and there might be evidence for the correlation. However, while there will probably be increased earthquake activity where ice sheet actually melts, like Greenland and Antarctica, it doesn’t seem to explain earthquakes in places like Haiti, Japan, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, which are ten thousand kilometers away from the nearest ice sheet.

  2. It’s too late. The warming cannot be reversed. The way we live now is not the way we will soon enough be living. Hurricane Mitch destroyed my house, and there’s nothing quite like listening to that wind go through as if it were a train. We’ve done it to ourselves because we do not want to feel the struggle at its core to change. I blame us. And organized religion that has facilitated overpopulation. There are too many of us. Duh. Even the supply of fossil fuels are not infinite. What amazes me is what has always amazed me. That people cling desperately to hope. The hope that we can turn it around. In today’s world of geopolitical posturing. It ain’t gonna happen. There is no evidence that it can happen, and a lot of compelling evidence that it can’t because human behavior is so closely linked to ritual, ignorance, and god. But if we all just join forces, we can save the polar bear. It’s hubris. I have seen the ice flows of glaciers come tumbling, roaring down to be sucked up by the sea, and you stand there on the ship watching this as if you were hypnotized, as if it’s a performance, and anyone who can see that, and still claim the planet is as cool as it always was, is only seeing what they want to see. Vegas as a dystopian metaphor works for me. Not that it typifies sin. What is sin. But because it typifies stupidity on a massive, cultural scale.

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