A couple of days ago, I was listening to an episode of On Being. The guest was Barbara Kingsolver, and she was talking to Krista Tippett about the ethics of eating. Barbara Kingsolver used to live in Phoenix along with her husband and two children, but then decided to move her family to a farm in Virginia, which they had been regularly going to for several years. The reason why she moved was because she realised that the food that her family was eating was coming from very far away, and that from an ecological perspective, this was terribly damaging. She is right, of course. And so over the next year, she and her family grew their own food, prepared everything themselves, ate seasonally, and so on. What struck me most, though, was the fact that rather than staying in the Sun Belt of the US in Arizona, (which has the second fastest growth rate of all states in the US...consider the fact that between 1990 and 2000, the population of the Phoenix metropolitan area grew by 45%) she moved away from it, recognising its role in the unsustainable society we've created for ourselves.
Places like Arizona and the arid West have bloomed from damming of rivers, there is no doubt about this. Yet while people have been moving in droves to these places, their expectations have remained the same. Wherever we go, we want what we've had in other places, and if this comes at the detriment of the environment, then so be it. Take a look at this picture of suburbia in the Phoenix area, which shows parts of Ahwatukee, Chandler, Gilbert West Valley, SW Valley, Scottsdale, and Mesa. You see most every house accompanied with a lawn, maybe with some desert vegetation. And so even when we move to an arid region, we expect our physical landscape to look like that from the water-rich Midwest. In places like Phoenix, outdoor water use for things like lawn account for two-thirds of resident's water use. As Chris Martin, a horticulture professor at Arizona State University mentions, "If you withhold water, desert plants do use less water, but your yard looks like a desert. So there's this big paradox. People say,' Well, I'll plant desert vegetation, but I want it to look green and healthy, so I'll irrigate it so it grows like crazy.'"
There is an entitlement that pervades this culture, an entitlement that allows us to conflate our rights and our wants. Clearly, having a green lawn in Phoenix is a want. But the fact that water from the Colorado River is being channeled to Phoenix under the facade of abundance allows us to demand, almost righteously, that the water be available for whatever we want to use it for. This is the same entitlement that allows us to not think twice before eating a strawberry in winter. It is the entitlement that allows a continued export of a materialistic "development" philosophy to other parts of the world, in the expectation of course that it will benefit us more than it will benefit them. In the end, however, we all lose with this philosophy. Our right to freedom does not allow us to freely destroy. Further, our entitlement to this freedom doesn't mean that the way we've behaved so far is the only way we should behave. What we must do is break from this entitled, abundant past, and accept and embrace a scarce future. We cannot continue to expect that we can have both ecological protection and rejuvenation and a continuation of the lifestyle we've grown accustomed to, indeed, entitled to.