Every year for the past several years, we have been listening to constant news reports about large brush fires destroying houses in Southern California near Santa Barbara, San Diego, etc. This constant bombardment was not always the norm. People used to live in cities away from yearly fires, but unsustainable development practice, subsidization through infrastructure construction, and pure greed for the value of California homes have changed that.
Then again neither was living in low-concentration sub-divisions the middle of an extremely dry desert or thick brush-filled area without access to proper water resources. The real tragedy of the housing boom has been our environment, where we have seen hugely unsustainable growth as people move toward the southern US-first to California, then to Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. In my hometown near Austin and San Antonio, I have had to watch over the years each time I visit home, more of the beautiful Texas Hill Country be consumed by housing development that then adopt names like "Falcon Wood" or something else completely absurd. These places are building in an area without the transportation infrastructure to maintain them, where new commercial buildings in strip-mall form are constructed because the stores are not close enough and because 70% of our economy is consumption, and where there simply is not enough water to support continued development. And yet we build on, practically subsidizing unsustainable growth through huge investments in water infrastructure and transportation that continues to fuel the consumption of our natural resources. We have known for a long time not to do this. John Nolan, a legendary planner from a century or so ago said that the four principles of development should be:
Conform to the topography
Use places for what they are naturally most fit
Conserve, utilize and develop all natural resources, aesthetic as well as commercial
Aim to secure beauty through organic arrangements rather than through mere embellishments.
The point is this: cutting off a mountain side to build a subdivision and create false topography in the already-beautiful Hill Country is right out.
So is the covering of Las Vegas, NV and Phoenix, AZ with grass. I have promised myself that I will never visit Phoenix if at all possible because that place disgusts me. It is truly profligate sprawl, at the end of which is desert-clearly visible from an airplane or satellite photo. The river that gives it, LA and Las Vegas life is unable to reach the sea, requiring us to pump water into it in order to meet treaty requirements with Mexico for water use. This absurd growth has been spurred on consciously but without morals or the alertness to realize their time is fleeting. The South West of the US is going to be become even more dessicated due to global climate change whether they like it or not so, in other words, they are all screwed.
But so are we. We created the situation where their development was permitted and encouraged, and the government failed in its duty to serve as a guide to prevent what has happened from happening. While those Arizonans get to live there now, unsustainably, we the people are going to pay the cost in the long run as we continue to try to make their lives there possible. We do the same in LA and Las Vegas. We never recognized consciously the danger of promising the water of the Colorado to everyone, and so they never attempted to conserve or moderate their lifestyles. In the word's of a Rodney Crowell song "LA hits my windshield like some Armageddon Sprawl, planting palm trees in the desert makes no sense to me at all." He spoke the truth.
Our disregard for the environment is catching up to us but I believe that it is already too late. As the environmental refugees from projected global warming, we will see people from the Maldives, Bangladesh, Southern Louisiana and Florida...and Arizona.
Now back to California. The unmitigated urban sprawl in Southern California is represented in the houses that are now destroyed by fires, at great expense to tax payers, every year. This is going to be from now on the norm unless we work harder to subdue the environment by creating massive, empty, unvegitated firebreaks. Do we really want to go there? We have separated ourselves from the environment in every other way including by violating its laws, so why not?
Another area where we have failed to recognize our relationship with the environment and what is sustainable is with coastal flooding. Finding it impossible for people to get insurance in coastal cities, the US Government insures people's houses. This likely includes the houses recently damaged on the Texas coast by the hurricanes that hit EVERY FOUR YEARS OR SO. These people came from Dallas, built a house next to the beach and now have the gall to claim that they should be compensated for property lost due to erosion. How about this. DO NOT LIVE IN THE FLOODPLAIN! So, we not only subsidize sprawl by building the infrastructure that promotes it, we subsidize floodplain dwelling by insuring those who live there and cannot get private home-owners or flood insurance for a good reason. These are examples of policy contradictory to the overall well-being of society. The fact is that it took years to engineer the Mississippi, the Columbia, and other rivers, and they still flood. We cannot really engineer the coastal places that are hurricane prone. Our best option would be to stop insuring people who build there. Let them know of the risks, the lack of insurance (or cost of it if it is available), and then let them on their own. If Dallas-ites want to complain that they lost property due to natural erosion when a hurricane hit, tough.
I have taken the time to write a long post on this because it is indicative of a wider problem. The cost to society of not being able to build on the coast is lower than the cost to it from the damage those buildings incur (as evident by the need for a government subsidy). Similarly, the cost to society of fighting global warming now by cutting emissions is going to be much less than resettling half of Florida or accepting Haitian environmental refugees. Government policy should immediately be reviewed to view its externalities, to properly value the cost to society of cities like Phoenix and the wealthy vacation homes on the Texas coast, and of carbon emissions. In sum, stop building infrastructure for desert sprawl, stop subsidizing houses in the flood plain, charge polluters the real cost of their pollution.