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Rogue Columnist

Dog days for Arizona

If all I knew was, as Will Rogers said, what I read in the papers, I'd be pretty depressed. This is ironic considering in Arizona their mission is to most of the time be the cheerleaders for the Everything's Fine! propaganda ministry.

Still, the sheer magnitude of the occasional story or a little bit of guerrilla journalism to slip out the truth happens. One example was an article by the Republic's excellent Gary Nelson on a recent meeting of the Maricopa Association of Governments. It was supposed to be a rah-rah-blah-blah lie-fest for the Sun Corridor, an insane brew of more sprawl and wishful thinking. But Bill Harris, the head of Science Foundation Arizona, warned that the state was headed for a Third World future without better leadership and education. This doesn't differ from what I've been writing for years or Mary Jo Waits' warning that Arizona was on track to be the "Appalachia of the 21st century," but it brought an absurd, tremulously defensive response from one of Gov. Brewer's stooges. This is how we know Harris was telling the truth.

Then, another article by Shaun McKinnon, who somehow survives to do fine reporting on the reality of climate change and Arizona. This one detailed how wildfires are bringing Arizona's majestic forests closer to collapse. "Fire has burned through one-quarter of the state's ponderosa-pine and mixed-conifer forests just in the past decade, leaving a blackened mosaic across 1 million acres. In all, nearly 4 million acres of Arizona's forests, grasslands and deserts — an area slightly larger than Connecticut — have burned since 2002." The only thing more upsetting about this is the utter lack of leadership to address it — let's have a Sun Corridor!

This is only one manifestation of the state's scary future from unaddressed, human-caused climate change and the locally caused heat island and intrusion of development into delicate wilderness. Is desertification the future of the high country, where our great-grandchildren will marvel at old photos of endless pine vistas, long gone (and curse us)? Can the beauty and diversity of the Sonoran Desert survive much hotter summers? Will the renewable water supplies of the Salt/Verde rivers remain viable? But the do-nothing, deny-science crowd is in charge and, hey, you don't have to shovel sunshine!

Yet somehow "believing in Arizona," e.g. accepting the Orwellian boosterism of the Real Estate Industrial Complex and the white-right, provides no solace.

Phoenix Mayor Stanton continues his odd effort to defend America's wildly out-of-balance, unsustainable military economy. It still makes little sense — most of the defense contractors there are in decline. Perhaps an unstated push comes from ASU, which has landed huge Defense Department research contracts, the latest worth $30 million. But as I wrote before, Military Keynesianism is a poor investment compared with how else we could deploy public money, and it certainly can't substitute for a serious economic strategy still lacking for the city of Phoenix.

Bad on me, but I just can't muster the enthusiasm to call the Loop 303 "the road to success."  If somehow the growth machine musters dying twitches amid the rubble of debt and collapse, this far-out freeway will merely subsidize more sprawl, kill agriculture desperately needed for cooling (and might be needed for food someday), further hollow out the core as the leasing boyz steal tenants from Phoenix, and enrich a few playerz. It is a massive misallocation of resources, a 1960 mindset. Its externalities will include more smog, more environmental degradation, a larger heat island and congestion. Ah, the "West Valley home market is as hot as the weather." Believe!

It's hard to be inspired by other "West Valley" news. Towns and cities once built inspiring city halls as a physical manifestation of the public good, temples of democracy and civic pride. Goodyear wants to buy the office "park" where most of its city offices are now located. And this is a place with a relatively well-off population. But it must conform to the dreary sameness of car-based suburbia in metro Phoenix. I swear if I went on a bender in Goodyear or Peoria or Glendale and somehow my buddies left me in any of the new parts of the E.V. to sleep it off, I wouldn't know where I was from the man-made environment. This is a civilization worth caring about? But data centers (and their few jobs) are "flocking" here. Gateway airport will grow (and somehow get along with all those nearby and planned subdivisions). Believe!

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Back to Harris and truth-telling. It's hazardous for one's career in Arizona, I can attest. He was recruited in the short renaissance of St. Janet, having run Science Foundation Ireland before that country was overwhelmed, ironically, by a speculative real-estate bubble and made the fatal mistake of bailing out its banks. Harris has had a distinguished career and done yeoman labor to shake some sense into the state. Unfortunately, SFA can't overcome the extremism and know-nothingism of the statehouse, or the purblindness of the real estate dons. So if he decides to retire soon, it wouldn't surprise me.

After all, raising reality-based questions, speaking the truth about the dangers bearing down and pushing for the reforms that would give the state a fighting chance are failures to believe in Arizona. It's a totalitarian mindset, albeit soft totalitarianism — and with championship golf.

This commentary was originally posted on Rogue Columnist.


Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic and now is economics columnist of the Seattle Times.

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Hole 16 at the Legacy Golf Resort in Phoenix.