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Guest Commentary

Don't believe the development cheerleaders and apologists: Growth can be limited and even stopped

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Spring is in the air, but that's not the only reason for rising temperatures around here. Lately, there's been an inordinate amount of hot air spewed about the subject of growth.

Noxious gases have recently been detected swirling around several precincts of the growth puzzle, including water, transportation, housing and so on. The vapors generally emanate from two sources: cheerleaders and apologists.

Not that there is much of a difference between the two. The cheerleaders often disguise themselves as apologists, and the apologists frequently contribute to the cheerleaders' profitable cause with weak-minded acquiescence to bad policy. Taken together, these folks rule the day when it comes to fantasies of the future. Too bad their shared vision is a nightmare in the making.

At a recent State Transportation Board meeting, referring to his staggeringly bone-headed proposal to run an interstate highway bypass through places like the San Pedro and Aravaipa river valleys, board member Si Schorr spouted for the umpteenth time: "You can't get hurt by planning." On its face, this statement would appear to be nothing more than empty rhetoric, but it's far worse. Such claptrap is starkly emblematic of the crowd that adheres to the mantra of, "We gotta do something!"

Sorry to burst your billion-dollar bubble, Mr. Schorr, but you can indeed be mortally wounded through bad planning. (Google "Custer," or better yet, witness the neocon cowboys who planned our misadventure in Iraq.) And if doing something means that our community collectively bends over and drops trou' at the approach of every rumbling bulldozer, then we really are better off doing nothing.

By far, the largest eruption of growth gas came from the Arizona Daily Star's recent growth forum, which actually would be more accurately spelled "growth for 'em". This was an event sponsored, informed and presided over by cheer-pologists, with very little diversity of opinion represented. In summarizing it, ex-UA President Peter Likins decried the "false choice" between growth and no growth, and said that in order to solve the problem, we all need to get on the growth bus and behave. Presumably, once we're all packed in, we can civilly discuss who gets to drive the bus off of the cliff.

In fact, it is Likins who offers the false choice: The argument that growth cannot be stopped is often invoked to prove that it must continue apace, and that all we can do as a community is put some bells and whistles on it and learn to like it. This is false on several levels, foremost being the convenient fantasy that growth is inevitable. I can list several ways growth could be stopped, or at least interrupted for a significant period of time. These include the ongoing mortgage-lending meltdown, further financial collapse brought on by any number of factors, catastrophic climate change, the evaporation of world oil supplies and the exhaustion of the West's dwindling water supplies.

Such growth-stoppers will be more than just bad dreams if we don't pull our heads out of the sand now and come up with some good plans to deal with them. Problem is, we're still debating the merits of things like the highway bypass, a multi-billion-dollar, sprawl-fomenting, greenhouse-gas-producing boondoggle that will actually increase the likelihood of one or more of these nightmares coming to pass.

There is a space between the false dichotomy that the tautological cheer-pologists refuse to acknowledge: Growth can be slowed, controlled, discouraged, restrained, and selectively and strategically denied. It can be limited to an urban core and designed to reduce resource usage and waste rather than exacerbate it, and yes, it can ultimately be capped by a rational and honest assessment of our resources. But there is a dirty truth that prevents this sort of rational planning from happening: The cheer-pologists themselves either profit handsomely from the Ponzi scheme of a growth-driven economy, or at best lack the courage or foresight to acknowledge the realities before us and lead accordingly.

What we're left with is Ed Abbey's ideology of the cancer cell: growth for growth's sake. Growth cannot be stopped, ipso defuncto, and we must accommodate, subsidize and even base our economic well-being on it. This misconception is a 20th-century mistake that will be rewarded with some profoundly 21st-century consequences in the not-so-distant future, unless we broaden the terms of debate beyond false choices--and reject the false conclusions that follow.

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