Unsettled America: The Elitist, Divisive Environmentalism of the Recreation-Industrial Complex

Environmentalists so often seem self-righteous, privileged, and arrogant because they so readily consent to identifying nature with play and making it by definition a place where leisured humans come only to visit and not to work, stay, or live. Thus environmentalists have much to say about nature and play and little to say about humans and work. And if the world were so cleanly divided between the domains of work and play, humans and nature, there would be no problem. Then environmentalists could patrol the borders and keep the categories clear. But the dualisms fail to hold; the boundaries are not so clear. And so environmentalists can seem an ecological Immigration and Naturalization Service, border agents in a socially dubious, morally ambiguous, and ultimately hopeless cause.

— Richard White, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?”

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I sometimes refer to the institutional and cultural apparatus that defines contemporary, mainstream environmentalism as the Recreation-Industrial Complex (RIC). The sobriquet applies mainly to the overlapping worlds of environmental NGOs, philanthrocapitalism, and Big Rec, but it is not limited to that. Over the past few decades, this economic and social ecosystem has quietly become a major base of power in America, but it has received precious little critical attention, especially within the environmental movement itself. Consider this shaggy collection of musings a few steps down that rabbit hole.

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To pick a point of beginning, mainstream environmentalism has been an elitist project since at least the invention and popularization of the national park wilderness ideal about a century ago.

National parks may or may not be America’s best idea but, contra Stegner, they are not “absolutely democratic.” Far from it. Mark David Spence recounts the most egregious departure from liberal ideals when he details how the establishment of national parks was impossible without the forced removal of indigenous people from the land they had occupied for generations. To preserve wilderness, as Spence puts it, it was first necessary to create it.

Theodore Roosevelt. Source.

What’s worse is that indigenous dispossession was not an unfortunate, accidental consequence of the creation of national parks, but an entirely intentional outcome and the logical corollary of the worldview of the men who championed this new definition of wilderness. Old-money elites like Teddy Roosevelt saw themselves reflected in the trophy megafauna they hunted. Wilderness, in their view, was a romantic representation of an aristocratic American Ideal they perceived as threatened by the emerging class of gauche, new-money robber barons, from one side, and new waves of swarthy immigrants, from the other. The shameful reality, in fact, is that the park movement shared considerable intellectual DNA with the eugenics movement. It is hard to imagine a more anti-democratic set of values.

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The point of reciting such historical lowlights is not to measure men long dead against the yardstick of present-day sensibilities nor to tar modern environmentalists simply by association with this appalling heritage. Obviously, environmentalism looks markedly different today than it did in Teddy Roosevelt’s era. Rather, there are two intended points.

The first is simply to establish that woke-washing the mythology of the national park ideal requires considerable historical airbrushing if not outright revisionism. Nature has many possible meanings and those which are most dominant in mainstream American environmentalism have a particular cultural etymology and specific identifiable features, not all of which are admirable. One enduring feature of the movement is an elitism that has evolved in its particulars with time, but retains a general and pernicious hold on public discourse about nature and the environment.

The second purpose in recounting this history is simply to provide a more acute lens for critical reflection; perhaps considering the uglier aspects of environmentalism’s cultural and intellectual foundations will better equip us to demythologize contemporary environmentalisms, including the powerful, mainstream types of which I tend to be critical.

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Attitudes about philanthrocapitalism have also evolved significantly in the past century, and this shift also features prominently in contemporary environmentalism. Teddy Roosevelt said of the philanthropy of the same new-money robber barons he viewed as threats to civic life and the American aristocracy: “No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

Such an opinion is out of step with today’s conventional wisdom, which more closely aligns with Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth. But while today’s gilded giving is almost universally well received, there are skeptics here and there. Among the more prominent critics is Anand Giridharadas, the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadas coins the term MarketWorld to describe modern philanthrocapitalism:

MarketWorld is an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks. It has its own thinkers, whom it calls thought leaders, its own language, and even its own territory…

These elites believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of the systems that people share in common; that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform.

This sounds a lot like contemporary environmentalism to me. To pick just one specific example, the board of SUWA alone manages to be well-represented by pretty much every category of elite listed by Giridharadas. Academics, media professionals, billionaire philanthrocapitalists? Check, check, and check. Likewise, the process of change and the set of acceptable solutions pursued by the likes of SUWA are of a predictable, narrow kind developed and supervised these elites.

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David Bonderman. Source.

“So what,” you may ask. What’s the harm if the rich want to underwrite green causes? I think there are (at least) two broad types of problems.

First and perhaps most obvious is the risk that the influence of big money will bend the agenda of environmentalism to accommodate donors’ business interests, or at least will make it impossible to be sure that this does not happen. Giridharadas, who is a gifted aphorist, has said that, for many MarketWorlders, making a difference is the wingman of making a killing. This problem especially applies to the many big money environmental donors who acquire their fortunes from unambiguously dirty businesses.

Even putting aside direct conflict-of-interest problems, it’s hard to fully swallow the argument that spending lavishly on environmental causes actually offsets the accumulation of enormous wealth through ethically or environmentally questionable means.

A related and similarly dubious rationale frequently offered by green NGOs for courting the patronage of the 1% boils down to a belief that it takes a good guy with a fat wallet to stop a bad guy with a fat wallet.

In any case, no matter how one thinks about these questions and contradictions, it is undeniable that mainstream environmentalism studiously avoids confronting them, and, in doing so, perpetuates an ethos which, as Giridharadas puts it, asks the wealthy to do more good, but almost never asks them to do less harm.

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A second set of problems with today’s environmental philanthrocapitalism is perhaps more subtle, but also more certain: when the elite define environmentalism, they don’t just choose and frame what counts as a problem, along with the range of acceptable solutions to that problem, they also inevitably erase alternative, competing forms of environmentalism that may better square with the lived experience of the relatively powerless.

In a paper titled Powerful environmentalisms:conservation, celebrity and capitalism, Dan Brockington points out that it is often a fallacy to think of mainstream environmentalism as a weak David locked in battle with the powerful Goliaths of industry and goes on to describe:

two types of environmentalism. The first represented by the conservation interests of wealthy people in the developed world who fund the work of the big conservation NGOs (or BINGOs). He asserts that the global growth of protected areas is driven by the demand for the pristine nature they provide. Such environments provide the “authentic unspoilt nature [people] wish to consume on their holidays.”

The second environmentalism Brockington describes is rooted in the services such environments provide to the rural poor: the harvest of wild foods, fuelwood collection, building materials etc. He suggests these two environmentalisms are in conflict, as evidenced by the on-going creation of protected areas, often driven by the agenda of the BINGOs, which can lead to physical and/or economic displacement.

Brockington asserts that the “Western wilderness ethic, which values pristine lands untouched and uninfluenced by people is not compatible with local environmentalisms.” The inequitable power relations between local environmentalisms of the South and the well-financed Northern BINGOs often result in the marginalization of the former.

Brockington’s assessment seems right to me: environmentalism, as it is commonly understood in the affluent West, is synonymous with the accumulation and projection of power. The marginalization or erasure of entirely different forms of environmentalism, including the kind Brockington describes as most relevant to the rural poor, is one major consequence. Another is that, despite living lives that are intimately embedded in their local environment, few generational rural residents seem to self-identify as environmentalists. Maybe that’s because the very term “environmentalism” has little meaning to them and even less salience.

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Brockington’s distinction between largely invisible local environmentalisms and the elite environmentalisms represented by powerful, well-financed NGOs also maps quite nicely onto the sociological concept of place attachment, which features prominently, if only implicitly, in Richard White’s influential essay from two decades ago titled “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?”. In the paper, White argues that mainstream environmentalism’s hostility toward almost all types of work in nature has (at least) two negative consequences.

First, it negates the legitimate and profound place attachment many people form with their local environment through work of the kind which is alien or even repugnant to most self-identified environmentalists. At a minimum, this represents an enormous blind spot for many mainstream environmentalists, but what’s worse is that this hostility toward work in nature is often synonymous with disdain for workers in nature.

A second negative consequence, White argues, is that the failure of environmentalists “to examine and claim work within nature” cedes valuable cultural terrain to a wise-use movement that “confuses real work with invented property rights” and “perverts the legitimate concerns of rural people with maintaining ways of life and getting decent returns on their labor into the special “right” of large property holders and corporations to hold the natural world hostage to their economic gain.”

In this articulation, White finds the narrow strip of ground between positions which either are openly hostile to all work (and workers) in nature or which romanticize certain forms of archaic work, especially when that work is performed by poor, exotic people, or which implicitly shill for large-scale industrial exploitation. It’s a level of nuance that is almost entirely absent in mainstream environmental discourse.

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The concept of place attachment is also explicitly referenced by Ethan Linck in his noteworthy essay in High Country News from two years ago in which he grapples with the common assumption that a constructive sort of environmentalism inevitably follows from the pursuit of certain forms of outdoor recreation.

In the essay, Linck observes that while outdoor recreation may certainly be worthwhile on its own terms, the particular kind of so-called environmentalism promoted by Big Rec frequently tends toward the self-serving: “there’s suggestive evidence that while the outdoor recreation industry is willing to take a public stand for wild places — to pledge its commitment to conservation as a political badge — it remains unwilling to pay for that commitment on any terms but its own.”

I would go a step further. At it’s best, spending time at play or leisure in wild places can lead to meaningful place attachment, which may then center a grounded and useful set of values around conservation and the environment. However, at its worst, Big Rec cultivates nothing more than a highly mediated sort of synthetic attachment, which is not actually to place at all, but merely to an idea of place. This sort of environmentalism amounts to little more than a social affectation which leans heavily, in Abbey’s formulation, on “sly art and eco porn.”

Patagonia Presents. Source.

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Of course, it takes more than the financial capital of billionaire benefactors to make mainstream environmentalism as powerful as it is. To really move a culture also takes cultural capital. Lots and lots of cultural capital.

It takes a legion of urban professionals in their ubiquitous Better Sweater Vests. Environmental philanthrocapitalism isn’t just for the 1%, after all. It’s also for the 9.9%.

It takes middle-class, suburban, latte-liberals stuck in their Subarus in traffic between Boulder and Denver right now.

It takes the rest of Anand Giridharadas’s MarketWorld ecosystem, “the collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks.”

It takes the symbiosis of all these classes of people with the lifestyle brands through which they signal their green bona fides.

And, last but far from least, it takes the crunchified hypebeast energy manufactured by these same lifestyle brands and their small army of professional neo-Beatnik ambassadors, along with the self-employed, self-conscious and photogenic social-media influencers from the steadily growing ranks of downwardly-mobile van-lifers and trust-funders.

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To illustrate the media’s place in the Recreation-Industrial Complex, I think I’ll pick on Outside as a bundler of the market forces and shifting demographics behind environmentalistic power.

Every so often, Outside publishes something that ought to call into question the very orthodoxy of the Recreation-Industrial Complex of which Outside is essentially the house organ. Yet somehow these articles never amount to more than a glancing critique. A recent offering in the genre, written by Mark Sundeen, considers the state of affairs in canyon country and, predictably, finds Utah’s Mighty Five campaign to be the proximate cause of the runaway tourism affecting Moab and beyond.

To be clear, I think the weight of the piece is relatively good, and, true to Outside form, it is exceedingly well-written. There is also a side of me that gives credit for courage anytime something is published that even obliquely implicates the publisher or its advertisers. Still, a lot of it is, at best, puzzling.

For example, Sundeen writes: “We all bear some responsibility in changing this place. Yet we don’t bear it quite evenly. Market forces and shifting demographics and social media don’t deserve the same sort of scrutiny as taxpayer-funded programs like the Office of Tourism.”

Why does the state’s Office of Tourism deserve more scrutiny than market forces and shifting demographics and social media? The answer isn’t obvious on its face and Sundeen never really says.

If the Utah State University study cited in the article is approximately right, about 5% of visitation to Utah’s national parks is attributable to the state’s Mighty Five advertising, and yet it gets about 95% of the critical attention in the article. Anecdotally, this rough inversion of the blame-to-attention ratio is pretty typical when the topic of canyon country tourism comes up, and while this strategy may simplify an argument, it does not actually illuminate much.

For one thing, marketing only really works if it is tonally on point; great marketing arguably understands its audience better than its audience even understands itself. So our contemporary cultural context is in effect the canvas on which a tourism office paints. If Utah’s marketing has been effective, it is only because it has expertly met its moment.

This focus on Utah’s Office of Tourism also completely sidesteps both the qualitative similarity and quantitative impact of the marketing of canyon country by Outside and its many Big Rec advertisers.

Outside Online. Moab Travel Guide.

More pointedly, waving off larger social and economic forces is not a neutral rhetorical move. It is in fact a quite consequential editorial choice and, for Outside, an awfully convenient one. The magazine’s media kit credibly claims to offer advertisers “the most sought-after demographics in all of publishing,” based on a large, loyal, and influential audience that follows the brand across a full spectrum of media platforms and brings with it an average household income north of $100,000. It is an audience that apparently supports ad rates of up to $200,000+ for a single two-page color spread in the magazine. Given this profile, it’s no wonder Outside would prefer to steer clear of a more searching examination of the forces that are actually operative in the postindustrial commodification of nature, the neoliberalization of environmentalism as a movement, and the steady expansion of the thing we shorthand as the New West.

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I guess my criticism of Outside here is that focusing blame on capitalistic Republicans (as opposed to the Democratic kind) and a state tourism office for what’s happening across southern Utah is just so easy and formulaic. And, you know, fine. Except for this: what’s happening in Moab and beyond is just one small manifestation of a comprehensive, self-reinforcing system — of which Outside is more than a bit player — which I’m calling the Recreation-Industrial Complex. And this system is inextricable from a larger system, which is usually called neoliberalism or late-stage capitalism. And brushing off fundamental, troubling aspects of these systems with a passing yada-yada in order to fire a few more rounds at the usual soft targets actually prevents an honest reckoning with the roots of the problem.

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One fascinating thing about these sorts of articles is how they fit within the practice of contemporary mainstream media writ large. Business-model success for outlets like Outside seems to be based on a journalistic presentation intended to occasionally make the magazine’s affluent, professional-managerial audience sufficiently uncomfortable that they are reassured of the publication’s rigor and objectivity, but this discomfort must always remain subordinate to a political thesis that confirms all the biases of the same audience. A good limousine liberal is always down for a bit of self-flagellation, but only a bit.

So we get, for example, writers for publications like the New York Times going on safari among the white working class in order to reassure its readers that, yes, globalization has brought hard times to many parts of the country, but Donald Trump’s election was mostly due to, you guessed it, bigotry. And we get writers for Outside checking in on the creeping tide of tourism in Utah’s canyon country in order to reassure its readers that there’s no problem afoot, and even if there is, it’s mostly due to, you guessed it, unscrupulous Republicans. Complex phenomena are flattened and reduced, and neither the publication nor its audience is ever truly complicit.

Of course, whether this elite-coddling editorial approach is done consciously or is simply the expression of a specific social milieu; whether it is actually as subtle as its practitioners suppose; and whether the ostensible subtlety counts as an improvement over expressly political media, are all open questions. In any case, this narrative recipe strikes me as particularly apt for Outside and its audience. Who, after all, embodies the strand of lifestyle-leftism that weds play as performative suffering with unimpeachable good taste more fully than the modern endurance sport athlete-cum-nature connoisseur?

For what it’s worth, I say all this as someone who fully occupies the bullseye of Outside’s target audience. Epic trail running adventures, Rapha, rustic farm-to-table dining, parkitecture? I’m an overeducated member of the professional-managerial class who is a sucker for all of it.

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Curious about how the piece landed with Outside’s audience, I headed over to the magazine’s Facebook page and found the thread on Sundeen’s article tucked safely among links to a van makeover piece (“Take Your Van from Dirtbag to Dream Home”) and a listicle on “America’s 25 Most Accessible — and Beautiful — Trails.” The comments, much like the article itself, consisted mainly of nostalgia for the way southern Utah used to be and anecdotes about how bad or not-bad the problem really is, with a sprinkling of more critically penetrating and uncomfortable points mixed in. Based on the comment count and emoji voting, “engagement” with the piece was high, yet no one seemed particularly stirred up. So maybe Outside’s approach is in fact as effectively subtle as it aspires to be. Then again, maybe Outside’s audience is simply, on average, quite a bit more smug and credulous than they suppose themselves to be.

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Factory Floor. Source.

To be sure, the contemporary classism of mainstream environmentalism exists in its mature, modern form thanks only in part to causes traceable to the concrete actions of identifiable actors. To take a much broader view, it is but one consequence of a financialized global economy that has sown deindustrialization and severe wealth inequality across many affluent nations like the U.S. while producing modern-ish industrial economies across Asia and parts of the global south. The New West represents a form of gentrification, and gentrification can be reasonably described as the spatial expression of economic inequality. It is only natural, in this view, for the massive inequality of our new gilded age to be expressing itself all over Moab and similar places.

Although these underlying forces are properly understood as phenomena of late-stage capitalism, we are in some respects still very much at their beginning. The global middle class, which numbered about 3 billion people worldwide in 2015, is expected to increase by a whopping 67% to 5 billion by the year 2030. Such drastic reduction in human immiseration is obviously a wonderful trend, but is just as obviously a trend with enormous implications for resource consumption. Fearless prediction: the newly minted middle class is going to want more stuff and they are going to want to travel.

The social and environmental alienation caused by these macro forces will also almost certainly lead to further erasure of the grounded, local environmentalisms of rural residents in favor of the powerful, urban- and elite-centric environmentalism that is being stitched into our cultural fabric by the Recreation-Industrial Complex.

To borrow John Michael Greer’s distinction, these phenomena almost certainly do not represent a problem, for which there may be a solution, but a predicament, from which there is no escape. But while there may be no escape, all methods of coping are not equivalent. And it seems to me that better coping responses, even on a merely personal level, must be based on the truth of how we got here and about the nature of “here” itself.

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I’ve suspected for some time now that if New West phenomena crossed national borders and were being imposed on powerless and exotic brown people rather than unsympathetic white people in rural America, we’d more readily recognize what’s happening in places like Utah’s canyon country as a sort of eco-colonialism.

What I mean by colonialism is the demonstrable social, economic, and political domination of long-time inhabitants of certain places by elite settlers and noninhabitants, mainly through the control of land. Contemporary mechanisms of colonial-ish control include structural and institutional forces like the sweeping authority over giant tracts of land retained by the federal government (or acquired by billionaires or NGOs), but especially such atomized, private-sector forces as tourism and the related processes of amenity migration and socioeconomic restructuring.

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Underpinning the Recreation-Industrial Complex and putting the “eco” in this form of colonialism are a set of dominant social constructions of the meaning and value of nature, wilderness, and the rural along specifically greenwashed, postindustrial lines. William Cronon’s introductory essay to the Uncommon Ground anthology is a useful reference on this point.

I’m only providing Cronon’s definition or a short comment here, but the main idea of each concept is, I believe, at least superficially self-evident. Also self-evident in these concepts is a persistent elitist impulse and a stubborn dualism between humanity and nature. Consider that there is almost no trace on this list of the sort of “nature” that would be recognizable to unorthodox, place-based (non-identifying) environmentalists to whom this dualism is alien.

Nature as naive reality. “The sense that when we speak of the nature of something, we are describing its fundamental essence, what it really and truly is.” This is basically the Anecdote of the Jar paradox. Nature is a thing in itself and “nature” is also a social construct, and the common usage of the term is rarely self-conscious about any tension inherent in this difference.

Nature as a moral imperative. “The great attraction of nature for those who wish to ground their moral vision in external reality is precisely its capacity to take disputed values and make them seem innate, essential, eternal, non negotiable.”

Nature as Eden. A prominent subcategory of nature as a moral imperative. “(A) great many environmental controversies revolve around … “Edenic narratives,” in which an original pristine nature is lost through some culpable human act that results in environmental degradation and moral jeopardy … The myth of Eden describes a perfect landscape, a place so benign and beautiful and good that the imperative to preserve or restore it could be questioned only by those who ally themselves with evil.”

Nature as artifice (nature as self-conscious cultural construction). “Once we believe we know what nature ought to look like — once our vision of its ideal form becomes a moral or cultural imperative — we can remake it so completely that we become altogether indifferent or even hostile toward its prior condition.” Landscape architecture and similar human interventions, the best of which erase or at least obscure the work of the architect, are liberally employed all around us. The paradox is that this staged and airbrushed sort of nature unintentionally becomes idealized over native, untouched nature with all its warts.

Nature as virtual reality. Broadly, this refers to intermediated nature, whether the intermediary is digital or physical-corporate. Think Instagram, Patagonia, Sea World.

Nature as commodity. The obvious meaning of this concept relates to heavy industry and physical, tradable goods. The less obvious but perhaps more potent meaning in our postindustrial economic context relates to the ability of a particular idea of nature to be packaged as a consumable experience.

Nature as demonic other, nature as avenging angel, nature as the return of the repressed. This is the inversion of the Edenic narrative: “environmentalists so often seem drawn to prophecies of ecological doom that offer elaborate descriptions of the disasters that will soon occur because of our misdeeds against the earth.”

Nature as contested terrain. “On the one hand, people in Western cultures use the word “nature” to describe a universal reality, thereby implying that it is and must be common to all people. On the other hand, they also pour into that word all their most personal and culturally specific values: the essence of who they think they are, how and where they should live, what they believe to be good and beautiful, why people should act in certain ways.”

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If there has ever been an instance in America that demonstrates better than the Bears Ears monument fight the ability of the Recreation-Industrial Complex to harness and project power, I’m not aware of it.

There’s no need to rehash all of the twists and turns in the saga; many thousands of words have already been published by the Zephyr documenting how the Bears Ears controversy was made. (To me, the best primer on the topic remains the one written by Jim Stiles even before the monument was designated.) I also assume, given the intelligence of the typical Zephyr reader, that there’s no need to exhaustively apply the conceptual framework outlined above to that recent history; I’m sure the connections are obvious. Still, I will highlight three points.

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Valley of the Gods. Source.

Bears Ears-as-Eden. An Edenic narrative permeates substantially all of the pro-monument message, from the Presidential Proclamation issued by Barack Obama to all the sly art and eco porn produced by Patagonia. The stakes of the morality tale are raised even higher than usual because the protagonist of this particular Edenic story is a noble savage. As questionable as both of these tropes are, the indigenous component is particularly complicated, in terms both of its actual, basic political economy and the Ecological Indian stereotype within America’s long, ugly, and tangled colonial history.

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Bears Ears-as-commodity. To fortify an Edenic narrative that implies that only those who ally themselves with evil could oppose monument designation, advocates have dutifully rummaged around to find themselves a concrete villain or two. They have only ever managed to conjure a few paper tigers, but even these have been plenty to give the credulous the vapors. This was predictable and fairly boring. What has been more interesting to me is how effectively Big Rec has commodified the idea of Bears Ears for their consumers who had zero pre-existing awareness of the place, much less attachment to it. They have succeeded in turning political activism into a successful marketing strategy and even managed to find new life for the wise-users’ dubious language of invented property rights: The President Stole Your Land.

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Wendell Berry. Source.

Erasure of Local, Place-Based Environmentalisms. Working in conceptual terrain adjacent to the sociological theory of place attachment, much of Wendell Berry’s creative energy and considerable wisdom has been devoted to pushing back against the scornful, divisive, and exploitative “southernization” of rural America by liberal urbanites. In The Unsettling of America, he writes:

Generation after generation, those who intended to remain and prosper where they were have been dispossessed and driven out, or subverted and exploited where they were, by those who were carrying out some version of the search for El Dorado… They have always said what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible…

If there is any law that has been consistently operative in American history, it is that the members of any established people or group or community sooner or later become “redskins” — that is they become the designated victims of an utterly ruthless, officially sanctioned and subsidized exploitation…

The first principle of the exploitive mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided than we are — both against each other and against ourselves. Once the revolution of exploitation is underway, statesmanship and craftsmanship are replaced by salesmanship.

This is the real cost of the way modern environmentalism is waged. As environmental MarketWorld elites flex their muscles through expensive lawsuits, university symposia, endless Op-Eds in fancy publications, and round-the-clock fundraising, complex, multifaceted issues are made ever dumber, more binary, and divisive. In the bargain, opportunities for an entirely different, more participative problem-solving paradigm are destroyed and alternative perspectives erased.

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Perhaps a good distillation of what is flattened by the Recreation-Industrial Complex steamroller and a fitting coda to this long and winding collection of thoughts is the testimony offered by Byron Clarke to Secretary Jewell’s monument delegation in 2016:

I’ve grown up here my whole life. I’ve been hiking Bears Ears (since) before it was cool. I used to get up there and shine little mirrors down into Blanding and call home and say, “did you see that?” I cut wood out there — I have two chainsaws and a truck, I’m one of those guys — for elderly Navajos. I take it down each winter — by February, they’re usually out.

The evolution of national monuments is what concerns me. Canyon de Chelly is an example of this. 1928: “nothing will change…you’ll get your wood…you’ll get what you need…you’ll get everything you want.” Other monuments across the country, 50 years later: “you’ll get what you need, nothing will change, we’re just protecting it.” But it evolves. …

I’ve been down the canyons of Grand Gulch. I’ve been ranching — I put horses and cows in that corral that you looked at yesterday at that point by Peavine and Woodenshoe.  My brother died at Hart’s Draw. Talking to Manuel Heart — he’s the (monument) resolution signer for the Ute tribe — I had lunch with him at the Kuchu restaurant in the casino over there last December.  And what he said just cut me, ‘cuz he said, “it’s a nice place…never been out there.” You’ve never been out to Woodenshoe? …

It’s very easy to say “I’m protecting it” in this way. That’s good, I want to protect it, too. Every time we look at the map and say “do we need all that, is this the right thing to do for it, is there unintended consequences” we just get thrown out as people who don’t care about the land. And we do. I just want to let you know that — if we’re not in support of the monument, if we’re in support of (the Public Lands Initiative) — by God we care about it.

Paradise Paved

The vast material displacements the machine has made in our physical environment are perhaps in the long run less important than its spiritual contributions to our culture. — Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization

There are now a great many young adults who have no memory of a time before social media and other technologies killed broadcasting. In startlingly rapid fashion, media outlets that succeeded by reaching a broad cross-section of society have been supplanted by niche outlets that succeed through extreme specificity.

This fragmentation of media and culture has its benefits. Off-beat, independent artists and writers can much more readily find their audience, and their audience can find them. More importantly, perhaps, groups and individuals who were historically either depicted as caricatures or entirely invisible in the mass media now routinely and more faithfully see themselves represented on mainstream platforms.

Of course the new media landscape is not without serious drawbacks. The boundaries around ideological and cultural bubbles seem increasingly calcified. Complex issues are flattened and reduced to cartoonish extremes, all the better to appeal to the emotions of the target audience. When communication does cross tribal lines, it tends, as often as not, to take the form of bad-faith provocations. On a more granular level, mental health scholars and professionals document a creeping epidemic of depression and alienation associated with living very online.

But rest assured, this essay is not yet another think piece about society going to hell in new media’s handcart. Instead, the brief survey above is meant to help illustrate the way in which technological tools that are initially viewed as novel and disruptive come to be seen as cost-free or even inevitable. I observe our current condition in order to facilitate a bit of conceptual time travel. If we could transport ourselves a few generations into the future, we would likely find nearly complete acceptance of the fragmented new media landscape we now find so problematic. But what if we traveled about the same amount of time backwards into history? Is there a deeply disruptive technology that was widely adopted only a few generations ago that is now seen as entirely unremarkable? Are the impacts of this technology on civilization — both physical and spiritual — seen as being as inevitable as gravity? I offer for your consideration the automobile.

Photo: Standard-Examiner

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return. — André Gorz, The Social Ideology of the Motorcar

Given the preponderance of our actual driving experience, it’s a bit incredible that car marketing works at all. What is sold as both a status object and a tool of liberation is experienced almost entirely as a cage. One of the more obvious ways in which the experience of car travel falls well short of its promise takes the form of the traffic jams that occur every day in cities of every size and in every region of the country. Motorists in vehicles that can easily reach speeds of 100+ MPH creep along at paces comfortably achieved on a bicycle. So we build more roads and widen the ones we already have, which is a response that can never work.

Adding car lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity. — Lewis Mumford

This pithy aphorism is actually quite an accurate and concise expression of the concept of induced demand: highway expansion framed as a solution to traffic congestion is doomed to fail, because adding capacity simply invites more traffic. A classic example is the expansion of the Katy Freeway in Houston. Texas spent $2.8 billion to expand the freeway to a whopping 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. After the project was completed, commute times briefly dipped, only to rebound and then some.

Photo: Houston Chronicle

The concept of induced demand also maps quite neatly onto the phenomenon known as the Marchetti Constant, which is the name for the truism that human beings have always tolerated a roughly half-hour one-way commute. This explains a good deal about the form that cities take. For most of history, cities were compact as a direct function of the distance a pedestrian comfortably covers in a half-hour.

As transportation technology has improved, whether by replacing feet with cars or by adding road capacity, the consequence has not been that commute times have gotten shorter, but that the city has spread ever wider. Nationwide, about 31 million acres of farmland were lost to development in the 20 years between 1992 and 2012, according to the American Farmland Trust.

One way to place in context the magnitude of this shift is to isolate the transportation variable from population growth. An excellent example is Buffalo, New York where net metro-area population growth was zero between 1950-2010 while the urban footprint of the city more than tripled.

Suburban Phoenix

As it has worked out under the impact of the present religion and myth of the machine, mass Suburbia has done away with most of the freedoms and delights that the original disciples of Rousseau sought to find through their exodus from the city. Instead of centering attention on the child in the garden, we now have the image of ‘Families in Space.’ For the wider the scattering of the population, the greater the isolation of the individual household, and the more effort it takes to do privately, even with the aid of many machines and automatic devices, what used to be done in company often with conversation, song, and the enjoyment of the physical presence of others. — Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

This shift in the urban form has not only remade our built environment, but has radically reoriented our social and spiritual lives. In fact, some of the negative effects of the post-car development pattern are similar to the apparent ills of new media. We have used the car in concert with Euclidean zoning to sort ourselves into suburban “neighborhoods” that are limited to tightly defined demographic and socioeconomic profiles. These physical bubbles in turn tightly define both the quantity and the range of personal interaction we experience on a regular basis. If you think this type of sorting has had no effect on personal empathy or community solidarity, I encourage you to attend any public hearing in which your local government is considering a proposal to build multifamily homes next to a typical suburban housing development.

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Cactus Ed might have added that the benefits that accrue to the non-motorized traveler are not only spiritual but material. In Walden, Thoreau considered the economics of “taking the cars to Fitchburg.” By his math, train fare to Fitchburg was about equal to a day’s wage, which was about how long he figured it would take him to walk there. So, he reckoned, not only would the trip be a fuller and more pleasant experience on foot, it would also be quicker. The modern math isn’t much better: AAA reports that the average annual cost of a medium-sized SUV is over $10,000. How many days do we work each year simply to support our mechanical dependents?

Imagine what would happen if all the countries on earth ever achieve the same vehicle-ownership rate as the U.S. in 2000: there would be 4.7 billion vehicles even if the human population does not increase. … If there are four parking spaces per car (one at home, and three more at other destinations), 4.7 billion cars would require 19 billion parking spaces, which amounts to a parking lot about the size of France or Spain. More cars would also require more land for roads, gas stations, used car dealers, automobile graveyards, and tire dumps. — Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking

Disneyland Paris

All transportation systems consist of three elements: vehicles, rights-of-way, and terminals. Trains, tracks, and train stations, for example. The freedom promised by car travel is predicated on dedicating an incredible amount of real estate to all three elements.

Photo: 9gag.com

In particular, the amount of land dedicated to parking spaces — the terminal in the automotive transportation system — is staggering. Each parking space is around 160 square feet and multiple spaces are provided for each car, usually as a condition of development imposed by municipal government. Estimates of the total number of parking spaces in America are as high as 2 billion for roughly 250 million cars. Another bit of trivia that highlights the car’s privileged place: America now builds more 3-car garages than 1-bedroom apartments.

One justification for our national supply of parking is the holiday shopping season. Just as many retailers count on the window between Thanksgiving and Christmas to reach profitability for the year, defenders of Big Parking point to the holiday shopping season as justification for the massive parking lots that sit nearly empty nearly all year. But the reality is that even on Black Friday, most parking lots aren’t full.

Photo: Strong Towns

A few years ago, the urbanist organization Strong Towns started a clever crowdsourced campaign to illustrate this. Every year, they invite people to post pictures on social media of their local parking lots with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. The results are as entertaining as they are horrifying. This holiday season, consider making your own observations on the state of parking where you are. As you go about your holiday business, note how full the parking lots are. If where you are is typical, it will only be the spots around the more popular shopping destinations that approach capacity. Even then, what we perceive as a completely full parking lot often only seems so because we have become accustomed to abundant empty asphalt.

Photo: Canyon Country Zephyr

The problem of cars, and in particular the problem of parking them, is not limited to large cities. In particular, small cities and towns based on an amenities economy are severely afflicted with the problem. This makes intuitive sense, since one of the main features of such towns is the constant churn of one wave of motorized visitors following another into and then back out of town. It is yet one more way in which such places resemble a large amusement park.

A thorough study published last year surveyed in detail the parking situation in five cities of different sizes and from different regions of the country. One of the things that made the study particularly interesting to me is that it included the New West darling of Jackson, Wyoming, which allows for ready comparison with ordinary locales.

What the researchers found is that Jackson has a parking density of almost 54 parking spaces per acre, which is over five times greater than New York City’s parking density and nearly twice the parking density of even a normal, car-friendly city like Des Moines. Even more startling, Jackson’s parking density equates to a mind boggling 27 parking spaces per household with a total replacement value of $711 million. This means that Jackson has nearly $200,000-worth of parking for every one of its households.

Moab is, as you might expect, another interesting case. A recent study of Moab’s downtown parking supply found that even during peak visitation, there is ample parking. In fact, the report found that at the peak of the period studied, only 53% of the spaces were occupied.

So why does it feel like there are always too many cars and never enough parking in Moab? It’s probably a combination of a few factors. One, there are indeed many times more people in Moab on a typically busy weekend than there are permanent residents, and virtually all of those visitors arrive by automobile. There is a real and challenging gap between the car infrastructure needed by an ordinary city the size of Moab and one that is a popular tourist destination. It poses a challenge somewhat analogous to sizing parking lots for both the holiday shopping season and also for the other 11 months of the year.

A second likely reason is similar to what I noted above about our perception of parking space utilization: we have become so conditioned to expect extremely vacant parking lots that even occupancy levels well below capacity feel crowded. A third, related reason is that we perceive a parking shortage if we can’t park directly adjacent to our destination. A walk of even a block seems to us an unbearable hardship. As the authors of the Moab report write: “People seem unwilling to walk greater than 300 feet from their vehicle to their destination as witnessed by the available parking in the highest demand hours.” A knock-on effect of this compulsion is that a significant part of traffic congestion consists of cars circling the block as their drivers search desperately for a spot right next to their destination. We’ve come a long way since Walden.

In a further irony, it appears that the study has not curbed the desire to add still more “free” public parking to Moab’s downtown core, including a $7.8 million parking structure. For a bit of perspective, the 60-unit Cinema Court housing project developed in 2012 cost $8.79 million. So, for about the same expenditure as it would take to provide affordable housing for around 50 rent-paying, working families, which Moab desperately needs, the city is instead adding large chunks of toll-free parking, which it doesn’t need at all. As Gandhi succinctly said, “Action expresses priorities.”

Cataclysmic Money and the Illusion of Prosperity

Zephyr readers consistently demonstrate a high degree of insight and engagement. Last issue, for example, Doug Meyer left a response to my column that steered me to a selection of smart essays and other writing about the meaning of big words like nature and wilderness. Reading from his list has in turn led me down further related paths. I expect I’ll be writing more about that cluster of topics in the near future.

For this issue, however, I want to address a different smart comment that was left by another reader in response to something else I wrote for the Zephyr about a year ago:

“Interesting and well-researched article, and I essentially agree with it. But, the table of county economic data is misleading in that the “Typical household income” and “Typical home price” for San Juan County are (as stated in the footnotes) only “typical” for Monticello and (and likely as you state in the text) Blanding—not for most of the county. Income and home prices in White Mesa, Montezuma Creek, Aneth, Monument Valley, and other parts of the Rez are way below those values. This Anglo-centric economic analysis would mislead anyone who has not lived in the county or has integrated with only the Anglo community (likely the bulk of your readership). The Dine and Ute in the county are a major difference between San Juan and the predominantly Anglo Grand, Garfield, and Wayne Counties; and they will play a larger and dominant role in the political and economic future of San Juan County (a good thing) and likely overwhelm the Anglo establishment in ways the other counties will never experience—maybe in better (or less destructive) ways than those of “normal” Anglo Industrial Tourism. I don’t see the Indians having the elitism or greed of either the in-migrants (as you say) or the current and historic Anglo occupiers.”Bob Phillips, December 30, 2018

There are (at least) two distinct parts to this comment: 1) a questioning of my choice to use median home values in Moab and Monticello to stand for “typical home prices” in Grand and San Juan counties, and 2) an assertion that the impact of “Anglo Industrial Tourism” in San Juan may be tempered thanks to the influence of Native American residents on the local economy and government. As interesting and provocative as the second part of the comment is, I’m mostly going to limit my response here to the first.

Housing on the Navajo Reservation. Source: Getty via WBUR.org.

My intent in using median home values for Moab and Monticello to represent local housing costs was certainly not to sugarcoat economic conditions in San Juan County, nor in particular to deflect from the existence of deep poverty on the reservation. The goal was to compare, to the extent possible, apples to apples. Including reservation housing data would run counter to this goal given the entirely different system of property rights on the reservation (among other relevant differences). So to the extent that my essay and the table of economic data was “Anglo-centric,” it was entirely intentional. And I stand by that choice, not because living conditions on the reservation don’t matter, but because they do. In fact, it’s my opinion that they matter so much that to try to shoehorn them into a discussion of dissimilar circumstances can only lead to a crabbed, reductive consideration of the important questions. Such issues deserve their own discussion on their own unique terms.

With this said, I think it may be worth returning to some of the issues initially raised in the original essay of mine and highlighted by the first part of Bob’s comment.

The New West As Prosperity Gospel

It has been my experience during the years of the Bears Ears controversy that one very common rhetorical strategy of monument proponents is to include economic indicators unique to the reservation to make the case that San Juan County as a whole is desperately poor and in dire need of the sort of fixing Industrial Tourism is good at. The reasons for doing this are simple enough. To start with, it is the steadfast belief of elitists everywhere that they come not to condemn a place and its people but to save them. And many Bears Ears maximalists certainly live up to this axiom. Indeed, the standard sales pitch — for the New West in general and Bears Ears in particular — amounts to a sort of secular prosperity gospel in which economic prosperity inevitably follows from the proper, enlightened appreciation of nature. One form or another of this argument is made time and time and time again.

Another reason for this strategy, I think, is that it feels intuitively right. Moab just looks more wealthy than Monticello.

At the core of my essay was the counterargument that there is in fact a considerable gap between what the New West promises in terms of socioeconomic salvation and what it actually delivers. Boasts about the size of the outdoor recreation industry and rustic-twee architecture tell one story, but the stories from an expanding precariat class across the New West tell another.

Moab-Area Vacation Home. Source: VRBO.
Monticello-Area Vacation Home. Source: VRBO.

In more narrow terms, a comparison of the real cost of living between Moab and Monticello reveals that Moab’s prosperity is largely illusory. Recall that Moab’s median home price is nearly 50% higher than in Monticello while Moab’s median household income is much lower. When chronic housing insecurity is the norm for a considerable majority of your town, that is not affluence. It just isn’t. If Moab appears wealthy, maybe it’s because we don’t distinguish anymore (if we ever did) between the consumption of wealth and its accumulation. And if Monticello appears poor through our windshield, maybe it’s also because we have increasingly few opportunities to see what the middle class actually looks like, especially in America’s rural places.

Moab’s Affordability Gap. Source: 2017 Moab Area Affordable Housing Plan.

We can say more about how places like Moab come to give the illusion of wealth while creating precious little shared prosperity. In Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, Alain Bertaud observes that the typical city, at bottom, functions as a labor market: 

Sometimes when I read the papers of my fellow urban planners, I get the sense that they think cities are Disneyland or Club Med. Cities are labor markets. People go to cities to find a good job. Firms move to cities, which are expensive, because they are more likely to find the staff and specialists that they need. If a city’s attractive, that’s a bonus. But basically, they come to get a job. (Source: CityLab.)

It seems to me that this insight is fundamentally correct. It also lays bare a significant distinction between unusual cities like Moab that are defined by their dependence on an amenities economy and the boring kind of place that Bertaud is describing and which has been the prevailing model nearly everywhere for nearly all of human history. Namely, the organizing logic of an amenities economy isn’t production but consumption. Sure, an amenities economy requires considerable hard work by locals either permanent or itinerant  — visitors always need someone on the ground to provide food, shelter, and carefully curated performative and experential goods — but that work is incidental not foundational to the existence of the city. In essence, a town dependent on an amenities economy really is more like Disneyland or Club Med than not.

Moab Main Street. Source: Discover Moab.

This Land is Not for You and Me

And again, the clearest, most pesky evidence for the fundamental dysfunction of an amenities-based economy is the significant, observable bust between the (high) cost of housing in places like Moab and the (low) wages in the same places. In ordinary cities with an ordinary economy, the ability to charge for the development of residential real estate is tethered to the local labor market. (In older industrial times, the geographic realities of the local labor market also constrained the physical footprint of residential development, since living far from work would have meant an impossible commute.) Not so in the New West, where the automobile enables easy access to previously hard-to-reach corners of the landscape and where affluent buyers whose income is earned in labor markets hundreds or thousands of miles away bid up the price of real estate to levels well beyond what is affordable at local prevailing wages. The effect is that the supply of shelter in places like Moab is dominated by structures built for people who do not depend on local wages to rent or buy them. New West real estate is simply not for locals. They are interlopers in their own hometown.

Worker Housing in Moab. Source: Deseret News.

(As an aside, I hope it has become even more obvious by this point that including reservation property in this sort of discussion would do more to confuse the issue than to clarify it. The uniquely byzantine legal obstacle course that defines property rights on reservations means there can be no remotely similar process of amenity-driven migration or land speculation there. Indeed, the lack of a functional land use framework has been one of numerous impediments contributing to the utter failure to provide even basic housing for tribal members across the Navajo reservation.)

In her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs introduced the concept of “gradual money” versus “cataclysmic money.” The essence of the distinction is that there is an important, categorical difference between a place growing incrementally over time as returns on local economic gains are reinvested, in the former instance, and a place being subjected to wrenching social and economic change due to an overwhelming rush of money from sources outside the place itself, in the latter.

Source: Medium.

While Jacobs was talking about the effect of these different forms of investment on the fate of urban neighborhoods, it should be immediately apparent that this is also a useful framework for making sense of change across the New West. It should be equally apparent that only cataclysmic money can remake a place as rapidly and thoroughly as has happened in Moab.

Another set of concepts from the study of urban gentrification can help us deepen our understanding of cataclysmic money and the forces that typically unleash its torrent.

Neither Supply nor Demand Cares About Your Good Intentions

Generally speaking, there are both demand- and supply-side theories about the causes of gentrification. Demand-side theories focus on the way a shift in consumer preferences can turn a previously undesirable place into a trendy destination suitable for attracting the patronage of the bourgeoisie. This shift in the demand curve leads to a rapid increase in the price of real estate and transforms both the social fabric and built form of the place. In extreme cases, the result may be the dispossession and displacement of prior occupants. This explanation is essentially a description of the manufacture of demand for a luxury good.

A different way of thinking about gentrification is offered by rent-gap theory, which is a leading supply-side theory of the process. In this framework, the focus is shifted from the movement of people to the movement of capital. Note that demand-side and supply-side theories are not always in conflict, but they do offer different ways of thinking about the problem. For the graphically inclined, this what rent-gap theory looks like on the blackboard:

Source: StrongTowns.

The basic rent-gap explanation for the gentrification of a place like Moab goes something like the following. During the uranium boom of the 50s, Moab’s workforce multiplied several times over. The vast majority of the housing stock and commercial structures that count as “Moab” were built during this relatively short period. These buildings then depreciated over time, first gradually through ordinary wear and tear, then rapidly as the Cold War ended and the town experienced a prolonged period of disinvestment and depopulation. This was the state of Moab real estate when it was discovered by yuppies in the late 80s and transitioned in earnest to an amenities economy. A “rent gap” was created almost overnight. That is, there quickly emerged a significant gap between the existing (low) rent property could command, which was based on what existing Moab residents were able and willing to pay for shelter given the realities of the local labor market, and the potential rent the same property could command, which was based on what second home buyers and land speculators were able and willing to pay, which obviously had nothing at all to do with the Moab labor market. Capital, we know, is adept at sniffing out such “arbitrage opportunities.” And of course, the bigger the rent gap and the more quickly it forms, the more likely it is that the investment that follows is of the cataclysmic sort. And so it was with Moab.

When these factors come together in a way that creates an especially perfect storm, the complete impotence of good intentions to meaningfully affect outcomes should be apparent. This impotence includes, by the way, the good intentions that are typically expressed through local planning and zoning, in affordable housing initiatives, and anti- or smart-growth political campaigns. They are simply no match for the bloodless inevitability of supply and demand. And so it also was with Moab.

It is this set of concerns, in part, that leads some (like me) to wonder about the wisdom of more fully restructuring San Juan County around an amenities economy, as Bears Ears proponents prescribe. As it stands today, the relevant factors in SJC probably do not add up yet to a cataclysmic storm of New West money, but it’s likely to be a pretty good squall all the same.

The New West and the Problem of Affluence

In The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith suggests that the field of Economics has not sufficiently evolved to account for widespread material abundance, which is itself a recent condition anywhere in the world. Galbraith argues that the affluent society is different in kind, not just degree, from the generalized deprivation that prevailed for most of human history. He further argues that one of the more significant and troubling features distinguishing the affluent society is the pervasive manufacture of consumer demand.

John Kenneth Galbraith. Photo: jfklibrary.org

Galbraith introduces the point in the first chapter of The Affluent Society: “One would not expect that the preoccupations of a poverty-ridden world would be relevant in one where the ordinary individual has access to amenities — foods, entertainment, personal transportation, and plumbing — in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago. So great has been the change that many of the desires of the individual are no longer even evident to him. They become so only as they are synthesized, elaborated, and nurtured by advertising and salesmanship, and these, in turn, have become among our most important and talented professions. Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an ad-man to tell them what they wanted.”

A longer passage lays out a key insight into the work of the modern “ad-man”:

“If the individual’s wants are to be urgent they must be original with himself. They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him. And above all they must not be contrived by the process of production by which they are satisfied. For this means that the whole case for the urgency of production, based on the urgency of wants, falls to the ground. One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.

Were it so that a man on arising each morning was assailed by demons which instilled in him a passion sometimes for silk shirts, sometimes for kitchenware, sometimes for chamber pots, and sometimes for orange squash, there would be every reason to applaud the effort to find the goods, however odd, that quenched this flame. But should it be that his passion was the result of his first having cultivated the demons, and should it also be that his effort to allay it stirred the demons to ever greater and greater effort, there would be question as to how rational was his solution. Unless restrained by conventional attitudes, he might wonder if the solution lay with more goods or fewer demons.

So it is that if production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy, or if the wants emerge pari passu [concurrent] with the production, then the urgency of the wants can no longer be used to defend the urgency of the production. Production only fills a void that it has itself created.”

Marketing’s capacity to spark and fan the flame it promises to quench has only grown in sophistication since The Affluent Society was published 61 years ago, and part of this evolution has been the selective merger of political and commercial agendas, including, notably, by many self-proclaimed subversives and revolutionaries. A few astute social critics have noticed. In 1997, with an apparent nod to the concept of “manufactured consent” made famous by Noam Chomsky, The Baffler published Commodify Your Dissent, which is a collection of essays cataloguing many of the ways in which the counterculture creates late capitalism and vice versa.

Photo: Apple

One prominent example is the trope of the “rebel” consumer, in which choosing a given brand is conflated with revolutionary political action or is carefully deployed toward the formation of an “alternative” or transgressive social identity. In this move, shopping becomes an integral part of the process of self- and meaning-making.

Naturally, the rebel consumer is mirrored by the rebel corporation which eagerly co-opts countercultural totems to sell, say, Chryslers. This has led eventually to a marketing race away from superficial gestures and toward signals of authentic corporate virtue; we now see many companies which don’t merely traffic in woke social or political symbols, but explicitly take on a capacious social and political identity. It’s as if, in Romneyian parlance, corporations really are people, my friend.

To complete the picture, a new figure has emerged at the helm of many of these organizations: the corporate leader who merges master-of-the-universe, robber baron-scale corporate ambitions with political-aesthetic sensibilities that would be at home in the Beatnik 50s or Free Love 60s. These characters score off the charts according to Bobo math: to calculate a person’s status, take their net worth and multiply it by their antimaterialistic attitudes. A fitting name for this odd new lifestyle-leftish corporate orthodoxy might be Countercultural Neoliberalism.

Photo: Nike

Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that the culture wars are absolutely fantastic for business, especially as political polarization has amped up in the last decade or so. Everything from the running shorts we wear to the chicken sandwich we eat has been successfully enlisted in the cause. What cause, you may ask? The cause, of course!

It doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes the wires show and it comes off as clunky or worse, as in the Kendall Jenner-Pepsi debacle. But often it works seamlessly, and the well-heeled, well-coiffed fakerjack is invented (for example).

Photo: Patagonia

We also, of course, get the New West, where there’s always a bumper to sticker with a cause célèbre, where there’s always a new Best Town to colonize, and where hell is other people’s fossil fuels.

The New West is also where virtually every successful company that comprises what we might call the Recreation Industrial Complex (RIC) now primarily sells sanctimony and only secondarily sells the good or service that keeps its owners and executives well-fed. In a way, it’s an ingenious modern twist on Robinson Crusoe: we should speak only of our arduous journey toward self-actualization but, yeah, by the way, we also happen to be fabulously wealthy thanks to the Brazilian plantation we own.

In canyon country, specifically, we can observe how the RIC manufactured both the demand for “Bears Ears” and the satisfaction of that demand. In statistical terms, approximately no one seemed to need to visit “Bears Ears” before December 2016, but now every outdoor athlete with a shoe contract and a Personal Brand to burnish — an “influencer” in the postmodern vernacular — seems determined to make an Insta-pilgrimage to “Bears Ears” or to at least engage in a bit of slacktivism from afar. The hoi polloi cannot be far behind.

It certainly cannot be said with a straight face that the urgency to both produce and consume “Bears Ears” originated with any of the thousands of people who had never heard of it before it showed up in their social media feed thanks to their status as “follower” of their preferred gear manufacturer (and who immediately felt sufficiently well-informed to voice their very strong opinion on the matter).

And finally, also in canyon country, we can look at Moab or Springdale or Torrey and see the logical endpoint of the counterculture-neoliberals’ unflinching manufacture of demand for evermore New West.

Photo: National Park Service

In Moab, for instance, a prospective reservation system to cope with the overtourism of Arches is apparently being met with measured suspicion from some locals thanks to its potential for sucking $22 million from the Moab economy. Shuttle systems like the one that operates in Zion are another popular half measure for managing absurd levels of tourism. And still another commonly invoked solution is to move more off-brand public lands into tourism’s prime time lineup (usually through the sweeping and politically toxic use of the Antiquities Act).

But beneath a thin veneer of environmental sensitivity, these still are neoliberal growth schemes in practical effect. After all, such measures only get broad support in the New West if they smooth out the lumpiness of visitation across time and/or space, and pave the way for more net growth in the long term. Support immediately evaporates if the wrong ox is at risk of being gored. “Believe in something even if means sacrificing everything” indeed.

In truth, it has never been more clear that New West orthodoxy revolves around certain sanctioned forms of conspicuous leisure married with an ostentatious yet cost-free performance of wokeness. Low forms of recreation have no place here. The same goes for work, especially stereotypically blue collar work, which is only properly done by suckers, the voluntarily poor, and the occasional moneyed neo-Thoreau anyway.

It’s all great for getting clicks, and even better for moving units, pleasing the donor class, and getting out the vote. It is also nearly enough to make a cynic wonder along with Galbraith whether the solution to what pains the affluent lies not in more goods, but fewer demons.

Tax Increment Financing and the Not-So-Invisible Hand

As I have written about before, at stake in the Bears Ears controversy is the nature and pace of rural restructuring in San Juan County. As the residents of the county continue to grapple with their predicament, it becomes clear that an under-appreciated cost imposed by the sweeping use the Antiquities Act is in the way it profoundly complicates the functioning of local government.

Presently in San Juan County, a variety of economic development tools are being considered or actively deployed. One such tool is a development subsidy generically known as tax increment financing (TIF), which was briefly discussed as part of a longer article in the September/October Zephyr. This policy tool has become a source of considerable confusion and consternation among some locals, not least for the school board that has a central role in its adoption.

TIF is used liberally in many places and San Juan County is of course also entitled to adopt it as a policy tool. But as decision-makers think their way through the implications, it is worth carefully considering whether the realities of TIF live up to the promise of its theory. Better yet would be for TIF policy, and the county’s economic development policy generally, to be consistent with an overarching vision for the county’s future.

How TIF Works

The details of implementing a TIF incentive can be a bit complicated, but the basic framework is fairly simple: local government authorities designate an area as a TIF district and freeze the tax base at a given year’s level. New, qualifying development to occur within the designated district should result in a taxable property value higher than this baseline. The incremental increase in taxable value then becomes a revenue stream that can be tapped to defray up-front project costs.

Typical TIF Financial Model. Graphic: Grand River Corridor.

A central aspect of the logic underlying TIF policy is that new development within the designated district will not occur “but for” the use of tax increment financing. Therefore, the increase in taxable property value resulting from new development also will not be realized “but for” use of the incentive. The incremental increase in taxable value post-development is framed by this logic as “found money,” which makes the incentive theoretically cost-free to the public.

Objects May Be Smaller Than They Appear

Before considering the prospective use of TIF in San Juan County in more detail, a bit of general background on the development process and municipal finance may also be helpful.

When a typical new residential subdivision is built, most constructed improvements — utilities, pavement, curb-and-gutter, sidewalk, etc. — are completed at the expense of the developer and then dedicated to the appropriate public entity (usually the city in which the development is located). In turn, these costs are bundled into the price of a finished building lot or home and ultimately into the mortgage or rent of the people who occupy the property. Commercial development follows the same basic template.

This is the essence of greenfield development and, on its face, it seems like a great deal: a cost-free bump to total public assets plus an expanded tax base plus usually the payment of impact fees or other exactions.

The catch is that this process also creates a long term financial liability for the maintenance and eventual replacement of the public works constructed during development. The (unasked) municipal finance question becomes whether the public’s revenue stream from the new land use is at least equal to the new liability. And the typical answer to that question is that it isn’t and it isn’t even close. In fact, it turns out that appearances are often deceiving. The projects that contribute the most to your community’s fiscal well-being very likely are not the ones you think, and the poorer parts of your town probably subsidize the wealthier. Not explicitly or intentionally, but through the public finance consequences that are embedded in local tax codes and the modern development pattern. Here is an illustrative example:

The Wealthy & Enlightened New West Settler

  • Project: Kayenta (Ivins, UT)
  • Type: Single family residential
  • Assessed value: $846,800 (typical home)
  • 2018 property tax: $5,015
  • Area occupied: 2.32 acres
  • Tax per acre: $2,161
  • Tax $ per linear foot of public works/street frontage: $19

The Underclass

  • Project: Bella Vista/Riverside Apartments (St. George, UT)
  • Type: Multifamily residential
  • Assessed value: $8,369,400
  • 2018 property tax: $46,243
  • Area occupied: 6.54 acres
  • Tax per acre: $7,071
  • Tax $ per linear foot of public works/street frontage: $81

The Kayenta planned community in Ivins is a great example of the kind of neighborhood that appeals to wealthy New West amenity migrants, and indeed there are aspects of the project’s development practices that are commendable. The project has a minimal disturbance philosophy which limits the amount of native topography and vegetation altered or destroyed during construction, plus strict architectural controls that dictate everything from building materials to colors to (night sky) lighting. Lots are generally an acre-plus in size and homes in the project start at around $500,000, with a median price closer to $1 million.

The Bella Vista Apartments in St. George are your typical garden apartment complex, consisting of 148 1- and 2-bedroom residences on about 6 ½ acres. The architecture is quite generic and rent is modest at around $600-$900 per month.

For most people, it is intuitively obvious that Kayenta is the kind of project your town wants in abundance, since it is more aesthetically appealing and seems to indicate that your town is becoming more prosperous. In many people’s minds, a project like Bella Vista is more or less its opposite. In fact, the normal state of affairs is for the residents of communities like Kayenta to oppose (to the point of prevention) the development of communities like Bella Vista, especially anywhere near where they live.

But let’s consider the relative merits from a different perspective. Kayenta is located at the far western edge of the St. George metro — about 15 minutes from downtown St. George — miles from almost any commercial or civic services. This means that nearly every ordinary activity of daily life requires a car trip, and a significant one at that. By contrast, Bella Vista is located on an arterial road with ready access to a bus line, and is within walking or cycling distance of employment centers and most services. This combination of factors makes life at Bella Vista far less car-dependent than life at Kayenta. It is also worth questioning which project is truly “limited disturbance,” since the 148 households who live in Bella Vista occupy less land than five Kayenta households.

More relevant to our analysis here is the significant difference in the impact of each project on municipal finances. Bella Vista is over 3 times more potent as a generator of tax revenue as Kayenta, and, on the expense side, the public works serving Bella Vista are a tiny fraction of Kayenta’s: less than 4 linear feet of public street frontage per household versus 263. When the roads and pipes in Kayenta need repair and, eventually, replacement, the work won’t be paid for primarily by the residents of Kayenta, but by the residents of communities like Bella Vista. With this background in mind, let’s return to San Juan County and TIF policy.

Early Stage TIF in San Juan County

As an economic development tool that seems to pay for itself, TIF has obvious appeal. Still, the empirical evidence surrounding TIF outcomes is no better than ambiguous, and at least a few of the common pitfalls are worth considering in the context of post-Bears Ears San Juan County.

To date, San Juan County has formed a Community Reinvestment Agency (CRA) and invited applications for tax increment financing. (Blanding has formed a separate CRA; however, since it is the county that assesses the lion’s share of local taxes, most TIF action is likely to occur within the county’s CRA framework.) So far, two projects have applied for tax increment financing from the county-wide CRA. Both projects are seeking a property tax abatement of up to 75% and 20 years.

One proposed project is a 54-unit boutique resort hotel called Bluff Dwellings, which is already well under construction at the mouth of Cow Canyon. That project is seeking tax increment financing of $458,000, which consists of a $300,000 turn lane into the property from Utah Highway 191 plus $158,000 in other utility improvements serving the project.

The second project proposing TIF is a 70-room limited-service flag hotel identified specifically as a Marriott Fairfield. That project location is targeted for a vacant parcel on the north end of Blanding and is currently in the pre-construction feasibility stage of development. The investors in that project are seeking $1,250,000 described as general site improvements like parking, utilities, and storm drain facilities.

Common Pitfalls of TIF

One common pitfall of TIF can be most easily understood by looking at its use in a different, more common context: given that the TIF subsidy is justified by its promise to stimulate investment where development otherwise would not occur, it should come as no surprise that the classic case for the use of TIF is under conditions of urban depopulation and disinvestment, commonly known as “blight.” Such usage is reinforced by the terminology employed by many jurisdictions when legislating their particular version of TIF, as in community reinvestment or redevelopment acts and agencies.

Whether TIF actually works to repair or reverse blight is controversial and fact-sensitive, but the relevant point here is that the challenge facing San Juan County post-Bears Ears is not likely one of stimulating tourism-related economic activity. In fact, the problem is probably about to become the opposite. This would seem to be particularly true of Bluff, which is already actively building toward a future as a New West enclave with its economic conditions dictated entirely by tourism and amenity migration.

In technical terms, offering tourism-based TIF incentives in San Juan County right now, especially in Bluff, is using a countercyclical development tool in a procyclical growth context. Put less formally, it is a bit like pouring gasoline on a fire.

A second common concern with TIF has to do with the way it influences competitive outcomes. This pitfall operates on two levels: TIF helps determine winners and losers between competitive private enterprises and also between public entities. This TIF pitfall is also more clearly seen by examining its use in an urbanized context where population and economic growth has stalled or reversed.

Assume, for example, that a developer is prepared to build a large Costco-anchored project. (A splashier example might be a professional sports team or Amazon’s headquarters expansion.) Since there is only sufficient demand for one such project across a large geographic area, individual cities are pitted against one another to attract the project. This is certainly advantageous for the developer in question, but “winning” is a more slippery concept for the cities involved and often comes down to which city is willing to offer the largest public subsidy, often including the liberal use of TIF.

But has the TIF “worked” in this scenario?

In a zero- or low-growth environment (or in a greenfield development context) the Costco-anchored project will surely establish a vastly higher property tax value than what it replaces, but ending the analysis there sidesteps the important consideration of any opportunity cost. In reality, the new Costco will inevitably hasten the demise of the prior generation of commercial projects serving the region and almost certainly preclude the development of, say, a Sam’s Club in the area. In this way, the TIF subsidy puts a thumb on the scale between private competitors.

ZCMI Mall. Photo: Labelscar/Retail History Blog.

And what about the competition between cities? Maybe the winning town is lucky and the projects precluded or made obsolete by the new Costco are located in the next town over. Or maybe not. Maybe, as in the case of Salt Lake City, City Creek kills Gateway kills Crossroads kills Main Street. Either way, what is clear is that the use of TIF does not expand the regional economy, it just hastens the next wave of development and rearranges where economic activity occurs.

Scrutinizing the Bluff Dwellings and Fairfield Proposals

The main argument advanced in favor of TIF for the Bluff Dwellings project is that the $300,000 turn lane required by UDOT was a surprise cost not discovered until after other approvals were granted and construction started. It would be unusual for such a significant and fundamental requirement to slip through the cracks for that long into the development process, but not unheard of.

It is somewhat less plausible that the project would not occur with the turn lane “but for” the use of TIF or that TIF is imperative to project feasibility. After all, construction was already underway before the prospect of TIF grew legs and $300,000 is only 5% of the total project cost of $6 million. (The other $158,000 requested for utilities construction pushes the total TIF requested to about 7.5% of the total project cost, and these items do not appear to be “surprise” or extraordinary improvements that create any meaningful benefit beyond the project site itself.) Keep in mind that no sensible financial pro forma for a prospective development project would fail to include a cost contingency line item in the range of 5-10% of the total budget.

The strongest argument for the Blanding Fairfield is that (1) it is a type of lodging that is categorically different from the independently branded lodging in the county, and (2) it will incorporate “Senior Center” and “Convention Center” space into its plan. Taken together, this argument probably makes a stronger case than the Bluff Dwellings resort that the project will produce spillover benefits to the community-at-large rather than solely to the project owners.

It is almost certainly true that there is a segment of the visiting public that would stay in a nationally-branded hotel that simply is not currently staying in the county at all. In this way, a Fairfield would not merely take market share from existing motel properties, but would also increase the total size of the lodging market. This would have further spillover to local business owners —  like restaurateurs and tour operators — who provide complementary services to Fairfield guests. And if the “Senior Center” and “Convention Center” elements of the project were realized, it would somewhat mitigate the focus on tourism development to the detriment of other considerations.

Still, there are considerable risks and obvious drawbacks to this use of TIF. For starters, the amount of TIF requested represents a significant portion of the investment at almost 17% of the total projected budget of $7.5 million. In both absolute and percentage terms, it would be a much larger public subsidy than the Bluff Dwellings developer is requesting.

More conceptually challenging, perhaps, are the fairness issues lurking here. For example, while a Fairfield may in fact produce spillover economic effects that grow the wealth of the larger community, such effects would be heavily concentrated in Blanding, whereas the cost of the TIF would be spread across the entire county, including, significantly, to schools in the southern communities of the county that have a very limited ability to capture any of these spillover effects and no substantial ability at all to develop their local economies along similar competitive lines.

It would also be hard to swallow the differential tax treatment if you are an incumbent motel owner in San Juan County. Below is an example of the tax potency math introduced earlier, adapted for this specific context. To make explicit the key takeaway, the humble existing mom-and-pop motel would have a tax potency about 40% greater than the national flag property for the duration of the TIF, assuming the application of the proposed San Juan County tax abatement. The particulars in San Juan County would vary somewhat from the example, but the order of magnitude appears to be consistent with the projections in the TIF proposal packet.

  • Property: Fairfield by Marriott (St. George, UT)
  • Assessed value: $6,832,200
  • 2018 property tax: $68,636
  • Area occupied: 1.85 acres
  • Tax per acre: $37,101
  • Tax per acre “If TIF”: $9,275 (under proposed SJC TIF regime)
  • Property: Sands Motel, St. George, UT
  • Assessed value: $1,248,600
  • 2018 property tax: $12,534
  • Area occupied: 0.95 acres
  • Tax per acre: $13,204

A Word to the Exhausted Majority

The fact is that the rolling Bears Ears controversy has, among other things, enormously complicated the normal operation of local government in San Juan County. This is clear in Bluff’s absurd new town boundaries, in the “Make It Monumental” controversy, and, yes, in the school board’s struggle to find a sound basis from which to set tax-subsidy policy. Current conditions are unfair both to local government actors and also to the private parties impacted by policy-making dilemma and paralysis.

The macro political condition is similarly grim. These are extremely polarized political times nationally (and even globally). The art of conversation between people who disagree has been replaced by the twin pastimes of “dunking on Conservatives” and “owning the Libs.” It may be depressing that this type of reductive othering of our political opponents has become common, but it shouldn’t be surprising given the bias-affirming monologue that prevails in the rhetorical echo chambers and ideological bubbles into which we increasingly sort ourselves through the real estate we occupy and the media we consume.

That’s the bad news. A few months ago, a study was published that perhaps contained a ray of hope. Through survey and analysis, the study’s authors concluded that, even in 2018, sorting Americans neatly into binary partisan tribes is still a considerable oversimplification. Instead, they identified seven discrete political clusters: Progressive Activists (8%), Traditional Liberals (11%), Passive Liberals (15%), Politically Disengaged (26%), Moderates (15%), Traditional Conservatives (19%) and Devoted Conservatives (6%).

Furthermore, the authors found that four of these groups, comprising a 2/3 majority of the total, share enough important traits that they deserve to be grouped together and described as the Exhausted Majority. According to the study’s authors, the Exhausted Majority: is fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society; is often forgotten or overlooked in the public discourse; is flexible and pragmatic in their views; and believes Americans of goodwill can still find common ground despite disagreement.

I offer this insight because I bet it rings true to many readers and also because I think it contains the potential for at least imagining a more constructive way forward.

For example, a worthwhile process for San Juan County might be a comprehensive county-wide planning effort along the lines of Envision Utah or Vision Dixie. The process might somewhat resemble the San Juan Lands Council process, but would focus on elements entirely within local control.

A regional planning push would establish a shared vision and common language that would better enable coherent policy-making by government actors. As it is, the cart is ahead of the horse and public servants like the school board are in the impossible position of working out high-stakes, long term decisions on matters for which no strategic blueprint has been created and for which the body generally lacks the specialized technical background to confidently navigate independently.

Ideally, a comprehensive planning effort could have proceeded alongside the Lands Council process ahead of the Bears Ears uproar, but even today such a regional planning initiative might build or repair a measure of community solidarity. A healthy process would implicitly acknowledge a shared destiny and love for San Juan County while also providing space for the differences among its individual communities to play out at the municipal or chapter level. The process also would have the virtue of excluding the influence of groups external to the county.

Such planning is not merely a feel-good exercise in participative democracy. Some issues can only be addressed at the regional scale and many more issues are better addressed at that level.

None of what I’ve written here is meant to pick on any particular person, project or institution, or to imply that the New West can simply be tamed through proper planning, or that tax increment financing is categorically bad. In fact, I find such blanket conclusions to be painfully superficial. My attempt here is more to encourage dialogue than to prescribe solutions. There are no silver bullets, but having a conversation about your community that spans city limits and voting precincts, and tries to consider the consequences of today’s actions 10 or 20 or 30 years into the future is at least better than not having that kind of conversation at all.