Sunday, June 1, 2008

Las Vegas and the environment

From the June 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the US the so-called "richest country in the world", millions are so desperate for more money (and/or are bored to tears with their lives) that gambling is a major industry. Las Vegas in Nevada grew up to supply this demand. Now no one in their senses - if human considerations were the only issue - would think of siting a city in the Mojave Desert, 22,000 square miles of desolation in the south of California and Nevada, and the west of Arizona and Utah. Much of it is elevated: its highest peak is 11,918 feet, but it also descends to 282 feet below sea level, in Death Valley, where temperatures range from below freezing on winter nights, to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 centigrade) on summer days. The Mojave Desert has less than ten inches of rain per year. But this is where get-rich-quick entrepreneurs - and they did get rich quick - built Las Vegas. (And according to some accounts, much of the money came from the Mafia.)

With monumental disregard for the environment, they built enormous casinos and hotels and entertainment palaces all dedicated to a single end - sucking in many thousands of hopefuls from all over the US (and abroad), and encouraging them to lose their money twenty-four hours a day. The whole place is ablaze with lights; great fountains shoot into the sky; in the "Venice" complex, gondolas travel down wide canals; lawns are supplied by endless irrigation. It now houses 1,900,000 people, and of course water has to be pumped in, 90 percent of it from Lake Mead, a man-made reservoir on the Colorado River thirty miles away. (Several small communities were drowned when the lake was flooded.) In February this year the reservoir stood at only 50 percent of capacity. University of California researchers have concluded that if present climatic trends continue, Lake Mead will be empty in 2021.

However, building in Las Vegas is going ahead at frantic speed to make the city still bigger, the profits still fatter, and the water problem still greater. Despite the current worsening economic conditions, a number of prestige projects - hotels, casinos, plazas, apartment blocks - are going ahead so fast that a Times reporter (8 April) said there were fears that "all this financial pressure is resulting in sloppy construction practice. Over recent months nine workers have died in eight accidents at various sites: one man was cut in half when a counterweight" for a lift fell on him. (There would no doubt have been an outcry if this had happened to an owner instead of to a worker.) But beside all that, another gigantic project is going forward called "the City Centre". The journalist said a local told him it was "a city-within-a-city. They say it's gonna cost more than $8 billion: the most expensive private land development in American history. Only in Las Vegas, huh?"

Well, just before you put all this down to the boneheaded Americans, rather than to boneheaded capitalism, here's another item in the very same paper - this time from Spain. Catalonia (the north-east part, round Barcelona) and Valencia, just south of it, including the Mediterranean coast down to Alicante, have had less rain than at any time since 1912. Farmers fear for their crops; "water reserves there are at 19 percent of capacity - they must be shut down when they reach 15 percent because there is too much sediment near the bottom"; and Catalonia is considering bringing in water from elsewhere by boat or train. It is also thinking of a new desalination plant (to take the salt out of seawater), but it seems that such plants produce a lot of carbon dioxide, held responsible for feeding global warming, so that would make things worse in the long run. Catalonia wanted to take more water from the River Segre; but Aragon, on the other side of the river, refuses to let it. "Catalonia accuses its neighbour of hoarding water for unsustainable developments, such as a 'European Las Vegas' with seventy hotels, five theme parks and several golf courses planned for a desert region." Only in capitalism, huh?

Alwyn Edgar