Sustainability in the Desert
I spent the first ten years of my academic career at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as part of a highly interdisciplinary environmental studies department. My colleagues and I repeatedly faced some version of this question: ‘how can you work on environment and sustainability issues when you live in a desert?’ I’ve heard the same concern about AESS’s upcoming meeting at the University of Arizona. Then – as it does now – the question seemed fair to me. So, I spent some time evaluating the sustainability of where I lived and came up with a presentation that I gave around the country that I called Las Vegas: the Sustainability Everytown. My premise was, and remains, that where you live is a lot less impactful than how you live.
For example, I had colleagues in Las Vegas who lived in net zero energy houses. Such homes minimize energy demand with passive and active solar design. In places like Las Vegas, peak energy demand is at the hottest times of the hottest days of the year, which also corresponds to the best times for photovoltaic electric power generation. Further, even the coldest days of the year in Las Vegas are typically sunny enough to generate power. Homes that produce energy in Las Vegas can be more sustainable than homes that are energy hogs, even when they are located in cities with strong sustainability ethics like Portland, OR and Pittsburgh, PA.
Similarly, homes in Las Vegas can have a far smaller water footprint than other, ostensibly more sustainable cities. One key area can be found in outdoor landscapes. An interesting study by one of our graduate students, Carole Rollins, directed by my colleague and founding AESS member Helen Neill, found that after a few years in Las Vegas, people’s preferences shift from lawns to xeriscaping. A front yard with grass has become so normalized in the U.S. that people rarely question it. But in a dry place like Las Vegas you need to water cacti to keep them alive. The amount of water needed to keep grass alive is enormous. Keep in mind that the troubled Colorado River supplies Las Vegas as well as parts of six other states and northwestern Mexico. Xeriscaping, on the other hand, reduces exterior water use to a minimum while creating other ecosystem services. Careful design and behavior, both out and indoors, can have more sustainable outcomes than water guzzling (and pesticide intensive) landscapes elsewhere.
As a final example, it is true that there is little (although not zero) agriculture in Las Vegas. Nearly all food must be imported. For my presentation, I photographed collection of items from Trader Joe’s in Las Vegas that included California wine, European butter and pizza, tomatoes from Central America, and fruit from Africa. Any Trader Joe’s in the United States had the same offerings imported from the same faraway places. This is the nature of our cities and speaks to the sustainability of our food system overall, not just what is happening in Las Vegas. Sustainability, in this view, can be found in efforts to reduce food waste, including energy associated with its production and transportation. This is not a place-specific effort; any city can work on food waste issues.
My argument is not that Las Vegas–or Tucson–serves as a paragon of sustainability. Rather, I challenge the assumption that places can’t be sustainable by merit of where they are located. Instead we should ask how we widen everyone’s opportunities to live more sustainably.
At AESS’s 2017 meeting in Tucson, you’ll be impressed by the University of Arizona’s Environment and Natural Resources 2 Building’s innovative sustainable design. You will also find people associated with local government, academic, art, business, and other communities committed to living thoughtfully in a desert setting. I look forward to the discussions that meeting in the desert will provoke!