m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to the Table of Contents.

J U L Y  1 9 9 8

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.

THE Catalina foothills, which look down upon the city from the north, are covered by winding streets with NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH signs; the comfortable villas that line them often have red-tiled roofs, electronic security systems, and extensive gardens of wiry mesquite, yucca trees, and cholla cacti, with their networks of dangerously spiny right-angled arms. Towering over this vegetation and providing many a villa with a distinctive character are saguaro cacti, some of them as tall as thirty feet and weighing up to ten tons, some of them older than the American republic.

Stuart Hameroff, a medical scientist at the University of Arizona, lives in the Catalina foothills. He told me, "I never could have come as far as I have in my research had I lived on the East Coast, or even in a place like San Francisco. Those places are too cluttered, too vertical, with too many physical and cultural distractions. I need the desert and the absence of anything to look at in order to think clearly -- and, more important, to think abstractly about the brain." In a nondescript little office on the University of Arizona campus Hameroff maintains a Web site for scientists from several continents to exchange information about the biochemistry of consciousness. The office is as forgettable as the tract houses of the working poor. No imposing ivy-covered walls or neoclassical buildings are required for this ongoing, worldwide scientific work, nothing to suggest urbanity: just a computer and a telephone jack.

David K. Taylor, a planning-program coordinator for the City of Tucson, also lives in the foothills. Taylor, a demographer, helped me to understand the past and future social geography of Tucson, and of the United States, too.

I sat beside Taylor's grand piano, under a high white ceiling. "Where you are now could be Santa Fe, Palm Beach, or Long Island," he said. "My neighbors are Pakistani doctors, Silicon Valley types, ingenious local entrepreneurs, wealthy Lebanese, Chinese. They have their computers, their links with friends throughout the globe, and a patina of Spanish culture via the street names of this neighborhood and the villa architecture, and they call it a lifestyle. Of course, these people are the only future Tucson has. You lure -- you bribe -- high-tech firms to relocate here with those high-paying jobs in order to attract more people like my neighbors to Tucson, because experience indicates that most of the poor, even with training, will never be qualified for such jobs." I had heard these exact sentiments in St. Louis and other cities.

Taylor continued, "The local government's promotion of tourism and the Tucson convention site will bring mainly low-paying service jobs to the area. Tourist promotion is usually necessary to generate corporate moves. So if we want those high-tech firms, we will have to emphasize tourism."

Taylor showed me two graphs that suggest an increasingly bifurcated future for Pima County, where Tucson is situated. The 1979 graph showed a tidy bell curve (or, as Taylor put it, a "one-hump camel"), with the rich and the poor at the bottom edges and the middle class forming the rise in the middle. The 1989 graph showed a "two-hump camel," with the rich and the poor forming humps at the edges, at the expense of middle-income groups. In that year, nationally, 22.8 percent of the population lived in households whose income could not "realistically" provide for basic necessities, even as the numbers of the rich and the upper-middle class grew -- a trend that has continued throughout the 1990s.

"In Tucson," Taylor went on, "there are a large number of inexpensive tract houses thrown up hastily in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies which are now falling apart. Soon their repair costs will not make economic sense. Some of their owners will be able to afford more-expensive homes in neighborhoods with good schools, farther out in the desert, while many more will slip through the cracks, going broke on repairs or drifting to bad sections of town." Throughout the country, Taylor said, the decay of cheap housing from the first decades after the Second World War is causing the same problem: further eroding the "middle-middle" class, even as the working poor and the upper-middle class become increasingly isolated from each other geographically. In Tucson the high cost of bringing water and other services to the edge of the desert abets this trend, since it is chiefly the well-off who can afford to live in the new outlying suburbs.

Taylor summed up Tucson's history: "Two hundred and fifty years ago the population here was a hundred percent Native American. Next it became ninety-five percent Spanish. When Santa Anna sold southern Arizona cheap to Jefferson Davis, you saw the first and only integration of cultures here, because the Anglo males who came west had to marry Mexican women, or at the very least partially assimilate with the reigning Mexican culture in order to do business. But the coming of the railroad and then the automobile redivided the city into a poor Spanish-speaking section, with some blacks, south of the railroad tracks, and a wealthier Anglo one to the north and east. Now class barriers are further deepening cultural and racial ones." So instead of a unified, Spanish-built, Roman-style garrison, as it was in the eighteenth century, Tucson is becoming several garrisons, where each house is more isolated from the others than ever before. "Tucson has only twenty-five hundred persons per square mile," Taylor said. "We're less dense than at any moment in the past two hundred years. And who knows what the limits of growth here are? Of course, we're not as bad as Phoenix, where the motto seems to be More development is better, and too much is just right."

"Meanwhile," Taylor said, "the Anglo population keeps dropping. Anglos are sixty-eight percent of the Tucson area's population; in 2050 we'll be forty percent, while the percentage of Hispanics will rise from twenty-four percent to forty percent. The future means integration with Sonora. Why, Sonora will just be southern Arizona, and Chihuahua south Texas! Guaymas might be Tucson's main port. Tucson's economy already extends a thousand miles into Mexico."

"Will the American Southwest merge completely with northern Mexico?" I asked.

"Not completely," Taylor said. "There will be a big Asian element here too. The Southwest will move toward both Latin America and the Pacific, in terms of trade and people. The young work force that will subsidize the Social Security payments for our aging Baby Boomers will have to come not just from south of the border but also from the densely populated, industrializing, low-crime societies of the Third World -- places like East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, where life is much worse than in America but talent and individual initiative are high. Racially, we'll look like a combination of Mexico and Hawaii. Tucson will reflect that trend."

Desert Politics

TUCSON is American history on fast-forward. A century ago there was little here but desert and a few dusty streets. Now there is a vast pod of suburbs differentiated by income, on the verge of becoming the hub of a transitional region extending deep into Mexico, at the same time that drugs from Mexico feed the lawlessness that plagues the South Side of the city. While Tucson becomes increasingly connected to the outside world through immigration and electronic communication, its people are increasingly isolated from one another, the houses farther and farther apart, the public spaces empty. To me, the city's terrain seemed to say, Leave me alone.

I wanted to sample true American loneliness -- the extremes of individualism. So I left Tucson and headed back south.

After driving more than a mile on dirt tracks in the desert, I descended a steep and rutted hillside to reach Jeff Smith's house, where I was met by a growling dog. Smith came out in his wheelchair. "Don't worry about your car," he said. "I'll tow you with my pickup if you can't make it back up that hill."

I was now only twenty-eight miles from the border, far from the nearest paved road, between the towns of Sonoita and Patagonia. Smith's closest neighbor was almost a mile away, and Smith, who is paralyzed from the chest down because of a motorcycle accident, was feuding with him. Smith led me into his two-story adobe house, fitted with a specially designed elevator for his wheelchair, which he built with the help of a few Mexican illegals. He was around fifty, gray-haired, and wearing jeans. "A screaming liberal," his friend Emil Franzi, a political operative in Tucson, told me when we were discussing interesting Tucsonans.

"Unfortunately," Smith said, "while my fellow liberals on the East and West Coasts are very good on the First and Fourth Amendments -- free speech and worship, and protection against 'unreasonable searches and seizures' -- liberals look down on those rights and amendments that they don't use, like the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms." He put deliberate stress on the numbers, "First," "Fourth," and "Second"; the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were clearly living, sacred documents to him, as the Old Testament is to Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. Rather than a liberal, Smith, who owns thirty guns, was, like many others I met in the Southwest, a spirited libertarian who feels that the government has no right to ban abortions, semi-automatic assault rifles, or perhaps even marijuana.

I asked him, "Do we really need semi-automatics?"

Smith said, "Chechnya proves that you need semis to prevent tyranny, because with an armed populace a tyrannical central government will be forced to fight door to door."

"But the United States government is not like the Russian one."

"One day it could become just as tyrannical. It would happen gradually, by stealth. Don't say it can't happen! Would you rather be free or merely safe? That's the question Americans have to answer. Bill Clinton and Janet Reno need to understand the natural state of human freedom."

"But you will always need a strong federal government," I said. "Just look at the land dispute between the Hopis and the Navajos in northern Arizona. It is the federal government that to this day keeps the peace between many Indian tribes."

"If the federal government collapsed," Smith responded, "the Navajos might just kill the Hopis. Then, after an unstable period, the Navajos would assimilate into the general society. The world wouldn't come to an end. We think we need a federal government, but do we really?"

The morning wore on. Smith made coffee, and talked about "large, bloody cataclysms" that could "bring down the Electoral College"; about how "the South Side of Tucson might make war on the Catalina foothills, an idea that might originate from some TV show." Smith, like many Democratic environmentalists but unlike Republican business types, is against growth. "I almost hope for an environmental catastrophe, so people will start leaving Tucson and stop building more homes. If it takes thirty years for the area to recover, what's the harm in the long run?"

Smith and I were sitting in the mathematical purity of his white-walled adobe house. Through his living-room window I could see a hillside of tall, coarse gramma grass and mesquite trees. Smith lives alone amid this meditative, prismlike beauty. His house is in a valley where radio transmissions are problematic. Like many people in rural America who live far from a big town, he has his own well. He goes only twice a week to his mailbox, more than a mile away on the nearest paved road. It occurred to me that Smith's political absolutes and abstractions regarding issues like semi-automatic rifles and the power of the federal government arise to no small extent out of sheer physical isolation. The continent's very emptiness, along with its overpowering natural forces -- floods, twisters, hurricanes -- for which Europe offers no equivalent, confers a pioneer spirit that loses relevance in an age of advanced technology. The last frontiersmen like Smith are, perforce, somewhat absurd.

I remembered what John E. Pintek, the sheriff of Cochise County, on Arizona's border with Mexico, had told me about militiamen: "These are people who can barely speak without profanities -- like 'Why the fuck should I vote?' ... . Besides being uneducated, they often have records of petty crime which prevent them from getting decent jobs. If they are not on welfare or unemployment insurance, they work as night clerks at convenience stores and, as they will tell you, 'defend the U.S.A. on weekends.' With social change so dramatic, there are just more and more losers out there."

Jeff Smith is no militiaman. He is far too well educated and cosmopolitan for that. He makes a living as a writer for a weekly alternative newspaper. But just imagine the state of mind of an uneducated, or badly educated, white male who is full of resentment and without social graces -- "a fat lard-ass with pimples," as Pintek had put it to me -- living in Smith's kind of isolation.

Smith's friend Franzi had told me in Tucson, "Look, I'm a First Amendment guy anda gun nut. I'm a member of the NRA, I go to gun shows on weekends, and I don't know any of these militia people! Where are they? These guys must live in the middle of nowhere. They don't vote, they're completely beyond the 'process.' They think the NRA is too left-wing.... In the days of the military draft, when there was no mystique attached to carrying a gun and wearing a uniform, these guys didn't exist."

EMIL Franzi runs election campaigns, mainly for Republicans, at the state-legislature and county-sheriff level. He is a small-time Ed Rollins, who also happens to own sixty guns and 3,000 opera records. Franzi supports both the National Rifle Association and National Public Radio. He and Jeff Smith might well share a motto: The less the government is able to accomplish the better. Thank God for gridlock; James Madison spent his life inventing it.

I first met Franzi in the cramped cubicle of a Tucson AM station on election night, November 7, 1995. The station had the low-rent, fly-by-night quality of local radio stations throughout America: the furniture and equipment looked as though they had been dumped there by a moving company the day before and might be repossessed the next morning if the ratings dropped. Franzi's voice was loud, conspiratorial, friendly, as if we had known each other all our lives. Formalities aren't necessary in the Southwest. Because so many people who settle here come without friends or family, and housing is so widely separated, when people do meet they connect quickly.

"Have you noticed something about this place -- about Tucson and Arizona, I mean? Have you looked around?" Franzi shouted a few inches from my face. Then his voice descended into a low, exasperated hiss: "It's a fucking desert -- over seven hundred thousand people surrounded by a desert! And they still want to build, build. Where's the water going to come from? You tell me."
From the archives:

  • "The Trouble With Dams," by Robert S. Devine (August, 1995)
    Some 100,000 dams regulate America's rivers and creeks, often at the expense of ecosystems -- and of taxpayers, who are subsidizing handouts to a large number of farmers, floodplain occupants, hydro-electricity users, and river-transportation interests.

  • Franzi was not exaggerating. Any place with less than twenty inches of rainfall a year -- a category that includes almost all of the American West -- will sustain a human population only with difficulty, and places like Tucson, with an average annual rainfall of eleven inches, and Phoenix and El Paso, which average about eight inches of rain a year, are perhaps not places to inhabit at all, as Marc Reisner, an expert on water resources in the West, writes in Cadillac Desert.Tucson is the largest city in the United States that is dependent entirely on groundwater, so its underground aquifers are being steadily depleted. The most contentious issue on the Tucson ballot that November had to do with water. The dispute centered on Colorado River water transported to the city in a zigzagging, man-made river, uphill from the California border and across the bleakest patch of the Sonoran Desert, at a cost of billions of dollars, in a scheme called the Central Arizona Project (CAP). But after all this expense CAP water turned out to be problematic. It was hard and caused corrosion in pipes to loosen, with the result that the water looked brownish and people thought it made them ill. Many people wanted to ban CAP water from Tucson and continue to use only the water from underground aquifers. Proponents argued, however, that CAP water was more affordable, that its quality could be improved by treatment with chemicals, and that it would ensure Tucson enough water for the next century.

    "Who's really supporting CAP water and who is against it?" I asked Franzi.

    "Basically, a vote in favor of CAP water is a vote that says, Don't fuck with development, since if we're forced to depend on aquifer water, there's just not going to be enough water for Tucson to keep expanding. Me, I'm a no-growther. I don't want the dirt road leading to my house ever to be paved. I don't want one more building to be built in Tucson. We're already too big. We're in a desert!"

    The no-growthers won that night. CAP water lost. But that did not satisfy Franzi. On the air live in the studio, he told the talk-show host John C. Scott that "Tucson voters are the stupidest voters in the country," because they had defeated CAP water but re-elected the same Democratic Party politicians who had promoted it. Scott agreed. Earlier that day Scott had told his audience that he himself had voted "down the line" Republican. These Tucson radio commentators were criticizing both the voters and the politicians that election night. The voters phoned in and had their say too. Sitting inside the dark ten-foot-by-ten-foot recording room, lined with foam and stacked to the ceiling with equipment, listening to callers scream at Scott and Franzi and hearing Scott and Franzi answer back, I knew that such places had become the high altars of American democracy. This was local politics, and the issue at hand was water: life and death.

    Yet only one out of four eligible voters had voted -- about the same turnout as in the Haitian election held the following month. The voices crackling over the speakers represented only a minute subculture obsessed with politics. Less than five percent of adult Americans engage in any kind of political activity, aside from voting.

    OTHER than the policy and media types in Washington, the state capitals, and town halls, the United States is politically apathetic. After spending much of my life observing traditional and highly politicized cultures in the Third World and the Balkans, which have been sundered by ideological and ethnic obsessions (and boasting, by the way, high voter turnouts), I found such apathy refreshing when I returned to the United States -- at first. Apathy, after all, can mean that things are fine. In America it is testimony to the fact that the basic questions -- What should the system of government be? Where should the borders be? Which ethnic groups, if any, should control what regions? -- have been more or less resolved. What is often argued about -- gun control, abortion -- is thus of secondary importance. Despite what some believe, ethnic identity has yet to destabilize American politics, because ethnicity is largely divorced from territory (except in the case of Native Americans), as it is not in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. And because what is argued about is likelier to be secondary than something to fight or die for, democracy has evolved as the lowest common denominator of practical wisdom for a nation of individuals, most of whom prefer to be left alone to make money.

    Not only has politics been secondary for most Americans but so, typically, has leadership. From the early nineteenth century onward the nation prospered despite long sequences of mediocre Presidents. Periods of great growth -- the second half of the nineteenth century, for example -- were accompanied by mediocre Administrations. Only in wartime did it truly matter who the President was. (Indeed, in peacetime the chairman of the Federal Reserve may affect the lives of many more citizens than the President does.)

    But this relative political vacuum -- a sort of peaceful and productive anarchy -- always presumed, among other things, abundant prosperity and resources, so that little governing authority was necessary to organize the scramble for wealth. The large-scale settlement of the West following the Civil War cramped this freedom a bit. Nature itself ordained government help and supervision, because the lands west of the 100th meridian (which runs through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) receive, for the most part, less than twenty inches of rain annually -- the minimum required not only to sustain a human population but also for agriculture without irrigation. Land had to be surveyed, parceled out, and regulated, and great water projects begun, which required vast bureaucratic institutions (the Reclamation Service, the Geological Survey, the Forest Service, and so forth). These, together with great growth in both the population and the economy in the latter part of the nineteenth century, contributed to the big federal government that people like Smith and Franzi now fear. Indeed, had the United States been settled from west to east rather than the other way around, the big government agencies necessitated by scarce water would have preceded the freeman tradition that took root on the well-watered eastern slopes of the Appalachians in the eighteenth century, and a mild form of hydraulic civilization -- highly centralized and authoritarian regimes, like those that built the great water and earth works in India, China, and Mexico -- might have arisen here.

    But the claims of the militia movement and other libertarians notwithstanding, government intrusion has remained limited. Once land and water were parceled out, people were free to do what they wanted, to succeed beyond their wildest hopes or fail beyond their worst nightmares. And the discovery, mapping, and exploitation of aquifers in the first half of the twentieth century has further postponed the day of reckoning for humankind and nature in the West. But that day is coming. In 1928 Arizona's population reached 400,000, the largest it had been since the apex of the Hohokam Indian culture of the thirteenth century. Now more than 800,000 people live in greater Tucson alone, and four million in Arizona, a tenfold increase in seventy years -- in a desert, no less. Referring to the Central Arizona Project, Marc Reisner writes, "Despite one of the most spellbinding and expensive waterworks of all time, Arizonans from now until eternity will be forced to do what their Hohokam ancestors did: pray for rain." Especially as Arizonans have decided -- at least in Tucson -- that CAP water is not good enough for them, and thus their only choice is to continue to deplete the aquifers.

    What the voter turnout actually suggested is that the vast majority of Tucson-area residents were unconcerned about this and other communal issues. As the hollowing-out of downtown also shows, the social and communal fabric appears to be fraying at the very moment in southwestern history when it is needed in the oncoming battle for water. The transnational, mestizo-Polynesian Tucson of the future -- one of twenty-first-century North America's economic junctions for the world's most talented individuals -- will require the opposite of individualism. It will need communalism merely to survive.

    Gary Snyder, an ecologist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, warns, "This is an age of limits." But Roy Drachman, the Tucson real-estate developer who helped to build the Sunbelt, thinks that people here will pay little attention to such warnings. Sitting in his low-ceilinged office next to a parking lot and a restaurant, Drachman told me, "There are no limits. We will eat up more and more space out into the desert, and there will be more and more loneliness, and consequently more and more need for friendships. At first there won't be a water shortage, though. The price of water will just go up and the quality will go down. Then we'll see."

    Maybe Drachman is right. Maybe the Southwest can buy itself more time. Maybe, as some visionary engineers think, the Southwest's salvation will come ultimately from that shivery vastness of wet, green sponge to the north: Canada. In this scenario a network of new dams, reservoirs, and tunnels would supply water from the Yukon and British Columbia to the Mexican border, while a giant canal would bring desalinized Hudson Bay water from Quebec to the American Midwest, and supertankers would carry glacial water from the British Columbian coast to southern California -- all to support an enlarged network of post-urban, multi-ethnic pods pulsing with economic activity.

    Places like Phoenix and Tucson straddle the divide between bold, futuristic dreams and apocalypse. The coupling I encountered of adrenaline-charged friendliness with extreme apathy and antigovernment views suggested a no less intense loneliness, emphasizing the need for community while at the same time threatening it.

    There is also the threat posed by 92 million Mexicans whose border is an hour's drive south of Tucson. During the Mexican Revolution and its attendant civil wars, from 1910 to 1922, more than 10 percent of Mexico's population of 13 million fled to the United States. Now, as Mexico's population climbs past 100 million, imagine the level of militarization and domination from Washington that would be required to control a comparable flood of refugees, were Mexico's central government to devolve into a weak tributary-state system.

    In Tucson I wondered if America might need a new, more candid myth than that of the rugged individualism that settled the West. In truth, this region could never have been tamed successfully without big-government intervention and the creation of bureaucracies -- just what rugged individualists like Jeff Smith hate. As for America's future, if there is to be justice for anyone, the gradual, ongoing increase in both the size and the complexity of our population (which in the next fifty years is likely to grow by half, to 390 million) will eventually require regulatory tyranny -- the governing of everything from water use to credit-card fraud. But what will individualists do then?

    Next month: Los Angeles, Orange County, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

    The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.

    Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His article in this issue will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random House in late summer.

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Travels Into America's Future; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 47 - 68.

    m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture