To grow or not to grow? Take this with a giant pile of salt.

Bryan Alexander 2023-09-06

One of the great questions of our time is: shall we continue to grow?

I’m referring to our civilization and its massive, complex footprint, which we can measure in many ways.  Will we keep growing our economy, making more goods, services, and money?  Will we keep growing our total population?  And will we decide to keep growing in areas where growth is very difficult?

I’ve been mulling over these questions for years and have a book proposal to fire off shortly, but today I wanted to share one example for discussion.  It’s about the American state of Arizona and how economic and population growth, a/k/a development, is running smack into the natural barrier of not enough water.

(Note: this is a quick post written in haste, as I race between addressing a number of issues and crises.  I’m going to touch too quickly and with too much generalization on giant, complex topics.  I’ve written about them before and will say more later.)

It’s well known that Arizona is very arid. Big chunks of it are desert. Yet for years people keep moving into the state, putting up buildings, expanding towns and cities, developing and developing on the very knife edge of sustainability.  This is well known, I think.

Arizona mountains and plantsNow the state might have hit a hard limit to its growth curve.  In January the state government ordered a halt to development around Phoenix, due to water limitations.  More recently the New York Times noted in a powerful piece that Arizona, like many American states, is overpumping its groundwater.  Yet more people want to move to the state and development is hungry.  What is to be done?

I think of this as a microcosm of our civilization as we look ahead.  There are logistical and practical details, but also a kind of strategy or ideology in play. Are we going to keep revving up growth or will we try some other approach?

All of this came to me, around 2400 miles to the least, as I listened to a very well done Times podcast about a proposed plan for Arizona’s water crisis.  I recommend listening to the whole thing, but the gist is a spectacular idea: building a giant water desalination plant in a Mexican city on the edge of the Sea of Cortez, then pumping the de-salted water far north to Arizona.

The project immediately divided people.  On the pro-growth side the arguments are familiar: we (Arizonans) need to make space for newcomers.  We’re also a state that invents grandly, so this plant+pipeline fits in our tradition.  I would add: it’s consistent with innovation-happy American culture as well.

On the other side, the podcast points out some big problems.  First, it would be huge expensive.  Second, there’s a lot of politics to wrangle, from international diplomacy down to persuading multiple urban and rural folks to go along.  Third, disposing of what would be a giant and growing mountain of salt is a huge burden, one most likely slotted to Mexicans to deal with.  Fourth, the proposed pipeline would stomp on a range of sensitive environments from the sea to consumers.

For me, these are partly echoes of old western debates between development and its opponents, but now with a climate crisis dimension. If human industry is heating the planet, should we respond with more industry or less?  Should we turn to our tested wellsprings of creativity and implementation, or instead haul back on the reins and just… stop?

“But Bryan,” some of you might ask, “What does this have to do with higher education?  That’s what your writing is about, right?”

I see academia all over that great divide right now.  On the development side, we have helped civilization warm the world, as we’ve done our share of educating people in a wide range of pro-development fields from mechanical engineering to business.  We’ve also done generations of research along these lines.  And in the United States we have more or less privatized higher ed’s finances, driving most colleges and universities to reach frantically for dollars wherever they could.  We *need* growth to generate enough of an economy for us to draw upon.

Yet we’re also somewhat on the anti-growth side.  Academic researchers have been stalwarts in researching the climate crisis and calling for humanity to respond.  Some academics have studied and developed ideas around anti-growth political economy, such as degrowth or donut economics. Some academics also teach along these lines.

I’m not sure how many academics want to apply post-growth thinking to their institution’s operations. In the USA we’ve depended on ever-growing enrollment (and hence dollars) for two generations.  Since enrollment stopped and receded, we still raise our budgets and continue to beat the advancement drum.   Yet I’ve heard some campus degrowth talk from individual faculty and staff, who think their institution has enrolled too many students.  And the occasional campus leader has publicly stated they will accept smaller student bodies (I have a post on West Virginia coming up).

How far will the latter grow?  I’m not sure, at this point.  Many academics tell me the solution to their problems involves the spending of a lot more money, often at the state or federal level. I don’t see Americans in general rejecting consumerism, nor have I seen most academics wanting to reduce their professional footprint.  Perhaps anti-development will remain a minority opinion for the foreseeable future.

I wonder how this might play out with Arizonan colleges and universities.  Who will commit to supporting the plant and pipeline publicly?  Which departments will try to work with the project, such as civil engineering?  And who will oppose the idea, and from which sites within the state’s academic ecosystem?

I think the debate is there, both in the state and elsewhere, if only in a nascent stage.  We can see it in the divisions over Arizona’s grand lunge for more water, and perhaps echoes of that within the entire academic world.

More on this to come.


(photo by Quinn Dombrowski)