If you still care, ask what Abbey would think
September 18, 2007
At first I didn’t believe what I was hearing, since she was the one who’d told me I had to read Edward Abbey. Years ago, we sat around a campfire outside Moab, Utah, and she spoke passionately of this Abbey character – a writer who blasted the industrialization of the West. I confessed I’d never heard of him. And now this.It started with a question. “Is it OK if I use you as a reference?” I’ve done it for her before, so this wasn’t surprising. “Sure. Are you looking for a new job?” Silence. “Yes,” she says finally. I sense defensiveness, but I press her. “So what is it?” “It’s nothing that would interest you,” she says. I say nothing, letting the tension build, so she goes on, talking faster: “I’d be working for a developer who’s putting in a high-end housing development in Park City. It will have lots of open space – a golf course and half-acre lots. He’s really a really good guy, and, well … it would pay really well.” Now I understand. I’ve heard it before.After that Moab trip so many years ago, I took my friend’s advice and read Edward Abbey, and it fixed in me what I already was feeling about people cashing in on what makes this region unique. But when we sat around that campfire, it was before houses and kids and graduate school and then careers, when it was easy to be ideological and rabidly environmental. But it wasn’t so easy for her anymore. If I connect the dots from that campfire talk to this recent phone call, it traces the almost clichéd trajectory that people follow from liberal thinking to conservative beliefs, as youth becomes middle age. I’ve watched it in so many friends and for many different reasons. Some became truly conservative after the attacks of 9/11 sparked their patriotic fervor. Some feel marginalized and outdated and give in to middle-aged peer pressure to “grow up,” “be realistic,” and “get on board.” For others, the fight seems to have gone out of them as their own energy reserves are drawn down, and they realize how exhausting it is to juggle everything in their lives. For others, it seems simply a matter of convenience: The problems of modern America are easier to ignore. Or maybe it’s just that environmental concerns get lost in the din of modern life between soccer games in gas-guzzling SUVs and trips to Costco for pallets of canned soup.For a few, it’s not that they no longer believe that the world needs changing, it’s that acting on that belief is economically damaging. That’s where my friend on the end of the phone seems to have ended up. Like a beat cop paid to look the other way, she has a price and the do-gooders can’t meet it. This seems to me the most distressing of the reasons, because it is literally selling out to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, Salt Lake City spreads its subdivisions like wildfire, its valley no longer restraining its sprawl. The mouths of canyons north and south offer little resistance as development spreads up the canyons to Park City and Heber, or around the southern tip of the Great Salt Lake to communities such as Tooele and Grantsville. Park City isn’t much of a mountain town anymore; it’s a suburb of Salt Lake City, complete with outlet malls, a Wal-Mart, fast-food chains and a few pockets of “open space.” If my friend takes that high-paying job, she will contribute directly to the further paving of Park City and the continuing sprawl of Salt Lake City. But the fight’s not out of me, yet. So I won’t make it easy on her. As if afraid to ask, she says, “Mmmm … what do you think?”Is she hoping that I might understand, just act like a good friend, or even support her? I hope not, because I’m still a rabid environmentalist, and I haven’t changed since that conversation by the campfire, unless it’s to be even more resolute in my anti-development, anti-“progress” convictions. “Interesting,” is what I can muster. We wrap it up, cordially, and I hang up the phone. “Damn!” I say, after a minute, “What I should have said was, ‘I’ll recommend you, but what would Abbey think?'”Kevin Branson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works at the University of Utah for the Utah Education Network and lives in Salt Lake City.