Moab in 1972. Photo: Norton, Boyd / The U.S. National Archives @ Flickr Commons

Back in the Utah S.S.R.

Can environmentalists save capitalism from Utah’s politicians?

Communism has been tossed to history’s garbage disposal. China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union have all failed in their grand experiments or learned to embrace the virtues of profit. Norway and neighbors, dependent on fossil fuel exports, never really counted. The South American populists are mostly corrupt dictators who love big business. It’s over. There is only one game in town and it’s called Capitalism.

Yet there are still a few idealistic stragglers drifting through the smog, mostly gray-bearded and grumpy, who continue to cling to Marxist ideals. If you happen to run into one of this rare breed, there’s a decent chance they’ll needle you with one of their favorite arguments. It goes like this:

Capitalism requires endless growth to survive. When growth stops, capitalism dies. But the planet Earth, even though it’s pretty big for a five- or six-foot-tall human, is finite. So capitalism will one day, someday, run up against the limits of the planet and collapse — unless we transition to a zero-growth economy. Such an economy might not be communist in nature but it certainly wouldn’t be capitalist either. Capitalism’s finitude is the one thing that fills these washed-up have-beens with some vindictive pride.

It’s a silly thought experiment, of course. As the graybeard, grumpy, and Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” That’s because it works. We’ll figure it out the whole growth “problem” when the time comes (probably with derivatives trading and futures markets). Right now, if we want to talk apocalyptic, we’ve got more important things to worry about. Like meteors. And zombies.

Yes, capitalism rules the globalized world with a single exception. In a sparsely populated Western state, there’s one last holdout of idealists pushing for a zero-growth economy. These brave mostly-men continue to dream along with John Lennon and imagine all the people living for today. They’re called the Utah political establishment. The Utah Shitbrained Socialist Republicans, or the U.S.S.R. for short. And they’re ideological sticklers.

Take Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s recent battle with the outdoor industry. After years of Herbert’s repeated attacks on federal public lands in Utah, the outdoor recreation industry decided to stand up. They took Outdoor Retailer, their industry’s biggest trade show and one that has been hosted by Salt Lake City for over 20 years, and threatened to pull it out of Utah. The idea was to get leverage. The industry wanted Herbert to stop trying to transfer federal lands to the states and to support national monument designations in Utah. Being good capitalists, the outdoor folk thought money would talk. Their Outdoor Retailer tradeshow brings in $50 million per year to the Utah economy, and outdoor recreation in the state generates $856 million in state and local tax revenue (compared to Herbert’s pet industry — energy — which brings in $673 in tax revenue per year). The outdoor contingent felt pretty savvy. They reminded Herbert that recreation also creates 122,000 direct jobs in Utah versus 18,000 direct energy jobs. You could lose all of this if you don’t change your tune about public land, they said.

But did Herbert blink? Heck no. He’s not interested in jobs and growth like every other capitalist slob anywhere on the political spectrum between Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren. No, Herbert is a long term visionary, a dreamer. He thinks zero-growth is the only future worth fighting for, which is why he’s an energy guy through and through. Utah coal mining has been exhibiting symptoms of zero-growth since the early 1990s while the outdoor recreation economy has exploded. Natural gas has grown in the last thirty years but it’s been no major boon for the state save in small pockets, and Herbert knows there’s no gas frenzy on the horizon. Outdoor recreation, by contrast, still has considerable growth potential which will lead to more jobs, more subdivisions, more carbon emissions, and more travel to and through Utah. In short, it will feed capitalism and slowly eat into the planet’s finite reserves. Herbert can’t stand such a prospect, especially in the name of profit. He kissed Outdoor Retailer goodbye in February and didn’t look back. Bravo, Comrade Herbert!

Then there’s Congressman Jason Chaffetz from Utah’s third district (the fightin’ third). He too is a zero-growther. In mid-March, Chaffetz made waves in the blogosphere when he said on cable news that the G.O.P.’s alternative to Obamacare would require poor folk to choose between iPhones and health coverage. (He framed this as a selling point of the plan, mind you.) Chaffetz’s attack on consumerism is a bold move in to make in the neoconservative- and neoliberal-dominated world. It represents a dramatic departure from George W. Bush getting on TV a few days after 9–11 and begging America to start spending again lest the markets collapse. In those few panic stricken days, zero-growth was threatening to become a reality and Team Bush wanted nothing to do with it. But Chaffetz, aspiring tzar of U.S.S.R., is ready to get real. You can spend your money on gadgets, he argues, but don’t expect to be able to pay your doctor’s bills too. Sure we can keep the economy growing, but only at the risk of planetary and human health. Not even “socialist” senator Bernie Sanders risks so blatantly challenging the gods of growth. Sanders is still talking about jobs and rising incomes (and health care). In Utah, however, our leaders see through such nonsense. A dead human, even if they’re buried with the rare-earth minerals of an iPhone 7 in hand, is less of a drain on the planet’s resources than a living one with decent health coverage. It’s a brutal fact but a true one, and Chaffetz isn’t one to beat around the bush, market-forces be damned.

Comrade Chaffetz.

Chaffetz backed down earlier this year from a bill that would have sold off 3.3 million acres of federal public land, another common tactic used by the anti-growth establishment, but our brave Representative Rob Bishop (from the fightin’ first) is still leading the charge on that front. In March, Bishop asked the House Committee on Natural Resources, which he chairs, to set aside $50 million “to allow for these conveyances [the transfer of federal public land to state and local managers] to start immediately.” He said, “poorly managed federal lands create a burden for surrounding states and communities.”

Why? Because they’re economic engines. Federal taxpayers dump more money into public land management in rural Western states than local residents could ever afford to match. Tourists flock from around the world to see our natural wonders, purchasing fossil fuels and creating jobs the whole way. Without access to federal tax revenue, however, states would likely be forced to sell off public lands to the highest bidder whether that’s a private developer or a mining company. In 2016, one analysis found Utah, a state that is 75.2 percent public land, to have the strongest state economy in the country. Again, outdoor recreation was a major employer and start-ups moving to Utah often cited the “quality of life.” Such findings terrify Bishop. More jobs, more growth, more people — none of those metrics equate with sustainability. He hopes that by transferring public lands to the state (and by subsequently selling it off to corporate interests), Utah will begin to resemble West Virginia, a proud energy producing state that consistently ranks in the bottom for economic metrics. In West Virginia, only 16.5 percent of the land is public and in 2015 its economy grew by a less ambitious 0.1 percent. It’s not quite zero, but it’s close. No hoards of entrepreneurial mountain bikers are moving into West Virginia to develop innovative new software during the week and to ride the (topless) mountain trails on Sunday. Bishop likes that.

The U.S.S.R. even has a presence on the local level. In San Juan County, where I live, every elected official has spent months screaming and moaning about the recent designation of Bears Ears National Monument. The mainstream media, unwilling to report honestly on the radical zero-growth agenda of the Utah political establishment, has framed the official opposition to the monument in convoluted terms. These state representatives, mayors, and county commissioners are often depicted as believing that a monument designation will harm the local economy while nearly every statistic from past monument designations directly contradicts such a belief. For example, in the 12 years after the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument was designated local jobs grew by 38 percent and real personal income grew by 40 percent. This was not an isolated incident. Time and again we see that when public lands are protected as national monuments or national parks nearby economies flourish. Could our politicians really be so dense as to misunderstand those facts?

Don’t buy it. The U.S.S.R. is opposed to the monument because monuments lead to steady economic growth. With more personal income, people will consume more, which in turn eats into finite resources. What’s a better method for ensuring there will be no growth in your county? Repeal the monument and keep pushing for the (largely symbolic) expansion of uranium, coal, gas, potash, and oil extraction, none of which will ever provide more than a handful of jobs and will only lead to short-term economic boom-busts. Sure there will be ecological impacts, but what’s a gravel pit with a 15-year lifespan compared to a 200-unit subdivision and a giant hotel? Growth will cease after a resource extraction boom. Just look at North Dakota which ranked as the country’s fastest growing economy in 2014 until oil and gas prices dipped and it became the country’s fastest shrinking economy the very next year. Compare that to Colorado, often looked to as a leader in the recreation economy model, which has grown steadily for 20 years (in population and economically) regardless of market crashes and oil price fluctuations.

Once you start looking around, you’ll find the zero-growth zealots everywhere in Utah. In the city of Blanding on the edge of Bears Ears National Monument, there is a group of grassroots anti-growthers who call themselves the Stewards of San Juan. In late January, the Blanding City Council issued a blistering statement in opposition to the monument designation. It went on for nine paragraphs speaking in no uncertain terms about the need to repeal the monument designation immediately. In the last half of the last sentence, the tone changed slightly when the city council wrote, “and we welcome visitors here to enjoy it [the land, not the monument].” That half-sentence was too much for the good Stewards. They stormed a city council meeting and demanded they city stop “rolling out the red carpet” for outside tourists, adding (in an odd mirroring of the statement’s final line) that they (the Stewards) aren’t “anti-tourist” either. They’re just anti-growth. Blanding is a dry town with a flatlining economy. Just across the border in Colorado, every little mountain town has three breweries, five pot shops, dozens of hotels, skyrocketing real estate, and a sizeable tax base. But those towns are growing and changing at a rapid pace. Blanding is not.

Luckily for the clear-headed capitalists of the greater American empire, there’s still hope. In Utah, there’s an emerging grassroots resistance to the U.S.S.R., the Rebel Alliance of liberal recreationists. Deep behind anti-growth lines, a diverse coalition has formed between climbers, mountain bikers, radical environmentalists, gearheads, backpackers, real estate developers, hotel managers, tour operators, restaurateurs, sunburned river rats, dreadlocked anarchists, peace-loving tree huggers, and good ol’ fashioned dirtbags. Fearing the impending economic collapse of the Beehive State (the beehive being the symbol of strip mines, stagnation, and rural decay), the Rebels have been taking bold action to stimulate the sacred free market through outdoor tourism. Their goal is nothing short of taking down the Reds and saving capitalism.

The Rebellion compiles job-creation statistics, runs the tourism numbers, and attempts to attract new business to the state. They’re behind the spat with Governor Herbert over the consumerist Outdoor Retailer show that was discussed earlier, and though the show seems to be leaving Utah after 20 years, the Rebellion assures itself that the positive benefits to Utah’s economy will reverberate for decades to come.

The Rebels proudly broadcast the unmitigated capitalist success story that is Moab, Utah, as the shining future awaiting towns like Blanding if they learn to embrace the holy principles of Adam Smith. Last year, when the entrance line at Arches National Park backed up five miles into Moab, the Rebellion looked on approvingly. Their allies in the Utah State Tourism Office kept pumping money into an international advertising campaign to draw more people to Utah’s “Mighty Five” parks, including Arches and Canyonlands. (According to a bit of Rebel folk wisdom, the more people who visit a place, the more people who will rise to defend it from the clutches of the U.S.S.R.) Moab’s wastewater treatment plant was recently overwhelmed by rampant growth, leading to water quality violations in its discharge into the Colorado River. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the city “has been forced to put a six-month moratorium on new commercial sewer connections and those serving homes not used as primary residences.” But not to worry, the city is working on a new $12.4 million wastewater treatment plant so the growth can continue unabated.

Moab. Photo: aoiaio / Wikimedia Commons

The major draw to Moab is, of course, the protected public land that surrounds the area. The Rebellion knows that the only way to keep the U.S.S.R.’s growth-killing oil rigs out of pristine nature is to build a wall along the borders of our conservation lands, a wall of giant Best Westerns, Holiday Inns, and (for some diversity) La Quinta Inns & Suites. Then when the people come to fill the hotels (and they always seem to be full in Moab), the Rebellion seeks to appease their daytime appetites, not only with the much-Instagrammed wilderness beyond the wall but also with half-day raft tours, paved trails, parking areas, Jr. Ranger badges, Taco Bells, and pizza buffets. (This strategy is also used to combat drilling and mining in other “gateway communities” near Zion, Bryce, Escalante, and Capitol Reef; a number of new hotels are being proposed along edges of Bears Ears National Monument.)

The Rebels tend to extol the virtues of human-powered recreation such as hiking, climbing, biking, and paddling. Once upon a time, they will admit, such activities were almost zero-growth in nature. If you wanted to backpack in the ’50s, you went to an Army Surplus store, bought a pair of boots and a sleeping bag, and set out into the backcountry. If you wanted to climb, you had to blacksmith your own gear. Not a lot of profit was made in either case. And back then conservationists were still naive enough to employ anti-capitalist rhetoric when they talked about setting aside wilderness, not as cash machines, but in the name of some impractical ideals like “species conservation” or “preservation for future generations.”

The real loser from all that enviro bluster, though, was the all-growth-all-the-time juggernaut, and the Rebels wanted to prove they weren’t dirty commies like the U.S.S.R. So they spent the last sixty years creating the recreation industry, which proved to be a major growth market. Now a whole slew of companies will sell you Gore-Tex boots, ultralight dry-down bags, and a gadget to charge your every gadget in the wilderness. A branch of the Rebel Alliance known as the Outdoor Industry Association lobbies Congress to ensure continued growth. And the common people pitch in too. Since the pro-capitalist recreationists know they have to be the change they wish to see in the world, they spend, spend, spend to create as many jobs as possible on the way to and from the backcountry. They drive 500 miles to bike for 15 miles, fuel up their SUV (the extra clearance is needed drive the final five miles of rough dirt roads to get to the trailhead), eat at restaurants, make a pit stop at the gear store, and might crash at La Quinta to get a shower.

The strategy appears to be working. The Rebellion, you’ll recall, feeds close to a billion dollars in state and local tax revenue to Utah each year, and the fossil fuels required for such recreational endeavors are a sly attack on the U.S.S.R. By building a combustion engine buffer around their human-powered sports, the Rebels create more demand for the same fossil fuel resources that Utah politicians hope will usher in the new zero-growth era through ever slimmer profit margins.

State politics are still a challenge for the Rebellion in Utah, though. Despite all their efforts, the recreationists have elected not a single representative to the U.S. Congress, and they’re forced to focus on the local level. One Wayne County-based blogger, running a small Rebel publication from the reddest part of the U.S.S.R., has argued the only way to save our capital-generating public lands is to build more second home subdivisions in rural counties, pack them with pro-growth conservationists, and vote out the anti-growth Reds. A new wave of colonization is indeed taking place (well beyond the confines of Moab, which flipped blue a while ago), and it may one day drive the U.S.S.R. to extinction. Speculators are moving into forgotten corners of the state — just as they did after the Natives wasted Utah’s economic potential with their zero-growth ways — and they’re getting business rolling in the form of a strong tourist economy. They won’t stop until there’s a job-creating zipline and scenic helicopter company for every mesa and canyon. Progress marches on.

It’s not yet clear who will win. Will the U.S.S.R. succeed in their radical experiment to dismantle growth-dependent capitalism or will the recreationists stop them before it’s too late? Only time can tell. Either way, it’s best to pay no attention to that lump in the back of your throat when you hear about battle between the U.S.S.R. and the Rebel Alliance. That’s the irrational feeling that maybe endless growth isn’t possible whether it comes in the form of resource extraction or outdoor tourism. Ignore that thought. There are meteors to worry about.