Will Evidence of a Coming Apocalypse Change Human Behavior?

I’m not much for apocalyptic thinking.  I don’t think it’s productive.  I have to confess, though, that this story about the Great Salt Lake got me thinking about whether human nature is such that the apocalypse is not that far away.  It makes compelling reading.  And viewing – do check out the video of what used to be Owens Lake, which could be described as a cautionary tale for Salt Lake City, except that no one seems to be taking precautions.

The short version is that the Great Salt Lake is disappearing, partly as a result of climate change and partly as a result of huge population growth.  What’s most amazing is the amount of human folly that has contributed to the situation.

I see the problem as resulting from two related, but slightly different phenomena.  One is that, for some reason, Americans think that they are entitled to an unlimited supply of cheap water.  This isn’t news.  What is noteworthy to me is that, as water gets more scarce in many places, people are still shocked and horrified at the suggestion that water prices should rise.  According to a federal report cited in the Times, Salt Lake City has very low water rates compared to other large cities.

The second phenomenon is that people don’t just discount the value of having sufficient water available in the future; they discount it a lot.  In fact, for rhetorical purposes, I’d suggest that many people operate as though the appropriate discount rate were infinity; they will do nothing, no matter how cheap, to save water now in order to protect future supplies.  One of my favorite bits from the article was that, when a resident of a Salt Lake City suburb stopped watering his lawn to save water, he was threatened with fines.  Communities in California are fining people for watering their lawns, and in Utah, they’re still willing to fine people for not watering their lawns!

And what are lawmakers doing about it?

Robert Spendlove, a Republican state representative, introduced a bill this year that would have blocked communities from requiring homeowners to maintain lawns. He said local governments lobbied against the bill, which failed.

In the state legislative session that ended in March,… lawmakers rejected proposals that would have had an immediate impact, such as requiring water-efficient sinks and showers in new homes or increasing the price of water.

By the way, it’s worth noting that the disappearing lake is not just a problem of vanishing water; it’s also an incipient public health problem.  The lake bed contains arsenic, which residents of Salt Lake City and environs are soon going to be inhaling.  According to the National Academies, when Owens Lake dried up, downwind communities faced the highest PM10 concentrations in the United States.  (And Los Angeles, which caused Owens Lake to dry up, has spent more than $2,000,000,000 just to manage the problem, with no solution in sight.)

Yikes.

It’s comforting to know that, when the climate apocalypse comes to Utah, people will be able to say “at least it’s dry heat.”

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