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Saturday, April 28, 2007

The end of Phoenix (again).

I stumbled upon an interesting article link at Black and Green Bulletin's Collapse Bulletin page today. The piece, entitled, "Phoenix Falling?", is a fascinating history of my home town, and ran originally in the High Country News. It compares the rise and fall of the Hohokam civilization that preceded Phoenix to the current situation facing us. With a record breaking drought continuing into the foreseeable future - and with global warming threatening to add five more degrees to our already maxed-out thermometers - folks living in the Valley ought to be paying attention to this article.
“Is it going to last?” I asked him, the question I must ask of every archaeologist.

“How long, is the question,” Wright replied.

“The Hohokam were a hydraulic society, and so are we,” he explained. “We depend on the presence of water, the storage of water, the transport of water, and as long as the water is there and can serve our needs, we’re fine. But if the water is not falling on the watershed, or if our needs start to outstrip what is available, that’s a problem.”

It does not take an archaeologist to make such a deduction. However, it does take an archaeologist to see what that deduction might mean in the deep time of this city.

“With the Hohokam, you can see the change,” he said. “They went from a large number of small villages to a small number of large villages. You have growing social complexity, but you also have greater and greater dependence on resources that are existing in smaller and smaller areas. They lost their diversity of resources. They lost flexibility.”

“How long do we have?” I pressed.

Wright laughed, but did not answer my question. He could not. There is not yet an answer, just speculation.

“When it does finally happen, whenever that is, what do you think the end will look like?” I asked.

Peering across dazzling fields of light, Wright said, “Like this.”

I looked out to what he was seeing, freeways streaming like arteries, and it looked like the city was on fire, the great bird of Phoenix burning once again. I thought he must be right. At a certain point, the rise must be indistinguishable from the fall, cycles of death and rebirth too tightly interwoven to pick apart.

It was the same so many centuries ago, one arc skyrocketing while the other plummeted; populations mounting while water dwindled. Some archaeologists look at the 14th century, right before the ancient city was deserted, as a time of Hohokam fragmentation and decay. Others look at the same data and see rejuvenation, the building of corporate centers more impressive than anything the Hohokam ever made before.

We now appear to be at a similar juncture. The balancing act may continue for centuries, or the city may topple tomorrow. Archaeologists are not foolish enough to give an exact date, but they are lifting warning flags. They are looking to the future and into the past, and they see the story of Phoenix repeating itself.
Anyone who has lived in Phoenix for long knows instinctively that this kind of development and sprawl cannot continue. The neighborhood in which I grew up used to be considered the West Side but now seems more like downtown. The Valley of the Sun is steadily spilling down the I-10 all the way to Tucson while the rest of the city has vomited up suburbs in all directions so that now you can drive more than an hour and a half east to west or north to south on the freeway without leaving the city.

As millions of new residents pour into the Valley over the next few years (adding to an already massive population explosion) we need to be asking ourselves what kind of future there is for Phoenix when the water runs out? The essay above gives us a very interesting answer to that question.

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