Pubdate: July 1998
Source: Atlantic Monthly (The)
Volume: 282, No. 1; pages 47 - 68
Author: Robert D. Kaplan

Note: The online version of this article appears in three parts. Robert D.
Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His article in this issue
will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An Empire
Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random House
in late summer.


THE Catalina foothills, which look down upon the city from the north, are
covered by winding streets with NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH signs; the comfortable
villas that line them often have red-tiled roofs, electronic security
systems, and extensive gardens of wiry mesquite, yucca trees, and cholla
cacti, with their networks of dangerously spiny right-angled arms. Towering
over this vegetation and providingmany a villa with a distinctive character
are saguaro cacti, some of them as tall as thirty feet and weighing up to
ten tons, some of them older than the American republic.

Stuart Hameroff, a medical scientist at the University of Arizona, lives in
the Catalina foothills. He told me, "I never could have come as far as I
have in my research had I lived on the East Coast, or even in a place like
San Francisco. Those places are too cluttered, too vertical, with too many
physical and cultural distractions. I need the desert and the absence of
anything to look at in order to think clearly -- and, more important, to
think abstractly about the brain." Ina nondescript little office on the
University of Arizona campus Hameroff maintains a Web site for scientists
from several continents to exchange information about the biochemistry of
consciousness. The office is as forgettable as the tract houses of the
working poor. No imposing ivy-covered walls or neoclassical buildings are
required for this ongoing, worldwide scientific work, nothing to suggest
urbanity: just a computer and a telephone jack.

David K. Taylor, a planning-program coordinator for the City of Tucson,
also lives in the foothills. Taylor, a demographer, helped me to understand
the past and future social geography of Tucson, and of the United States, too.

I sat beside Taylor's grand piano, under a high white ceiling. "Where you
are now could be Santa Fe, Palm Beach, or Long Island," he said. "My
neighbors are Pakistani doctors, Silicon Valley types, ingenious local
entrepreneurs, wealthy Lebanese, Chinese. They have their computers, their
links with friends throughout the globe, and a patina of Spanish culture
via the street names of this neighborhood and the villa architecture, and
they call it a lifestyle. Of course, these people are the only future
Tucson has. You lure -- you bribe -- high-tech firms to relocate here with
those high-paying jobs in order to attract more people like my neighbors to
Tucson, because experience indicates that most of the poor, even with
training, will never be qualified for such jobs." I had heard these exact
sentiments in St. Louis and other cities.

Taylor continued, "The local government's promotion of tourism and the
Tucson convention site will bring mainly low-paying service jobs to the
area. Tourist promotion is usually necessary to generate corporate moves.
So if we want those high-tech firms, we will have to emphasize tourism."

Taylor showed me two graphs that suggest an increasingly bifurcated future
for Pima County, where Tucson is situated. The 1979 graph showed a tidy
bell curve (or, as Taylor put it, a "one-hump camel"), with the rich and
the poor at the bottom edges and the middle class forming the rise in the
middle. The 1989 graph showed a "two-hump camel," with the rich and the
poor forming humps at the edges, at the expense of middle-income groups. In
that year, nationally, 22.8 percent of the population lived in households
whose income could not "realistically" provide for basic necessities, even
as the numbers of the rich and the upper-middle class grew -- a trend that
has continued throughout the 1990s.

"In Tucson," Taylor went on, "there are a large number of inexpensive tract
houses thrown up hastily in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies which
are now falling apart. Soon their repair costs will not make economic
sense. Some of their owners will be able to afford more-expensive homes in
neighborhoods with good schools, farther out in the desert, while many more
will slip through the cracks, going broke on repairs or drifting to bad
sections of town." Throughout the country, Taylor said, the decay of cheap
housing from the first decades after the Second World War is causing the
same problem: further eroding the "middle-middle" class, even as the
working poor and the upper-middle class become increasingly isolated from
each other geographically. In Tucson the high cost of bringing water and
other services to the edge of the desert abets this trend, since it is
chiefly the well-off who can afford to live in the new outlying suburbs.

Taylor summed up Tucson's history: "Two hundred and fifty years ago the
population here was a hundred percent Native American. Next it became
ninety-five percent Spanish. When Santa Anna sold southern Arizona cheap to
Jefferson Davis, you saw the first and only integration of cultures here,
because the Anglo males who came west had to marry Mexican women, or at the
very least partially assimilate with the reigning Mexican culture in order
to do business. But the coming of the railroad and then the automobile
redivided the city into a poor Spanish-speaking section, with some blacks,
south of the railroad tracks, and a wealthier Anglo one to the north and
east. Now class barriers are further deepening cultural and racial ones."
So instead of a unified, Spanish-built, Roman-style garrison, as it was in
the eighteenth century, Tucson is becoming several garrisons, where each
house is more isolated from the others than ever before. "Tucson has only
twenty-five hundred persons per square mile," Taylor said. "We're less
dense than at any moment in the past two hundred years. And who knows what
the limits of growth here are? Of course, we're not as bad as Phoenix,
where the motto seems to be More development is better, and too much is
just right."

"Meanwhile," Taylor said, "the Anglo population keeps dropping. Anglos are
sixty-eight percent of the Tucson area's population; in 2050 we'll be forty
percent, while the percentage of Hispanics will rise from twenty-four
percent to forty percent. The future means integration with Sonora. Why,
Sonora will just be southern Arizona, and Chihuahua south Texas! Guaymas
might be Tucson's main port. Tucson's economy already extends a thousand
miles into Mexico."

"Will the American Southwest merge completely with northern Mexico?" I asked.

"Not completely," Taylor said. "There will be a big Asian element here too.
The Southwest will move toward both Latin America and the Pacific, in terms
of trade and people. The young work force that will subsidize the Social
Security payments for our aging Baby Boomers will have to come not just
from south of the border but also from the densely populated,
industrializing, low-crime societies of the Third World -- places like East
and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, where life is much worse
than in America but talent and individual initiative are high. Racially,
we'll look like a combination of Mexico and Hawaii. Tucson will reflect
that trend."

Desert Politics

TUCSON is American history on fast-forward.  A century ago there was little
here but desert and a few dusty streets. Now there is a vast pod of suburbs
differentiated by income, on the verge of becoming the hub of a
transitional region extending deep into Mexico, at the same time that drugs
from Mexico feed the lawlessness that plagues the South Side of the city.
While Tucson becomes increasingly connected to the outside world through
immigration and electronic communication, its people are increasingly
isolated from one another, the houses farther and farther apart, the public
spaces empty. To me, the city's terrain seemed to say, Leave me alone.

I wanted to sample true American loneliness -- the extremes of
individualism. So I left Tucson and headed back south.

After driving more than a mile on dirt tracks in the desert, I descended a
steep and rutted hillside to reach Jeff Smith's house, where I was met by a
growling dog. Smith came out in his wheelchair. "Don't worry about your
car," he said. "I'll tow you with my pickup if you can't make it back up
that hill."

I was now only twenty-eight miles from the border, far from the nearest
paved road, between the towns of Sonoita and Patagonia. Smith's closest
neighbor was almost a mile away, and Smith, who is paralyzed from the chest
down because of a motorcycle accident, was feuding with him. Smith led me
into his two-story adobe house, fitted with a specially designed elevator
for his wheelchair, which he built with the help of a few Mexican illegals.
He was around fifty, gray-haired, and wearing jeans. "A screaming liberal,"
his friend Emil Franzi, a political operative in Tucson, told me when we
were discussing interesting Tucsonans.

"Unfortunately," Smith said, "while my fellow liberals on the East and West
Coasts are very good on the First and Fourth Amendments -- free speech and
worship, and protection against 'unreasonable searches and seizures' --
liberals look down on those rights and amendments that they don't use, like
the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms." He put deliberate stress on
the numbers, "First," "Fourth," and "Second"; the Constitution and the Bill
of Rights were clearly living, sacred documents to him, as the Old
Testament is to Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. Rather than a
liberal, Smith, who owns thirty guns, was, like many others I met in the
Southwest, a spirited libertarian who feels that the government has no
right to ban abortions, semi-automatic assault rifles, or perhaps even

I asked him, "Do we really need semi-automatics?"

Smith said, "Chechnya proves that you need semis to prevent tyranny,
because with an armed populace a tyrannical central government will be
forced to fight door to door."

"But the United States government is not like the Russian one."

"One day it could become just as tyrannical. It would happen gradually, by
stealth. Don't say it can't happen! Would you rather be free or merely
safe? That's the question Americans have to answer. Bill Clinton and Janet
Reno need to understand the natural state of human freedom."

"But you will always need a strong federal government," I said. "Just look
at the land dispute between the Hopis and the Navajos in northern Arizona.
It is the federal government that to this day keeps the peace between many
Indian tribes."

"If the federal government collapsed," Smith responded, "the Navajos might
just kill the Hopis. Then, after an unstable period, the Navajos would
assimilate into the general society. The world wouldn't come to an end. We
think we need a federal government, but do we really?"

The morning wore on. Smith made coffee, and talked about "large, bloody
cataclysms" that could "bring down the Electoral College"; about how "the
South Side of Tucson might make war on the Catalina foothills, an idea that
might originate from some TV show." Smith, like many Democratic
environmentalists but unlike Republican business types, is against growth.
"I almost hope for an environmental catastrophe, so people will start
leaving Tucson and stop building more homes. If it takes thirty years for
the area to recover, what's the harm in the long run?"

Smith and I were sitting in the mathematical purity of his white-walled
adobe house. Through his living-room window I could see a hillside of tall,
coarse gramma grass and mesquite trees. Smith lives alone amid this
meditative, prismlike beauty. His house is in a valley where radio
transmissions are problematic. Like many people in rural America who live
far from a big town, he has his own well. He goes only twice a week to his
mailbox, more than a mile away on the nearest paved road. It occurred to me
that Smith's political absolutes and abstractions regarding issues like
semi-automatic rifles and the power of the federal government arise to no
small extent out of sheer physical isolation. The continent's very
emptiness, along with its overpowering natural forces -- floods, twisters,
hurricanes -- for which Europe offers no equivalent, confers a pioneer
spirit that loses relevance in an age of advanced technology. The last
frontiersmen like Smith are, perforce, somewhat absurd.

I remembered what John E. Pintek, the sheriff of Cochise County, on
Arizona's border with Mexico, had told me about militiamen: "These are
people who can barely speak without profanities -- like 'Why the fuck
should I vote?' ... . Besides being uneducated, they often have records of
petty crime which prevent them from getting decent jobs. If they are not on
welfare or unemployment insurance, they work as night clerks at convenience
stores and, as they will tell you, 'defend the U.S.A. on weekends.' With
social change so dramatic, there are just more and more losers out there."

Jeff Smith is no militiaman. He is far too well educated and cosmopolitan
for that. He makes a living as a writer for a weekly alternative newspaper.
But just imagine the state of mind of an uneducated, or badly educated,
white male who is full of resentment and without social graces -- "a fat
lard-ass with pimples," as Pintek had put it to me -- living in Smith's
kind of isolation.

Smith's friend Franzi had told me in Tucson, "Look, I'm a First Amendment
guy anda gun nut. I'm a member of the NRA, I go to gun shows on weekends,
and I don't know any of these militia people! Where are they? These guys
must live in the middle of nowhere. They don't vote, they're completely
beyond the 'process.' They think the NRA is too left-wing.... In the days
of the military draft, when there was no mystique attached to carrying a
gun and wearing a uniform, these guys didn't exist."

MIL Franzi runs election campaigns, mainly for Republicans, at the
state-legislature and county-sheriff level. He is a small-time Ed Rollins,
who also happens to own sixty guns and 3,000 opera records. Franzi supports
both the National Rifle Association and National Public Radio. He and Jeff
Smith might well share a motto: The less the government is able to
accomplish the better. Thank God for gridlock; James Madison spent his life
inventing it.

I first met Franzi in the cramped cubicle of a Tucson AM station on
election night, November 7, 1995. The station had the low-rent,
fly-by-night quality of local radio stations throughout America: the
furniture and equipment looked as though they had been dumped there by a
moving company the day before and might be repossessed the next morning if
the ratings dropped. Franzi's voice was loud, conspiratorial, friendly, as
if we had known each other all our lives.

Formalities aren't necessary in the Southwest. Because so many people who
settle here come without friends or family, and housing is so widely
separated, when people do meet they connect quickly.

"Have you noticed something about this place -- about Tucson and Arizona, I
mean? Have you looked around?" Franzi shouted a few inches from my face.
Then his voice descended into a low, exasperated hiss: "It's a fucking
desert -- over seven hundred thousand people surrounded by a desert! And
they still want to build, build. Where's the water going to come from? You
tell me."

Franzi was not exaggerating. Any place with less than twenty inches of
rainfall a year -- a category that includes almost all of the American West
- -- will sustain a human population only with difficulty, and places like
Tucson, with an average annual rainfall of eleven inches, and Phoenix and
El Paso, which average about eight inches of rain a year, are perhaps not
places to inhabit at all, as Marc Reisner, an expert on water resources in
the West, writes in Cadillac Desert.  Tucson is the largest city in the
United States that is dependent entirely on groundwater, so its underground
aquifers are being steadily depleted. The most contentious issue on the
Tucson ballot that November had to do with water. The dispute centered on
Colorado River water transported to the city in a zigzagging, man-made
river, uphill from the California border and across the bleakest patch of
the Sonoran Desert, at a cost of billions of dollars, in a scheme called
the Central Arizona Project (CAP). But after all this expense CAP water
turned out to be problematic. It was hard and caused corrosion in pipes to
loosen, with the result that the water looked brownish and people thought
it made them ill. Many people wanted to ban CAP water from Tucson and
continue to use only the water from underground aquifers. Proponents
argued, however, that CAP water was more affordable, that its quality could
be improved by treatment with chemicals, and that it would ensure Tucson
enough water for the next century.

"Who's really supporting CAP water and who is against it?" I asked Franzi.

"Basically, a vote in favor of CAP water is a vote that says, Don't fuck
with development, since if we're forced to depend on aquifer water, there's
just not going to be enough water for Tucson to keep expanding. Me, I'm a
no-growther. I don't want the dirt road leading to my house ever to be
paved. I don't want one more building to be built in Tucson. We're already
too big. We're in a desert!"

The no-growthers won that night. CAP water lost. But that did not satisfy
Franzi. On the air live in the studio, he told the talk-show host John C.
Scott that "Tucson voters are the stupidest voters in the country," because
they had defeated CAP water but re-elected the same Democratic Party
politicians who had promoted it. Scott agreed. Earlier that day Scott had
told his audience that he himself had voted "down the line" Republican.
These Tucson radio commentators were criticizing both the voters and the
politicians that election night. The voters phoned in and had their say
too. Sitting inside the dark ten-foot-by-ten-foot recording room, lined
with foam and stacked to the ceiling with equipment, listening to callers
scream at Scott and Franzi and hearing Scott and Franzi answer back, I knew
that such places had become the high altars of American democracy. This was
local politics, and the issue at hand was water: life and death.

Yet only one out of four eligible voters had voted -- about the same
turnout as in the Haitian election held the following month. The voices
crackling over the speakers represented only a minute subculture obsessed
with politics. Less than five percent of adult Americans engage in any kind
of political activity, aside from voting.

OTHER than the policy and media types in Washington, the state capitals,
and town halls, the United States is politically apathetic. After spending
much of my life observing traditional and highly politicized cultures in
the Third World and the Balkans, which have been sundered by ideological
and ethnic obsessions (and boasting, by the way, high voter turnouts), I
found such apathy refreshing when I returned to the United States -- at
first. Apathy, after all, can mean that things are fine. In America it is
testimony to the fact that the basic questions -- What should the system of
government be? Where should the borders be? Which ethnic groups, if any,
should control what regions? -- have been more or less resolved. What is
often argued about -- gun control, abortion -- is thus of secondary
importance. Despite what some believe, ethnic identity has yet to
destabilize American politics, because ethnicity is largely divorced from
territory (except in the case of Native Americans), as it is not in the
former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. And because what is argued
about is likelier to be secondary than something to fight or die for,
democracy has evolved as the lowest common denominator of practical wisdom
for a nation of individuals, most of whom prefer to be left alone to make

Not only has politics been secondary for most Americans but so, typically,
has leadership. From the early nineteenth century onward the nation
prospered despite long sequences of mediocre Presidents. Periods of great
growth -- the second half of the nineteenth century, for example -- were
accompanied by mediocre Administrations. Only in wartime did it truly
matter who the President was. (Indeed, in peacetime the chairman of the
Federal Reserve may affect the lives of many more citizens than the
President does.)

But this relative political vacuum -- a sort of peaceful and productive
anarchy -- always presumed, among other things, abundant prosperity and
resources, so that little governing authority was necessary to organize the
scramble for wealth. The large-scale settlement of the West following the
Civil War cramped this freedom a bit. Nature itself ordained government
help and supervision, because the lands west of the 100th meridian (which
runs through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) receive,
for the most part, less than twenty inches of rain annually -- the minimum
required not only to sustain a human population but also for agriculture
without irrigation. Land had to be surveyed, parceled out, and regulated,
and great water projects begun, which required vast bureaucratic
institutions (the Reclamation Service, the Geological Survey, the Forest
Service, and so forth). These, together with great growth in both the
population and the economy in the latter part of the nineteenth century,
contributed to the big federal government that people like Smith and Franzi
now fear. Indeed, had the United States been settled from west to east
rather than the other way around, the big government agencies necessitated
by scarce water would have preceded the freeman tradition that took root on
the well-watered eastern slopes of the Appalachians in the eighteenth
century, and a mild form of hydraulic civilization -- highly centralized
and authoritarian regimes, like those that built the great water and earth
works in India, China, and Mexico -- might have arisen here.

But the claims of the militia movement and other libertarians
notwithstanding, government intrusion has remained limited. Once land and
water were parceled out, people were free to do what they wanted, to
succeed beyond their wildest hopes or fail beyond their worst nightmares.
And the discovery, mapping, and exploitation of aquifers in the first half
of the twentieth century has further postponed the day of reckoning for
humankind and nature in the West. But that day is coming. In 1928 Arizona's
population reached 400,000, the largest it had been since the apex of the
Hohokam Indian culture of the thirteenth century. Now more than 800,000
people live in greater Tucson alone, and four million in Arizona, a tenfold
increase in seventy years -- in a desert, no less. Referring to the Central
Arizona Project, Marc Reisner writes, "Despite one of the most spellbinding
and expensive waterworks of all time, Arizonans from now until eternity
will be forced to do what their Hohokam ancestors did: pray for rain."
Especially as Arizonans have decided -- at least in Tucson -- that CAP
water is not good enough for them, and thus their only choice is to
continue to deplete the aquifers.

What the voter turnout actually suggested is that the vast majority of
Tucson-area residents were unconcerned about this and other communal
issues. As the hollowing-out of downtown also shows, the social and
communal fabric appears to be fraying at the very moment in southwestern
history when it is needed in the oncoming battle for water. The
transnational, mestizo-Polynesian Tucson of the future -- one of
twenty-first-century North America's economic junctions for the world's
most talented individuals -- will require the opposite of individualism. It
will need communalism merely to survive.

Gary Snyder, an ecologist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, warns, "This
is an age of limits." But Roy Drachman, the Tucson real-estate developer
who helped to build the Sunbelt, thinks that people here will pay little
attention to such warnings. Sitting in his low-ceilinged office next to a
parking lot and a restaurant, Drachman told me, "There are no limits. We
will eat up more and more space out into the desert, and there will be more
and more loneliness, and consequently more and more need for friendships.
At first there won't be a water shortage, though. The price of water will
just go up and the quality will go down. Then we'll see."

Maybe Drachman is right. Maybe the Southwest can buy itself more time.
Maybe, as some visionary engineers think, the Southwest's salvation will
come ultimately from that shivery vastness of wet, green sponge to the
north: Canada. In this scenario a network of new dams, reservoirs, and
tunnels would supply water from the Yukon and British Columbia to the
Mexican border, while a giant canal would bring desalinized Hudson Bay
water from Quebec to the American Midwest, and supertankers would carry
glacial water from the British Columbian coast to southern California --
all to support an enlarged network of post-urban, multi-ethnic pods pulsing
with economic activity.

Places like Phoenix and Tucson straddle the divide between bold, futuristic
dreams and apocalypse. The coupling I encountered of adrenaline-charged
friendliness with extreme apathy and antigovernment views suggested a no
less intense loneliness, emphasizing the need for community while at the
same time threatening it.

There is also the threat posed by 92 million Mexicans whose border is an
hour's drive south of Tucson. During the Mexican Revolution and its
attendant civil wars, from 1910 to 1922, more than 10 percent of Mexico's
population of 13 million fled to the United States. Now, as Mexico's
population climbs past 100 million, imagine the level of militarization and
domination from Washington that would be required to control a comparable
flood of refugees, were Mexico's central government to devolve into a weak
tributary-state system.

In Tucson I wondered if America might need a new, more candid myth than
that of the rugged individualism that settled the West. In truth, this
region could never have been tamed successfully without big-government
intervention and the creation of bureaucracies -- just what rugged
individualists like Jeff Smith hate. As for America's future, if there is
to be justice for anyone, the gradual, ongoing increase in both the size
and the complexity of our population (which in the next fifty years is
likely to grow by half, to 390 million) will eventually require regulatory
tyranny -- the governing of everything from water use to credit-card fraud.
But what will individualists do then?

Next month: Los Angeles, Orange County, Portland, and Vancouver, British

Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His article in
this issue will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An
Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random
House in late summer.

Copyright 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. The
Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; Travels Into America's Future; Volume 282, No.
1; pages 47 - 68.

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Checked-by: Mike Gogulski