The air conditioner was roaring away to keep the room at 68 degrees, a temperature that is normally tolerable yet feels cold when you enter in from 100 degree heat. It was 8 o’clock, the sun had set behind the mountains, and I was sweaty and tired from travel and a long dinner in Tempe. This was my first business trip, the first time I’d have to sit through day after day of meetings followed by evenings socializing with my coworkers, and I was glad that I had gotten in on Sunday to see some of Phoenix prior to the week ahead.
I laid out my clothes for the morning, checked in on the coffee maker, and read for a while before going to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up cold, my head whirling with the sound of the fan, and shut it off, only to wake up again, not long later, hot and stuffy. I made the mistake of thinking that the night had cooled the desert, when it had not; in Phoenix, the climate must be artificially controlled at all hours of the day, for the greater part of the year.
I do not think that I could ever live contently in such a place. I would always long for green pastures and roaring rivers, the lands of plenty that succored my ancestors in the evolutionary past. Having read too many post-apocalyptic books, I would also be concerned about the remote possibility of civilization collapse. In such a scenario, Phoenix’s millions would be left scavenging for food and water in a parched wasteland where the only things in abundance are open space and sun.
In our post-scarcity high-tech economy, open space and sun are exactly the things that has attracted millions of people people and companies like my own, to settle in this sprawling desert metropolis. In this day and age, it makes perfect economic sense to build up the desert. Even from an environmental perspective, it’s not a bad idea, since air conditioning uses less power than heating, and the areas where it is needed are full of solar energy. Wildlife is rare and unremarkable (though some people may disagree), so one’s impact on nature is relatively light. In a weird technocratic future, I could imagine all of mankind being relegated to sparse deserts, while the rest of the land is used for minimal impact farming and grazing, and the lush forests are left open for nature. A city, anyway, creates a kind of desert of its own—so why not put people there in the first place?
There are even some good arguments for human health and happiness. Desert air is clean and clear; the sun puts you in a good mood; there are no bugs to worry about; there is enough space that you can build laterally and give people plenty of acreage for their homes; when the heat is tolerable in winter you go outside, and when not you can sit in the cool of your home or one of the dozens of malls. So why was I still opposed, at an instinctual level, to the idea of a place like Phoenix existing?
The first day of the conference, I wore jeans and a short-sleeve button-down. At noon I changed into a long-sleeve and an undershirt. I doubt that the thermostat was set much lower than 70, but when air-conditioning continues to run, the air gets drier and drier and the soft blow of the cold air can give your skin a chill.
We had imported the brisk, windy climate of business into our halls of work, here in the fiery desert of central Arizona. Cold climate and business go hand-in-hand, and the modern work environment is a product of cold northern Europe. Heat and mentally taxing work don’t mix well; a certain crispness of the air is necessary to keep the brain functioning optimally.
The conference hall, and the hotel at large, had very few windows, and those they had were small. At the back of the hall there were a few that were covered in dark drapes. As you approached, you could feel the heat intensify. At breaks I would go outside to warm up and to experience what I could of the local climate. The air was so dry that it vacuumed all the moisture out of my lungs and throat. Most of the heat seemed to come off the ground. I felt nauseous going back and forth from the heat to the air-conditioned interior.
At night, when the meetings were finally over, I would eat with my coworkers, enjoying the sense of camaraderie, but after a couple of nights, I needed some time alone. After happy hour one night, I slipped out and headed toward a Mexican restaurant close to downtown. The wide Phoenix freeways were hotter than they had been at noon. With the AC going full blast, I periodically cracked the window in amazement. In the heat at night, cars moved across the lanes with nervous carelessness, like nocturnal animals swaggering out toward a feast.
The restaurant called itself a “Modern Taqueria” and served fresh, Tex-Mex style food that appealed to yanquis like myself. I sat at the bar. The waitresses were mostly second- or third-generation immigrants. Tattoos and piercings were common but not excessive. People seemed down-to-earth, focused on their services jobs and making ends meet. After spending days among software engineers and product managers, it was relaxing to be among the woking class locals.
After dinner, I walked around the adjoining parking lot and strip mall. There was a freshness to the earth here; humans had not been living and dying here for centuries. (Unlike Germany, where I had lived and could always feel the presence of the dead piled on top of each other.)
As I was walking back to the car, I stared into one of the giant, mall-like buildings and saw that boys were sliding over a massive ice floor: it was full-sized hockey rink.
Driving back to the hotel, I noticed a baseball field was lit up and little leaguers were playing under the bright stadium lights. At this time of year, October, this was the only time of day they could practice, and they were not going to miss out.
As bizarre as Phoenix was, I could not conclude that it is much different than living in Alaska, where you have to heat your home 10 months out of the year. The only reason it strikes us as more acceptable is because heating has been part of our past for much longer. It’s also worth recalling that our reliance on technology has been true of every epoch. Before we settled into civilization, our stomachs had already evolved to require fire-cooked food; our exoskeleton had shrunk in adaptation to our tools for hunting and protection.
The adaptation to new places through technology and the shedding of unnecessary skills, is all part of the great human endeavor. Today, in places like Phoenix the trend has accelerated, and the amount of technical knowledge required to maintain this civilization is astounding. Civilization is no longer a choice or convenience, but a necessary adaptation. I suppose in Alaska, though, you can build your cabin, cut your own wood, and hunt to survive. In Arizona, you rely upon the collective to provide you with air-conditioners, solar panels, and irrigated or imported food.
I hate flying. I have a darker imagination than most, and I’m willing to take it to the extreme. As we took off, en route to Oakland, I imagined the cabin ripping open and our heads exploding under the pressure. Burning up in igniting jet fuel, we turned into char and then ash in a matter of minutes.
When we landed in the Bay Area, I caught an Uber and headed home. We were in the first days of fall. The seaside was close, and I could smell the fresh air even at the airport. While I’ve never felt at home in California, I was glad to be back, and felt like I was in my element now. Maybe the feeling is relative.
Yet I was fooling myself if I thought I was somehow less reliant upon civilization out here than in artificial Phoenix. Even the short drives rely upon cars and freeways, and the brilliant engineering minds who developed them. What concerns me is that, while our civilization provides us with many great wonders, it is expensive and fragile. It needs constant maintenance just to get off the ground safely. Most troubling of all, it tends toward being all-consuming, spreading into every location in search of cheaper land and resources, given the opportunity by its latest technical advances. There is no escaping it. And once it has taken over a region, there is no turning back the clock, because everyone has been made reliant upon the conveniences it provides.
Phoenix epitomizes this state of affairs, and constantly reminds us of it, which is why it is more troubling than the more temperate regions of the earth. Either that, or I just hate the strong sun and heat.