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On the Beach

Where do people get the idea that Las Vegas is America's city of the future?

In their usual reality-resistant way, The New York Times ran a big front-page story in the Sunday business section on all the wow-wee new development being planned for that city. The thrust of the story is that the action in Vegas has shifted from gambling to luxury housing, from "themed" hotel-casinos like Mandalay Bay and the Venetian to condominium towers, in the apparent belief that Las Vegas will become an irresistible magnet for the next wave of rich retirees -- and that there will be a more or less endless supply of them. Donald Trump is about to put up -- what else? -- the tallest building in Vegas. And a bloated corporate organism named MGM-Mirage, which already owns half a dozen of the biggest themed casinos, is about to put up a 66-acre mega condo tower project on the celebrated "strip."

It's sad to note that both businessmen and the newspapers analyzing their activities both subscribe to such a foolish and clueless vision of the future. Here's what the real score is with Las Vegas:

The city is a pathological hypertrophic suburbanoid anomaly in the middle of a desert wasteland, analogous to a deadly tumor growing in a remote part of a person's body, say the colon. The tumor of Las Vegas was established for the same reason that a tumor occurs in a body: exposure to toxins and broken DNA. In the case of Las Vegas, the main toxin has been a half-century of cheap energy. The broken DNA is present in the animating principle behind the gambling mecca, the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing.

If anything, the destiny of Las Vegas is to dry up and blow away, sooner rather than later. Here's why:

-- The global oil production peak will put an end to cheap oil and economies that depend on it. That means the end of things like casual visitors motoring in from Southern California and Phoenix. It means the evaporation of hallucinated value in abstract financial rackets like derivative-based hedge funds. It means far less disposable wealth among the population in general, and for many baby boomers it probably means the end of hope that their retirement will be funded by pensions and stock options. It means the end to cheap air conditioning and bargain hotel rates. It means bankrupt airlines.

-- The water situation in Las Vegas is dire. The city has absolutely no capacity left for expansion under any circumstances. What's more, Lake Mead, the impoundment behind Hoover Dam, is down to historically low levels, dropping a foot per week lately, and may soon fall so low that the turbine intakes on Hoover Dam no longer operate, meaning goodbye electric generating capacity. The Colorado River's flow in 2004 was 70 percent below average, and the region was gripped by a years-long drought. Climatologists agree, in fact, that the desert southwest has actually been enjoying two comparatively wet centuries and is now reverting to a drier cycle. Global warming could make it much worse.

-- As industrial agriculture withers, places in America than can't grow a substantial amount of their own food will be fucked.

The last thing that the American future will be about is mega-cities in the desert supported by lifelines of cheap oil, cheap electricity, cheap air conditioning, cheap diverted water, and cheap long-range transportation and the pissing away of financial resources for "excitement." Of course, when your national mythology is based on the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing, you'll believe anything.

The businessmen in Las Vegas and the Times business reporters are like the clueless westerners gamboling on the beach in Phuket with a tidal wave silently bearing down on them. Only in this case the wave is a permanent global energy crisis. When the wave lands in Las Vegas, the excitement will be over.

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