It could be we are in a remote part of space that no one cares about. We are the Moose Jaw of planets.
The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.
There are a lot of interesting hypothesis of why we haven’t had our first contact. The following is the scariest.
There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location.
This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.
“You came, you shopped, you dressed nice – you went to the mall. That’s what people did,” says Lawless, a pseudonymous photographer who grew up in a suburb of nearby Cleveland. “It was very consumer-driven and kind of had an ugly side, but there was something beautiful about it. There was something there.”
Gazing down at the motionless escalators, dead plants and empty benches below, he adds: “It’s still beautiful, though. It’s almost like ancient ruins.”
Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish.
According to longtime retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, numerous midmarket malls, many of them born during the country’s suburban explosion after the second world war, could very well share Rolling Acres’ fate. “They’re going, going, gone,” Davidowitz says. “They’re trying to change; they’re trying to get different kinds of anchors, discount stores … [But] what’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money. That’s it. This isn’t rocket science.”
Of course it didn’t help that they were built with no urban planning principles in mind.
For mid-century Americans, these gleaming marketplaces provided an almost utopian alternative to the urban commercial district, an artificial downtown with less crime and fewer vermin. As Joan Didion wrote in 1979, malls became “cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes”. Peppered throughout disconnected suburbs, they were a place to see and be seen, something shoppers have craved since the days of the Greek agora. And they quickly matured into a self-contained ecosystem, with their own species – mall rats, mall cops, mall walkers – and an annual feeding frenzy known as Black Friday.
“Local governments had never dealt with this sort of development and were basically bamboozled [by developers],” Underhill says of the mall planning process. “In contrast to Europe, where shopping malls are much more a product of public-private negotiation and funding, here in the US most were built under what I call ‘cowboy conditions’.”
Shopping centres in Europe might contain grocery stores or childcare centres, while those in Japan are often built around mass transit. But the suburban American variety is hard to get to and sells “apparel and gifts and damn little else”, Underhill says.
Same thing in the largely empty Confederation Mall. The mall emptied out after rents skyrocketed in Saskatoon. What used to be disposable income is now needed for rent. In that way, malls are a reflection of the economic health of the surrounding communities.
The Illuminati-sounding Drinking Water Inspectorate found traces of the drug’s metabolized form, benzoylecgonine, at four inspection sites, peed out by coked-up Brits and not completely removed during water plants’ “intensive purification treatments.” The scientists also found trace amounts of caffeine, epilepsy medication, and pain-killer ibuprofen.
Steve Rolles, from the drug policy think tank Transform, told The Sunday Times that the findings were an indication of the scale of the use of the drug in Britain today. “We have the near highest level of cocaine use in western Europe,” he said. “It has also been getting cheaper and cheaper at the same time as its use has been going up.”
According to the charity DrugScope, there are around 180,000 dependent users of crack cocaine in England, and nearly 700,000 people aged 16-59 are estimated to take cocaine every year in Britain.
There are more than 300 of them in New York — violent crews of dozens of 12- to 20-year-olds with names such as Very Crispy Gangsters, True Money Gang and Cash Bama Bullies.
Police say these groups, clustered around a particular block or housing project, are responsible for about 40 percent of the city’s shootings, with most of that violence stemming from the smallest of disses on the street, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
“It’s like belonging to an evil fraternity,” said Inspector Kevin Catalina, commander of the New York Police Department’s gang division. “A lot of it is driven by nothing: A dispute over a girl or a wrong look or a perceived slight.”
The trend of smaller, younger crews has also been seen in Chicago and Northeast cities over the last few years as police have cracked down on bigger, more traditional gangs, experts said. While the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings still exist, operating such money-making schemes as drug dealing, their members are usually older and understand the timeworn mantra of organized crime: violence is bad for business.
Not so for the crews, whose recklessness prompted former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in 2012 to launch an initiative to confront the crews dubbed Operation Crew Cut.
Investigators now focus on gathering intelligence about specific crews — understanding their activities, allegiances and feuds, which they glean through traditional street policing and trolling of social media sites, cellphone photos and even recorded jailhouse calls.
Police have also stepped up arrests of the most active crew members. In Manhattan, prosecutors set up an internal email alert system that notifies them when crew member are arrested, even on minor charges, and provides beyond-the-rap-sheet details for bail arguments. The prosecutor might mention that the person was a suspect in another crime or had made threats on Facebook, for instance.
In a recent case in Harlem, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. says a 2009 killing kindled years of vendetta attacks, including three killings and 30 shootings. Sixty-three people were rounded up, and at least 62 entered guilty pleas, including crew members so young that one told another to “mob up” after school.
“The evidence was very powerful,” said Robert Anesi, who represented a 19-year-old who pleaded guilty to attempted murder and conspiracy charges in the case last week. “They had such access to social media and they knew who the players were.”
NYPD statistics show gang arrests are up citywide nearly 14 percent from 2013 — and more than 28 percent from two years ago. Shooting incidents citywide are about the same as they were last year, with 282 recorded so far, and are down by nearly 23 percent from two years ago.
Still, crew-related violence persists despite record dips in overall crime in New York City over the last few years. The most notable recent case came in March when investigators say a 14-year-old member of the Stack Money Goons shot a .357 revolver at a rival member of the Twan Family on a crowded bus in Brooklyn. The bullet instead killed an immigrant father who was working two jobs to support his family.
“When you ask young adults, ‘Why? Why did you shoot that young man?’ Probably 80 percent of the time the answer is: He disrespected me,” said Kai Smith, an ex-con-turned-businessman who runs a gang-diversion program in city high schools.
“As people become more health conscious, and more interested in cooking ‘fresh,’ that’s not helping microwaves,” Owen said. “It’s leading to lower sales.” The interest in cooking is more than a movement; it’s a national phenomenon. Even major grocery chains have noted upticks in sales as a result.
Growth in sales of microwavable popcorn are also slowing, while sales of ready-to-eat popcorn are growing at an over 11% clip. Why microwave junk food when you can get it pre-popped? Americans are at once too patient and too lazy to use their microwaves these days.
Go into your neighbourhood Safeway or Sobey’s one of these days and look around. When I was a kid, most of the aisles were full of things for my mom to make and cook. Now the aisles are increasingly full of things that are already cooked. Wendy will tell you that at even 33rd Street Safeway can’t keep up with the demand of pre-cooked chicken, soups, and fries at supper time. Even a small store has a deli which will make you sandwiches and a variety of food like samosas and salads. We may want to cook but many families don’t have the energy or time to do it anymore.
A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer. As playgrounds become “safer”, they lack to the ability to hold a child’s attention which in some way explains why so many playgrounds are devoid of children.
It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?
Does Seattle know how to grow?
You’d think so, with all those construction cranes back and so many mega-projects underway. We’re about to get expanded light rail, a new waterfront, a massive downtown tunnel, a super-sized 520 bridge, and a Mercer Mess that has been tidied up after 50 years of complaining. Growth would seem to be the least of our problems.
But there are some who think these endeavors are not enough. We could do more, do it bigger, do it better and, they believe, we had better get to it because we’re facing big economic challenges. Boeing, for example, has become a constant worry. The company is doing a slow retreat from Puget Sound, and keeping key parts of Boeing’s work here is getting increasingly expensive for taxpayers. Some $9 billion in new tax breaks have been offered to keep 777X work here. Even so, without a major transportation package and with major union concessions just voted down, Boeing is looking for a better deal elsewhere.
Another foundation of our economy is showing signs of change, and age. Microsoft has reached maturity and experienced enough marketplace failures (Vista, Zune, Surface) that a major management shift is underway. We’ve grown accustomed to Redmond being a perennial powerhouse and millionaire-generator in the Gates-Ballmer era, but will that roll continue?
Seattle sees itself as a special incubator of the next big commercial success — and the new Bezos family-funded “Center for Innovation” at the Museum of History and Industry that opened this fall is a shrine to this self-image. We’ve scored with Starbucks, Nordstrom, Costco and Amazon, for example. But in the tech sector there’s some thought that we haven’t reached our silicon potential, that we’re over-due for a new major success a la Google or Facebook.
Sure, we’re a pretty good place for start-ups, but Seattle tech booster Chris DeVore recently wrotethat while Seattle is pretty good at launching companies, “It’s been a long time since a new Seattle-based company produced a huge windfall.” He means a company, like Microsoft or Amazon, that lifted employees and investors by generating lots of wealth. “If I had to put my finger on the one thing we could do to improve our weak ‘startup rate,’ it would be to produce more explosive wins in Seattle…” he wrote. That would benefit start-ups and companies all up and down the food chain and generate money to invest in new ventures. Apparently, the tech sector needs a new blockbuster.
Another voice encouraging Seattle and Washington to take it to the next level is Microsoft executive vice president and general counsel Brad Smith. In October, he addressed the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s annual Leadership Conference, an appropriate place for business leaders to inspire the team with a growth-oriented Gipper speech. I also had a chance to talk with him afterwards. In his speech, he said “[I]f there is a moment in time when we can come together and focus on raising our ambition, I think that moment is now.” With the state recovering economically, with greater global competition ahead (China, Brazil, South Carolina…), and with so much potential here, we need to get going, and set our sights higher.
To that end, his Gipper — or maybe "Skipper" — speech cited a nautical example. It was inspirational achievement of the University of Washington rowing crew who beat the odds to win a gold medal in 1936. These were local boys who had to raise their own money during the Depression to go to Germany, who had to race under rules that favored Hitler’s rowing team, and who took on the task of making America proud at the Nazi’s infamous Olympic Games. “It’s a reminder of what nine young men from humble background could achieve when they reached beyond themselves and worked as a team,” he said.
- Because you loved her enough, but you didn’t love her right. You weren’t attuned to your daughter’s emotional state as a child, and now, she has difficulty connecting intimately with other human beings. It’s not that you meant to handicap her. You may even have a bit of a problem with authentic intimacy too, and it’s probably an intergenerational issue, so look to your mom and dad for answers as to how the cycle started in the first place.
- Because you were her friend, and not her parent (Hello Baby Boomers!). You never set solid parental boundaries, and you failed to teach her about her right to have her personal boundaries respected. Your permissive parenting led to her low self-esteem and crappy social skills. There are four major parenting styles, and I hate to tell you, this one is not the best.
- Because you got divorced, and it was ugly. I don’t even need to discuss the damaging effects of a nasty divorce because these statistics are known. However, if you still think it’s cool to get divorced and drag your kids through the mud because children are resilient, or won’t notice how poorly you two treat one another, think again. A study by Paul Armato shows that children of divorce continue to score lower academically, and in the areas of “psychological adjustment, self-concept and social competence.” Furthering this concern, a 2002 study in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that adolescents from mother-alone or mother-absent homes are more likely to become sexually active at a young age, risk taking behavior that is compounded by substance abuse and lack of social support. Yes, there are situations in which divorce is best for all, but the process by which divorce happens is delicate and negative consequences can have lasting effects.
- Because you raped, beat, or neglected her. Or someone close to you did. Though plenty of women who were abused as children do not go into porn, many women who have been abused (physically, emotionally or sexually) do participate in sexual risk taking behaviors. Even though a recent study found no link between pornography and child abuse, ample research on prostitution and child abuse provide insight to correlates of selling sex. A 2012 study on juvenile entry into prostitution explores the far-reaching consequences of abuse incurred in childhood, and the suggested pathways associated with entering prostitution (i.e. the selling of sex). Of course, this statement shifts the focus from the real argument, and can turn this point into a new argument about whether prostitution is equivalent to participating in pornography. I would suggest looking up the legal definition of prostitution, which states very simply that prostitution is “the act of offering one’s self for hire to engage in sexual relations.”
- Because you are a prude — or a total slut — and you didn’t have a good handle on your own sexuality. Your lack of self-knowledge may have led you to inadequately educate your daughter about sex, either teaching an abstinence only or laissez-faire approach. Statistics on abstinence-only programs show this approach to be ineffective. And if you divorced, letting the men (or women) you subsequently dated run in and out of your life (and your daughter’s life) taught her that significant others, and people in general, are exchangeable. Kids need the truth about sex, and reliable sources of adult support and attachment. This article addresses the issues in both point four and five.
- Because you let her watch insane amounts of television. There is a cost to letting the media raise your children. Even an hour over the average 72 minutes most children watch per day can cause great damage.
- Because you gave her a smartphone when she was 10, and now she takes awesome #selfies all day. With every picture she takes to post to her social media sites, she becomes less sensitive to the idea of her images floating around on the web. Studies show that higher social media use is correlated with narcissism. Sexting is a booming practice, and a gateway technology usage that might lead to appearances on Internet porn sites. You can be fairly certain that your daughter has either thought about sexting, or has friends who do it.
- Because her friends want to be porn stars, Playboy models, the Bachelorette or any other exaggerated and hyper-sexualized version of a real woman, and you aren’t close to her friends. When a child has excessive contact with her peers and loses touch with safe adult attachments, the likelihood increases that she will become an addict, as mentioned in addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté’s recent book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. I think it’s possible that the problems arising from being raised by her peers can also lead to other harmful and immediately gratifying behaviors, like participating in porn.
- Because you never showed her a healthy way to fill the spiritual void that is quintessentially human. Isn’t it interesting that girls leave porn because they’ve found religion? It happens every day, even to girls who were considered to be “the world’s hottest porn star.” Money, sexual exploration, and false adoration didn’t provide personal fulfillment like spirituality did.
I saw you on the Manhattan-bound Brooklyn Q train.
I was wearing a blue-striped t-shirt and a pair of maroon pants. You were wearing a vintage red skirt and a smart white blouse. We both wore glasses. I guess we still do.
You got on at DeKalb and sat across from me and we made eye contact, briefly. I fell in love with you a little bit, in that stupid way where you completely make up a fictional version of the person you’re looking at and fall in love with that person. But still I think there was something there.
Several times we looked at each other and then looked away. I tried to think of something to say to you — maybe pretend I didn’t know where I was going and ask you for directions or say something nice about your boot-shaped earrings, or just say, “Hot day.” It all seemed so stupid.
At one point, I caught you staring at me and you immediately averted your eyes. You pulled a book out of your bag and started reading it — a biography of Lyndon Johnson — but I noticed you never once turned a page.
My stop was Union Square, but at Union Square I decided to stay on, rationalizing that I could just as easily transfer to the 7 at 42nd Street, but then I didn’t get off at 42nd Street either. You must have missed your stop as well, because when we got all the way to the end of the line at Ditmars, we both just sat there in the car, waiting.
I cocked my head at you inquisitively. You shrugged and held up your book as if that was the reason.
Still I said nothing.
We took the train all the way back down — down through Astoria, across the East River, weaving through midtown, from Times Square to Herald Square to Union Square, under SoHo and Chinatown, up across the bridge back into Brooklyn, past Barclays and Prospect Park, past Flatbush and Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, all the way to Coney Island. And when we got to Coney Island, I knew I had to say something.
Still I said nothing.
And so we went back up.
Up and down the Q line, over and over. We caught the rush hour crowds and then saw them thin out again. We watched the sun set over Manhattan as we crossed the East River. I gave myself deadlines: I’ll talk to her before Newkirk; I’ll talk to her before Canal. Still I remained silent.
For months we sat on the train saying nothing to each other. We survived on bags of skittles sold to us by kids raising money for their basketball teams. We must have heard a million mariachi bands, had our faces nearly kicked in by a hundred thousand break dancers. I gave money to the beggars until I ran out of singles. When the train went above ground I’d get text messages and voicemails (“Where are you? What happened? Are you okay?”) until my phone ran out of battery.
I’ll talk to her before daybreak; I’ll talk to her before Tuesday. The longer I waited, the harder it got. What could I possibly say to you now, now that we’ve passed this same station for the hundredth time? Maybe if I could go back to the first time the Q switched over to the local R line for the weekend, I could have said, “Well, this is inconvenient,” but I couldn’t very well say it now, could I? I would kick myself for days after every time you sneezed — why hadn’t I said “Bless You”? That tiny gesture could have been enough to pivot us into a conversation, but here in stupid silence still we sat.
There were nights when we were the only two souls in the car, perhaps even on the whole train, and even then I felt self-conscious about bothering you. She’s reading her book, I thought, she doesn’t want to talk to me. Still, there were moments when I felt a connection. Someone would shout something crazy about Jesus and we’d immediately look at each other to register our reactions. A couple of teenagers would exit, holding hands, and we’d both think: Young Love.
For sixty years, we sat in that car, just barely pretending not to notice each other. I got to know you so well, if only peripherally. I memorized the folds of your body, the contours of your face, the patterns of your breath. I saw you cry once after you’d glanced at a neighbor’s newspaper. I wondered if you were crying about something specific, or just the general passage of time, so unnoticeable until suddenly noticeable. I wanted to comfort you, wrap my arms around you, assure you I knew everything would be fine, but it felt too familiar; I stayed glued to my seat.
One day, in the middle of the afternoon, you stood up as the train pulled into Queensboro Plaza. It was difficult for you, this simple task of standing up, you hadn’t done it in sixty years. Holding onto the rails, you managed to get yourself to the door. You hesitated briefly there, perhaps waiting for me to say something, giving me one last chance to stop you, but rather than spit out a lifetime of suppressed almost-conversations I said nothing, and I watched you slip out between the closing sliding doors.
It took me a few more stops before I realized you were really gone. I kept waiting for you to reenter the subway car, sit down next to me, rest your head on my shoulder. Nothing would be said. Nothing would need to be said.
When the train returned to Queensboro Plaza, I craned my neck as we entered the station. Perhaps you were there, on the platform, still waiting. Perhaps I would see you, smiling and bright, your long gray hair waving in the wind from the oncoming train.
But no, you were gone. And I realized most likely I would never see you again. And I thought about how amazing it is that you can know somebody for sixty years and yet still not really know that person at all.
I stayed on the train until it got to Union Square, at which point I got off and transferred to the L.
Lowe Campbell Ewald is moving 600 people to Detroit to be a part of the rebirth of the city and I love the video they announce it with. After you watch the video, I want to know why more cities don’t do stuff like this. Where is the video making the pitch for Saskatoon and being part of the boom and still shaping the city while you can?
Why closed-down stores?
The idea went back to 2005 when I drove weekly past a large closed supermarket on the North Side of Chicago. At night the space really transformed from one of neglect and misuse to something incredibly visual that described a Rothko-esque painting space divided in three parts (parking lot, building, and sky). I spent a few nights making some photographs to try and replicate what I saw. I had been working on a larger project dealing with American consumerism, and it was no surprise to me that these spaces would fail and dwindle as fast they arise. I was in the midst of a deeper project, photographing in thrift stores and recycling shops as part of my “Copia” series, so I shelved the idea.
At the end of 2007 with many rumblings of recession, I thought of those pictures and began the project in earnest in May of 2008. In many senses it was a vindication of what I had been talking about in my earlier work. How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? It’s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail. What’s strange is how ingrained the brands and spaces are to us that so many were not only surprised to see major retailers and malls sink but were saddened. Many of these ideas were set in motion decades ago.
Don’t criticize me for posting this, I am from Alberta after all.
The drivers of the trucks are here for the same reason I am: the boom in drilling for oil and natural gas. The vast, dry lands south of Vernal hold about half of the state’s active rigs and present a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities for energy extraction: shale aplenty, fracking for both oil and natural gas, and even the state’s very own poised-to-open tar sands. Uintah County has been Utah’s main oil producer for more than 70 years. As far back as 1918, National Geographic extolled the area’s potential: “Campers and hunters in building fires against pieces of the rock had been surprised to find that they ignited, that they contain oil.” In other words, what is happening here is no nouveau drilling dalliance, no young sweetheart in first flush, freshly wooed, like the Bakken Field in North Dakota, but an on-again, off-again affair that has been going on for decades.
It is that affair that interests me, with all the salacious details of how Big Oil sidles up to a town, flirts with it, and wins it over. Not to mention what happens if — or, more accurately, when — the wooer decides to ditch the wooed.
In Vernal, population 9,000, evidence of earlier wooing abounds. A quick ride around town reveals Big Oil’s equivalent of a dozen roses or a box of candy. There are shiny new schools and municipal buildings and ballparks. The Western Park Convention Center, covering 32 acres, is one of the largest buildings of its kind in the West. Not every town hosts a golf tournament called Petroleum Days or throws a music festival — like last summer’s weekend-long Country Explosion — co-sponsored by a maker of centrifuges and mud/gas separators. Then there’s the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College, a beautiful sandstone building with the streamlined look of a brand-new upscale airport.
On my first visit to Vernal, in the heat of July, I peeked in on a class called Well Control, where a movie was being shown that, unlike the grainy safety films of my youth, had the production values of a Spielberg movie. There were models of oil derricks in the lobby, with the name Anadarko, the giant Texas oil company that is one of the area’s main employers, prominently displayed. In this case, Anadarko’s particular bouquet was a $1.5 million gift for construction and faculty endowment.
It was a short drive over to the rec center, a looming spectacle of oaken beams and concrete and great sheets of glass that revealed within Olympic-size pools and running tracks and climbing walls and squash courts. It looked as if Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Shorter had gotten together to build their dream house. This building points to one of the less obvious ways the town has been wooed. While Anadarko alone paid $14 million in county property taxes last year, the total income for Vernal and Uintah County from oil and gas far exceeds this number, as a result of sales tax, production taxes, mining royalties, and lease payments on federal land. In other words, the building is not a gift outright but the metaphoric equivalent of Big Oil saying, “Here, honey, go buy yourself something nice.”
It starts out well
“When I first came here in the seventies, it was a beautiful place,” Herm said. “A lazy Main Street lined with cottonwoods. The old booms had faded, and the two top businesses in town were agriculture and tourism. People came to see the dinosaur quarry at the park. People came to float on the river.”
He held out his large hands, palms up. “And what are we left with now?”
Certainly not tourism. A tourist would be hard pressed to find a hotel room in Vernal. In fact, while oil jobs and the services that support them have been rising, the numbers of people employed in agriculture and recreation have fallen dramatically.
And then there were the busts. Herm remembers the last one. Storage lockers of people’s possessions being auctioned off. Houses foreclosed. He is not against drilling, he told me, but what is lacking is perspective and long-term thinking. The problem is exemplified by the archetypal Vernal high school student who drops out, lured by the chance to make money working in the oil fields, and buys a house, a big truck, some ATVs.
“What happens if that job goes away?” Herm asked. “He is left with no education, many debts.” In fact, at the public meeting where Herm questioned the oil orthodoxy, a boy just like that stood up and said, “If we don’t keep drilling, how will I pay for everything?”
Herm wasn’t trying to drive oil out of town. He was merely suggesting that Vernal proceed with some restraint and consider investing in the future. For that he was greeted with fury, even death threats.
Over the past 40 years Herm had seen Big Oil bring its gifts, and its gifts were shiny. But he had also seen oil and chemicals foaming and floating down the Green River. He had seen rising crime, prostitution, spousal abuse, and a culture defined by the twentysomething males who come to work the oil fields. (Utah has a higher incidence of rape than the national average, and Vernal has a much higher rate than the state as a whole.) Air quality has dramatically worsened; last winter’s ozone levels in the county rivaled those of Los Angeles.
All this has made Herm a little less giddy than most about Vernal’s prospects.
“I’ve been through it before,” he said. “They come into your neighborhood. They change your neighborhood. Then they move away. And we’re left to pick up the pieces and pay the bills.”
The party does always end but it’s going to be going on for a while, even in towns like Vernal. Yet even in Alberta, the party may not end, it may be occasionally interrupted.