Getting our heads out of our past

Pop Rocket, March 2012

The flag-waving events are over, the time capsules buried or reburied, and the souvenirs are occupying temporary spaces on the shelves until they find their way into permanent homes in drawer crannies and storage units. The Arizona Centennial has come and gone. Now what?
    We've heard and read more about Arizona's brief past in the last few months than most of us are likely to hear for the rest of our lives. What's been glaringly missing for me, though, is public dialogue about the future, also known as where we're all about to be living, permanently.
    Fifty years ago Prescott Mayor Frank Tutt was burying a time capsule, but he'd also just finished building a new city hall in the latest architectural fashion and was by all accounts constantly cajoling his employees and constituents to move out of the sleepy small-town past and into an optimistic, dynamic future. We could clearly use some of that inspiration and energy today.
    I know it's a little harder to maintain that sense of optimism now. Our maturing state economy is recovering from the recession, but most of us know that the recovery will not set us back on the gangbusters growth track of the past few decades. Considering where it was taking us, I think that's a good thing overall. But we have yet to build an alternative vision for the state that inspires us and motivates us toward something better.
    You might argue that our postmodern culture effectively makes this sort of thinking and coherent action impossible, and we certainly have challenges to overcome. As Heidi and Alvin Toffler predicted decades ago, the increasing pace of change has already made our society more fearful and reactionary, leading directly to the sort of reverence for the largely mythical past that we saw in the Centennial events, as well as a political environment so reactionary that it makes satire redundant. Increasing income disparity has driven a deep gulf between the vast majority of us from the moneyed elite, causing a sense of powerlessness as we work hard just to maintain what we have, let alone get ahead.
    But the challenges of the modern world also present huge opportunities, and it's long past time that we get serious about them.
    Energy is first and foremost. The state's economy has always been based on natural resources, as minerals, precious metals, lumber and scenery. Shifting from extractive to sustainable industry will be easier here than in more heavily fossil-fuel-invested states like Pennsylvania or California. We have tremendous resources in open public lands that are unsuitable for traditional development, but very favorable for generating solar, wind and geothermal energy. We also have the most consistent, exploitable sun anywhere in the US. Combining that with our already strong technical research and development industries, we really should be the Saudi Arabia of solar.
    Arizona's climate makes large parts of the state only marginally habitable, and climate change will bring that edge into sharp focus over the coming century. Adapting to our more sustainable, lower-energy future will require our construction, architectural and building-materials industries to create structures that are ever more energy-efficient through their life cycles and healthier to live in. Arizona can show the world how to build a better house.
    Much has been made of the challenges presented by our border with Mexico. What we've generally ignored are the opportunities. Our southern neighbors offer a large, motivated industrial and agricultural work force, as well as markets and resources that can become win-win situations for all. We have to go beyond the simplistic, exploitative thinking that has crippled the maquiladora experiment and look for better ways to use cross-border economic differentials to real mutual benefit long-term.
    Our most important resource is always us, and how we think about investment in education and training will be the key to this more dynamic future. There's a lot more to it than spending money, of course, but looking for yet more ways to cut funding to schools and universities is obviously retrogressive. What our education system needs most is respect for the profession and broad acceptance that education, building strong, curious, adaptable minds in young and old, is vital to any positive future we can imagine.
    Arizona is far too young to be all about the past. The future is here. We, especially our political leaders, need to get with it.

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