Eric Ewert: Utah’s true religion is growth

FILE--In this May 23, 2017, file photo, construction continues on new buildings in Vineyard City, Utah. New state population estimates show Utah is continuing to grow, but demographers say it isn't just the state's well-known high birth rate that's driving the increase that made it the country's fastest-growing state last year. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, file)

Next year’s decennial census will confirm what we already know; Utah’s population is growing like crazy.

Each year the state vies with Nevada and Idaho for the “fastest growing state in the nation" mantel. The last two years we lost by a fraction of a percentage point. But the year before, in 2016, it was Utah on top. So far for the decade, Utah wins the overall growth award, and that’s what it feels like: a competition.

Utah relentlessly encourages growth. In fact our entire system is predicated on adding more people, houses, jobs, roads, businesses, schools and everything else to support the growth machine. In this calculus, to not grow isn’t just losing, it’s considered a failure. This growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of a cancer cell.

Our political, business and community leaders are zealots for growth. They proselytize on behalf of expansion at every opportunity. In fact their entire legitimacy hangs on their ability to grow the economy and deliver everything that depends on it like taxes, customers, students and voters. If they don’t deliver growth, their tenure tends to be short lived. In this way, growth is more like an addiction than a religion. Apparently, our entire system can’t exist without it.

There is a huge disconnection here, though, because when you ask most people about the rapid growth, they have nothing good to say about it. They complain about the traffic and the air quality and the diminishing water supply and the loss of open space and the crowded schools and the overwhelmed recreation sites and the rising cost of living. No one who has lived in Utah a long time would say about the past, “gosh, there just weren’t enough people back then.”

Won’t we all have the same lament 20 years from now?

The growth tonic is everywhere. Utah’s tourism offices and industries, for example, have so successfully promoted the “Mighty 5” National Parks that Arches considered a lottery system to limit entrance at peak times and Zion had to turn people away after 1-2 hour wait (4.5 million visitors per year now make Zion the nation’s fourth busiest park). Park rangers report that fist-fights for limited camping spots are common, and popular hiking trails resemble the ride lines at Lagoon. And what is the growth people’s response to this severe overcrowding: promote all of the monuments and state parks in between the Mighty 5 so that they can be ruined, too.

To the champions of growth, one has to ask, when will it be enough? When I-15 has eight lanes of traffic going each way? When you spend more time in a lift line then actually skiing? When our winters are intolerable weeks of red air days? When the once Great Salt Lake is nothing more than a saline sludge pool surrounded by miles of toxic dust flats? When Utah classrooms average 50 kids per teacher? When we get another professional sports team or area code? When Salt Lake International Airport has non-stop flight activity? Will that be enough?

The University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute projects the state population to double to 6 million by 2065. Can you imagine twice as many people living here?

The problem with the growth machine is that it’s never enough. Salt Lake City already looks like Denver. Denver looks like Phoenix. And Phoenix is well on its way to emulating Los Angeles. Have you ever driven in Los Angeles? Would you want to live there? My Boise, Idaho, friends are now worried about being the next Salt Lake City.

Well, unless you’re OK with the cancer killing the organism, how can we slow the avalanche of population growth in Utah?

It’s easy; just stop encouraging it. Stop advertising our parks and monuments nationally and internationally. Stop offering subsidies, tax breaks, and handouts to business who move here. Stop recruiting retirees and technology workers. Stop incentivizing growth and development. Stop the “Epic Ski Pass” which will allow any pass holder anywhere to ski here for free. Stop having so many kids. And stop measuring success and progress only in terms of growth.

Somehow, Utahns have to reconcile quantity of life with quality of life. As long as we aim for more of the former, we’ll have much less of the latter.

Eric C. Ewert, PhD

Eric C. Ewert, Ph.D., is a professor and the chair of the Department of Geography at Weber State University.