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Go West, young man

| 01 May 2019 | 01:05

    Adjusting to life in the bizarre, breathtaking Red Rocks

    By Jacob Straus

    In January I drove my trusty Subaru from Dutchess County to Chapel Hill, NC to train for a job in solar development. From there I headed West, traversing the dullest part of the country to reach the most spectacular: the vast geological wonders of Moab, UT, where a one-bedroom apartment and a three-man satellite office awaited me.

    Moab is a wonderful and bizarre place. Because of its remoteness, a five-hour drive from Denver or Salt Lake City, the people who live here are a curious cross-section: nature lovers seasonal and permanent: dreadlocked river rats, climbers with steel-cable forearms, off-roaders whose vehicles look like all-terrain tanks with mattresses in back; service workers who compete for the few off-season jobs and then drown in work March through July; Mormons with a penchant for hiking; and the recent college grads who staff the Moonflower Food Co-op, the town’s AmeriCorps contingent, and the Youth Garden Project, Moab’s only resource for food education and composting. For a small rural town there’s a decent mix of political viewpoints and cultural origins, a healthy serving of libertarian self-sufficiency mixed in with the back-to-basics communalism discussed in the Community Rebuilds bunkhouse or over campfires on Bureau of Land Management territory (it’s free, and you can camp anywhere!). The town ends up swinging progressive, a tiny blue blip in the vast center-red ocean of Utah, mainly as a result of its lower than average Mormon population.

    I’ve never lived anywhere more remote than a two-hour train ride to Manhattan, so living here has taken some getting used to. It was easy acclimating to the low cost of living and breathtaking trail runs; less so the lack of climate consciousness. Despite my best efforts to shop locally there are only so many shops in town, so I ended up ordering a lot of apartment-ware online while moving in. My first week here I was lamenting the ever-growing stack of boxes in my kitchen when my boss said offhandedly, “Living here means more waste.” He was right—the city of Moab doesn’t even recycle yet, though a municipal program is coming in June. Over an unpleasant, cardboard-splintery hour I tore all the packing tape from my pile of boxes, flattened them out, and drove them up Sand Flats Road to the community recycling center, where I tossed them onto a forklift before sorting my bag of plastic, paper and glass.

    Needless to say I can’t wait for the city program—it’ll even be single-stream! It hasn’t been a frictionless process getting the town on board, though. Several packed public hearings were dedicated to the issue, and I’ve seen at least one hand-lettered sign displayed in a front lawn asking why the government thinks it can put its sticky fingers in our pockets for $12 more per month. The town backpedaled from mandatory recycling to an opt-out system, which I think is a fair compromise. Though I believe everyone should be obligated to recycle, I’d also rather alienate as few people as possible while ramping up to 100% participation. The other, and larger, problem is that the nearest recycling facility is in Denver. I don’t know how the environmental economics work out: is diverting a truckload of junk from the landfill worth the carbon emissions of a ten-hour round-trip drive, and then the shipping to whoever buys the bales? It surely will be once all our trucks are electric, and one shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but it still seems wasteful.

    I often ponder a similar question in my own life. I’m building a career in sustainable development, with the idea that eventually the good I do will outweigh the damage of living an American lifestyle (and hopefully eke out a few more decades before the Big World Fire). I certainly haven’t tipped that balance yet. Maybe once the work I do leads directly to the decommissioning of a coal plant in favor of a solar facility, I’ll consider my debt to society at least partially paid. Until then, and even once I’ve checked a few of those boxes, living in Moab will be just as wasteful as it is breathtaking.