I have been doing research for a nonfiction book. The exploration led to an inmate in a minimum-security federal prison in Colorado. He is doing seven years for a white-collar crime. I sent him a letter and, after some months, I received a brief response in which he agreed to answer my questions. But, as more months passed, he proved to be an unfaithful correspondent, so I decided to drive to the prison and tape record an interview.
In order to make a visit, my name had to be added to his approved visitors’ list. To that end, I completed a detailed application, mailed it back to the prison and made travel plans. Three days before leaving Salt Lake City, I learned my application had disappeared. In the ensuing telephone conversations with prison officials, I found myself caught in a thicket of unyielding regulation: no weekday visits permitted; no tape recorders or notebooks allowed; no visits from people who hadn’t known the inmate prior to incarceration.
That last one was an insurmountable obstacle. My only recourse was to invoke the privileged status of a journalist, whereupon I was referred to the media-relations office. To a humorless woman there, I explained I was a freelance writer doing research. She responded by quoting chapter and verse from prison regulations. Media access to inmates is limited to reporters from “general-circulation dailies or national news magazines.” I’m trying to write a book, I said. “Send us a copy of your publishing contract,” she replied.
Stymied, I appealed to reason, fair play and empathy. I could write a letter to the warden, she allowed. He has the authority to grant exceptions to the regulations. I was in Colorado, in view of the sprawling prison complex, when I learned my appeal had been denied. In my final call to the warden’s office, an executive assistant gave my case short shrift. “We have to be careful,” he said soberly. I suppressed the impulse to challenge him with a “careful of what?” retort.
Reluctantly, I accepted the fact that my trip to Colorado had been for naught, and in that moment, I accepted responsibility for stumbling over my own faulty assumptions.
Thus, the caution here is personal. This is not a story about bureaucrats’ slavish regard for outdated regulations or their cover-your-ass decisions. No, the caution is the recognition that our lives are shaped by assumptions of which we are largely unaware. Some are minor. I was wrong to assume all inmates would delight in writing letters; wrong to assume I could drop in like a home teacher to chat with a federal prisoner. Other examples abound: young people assume multitasking is a benign and useful practice. Their elders assume water in plastic bottles comes from pristine mountain springs. Too many others assume the Earth’s oil deposits are bottomless.
Other assumptions are insidious. Take, for example, Utah’s assumption that growth is good and its impact can be mitigated by technology, master plans, xeriscape, God’s grace and solar panels built in China.
It is a fatally flawed assumption—“the myth of endless growth”—avers my friend Tom Horton, a journalist who has spent 40 years writing about our increasingly degraded environment.
You need only look to Utah County to find flawed assumption working like a hidden gyroscope. The state’s second-largest county has a population of 531,000, up 44 percent in the last eight years. The average commuter drives 40 minutes a day, which contributes to a ranking among the worst places in the United States in four categories of air pollution. Each resident uses about 230 gallons of water a day, three times more than the average American, mostly on his or her lawn and garden. By 2050, the population in the Provo-Orem area will swell to 1.1 million. If current trends hold, only 25 percent will live in multi-unit housing. At the same time, climate change—regardless of the cause—will be manifest in drier summers, warmer winters and reduced snow melt—in other words, less water in our reservoirs, less water to flush our toilets, less water for luxuriant lawns.
Illimitable growth is a siren song in this, the second-driest state in the nation. Nevertheless, ranchers in the arid reaches of Snake Valley have turned a deaf ear to honeyed assurances that billions of gallons of water can be pumped out of an underlying aquifer without consequence. But Las Vegas desperately needs the water. Without it, the allure of endless growth will fade in the desert sun until only the desiccated husk of assumption is left behind.
When I was in the Army, I overheard a sergeant dress down a subordinate who had used “I assumed” to explain away a mistake. The sergeant loudly divided “assume” into its component parts—“ass” and “u” and “me.” “When you assume,” he barked, “you make an ass of you and me!” My trip to the federal prison was a dumbass move. Had I challenged my assumptions, I would have saved a few hundred bucks, a day’s drive and a bout of frustration. Taken in context, however, it was trifling chump change in comparison to the staggering cost of the growth-is-good assumption in Utah (where water is scarce and air pollutants are not). Today’s dumbass decisions bode ill for our children’s quality of life, if not for our own. We need to bring our thinking in line with population growth, and build mass transit, not freeways; energy efficient houses, not McMansions; cities, not suburbs. When it comes to water, Las Vegas is cautionary tale in its own right. There, homeowners are being paid to get rid of their lawns.
Private Eye is off this week. Respond to Rasmuson at firstname.lastname@example.org.