Las Vegas – Lessons for Environmentalists – Part 1

Posted on August 1, 2012

I have just spent an entertaining couple of days in Las Vegas. I came away with many different thoughts on environmental issues. “Huh!”, I hear you say. “Is there any place on earth more focused on sheer consumerism and waste, and less environmentally conscious than Las Vegas?” Maybe not. But there are still lessons to be learned.

The overwhelming feeling I and many have when visiting Vegas is the sheer scale of the enterprise. Our hotel had no less than 30 restaurants and endless retail outlets. The casino floor covered tens of thousand square feet. You could walk indoors and feel you were in a large outdoor piazza. The theaters are massive. And on it goes.

Vegas processes millions of tourists (though still many less now than before the downturn). It does so with an efficiency that would make the military proud. Bookings by the concierge were the most efficient I have experienced anywhere.

But the most surprising thing of all is that all of this is being delivered in the middle of the desert.

The vision I have outlined above will make most environmentalists cringe in horror and disgust – a situation not much improved by the little leaflet in the room that promised that our hotel was the greenest building in Vegas. But that’s not the point I would like to focus on. The reality is that one cannot but fail to be in awe at what has been created, in the middle of the desert, by human ingenuity, outsized imagination and sheer commitment. It’s clich├ęd but true that only in America could such an enterprise have been created on this scale; a scale simply unimaginable anywhere else.

And herein lies the tragedy for the environmental movement. Transforming our world into a sustainable, low carbon yet prosperous place is an enterprise of gigantic scale. America is one country that has the vision, technology, self-belief and relentless drive that could enable such a transformation. Yet the US is, politically, not yet fully committed to the environmental cause. Where it is, it has shown the way. America’s National Parks are unrivaled anywhere in the world on so many levels that it impossible to list them here. They are part of the American psyche and Americans’ sense of self in a way that other environmental causes are not – yet.

The failure to bring America on board is a tragedy for the environmental movement. That tragedy is not counted in emissions, but rather in the missed opportunity to bring to the table the resources, imagination and sheer scale of thinking that we need for the global transformation that we would like to see. This has to change. Achieving that is not a matter of stubbornly expecting Americans to dance to the environmentalists’ current tune (we know that will simply not happen). Rather we need to explore ways to make the broader environmentalism as appealing to the American psyche as are, say, National Parks.

We can only achieve meaningful change on a global basis by harnessing the ingenuity, imagination and ability to think and execute on a massive scale that is available from the only country to have put a man on the moon.