Travis was trapped. Here he was, at the tail end of a long winter, attending a party designed as a doldrums pick-me-up, and he’d been cornered by a lonely, combative environmentalist.
“…and the particulate matter reaches levels higher than anywhere else in America. That’s not an exaggeration. It really is the worst. And you know what? The solo driver is the primary cause,” the young man opined.
The party was just getting started and, like many parties in the Mormon Mecca, was rather tame compared to more festive locales. The house itself was large, about the same age as its guests, and designed to concentrate everyone on the main floor. Most guests were standing, it still being early, and grouped into pockets of smiling conversations featuring mixed genders. The music had not yet been turned on. Bottled beer was the beverage of choice for those drinking, though watered down to 3.2% alcohol by weight in accordance with Utah law. That law, of course, illustrated the type of repressed thinking common to the state, not creative enough to imagine consuming more than one serving of beer to achieve the level of inebriation desired. Kegs, of course, were not legal for residential use in the state. Repressed thinking was Utah’s primary export.
Travis glanced around the room, appreciating the general merry-making but noting the absence of the fairer sex in his vicinity. He knitted his eyebrows in mild irritation as he responded.
“Cache Valley has inversions with a fraction of the population,” he said. “It’s a natural phenomenon. We’d have them even without the cars.”
Travis disliked inversions as much as anyone else. They were dreaded, disgusting and too common. During the worst of them, the Wasatch range in Utah - one of the most beautiful places on Earth - was bathed in a pollution haze more like Beijing than the Rockies. But Travis also disliked blowhards at parties. He was being obnoxious to prompt a reaction.
“Yes, of course they’re natural phenomena,” said the environmentalist, “but they’re so much worse today than even fifty years ago. Hey, my name is-”
“Nobody was tracking particulate matter with any precision, if at all, fifty years ago,” Travis interrupted. “How do you know it’s gotten worse?” Looking away from the conversation, Travis saw a very pretty girl directly across the room that he wished he were talking to instead.
“Read the newspapers from that time. Review the weather records. Talk to locals who lived then. By the way, I’m Mar-”
“Have you read those newspapers? Seen those weather records? Talked to those locals?” Travis’s sparring partner kept trying to introduce himself but Travis wouldn’t let him finish.
“There was an article in the Tribune just yesterday about this,” said the environmentalist. “There were charts of data, historical quotes, interviews, the whole thing.”
“That’s nice,” Travis dismissed. “But have YOU gone to the source material? Have YOU researched this yourself, or are you just parroting what you’ve read?”
The young man smirked. It doubled the level of condescension he projected. “I appreciate what you’re saying. We do need to hold the media to a high enough standard to have confidence in it. But this isn’t just one guy’s opinion - there have been dozens of articles and stories during the last 15 years from a variety of sources talking about this. Just look outside if you need evidence - we’re having an inversion right now. I’m Marc, by the way.”
Damn, Travis thought. Marc accomplished the introduction by dropping his name into the beginning of a sentence. Travis didn’t make eye contact to confirm receipt. The girl was now in the middle of the room, substantially closer and correspondingly prettier than before.
“Well, the inversions aren’t so bad,” said Travis, vigorously waving a red flag in front of the bull.
“Dude. Not so bad? I saw you cough as you walked in the front door. Your body is reacting to the pollution as we speak.”
So that’s how I ended up stuck in this conversation, Travis thought. I had the nerve to cough in front of a guy on an environmental mission. Travis switched gears.
“It doesn’t matter. The problem will solve itself in a few years when everyone has self-driving electric cars. Fewer cars on the road, less internal combustion, less pollution from them.”
Travis liked self-driving cars. He particularly liked the idea that humans created machines from materials pulled from the earth that were autonomous enough to serve them. It felt like universal mastery.
“Fine, let’s imagine that all the cars are electric and their pollution disappears,” said Marc. “Heavy industry is the next culprit. This is still a mining town. The pollution from Kennecott is 30% of the state’s total air pollution. That’s as much as all the traffic that runs up and down I-15 during the day. We need to tackle that next. You may not have heard me, but my nam-”
“Mining brings jobs to the area,” interrupted Travis, ignoring Marc’s outstretched hand. This wasn’t a friendship he wanted to cultivate, despite Marc’s persistence. Travis could smell the lonely on him at this distance. Or maybe it was patchouli.
“It contributes value to the residents here. Mining’s not going away,” Travis said firmly.
Now this was a topic Travis cared about. The Kennecott mine, currently operated by the mining conglomerate Rio Tinto, was a big employer in the area. It was also awesome - awesome in the sense that it was enormous, with gigantic machines turning raw earth into valuable materials - and so large that it was visible from space (in addition to being visible from any location in the Salt Lake Valley). Travis had been obsessed with the mine as a child and was no less awed by it today.
“The mine is a blight,” countered Marc. “The human impacts from the toxic chemicals they use are horrible. There are birth defects at several times the natural rate in Daybreak. They’ve destroyed that section of the Oquirrhs. How is any benefit worth that?”
The Oquirrh Mountains are a range just to the west of the city, and pronounced O-ker. It was a perennial Scrabble winner in the region for the eight people who still played Scrabble. The two mountain ranges, the Oquirrh and the Wasatch, created the valley in which air pollution becomes trapped, which causes strident environmentalists to spontaneously pop into existence, cornering disinterested bystanders in conversations at parties whenever the ozone rises to unhealthy levels.
“It’s worth the jobs for everyday people and the economic development for the region. Without the profits from mining and its support activities, the city might not even be here,” insisted Travis.
Marc looked smug. “Did you know that Kennecott doesn’t even turn a profit from copper mining? All that work pulling metals out of the ground, all that environmental damage, all that particulate matter, and they don’t make any money from it.” He looked expectantly at Travis, who took the bait.
“OK,” said Travis. “So how do they make money? They’re profitable.”
“Their money is made from the occasional rare mineral or gem found in the process. So much waste to make a profit from baubles in rich peoples’ jewelry boxes.”
Travis didn’t know this. And, contrary to Marc’s intentions, he found the idea that there were also jewels in the ground - ground that he’d been walking on his whole life - totally engrossing. He would later confirm Marc’s assertions with some online research.
“That’s fantastic! What kind of jewels?”
Marc didn’t expect the question. His face lost its smugness and morphed into determination.
“The point is not that there are jewels in the ground. The point is-”
“No, that’s exactly the point,” Travis interrupted yet again, increasingly engaged in the conversation despite his best intentions. “All that mining activity to produce metals that drive industry and development around the world, sold at a cost and in a quantity that doesn’t create profits, but do they stop the operation? No! Instead of giving up, they take a side-effect of their activities and turn it into financial gains. They take an ugly, dirty, incredible process - the digging, hauling, and smelting of subterranean material - and turn it into beautiful objects, jewels to make humans feel valuable, the handling of which creates even more jobs and economic activity. Our ingenuity is an amazing thing.”
Travis could see that Marc wasn’t prepared for this conversation after all. He was interested in complaining about impending doom, not optimism or a celebration of the human spirit. He wanted to paint a picture of the end of civilization and then fantasize about being the hero, bringing the evil polluters to their knees as he and his environmentalist friends saved the world. Travis, in contrast, drew a picture of man’s potential, of finding beauty in the muck. It wasn’t so much a counter-argument as operating along a different thread of thought entirely.
“If you really think mining is impressive, have you ever seen those big earth hauling trucks up close?” Travis was startled to discover the pretty girl was now speaking to him from his immediate left. Apparently she’d heard his anti-environmental sermon and hadn’t run away screaming. She was so much prettier up close than from across the room.
“No, but I’ve always wanted to.” He turned to the girl, effectively pushing Marc out into the cold, forgotten.
“My dad manages a mining heavy equipment center,” she said. “He has contacts at Kennecott and mentioned just yesterday that they’re almost done assembling a new truck. Want to see one up close and personal?”
“Seriously?” Travis could hardly believe his luck. Those haul trucks were incredible, inspirational even.
“Seriously,” said the pretty girl.
“I’m totally in. When can we go?”
If he or the pretty girl had thought to break eye contact, they could have watched a crestfallen Marc abandon his target and slink toward another corner of the party.