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As Utah County buys into a tech-centric future, what is the cost?

The Adobe headquarters, back left, and other commercial developments that make up the Silicon Slopes around the Point of the Mountain in Lehi are pictured on Wednesday, May 16, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A few years ago, I attended a meeting about preserving farmland in Utah County. One of the audience members pressed the speakers about whether preserving farmland was worth it, especially in the case of Provo, which was bleeding businesses to more corporate-friendly cities. He argued that if Provo sought to preserve food production, it would be further hampered in its ability to compete with the comparative advantage of its neighbors. He warned that Provo was in danger of being left out of the spoils of Silicon Slopes, the booming tech industry along the Wasatch Front.

The rise of Silicon Slopes has been extraordinary, but from a longer historical viewpoint, the very name Silicon Slopes tracks with a shift in perspective that has occurred over the past two centuries. As historian Jared Farmer argues, the Native Americans living in Utah Valley did not see the mountains as the primary feature of the landscape; instead, their perspective was dominated by Utah Lake and the Provo River, which — though hard to believe now — were abundant sources of food. In fact, it was fishing expeditions to Utah Valley that kept the first pioneers alive in the Salt Lake Valley.

As Utah Lake lost its vibrant productivity, due in large measure to overfishing, industrial pollution and watershed disruption from irrigation and overgrazing, it also lost its cultural significance. Mount Timpanogos became the dominant cultural landmark for most Utah residents, and if you’ve grown up here, it’s a bit shocking to learn that our lake was anything but some smelly, murky carp aquarium.

The dissenter at the farmland preservation meeting represents one step further in this historical trend, only now we have the metaphor of Silicon Slopes to supplant the physical mountains themselves as our cultural touchstone. The price of building Silicon Slopes is not cheap: It has required the sacrifice of literal mountains, which we have ground up to feed our metaphorical ones. There is no actual “Point of the Mountain” anymore.

Over the past two decades, we have razed more and more of the remaining orchards and farmland, hauled off the topsoil, compacted the ground, and sealed it all with concrete and asphalt. This is not easily reversible. We trust the tech industry’s promises of high-paying jobs and an ever-increasing tax base, and so far, these promises have been fulfilled. The economic growth has been amazing. The buildings erected up and down the Wasatch Front are indeed great. They are quite spacious. But if things continue at our current pace, our grandchildren (if they can afford to live here) will end up looking back and observe that we have made this valley of abundance into a desert and called it progress.

Residents of Utah Valley are fond of saying they live in a desert. The fact is, it’s an oasis. Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley recognized decades ago that Utah Valley was one of the only places for 500 miles around where you can grow fruit trees, thanks to its longer growing season and water supply. If you look at any vacant lot in town, you can see the beginnings of forest succession springing up without the least bit of human help. Despite years of land speculation, the range war and stripmalling, you can still see this valley’s verdant potential.

Even if you love the tech sector, you can agree that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. It isn’t just productive capacity we lose when we lose all the farmers. We make ourselves so much more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of global market shocks and attenuated supply chains. Thanks to SARS-CoV-2, many more of us now know what food rationing at grocery stores looks like.

The tech companies will be around as long as the tax breaks remain competitive and good-quality employees are willing to come live here. But it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how our current cultural landscape is increasingly distanced from the realities of its physical landscape. We continue along this path at our peril.

What happens when the affordable housing crunch really hits? When our way of living outstrips the watershed resources? Or when the air quality becomes so abysmal that no one wants to live here? The financial capital flow will find cheaper and more enticing locations elsewhere, but only after it has sucked up as much of the natural and human wealth of this place as it can.

When that time comes, we may find resonance with the words of Alanis Obomsawin, who said, “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

You can’t eat silicon, either.

Andrew Skabelund is an aspiring subsistence farmer in Central Utah. He holds a Ph.D. in African history from The Ohio State University.