Money is not always good for Tucson--or the environment

"Money, money, money, and what money can make of life."

That's Charles Dickens, in the last novel he finished, Our Mutual Friend, the subject of which is pretty much summed up right there.

It popped into my head the other night at a party while I was talking real estate with a friend. I have no excuse except age: Once you get to be middle-aged, and other interests begin to fade, money becomes more and more intriguing--whether you have it or not. This is especially true of money in its most substantial, not to say realest form: real estate.

What we were wondering about was the question of who in Tucson has the pelf to buy those multimillion-dollar Tuscan- and Santa Fe-style 10,000-square-foot mansions you see on the front page of the Sunday Arizona Daily Star, in the regional edition of the New York Times, and in the glossy pages of programs for local cultural events.

(The mix of ads in these last has always fascinated me: luxury homes, cosmetic surgery, garish jewelry, drug-treatment programs and camps for problem children. I can't help believing that the genuine texture of life for the rich is revealed in those things.)

Real estate isn't what my friend does, but along the way, using only her left hand, Barbara has traded up deftly through three houses into a really lovely place in the foothills and nice holdings downtown. Money is a subject about which she has more information than I ever will, but she was puzzled about who can be buying all those monster spreads. As she pointed out, you have to be way beyond plain-old millionaire status to sink $2 million into a house.

Some light was shed by a figure I'd run across a few days before: There are now more than 230 American billionaires. That's with a "b." So just imagine how many of your fellow Americans are worth $10 million now. Lots and lots. And some of them apparently like Tucson.

Some of these whales--as they call high rollers in Vegas--must be retiring here. But I'm pretty sure that most of those mega-houses are second or third homes.

And what's wrong with that? Real estate and travel sections--not to mention the "special advertising sections" that junk up otherwise respectable magazines--are all abuzz these days with enthusiasm for the second-home trend. (You'll never hear a discouraging word from those quarters. Never ever.) If owning one house is good, owning two must be better.

Yeah. Except that the energy and materials and, above all, the raw land for the marvelous, fun, status-filled second home are horribly expensive, not just in terms of money but resources. Huge, magnificent, exaggerated consumption--of which the second house is perhaps the most intrusive expression--is something we've all come to admire in this country during the last few decades, but when you think about it, it's not such a totally great thing. Humans are hard enough on the planet as it is, and we're gobbling up enough farmland and woods and desert for just first homes--which, of course, keep getting bigger and more elaborate--without every family acquiring another place or two to occupy for a few months out of the year.

Take the ad for Saguaro Ranch, a high-end development out in the Tortolitas, northwest of Tucson, in the Times Sunday magazine a couple of weeks ago. (If you've been around for a few years, you'll remember the long, bitter and, of course, unavailing fight against development up there. It's all turned out as expected.) There's a beauty-shot through the mouth of a tunnel--this is "a location so protected, a mountain passageway provides its only entry"--into a ravishing vista of hills dotted with saguaros. "Over 1,000 Pristine Acres. Over 17,000 Stately Saguaros. Only 180 Spectacular Homesites. Indulge your passion for authentic desert living. From $1.25 million." (One assumes that the "authentic desert living" bit is there because there's no visible golf course. Most Arizona real estate porn has that emerald-green, "you'll hardly believe you're in the desert" thing going.)

So if you can afford it, more power to you, right? If you can buy all that pristine-ness--before they start blasting and scraping, that is--and a view studded with fewer than 17,000 saguaros--some will have to go in the build-out--well, cool. If you and I had the cash to build a mansion up on a ridgeline, or smack in a saguaro forest, well, wouldn't we? Wouldn't we all love to be in that position?

Actually, no. Some of us who grew up with dopey, conscience-stricken '60s and '70s ideas about conservation haven't been able to get over the concept that there's something obscene about taking everything you can get, and to hell with the rest of the world.

Let's hope the house-whales deeply enjoy all that pristine-ness because, for the rest of us, what money, money, money is doing to Southern Arizona is kind of a drag.