In the May 3, 2015, issue of the New York Times, I ran across a long article entitled “The End of California?” The piece was all about the widespread shortage of water now presenting severe problems for the Golden State, and its analysis was optimistic. Serious reorientation would be necessary, the author emphasized. For example, California would need to adopt the kinds of water regulation and conservation already in effect in Australia and Israel and would have to shift away from water-wasting crops like almonds and cotton and rice. But the state’s enormous capacity for re-invention would carry it through.
And yet, in spite of his balanced approach, the author of the Times article felt a need to address the sense of glee evident among many observers of California’s problems. In a sub-headline, the article stated, “Ingenuity created an Eden, and ingenuity will save it, despite those who imagine the state is doomed.” And the author predicted that his analysis would be “disappointing to those with schadenfreude for the nearly 39 million people living in year-round sunshine.”
The Times article reminded me that obsession with the idea of possible Apocalypse in California is very old and has been evident both among outside observers and residents. Emotional tension between the ideal and the real was already implied at the time of the arrival of Spanish explorers, who named the region of California after a mythological queen Califah who would preside over a utopian realm. A similar tension was built into the Gold Rush of 1849 and the rapid spread of agriculture that followed it. Some people discovered gold but many did not. The land brought bounty to many farmers, ranchers and loggers but frustrated the hopes of others. In 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake fixed the notion of California’s impermanence in the minds of millions, not only within the state but also around the world. Thoughts about disaster in California are by no means unrealistic. The state contains topographic features that remind one of great change in past geologic eras, like the extinct volcanoes of Mt. Diablo near San Francisco Bay and Mt. Shasta in the north.
Everyone knows about the San Andreas Fault and its branches that extend for hundreds of miles.
Longtime residents of California are familiar with the climactic alternation, approximately a decade long, between heavy rain and flooding on the one hand and dryness that creates drought on the other. Failure to notice the realities of nature is nearly impossible.
The problem is that millions of people try very hard not to notice them. That is the source of all the social commentary. In Biblical terms, willful ignorance is a sin. In scientific terms, failure to respect natural laws is very unwise. In economic terms, risk based upon faulty analysis is folly. Numerous commentators have addressed California’s failures to respect these truths. In the Biblical category, criticism usually starts from the fact that California does, indeed, look and feel a lot like the landscape of the Bible. It has large arid regions and beautifully clear skies and scenic mountains in the distance. It has pines and cedar trees. One can grow figs and dates and grapes. Palm trees do very well. But, as critics point out, California is also Biblical in less friendly ways. It is subject to drought and plagues of insects. Its deserts are purgatorial. The state may resemble Eden. But Eden contains dangers. It is not Heaven. Moral awareness is required. Forgetting this fact leads to trouble.
One of the writers who issued such warnings was Nathaniel West, in his novel The Day of the Locust (1939), a haunting castigation of the sinful ways of Hollywood during the boom years of the movie industry. The book ends with an earthquake and building collapses that recalls the destruction of the Temple in Samson’s time. The title of the novel is self-evidently a use by the author of a Biblical allusion, intended to warn all who presume to violate God’s laws.
Probably the most famous author to have criticized California through Biblical allusions is Joan Didion. In all of her works, including Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and the autobiographical Where I Was From (2003), Didion draws upon her Episcopalian sensibility to paint a picture of her home state as a place of great beauty and creativity harmed by its lack of a moral center of focus and failure to take the long view. She is very interested in symbols of impermanence, such as the stage sets on Hollywood film lots and the flimsily constructed beach houses along the Pacific shore, which suggest that California’s achievements are all temporary. In Where I Was From, Didion goes so far as to declare that the effort to achieve a “California Dream” turns out to have been disturbingly misguided.
Criticisms of California from the scientific point of view have also been numerous. One of the most powerful was The Destruction of California (1965), by the forestry biologist Raymond Dasmann. The author wrote at a time when California and the United States were emerging from the over-emphasis upon material values and industrial expansion that had reached its height in the late 1950s. Dasmann provided a detailed catalogue of the ways in which Californians were squandering the state’s natural bounty, as they cleared forests, burned grass cover, allowed sheep to overgraze, eroded the soil, failed to regulate mining, turned redwood forests over to lumbermen, and failed to plan for proper zoning of urban areas that were growing rapidly due to large influxes of new residents.
Dasmann’s catalogue sounds very familiar today, almost trite, but that is because the problems he identified have only been partially addressed. His book was widely read at time of publication. Indeed, the fact that Dasmann’s warnings were heeded at least partially is one of the reasons that California’s problems of growth have not been worse.
A famous example of California criticism from the economic point of view is the work of the great journalist and historian Carey McWilliams (1905-1980), author of numerous works including Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946), California: The Great Exception (1949), and hundreds of articles and essays, many of which are collected in Fool’s Paradise: A California Reader (2001).
McWilliams wrote informatively and powerfully about many things, including the beauty of California’s landscape and architecture, the extreme contrasts between dark and light in its literature, the intrigues of its politics, and tensions between democratic openness and race prejudice. But his comments on the fundamental flaws in the state’s economic structure may be his most enlightening contribution. In McWilliams’ view, California’s economy was a prime example of exploitative oligarchy. Instead of acting responsibly, its elite aggrandized wealth and did very little to improve the conditions of the state’s population as a whole.
For McWilliams, the prime example of the pattern was agriculture, which he examined relentlessly in his great work Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California (1939), one of the earliest studies to provide extensive documentation of the ways that underpaid, ill-housed ethnic laborers, Hispanics especially, were being used as the basis for a network of latifundia based on low wages, subsidized supplies of water, and exhaustion of the soil. McWilliams warned that such a society, divided evermore extremely between masses and a small wealthy class at the top, would eventually explode. Disillusioned with his home state, McWilliams left California after the Second World War to pursue a highly successful career in journalism in Washington DC, where he observed many of the same economic patterns he had noticed in his home state. At the time of his departure McWilliams offered negative observations about California that were both broad in their vision and also petty; he noted, for example, that irrigated civilizations all come to an end, and that all the promotional advertising about California fails to acknowledge that the state is full of fleas.
Calling attention to California’s fragility is vitally important. But so is attention to two other characteristics. One is the fact of long-term endurance that is part of the state’s inheritance. Anyone who has toured Big Sur or the Redwoods can see that many of the best features of California are as old as time. The rocks along the shore may slowly erode, and a tree or two may die after a thousand years, but for human needs, certain features of the state’s landscape offer more than enough permanence.
The other feature of California life that should not be ignored is its incredible adaptability. In the May 17, 2015, issue of the New York Times there are two articles exemplifying the kinds of news stories about California’s inventiveness that appear all the time. One of the articles describes increasing national interest in the experience of hiking the Pacific Trail, “probably America’s greatest hiking trail,” which stretches 2,650 miles from the desert border of California in the south all the way to the Canadian border, winding through cactus and redwoods, crossing rivers and following the edges of mountains, presenting hikers with wildlife ranging from bears to rattlesnakes to mountain lions to soaring birds. The Trail offers serenity and the chance to be alone if one wishes, but also democracy and opportunities for meeting people of all backgrounds in groups that form spontaneously along the way, with hikers sharing their diverse impressions and forming new friendships. The Times article argues that the growing popularity of the Trail shows how California continues to be a leader in finding ways to learn from and enjoy Nature, for example in the recent institution of a permit process that limits new thru-hikers to no more than 50 per day, and the customs that have formed regarding such activities as sharing scarce water and making certain that no trash is left behind.
The other exemplary story in the May 17 issue of the Times, given the top spot in the paper as the headline item in the upper right hand corner of page one, is a lengthy comparison of California as it was in the 1950s under Governor Pat Brown, and as it is today under his son Jerry Brown. Brown, Sr., had to craft ways of serving a state challenged by enormous population growth and post-World War Two desires for abundance. Brown, Jr., on the other hand, sees his job as managing the consequences of the earlier era, which he is doing by leading statewide discussions of tradeoffs regarding the future and by enforcing rationing and limited budgets, but also by continuing to champion selected large projects such as a high-speed train route between San Francisco and Los Angeles and construction of two large underground pipelines that will carry water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the south of the state. This kind of combining old and new is likely to be California’s way of moving toward a new future.