Acton Institute Powerblog

The browning of the Golden State

Native Californians used to tell newcomers to the state a little joke: “Of course, California has four seasons: earthquake, brushfire, mudslide, and drought.” Alas, that dark humor is too accurate to be funny anymore. Progressive environmental policies have so deleteriously impacted the state’s ability to manage its infrastructure and husband its bounteous resources that the Golden State is withering brown.

California was once our richest and most beautiful state. It became the nation’s most populous, because it was a land of opportunity, offering second chances for struggling people everywhere – from the “’49er” Gold Rush pioneers, to Chinese immigrants, to Dust-Bowl refugees during the Great Depression, and veterans returning home from World War II. It was the site of grand infrastructure projects like the California Aqueduct that brought water from the wet north to the semi-arid south, allowing Los Angeles to grow into the nation’s second-largest city and the Central Valley blossom into the nation’s breadbasket. In the 1930s, two great bridges were built in just a few years, the Golden Gate and the Oakland Bay, opening San Francisco to easy ingress and egress with the rest of the state. The state’s extensive freeway system, built in the 1950s and 1960s, fertilized the growth of suburbs where even modestly paid people could enjoy a relaxing and enjoyable life.

Today, California has devolved into a near-Third World state of dysfunction. Like many developing nations, the lives of residents living only short miles apart often stand in stark contrast. While the coastal rich and those in Silicon Valley live bounteously in luxurious homes behind high walls, the middle class is under increasing strain, threatened with inflating housing costs and a devolving quality of life. Meanwhile, California’s once-grand cities are becoming almost unlivable, with mile after mile of homeless people living in tents on the streets. Hygiene standards have collapsed to disease-causing levels, with human feces and used drug needles befouling the sidewalks, parks, and streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. People are leaving the state in droves.

The state’s infrastructure is also buckling. In times of drought, there is not enough water to fill the varied needs of the state, and in times of deluge, there are inadequate storage facilities to capture sufficient water for use on a dry day. In two of the last three years, residents have suffered from rolling power outages, a burden that would have once been considered unthinkable. Fecund farmland in throughout the Central Valley has gone to weed.

What happened? California essentially became a one-party state with San Francisco-style progressives controlling every statewide office, as a Democratic supermajority controls both houses of the legislature. That means there are no checks and balances to slow the leftward march that in my view is ruining the state. Many of these policies are beyond the scope of this article. But progressive environmentalism, which rejects the proper balance between environmental protection and human needs, bears major responsibility for the state’s collapsing quality of life.

Let’s pause for a moment and explore the differences between a proper approach to environmentalism and the state’s current, radical policies that are causing so much harm. The philosophy of human exceptionalism should be the lodestar for all policy. Human exceptionalism and its corollaries have been integral to Western progress for hundreds of years, leading over time to bounteous prosperity, unprecedented liberty, and – starting in the nineteenth century and accelerating thereafter – policies that furthered a proper balance between human thriving and responsible environmental stewardship.

What exactly is human exceptionalism? Most often, we think of it in terms of unique human dignity, out of which flows what Thomas Jefferson identified as “unalienable rights.” But there is a concomitant principle of human exceptionalism that receives less attention, although it is acutely germane to the topic at hand.

Symbiotically linked with our unique value, as the only truly moral species, we also bear duties and moral responsibilities – to each other, our posterity, and, in the context of what has befallen California, to properly husband the environment. To put it succinctly, we have a positive duty to manage the environment responsibly precisely because we are human. But that obligation must be understood as being mediated by our equal duty to promote human thriving and freedom.

These parallel obligations often create a dynamic tension. Giving too much weight to the human side of the equation can lead to improper, short-term thinking that befouls the environment. For example, in the 1960s, environmental practices were so subsumed to economic advantage that polluted rivers actually caught fire. Allowing such filth to proliferate also violated the duties owed to posterity, as they violated basic precepts of conservationism.

On the other hand, contemporary environmentalism often disregards human well-being altogether, unduly impeding our ability to thrive from the earth’s bounty. Influenced by the anti-humanistic and anti-capitalist values of deep ecology, environmentalism began to project its advocacy beyond conserving resources, preserving uniquely pristine areas, promoting best husbandry practices, and protecting endangered species, mutating instead into a movement that either expressly or implicitly seeks to reduce human prosperity and freedom in the name of “saving the planet.” That shift explains much of what happened in California.

California has always had to grapple with environmental challenges. The state swings on a pendulum of flood and drought, fire and mudslide, bounty and want. But heretofore, commonsense development allowed Californians to grapple with and overcome the extremes. Alas, those days are long gone. Today, California suffers from a crescendo of environmentally related catastrophes that threaten the state’s once-vaunted status as a land of opportunity.

What happened? Rather than continue the time-tested and balanced human exceptionalism approach to environmental policy, radical leaders such as Governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom pushed policies that gave short shrift to human need based on the ideology of radical environmentalism and a terror of climate change – and refused to backtrack as the consequences of those decisions grew increasingly destructive.

Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center, put it this way in a phone interview. “There is a sense of [ideological] righteousness that can cause leaders to take unreasonable risks,” he told me. “The fewer costs you will personally pay” if things go wrong, “the more you are willing to indulge your ideology.” This is particularly true, Myers said, when decision-makers live in a rich environment. “When you are wealthy, the dangers seem very distant, and the costs seem very low. That can lead to a lot of self-delusion.”

Steve Hayward, resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, is even more blunt. “California has always been a place of big dreams and possibilities,” he told me by email, “but increasingly it has become a fantasy land. California’s problems are the product of magical thinking that grips the state’s political class.”

These scholars’ parallel analyses hold water, if you will pardon the pun, when we examine three of the worst environmentally related and connected crises that have roiled the state in recent years.

Blackouts: Years ago, the leaders of California came down with a bad case of global warming hysteria, deciding that the state would lead the world in combating climate change and lead a green revolution. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law requiring California’s electrical grid to carry energy from renewable resources, such as windmills and solar panels, by 2045. Never mind that wind and solar can be highly unreliable. In the calm, windmills stand useless. At night, solar panels collect no energy. Battery technology has not advanced to the point that such lapses do not matter. And never mind that natural gas has been almost solely responsible for lowering U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as the use of coal generation declined. Ideology required that electrical utilities be ordered to transform their means of generation before the time was technologically ripe.

The power companies crisply saluted and shifted their approaches to renewable power generation as demanded. Today, 33% of California’s power is generated through renewable means. Unfortunately, gas-generated power plants have been systematically taken offline, and the powers that be are requiring the state’s sole remaining nuclear power plant – which emits zero greenhouse gases – to be decommissioned in 2025, despite having decades of productive use remaining.

When an intense (but predictable) heatwave arrived in late summer, California’s electricity suppliers were unable to meet demand. The result? Rolling power outages afflicting millions of state residents.

It was all so predictable. In fact, almost a year before the blackout crisis, power grid operators warned against the possibility. As the Mercury News reported in the fall of 2019:

California’s power grid operator ominously warned that electricity shortages were likely as soon as 2020 during a big Western heatwave. The reason: The state’s historic shift away from fossil fuels such as natural gas, which provide consistent power, toward cleaner sources such as solar and wind energy, which rise and fall with the weather and the sun.

And so it came to pass. Not only have California’s elected officials not backed off on their arbitrary renewable sources timeline, they proved Meyers’ maxim that ideological self-righteousness prevents the leaders from correcting their own policy mistakes. Witness Gov. Newsom imposing a new mandate by executive order that “100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks will be zero-emission by 2035.” That means new vehicles will all have to be electrically fueled, adding exponentially to the threat of future electricity shortages in a state already running short on power.

Fires: California has burned from repeated conflagrations in the last few years. In 2018, Paradise – a bucolic town in northern California – was destroyed by wildfire, likely started by faulty Pacific Gas and Electric equipment and driven by the annual howling of the dry Santa Ana winds, which make every late summer and fall a time of acute fire danger.

The summer fires of 2020 were even worse. So many blazes raged up and down the state that the sky in coastal cities like San Francisco turned orange. Environmentalists blamed it all on global warming. Never mind that most of the fires were of human making, such as arson, power equipment failures, and even the effect of a smoke machine malfunction at a baby’s gender announcement party. The burning was, environmentalists warned, just a coming attraction of the ubiquitous destruction that climate change would soon bring down upon us all.

But is it? As the joke at the beginning of this article illustrates, brushfire is one of California’s regular seasons. I remember as a boy growing up in the L.A. suburb of Alhambra sitting with my dad on our front porch at night to watch blazes lighting up the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. Then there were the several occasions in recent decades when burning fires stretched miles from the San Fernando Valley west across the Santa Monica Mountains, stopping only when they finally reached the Pacific Ocean. The Oakland firestorm of October 1991 shocked the state by killing 25 people and burning down plush homes just a few miles across the bay from San Francisco.

Summer/fall fires are an annual threat. There is rarely significant rain from April through October in California, yellowing the grass to give the hills their distinctly Californian golden look, desiccating brushy slopes, and transforming forests into tinder boxes. August through October is also the hottest time of the year, a dreaded season when the Santa Ana winds suck all humidity from the air and raise the fire hazard to a red alert. Add in the increased development of homes into hills susceptible to fire, and the potential for catastrophic fires rises exponentially.

Still recent fires seemed different, some said – hotter and more destructive, with hundreds killed over the last several years. If so, global warming was not the primary reason. Instead, blame the refusal of state policymakers to effectuate commonsense land management techniques that left brushlands and forests choked with dead branches, bushes, pine needles, and leaves – fuel for fires just waiting to happen.

It wasn’t always so. Decades ago, a great deal of effort went into managing the brushlands, clearing “fire breaks” and removing dead timber to prevent fires from getting out of hand. But that preventative approach was supplanted by ideology. “Years ago, a bias developed in environmentalism against timber harvesting and for ‘the natural,’” Myers said. “The belief became that humans screw up everything when we try to manage natural areas. So, just let the brushlands alone, and eventually a fire will clear out things as happens in the wild.”

Of course, that is precisely what happened. But the conflagrations were obviously not the benign events that environmentalists anticipated. Perhaps they forgot that wind-driven and dry timber-fueled fires destroy everything in their path, including homes, livestock, crops, and people.

The fire catastrophes of the last few years finally made a dent in the naivete. “The left is beginning to change their thinking on how to manage the forest,” Meyers told me.

Even Gov. Newsom appears to have seen the light. While he still sings lead tenor in the climate change chorus, he also signed an executive order in 2019 directing Cal Fire to recommend better means to manage fire-prone lands. The San Diego Union Tribune reported that the agency identified “35 priority projects” that would “reduce public safety risks for over 200 communities,” including “removal of dead trees, vegetation clearing, creation of fuel breaks and community defensible spaces, and establishing access and exit corridors.” These are the kinds of action California once took routinely, before ideology supplanted common sense. The real question is whether they will ultimately effectuate the recommendations when they contrast with green ideological presumptions.

Flood and drought: In 1979, California’s population was a little more than 23 million. Today, it is more than 39 million. Yet in that entire time, California did not construct one additional, large-scale water storage project – meaning water infrastructure that once suited the state’s irrigation, livestock, and human needs has become chronically inadequate to meet its essential tasks.

What folly. California is much like ancient Egypt. Just as that nation depended entirely on the annual Nile flood to survive, so does California depend on water storage to meet its yearly water needs.

Blame California’s unique weather patterns, which depend on water saved during the wet months to maintain proper supply during the dry season, especially in the most populous south. But that is just the beginning of the story. California’s precipitation patterns are wildly erratic. In ideal years, winter storms drive south from Alaska, dropping rain in the lowlands, but more importantly, leaving a deep snowpack in the Sierra Mountains, the water from which later flows into reservoirs during the spring melt.

Water storage is even more vital in less-than-ideal years. In the years when there is an insufficient snowpack to meet the state’s water needs, stored water fills the gap. Reservoirs also mitigate flooding during dreaded El Niño years when tropical, monsoon-like storms – known locally as the “pineapple express” – scream east out of Hawaii, causing devastating floods and deadly mudslides in areas recently ravaged by fire. Ironically, reservoirs are also precious resources for fighting fires.

So, why has California not materially increased water storage for decades, whether behind new dams or by engaging in massive silt removal projects in existing structures to restore original capacity? Again, blame environmental ideology that puts human needs last. Whether it is the desire to protect fisheries, antipathy toward water-centric agriculture, or the desire to maintain or restore wild areas, California leaders have not met the task of assuring that the state has adequate water supplies to meet its burgeoning and varied needs.

Not only that, but there are political efforts afoot to tear down existing reservoirs. Hetch Hetchy, which supplies San Francisco’s water, is the prime target, because it was once a valley of great natural beauty akin to Yosemite. But other dams are in the crosshairs, too. Newsom wants to destroy four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River to help the salmon. This, at a time when many farms are withering on the vine, and state-imposed rationing policies will ultimately limit individual water usage to 50 gallons a day over the next 10 years.

Lack of funding is another cause of California’s water-storage construction drought. Building new, or improving existing facilities, is expensive. So is clearing silt to improve storage capacities in existing reservoirs. But the lack of funding has to do with misplaced priorities more than lack of money. For example, former Gov. Jerry Brown pushed voters to approve the building of a high-speed train connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, and Sacramento to San Diego – which would put even more pressure on the already-collapsing electrical grid.

Predictably, the project was a debacle, with cost overruns and the increased costs associated with long delays, now totaling at least $77 billion, perhaps more. By 2019, even a radical like Newsom had had enough, stating that the project was untenable and admitting that only the stretch between the farm communities of Merced and Bakersfield could ever be built, more than validating the train’s derogatory moniker, “The train to nowhere.”

So, now we see – in part – why California increasingly looks more like the failed state of Venezuela than its once-thriving self. It all boils down to what Myers causes a “cycle of fail-and-blame,” instead of fail-and-change. More specifically, it is a failure to appreciate human exceptionalism and the replacement of prior commonsense environmental policies with San Francisco-style, magical-thinking progressivism that led to substantial infrastructure dysfunction. If you doubt that, despite the great good it provides, ask yourself whether the California Aqueduct could ever be built today.

What a shame. What a waste. The Golden State has lost its shine, raising a question that was once unthinkable: Why would anyone want to live in California anymore?

Wesley J. Smith

Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and the author of The War on Humans.