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California: Waking Up Is Hard to Do

California remains emblematic of the American dream – and of how that has become a nightmare.

Smog over Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Steven Buss)

California, the state I call home, is part of a global economy deeply divided between rich and poor and addicted to cheap energy, limitless growth and mindless consumption. Worse yet, as it burns through the Earth’s remaining reserves of precious hydrocarbons, it is doing untold damage to the life support systems that sustain us.

It’s been three centuries since the indigenous people who once dwelled on the land we now call California lived in enduring, self-reliant communities. The invasion of Europeans annihilated this way of life. After the Mexican-American War ended two centuries of Spanish and Mexican rule, the Gold Rush supercharged the process of plunder for profit. A horde of fortune hunters invaded the golden state from around the globe, tying California’s destiny to the United States and the industrial revolution. Within a few generations, this invasive species of new Californians had ransacked and reshaped the landscape to make it conform to their quest for profit and progress.

Long after the Gold Rush panned out, California remained a promised land. Its natural abundance made it the richest state in the wealthiest nation on Earth and a Mecca for those seeking fame and fortune. Farmers grew bumper crops of every kind in its lush soil; fishermen, lumberjacks and miners enriched themselves on its bounty. California’s scenic beauty and diverse landscapes became spectacular backdrops for the movies that made Hollywood famous; and its sunny climate, thriving economy and affordable suburbs drew people like a magnet. California became synonymous with the good life and renowned worldwide as a land of milk and honey.

Behind the scenes, hydroelectricity and petroleum fueled the state’s rapid industrialization and electrified its sprawling cities, linked by complex networks of power lines, railroads, highways and harbors. A vast hydraulic infrastructure of dams and generators, canals, aqueducts, reservoirs, pumps, levees, irrigation ditches and sewers drained and diverted distant watersheds, produced electricity and transported water and power hundreds of miles through deserts and over mountains to meet the insatiable appetites of agribusiness, industry and urban sprawl. Soon a dense network of gas stations, roads and freeways supported nearly as many cars as people.

The profit-hungry economic system Europeans imposed on California has always been deeply divided between those who owned the productive wealth of the state and those who worked for them. By controlling California’s natural resources and its agricultural, industrial and financial wealth, a small corporate elite has dominated state politics as well. But they have not ruled with impunity. Over the years their hegemony has been repeatedly challenged by those who have suffered under their shortsighted penchant for profit and power.

In the early years, this took the form of labor unrest and populist movements to break the railroad barons’ control over Sacramento by democratizing state politics. During the Depression, working people enthusiastically campaigned for, and nearly elected, a socialist governor whose program called for unemployed workers to collectivize idle factories and farms and to produce for use rather than profit. In recent decades, minority communities and students have resisted war, poverty, racism, police violence and the bankrupting of the state’s public education system; farm workers have fought for labor justice and immigrant rights; and environmental activists have shut down nuclear power plants and organized grassroots campaigns to protect the environment, grow food organically and promote clean, safe, renewable energy.

Many good people have fought to defend and preserve the golden state’s natural beauty, which can still be found in its parks and wilderness areas. But the last 160 years of “progress” have taken their toll.

California’s ecological abundance has been drilled, pumped, dammed, mined, plowed, paved, poisoned and clear-cut. Many of its native species are endangered or extinct, including the grizzly bear, which is now found only on the state flag. The state’s verdant wetlands and ancient Redwoods are nearly gone; its enormous oil and mineral reserves are history; its aquifers have been drained; its waterways are dammed, diverted and polluted; its topsoil is exhausted and contaminated by pesticides and chemical fertilizers; and its residents inhale some of the dirtiest air on Earth.

Today, California is part of a profit-driven global system that must plunder and pollute the planet on an ever-grander scale to survive. Major sectors of the economy like agribusiness, tourism and construction depend on cheap labor drawn from outside the state. California’s hydroelectric and fossil fuel reserves have peaked and can no longer support its insatiable demand for energy.

The state must import an ever-larger portion of its electricity, oil, natural gas and fresh water. In addition, the pollution generated by this high-energy lifestyle now threatens to disrupt the global climate, with disastrous consequences for everyone, including Californians. Over the coming decades, California may begin to look more like Nevada as climate disruption decimates the state’s fresh water resources by reducing Sierra snow pack and imposing extended periods of debilitating drought. Yet our state is the largest emitter of climate disrupting gases in the United States, which is one of the worst greenhouse polluters on Earth.

Clearly, the California dream has become a nightmare – it’s time to wake up! But waking up is hard to do.

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