Now Can We Stop Pretending California is "Green"?


With half the state yet again in flames, I find myself of two minds with respect to the residents of California. On the one hand, my heart aches or this latest crop of Californians to lose their homes in this month's out-of-control brush fires.  On the other  hand, it amazes me that, despite seeing these same fires every few months, so many Americans continue to cling to the fantasy that California is a 'green' state. 

That California routinely burns to the ground from groundwater abuse, and yet so many residents of that state imagine themselves on the cutting edge of the sustainability revolution, is one of the greatest feats of collective self-delusion in the history of the United States -- as if dropping a brick in your toilet tank, driving a Prius, and wearing organic t-shirts constituted a sustainable economy.  Well, this resident of the Great Lakes region has some advice to the Golden State:  Americans everywhere will continue to have sympathy with all those who suffer in your fires, but if you want us to take your claims to being 'green' seriously, start getting your suicidal groundwater abuse under control, California.

Admittedly, my irritation with California stems in part from the number of West Coasters, these days, giving advice to Detroit about greening the auto-industry.  I know, I know:  the Big Three auto makers are the three biggest obstacles to serious progress on new energy and resource stewardship in American industry.  If GM, Ford and Chrysler were teenagers, I would say ground them and take away their cell phones until they agree to a national compact to transform the auto industry.  Washington and Michigan should do more than hold their feet to the fire -- they should throw the Big Three in the dungeon until they get some sense.  But, honestly:  advice from California?  People who live in burning glass houses should not throw stones.

One of the Californians who gets it right is Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.  Judging from the level-headed and respectful way this long-time California Congresswoman has approached the auto industry crisis, I would vote for giving Pelosi a Great Lakes region seal of approval (if such an award existed).

Speaker Pelosi's plan consists of three basic goals that seem darned close to the balance of environment, economy, and equality advanced by the sustainability revolution:
  • Restructure the automobile companies to ensure their long-term economic viability;
  • Meet standards for fuel efficiency that ensure the competitiveness of U.S. autos, including new fuel-efficiency standards;
  • Deploy advanced vehicle technologies required to compete in the domestic and global market.  (link)

The only thing missing from Speaker Pelosi's proposal for the auto industry is a clear sense that a long-term plan for Detroit must have two distinct steps.  First, Washington and Michigan should step up to make sure the Big Three do no collapse from short-term cash flow problems, thereby preventing catastrophic job losses that could tip the entire Midwest into a a full-on economic depression.  Second, Washington must leverage the combined force of the legislative and economic branches to compel the Big Three to embrace sweeping reform towards sustainable practices -- vis-à-vis fuel use, production, and labor.  Prevent a depression, then transform the industry.  If those two steps are followed, the auto industry has the potential to radically change from problem child to ideal citizen in the wider movement towards a sustainable economy.

Meanwhile, the same kind of tough talk we hear directed towards Detroit's auto industry needs also to be directed towards California's reckless water practices. 

As Marc Reisner points out in his brilliant book Cadillac Desert, California has for centuries cocooned itself in a fool's paradise mentality.  In addition to draining what little groundwater it has like a crack addict burns through pocket change, California uses mind-boggling amounts of energy to bring in water from other states.   Those organic California strawberries sure are delicious, but the result of California's water use over decades has been the increased salinity of millions of acres of farmland.  If California keep pumping as it has been for the past century, more and more of the state's farmland will be covered in a salty film.  

Despite what Smokey the Bear taught us all about how forest fires get started, the brush fires that routinely decimate California to the tune of billions of dollars damage each year start because of depleted ground water which have left water tables dangerously low.  As a result, vast numbers of Californians live in meticulously landscaped ecological fire zones. 

And  here is the bad news:  groundwater takes millennia to return in the best of conditions, and most of California -- if left to the natural cycle of mother nature -- would revert to the bast desert wasteland that it once was when dreamers went west searching for gold.

The worst offenders, of course, are the Inland Empires of greater Los Angeles and San Diego, suburban sprawls that burst into flames so often, these days, they are a steady recipient of FEMA aid for firefighters. 

When Californians are not digging themselves deeper into their groundwater sink holes, they are burning through more auto fuel per minute than most countries on earth. 

As the Washington Post once reported, Arnold Schwarzenegger single-handedly kicked off the nation's craze for Hummers when he purchased one to drive around the parched California hills and highways.   As a result, more of these ridiculous cars roamed that state than any other place in the country.  When Schwarzenegger was elected Governor, suddenly he proclaimed the state dedicated to environmentalism. 

I am not knocking the effort Californians are making, so much as expressing fatigue at the feigned accomplishment so many Californians seem to claim for themselves as green innovators.  The fact remains that California may be a leading consumer in the new green economy, but this has not changed the fact that they are also the leading consumer in the 'not-green' economy.  

So, god bless the firefighters as they do the hard and dangerous work of bringing the California fires under control.  But for goodness sakes, California:  stop trying to convince the rest of us that you are some kind of green paradise.  

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