Our Covid-era oligarchs are fitting us for feudalism.
The birthplace of environmentalism was built through meticulous application of technology.
“Pave paradise, put up a parking lot.”Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” 1970
Nothing so illustrates the mindset of green politics, particularly in California, as the word “natural,” which is taken to mean unspoiled, pure, and better than the workings of man. Yet few places are as fundamentally artificial, if measured by its dependency on human intervention, as California.
So why do California’s progressives, and so many others, yearn for what the historian Leo Marx dubbed the “pastoral ideal”? Much has to do with the state’s rapid population growth from 1.5 million in 1900 to nearly 40 million today, which resulted in a regime of environmental rapine that many still living experienced.
California would not exist in anything like its modern form without massive engineering. Largely dominated by desert, flammable, dry chaparral and high mountains, California depends on human-created technology to bring water to its bone-dry coast. It taps distant dams for the bulk of its electricity and food and would have never grown its population without this manufactured transformation of its natural environment. “Science,” as the University of California’s second president, Daniel Coit Gilman, put it, “is the mother of California.”
The Origins of Environmental Politics
Modern environmentalism rose in California, starting with the unsuccessful attempt by The Sierra Club to halt the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite to supply water to largely waterless San Francisco. This struggle presaged an almost endless succession of battles across the state over land use, energy, and water development. When the Sierra Club’s solutions seemed too tame, the Friends of Earth, also founded in San Francisco, generally pushed more extreme policies.
Over the last few decades, California greens have evolved. They started as largely conservationist, with a bipartisan base of affluent middle-class homeowners, who looked askance at development near their neighborhoods. By the late 1960s, however, the green agenda became increasingly shaped by visions of a dystopian future, epitomized by Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 Population Bomb, with its predictions of mass starvation on a global scale.
Ecotopia, published in 1975 through an obscure press, by Ernest Callenbach, an equally obscure movie critic, sold a million copies. The cult classic was followed with a 1981 prequel, Ecotopia Rising. These two books tell the story of a successful secession by greens in the northern coastal areas from the rest of the polluted, dystopic United States on the other side of the Sierra.
Ignoring the costs and trade-offs
The architects of our green policies often ignore both nuance and inevitable trade-offs. In coverage of fires, the legacy media mindlessly repeats Governor Gavin Newsom’s claim that the conflagrations are caused by climate change. Predictably, the New York Times suggests that California is “ground zero for climate disasters,” while the claims that California now fights not just fires and droughts but “climate despair.”
Yet in reality, the problem is far more complex, and implicates the state’s mismanaged forest policies. As the left-leaning Pro Publica has revealed, the fires were made far worse by enforcement of green policies . There have been constant lawsuits against hauling away old growth, particularly dead trees. Even sustainable logging has been largely banned. California’s naturally combustible landscape , left on its own, would burn many times more than even the worst fire season .
The Green Jim Crow
Equally missing is a clear appreciation of the economic effects of the state’s green policies. Historically, California’s public works—the freeways, aqueduct, power stations—were designed to grow the opportunity horizon for the majority by boosting the economy, creating opportunities for new production, and forging new communities. The current policy agenda, in contrast, has proven catastrophic for many middle and working class families.
Attorney Jennifer Hernandez has demonstrated in a recent report for the Breakthrough Institute what she calls “the green Jim Crow.“ Pushed by overwhelmingly white billionaires, these policies have escalated housing and energy prices, driving jobs and people out of the state. This has hurt minorities in particular, she claims, “deepening the state’s shameful legacy of racial injustice.”
California’s high energy prices reflects the results of the state’s obsession with renewable energy and the rapid elimination of fossil fuels. As a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report suggests, overreliance on renewables imposes costs, as seen in both Germany and California. Wall Street and tech oligarchs may be profiting from “clean energy” investments, but average Californians, primarily in the less temperate interior, find themselves falling into energy poverty. Black and Latino households are already forced to pay from 20 to 43 percent more of their household incomes on energy than white households. Between 2011 and 2020, the state’s home energy affordability gap rose by 66 percent, while falling by 10 percent in the rest of the nation.
Instead of drilling and processing oil here in the state, California, with enormous energy reserves, has emerged as the largest U.S. importer of energy and oil, much of it from Saudi Arabia and, before that, Russia. It’s not just oil workers being displaced, but other
blue collar industries—manufacturing, construction, energy—that have traditionally employed ambitious, upwardly mobile working-class people of all races. Governor Newsom has expanded credits for entertainment, a key source of progressive support, but most industries have not been so lucky. Since 2008, a Chapman University report suggests, California has created five times as many low-wage as high-wage jobs and has the nation’s highest poverty rate, adjusted for costs.
The Water Crisis
Modern California relies on massive transfers of water from the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley and the coasts. These systems, all engineered in last century, provided the basis of the state’s agricultural and urban expansion. But in recent decades green proponents have blocked increases in water supply, favoring instead a regime of vigilante-enforced rationing, while boosting diversions into San Francisco Bay.
We may not be suffering, as the newspaper hysterics suggest, the worst drought in 1,200 years, or even the past decade, but lack of supply has become a real issue. Already some towns, notably Cambria, face a cutoff of their water supplies. Most significant, however, is the cutoff for farmers; new groundwater regulations alone could see 700,000 acres sidelined. This is in the face of already considerable gains in water conservation; in southern California per capita consumption is already down 50 percent over the last quarter century.
If one assumes that climate change means drier conditions, the logical response would be to upgrade the infrastructure. But the greens prefer austerity to adaptation. Even Jerry Brown’s plans to rebuild the state’s water capacity elicited hostility from his green allies. The effect has been to reinforce scarcity, refusing to even consider new dams or desalinization plants, or even spending money on voter-approved new water storage projects. One would think that the state that invented the semiconductor, spearheaded space travel, and is inventing the metaverse could also address this water problem, which has plagued the state on and off for the last 150 years.
Going Nowhere Fast
A similar sense of unreality impacts transportation. For years, the green lobby and their allies among the political class have regarded freeways and cars as evil. But this is how over 90 percent of Californians get around, and there are few signs that will change. Transit, the state’s priority, was declining, particularly in Los Angeles but even in the ultra-green Bay Area BART had stagnated in the decade before the pandemic, and since then has struggled to achieve even historically low levels of ridership amid a surge of crime.
Despite these drops, California continues to push development in the few areas of the state where transit is a major factor, while seeking to discourage growth in the vast majority of the state which relies overwhelmingly on cars. The state also continues to pour yet more billions in the much delayed, massively cost-overrun “bullet train,” which is not likely to even connect the major metropolitan areas for at least a decade and which carries a price tag two and half times higher than the project that received public approval.
The era of major freeway expansions (particularly as the state is losing population) may well be past. But the state has done little to improve existing roads, now considered among the worst in the country. The state’s transportation woes could worsen as the state is looking to go all-electric in the next decade, with the elimination of gas powered cars by 2035. Yet there is little consideration how the expanded demand for electricity for EVs can be met in a state that already faces regular power shortages.
Once again, the burden for green virtue will fall on the middle and working classes. One critic suggests this could leave California like Cuba, filled with old rickety but affordable gas-powered automotive dinosaurs. At a time when electric vehicles cost more than $50,000, Newsom’s executive order banning the sale of internal combustion vehicles by 2035 and the elimination of gas-powered stoves, water heaters, lawn blowers, and furnaces elicited criticism by some Latino voting-rights advocates, who claimed these policies would require “us, or our landlords, to make investments we can’t afford.” A similar objection was raised by African-American assembly member Jim Cooper. “How will my constituents afford an EV?” he asked on the day the order was signed. “They can’t. They currently drive 11-year-old vehicles.”
Science or Religion?
When asked to justify their policies, environmentalists and their supporters claim to be disciples of “science,” Yet they often miss practical, and less socially damaging, approaches to climate issues. For example, we now have an excellent tool, via home-based work, to reduce emissions both in cities and suburbs, the only parts of the state still growing. Employing technologies developed largely in California, other states and countries are expanding at-home work instead of working to limit it.
Californians are getting a raw deal from the green elite. Housing policies seek forced density for climate reasons but research shows it may be less energy efficient than the suburban housing which is also widely preferred. At the same time, the state’s energy and housing policies are pushing production of EVs, batteries, and semiconductors to other states and countries. The designers in Irvine or Palo Alto may do well, and investors even better, at least over time, but there seems little chance of developing the blue-collar jobs that would make a big difference in Fresno, San Bernardino, or south Los Angeles.
The state’s climate fundamentalism has to be seen more as a gesture than a salve for the planet. Between 2007 and 2016 California, despite its climate policies, reduced its greenhouse gases at a rate 40th per capita among the states even without counting the impact of the fires. Similar failures can be seen in Germany , whose policies Newsom wants to follow, where much heralded “Energie Wende” have led to soaring energy costs but disappointing results in emissions declines. Even if successful, the impact on global climate of California’s “leadership,” notes one recent study, would be almost infinitesimal, particularly once you add the greater emissions when people and companies move to less temperate states and countries.
Back to the Engineering Solutions
Unless it restores its engineering tradition—applied to innovations other than advertising sales, surveillance, and video games—Californians will continue to suffer high housing and energy prices, and a diminished opportunity horizon for most. We can do better. There are new, bold ways to address water shortages—through more advanced wastewater recycling, desalination and even tapping the excess water being generated in the Midwest. If we want an electric future, we can boost energy through expansion of a new generation of nuclear plants, expanded hydro, and judicious development of cleaner-burning natural gas. This seems a better bet than the current renewables-only strategy, whose price tag approaches $80 billion with no prospect of easing prices or supplies.
There are tentative signs that reality is breaking into the cloisters. Governor Newsom, faced with a potentially devastating energy shortage this summer has reprieved the execution of Diablo Canyon, the state’s last remaining nuclear plant and allowing some gas plants to remain open. We can avoid the mistakes of the past, which helped create our smog problem and high-energy consumption, while still investing in physical improvements in water, power, transport, and communities across the state.
Rather than genuflect to extreme greens, it’s time to be bold in ways that actually help Californians as well as the planet. California has the innovation and financial capacity to do all these things, given the presence of so much engineering talent and a skilled workforce. We need again to be innovators, not only in the lab but also in how we provide water, power, and opportunity to our communities.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.