Critique of California
So the latest news from California is this:
New fires flared up in Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino Counties on Wednesday and Thursday just as winds eased in the north and firefighters wrangling the state’s largest active blaze, the Kincade fire, managed to contain more than half of its 76,800-acre footprint for the first time.
Meanwhile The Nation Online tells us:
California Is Burning—Nationalize PG&E
It's clear, then, that the wildfires are attracting attention to America's most populous and most glorious state. The reality is that while California burns, and while California utility Pacific Gas and Electric shuts off people's electricity as a preventative measure, California's poorly-maintained electrical infrastructure sets off more fires and the capitalists profit off of all the misery while California's vast incarcerated populations are recruited to clean up the resultant mess. So, Ben Ehrenreich argues, PG&E should be in public hands. After all, they declared bankruptcy in January. What is everyone waiting for? I'll get to that in the conclusion to this essay.
More philosophically, the New York Times published a piece by Farhad Manjoo titled "It's the End of California As We Know It," which argues something along the lines of this:
The fires and the blackouts aren’t like the earthquakes, a natural threat we’ve all chosen to ignore. They are more like California’s other problems, like housing affordability and homelessness and traffic — human-made catastrophes we’ve all chosen to ignore, connected to the larger dysfunction at the heart of our state’s rot: a failure to live sustainably.
Of course, the reason why Californians don't live sustainably is that they're not looking for it. Manjoo argues this directly:
Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking.
The author's alternative is, of course, explained too simply:
To stave off fire and housing costs and so much else, the people of California should live together more densely. We should rely less on cars. And we should be more inclusive in the way we design infrastructure — transportation, the power grid, housing stock — aiming to design for the many rather than for the wealthy few.
which is why, by the end of the article, said author despairs of seeing such a solution enacted. Let me suggest an alternative narrative.
In my youth, California was a beautiful place to live, and I lived there. In my middle age, California was a place where I could live and do a few good works because it was a place where my parents lived, and my parents needed my help, or at least this was what my Mom proclaimed so loudly when she was alive. I'm sure I felt fortunate to live there even then.
Back in the day, California was the awesome place described even in Steinbeck fiction, or maybe it was what that band the Eagles sung about in that song of theirs "Hotel California" or what the Mamas and the Papas' had in mind with their song "California Dreamin'": perfect weather, perfect weather for growing anything, great access to resources, glories of nature easily accessible in desert and mountain and beach to shame most of the rest of the country, cool people (if you could find them), Hollywood, Chinatown, Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and in Oakland. For awhile Aldous Huxley lived there, before he passed away six hours after JFK was assassinated. The wise man Jiddu Krishnamurti did great stuff there in Ojai.
America's response to California was that it was, like the rest of the world, another place to make money. In the 1980s housing became a Ponzi scheme, and thus unaffordable with the wages of anyone outside of the managerial class. Politically, California became in 2016 terms a Hillary state; after spending the Nineties building up its prison system (funded I suppose by reassessments on sold properties and by its 9% sales tax) and after starving its university system of funds during the same time and thus limiting its educational options to attending overcrowded universities and taking on fantastic quantities of student loan debt. California became a place where, if you wanted to go anywhere, you had to calculate how you were going to avoid the traffic jams which operated like clockwork on the freeways. California became, in short, a place of smug, self-satisfied, property owners who didn't really care if their reality was becoming a sad joke as long as their 3br2ba residences fetched $1.1 million on the real estate markets.
Food is cheap in much of California because its big cities form a shipping nexus. I used to go to a supermarket in Pomona, California, which sold Monterey Jack cheese from a local dairy for $3/ pound. So delicious! This food-cheapness also explains why I spent thirteen years in southern California putting together a viable modified French Intensive cultivation practice, which, last I tended it, was in alternating rotations between tomatoes (and suitable companion plants) and marigolds (to make the land inhospitable for nematodes of the bad kind). Nobody in southern California really cared about what I did, except a few friends who were too busy to say "hi" more than twice a year and those who got their degrees from the college where I was doing this and moved out of state or to careers in Los Angeles or the Bay Area. California is also the birthplace of Food Not Bombs, an awesome thing if there ever was one. I participated in that, too, if anyone cared or cares.
It is not a coincidence that nearly half of America's homeless people live in California. The weather is acceptable in most of California for year-round outdoor living, and in much of the state it's just not affordable for many people to live indoors. There are also places in California where the city councils won't put forth the (nasty) effort necessary to drive the homeless out of their town; perhaps Oakland is an extreme example. Upland, California, on the other hand, posted signs on its city streets telling people not to give anything to homeless people. Its chief of police was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that the homeless were not exclusively a police problem. Nonetheless, in a country in which the bottom 40% are living paycheck to paycheck, it should be no surprise that people choose homelessness in California over destitution elsewhere.
The Atlantic piece on the current catastrophe, Annie Lowney's "California Is Becoming Unlivable," emphasizes matters of California housing while discussing the topical wildfire situation. Wildfires make a housing situation worse, the author emphasizes, because much of the development that has been going on in California for the past, I don't know, since World War II maybe, has been in wildlife-urban interfaces. (To give some historical context: when Aldous Huxley was living in Los Angeles his house burned down on account of a wildfire.)
What really has to go, if California is to be made good again, is capitalism. California was the cool place in America, because of its ideal weather conditions and because it hadn't really been intensively exploited in the way that the land Back East had. Now it's another land of gray, eventually-mass-suicidal, capitalist conformism -- maybe it can still be hacked for its wonders, but this has appeared as an increasingly difficult task for thirty years now (or at least since the 1989 earthquake collapsed much of the Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz, or even later in 2001 when they started requiring students at UCSC to take letter grades). The fires are like another coup de grace -- they might come each year, but since little changed after Paradise was destroyed (except that Paradise was destroyed), we might be reasonably led to expect that little will change in the future, except that more of California will wink out. And those parts that are still lovely? The people there will sometimes be self-absorbed fools, also sometimes adorable for their subscriptions to a few of the really cool concepts, and you might not be able to afford to hang out with them anyway.