Is California a Canary in the Coal Mine?

About present ecological problems in the Sunshine State, Patrice Aymes presented her own take on what is going on (Burn California, Burn… The Price of Hypocrisy?). Her perspective is from that of being a Californian, apparently from the specific location of Central Valley in Northern California. She argues that the main problem is urban sprawl. Based on that working hypothesis, she speculates the situation could be remedied by simply enforcing more dense urbanization and so disincentivizing large houses in areas that are difficult to protect against fire. Besides that, she also thinks better resource management would help. Let’s look at the data to get a sense of the challenge, data that to my mind is shocking. The Californian population is immense and growing, which problematizes any attempt at resource management. And climate change makes everything worse.

My take on the situation is, in some ways, simpler than the suggestion of reforming the system and restructuring housing. No matter how you dice it, the population is plain too large for the ecological constrains of California. It’s a variation on, if maybe less extreme version of, the Dust Bowl. There was a wetter period that attracted people to California. Also, as in earlier times, the Federal government encouraged people to move West. But the wet period inevitably didn’t last and the weather patterns returned to their historical norm. This was exacerbated in California. Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented federal farm subsidies in California before they were ever used anywhere else in the country. Along with diverting water in from other states, this created a big ag that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Yet there is too much profit and too many powerful lobbyist groups invested in maintaining the status quo that, in the long term, cannot be maintained.

The purpose of artificially constructing this big ag was partly to feed the growing population (further promoted by the Nixon administration guided by the corporatist vision of Earl Butz). And a large reason for that was because the Federal government needed a massive workforce to be employed in the defense industry so that the United States military could have a presence on the West Coast. This defense industry also funded decades of the tech industry. Much (most?) of the Californian economy is, directly or indirectly, connected to and dependent on the military-industrial complex. This has brought immense wealth into the state and so created a wealthy class demanding luxury. They live beyond their means through taxpayer money and externalized costs. California, as it is presently structured, would not exist if not for the intervening alliance of big gov and big biz.

Even if urban sprawl was eliminated and housing concentrated, the same basic ecological problems would remain without solution. It’s likely to get worse. As with large areas of Australia, there probably will be a mass exodus from California until the declining population reaches a sustainable size. But the motivation for that change will require mass crisis and catastrophe. That is my sense of things, anyway. These are just my thoughts. I can defend parts of my argument. I’ve written about the emergence of big ag in California and it’s interesting history. The military-industrial complex, in California as elsewhere is not only interesting but concerning. (See: Fascism, Corporatism, and Big Ag, From Progressivism to Neoconservatism, Vicious Cycle: The Pentagon Creates Tech Giants and Then Buys their Services, & Plutocratic Mirage of Self-Made Billionaires.) All of that, from what I can tell, is pretty much straightforward facts that are well-established and agreed upon.

As an example of hard-hitting data: “About 60 percent of all precipitation evaporates or is transpired by trees and vegetation” (Water Education Foundation, California Water 101); still, California receives a fair amount of precipitation… but: “There’s a catch. While parts of Northern California receive 100 inches or more of precipitation per year, the state’s southern, drier areas receive less precipitation – and just a few inches of rain annually in the desert regions. That means 75 percent of California’s available water is in the northern third of the state (north of Sacramento), while 80 percent of the urban and agricultural water demands are in the southern two-thirds of the state.” Consider that 80% of California’s surface water is used by the agricultural industry, whereas the average water usage for urban areas is only 10%. Besides draining aquifers, the state has lost “as much as 90 percent of the original wetlands acreage—a greater percentage of loss than any other state in the nation” (Water Education Foundation, Wetlands).

As for water appropriated from the Colorado River, there is competition for it from many other states with their own agricultural needs and growing populations. The part about how much population could be supported through the local environmental resources is more speculative. A strong case against sustainability, though, can be and has been made. Many others have written about it. If you do a web search, you can find numerous scientific papers and news reporting on the relationship of water shortage and overpopulation in California, including comparisons to the Dust Bowl. (See: Water Use in California by Jeffrey Mount & Ellen Hanak, The California Water Crisis: More Than Just Another Drought from Calsense, & California faces ‘Dust Bowl’-like conditions amid drought, says climate tracker by Chris Megerian.)

My comments have been about all of California, not limited to one region. A fairly small proportion of the Californian population lives north of the Bay Area. Maybe that area has a sustainable population. The greatest population concentration in Northern California is the Bay Area. But even if you look at all of Northern California including the Bay Area, that is only 15 million compared to the 25 million in Southern California. So, Northern California is far less than half of the population of the state and the Bay Area alone is half the population of Northern California. Northern California minus the Bay area is less than 18% of the total population. When I traveled across California, what stood out to me was not only that the Southern half had a larger population but also more densely populated, although I don’t know in terms of urban concentration (specifically in comparison to the Bay Area and Central Valley). Northern California seemed relatively empty, as large swaths of it wasn’t inhabited. My observations are cursory, though. Besides the Bay Area, the urban areas I saw were smaller.

All of Central Valley that includes multiple cities is only 6.5 million, but as a comparison even that is larger than 39 other states and territories in the US (much larger than many farm states, and about 12 times that of the least populated state). There are only 16 states, excluding California itself, that have more population than Central Valley and Central Valley is one of the least populated areas of California. That is in the context of California being the most populated state in the country. To really emphasize the massive population we’re talking about, Central Valley is larger than 124 countries in the world, Northern California is larger than 160 countries, and all of California is larger than 197 countries. Only 35 countries in the world have more inhabitants than California. Such an immense number of people crammed together in such a small area, with or without urban sprawl, is hard to imagine and comprehend, specifically in terms of the implications and effects. Data can be barely convey the immensity of the ecological challenge.

That brings us to carrying capacity. California is one of the dryer places in the United States (in top 10 of states of low precipitation with 5 out of 9 the largest American cities with less than 20 inches as yearly average). There are many other states that have far more water than California, even though no state has more residents. This is why California is dependent on taking water from other states, specifically the Colorado River, and even then California is also draining its own aquifers faster than they can be refilled. Sure, using resources more wisely would help, but that can only go so far. It’s unclear what the carrying capacity is for the entire planet and some argue we’ve already overshot maximum population load, an argument I’ve found persuasive or at least a point of serious concern. The larger complication involves the repercussions of going beyond the carrying capacity, in that the full externalized costs wouldn’t show up for decades or even generations later. As such, if we’ve already traipsed past this breaking point sometime these past decades, we might not be forced to acknowledge this stark reality until later in the century when the bill finally comes due.

It’s all rather speculative, as I said. But we do know that climate change is irreversible at this point. The melting of ice is a half century ahead of schedule, according to many predictions. It’s happening far more quickly than expected. Large parts of the world are experiencing droughts and are draining their aquifers, which exacerbates desertification. Even the 100th Meridian is moving eastward and drying out what used to be some of the most productive farmland in the world, the region that has been the breadbasket of the world. My own attitude is that of the precautionary principle. I see no advantage to seeing how close we can get to the carrying capacity of any particularly area or for the whole planet before going too far. But ignoring that, it’s possible that the carrying capacity could be extended a bit more, if we find more sustainable ways of living. Maybe or maybe not. As always, time will tell.

* * *

As a related issue, maybe one should consider the importance of trees and the dire situation of their loss as related to climate change, in California and elsewhere:

Creeping toward Permanent Drought
by Kate Marvel

An American tragedy: why are millions of trees dying across the country?
by Oliver Milman & Alan Yuhas

California’s Trees Are Dying At A Catastrophic Rate
by Laura Geiser & Mette Lampcov

18 Million Trees Died in California in 2018, Forest Service Study Finds
by Ron Brackett

California’s Drought Killed Almost 150 Million Trees
by Jason Daley

150 million trees died in California’s drought, and worse is to come
by Nathanael Johnson

California has 149 million dead trees ready to ignite like a matchbook
by Umair Irfan

The hard truth about being a 21st century tree in California
by Mark Kaufman

Can the Los Angeles We Know Survive the Death of Its Trees?
by Brandon R. Reynolds

Scientists: Future of oldest tree species on Earth in peril
by Scott Smith

Earth’s Oldest Trees in Climate-Induced Race up the Tree Line
by Kat Kerlin

9 thoughts on “Is California a Canary in the Coal Mine?

  1. Fascinating post and there’s a lot to comment on but off the top: I lived in SF for just about 30 years. A few observations: Regarding the symbiosis between development and the MIC there’s Hunter’s Point. A large naval station that grew out of the various needs/issues around WW2. It drew in a large Black migrant work force from the South. The government under its Apartheid system created segregated housing. A side note was the growth of the Fillmore (the street of the same name gave its name to the area) which was full of jazz joints and figures prominently in On the Road.

    In the 70s the city aimed to “revitalize” the area and one of the flash points was the attempt to tear down the International Hotel – and of course force poor working families out of the area so it could be colonized by Pacific Heights (known locally as Specifically Whites;-)) which is a (very) wealthy area that borders the Fillmore and then absorbed it.

    in ’74 a one bedroom apartment off Polk Street went for around $250/month and now goes for $4000+/month.

    Obviously wages have stagnated for most and are cocaine addiction levels elsewhere.

    FDR instituted rent control which was eliminated beginning in the mid-late 60s (another connection to the Beats is that you can trace their rise to rent – painters and poets in NYC/SF etc could afford large spaces by getting short term jobs. That corresponds to the rise of small magazines and galleries that could afford to risk showing and publishing “radicals” and by the late 70s it had become impossible due to inflation which is always presented as organic but of course is by design) and as you detail we can add in government contracts and short term weather patterns as crucial factors.

    Clearly California is due for a transformation. The large and often massive houses built atop isolated hills or in valleys are not sustainable.

    For graveyard laughs put Louis Black into the YouTube search and add PG&E – he’s got a stand up routine about the fires.

    Of course real estate development is a nexus. It’s about Big Ag and the MIC and banks and debt (about to post a new piece touching on that) so tackling “development” is a massive task requiring new Deal levels of authority.

    Of course as you point out catastrophe will bring change.

    Lastly, there’s the film, Chinatown. The scheme at the heart of the film is about stealing land and water and the web of resulting corruption.

    Forget it Jake…it’s capitalism;-)

    • I’ve been fascinated by California ever since I visited there. I have family connections and that was the main reason for visiting. We came across the Southwest where we entered Southern California. It was strange to see the old and yet still used forts/churches that are older than the British colonies.

      Earlier last century, my father’s great aunt and great uncle had moved out there, down in Southern California. His mother, on the same side of the family, moved there with his sister to the Bay Area when his parents divorced while he was still in high school. My aunt then moved up to Oregon. That part of the family, the descendants of an early Virginia plantation slaveholder, is from the Deep South, Texas, where my grandmother was born before moving to the Midwest after marriage where my dad was born. Maybe already having family there motivated her to move there, although she says that the main reason was because she read an article that said the area had the most perfect weather in the country. My dad has fond memories of visiting his mother and, on our trip, we found her old house.

      Many Southerners have been populating Southern California since before the Civil War. The North/South divide in the rest of the country was mirrored in California and, during the Civil War, fighting almost broke out there, but Northerners gained control and suppressed revolt. The Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and then defense industry caused even more Southerners to head out there. For similar reasons, on my my mom’s side of the family, a cousin of hers has lived out there for a long time down in Southern California (since her father moved the family their in her childhood), in infamous Orange County where Nixon spent his early life and where originated the Southern Strategy. That is related to why the mega-church phenomenon began in California and, while visiting with that cousin, we went to their mega-church (the first time I’d been to one).

      My cousin from my uncle, my dad’s brother, ended up in the Bay Area, although I don’t think it has anything to do with our mutual grandmother having lived there. He is a wealthy manager in a tech industry that gets defense contracts, including doing work for the Chinese military (at least until recent restrictions). He is married to an Iranian princess, of deposed royalty. That is moving up in the world for him, but it might’ve been moving down in the world for her. We stayed at their house and it was a fairly large property right in the city. That is typical of California in how the wealthy have used their political influence to ensure they can have as much land as they want, and this has made it unaffordable for so many others.

      On that trip, I did get a good sense of the state, we traveled from one end of it to the other. The differences between regions was clear. And we did get to see the All American Canal, which was impressive and depressing, as it demonstrated a cavalier wastefulness in how much water was obviously being lost to evaporation. It shows the power of big gov and big biz. That is kind of thought that struck me in writing this post. The Californian population is immense and I had never realized how immense it was. That population is serving industry, that industry is serving government, and that government is serving a global empire with an extensive and over-extended military presence on every continent.

      It occurred to me that US agriculture is inseparable from US defense. I’m willing to bet a major reason so many countries tolerate the American Empire in having US military bases in their countries is because we grow so much of the world’s foods. Many trade agreements probably involve negotiations of guarantees of food in exchange for allowing US military presence. There is no way of touching the unsustainability of the population and the agriculture without effecting the entire military-industrial complex and military empire, as it is all intertwined. For certain, without the massive amounts of money and water flowing into California, it would be an entirely different kind of place. Yeah, it’s capitalism, but a specific kind of capitalism and a spectacular example at that.

      • James Elroy (not a great writer) has an otherwise excellent intro to one of his books in which he excavates the connections between CSA refugees starting in 1865 and the rise of what were first private armies and then the LA County sheriffs and LAPD.

        Of course no one “discussing” social policy would think to use Elroy but it’s on point.

        People forget that we’re only a few generational hops out from people who can remember Lincoln and the CW.

        That sound off until you do the math.

        Wyatt Earp was an “advisor” on early films.

        A CSA vet in S.California, circa 1880, indoctrinates a rookie cop who works on the nascent force well into the early 20th century and he in turn indoctrinates a rookie who works the job into the late 40s early 50s and so on.

        History casts a long shadow but marketing hates that.

        Of course as an example of your point about connection marketing is education – that is, the failure (or if you prefer, the success) of the education system is because of marketing (among other facts) which is antagonistic towards the long reach of memory.

        Consider that all the hysteria about Russians hacking elections is being spun as a technical and political issue.

        It’s certainly political but really it’s an education issue – if one is stupid enough to believe an FB post that says HRC is running a pedophile ring from a pizza joint than you’ll believe anything and that’s down to a lack of critical thinking inside a landscape dominated by marketing and 24/7 TV brainwashing etc.

        So, agriculture is banking, and real estate (and of course marketing) and all of that is the MIC and all of that is the cost of campaigns and elections and more marketing.

        Just before being run out of SF during the beginning of the second most recent tewch boom I worked as the office monkey for a local political king maker – the president of a very large merchant association.

        Everything is connected and it’s all an ugly sausage making machine.

        Sanders/Warren and their followers aren’t wrong about a lot of the issues but everyone acts as if they don’t get the internet on Wall St and the goons aren’t capable of causing a currency crisis somewhere to retaliate against Healthcare for all, or eliminating student debt or rent control proposals, etc.

        Or that the goons wont do any of thatd espite the historical record.

        Big Ag is Big Ag but it’s also supermarkets, and SM are trucking and trucking is the highways system and rubber and gas.

        But that’s too subtle and complex for the media and frankly I’m not sure Sanders grasps that as he seems increasingly strident and narrow but then again campaign mode 24/7 can’t be good for one’s thinking.

        Not sure about Warren.

        Put it all together and there’s no meaningful public discussion about population, food, and all of the connections.

        A comprehensive approach is essential.

        The ability to see the transitive nature of things (that food is rubber and trucking and those in turn are a cultural mind-set, etc) are crucial requirements but per usual I’m not (very) hopeful.

      • Oh and to add: some years back I took a road trip from SF to LA. A classic sort of adventure.

        Went via the Valley.

        Apocalyptic scenes of vast dust clouds and big rigs blowing tired and freeways rest stops and massive fields of veg, and desperate Brown men by the side of the road begging for work.

        The processing of sugar stinks. It’s a massive dense wall of bitter burning air. And along the way sudden open areas waiting to be “developed.”

        All canary’s in the coal mine.

    • The simple point about population size really is amazing. It’s hard to think about how massive is 40 million people. It just seems like a number when one lacks context. But the reality is 40 million or even 6.5 million are large numbers of people to be concentrated in such a small area, even as California is somewhat geographically large.

      Well, here is some context. In the second century AD, the total world population was around 300 million, smaller than the present US population at 327 million. And back then the Roman Empire at its height was only 65 million, slightly above modern California. That was with the Roman Empire having stretched across vast geography in every direction and having incorporated people from hundreds or thousands of other societies. A couple centuries later, the Byzantine Empire was only 5 million, smaller than the less populated regions of California, Central Valley.

      US states are massive in comparison to most countries in the world. But even small countries today are massive compared to most societies of the past. The modern nation-state is often larger than ancient empires. Most of human existence was small in every possible way. And for most of civilization, even many early great city-states that left behind impressive art, structures, epics, etc were the size of what today we’d call a small town or village.

      It’s sort of perplexing that we are even having a debate about whether shoving millions of people into a small area is environmentally sustainable. The sustainability debate simply is not being taken seriously. Few people comprehend the situation. Overpopulation seems to have been a factor in the collapse of Bronze Age civilization. It wasn’t only the overpopulation itself but also the complexity that came with it, and increasing complexity seems to be a problem now as well.

      That is what California demonstrates, an incapacity to deal with complexity. No one can solve the problems because any attempt at reform would be revolutionary. There is no way to change one part of the system without affecting every other part of it, in how there is an entanglement between big population, big ag, big tech, and big defense (all as expressions of an oil-dependent and highly destructive global American Empire).

      • There’s an episode of the original Stark Trek that deals with the population bomb as it used to be called.

        As a symptom of the issue vis CA the SF Gate (The Sf Chronicle webpage) had an article a few days ago about how if you’re sick of the prices in the Bay Area consider Buffalo NY.

        Another interesting issue in this is that “keep Austin wierd” and the music festival/scene and the rise (however temp) of Beto are all in some way connected to the 20 years of flight from California.

        the transformation of Oregon and Washington State are also min part down to California hemorrhaging people as costs rise, density becomes a burden and the environment collapses.

        as you point out how long before insurance companies go bust and or stop providing home owner insurance for disaster zones?

        Imagine the wealth exodus and the long tail that wealth possesses. Imagine the military telling Congress it needs hundreds of billions to stay in California or hundreds of billions to move.

        And of course in that sense, California is the Pacific which means, Japan, China, and that in turn means the Indian Ocean, etc.

        US military and diplomatic and economic postures from California outward go back obviously a long way but because of the war (and subsequent colonial wars like Vietnam and Korea) an entire eco-system has sprung up and moving one piece however necessary the move causes a ripple.

        Imagine if Silicon Valley decided to move somewhere less environmentally chaotic?

        Imagine if they stay put?

        How many more fires can LA/SoCal endure before it in effect collapses?

        Jenga, anyone?

    • I was thinking about California as not only an early sign of climate change but as one of the first places in the US that might experience crisis. Drought and wildfires are small problems compared to what might be coming. But even these relatively minor challenges could become points of conflict.

      What happens when resources become too spread out and they can no longer defend or fund everything? Whose interests will be sacrificed first? How many houses and lives will be lost? How many small businesses will be forced to close down? When will insurance companies stop insuring houses and businesses? How will increasingly limited resources get divided up? And who will make these decisions? If it gets bad enough, will the public accept these decisions or fight back? Will there be protests, riots, and revolts?

      What about when firefighters are sent to protect corporations while letting the surrounding population to suffer without any help from government? Or when they are told to protect the wealthy while letting poor areas burn down? Will those firefighters follow orders when they are told to sacrifice the communities they and their families, neighbors, and friends live in? How will the majority of Californians feel when they have water restrictions and have their power shut down but big ag and big tech continue to get everything they demand?

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