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.

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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