An “Ecotopian” Future: Can California’s Green Extremism Go National?

They paved paradise…And put up a parking lot…With a pink hotel, a boutique…And a swinging hot spot…Don’t it always seem to go…That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone — Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” 1970

One is often at a loss to explain California to people from other planets—like, say, earth. This is a state that issues mandates for electrification of everything while reducing its generating capacity. It blames devastating fires on climate change, without taking the blame for forestry practices that helped make the seasonal fires much worse. In California, pot is legal, but owning a car with a gas engine, however clean, may soon not be, and climate skeptics of any stripe face opprobrium, consignment to obscurity, and—if they have assets—court dates.

To understand how a state could adopt what often seem insane policies, impoverishing its people while claiming the mantle of social justice, you need to consult the state’s unique history. California is just not like other places, and you won’t get anywhere without understanding that. With few navigable rivers and a lack of water near its coast and fertile valleys, the state largely engineered its own rise. “Science is the mother of California,” said the University of California’s second president, Daniel Coit Gilman. Largely dominated by desert, flammable dry chaparral and high mountains, California depended on bringing water to its bone-dry coast, tapping electricity from distant dams, and accommodating a massive influx of new residents with largely suburban housing.

The state’s rapid population growth from 1.5 million in 1900 to nearly 40 million today placed enormous strains on its natural systems. During the Gold Rush, mining practices devastated the Mother Lode country and poisoned the rivers. In the rest of the state, natural scrubland was converted first into farms, then into housing tracts, wiping out whole ecosystems. Those who grew up here, from Jerry Brown to Joni Mitchell, or who have lived here long, like this writer—nearly a half-century resident—have witnessed immense changes. We’ve seen the citrus orchards all but vanish from the coast, the massive 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, ever-more suffocating traffic congestion, and the densification of many communities. It’s hard not to harken back to “better times” when the grove near your house is now a Target.

Still, where these real challenges, along with concerns over climate change, might have encouraged constructive solutions, they have instead metastasized the apocalyptic side of modern environmentalism. Predictably, The New York Times suggests that California is “ground zero for climate disasters,” while the Los Angeles Times claims that California now fights not just fires and droughts but “climate despair.” A letter to the editor insists that the state is already “a climate change hell,” a logical conclusion to reach, judging by media coverage of the recent fires. That voice of establishment reasoning, the Council on Foreign Relations, helpfully chimes in that “California is a Preview of Climate Change’s Devastation for the Entire World.”

In California, we appear to have made the transition from awesome to awful.

The Origins of Environmental Politics

The “pastoral ideal,” historian Leo Marx noted, “has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery.” Initially, it reflected the Jeffersonian vision of a nation of farmers, but gained adherents among the gentry in the rapidly developing industrial areas of New England, New York, and the Hudson Valley.

Modern environmentalism, though, is largely a California product. To some, particularly the ecological Left, environmental rapine is to California what the legacy of slavery has been to the South.

In a state where the frontier closed quickly, and wilderness confronted the consequences of extraordinarily rapid growth, the well-born sought ways to preserve something of our spectacular natural state. The Sierra Club, still the leading environmental lobby, gained prominence campaigning early in the last century against 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, rose to fill the gap, establishing a pattern of steady radicalization.

In their early days, California greens were largely conservationist, with a bipartisan base of affluent suburban homeowners, mostly in the coastal areas, who looked askance at development closing in on their once-pristine neighborhoods. By the late 1960s, however, greens increasingly embraced often-hysterical scenarios of a dystopian future. Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, forging a deep impression with its predictions of starvation on a global scale. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, others worried, sometimes justifiably, about the effects of pesticides, the speculated-upon environmental causes of cancer, and potential disasters from nuclear power.

Read the rest of this piece at Real Clear Energy.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Kevin via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Blackouts and Fires: California’s Summer Attractions

In the soft warmth of spring the swallows famously return to Capistrano, but in recent years they are followed by what seems inevitable summer power outages and fires. This is not as pleasant an experience for Californians as the return of our favored feathered companions.

Every summer, usually around this time of year, we get our inevitable heat waves. In the past, we used to endure them without fearing our lights — and computers — would be shut down, and our houses left in ruins. Read more

Podcast Episode 7: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All With Mike Shellenberger

On the 7th Feudal Future episode, Mike Shellenberger joins hosts Marshall Toplansky & Joel Kotkin to talk about how environmentalism and housing policies are mismanaged and why environmental alarmism hurts us all.

Green Policies Won’t Keep California Truckin’

No state advertises its green credentials more than California. That these policies often hurt the economy, driving up housing costs and narrowing opportunities for working-class people while not even doing much for the environment, has not discouraged the state’s environmental overlords. Read more

California’s Woke Hypocrisy

No state wears its multicultural veneer more ostentatiously than California. The Golden State’s leaders believe that they lead a progressive paradise, ushering in what theorists Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca call “a new progressive era.” Others see California as deserving of nationhood; it reflects, as a New York Times columnist put it, “the shared values of our increasingly tolerant and pluralistic society.”

In response to the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to defund the police—a move applauded by Senator Kamala Harris, a prospective Democratic vice presidential candidate, despite the city’s steep rise in homicides. San Francisco mayor London Breed wants to do the same in her increasingly crime-ridden, disordered city. This follows state attorney general Xavier Becerra’s numerous immigration-related lawsuits against the Trump administration, even as his state has become a sanctuary for illegal immigrants—complete with driver’s licenses for some 1 million and free health care.

Despite these progressive intentions, Hispanics and African-Americans—some 45 percent of California’s total population—fare worse in the state than almost anywhere nationwide. Based on cost-of-living estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of California’s African-Americans live in poverty, compared with 22 percent nationally. Fully one-third of Latinos, now the state’s largest ethnic group, live in poverty, compared with 21 percent outside the state. “For Latinos,” notes longtime political consultant Mike Madrid, “the California Dream is becoming an unattainable fantasy.”

Since 1990, Los Angeles’s black share of the population has dropped in half. In San Francisco, blacks constitute barely 5 percent of the population, down from 13 percent four decades ago. As a recent University of California at Berkeley poll indicates, 58 percent of African-Americans express interest in leaving the state—more than any ethnic group—while 45 percent of Asians and Latinos are also considering moving out. These residents may appreciate California’s celebration of diversity, but they find the state increasingly inhospitable to their needs and those of their families.

More than 30 years ago, the Population Reference Bureau predicted that California was creating a two-tier economy, with a more affluent white and Asian population and a largely poor Latino and African-American class. Rather than find ways to increase opportunity for blue-collar workers, the state imposed strict business regulations that drove an exodus of the industries—notably, manufacturing and middle-management service jobs—that historically provided gateways to the middle class for minorities. As a recent Chapman University study reveals, California is the worst state in the U.S. when it comes to creating middle-class jobs; it tops the nation in creating below-average and low-paying jobs.

Following Floyd’s death, even environmental groups like the Sierra Club issued bold proclamations against racism, but they still push policies that, in the name of fighting climate change, only lead to higher energy and housing costs, which hurt the aspirational poor. Many businesses, including small firms, must convert from cheap natural gas to expensive, green-generated electricity, a policy adamantly opposed by the state’s African-American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific chambers of commerce.

Meantime, California’s strict Covid-19 lockdown policies, imposed by a well-compensated (and still-employed) public sector, have imperiled small firms. “There’s a sense that there was major discrimination against local small businesses,” said Armen Ross, who runs the 200-member Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce in South Los Angeles. “They allowed Target and Costco to stay open while they were closed. Many mom-and-pops may never come back.” Many restaurants—roughly 60 percent are minority-owned—may never recover, notes the California Restaurant Association.

Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo credit Charlie Nguyen via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Podcast Episode 6: Beyond Feudalism: Addressing California’s Inequality Crisis (Live Event)

On July 14, Joel & Marshall held a Virtual Town Hall, discussing California’s inequality crisis and how changes in state policy could restore the middle class.

Is the California Dream Finished?

For all the persistent rhetoric from California’s leaders about this state being on the cutting edge of social and racial justice, the reality on the ground is far grimmer.

Our new report on the state of California’s middle class shows a lurch toward a society in which power and money are increasingly concentrated and where upward mobility is constrained, amid shocking levels of poverty. Most of this data doesn’t even account for the recent effect of the coronavirus outbreak, which has pushed the state’s unemployment rate to 15.5%, higher than the nationwide rate of 14.7%. Read more

Virtual Town Hall: California Feudalism – Addressing California’s Inequality Crisis

Join us for a presentation on Kotkin and Toplanksky’s research brief titled California Feudalism: A Strategy to Restore California’s Middle Class, discussing inequality in California and how a change in state policy could restore our state’s dream. Kotkin and Toplansky will be joined by distinguished panelists for commentary and Q & A.  The event will be moderated by Lisa Sparks Dean of the School of Communication at Chapman University. Read more

Neo-Feudalism in California

From the beginning, California promised much. While yet barely a name on the map, it entered American awareness as a symbol of renewal. It was a final frontier: of geography and of expectation.
—Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream: 1850–1915

In the eyes of both those who live here and those who come to observe, California has long stood out as the beacon for a better future. Progressive writers Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira suggested last year that our state is in the vanguard of every positive trend, from racial diversity and environmentalism to policing gender roles. “Cali­fornia,” they said in a post on Medium, “is the future of American politics.”

Read more

From tragedy to opportunity: We could live better when today’s mayhem ends

For most people in this locked-down, riot-scarred world, the future beckons unpleasantly. There is a growing sense that, economically, the 2020s may look more like the 1930s than some halcyon post-industrial future. “Dark days ahead,” suggests The Week. “This is what the end of the end of history looks like.”

Yet, beyond the depressing statistics, the deserted malls, the looted or abandoned Main Streets, lies the potential to use the pandemic to create the impetus for better, more sustainable and family-centric communities. This is not just some return — imagined from the security of the high punditry — to a “plainer,” more noble past but actual, meaningful improvements in our daily lives, made largely possible by technology. Read more