California: Paradise Lost

by | Jun 3, 2001 | POLITICS

Like that of many Third World countries, California’s electrical grid can now fail with little notice. Rolling blackouts leave households in the dark, university classes canceled, and families without essential appliances. The most elemental responsibility of a humane and liberal society–the ability to shield its citizenry from the age-old banes of darkness and cold–we in […]

Like that of many Third World countries, California’s electrical grid can now fail with little notice. Rolling blackouts leave households in the dark, university classes canceled, and families without essential appliances. The most elemental responsibility of a humane and liberal society–the ability to shield its citizenry from the age-old banes of darkness and cold–we in California cannot always meet.

We sue in the most ingenious ways over the environmental and aesthetic consequences of power production. We are eloquent in our endless debates in the state legislature over the wisdom of regulatory oversight. And we show moving public concern about the effects of outages on our poor and aged.

But for all that rhetoric, we still cannot guarantee accessible and reasonably priced heat, light, and power to our citizens. Not since the robed philosophers of Rome and Greece bickered and harangued each other by lamplight has history seen such a sophisticated preindustrial society as our own.

California is no longer a public of 20 million or even 25 million souls, but will soon exceed 35 million. For all our self-inflicted calamities, immigrants, both foreign and domestic, are still pouring into the state. Something must soon give in a sea of vast conflicting agendas. Our apparent birthright of sprawling suburbs with rye lawns, pools, residential lakes, and golf courses cannot exist alongside millions of acres of irrigated agriculture–at least not in the Mediterranean climate and deserts of California. We can either water 30 million Californians to surfeit, or continue to be the greatest food producer in the nation; we can no longer do both.

Our underground aquifers are tapped and our mountain runoff long ago claimed. Very soon, water shortages, rationing, and astronomical price spikes will make our current electricity calamity pale in comparison. Water, even more so than power, is necessary for life–and for the good life it must flow in great abundance. Meanwhile, Californians talk of restoring uninterrupted rivers and streams for their rafts, fish, scenic hikes, and bays. But the would do better first to ensure that there will be enough water in their taps and toilets.

The effects of the impending crisis in education are not as obvious as darkened streets and empty taps, but they reveal our state’s same inability to act–as well as the growing paradox between the lifestyle we demand and the honesty and sacrifices we shun. California’s institutions of higher education–the marvelous tripartite system of junior colleges, state universities, and elite universities that was once the envy of the nation–are in paralysis. At some California State campuses, 30 percent to 40 percent of the course offerings are now remedial in nature. In response, we advocate ending the SAT as a criterion for admission. Classes taught by part-time faculty nearly approach the number of those offered by professors.

Since we will not, or cannot, open new campuses–our faculties are more concerned about ethnic diversity and therapeutic curricula–there is no guarantee that we can educate and train a new generation to maintain the next link in the chain of an increasingly strained civilization. Just as we such power from other states for our insatiable electrical appetite, so perhaps we will soon export our burgeoning youth to be educated by the rest of you.

Our transportation woes mirror the sorry state of our universities. That our two great airports, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are habitually backlogged and in dire need of expansion is no surprise, given the dysfunctional nature of American air travel these days. But our highways may be in even worse shape. Quite literally we have no continuous north-south freeway of three lanes in the entire state.

The older U.S. 99 and 101 freeways are in places not free at all, little more than highways laced with cross traffic–one potted and patched right lane clogged by a caravan of trucks, the left a nightmarish obstacle course as cars dodge trucks passing other trucks. Our third artery, Interstate 5, is more a collapsed vein, in most places no wider than when it served 20 million Californians two decades ago. Perhaps Californians can make movies and boutique wines, but we apparently cannot guarantee safe and expeditious travel.

What has happened to our beloved state? We were not always so impotent and confused in the face of problems with power, water, and education. A drive along the central coast of California reveals massive though aged electrical generators at Moss Landing, Morro Bay, and Diablo Canyon, impressive workhouses our forefathers built to ensure long ago that we might have power today.

In contrast, we have not constructed a sizable generator in over a decade. For us, such factories are either too dirty, dangerous, costly, or unsightly–or perhaps, in comparison with movies, wine, and computers, merely boring enterprises better left to the less sophisticated in Utah, Nevada, and Oregon.

Our network of Sierra Nevada dams and canals was once the most sophisticated in the world, as our forefathers sought to ensure a California of 10 million people plentiful irrigation, hydroelectric power, and recreational lakes. In contrast, our generation not only builds no more dams, but fantasizes instead of tearing down those that were bequeathed so that more Sierra runoff might reach the ocean. Very soon we Californians shall learn that summers can be dark, dry, and hot all at once.

Over 30 years ago, we founded almost simultaneously three university campuses at Irvine, San Diego, and Santa Cruz; today, after years of delay and concerns over strange species of shrimp and rare grasses, we cannot even start construction on a single proposed new campus at Merced. True, California State University at Monterey recently opened–but only because the federal government gave the state the free land and infrastructure of the old military base at Fort Ord. It remains to be seen whether its trendy curriculum of new-age technologies, “human communication,” and multicultural studies will attract students in desperate need f a traditional liberal education.

Californians today are not like those of old who matched the state’s natural beauty and bounty–timber, oil, farmland, temperate weather–with their own courage, genius, and strength to create an oasis. Now we dream and enjoy rather than build. Yet our comfortable lifestyle and romantic ideology are claiming the wages of our inaction and sloth.

We took for granted instantaneous, cheap electricity, but not dams, generators, or nuclear plants–to do so would have suggested that we were unkind to the environment or did not enjoy the natural beauty of white water and alpine air. We became infatuated with large sport utility vehicles and luxury pickup trucks, but not equally so with either freeways to accommodate [them] or the oil wells to fuel them.

In one sense, we were parasites who lived off the work of our forefathers and the gifts of nature. And our unearned affluence spawned a smugness of the worst kind: Given water, power, universities, and roads by others, we dawdled, pontificated, and nuanced about the particulars of our own utopia. The result of this California disease is that we can save a newt but not always guarantee power in the library.

We are told that California is moving away from its traditional mainstays of agriculture, construction, and manufacturing to an economy of tourism, entertainment, and service. No doubt. But what is forgotten in such a shift is that we are losing a type of Californian and a credo that once made us what we were. Before you enjoy the new age of dot-coms, drive in all-terrain cars, and equip your suburban house with new-age gadgets–and feel guilty in the abstract about the cultural, environmental, and social consequences of such splendor–you must build, and get dirty, and, yes, battle an unforgiving nature that can bring cold, darkness, and thirst in its wake.

Beware, America, of the new Californians, sirens of the affluent society who would lure you onto our shoals.

–Victor Davis Hanson, a fifth-generation Californian, is a grape farmer and professor of classics. His most recent book is The Land Was Everything. Made available through

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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