Is California Over?


By now it’s painfully obvious that we humans tend to ruin our favorite places by overrunning them. And no place makes this point better than California. An absolute paradise 25 million people ago, parts of it are now a hellscape of Mad Maxian proportions. Consider:

Rolling blackouts due in part to bad planning and in part to overpopulation are disrupting businesses and making homes unbearable in 100-degree summer heat.

Wildfires, due in part to excess people being shunted into “suburbs” surrounded by brushland, are burning thousands of houses and roasting the unlucky wildlife that used to call those canyons and hillsides home. See Sanctuary for endangered condors burns in California wildfire.

As for California’s cities, well, here’s podcaster Joe Rogan’s brutal discussion of LA’s homeless situation:

And the above is just the physical manifestation of an unsustainable development model. The financial side of things is even uglier. Public-sector unions now control state politics and have engineered pension plans that are both wildly overgenerous and catastrophically unfunded. So even in the absence of fires, blackouts and rising homelessness, the state would be careening towards bankruptcy.

What is California’s solution? Retroactive wealth taxes that reach out and pick the pockets of people who have already left.

Now even the New York Times, which generally sympathizes with California’s political model, acknowledges that the left coast is sliding into the abyss. A snippet from NYT columnist Farhad Manjoo:

California, We Can’t Go On Like This

Across much of California in the last two weeks, many of my friends and neighbors have faced a dead-end choice: Is it safer to conduct your life outdoors and avoid the coronavirus, or should you rush inside, the better to escape the choking heat, toxic smoke and raining ash?

Such has been the gagging unwinnability of life in the nation’s most populous state in the sweltering summer of 2020, in what I have been assured is the greatest country ever to have existed. The virus begs you to open a window; the inferno forces you to keep it shut.

When the coronavirus first landed in America, California’s lawmakers responded quickly and effectively, becoming a model for the rest of the nation. But as the early wins faded and the cases spiked, each day this summer has felt like another slide down an inevitable spiral of failure. The virus keeps crashing into California’s many other longstanding dysfunctions, from housing to energy to climate change to disaster planning, and the compounding ruin is piling up like BMWs on the 405.

Consider: To keep the pestilence at bay, many of California’s children began attending school online last week. But to satisfy surging energy demand linked to record-shattering heat (and a host of other mysterious reasons), state utilities had to impose rolling blackouts, forcing schools to come up with energy contingency plans to add to their virus contingency plans, now that millions of students face the threat of intermittent electricity.

For decades, California has relied on conscripted prisoners as a cheap way to fight its raging fires. But to stave off coronavirus outbreaks in our long-overcrowded prisons, authorities released thousands of inmates earlier this year. Now, as climate change has ushered in a new era of “megafires” that includes some of the largest blazes the state has ever faced, the early release of inmates has left the state dangerously short of prisoners to exploit in battling the flames.

What is California’s fundamental trouble? Neither socialism nor Trumpian neglect and incompetence, but something more elemental to life in the Golden State: A refusal by many Californians to live sustainably and inclusively, to give up a little bit of their own convenience for the collective good.

Californian suburbia, the ideal of much of American suburbia, was built and sold on the promise of endless excess — everyone gets a car, a job, a single-family home and enough water and gasoline and electricity to light up the party.

But it is long past obvious that infinitude was a false promise. Traffic, sprawl, homelessness and ballooning housing costs are all consequences of our profligacy with the land and our other resources. In addition to a hotter, drier climate, the fires, too, are fanned by an unsustainable way of life. Many blazes were worsened by Californians moving into areas near forests known as the “urban-wildland interface.” Once people move near forested land, fires tend to follow — either because they deliberately or inadvertently ignite them, or because they need electricity, delivered by electrical wires that can cause sparks that turn into conflagrations.

As the fires blazed around us this time last year, I warned of the “end of California as we know it” — that if we didn’t begin to radically alter how we live, the climate and the high cost of living would make the state uninhabitable for large numbers of people.

The take-away? Beyond a certain point even a place like California, blessed as it is with both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, can’t support the unsupportable. So either the state, along with most of its nearly-as-badly-managed peers, gets a bailout of historic proportions with all the currency crisis/moral hazard implications that that implies. Or California and its iconic car-centric/suburban lifestyle devolve into chaos.

Here’s hoping for the latter, which will at least provide a cautionary tale for other places now traveling the same road.


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