Apocalyptic Schadenfreude

What the New York Times — and everybody else — gets wrong about California’s water crisis.

By Steven Johnson


There’s a certain kind of story, and a certain kind of tone, that runs through the recent history of the East Coast writing about the West Coast. Call it apocalyptic schadenfreude. Many variations of this mode exist, but they can generally be reduced down to this formula: all the “lifestyle”-seekers who set off for the Pacific high of California’s perfect weather are at last confronting the limits of Mother Nature. I know the attitude well in part because I used to strike that pose on occasion myself; I remember berating my Los Angeles friends that living in Southern California was like being a weather libertarian. Rain, I’d argue, was the tax we pay for sustainable human settlements.

But then I started spending more time in California and realized that the water situation there is far more complex than it had seemed from the Atlantic states. Which is why it has been particularly interesting to read the extensive coverage of California’s water crisis in the New York Times for the past few days, in the wake of Governor Brown’s executive order last week limiting water usage across the state. There has been some great reporting and data analysis in this sequence of stories. (This, for instance, is one of the most useful infographics I’ve seen all year.) Yet I think some of the complexity of the situation has been sacrificed in order to adhere to the familiar moral that the state’s residents are finally getting their environmental just deserts. Consider the opening paragraph of Sunday’s story:

For more than a century, California has been the state where people flocked for a better life — 164,000 square miles of mountains, farmland and coastline, shimmering with ambition and dreams, money and beauty. It was the cutting-edge symbol of possibility: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, aerospace, agriculture and vineyards. But now a punishing drought — and the unprecedented measures the state announced last week to compel people to reduce water consumption — is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature.

Or this:

“Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” said Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about this state. “This is literally a culture that since the 1880s has progressively invented, invented and reinvented itself. At what point does this invention begin to hit limits?”

First of all, Mother Nature didn’t intend for 2 million people to live on Manhattan Island either. Mother Nature would also be baffled by skyscrapers, the Delaware Aqueduct, and the Lincoln Tunnel. Anyone living anywhere in the United States — apart from the most radical of the off-the-gridders, most of whom are probably in northern California anyway — is dependent on a vast web of human engineering designed specifically to mess with Mother Nature’s intentions.

The question is whether that engineering is sustainable. What the Times piece explicitly suggests is that California has been living beyond its means environmentally. That’s the point of those extraordinary overhead photographs of lush estates, teeming with greenery, bordering arid desert. You see those images and it’s impossible not to feel that something shameful is happening here. And yet, picture a comparable view of Manhattan sometime in the depths of January, with a thermal imaging filter applied. The boundary between Man and Mother Nature would be just as stark: frigid air surrounding artificial islands of heat. It’s true that New York City distributes that artificial heat much more efficiently than the rest of the country, thanks largely to its density, but it’s still artificially engineering your environment, whether you want to make a dry place wet, or a cold place warm. And while the Northeast has an advantage over California in terms of rainwater, California has a decided advantage in terms of temperature and sunlight, particularly the coastal regions where almost all the people live. Coastal California enjoys one of the most temperate climates anywhere in the world, which allows its residents to consume far less energy heating or cooling their homes. California is dead last in the country in terms of per capita electricity use. Thanks to the state’s abundant sunshine (and pioneering environmentalism) there are more home solar panels installed in California than in all the other states combined. If you’re trying to find a sustainable place for 40 million people to live, there are plenty of environmental reasons to put them in California.

But isn’t water a deal breaker? If you live in a region that doesn’t have water, you’re going to hit a wall eventually, and that lifestyle is going to come back to haunt you. Yet California is so big and so ecologically diverse that it’s impossible to condense it into a simple story of living-beyond-our-limits. Arizona is a desert; Nevada is a desert. But large parts of California are temperate rain forests; the mediterranean climate of Sonoma gets almost as much rain in an average year as New York. In the middle of an historic drought, the reservoirs in the Bay Area are close to capacity. Measured by the mile, and not state boundaries, lumping northern California in with the abuses of Palm Springs is like blaming Maine in August for the surge in air conditioning in steamy Washington, D.C.

I find those manicured desert lawns as offensive as the next guy, particularly when native succulent landscaping is so much more aesthetically interesting. And photographing the McMansions in their fake bubble of green may be an effective way to draw attention to the state’s plight. But the hard truth is the greenery of Palm Springs and Orange County is not really the problem. The single most important statistic in understanding the current crisis is this: 80% of California’s surface water supports agriculture, largely the farms and ranches of the Central Valley. Compared to that massive flow, the residential abuses are almost an afterthought. If every single human being living south of Los Angeles packed up and moved to rainy Oregon, it wouldn’t improve California’s water situation as much as a mere 10% decrease in the water used by the Central Valley crops and livestock.

In other words, even if this drought is a sign of climates to come, California has plenty of water to support its lifestyle. It just won’t have enough to support its crops, without significant changes to make those farms more water-efficient. It seems bizarre that a region like the Central Valley with just six million people — barely more than 10% of the state’s population — should use so much of the water. But then you realize that the vast majority of people benefiting from that water don’t live in California at all. The Central Valley takes up only 1% of the landmass of the United States, but it produces 25% of the food we eat, and almost half of the fruits or nuts we consume. California is running through its water supply because, for complicated historical and climatological reasons, it has taken on the burden of feeding the rest of the country. The average Times reader sneering at those desert lawns from the Upper West Side might want to think about the canned tomatoes, avocados, and almonds in his or her kitchen before denouncing the irresponsible lifestyles of the California emigres. Because the truth is California doesn’t have a water problem. We all do.

A few further thoughts, added 4/9/15: The response to this piece has been remarkable; I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that has reverberated on Twitter and beyond in quite the same way. A number of people have remarked that the word choice of “burden” in the last paragraph doesn’t seem appropriate: how burdensome is it to “feed the rest of the country” when agribusiness in California is making billions of dollars in profit, while paying almost nothing for its water. It’s an excellent point, but I meant “burden” purely in the sense of the state’s energy/resource inputs and outputs, combating the idea that the state fundamentally lacks enough water to support the needs of 40 million residents. Another way of seeing the disparity between agriculture and residential water usage is this: if all of southern California — including Los Angeles — packed up and left for Seattle, it would be less significant than California giving up the production of just one crop: almonds. Almonds use 10% of the state’s water supply, while residential use for the entire state is only 12%.

I made a few small changes in response to comments as well: 80% of California’s water goes to support agriculture across the state, not exclusively in the Central Valley (though most of it goes to that region.) And I have clarified that it’s not just crops but also livestock that draw down the state’s water resources.

Finally, those of you thinking that I was making a clever pun by deliberately misspelling “just desserts” as “just deserts”: I had originally spelled it with two s’s, but someone on Twitter pointed out that the official spelling is actually with one s, as it derives from an archaic meaning of the word desert, meaning something that one deserves. (Spelling the phrase “just desserts” has become commonplace, and both are now apparently acceptable.) Sadly, it never even occurred to me that it was a clever play on words until people began applauding it in the margins here on Medium. Sometimes you just get lucky.

— S. J.

(Photograph by Chris Boswell/Getty)

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