Sustainability vs. the California Dream
Author: Char Miller
Publisher: Trinity University Press
In Not So Golden State, leading environmental historian Char Miller looks below the surface of California's ecological history to expose some of its less glittering conundrums. In this necessary work, Miller asks tough questions as we stand at the edge of a human-induced natural disaster in the region and beyond. He details policy steps and missteps in public land management and examines the impact of recreation on national forests, parks, and refuges, assessing efforts to restore wild land habitat, riparian ecosystems, and endangered species. Why, during a devastating five-year drought, is the Central Valley’s agribusiness still irrigating its fields as if it were business as usual? What’s unusual, Miller reveals, is that northern counties rich in groundwater sell it off to make millions while draining their aquifers toward eventual mud. Why, when contemporary debate over oil and gas drilling questions reasonable practices, are extractive industries targeting Chaco Canyon National Historic Park and its ancient sites, which are of inestimable value to Native Americans? How do we begin to understand “local,” a concept of hope for modern environmentalism? After all, Miller says, what we define as local determines how we might act in its defense. To inhabit a place requires placed-based analyses, whatever the geographic scope—examinations rooted in a precise, physical reality. To make a conscientious life in a suburb, floodplain, fire zone, or coastline requires a heightened awareness of these landscapes’ past so that we can develop an intensified responsibility for their present condition and future prospects. Building a more robust sense of justice is the key to creating resilient, habitable, and equitable communities. Miller turns to Aldo Leopold’s insight that “all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting point,” a location humans return to "again and again to organize another search for a durable scale of values.” This quest, a reflection of our ambition to know ourselves in relation to time and space, to organize our energy and structure our insights, is as inevitable as it is unending. Turning his focus to the tensions along the California coastline, Miller ponders the activities of whale watching and gazing at sea otters, thinking about the implications of the human desire to protect endangered flora and fauna, which makes the shoreline a fraught landscape and a source of endless stories about the past and present. In the Los Angeles region these connections are more obvious, given its geography. The San Gabriel Mountains rise sharply above the valleys below, offering some of the steepest relief on the planet. Three major river systems—the Santa Ana, San Gabriel, and Los Angeles—cut through the range’s sheer canyons, carrying an astonishing amount of debris that once crashed into low-lying areas with churning force. Today the rivers are constrained by flood-control dams and channels. Major wildfires, sparked by annual drought, high heat, and fierce Santa Ana winds, move at lightning speed and force thousands to flee. The city’s legendary smog, whose origins lie in car culture, was fueled in part by oil brought to the region's surface in the late nineteenth century. It left Angelenos gasping for breath as climatic conditions turned exhaust into a toxic ozone layer trapped by the mountains that back in the day were hard to see. Clearing the befouled skies took decades. Every bit as complex is the enduring effort to regenerate riparian health and restore wildlife habitat in a concrete-hardened landscape. The emerging tensions are similar to those threading through the U.S. Forest Service’s management of the Angeles National Forest, exacerbated whenever a black bear ambles into a nearby subdivision. How we build ourselves into these spaces depends on the removal of competing users or uses: a historic strawberry patch gives way to a housing development, a memorial forest goes up in smoke, a small creek tells a larger tale of the human impress, and struggles over water—a perennial issue in this dry land—remind us we're not as free of the past as we'd like to think. Neither are we removed from the downwind consequences of our choice to live in fire’s path. The West does not burn every summer; it just seems that way. And not every fire is a smoke signal of distress. Picking through the region’s fiery terrain is as tricky as trying to extinguish a roaring blaze in the August heat. There are lessons to be had by examining how we respond to the annual conflagrations. The Wallow Fire, which in 2011 burned hundreds of thousands of acres in remote Arizona, sparked equal amounts of political grandstanding and hand-wringing about wildfire-fighting strategies. Beyond the headlines and flashy, smoke-filled images lay another reality. The creation of defensible space and the thinning of forests communities—signs of homeowners' and state and federal agencies' proactive intervention—meant few structures burned during the monthlong firestorm. That such good news is rarely reported is part and parcel of another ethical dilemma too rarely acknowledged: the decision to live in fire zones should come coupled with homeowners’ responsibility to do all they can to ensure their homes don't go up in smoke. How they build their homes and landscape its environs are essential steps in defending their space. That obligation comes with another, made clear in the 2013 Yarnell Hill, which took the lives of nineteen firefighters. To make our houses fire-safe is to give firefighters a fighting chance. This reciprocity and the social compact it depends on require us to believe we inhabit common ground with our neighbors, a realization that should build a stronger sense of community. But it's a tough concept to promote in a bewilderingly antisocial political environment, when budgets for fire prevention are slashed as part of larger efforts to defund the nation-state. Or when the very reasons some seek to live in isolated, mountainous environs clash with the larger need to act in concert with their communities. Fires illuminate many things, not least the ties that bind and those that are frayed. Miller develops his argument from a variety of places and perspectives. Most of the pieces ask a series of questions about a particular landscape—Gila National Forest, Death Valley, Zion, Arches, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, and a host of other iconic western scenic spots. Why do we conceive of wilderness as a preserve, separate and inviolate? Who benefits—or does not—from the idea that such landscapes are, or ought to be, untrammeled? Why has this intellectual construction, and the preservationist ethos it depends on, come to dominate contemporary environmentalism? Related queries bubble up after Miller spends time in the newest national park, Pinnacles in central California, or one of the most venerable, the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. What impact has the long history of tourism and recreation had on these public lands? Maintaining trails that weave through the Yosemite Valley is an arduous, incessant task made more difficult by the visitors pouring in to John Muir’s favorite terrain or rushing to rock climb in Minerva Hoyt’s beloved Joshua Tree. Still more daunting is the prospect of sustained ecological restoration and habitat regeneration under current conditions and those that climate change is generating across the West. Once again Aldo Leopold can be a guide. “A member of a biotic team is shown by an ecological interpretation of history,” he once observed, adding that many “historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land.” Only when “the concept of land as a community really penetrates our intellectual life” will history, as a subject and methodology, become fully realized. Not So Golden State contributes powerfully toward the realization of this enduring cross-generational endeavor.