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.
These more radical views gained acceptance in Sacramento with the elevation of Jerry Brown to the governorship in 1974. Unlike his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, a renowned builder of infrastructure, Jerry, noted the late Max Palevsky, former chairman of Xerox and co-founder of Intel, came into office with “a kind of hippy dippy ideology” and a philosophy that emphasized a new “era of limits.”
Homage to Ecotopia
Perhaps no book better illustrated the new radical turn than Ecotopia, published in 1975 by an obscure imprint, Banyan Tree Books. Its author was Ernest Callenbach, an equally obscure movie critic. To everyone’s surprise, Ecotopia became a major best-seller, selling a million copies.
The book follows a newspaper reporter who visits a breakaway republic whose policies in many ways presage the goals of today’s environmental movement. Ecotopia reflects environmental concerns common in the 1970s—air pollution, energy dependence, pesticides, nuclear power, overpopulation. Callenbach called his new state “a small precarious island of hope” and portrays the rest of the country as a polluted, collapsed dystopia. Although conditions on environmental issues like air pollution have greatly improved since the 1970s, Ecotopian policies resonate with extreme environmentalists today: a highly regulated, essentially socialistic society without cars, fossil fuels, or air travel, and with limits placed on child-bearing. Like many radicals of our own time, the Ecotopians also were hostile to the nuclear family and embraced the principles of racial politics, with special rights and “greater autonomy” for various minorities, including Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and even Jews.
California’s Green Authoritarian State
For California’s greens, Ecotopia reads like a how-to-manual for imposing a regulatory regime that limits virtually every function of daily life and economy—one for which Covid-19 is providing a “test run.”
California’s powerful green lobby has imposed a series of policies—on housing, transportation, and energy—that diverge from national norms. The state, for instance, is looking to go all-electric in the next decade, with the elimination of gas-powered cars by 2035, at enormous cost, even as it cuts power from natural gas and nuclear. One critic suggests that this could leave California looking like Cuba, filled with rickety, but affordable, gas-powered automotive dinosaurs.
Little mention is made in the press or academia about how these policies have proved catastrophic for the state’s working and middle classes, driven the cost of energy and housing to unsustainable levels, and chased millions out of the state. Much mainstream media coverage approaches environmental issues with all the objectivity of Pravda. This was particularly evident in the coverage of fires, with the media mindlessly repeating Governor Gavin Newsom’s attempt to blame the conflagrations on climate change.
Not since the Middle Ages, where everything was seen as caused by divine will, have incompetents found a more convenient excuse for their failures.
In reality, as even the usually left-leaning Pro Publica has revealed, the fires were made far worse by green policies driven by the demands of environmentalists. These included constant lawsuits against local efforts to clean up old growth, particularly dead trees, and stopping even sustainable logging. California, as few reporters note, has a naturally combustible landscape which, left alone, would burn many times more than even the worst fire season.
Most tragically, current policies have little chance of making a meaningful difference to the climate. California, though a hotbed of climate extremism, has reduced its greenhouse gases between 2007 and 2016 at a rate that ranked just 40th per capita among the states. Similar failures can be seen in Germany (whose policies Newsom wants to follow), where the much heralded Energiewende—the nation’s planned transition to low-carbon fuel sources—has led to soaring energy costs but disappointing results in emissions declines. The impact of such steps by California on global climate, note some recent studies, would be almost infinitesimal, given that the primary source of rising emissions comes from outside the West—notably China, easily the world’s biggest emitter.
Will America Go Ecotopian?
If Kamala Harris makes it to the White House, Ecotopian ideas—at least those that don’t threaten her tech oligarch backers, often the beneficiaries of renewable investments—are almost certain to come to the fore. Like California, the rest of the country would have to live with higher costs and less reliable energy, along with huge investments in mass transit—yielding few new riders—and restrictions on middle-class suburban housing, even as this form of housing, according to the National Association of Realtors, has gained even more popularity since the pandemic.
Californians can move out (and many are doing so) as conditions become intolerable, but a national green regime would be harder to escape. Americans in the rest of country, where weather tends more to extremes, would suffer more than California from a Green New Deal—particularly the agricultural Great Plains, the “oil patch,” and the manufacturing centers of the Midwest, where people still depend on reliable energy for the production of goods.
In both Germany and California, green policies have hurt the working class far more than the affluent, who, argues British socialist James Heartfield, actually benefit from scarcity. Family-oriented people may also object to Ecotopia-like calls for restrictions on having children due to their “carbon legacy,” a proposal already endorsed by climate researchers at Sweden’s Lund University and Oregon State University. Some scientists suggest that we will have to shift from hamburgers to such delightful concoctions as “maggot sausages.” One scientist even suggested that we recycle ourselves and rediscover the finer points of cannibalism.
The Coming Autocracy
It’s unlikely that voters will long embrace such ideas. But many greens, concerned that the masses may not follow orders, prefer the post-democratic method of handing over power to credentialed environmental “experts” operating in Washington, Brussels, or the United Nations, a notion already advanced by former Obama budget advisor Peter Orszag and journalist Thomas Friedman.
Over time, however, the green movement, now funded by the wealthy, may become less genteel. Grassroots Ecotopian extremism is rising; the vast majority of young Americans believe that we face imminent environmental catastrophe. The student movement around Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg recalls the youthful fanaticism of Medieval sanctus puer—the “holy children,” who rampaged through Europe in the 13th century—or Mao’s Red Guards, unleashed during the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Like their Maoist forebears, Ecotopian shock troops often seek to enforce ideological conformity, in their case against climate skeptics of any kind—even those who agree that climate change poses a serious challenge. Dissidents, some suggest, should be jailed, or at least dropped into the media memory hole. And perhaps uncooperative companies could be dispossessed of their assets.
What happens when the green funders from Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley find themselves under attack, as did liberal aristocrats during the French Revolution? After all, the Ecotopians rightly find it unacceptable that Al Gore, Prince Charles, Richard Branson, rapper Drake, and Brad Pitt—who worries about “consuming ourselves to extinction”—still fly in their gas-guzzling private jets, even to climate-oriented events. Zealots like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Thunberg already seek to restrict air travel for the masses. There’s no moral high ground for the green gentry living in massive estates and private islands, while neo-Ecotopians rage against modestly spacious suburban homes.
As in Ecotopia, the most committed greens embrace the idea that austerity should be shared by all. The wealthy have resisted this notion up to now, and they will continue to do so—at least until the green clerisy succeeds in capturing control of government policy. Then even the wealthy will be at their mercy. California’s Ecotopia, far from a fantasy, could soon become reality—for the rich and everyone else.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin