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21 July 2021

Shades of gold: Why California is a bellwether of the world to come

Devastating wildfires are reshaping California, a state that has always been both a wild frontier and a bastion of progress.

By Nick Burns

It rarely rains in California between March and November. But in 2020, with gruesome irony, a huge storm on 16 August brought not just precipitation but a barrage of lightning that sparked hundreds of blazes across the northern part of the state. One of these fires – the enormous August Complex fire in and beyond the Mendocino National Forest – was responsible for the apocalyptic orange sky above San Francisco in early September. Fire-fighting crews drawn from California’s large prison population – a key source of labour for this dangerous and back-breaking work – were unavailable due to corona-virus outbreaks. Fire crews from up the coast could not come to help, as Oregon and Washington were burning too.

Little relief is in store this year. The winter brought scarce rain, and now a severe drought grips California. The mountains are bare of snow, reservoir levels are dropping – depriving the state of hydroelectric power just as heatwaves test the energy grid – and the hillsides are sun-scorched and brown with combustible dry grass. “Hell”, like “paradise”, is a term used far too easily to describe California. Looking to the coming months in the Golden State, however, “hellish” may be hardly an exaggeration. A punishing season of fire has already begun, with three times as much land burned this year as during the same period in 2020, which was itself the worst year on record.

Politically speaking, California is no longer known as the state that launched the careers of Republican presidents Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Now synonymous in the national consciousness with liberalism, it is known for high taxes and ambitious policies on emissions standards. Emerging from the pandemic, California seems eager to renew its reputation as a progressive leader. With coffers flush with federal stimulus money, the new California budget includes cash for the poor, money to cover missed rent during the pandemic, and funding for childcare.

But – as can only be expected for a party with such a comfortable grasp on power – Democratic rule in California has not been free of scandal. The humiliating news broke in November last year that the state had been defrauded of what is now thought to be up to $31bn in unemployment benefits, many of which were applied for and granted under the names of convicted felons, including some on death row.

[See also: Are Australia’s bushfires our future?]

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After Kamala Harris, now vice-president, declared in 2019 she was running for president, rumours swirled about her past extramarital affair with Willie Brown, former speaker of the California Assembly, a relationship which preceded his giving Harris two career-making committee appointments. Brown flatly admitted the connection in a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s politics for ya,” he wrote. State governor Gavin Newsom, who was caught last year at a dinner with healthcare lobbyists – in violation of his own Covid advice – will have to survive a recall election challenge this autumn after Californians signed a petition for his ouster (though polls show he has a comfortable lead).

The severity of wildfires in California has been intensified by climate change, and also by botched forest policy and governmental neglect. Wildfires principally threaten mountain communities, not the lowland megalopolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles, where power and wealth are concentrated. To protect these rural Californians would be expensive, and state authorities seem to prefer to leave them to their fate. Reporting revealed that the mountain town of Berry Creek had applied for a permit to thin the surrounding forest to help prevent the threat of wildfire. The application was caught in bureaucratic limbo for years, and the work was not completed in time to prevent the town burning to the ground in 2020.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility that supplies much of California with its power, maintains equipment so old and rickety that it seems the only way to prevent it from starting deadly fires every time the wind blows is to turn it off. Rolling blackouts like the ones that affected hundreds of thousands of Californians in October and November last year, in some cases for days on end, may continue for a decade, during the long process of replacing infrastructure. Meanwhile, a new executive order will ban the sale of all non-electric cars in the state by 2035. Californians contemplate the possibility of being forced to buy an electric car but being unable to charge it as the utility has shut off their power – leaving them potentially unable to flee when wildfire strikes. California races into the future without having freed itself from the primitive conditions of the frontier.

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***

For a full week in September 2020, an orange-brown pall of smoke hung over Silicon Valley, where horse ranches alternate incongruously with business parks containing the headquarters of major tech companies. Their parking lots lay empty as workers toiled from their homes. Silicon Valley is just like any other of California’s hundreds of valleys, full of dry grass and live oaks. In the mid-19th century, Spanish and Mexican ranches gave way to American settlement and, in the 20th, to suburban sprawl. It’s just that here, the settlers struck a vein – not gold but silicon. Long-standing government investment in the area in the form of US navy research and military aerospace manufacture paired with the engineering hubs of Stanford University to nourish, in the 1950s, entrepreneurial computer-chip makers operating from Palo Alto garages. This was the origin of the boom that was to transform these rustic ranches and staid suburbs into the world’s leading technology hub.

Each generation of start-ups in Silicon Valley re-enacts the 1849 Gold Rush: burgeoning opportunity among equals is followed closely by hierarchical clampdown. In the frantic early days, a “flat” corporate hierarchy is erratically maintained, and it seems everyone has the same chance of becoming powerful and wealthy. Within just a few years, if the business does not fail, it becomes just as stratified as any other company. Decisions regarding political, ethical, and legal concerns – whether to do business in China, for example, or how to deal with misinformation on social media platforms – are generally made from the top, while the large majority of workers are kept in the dark regarding all but technical matters.

You need a little more than a pan and a pickaxe to make a fortune in the valley – coding proficiency is a must. But the promise of a six-figure starting salary and relatively quick promotions, if you are willing to switch companies, remains a major draw to the industry. A shortage of affordable housing is perhaps the most significant obstacle to the continued success of the American technology business. Thanks to fierce local resistance to housing development, the suburbs of Silicon Valley have become super-wealthy citadels. From Cupertino in the south to San Mateo in the north stretches an eerie, featureless landscape of humble ranch-style houses worth millions – a fantasy-world from which racial tensions, poverty and homelessness have been banished to San Francisco and the East Bay.

The price for this escapism is ruthlessly inflated costs for houses and apartments across the region, making even big earners feel precarious. Nor does remote work promise relief: as tech workers have spread across the mountain states, inflated asset prices have followed their incomes. Now in Ketchum, Idaho and Bozeman, Montana, demand for housing outstrips supply.

[See also: Apple vs Facebook: how the war between the Silicon Valley giants is changing tech]

As anyone who has spent time in the area knows, the code monkeys and investors of Silicon Valley have a distinctive world-view, designated the “Californian ideology” in a 1995 essay of the same name by media scholars Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron. This outlook combines the dregs of 1960s social liberalism with a free-market, libertarian stance on economic issues: yes to diversity, yes to capitalism. But tensions in the Californian ideology now seem increasingly prominent. A younger generation wants more action now to diversify the tech industry, while the old guard – and some dissenting youngsters – feel that free-thinking and innovation are under attack by rhetorical captiousness and high-tax tendencies on the contemporary left.

The ideology of Silicon Valley might otherwise be described as Comtean – after Auguste Comte, a 19th-century French philosopher, educated as an engineer, who saw human history in terms of progress through stages of development and demanded that science become a “religion of humanity”. Engineers of all times seem to think along similar lines. In Silicon Valley, one is informed that studying history is useless: it undercuts worthy ambitions, and the future is sure to look nothing like the past. Who doubts that the latest automated dog-walking app or machine-learning coffee-maker will remake the world in its image?

The budget Nietzscheanism of Silicon Valley, where success depends on a certain suspension of disbelief, has lately clashed with the sceptical forces of East Coast journalism. In the wake of exposés alleging fraud perpetrated by some of the darlings of the industry – such as Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos, whose revolutionary blood tests, the Wall Street Journal revealed in October 2015, were not as effective as they seemed – Silicon Valley has closed ranks against the “nepo-tistic East Coast establishment”. Assuming the role of the common man, super-rich investors imagine their journalistic adversaries as idle aristocrats who enjoy quashing others’ humble attempts to contribute to the economy, simply because they have nothing better to do. The deteriorating relations point towards an old divide between West and East: Californians think all Easterners are effete dawdlers who have never done a day’s real work, while Easterners think everything in California must be exaggerated or false – for if it were real, why would one keep enduring the rats and crowds of New York?

***

Part of California’s mystery lies in its double valence as the purported site of the ultimate fulfilment of the “American dream” and as a place where this sort of autonomy and mobility has been profoundly less achievable than even elsewhere in the US. The Gold Rush was, in its early phases, genuinely democratic and a means of making far larger fortunes than were possible through farming – the occupation of most Americans during the mid-19th century. But soon the profits were monopolised by a few companies, such as North Bloomfield Hydraulic, which scoured away whole hillsides in search of diminishing mineral deposits.

The fiction of John Steinbeck depicts in a similar way a 20th-century California where the dream of making oneself a yeoman farmer collides with reality. The Americans in California may have succeeded in separating the old Hispanic aristocracy from its vast land-grants, but they failed in distributing the land among Jeffersonian smallholders. Instead it was a handful of special interests – such as the infamous Miller and Lux Corporation – that were to own the land, leaving Steinbeckian figures like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) or George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1937) able to do little more than dream while working for the man.

[See also: Letter from New York: A ghost town comes to life]

But just as opportunity seemed lost, it revived in new and unexpected ways. Irrigation and reclamation – formerly despised as useless in a land of plenty – turned malarial bogs and dry wastes in the Central Valley into the country’s leading agricultural district. Soon, these stretches were in the hands of the big companies, too, but the initiative had come from a federal programme to create new opportunity for smallholders: not by breaking up large holdings but by turning bad land into good. Americans hate to think that the world is zero-sum. Why can’t everybody win?

The life of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer was foreclosed, but soon there were more 20th-century American dreams available. The aerospace boom around Los Angeles during and after the Second World War provided good jobs for many like Steinbeck’s Joads, poor internal immigrants from the drought-stricken Midwest. Having overcome its do-it-yourself, anti-government ethos to complete an extensive public infrastructure project, thus securing its water supply, Los Angeles multiplied across the coastal plain. Rows of houses replaced the old orange groves in the valleys and surrounded the dilapidated land-grants of the Spanish. But public transit was too much for this atomised city: it was constructed for the car, the perfect facilitator of American life. A car was individual, it was a piece of property, and it was mobile. What more could one want?

***

Since 1960 California has undergone a demographic revolution, from being white-dominated in 1960 to majority-minority today. White backlash, in the form of withholding benefits from illegal immigrants, was seen to have given way to a more generous attitude as the voting base diversified throughout the 1990s. But the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, which followed the police beating of black Angeleno Rodney King, killed dozens and punctured ideas of the state as a peaceful, post-racial society. After the George Floyd protests last year, it is tempting to imagine California as a harbinger.

Much of Mike Davis’s writing on LA considers it as Alexis de Tocqueville considered America: as a trendsetter or Patient Zero, where symptoms soon to afflict the nation or the world at large are exhibited early, and starkly. Take, for example, Davis’s send-up of local star architect Frank Gehry, whose much-heralded steel contortions are criticised as “fortresses” deploying surveillance cameras and high walls to extract value safely from dangerous inner-city neighbourhoods: a symptom of the grim American response to urban ferment in the 1960s.

[See also: Where have all the intellectuals gone?]

California as “crystal ball of capitalism’s future” is also the theme of much of the writing of German-Jewish exiles to LA during the 1940s, thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, whose critique of Hollywood’s “culture industry” features prominently in Davis’s City of Quartz (1990). Adorno and Horkheimer were dismayed by how film and radio seemed to turn enlightenment into something appallingly homogeneous and indistinguishable from totalitarian propaganda. Progressive movements began as genuine challenges to inherited prejudice, but at the moment of their triumph were converted into mere tools in service of the status quo. Today’s Instagram influencers and Kardashians, no less than the Greta Garbos and Guy Lombardos of Adorno’s day, are perfectly happy to put themselves at the service of whatever cause is newest and most righteous – so long as it keeps the millions of paying customers watching them on the big or the small screen, copying their tics and turns of phrase, learning to think like they do.

It was no coincidence that Adorno and Horkheimer theorised this paradox of enlightenment in California, a place where rationality and irrationality can be hard to separate. The speed, the violent ambition of the settling of the state often seem to illustrate a broader tension in the modern world – a consequence of the attempt to improve man’s condition by dominating nature through reason. California warns of that endeavour’s mixed success. Across the state, one can find subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses precisely constructed, evenly spaced in concentric circles – but planned, approved and built in a speculative frenzy, laid out on the side of a steep and arid hillside highly vulnerable to flame, flood and earthquake. Adorno and Horkheimer compared LA bungalows to “tin cans” waiting to be thrown away. Is such a civilisation rational? Perhaps. But it is not wise.

***

Driving from Washington to San Francisco in summer 2020 – a trip that required dodging three separate wildfires – I took a detour south of Eureka to visit the Lost Coast, the last strip of California coastline with no major settlements or roads, where the peaks of the King Range drop dizzyingly into the Pacific. Six hours north of San Francisco, a narrow pothole-riddled road stretches beyond the pastel Victorian houses of prosperous, pastoral Ferndale into moss-covered redwoods and out into open country, rolling down to a forlorn shore.

In a few decades, would this little valley, with its handful of cows and dilapidated corrugated-tin sheds, be full of subdivisions and beachfront houses selling for millions each? Or would more parts of the coast begin to look more like this, lost and quiet? It seemed a safe bet that the shore would still be here, along with the wind, the afternoon light, and that special smell of dry Californian grass mixed with the ocean breeze, which is not to be found elsewhere in the world. 

This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century