A house flooded by the Salinas River near Chualar, California (Photo by David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

A California nightmare

What is the future of the Golden State?

Artillery Row

Visiting California was quite a way to start the year. The Golden State, never knowingly understated, was hit by “a conveyor belt” of devastating storms that raised deep questions about its future. God’s own acre, so they say, California is blessed by majestic vineyards, its beautiful coast, the richest American farmland, not to mention that epicentre of the new world economy, Silicon Valley. But think again, warn the meteorologists, about California Dreamin” on such winter days.

For once the National Weather Service made compelling reading. “Torrential rain, widespread flooding, rapid water rises, mudslides and landslides with possible debris flows, heavy mountain snow and gusty high winds all remain threats was the forecast repeated for days on end. “Climate change has probably doubled the risk of extremely severe, and repeated storm sequences in California,” added climate scientist Dan Swain.

You wondered, what price the California Dream?

Just months after a severe drought that spawned brutal wildfires, California is being ravaged by a climate crisis all its own — 2023 dawning with everything from “atmospheric rivers and “cyclone bombs”, to old-fashioned floods and mudslides with mass evacuations. Witness movie star Kevin Costner — unable to accept in person an award at the Golden Globes ceremony in Hollywood because he was obliged to “shelter in place at his home in Montecito”. Likewise Ellen de Generes, TV talk mega-star, appeared in a hoodie and raincoat from the same slice of paradise turned sinkhole. “This is crazy,” she told us. Yes, Ellen. By the way, Montecito happens to be where Prince Harry and Meghan live — although it seems they were elsewhere, on Harry’s book tour, as one of the many historic storms hit. 

Somehow, nothing said more about the condition of the California dream than the tragedy of Rebekah and Steven. She was a middle-aged mother, and he an elderly man — just two of the tens of thousands of homeless people living on the streets here, in the likes of San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, often close to some of the wealthiest communities in our world. They were crushed to death in their tents by falling trees, whilst sleeping out in California’s capital Sacramento, near the state’s legislature.

There’s the paradox, as ever, with the California Dream. Forget about Kevin and Ellen, likewise maybe Harry and Meghan. This is the planet’s largest sub-national economy, so much so that if the California Republic ever came into being, it would be the world’s fifth largest economy, between — wait for it — Germany and India. Think not just of the tech-moguls of Apple, Google and Alphabet. Think too of the Salad Bowl, the state’s vast central valley, producing more than half of America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. 

As you watched the denizens of those paradise communities — Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, yes, Montecito — ordered to get out now, seeing the wealthy hustle into their Porsches and Maseratis (whilst bringing in Mexican crews to board up their houses) paled in comparison to the spectacle of ordinary folks flocking to emergency shelters and cheap motels, scrambling to assemble kids and carry-bags in the back of ageing Ford and Chevys. Suddenly, the Golden state, home to 40 million, looked like the third world. You wondered, what price the California Dream?

We’ve been here before, and caution is in order. Back in the early 1990s, Time magazine (then a market leader) declared “The end of the California Dream”, via a recession after the Cold War that brought the closure of major army and navy bases, dramatic job losses and a serious exodus. We missed back then the coming of the Information Superhighway (as the Internet was called even by incoming President Bill Clinton). We missed the way California rebounded via technology and Silicon Valley.

Then, in 2001, when the dot.com boom imploded, with the stock markets questioning whether the internet had run its course in terms of investment and growth, the sceptics were foolish enough to suggest that California faced a crisis of spirit and intent. Wrong again. The hi-tech whizkids coming out of Stanford University, wedded to the venture capitalists and the new-age market (think Tesla) wrote yet another chapter in California’s amazing history. From the Gold Rush, we came to hundreds of millions rushing to dial an Uber driver on their phones.

Let’s hope the Golden State can invent a way out of its climate crisis

This time around, let’s hope the Golden State can invent a way out of its climate crisis, maybe show the rest of our world a way forward. According to one expert, studying the challenge at the University of California, Berkeley, it’s doable — but only if leaders reverse the very history of the state. “California was built on the idea of bending nature to its needs, led by the farmers who wanted guaranteed water, held by dams and levees,” he suggests. “Now the dams and levees have broken, we have to let nature lead the way.” Hmmm. 

Sounds challenging in a not-so-Golden State, especially when you consider that the politicians are already flagging the thought that communities (led by farmers, followed by big business, followed by even homeowners) would have to give up prime real estate if the dams and the levees are not the future — rather rivers and waterways running free.

We left, on a rare beautiful, sunny morning in this new year, humming an anthem of the 1960s, the age when California and its counter-culture took the Golden State global: “California Dreamin’ on such a winter’s day”, a song immortalised by the Mamas and Papas. The California Dream is still alive. Given the state’s huge role in the wider world (what’s the next start-up that changes lives?), the climate crisis makes its response a must-see chapter of our planet’s tomorrow.

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