More Thoughts on Agriculture

A couple of days ago I submitted a modest blog post proposal that California’s agricultural system should be transformed in a modular sort of way, starting with irrigation districts (and other water-delivery entities, including mutuals and co-ops). My thinking was that pretty much every farmer facing this water crisis is in some way tapped into some sort of collective water-delivery scheme. In any case, it’s much more prevalent and geographically dense than co-op membership, which tends to be by crop rather than proximity. Water delivery organizations seem like natural building blocks to me (a city guy with little experience with agriculture).

A reader named Graham provided a very thoughtful comment, beginning:

The underlying issues here are surely about the agricultural practices that have been adopted in this area, practices which have led to destruction of soil biology and huge demand for water and nutrient inputs. If, instead of “retiring” farmland than was once some of the most fertile land on the planet, these farmers adopted regenerative farming practices that worked hand in hand with the natural environment, they would relatively quickly, and cheaply, be able to bring this land back into production and build resilience and true sustainability at the same time, making their land better able to withstand drought.

I agree that unsustainable farming practices are doomed to fail and a huge part of the problem with Central Valley agriculture. I didn’t miss that point so much as I chose to focus on a different one to keep that post at a semi-manageable length. I’m an organizational geek and not an agricultural scientist, and I wanted to focus on the structure of how change might happen systemically, rather than the specifics of that change as implemented. I am already a bit over my pay grade here without trying to plan for a very difficult farmland restoration element to the structural changes; I do admit that such restoration will be needed if we hope to continue with anything close to our current population.

I would love to see a more restorative approach, but I’m not sure if that is possible now with the amount of damage, the urgency of drought (as well as chronic pressure from globalization), and the massive debt and investment in existing practices. In any case, I suspect it would take a full stop to restore and relaunch something more sustainable.

I tried to convey with my detailed description of the Westlands’ location that not all agricultural land in this generally amazing agricultural region is the same. As far as I can tell (which is admittedly not much), much of Westlands was always quite marginal due to drainage issues. Even without added chemicals, the local groundwater has its own load of salts and minerals that are causing serious soil pollution problems. This is not prime valley floor, and apparently can’t even last a single farmer’s lifetime without an elaborate drainage system developed and maintained by the federal government.

It’s not clear that more sustainable technical practices would even work in this land with the current occupants’ level of investment, debt and so on. Even assuming that it could work, there’s the challenging matter of switching. Organic certification is quite expensive in the US and I would argue that a cooperative structure (or at least some sort of non-cooperative shared effort along the lines of Westlands Solar Farm) is needed to help share the substantial short-term costs of transition and make the conversion as quickly and painlessly as possible.

There is certainly a role for co-ops in this, although we must admit that many large co-ops in the US have been slow to move toward sustainability; I attribute that slowness to their inability to just dump conventional growers and buy from someone who has already made the change at their own personal risk – co-ops are stuck with their members and must find a way to help members make the transition.

However, I would argue (as I have) that “an increasing share of the organic industry’s product is distributed through investor-owned distributors and sold through investor-owned stores. This makes ‘sustainable’ products ultimately unsustainable, by shifting the profits away from the altruistic entrepreneurs who started these companies, and toward investors who are primarily out for profit.”

I believe that economic and structural sustainability is fundamental, and without it no piecemeal changes to the practices of specific farming operations will really be sustainable. That isn’t to say that these piecemeal changes shouldn’t happen – they must – but I just don’t see how it will change anything in the long run.

Westlands isn’t a co-op so it isn’t bound by the Co-operative Principles. Of course, I would agree with Graham’s second assertion that “concern for community” is where sustainability comes in, and I hope that co-ops add it as a standalone principle, really. Sustainability is not really negotiable – all farmland, sooner or later, must be farmed sustainably or not at all.

 

 

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The Co-op Pope

Pope Francis caused a lot of excitement during his papacy’s first year, and much of it was economic in nature. He has been making a whole variety of statements that have caused unease among those most comfortable with the established order. Francis has challenged the established capitalist way of doing business

But how might an alternative unfold? While state socialism has a well-know history of antagonism with religion, there is a wealth of models for voluntary, egalitarian and community-based models that allow for the participation of all. These cooperative forms are in many cases rooted in the earliest days of the movement that became Christianity. They are also supported by more than a century of papal pronouncements as well as parish organizing.

A Co-op Pope?

During his first year, Pope Francis embraced cooperative forms, likely influenced by the long history of Catholic cooperative organizing. This embrace was most clear during a papal audience held in October. Co-op leaders from Francis’ home country of Argentina, as well as key figures in the International Co-operative Alliance, spent most of an hour with the pope; ICA president Dame Pauline Green gave this description in her blog:

It’s true to say that we were all mightily impressed with The Pope’s intimate knowledge and understanding of our movement. All alone with no staff or advisers and not a note or briefing paper to be seen, he spoke our co-operative language during a 45 minute informal discussion. Stopping once with a laugh to apologise for giving us a sermon, the Pope argued that global leaders need to understand that co-ops are not just something for moments of crisis, but the way in which economic life should go in the future.

It seems that Francis was also touched by the encounter. A month later, his own message to the Third Festival of the Social Doctrine of the Church included this:

Also a thought on cooperation: I met several representatives of the world of cooperatives. We had a meeting here in this room some months ago. I was very consoled, and I think it is good news for everyone to hear that in responding to the crisis net profits have gone down while the employment level has been maintained. Work is so important. Work and the dignity of the person go hand in hand. Solidarity must also be applied to guarantee work; cooperation is an important element to ensure a plurality of presence among employers in the market. Today this is the subject of some misunderstanding even at the European level yet I maintain that failure to consider this form of presence as relevant in the world of production constitutes an impoverishment that leaves room for homologations and fails to promote difference and identity.

I remember — I was a teenager — I was 18 years old: it was 1954, and I heard my father speak on Christian cooperativism and from that moment I developed an enthusiasm for it, I saw that it was the way. It is precisely the road to equality, not to homogenity, but to equality in difference. Even economically it goes slowly. I remember that reflection my father gave: it goes forward slowly, but it is sure. When I hear some of the other economic theories, like that “of the commodities” — I don’t really know what it’s called in Italian — [the Pope is referring to an optimistic economic theory on the fall of prices of goods and the reduction of poverty]. Experience tells us that that way doesn’t work. (parenthetical in Vatican’s source document – AM)

I hope that all of you who are committed to cooperative reform, will keep alive the memory of their origins. The cooperative forms established by Catholics such as the implementation of Rerum Novarum bear witness to the power of faith, which today as then is capable of inspiring concrete action to respond to the needs of our people.

Francis has also appointed Cardinal Peter Turkson to act as an ongoing liaison to the cooperative movement. Turkson’s duties so far have included delivery of a message to the ICA conference in South Africa shortly after the audience:

Thus we note that the cooperative has been a fertile field we to exercise participation and subsidiarity, bases of cooperative economic structure to ensure the objectives themselves valuing the participation of each of the partners. The performance of these principles by cooperatives has been: a valuable contribution to building democracy by explicitly encouraging the principle of participation, an important contribution to overcoming poverty, which identifies the most urgent needs people and promoted as protagonists of their own development, and an invaluable contribution to the establishment of peace by encouraging cooperative partnerships between movements in different regions fostering dialogue and fraternal cooperation between the societies of origin .

I haven’t yet encountered a clear public reference to the massive Catholic-rooted cooperatives of northern Italy, the Basque Country, Nova Scotia or Quebec, although I believe that the “Rerum Novarum” is an indirect reference (see below).

No Blessings for Capitalism

Francis’ stance toward capitalism provides a stark contrast.

During January, Francis sent a message to the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, where the world’s elite was openly fretting about how they are sitting at the top of a house of cards caused by wealth disparities. The organizers are worried enough to create something called A New Social Covenant; it sounds nice but we shall see what fruit it bears.

Some have reported that Francis “blessed” the gathering in Davos. But while he did close with the words, “I invoke divine blessings on you and the participants of the Forum, as well as on your families and all your work,” it is important to note that this invocation is something altogether different than the endorsement that is usually implied by the word “blessing.” Rather, the actual text of the message reveals that Francis is calling the assembly to task for its failure to create real economic progress for all, and invokes blessings in apparent recognition that God’s help will be needed for this crowd’s repentance.

In the context of your meeting, I wish to emphasize the importance that the various political and economic sectors have in promoting an inclusive approach which takes into consideration the dignity of every human person and the common good. I am referring to a concern that ought to shape every political and economic decision, but which at times seems to be little more than an afterthought.

This is a personal concern: While Francis was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998-2013), he witnessed firsthand his country’s economic collapse at the hands of capitalist globalization. He was familiar with one of the worker-owned recuperated workplaces that made Argentina an inspiring model for the world – popularized by the 2004 documentary The Take.

The Gospel Against Consumerism

We should also look at Francis’ writings.

The most prominent of the pope’s statements was Evangelii Gaudium, which has been described (somewhat inaccurately) as a “manifesto” against capitalism. This label jibes with the accusations of Marxism popular on the economic right. The Holy Father’s writing – titled The Joy of the Gospel in English – is not a papal encyclical, a specific type of document that establishes Church doctrine and is perhaps a closer analog to a party manifesto. It is in fact a “papal exhortation,” a guide to Catholics offering them encouragement to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Students of Marx will recall that this was not a common theme of his, although there is some overall resonance in the economic values described.

On the other hand, there are quite a few encyclicals that already do establish an economic doctrine that is squarely at odds with the ways of the world. These social encyclicals run all the way back to Pope Leo XII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”). That earlier writing helped set the Tyrolean Alps afire with an economic revival that laid the foundation for one of the world’s great cooperative economies – which has transformed life for Catholic and secular Italians alike.

Evangelii Gaudium is a papal exhortation: encouragement for members of the Catholic Church to act in certain ways as they preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not primarily a critique of capitalism; it is, first and foremost, a religious statement. However, in some ways its non-doctrinal nature heightens the power of the writing by its simple emphasis upon the spiritual impact of economics. To Francis, consumerism tempts us to accept capitalism’s rule of wealth over people, and is therefore a grave obstacle to preaching the Gospel. This obstacle is presented prominently, right in the second paragraph of a document that approaches 50,000 words:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience…That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

There is much more writing like this, particularly in chapters two and four. But in case we might be tempted to squirm away from dozens of passages and thousands of words driving home the message, the Holy Father leaves no wiggle room here:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

The capitalist economy is based on exclusion and inequality, and results in death. It therefore violates one of the Ten Commandments. No more avoiding the issue. Anyone who intends to live a good life as a Catholic simply must find another way of engaging with economics.

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Dismantling Agriculture, Rebuilding Anew

California’s worsening water situation is changing the face of agriculture. Much of the San Joaquin Valley is already being fallowed for this year due to acute water shortages. There is also the growing prospect that the state’s growing population, diminishing snowpack (still less than 1/3 of normal after a near-average March) and literally collapsing soil (subsiding up to a foot a year as salt levels increase toward the point that nothing can grow) herald permanent changes that will lead to permanent abandonment of some farmland.

In some areas water shortages and related issues are already forcing the retirement of farmland in of one of the world’s great agricultural zones. This apparently inevitable contraction can happen in one of two ways: through disorganized competition or organized cooperation.

In the competitive scenario, increased cost and scarcity of irrigation water may force farmers out of business in a haphazard way that concentrates what little wealth remains in the region and worsens the already dramatic economic displacement underway.

But perhaps the mutual roots of irrigation may provide a pathway for organized retreat. Think of it as consulting blueprints in order to carefully dismantle a structure for reconstruction into a new system, rather than simply bringing in the market’s wrecking ball to shatter the system at its weakest points (where lack of water rights or excessive debt shut down production of land whether or not it makes sense to do so).

Some blend of these approaches is likely, but it seems that if left to its own devices, the invisible hand of the market is going to mostly just shatter a weakened agricultural system and leave us with a vast debris field.

So where to start? Where are the natural joints at which we might start to disassemble this creaky old barn before it collapses under its own weight?

Go West

As I have read the news about California’s historic drought, I’ve noticed that the name “Westlands” keeps popping up. I became curious, and I think I may have found a starting point – the eaves of the barn roof, if you will. Westland Water District is a public entity (not a co-op), but it is at heart an old mutual irrigation scheme, of the sort that is dominant throughout the West. Positive collaboration to move beyond farming is already underway even as Westlands members struggle to preserve their agrarian ways of life.

Despite the individualist mythology of the Frontier, development of irrigation in the western United States was highly collectivized. The western system is much different than the chaotic and individualistic system that spread from Europe into the eastern United States, where streams flowing throughout the growing season were quite common and water rights basically came with the land.

Water mutualism were pioneered by the Mormons, who recognized that the eastern “riparian” system would only allow irrigation of the miniscule bit of land with year-round surface water. Groundwater extraction through wells was often unreliable and prone to pollution with salts as well as poisonous minerals like selenium and arsenic – a problem that generally grew worse over time.

By collectivizing water access to divert year-round surface water through aqueducts, arable land was expanded out across the valley floors. So snowmelt from the mountains provided adequate irrigation to grow food for the booming civilization centered around Salt Lake City. It worked and it was copied.

This larger economic system was destroyed at the close of the 19th Century, but irrigation mutuals, cooperatives and districts proved quite adaptable on their own and spread like wildfire across a dry land. Westlands Water District was created in 1952, and now provides water for roughly 600 farmers on 600,000 acres. The district also provides an organizational structure, which is interesting for reasons that I’ll discuss in a moment.

Where is Westlands?

Understanding Westlands’ location is crucial to grasping its problems and opportunities. The district sits in Fresno County, on relatively high ground on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. A quick glance at a map suggests that it would be a rather unremarkable spot in the middle reaches of the valley’s namesake river.

In fact, Westlands is only marginally in the San Joaquin watershed, perched on high land between that watershed and the Tulare Basin. To the east of its southern portion, the Kings River actually splits and flows both north into the San Joaquin and south through a number of distributaries.

From the southern end of Westlands, water flows (when there is enough rain) into the Tulare Basin, which was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi River before water diversion dried it up. This lake was a major source of fish and turtles during the 19th Century and was large enough to serve as a military floatplane base as late as World War II.

Westlands Water District has very poor drainage. Whatever rainfall makes it past Big Sur and the Diablo Mountain Range to this naturally dry rainshadow tends to soak into the ground rather than running into a creek and eventually a river. This is fine with rainwater, which is relatively pure.

On the other hand, irrigation water sometimes comes from mineral-rich wells and usually receives added contamination from pesticides and fertilizers. So its evaporation leads to increasingly toxic and saline soils. Salinization is a problem for irrigated agriculture everywhere, but the San Joaquin Valley appears to present an unusually acute case.

It’s important for us to remember that agriculture in this part of the world has been a relatively short experiment. And this experiment appears to be leading toward a conclusion that it wasn’t such a great idea to farm there. So how do we extricate ourselves?

Sharing the Burden

Westlands is a sort of high point in the overarching structure – the barn – in its size and location as well as the urgency of its problems. And is therefore worth consideration as a point to begin the disassembly and reconstruction of San Joaquin agriculture.

Westlands’ own “History” page acknowledges that something has to give: “Westlands also faces significant drainage problems. Approximately one third of the district does not drain properly. As a result, salt present in the water imported from the Delta accumulates in the soil.”

Westlands blames this problem on the Federal government’s failure to provide drainage since the closure of the San Luis Drain, which was shut down in 1986 after its outflow proved devastating to birds in the Kesterton Reservoir, into which it drained.

It’s hard to see how a new drainage scheme will work without some sort of water treatment, but Westlands has a point: Its members were led to believe that drainage would be provided. So they made decisions and investments based on the assumption of drainage.

And at the same time, drainage cannot be provided without some dramatic changes. It’s been nearly 30 years now, and it’s time to admit that the San Luis Drain ain’t coming back in its old form. There would be simply too much clamor from those downstream.

Yes, Westlands is only a small portion of the overall problem, but – fairly or unfairly – its reliance on a hypothetical drain creates for it a higher bar than other farmers whose runoff may be just as toxic but can flow freely into a self-draining river.

These dramatic challenges – common throughout the valley but aggravated by Westlands’ history and expectations surrounding the drainage issue – demand some sort of collective response. So it is hypothetically possible that Westlands might provide a structure for either conversion to farming practices that produce much less runoff, and especially less-toxic runoff. And to some extent, Westlands could conceivably provide a structure for buying out some of its members with less-suitable land.

It is obvious that a group of struggling farmers on land that was always marginal cannot bear the cost by themselves during a multi-year drought. Fortunately, there is ample precedent for government assistance to farmers to not plant. These subsidies are sometimes controversial, but it seems that if there were ever a time to use government assistance, it is in this sort of large-scale transition where individual acts are overwhelmed by market forces. Rather than simply easing the current pain, funds might be used to develop a new reality.

Westlands has already recognized that its current route is unsustainable. To their credit, members are already retiring tens of thousand so acres of farmland.

But more interesting, Westlands is also exploring the creation of a solar farm project within the district. I don’t see any evidence that the new organization is using a cooperative structure to develop the solar facilities, but there is at least an element of collective problem solving that echoes the original organizing of the district by the current members’ grandparents.

Allow me to think ahead a bit:

What if solar developments provide the means for compensating those farmers whose fields are closest to forced retirement? What if Westlands is able to develop a structure through which its members can gain temporary subsidy as they manage an organized contraction – perhaps even developing a structure for subdividing those fields most suitable for dry farming, while also moving toward more sustainable practices that produce less-toxic runoff that could be further treated before it is sent down a reopened San Luis Drain? What if Westlands is able to serve as a pilot project for how irrigation districts can move into a new field of production?

I am just scratching the surface here, but it seems like Westlands is going to be a key location in the growing water struggles in this state. I’m glad to see that they are engaged in some shared problem-solving and hope that we might be able to all learn from their experience as we struggle to change California’s troubled relationship with water.

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An hour of writing

I’m going to re-launch an old habit that I think was a good one: I shall write every morning, and post it immediately more often than not (i.e. at least 4 days per week). I hope that this discipline will help me get through a backlog of drafts and some gnarly writer’s block.

To start, I’m limiting myself to one hour per day. So today, Monday the 7th, this gets posted at 10:45 and then I move on to my next task. I need to keep this short and sweet, and not attempt too much in a given day. I’ve got no editors and not even any time to let pieces sit and stew (at least, not any longer than they have already).

Here’s an overview of the writing that I have to do:

Fact: If nothing else I should post something along the lines of the “newses” I cranked out most days while I was at NCBA; then, I pointed toward a few key developments gleaned from the strangely-unhelpful nature of search engine queries about “co-ops” or “cooperatives” or even “credit unions.” But some feature reporting needs to happen too.

Fiction: Yes, fiction. I’ve had a mashup of near-future utopia and dystopia hounding me for a few years now. I need to post some of these drafts to start a conversation about this world I’m envisioning, to explore plausible ideas of how we might get through this uncomfortable phase of history that we are entering.

Faith: I hope we might find comfort in stories from our great traditions. These often contain elements of justice and struggle that resonate powerfully with our current situation. Some of them involve a personified God figure, others are less father-like in their concept of the divine. I hope and pray that I can help point out their universal relevance.

Each of these themes will be in a specific online location (or locations). I’ll occasionally link from one to the other, as well as from Facebook and other more public places. But for now this is going to be sort of low-key, public but not promoted.

I want to have at least a few people expecting me to write. Ideally, I’d like for you to comment from time to time, either by email or – better yet! – on the blog’s comments section. Your comments will help guide my work and give me encouragement to bust through this writer’s block.

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Thoughts on Government and Drought

I have to get this out of my system:

Recent events have frustrated me to the point that I have to take a detour from trying to articulate what we should do to solve our common problems, and rule out what we should not do: That is, we should not expect much help from the federal or state governments, which are structurally unable to deal with the crisis at hand.

The Meddling Feds

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently appeared on the Daily Show. Even I was uncomfortable witnessing how enslaved she was to party talking points. It was like watching a robot programmed to say “all systems normal” over and over and over again while some cheesy spaceship movie set sparks and collapses around it. Jon Stewart tried to cut through the bullshit, but it was ultimately impossible.

Pelosi could not admit the obvious: Government has been captured by the dark forces of money. Political systems have degraded to the point that we must rely more on economic systems, which tend to be tyrannical even if good-intentioned. Our best hope now is that Jeff Bezos will somehow outspend the Koch brothers. That was the unpleasant truth revealed by Stewart’s insistent questioning and Pelosi’s non-answers.

We no longer live in a democratic system. We are allowed only to choose between two captive parties. Once candidates are elected through either party they must spend their energy fundraising or maneuvering toward a cushy private sector job lobbying their successors. And whatever laws they pass meanwhile are squeezed by the influence industry, which makes sure that anything threatening in the intent of a law is neutralized in its actual effects.

The Obama Administration has shown how little is possible at the federal level. Rather than deal with the looming economic and ecological crises that are pushing us ever closer to unrest, Obama is fixated on secrecy and control. It seems that the government would probably rather send up drones to keep us in line, instead of satellites to better understand the changes that are happening in the atmosphere.

Sure, the Republicans are worse. They are divorced from reality. They respond to California’s drought with ridiculous “solutions” that will destroy what’s left of the environment and keep the water flowing until it is gone.

But what’s the alternative? Senator Diane Feinstein keeps making noises about some proposal that she’s scheming (which, she reassures us, won’t be “mind-blowing”). It’s all very hush-hush and apparently involves talking to water districts and government agencies but not the Sierra Club.

Feinstein’s plan seems to be based on the assumption that this week’s rains will continue; she describes her idea as based on the status quo but with a “better way” to move water. Unfortunately, forecasts suggest that the dry weather will probably return next week, and in any case this welcome downpour will only modestly change our situation – as one great image (from a government agency, I admit!) shows, this is more than a drop in the bucket, but still only a coffee cup.

Rather than finding a “better” way to move water, we need to reduce our need to move water. We’ll see what Feinstein eventually proposes (and what, if anything, becomes law), but there’s no reason to think that it will threaten the unholy alliance of banking and real estate interests. I’m ready for my mind to not be blown.

State of Hegemony

California’s officials are not much better. The state’s water problems have been badly worsened by officals’ decision to keep shipping water south over the past year despite dwindling supplies. Now we are faced with a darkly laughable situation: Southern California has plenty of Northern California’s water in its reservoirs while Northern California faces a threat of severe water shortages in a few months. The State Water Project’s announcement of zero deliveries this year is too little and too late.

Southern California simply does not have the resources to support even a fraction of its current human population, even in “normal” rainy season. Somebody has to move.

That hard truth (which cannot be spoken) is the main driver of everything crazy about California water politics, including Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to build a pair of 30-mile long, 33-foot diameter tunnels under what’s left of one of the world’s great wetlands – the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

This tunnel is worth a closer look because it debunks the notion that Democrats are going to save us. California is utterly controlled by the Democratic Party, which has two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature, as well as dominance of the executive branch.

The Congressional GOP’s awful scheme to kill the Delta won’t work without the help of the governor’s foolish tunnel project. Simply reducing flow into the Delta would increase salinity as brackish water from the San Francisco Bay intrudes; eventually salt would reach the intake from which Northern California’s lifeblood is sucked, severing the whole unsustainable system.

But the proposed tunnels would move the main water intake upstream from the Delta, onto the Sacramento River with its more consistent flows. I suppose that this might help the Delta under “normal” circumstances by drawing water from a place with higher flow rather than the current backwater, but it would mean that Southern California would no longer face the natural limits of keeping the Delta marginally alive.

So there you have it, loyal Democrats. Your obstructionist rivals have been vanquished and what do we get from your hegemony? A massive boondoggle that (if completed) will allow for even deeper looting of a fragile ecosystem so the South can continue its pillage of the North. The Southern majority in our legislature wouldn’t have it any other way.

With or Without You

Perhaps there is some role for government in the inevitable depopulation of Southern California. I’m an anarchist at heart, but I’m also open to hearing about ways that federal and state agencies might facilitate that process – ideally not involving forced relocations or corporate subsidies.

Ironically enough, there is a potential relocation test-run underway in the San Joaquin Valley – an agricultural zone that now faces a huge crisis as perhaps more than 100,000 people are displaced by collapsing rural economies because the water that might have sustained them this year is now feeding golf courses in Anaheim. What would it look like to have an organized population transfer, rather than just letting communities collapse and hoping that those set adrift can figure out where to go and what to do when they get there? I think we need to figure it out.

The entire American West shows every sign of shifting (back) to a climate that is much drier than what we think of as normal, so people are just simply going to have to leave (or dramatically change our behaviors), sooner or later. Of course, the same is true of Northern California if not to the same extent.

I know this is wishful thinking, but governments should at least stop encouraging and subsidizing the suicidal increase in population of a land that could only support a small fraction of its nearly 40 million people even in the wettest years. An immediate and permanent end to suburban expansion is the first step. Yes, this will drive up real estate prices and eliminate jobs, but we have to do it anyway. The status quo will lead to unrest if we wait for Nature to really force our hand.

But governments won’t even take this baby step and we must stop waiting for them. Our public officials are too deeply entangled in the interests of banks that want more houses built, oil interests that are pushing for water-intensive fracking, and even just the simple bureaucratic survival instinct that keeps programs going after they outlive whatever useful purpose they once had. The economy is showing signs of another looming crisis, so I can’t imagine that any politicians will entertain proposals that will be needed to create a future California with fewer jobs and fewer workers.

So what on earth do we do? This drought keeps stumping me. How do we get beyond acts of individual conservation that only peck away at less than a tenth of our water consumption (80 percent goes to agriculture, the other tenth to industry)? How might we make the deeper behavioral changes needed to exist in this land sustainably?

I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t possible.

But tune in next time, when I try to figure out some community-based models for how to adjust to life in a drier world. Got any ideas? Please send them my way.

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“Historic” Weather

This week’s much-anticipated storm was a dud. Many parts of the state got no measurable rain. On the bright side, there does seem to be some significant (but modest) improvement in the Sierra snowpack, although it is still only 15 percent of average – a record low.

The term “historic” gets bandied about every time there is record-setting weather. But there are also weather events – like this drought perhaps – that really are historic in the sense that they change the history of the people in a given area.

Consider the ancient Pueblo peoples whose advanced civilization collapsed in one of the West’s occasional megadroughts, illustrated by the archaeological traces of their retreat into the more remote, more-defensible (and presumably better-watered) canyons. These ancient people’s more familiar name “Anasazi” is from another language (because their own history ended in their drought), but their story is made relevant by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Despite the dire title of his book, Diamond also looks at societies that make the changes needed to avoid collapse. So we should look to ways that we might make lemonade out of our lemons: This drought can be the point at which we start taking climate change seriously.

The historical nature of the drought is all too real for the 17 communities already expected to run out of water this spring. Urban California is still a ways from that, but there are two main ways that I see a truly historic shift underway on the statewide level. First, climate change seems to be undermining the computer models used to forecast weather; this will confront us with more uncertainty about even short-term forecasts. Second, we face a much broader threat of fires than before, both geographically and seasonally.

Model Failure

The most optimistic forecast I see at the moment says only that the root of the drought, that persistent high-pressure ridge, will regenerate but “not be as intense, increasing the odds that a low pressure system will be able to break the ridge by mid-February and bring more rain to the state.”

Of course, even that optimism assumes the hypothetical future existence of a low-pressure system heading in the right direction with enough energy to break through the hopefully weakened ridge, which is not supported by our experiences this winter.

I’ve been keeping an eye on weather blogs lately, and one that has particularly impressed me is Weather West. It is written by a PhD candidate named Daniel Swain, who first named California’s weather nemesis the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.” Unlike many other weather sites, Weather West has a nice, respectful atmosphere in the comments; I highly recommend it as a way to gain a basic familiarity with what’s happening to our weather – particularly the constant change in forecasts that is chronicled in the comments section.

It’s hard to say what rain will actually fall this year. But the weather seems to have shifted to where the old computer models don’t work as reliably as before. They keep making assumptions that are no longer true – for example: the high-pressure ridge off our coast will break down after a week or two. Rain has been occasionally forecast during the last two months, only to fade as the supposed arrival drew near. This cycle seems to be underway yet again.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Water Resources has just announced that unless the rains come it will cut State Water Project deliveries to zero for the first time ever – including to urban areas.

The End of “Fire Season”

This week’s rain was better than nothing, but only brought enough moisture to germinate some seeds and give us a nice reassuring coat of green on the hills. All those little plants that sprout will last for a few days or weeks, and then most of them will die. They evolved for a rainy season, and not just a little rain every couple of months, which seems to be our new normal this year.

Whatever green shoots sprout this month will probably grow a bit, struggle, die and then dry out, leaving us with a bit more tinder to get the fires started this summer – or maybe this spring.

Fires this year are going to be interesting. Heck, we might see fires every month depending on the winds, which seem to come up with less and less warning these days.

They had fires up in Oregon in January. And now Norway is experiencing its largest fire (of any month) since World War II, with 139 buildings already destroyed; this follows on the heels of another fire that burned 40 structures.

Another blogger that I’ve been reading lately is robertscribbler, whose recent post describes the Norway fire as “historic.” But is that fire in particular really historic? If Oslo burned it would unquestionably be a major turning point in the history of Norway, but I doubt that any single rural wildfire can truly wear that label.

I’m not even sure that “historic” fits a huge and memorable rash of fires like California’s 2008 outbreak, which peaked with close to 3,000 fires burning a and thick smoke choking the state for weeks. Those fires were historically remarkable, but were they historic? Did they result in profound and long-lasting changes to land use or fire suppression? It doesn’t seem like it.

By the standard I’m suggesting, the recent fires we’ve seen in California are historic despite their relatively mild destruction. These winter blazes undermine the very concept of “fire season” in California. We can no longer say that fire season started early or ended late if fires burn through the winter. Fires can happen at any time and in any place. (Oregon and Norway! In January!)

California’s wildfire response is a seasonal system and it is not clear that perpetual readiness can be maintained. Certainly some fire crews can be idled in the winter and spring, but if this drought is as historic as it seems to be, we’ll need to have at least some crews and equipment ready to go year-round, year after year. This raises a variety of issues, which I’m not qualified to do more than raise as questions:

How will year-round readiness be budgeted in a time of diminished government funding? When will equipment be maintained if some of it must be ready at all times? How will a year-round threat of fires affect the lives of firefighters who must leave their homes and families for periods no longer confined to the summer and fall?

All this suggests that some dramatic changes are needed.

What to Do?

Unpredictable but generally dry weather creates a serious problem for planning how to deal with fires. And I think this problem will demand more grassroots participation in dealing with fires.

Conventional wisdom is that wildfires are best left to professionals, and that a last stand on the roof with a garden hose should be discouraged. But perhaps we need to find a third way between the professionalized firefighters and the garden hose approach. This will help provide a quicker response when fires are still small and relatively easy to contain – particularly during times when professional fire crews are idled (during what’s left of the winter) or overwhelmed (during the summer and fall).

I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s early cooperative organizing, back in 1752. The Philadelphia Contributionship was a collective response to fire threats; it is the nation’s oldest insurer of property and membership benefits originally included protection by organized fire crews. 

I’m also inspired by some of the survivors of the 2003 Cedar Fire near San Diego. This group has rebuilt together with a collective spirit, which among other benefits helped them respond to a later fire.

Thinking about historic weather – events that really change our history – is unpleasant business. But think we must. And we must be careful not to think that the current severity of drought is the worst that history can send our way.

It’s not possible to predict how the drought will unfold. Maybe we are at the start of a decades-long megadrought. Maybe next year we’ll get flooded out and our water crisis will be postponed. But in any case, California doesn’t get enough rain for 40 million people in a “normal” year.  Before long we’ll be back in this same position, scrambling to save water and put out brush fires without the systemic changes we need to make.

Rather than simply hoping that it rains and our difficult choices can be postponed, we should embrace this opportunity to take a hard look at our civilization’s choices, and seek to make the next chapter of our history better than the last.

 

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Deer in the Headlights

Yesterday the Bay Area saw a feeble weather front move through from the south. It offered little but a faint wave of fluffy clouds that dissipated as the sun set. It felt like the skies were teasing us. I was filled with dread.

This morning I started writing this post in a café with its front door propped open. It was 10 in the morning, January 21, a month after the winter solstice and what should be the coldest time of year. I finished this writing outside at sunset, wearing a light sweater (open in the front!) despite sitting in deep shade.

It was just the top half of a French door open this morning and I was a little bit chilly, but still: Here in Oakland we had yet another day of sun and temperatures approaching 70 degrees. The forecast calls for nothing but warm sun through the end of January.

Weather is not the usual topic of this blog, but in the last few weeks I’ve come to realize that it is perhaps the central factor driving the need for community-based solutions where I live. This has nationwide consequences – global even – considering California’s outsized role in food production.

Meanwhile the East reels from another round of Arctic weather, which is directly related to California’s pleasantly terrifying winter as well as the remarkable warmth and moisture plaguing Alaska (foretold here more than a year ago): The jet stream now goes north with its Pacific moisture, drops it in Canada, cools off and then returns to the U.S. This great atmospheric current is now interacting with an Arctic Ocean that has lost about 80 percent of its historical ice cover, creating a literally steaming weather generator where before there was nothing but ice. We seem to have entered an entirely different weather pattern than anything seen since before Europeans first arrived on these distant coastlands.

Frankly, if you don’t believe that the climate is changing I’m not interested in convincing you. Average temperatures are rising. But even without that wild card we are entering uncharted territory for demographic reasons. Precipitation and snowfall are about half the levels of the previous historic drought of record (1976-77), with a state population nearly double what it was at that time. Put another way, by the end of this month the Sierra Nevada have a snowpack more typical of late October. The snowpack is utterly central to California water management and is it basically missing.

This is not a matter of the wet season arriving late or being less wet than usual; we face the prospect of a year without the rain and snow that make California a marginally habitable place. We face a day of reckoning about whether it was really a good idea to cram nearly 40 million souls onto this lovely but precarious land.

Even if this isn’t permanent, if we are only facing a few dry decades like the 1450s through early 1480s, we are still facing catastrophe. Even if we are only facing another 1580, when tree ring data indicate river flows around 8 percent of normal, we are still in deep shit. Low flow showerheads are no match for this drought, and we’re going to need to rearrange some basic systems. This is the looming truth of climate change.

We are all just deer in the headlights. Some little part of us is screaming: “Run! Change! Do something! If it’s yellow let it mellow!”

But we are mostly just frozen in place.

I know that I’ve been frozen. That’s why I’ve been so sparse with my writing lately; fear and hopelessness is a powerful writer’s block. I got a bit riled up by the recent  “system problem” discussion, and I see this post as intimately related to that: Any planning or collaboration we do must be based upon certain assumptions, and it seems to me that California’s usual assumptions – on climate as well as economics and social stability, which are dependent upon climate – must be reexamined.

It is time for us to move.

Of course, the deer analogy isn’t quite perfect. We, like the deer, have a serious and immediate problem that demands movement. While the deer has two obvious good options, it is unclear where safe ground lies. But it sure ain’t safe where we now stand.

This drought is the real thing. It is going to lead to some dramatic changes,  including conflicts between north and south, suburban and city, urban and rural, industrial and agricultural, upland and valley floor. Even if it does start raining normally for the rest of the winter and spring, we face a period of profound social and ecological tension. Disastrous weather is no longer a future event with an obvious start, like a hurricane or flood. A weather disaster at least as serious as the Dust Bowl is unfolding now. So what are we going to do?

I’ll admit that I’m not yet sure of even the outlines of how to deal with the sort of scarcity that is upon us. I’m not aware of any farmer cooperatives that have fundamentally transformed the need for water; I imagine that co-ops provide some utility for training farmers to use water more efficiently, and cooperative extension programs through state land grant universities also have played a great role. And of course the entire system of irrigation prevalent in the West is based on a foundation of Mormon mutualism.

My experience and current setting is primarily urban, so that’s where I feel called to the struggle. But I welcome any input and ideas from those with insights on rural cooperative water solutions.

One particularly alarming element of the drought is the likely effect on food supply and prices, as well as on employment. People who have previously relied on farming income are quickly realizing that they need to find other work.  Farm town economies may collapse, driving more people into our cities in search of work.

It’s not hard to see how this may cause social tension as urban areas tighten the screws on water conservation. Picture already-crowded homes trying to absorb additional relatives and friends while facing expectations that they’ll reduce household water use by 20 percent or more. Penalties for “overuse” of water may lead to impoverished households being unable to pay penalties, which could lead to their water being turned off.

General water outages may even become a factor in some urban areas, leading to drops in population and economic activity. And we should not forget that industry is a major water user, consuming amounts that are comparable to household use.

We need to start thinking about general community organizing for an unfolding disaster in the present.  It’s going to bring up some legal and social issues that I don’t believe are clear, with an urgency that will make resolution very difficult.

We’ll need to address such issues as whether outdoor household use limits apply to food production. I believe food should be favored over lawns, but that preference brings up challenging issues of its own: Is it really more important to allow homeowners to soften the impact of shocks in produce prices and availability, as opposed to providing apartment-dwellers (who might not have safe park access) with a little patch of green lawn where their children can play?

The real action is going to start in the realm of governments and courts, as a whole range of water rights conflicts play out on a scale never seen before. I suspect that they’ll work it out, but it isn’t hard to see how more affluent communities will come out on top in the same way that they did during West Virginia’s recent water crisis. It’s worth noting that inadequate official water distribution there has been complemented by a mutual-aid system called WV Clean Water Hub. At some point, we may find it necessary to bring in water from outside areas that have gone dry.

Most places are unlikely to literally run out of water, but it could happen. Willits, Santa Cruz and some suburbs of Sacramento have few water options and may see their primary surface water sources dry up this year; Willits has only about a three month supply, which would mean they could run out as soon as the start of the usual dry season.

In summary – for now – we are entering some uncharted territory. And considering the precarious nature of our economic, political and social systems, we may be in for a rough ride; many an empire has been brought down by drought. It’s time to start taking this water crisis very seriously. As it tends to do, California is leading the way – will it be to a new and more sustainable way of managing water and other resources, or into a downward spiral of scarcity and conflict?

Government will have its role, as will individual water conservation. Typically, these two forces can meet in the middle and mitigate the worst effects of a drought. But I have a feeling that this crisis also demands something cooperative to bridge a substantial gap. I look forward to searching for answers.

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