The great Central Valley of California has never been an easy place. Dry and almost uninhabitable by nature, the state's engineering marvels brought water down from the north and the high Sierra, turning semi-desert into some of the richest farmland in the world.
Yet today, amid drought conditions, large parcels of the valley – particularly on its west side – are returning to desert; and in the process, an entire economy based on large-scale, high-tech agriculture is being brought to its knees. You can see this reality in the increasingly impoverished rural towns scattered along this region, places like Mendota and Avenal, Coalinga and Lost Hills.
In some towns, unemployment is now running close to 40%. Overall, the water-related farming cutbacks could affect up to 300,000 acres and could cost up to 80,000 jobs.
However, the depression conditions in the great valley reflect more than a mere water shortage. They are the direct result of conscious actions by environmental activists to usher in a new era of scarcity.
To some extent, such efforts reflect some real limits imposed by the growth of population. Constructive long-term changes in the conservation and utilization of all basic resources – energy, water and land – are not only necessary, but also inevitable.
Yet the new scarcity does not simply advocate humane ways to deal with shortages, but seeks to exacerbate them intentionally. This reflects a doomsday streak in the contemporary environmental ethos – greatly enhanced by the concern over climate change – that believes greater scarcity of all basic commodities, from land and water to energy, might help reduce the much detested "footprint" of our species.
One key element of this agenda has to do with reducing access to critical resources like water beyond those required to support existing uses. To be sure, two years of below-average precipitation helped create central California's current water shortage. Planting crops such as cotton, which needs lots of water, may also have contributed to the problem.
However, this only explains part of the problem, which increasingly has to do not with vicissitudes of nature but conscious political action. In prior dry periods, the state has managed its water resources to supply farmers and other users as effectively as possible. Today, in response to seemingly endless litigation to protect certain fish in the Delta region west of Sacramento or to "revitalize" valley streams, enormous amounts of water have been allowed to flow untapped into San Francisco Bay.
This distinction was entirely missing in national coverage of the drought. A recent New York Times article, for example, barely acknowledged the role played by environmentalists whose move to block additional water supplies from the Delta have turned a below-average year – moisture content in the Sierra is about 90% of normal – into something of an epochal agricultural and human disaster.
"This is still a pretty decent drought but nothing unusual," suggests Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents both urban and agricultural interests. "We were prepared, as usual, for the drought, but they have taken all the tools away from us."
Many environmentalists justify their efforts to curtail water availability for California's farmers and towns by citing various doomsday global warming projections. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, for example, recently opined that as the state's climate inevitably shifts to a hot-weather, low-precipitation pattern, water scarcity will create "a scenario where there is no more agriculture in California." If agriculture is doomed anyway, why not kill the industry now and use the water for fish or other pet "green" projects?
This represents a remarkable reversal in the spirit that only a few decades ago drove the development of California. Anyone who has lived for any period in the state knows that aridity represents our greatest natural challenge. California seems always either at the edge of drought, coming out of one, or about to enter a dry spell. Since 1920, the state has experienced crippling six-year droughts during 1929 to 1934 and 1987 to 1994, as well as severe shortfalls of a lesser span on several occasions.
Recognizing the need for a reliable water supply despite the certainty of significant dry years, Californians responded by building one of the most highly advanced water delivery systems in the world. The result was a network of federal and state dams, pumps and aqueducts emblematic of the "can-do" spirit motivating old Progressives, like Edmund Brown in Sacramento and New Dealers in the nation's capitol.
The state's water conveyance facilities opened vast new tracts of land to agriculture. Some of the world's largest expanses of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, grapes and cotton covered once-arid land. This expansion created steady demand for advanced farming technologies as well as low-paid labor, much of it undocumented. Reflecting this dichotomy, wealth and poverty grew hand in hand throughout the Central Valley.
Today, environmentalists cite – as yet another reason to dehydrate California farmlands – the prevalence of immigrant labor in the Central Valley. Lloyd Carter, a major state environmental activist, recently suggested that cutting farm production would actually be beneficial since most farm workers are "not even American citizens for starters" and raise children that "turn to lives of crime," "go on welfare" and "get into drug trafficking and ... join gangs." These comments cost Carter his association with certain environmental groups, but not his day job – deputy attorney general under former governor and supreme green jihadi Jerry Brown.
Unfortunately, Carter's comments reflect what many environmentalists will tell you in private. As a Valley resident himself, Carter may have great empathy for his region's poor and working class, but it's hardly a priority among the core of the green movement, which is based in places like San Francisco or Santa Monica. This reflects not so much racism as a disconnect with the productive industries – agriculture, energy and manufacturing – that tend to cluster on the other side of the coastal range.
The growing economic problems in Central Valley cities like Fresno, where unemployment is near 15%, represents little more than an abstraction to a new cadre of wealthy "progressives" who merely pass through the area on their way to Yosemite and other Sierra resorts.
"We are getting the sense some people want us to die," notes native son Tim Stearns, a professor of entrepreneurship at California State University at Fresno. "It's kind of like they like the status quo and what happens in the Central Valley doesn't matter. These are just a bunch of crummy towns to them."
This split has engendered what is likely a quixotic secession campaign led by farmers in the interior counties, but such drives to divide the Golden State have risen and failed many times before. Yet clearly, there exists a growing divide between producer and consumer economies, and this is coming to the fore not only in California, and on issues well beyond water.
It is critical to understand that anti-growth politics diverges from the old conservationist ethos in radical ways. No longer is it enough to talk about growing intelligently or using technology to meet long-term problems. Instead, scarcity politics seeks to slow and even reverse material progress through what President Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, calls "de-development."
"De-development" – that is, the retreat from economic growth – includes some sensible notions about conservation but takes them to unreasonable, socially devastating and politically unpalatable extremes. The agenda, for example, includes an opposition to population growth, limits on material consumption and a radical redistribution of wealth both nationally and to the developing world.
In much the same way as seen in California's water crisis, many of the administration's "green" energy policies pose a direct threat to blue-collar workers employed in extracting and processing fossil fuels. The resultant high energy prices caused by the proposed "cap and trade" system – essentially a system for creating scarcity – also will cost middle-class consumers, blue-collar workers, truckers and manufacturers. These constituencies could well face the kind of water policy-related decline that is destroying farming communities throughout central California.
Yet at the same time, such policies make the well-to-do and trustafarians in San Francisco and Malibu – for whom higher energy prices are barely a concern – feel better about themselves. In what passes for progressive politics today, narcissism usually takes priority over reality.
In the new scarcity politics, access to land also may be sharply limited. New land regulation, ostensibly for climate-change reasons – already in place in California and being discussed as well in Washington state – could force almost all new development to follow a high-density, multi-family pattern. Over time, single-family homes – the preference of a vast majority of Americans – will become once again, as they were in the past, the privilege only of the upper classes in some metropolitan regions.
By embracing the politics of scarcity, the Obama administration seems committed to imposing a regime that could slow any sustained recovery from the current recession. Although these ideas might appear plausible at a Harvard Law Review bull session, their real consequences for millions of Americans could prove very ugly indeed.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.