How California Can Model Dramatic Change

Posted by on Apr 5, 2015

Green lawns and pools in the desert. Rancho Mirage in California's Coachella Valley. Photo: Damon Winter for the New York Times

Green lawns and pools in the desert. Rancho Mirage in California’s Coachella Valley. Photo: Damon Winter for the New York Times

For years I’ve been writing about the paradigm changes that are needed in our carbon emissions…how we need to make a rapid shift away from fossil fuels…how we need to retool industry to ramp up renewables…how we need to reinvent transportation.

I, and many others, have often pointed to World War II and the remarkable effort to convert industries from cars to tanks, to ration our use of resources, to recycle steel, to become more food self-sufficient—in our response as a nation to an overwhelming need that many considered impossible.

The retooling that the nation went through in the late-1930s and early 1940s proved that something like that is achievable. We did it, so it much be possible. Leading up to World War II we also learned how to try out dramatic new ideas—as President Franklin Roosevelt launched program after program to help us emerge from the Great Depression; some of those programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, which I wrote about last week, modeled how to work together in responding to huge hurdles.

But only 6% of Americans living in 1940 are still alive today. Our population today is made up mostly of people like me who grew up after the one-two punch of the Great Depression and World War II. We need new models of how we can respond to the challenge of climate change.

Can California model change?

As was articulated superbly in the lead article in today’s New York Times, “California Drought Tests History of Endless Growth,” the state’s water crisis may have reached a tipping point. It may have gotten serious enough for everybody to work together in finding real solutions.

We often talk about how nothing can beat American ingenuity—that if we finally put our minds together to solve a huge problem, we can do amazing things. I’m looking to California to set another leadership model for the country. The state, for better or worse, has been the leader of innovation in the U.S. and World. California brought us the personal computing revolution, the Internet, Hollywood, and affordable produce shipped from across the country, but they also brought us suburban sprawl, the strip mall, and auto dependency—and they made us want this way of life through popular media.

It’s time for California to model change again and show America and the rest of the world that when the greatest bed of ingenuity puts it mind to something, great things can happen.

I believe that California will respond effectively to the drought—which some are saying is the new normal. We will see water conservation innovation, landscaping innovation, new and better desalination technology, drought-responsive agricultural crops, better irrigation systems. California won’t go away or become any less of a leader despite a water-constrained future.

Australia had to go through its own transition a decade ago as it endured a devastating ten-year drought, but most American’s didn’t pay much attention to that, because it’s so far-away. (For insights as to how Australian cities responded to drought, read the great book, The Big Thirst, which I described in my recent article, “California’s Continuing Water Woes Call for Creative Solutions.”) America will watch California respond to the drought, and I’m hoping that that can be a model for response to the even bigger—far bigger—challenge we all face with climate change.

The cynical among us will say that California had it coming, that they ignored for too long the risks of unsustainable growth and water scarcity. That may be true. Mandatory restrictions should have been imposed months, or perhaps years, ago; it’s ludicrous that water costs far more in Philadelphia than in the deserts of California; green lawns and uncovered swimming pools just don’t belong in places like Palm Springs.

But I’m willing to forgive the state for a slow response to its water woes if it can show us how to turn the corner and demonstrate what effective response looks like—and if we can use that in our response to climate change and the other huge problems we face.

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Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.


  1. Alex,

    You’ve obviously got a heck of a lot more experience in this field than I do. That being said I find it interesting that you look for solutions in technology and innovation. The way I have come to see things, these solutions are tied to growth which is unsustainable. We need to revert to local communities where local resources are produced locally for local the local population. I got hooked on EF Schumachers ‘Small is Beautiful’, which led me to Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement – the Economics of Permanence. I can’t get past it as the only solution, but it’s a tough sell in a place where most everyone doesn’t want to see a problem.

    Keep up the good work,
    Peter Gilbert

    • Peter, I think there will be some solutions that come out of technology (advanced irrigation controls, non-water-using toilets, and desalination, for example), but I think more of the solutions will come from changes in practices: not growing cotton in the Imperial Valley or almonds in the Central Valley; low-till agricultural practices that rely on high organic content of soil to retain moisture; regulating groundwater extractions; and putting limits on development in drought-prone locations.

      Thanks for your input, -Alex

  2. My first reaction was to the photo at the top of this article and it was not complimentary. It is amazing to me that we have so blithely overpowered our environment in so many ways. CA is not the only culprit, by any means. I see it in the way Albany, NY cut access off to the river with route 787 and by infilling the water’s edge, yet we now complain with blame whenever the shoreline or parts of the city flood.

    I, too, think that CA now has no choice but to face the challenge (dare I say “opportunity”) in front of them. I expect great things to come of the pressure they are under.

    I would also suggest that we cannot “blame” CA and claim they should have known and that they had it coming. We cannot do that while the vast majority of us are sitting idly by or worse, actively stopping progress on climate change mitigations and adaptations, on resilience on thoughtful, long-term, healthier approaches to every single project.


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