Pave paradise, put up a parking lot

Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky

California would not exist in anything like its modern form without massive engineering. Largely dominated by desert, flammable, dry chaparral and high mountains, California depends on human-created technology to bring water to its bone-dry coast. It taps distant dams for the bulk of its electricity and food and would have never grown its population without this manufactured transformation of its natural environment. “Science,” as the University of California’s second president, Daniel Coit Gilman, put it, “is the mother of California.”

The Origins of Environmental Politics

Modern environmentalism rose in California, starting with the unsuccessful attempt by The Sierra Club to halt the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite to supply water to largely waterless San Francisco. This struggle presaged an almost endless succession of battles across the state over land use, energy, and water development. When the Sierra Club’s solutions seemed too tame, the Friends of Earth, also founded in San Francisco, generally pushed more extreme policies.

Over the last few decades, California greens have evolved. They started as largely conservationist, with a bipartisan base of affluent middle-class homeowners, who looked askance at development near their neighborhoods. By the late 1960s, however, the green agenda became increasingly shaped by visions of a dystopian future, epitomized by Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 Population Bomb, with its predictions of mass starvation on a global scale.

Ecotopia, published in 1975 through an obscure press, by Ernest Callenbach, an equally obscure movie critic, sold a million copies. The cult classic was followed with a 1981 prequel, Ecotopia Rising. These two books tell the story of a successful secession by greens in the northern coastal areas from the rest of the polluted, dystopic United States on the other side of the Sierra.

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