Is the Drought Making Us Dumb?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Is the drought making Californians dumb?

Hard to say. It definitely affects our sense of time and history.

Gov. Brown’s water executive order last week has occasioned all sorts of commentary and news, and much of it suggests that California has turned some kind of corner.

The New York Times breathlessly reported Sunday, that the drought “is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature.” Separately, a Times headline warned of a test to California’s “endless growth.”

Closer to home, Cal Poly Pomona professor emeritus Ralph E. Shaffer warned in an oped that the “real water problem” of California is “unbridled growth.”

Untrammeled growth? Unbridled growth? Endless growth?

Good grief.

Could someone please tell me where is this California that has had all this unlimited and unbridled and endless growth?

Because it’s not the California where I live now, nor is it the California where I grew up and spent most of my adult life. I’m a child of the first Brown administration—back in the ‘70s, which was already an era of limits. The California I’ve known for four decades is one of unmet infrastructure needs, limits on growth, limits on taxes and limits on spending. In Los Angeles, we have fewer payroll jobs than we did 25 years ago.

The only unbridled things this California sees are broad, overwrought claims about California somehow being “unnatural.” If only snow in the Sierras was as common as such claims.

The drought is a big deal. So is climate change. We are going to have to change how we live. We are already making some changes. But let’s not pretend this is the fault of some supposedly “endless growth.” One of the problems we face has been a lack of growth, of underinvestment in water infrastructure.

It’s a real question whether Californians are prepared to spend and invest in such infrastructure. And that question is not because of growth; it’s because Californians have been so skeptical of growth, and so determined to limit it.

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