It had rained.
Looking out the airplane window as I approached Oakland in March, I saw a carpet of velvety green stretched across the land. Was it grass? I hoped so. Later, as I inched along the highway in heavy traffic, I studied the soft hills south of San Jose from my rental car. Yes, lots of green grass. This was good. Winter is the rainy season in California, but I knew the previous four months had been very dry all across the Golden State, making people nervous. Water is life in the arid West. A diminished snowpack in the High Sierras has a cascading effect for anything depending on a watercourse all the way down to the sea. A lack of rain meant the land in between was parched too. Friends warned me that the country that I planned to see during my visit “looked tough,” which is code for a bad drought. One quipped “Maybe we should be called the Toasty Brown State instead.”
It was certainly a contrast to the previous winter when snow levels in California’s high country swelled to 135% of average, filling up rivers and reservoirs. This year the snowpack reversed directions, dropping to 40% of normal – whatever “normal” means anymore. Years ago, I heard an elderly rancher describe the amount of rain that fell on his place this way: “I’ve never seen a normal year in my entire life.” But he had never seen the type of meteorological seesaw that the West is experiencing today. Too wet, too dry – it’s got to be aggravating everyone from farmers to municipal water managers. How can anyone make plans year to year? Then there’s the future projections for California’s long-term water outlook under various climate change scenarios show a decrease of 40-50% from “normal” in only forty years. Already overstretched by the demands of a huge economy – the eighth largest in world – and a thirsty population that is expected to grow from 35 million people to over 50 million by 2050, the state’s water supply will almost certainly come up short.
I didn’t want to think about it right now, however. For the moment, all was well. Everything still operated normally, if you consider normal to be gridlocked traffic. I rolled down the window of the rental and rested an arm casually on the sill, recalling both the reason why Gen and I left California twenty years ago – too many people – and why we missed it: the air. It was as soft as a baby’s blanket, cool and moist, with a hint of sea spray. During a standstill in traffic, I closed my eyes, letting the soft air work its magic. I recalled the first time I encountered it, nearly thirty years earlier. I was in a friend’s convertible as we cruised through palm-shaded lanes near UCLA looking for apartments to rent. I had been accepted to the university’s graduate school in filmmaking, of all things, and I had flown to Los Angeles full of expectation. What I didn’t anticipate was the soft air. For a guy raised in the hot and dry of southern Arizona, the moistness of LA was fresh and exciting. It hinted at possibilities as endless as the freeways. Even the traffic felt like an adventure. I remember closing my eyes as we rolled down another street, thinking “Welcome to California, the land of dreams.”
I still feel that way.
I was back in the Golden State in pursuit of yet another dream – a carbon dream – for a book I hoped to write. I had heard that a mere 2% increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100% of all greenhouse gas emissions via plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities. That’s because soil is a huge natural sink for carbon dioxide. If we can draw increasing amounts of it from the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil via green plants, then we might make a dent in climate change. The key is carbon. That’s because it is everywhere – it’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up, including plants, animals and people. It’s all carbon. Climate change is carbon, hunger is carbon, money is carbon, politics is carbon, land is carbon, we are carbon.
California is carbon. Is it ever. No state in the nation burns up more hydrocarbons. Californians drive over 350 billion miles each year, consuming 18 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel in their vehicles, according to government data. That translates into 4.25 million barrels of oil a year, approximately one-fifth of America’s entire annual consumption. That’s a whole lot of carbon going up into the air. In fact, California’s transportation sector alone accounts for roughly one-third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. There are good reasons why: the average one-way commute is thirty minutes (and getting longer); 70% of all cars on the road at any one moment have only a single occupant; and the average speed on a Los Angeles highway during rush hour has dropped to 11mph from a whopping 21mph when I lived there.
None of this was quite the Autotopia that Walt Disney had in mind when he sketched out his benevolent vision of Tomorrowland at his famous amusement park.
Finally free of the traffic jam, I pushed the rental car over the speed limit, letting a rush of cool air work its magic as I rolled effortlessly through past oak-studded hills and garlic-filled farm fields near Gilroy under a glorious sky of sunshine. “This is what ol’ Walt had in mind,” I said aloud to no one. “This is the promise of California.” It still exists – just not in Los Angeles anymore. Somewhere along the line, Autotopia slipped from the Future to the Past, crossing a threshold between hopeful dream and sober reality. When did it happen? 1970? 1980? The trouble with thresholds is that they are often perceived only in hindsight. When does a drought begin, for example? The first day it stops raining? The day the water level in a reservoir drops to a certain level? When a scientist says so? The afternoon when lightning ignites tinder-dry vegetation in a residential development? It’s the same with cars and gridlock. One day, utopia; the next, dystopia. ‘Hey! Where did all these cars come from and why are they going so slow?!’
As for Autotopia itself, I think the good burghers of neighboring Fantasyland should annex the track, perhaps as part of an expansion plan. They’d have a strong case for a boundary change. Clearly, the Future ain’t what it used to be.
South of Salinas – John Steinbeck country – waves of lettuce fields gave way to a sea of vineyards as I cruised down US 101 toward my destination in Santa Barbara, more or less following the old Camino Real, or Royal Road, that stretched north from Mexico City during the heyday of the Spanish Empire. The Franciscan padres built dozens of missions in the mid-1700s, stretching 1500 miles from the tip of Baja California to just north of San Francisco, each separated by a day’s horseback ride. It took four months to reach Mexico City back then – a dangerous journey that can be covered now in a few days by car, though not without some peril. To Spanish-era travelers, the ringing of a mission bell in the distance signaled safety, a warm meal, and a place to worship. Today, replicas of mission bells whipped past me every half-mile or so, reminding us to keep saying our prayers.
A few miles past King City, I felt a sudden pang in my heart. The last time I traveled through here was Christmas Break, 2006, with Gen and the kids. We were on our way to Monterey to visit the famous aquarium, on a long drive from Santa Fe via Los Angeles. Needing a break, we detoured to an old Spanish mission near here called San Antonio de Padua. It was a pretty place, as I recalled, with a quiet history. As I contemplated memories, a sign for the mission’s exit appeared, sorely tempting me to peel off the highway and indulge my nostalgia. The pang struck again. December 2006. Gen had just recovered from cancer surgery. The kids had just turned eight. They were halfway through second grade. We needed a vacation, so I assembled a good one involving a medical stop in Los Angeles, a visit with friends in Santa Barbara, two ranches, one aquarium, and a beautiful drive down the Big Sur Coast. We saw sea lions, condors, cows, seagulls, sharks in tanks, and miles of California coastline. Everyone was thrilled – but no one more than me.
Of all the memories from our lengthy excursion, however, the one that stuck with me was the unplanned visit to the mission, like something I picked up and put in my back pocket. Why did it stay with me? We weren’t there very long, we didn’t do anything unusual, and I didn’t take many photographs. But every time an image from our visit floats across my laptop’s screen saver, my heart aches. As the exit approached, the pang sharpened. Second grade. Where did the time go? I knew where – it just goes. I let the exit slide by, knowing there was another in a few miles. It’s ridiculous to indulge in memories only a few years old, I said to myself. At this rate, what sort of basket case will I be at seventy? Still, the pang returned as the second exit approached. I could see the kids bright as day, Olivia in a dress, Sterling in his green turtleneck, playing hide-and-seek among the mission columns, laughing. How did Tomorrow come and go like that? My hands tightened on the steering wheel. The exit slipped quietly past.
A few miles later, needing to climb out of the rental and let the soft air clear my head, I exited the highway at San Ardo and parked in a pull-out with a pretty view of the placid Salinas River. Just beyond the water was an old oil field, dotted with rusty, ancient horse-head pumps frozen in mid-bob. My eye caught an oil company sign on the entrance road. It beamed at me. Sure enough, returning my gaze to the oil field, I saw eight new wells glowing in the soft light. Fracking. Had to be. In the past few years, new technology has made the hydraulic fracturing of previously hard-to-exploit oil and natural gas deposits the new Gold Rush. Fracking now accounts for more than one-third of all natural gas production in the United States, a total that will certainly keep rising. Old fields are especially tantalizing, partly because they’re already spoiled ground, but mostly because they were not completely drained of their bounty the first time. Unfortunately, fracking is nasty business. It pollutes ground water with its chemicals and has even been linked to small earthquakes.
Fracking fields also leak methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Methane (natural gas) is created when microbes break down the organic material of dead plants in wet environments, past or present. It originates from sources as diverse as swamps, wetlands, rice paddies, landfills, dairy manure lagoons, the stomachs of cattle, even the belches of whales and termites. It has been ‘mined’ for over a century, often in association with oil deposits and coal seams, sometimes explosively (methane is the source of the warning about the ‘canary in the coal mine’). It is also trapped in deep shale deposits, which, until fracking came along, were too difficult to exploit. The quantity of methane trapped in shale around the planet is huge, however, so it was only a matter of time before we invented the necessary technology to get at it (the profit motive being what it is). Not coincidently, the methane content of the atmosphere, which had leveled off in 1999 after rising 150% since the late 1800s, began rising again in 2006, almost certainly the result of the fracking boom.
Unburned, methane leaks from gas fields into the air; burned, it emits carbon dioxide. Either way, the fracking bonanza is changing our future, adding to my feeling that human society is on the verge of becoming a runaway train, sooner or later bound to jump its tracks.
I turned my gaze away from the oil field. The river was lovely and serene. A red-tail hawk cruised high in the sky. A vulture circled off in the distance. My mind drifted back to Sterling and Olivia playing hide-and-seek at the mission. I hadn’t heard of fracking when we passed by here in 2006. If we had stopped at San Ardo to stretch our legs, the field in front of me probably would have looked moribund, or dead. Six years later, however, it was very much alive. A sudden movement in the river caught my eye. A fish striking at an insect probably, though in the instant it took me to shift my concentration, all was calm again. The pang returned. 2006 was the year my optimism began to change color, like something left outside too long under the harsh New Mexico sun. It was a subtle shift at first, barely noticeable, but now I can compare my optimism to its original hues and see how much has changed. Fracking, for instance, means we will burn more fossil fuels in the future, not less as I had hoped.
The runaway train, in other words, will continue to pick up speed.
Most climate scientists insist we have only a few years before global warming pushes the planet onto a trajectory that Dr. James Hansen of NASA describes as being “incompatible with civilization.” The planet has already warmed nearly one degree Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution and is on tap for at least another one degree rise in the near future, thanks to warming already in the pipeline (so to speak). That will push us right to the edge of the two degree Celsius threshold that many scientists, activists and other knowledgeable people say will approach the upper limit of allowable global warming. Once past this limit, thanks to amplifying feedbacks, it is very likely that continued warming will be unstoppable.
A threshold like this is called a tipping point – the critical moment when events take on a life of their own, like when the ball of snow you’ve been pushing suddenly rolls way from you, becoming an avalanche. In business, it’s the moment when a product suddenly becomes ‘hot’ and sales take off. In medicine, it’s the moment when a localized outbreak of flu becomes an epidemic. In social media, it’s when a video clip or an Internet rumor goes ‘viral.’ In nature, crossing a tipping point means a major shift from one ecological state to another – when a drought turns grassland into desert, for example, or a massive fire converts a forest into scrubland. Returning to the previous state is often impossible. It’s like trying to untoast a piece of bread, unviral an erroneous story, or travel back in time to right a wrong. Some tipping points are sharp, some are slow, some are unavoidable, but others are fully under our control. We can’t prevent our children from tipping into teenagers, but we can prevent Greenland’s ice sheets from disintegrating if we want to. Do we? The beaming oil company sign suggested we don’t.
I pray that’s not true, but if we want to avoid a climatic tipping point we’re running out of time. Many experts believe the point-of-no-return will arrive when the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere reaches 400 parts-per-million (ppm), a threshold that will almost certainly guarantee more than two degrees Celsius warming. It’s the point when amplifying feedbacks begin to takeover, including the loss of vegetation due to prolonged drought, increased warming of the polar oceans due to sea ice decline, methane release from melting permafrost, carbon dioxide release from expanded forest fires, and reduced carbon sequestration (storage) in oceans, trees, and soils as they ‘fill up’ over time. Up until this point, humans have been the principle manufacturer of carbon dioxide, mostly by burning fossil fuels. Beyond the tipping point, however, nature takes over – the snowball becomes an avalanche. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric carbon dioxide level stood at roughly 285 ppm. Today it’s 392 ppm. The rate of rise is 2 ppm per year, which means we’ll cross the tipping point of 400 ppm in approximately five years if we don’t act very soon.
Will we act? I hope so, but we’re not doing very much right now. And as the San Ardo oil field demonstrates, we’re still doing lots of the wrong things. But it’s not time to despair yet. On this front, I like what climate scientist Andrew Glikson said recently about our prospects: “It is likely that a species which decoded the basic laws of nature, split the atom, placed a man on the moon and ventured into outer space should also be able to develop the methodology for fast sequestration of atmospheric CO2. The alternative, in terms of global heating, sea level rise, extreme weather events, and the destruction of the world’s food sources is unthinkable.”
I pray he’s right.
I scanned the sky. The hawk and the vulture had moved on. For a moment, I was left alone with my thoughts about Autotopias, oil fields, and tipping points – until a noisy semi-truck on the nearby freeway jolted me back to life. Five years. 2017. Sterling and Olivia will be getting ready to graduate from high school – a thought that brings on another pang. What sort of world will they inherit from us? One that’s crossed a tipping point, or one that has avoided it? Will we have buckled down, put our shoulders to the wheel, made the hard decisions necessary to avoid the two degree threshold and all the suffering it represents, or will we continue to party in the dining car, careening down the track, feeling vaguely anxious about our speed, and beginning to wonder if the engineer and the brakeman know what they’re doing.
I climbed back into the rental and headed down the Camino Real once more. Tipping points don’t always signify a crisis, I thought to myself. Very soon, for example, Hispanics will surpass whites as California’s largest ethnic group, according to the U.S. Census. And the Hispanic slice of the demographic pie will continue to grow, mostly because the average age of Hispanics is quite a bit younger than whites. The ripple effect of this tipping point will be felt politically, culturally, and economically all across the Golden State. As for America, the white majority will become the minority in 2043, say the experts, with equally significant implications. All good stuff, in my opinion. In nature, diversity is a key component of resilience – the ability to bounce back from a shock or adverse change – and it plays a similar role in human societies as well. A diverse portfolio of stocks can lessen the impact of an economic downturn, for instance. A diverse population can have the same stabilizing effect.
Of course, as the highway’s mission bells reminded me, this development represents a historical tipping back. Two centuries ago, Hispanics ruled Alta California, having ‘tipped’ it away from the Native Americans in the early 1700s. The evidence was plain to see as I drove: San Miguel, Paso Robles, Santa Margarita, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria. Spanish settlers followed the Franciscan friars into this lovely country, building homes, founding towns, and dreaming dreams of Tomorrow. From the very start, California has been the literal destination of newspaperman Horace Greeley’s famous instruction “Go west, young man, go west.” The dream began when Christopher Columbus went west in pursuit of a shortcut to the East Indies, and large profits, followed by legions of Spaniards, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Dutch and Portuguese and their unquenchable dreams of conquest and plunder. The long arm of the Spanish empire soon reached a mysterious, distant region named after a character in a popular 1510 romance in which Queen Calafia ruled an island paradise overflowing with gold and populated by beautiful female warriors. Inspired either by the gold or the warriors, Hernan Cortes, the (in)famous conquistador who had destroyed the mighty Aztec Empire in 1521, explored the area in the 1530s, discovering what he thought was the mythical island of yore. He was wrong, but it didn’t matter – the dream of California had been born.
By the early 1700s, dreams of riches and glory had been replaced by steadier dreams of salvation and settlement. Mission by mission, hacienda by hacienda, California fell under Franciscan influence and Spanish authority. When revolution vanquished the latter in 1821, California became a ‘wild west’ frontier of mini-empires of cattle and sheep ranchos all along the Camino Real. Meanwhile, the dreams of the indigenous tribes faded, victims of oppression, disease and heartbreak. Then in the 1840s, the region’s fertile valleys, rich timberlands and deep harbors provoked a new dream, this time among the leaders of a fast-growing and aggressive nation far to the east – a dream of manifest destiny. One of these leaders eyed California as “the richest, the most beautiful and the healthiest country in the world.” Anxious about American territorial ambitions, a British minister in Mexico urged his government “to establish an English population in the magnificent Territory of Upper California” as quickly as possible, saying that “no part of the world offers greater natural advantages for the establishment of an English colony.” In 1846, American President James Polk settled the issue by provoking a war with Mexico and seizing California, as well as the rest of vast country south of the Oregon Trail, in what could scarcely be called a fair fight. In the end, politicians and boosters proclaimed the dream of manifest destiny fulfilled. America now extended from sea to shining sea.
Go west, young nation, go west.
As the war concluded, California unexpectedly crossed a tipping point that changed both it and the nation permanently. It happened on January 24, 1848, when James Marshall discovered gold in the mud of a slough on the South Fork of the American River, east of Sacramento. The news gripped the nation with its first serious bout of gold fever. The Rush was on. Within a year, chaos engulfed the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as dreams of instant riches cooked the imaginations of countless people. They came from everywhere: Oregon, Hawaii, Georgia, Texas, New England, Mexico, Australia, China, and Europe. Over 300,000 “49ers” made the arduous journey to the Golden State, arriving by boat and wagon, swamping the 12,000 Hispanics who lived there like a massive tsunami. Most immigrants failed to get rich, though a few did in spectacular fashion, and some returned home, their dreams broken. Many stayed, however, making California their new home. San Francisco grew from a backwater of two hundred people in 1846 to a bustling metropolis of 36,000 six years later. By 1870, its population had climbed to 150,000, and it never looked back. Neither did California. Roads, towns, farms, and railroads spread across the state like wildfire, often at the violent expense of Native and Hispanic residents. Historians say 100,000 indigenous people died between 1848 and 1870 as a result of disease and displacement in a tragic clash of dreams that reverberates to this day.
The effects of the Gold Rush were felt far beyond California. For starters, its gold gave the national economy a substantial jolt and ensured California’s inclusion in the federal family as an anti-slavery state, pushing the nation toward a tragic tipping point and civil war. In 1869, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed, opening up the interior West for exploration, settlement, and exploitation. Perhaps more importantly, the get-rich-quick nature of the Gold Rush set a precedent for the culture and economy of California with repercussions throughout our nation. These included a series of mini-gold rushes: land speculation, agricultural empires, oil booms, housing developments, freeway construction, airplane manufacturing, Hollywood, the computer industry, and dot-com entrepreneurialism, among many others. Speculation, risk, trend-setting, easy living and fabulous wealth became synonymous with the Golden State.
According to historian H. W. Brands in his book The Age of Gold, the tipping point set in motion by John Marshall in 1848 was a transformative event in American history. “In that moment a new American dream began to take shape,” he wrote. “The old colonial dream of thrift, sobriety, modesty, and yeoman-like steady toil as the path to financial success gave way to a new dream of instant wealth, won by audacity and good luck. The Puritan vision of a shining city on a hill was rudely shoved aside by the dream of El Dorado.” A new entrepreneurial spirit took flight, he wrote, and once in motion, it soared all over the nation.
It is still soaring to this day. San Ardo is the new El Dorado and fracking is the new dream of instant wealth, won by audacity and computer modeling. Luck has nothing to do with it anymore. This dream is coldly calculated and coolly sold to the American people as necessary to achieve the elusive goal of “energy independence.” Its deleterious consequences for their grandchildren is vigorously obscured by a deluge of media chaff – like the radar-jamming metal strips dropped by warplanes to create a large cloud of false signals. The chaff has worked too, causing this particular dream to soar above all others. In the new El Dorado, however, great wealth is accumulated not by individuals toiling in a backwoods creek, gold pan in hand, or to an industrious shopkeeper, selling picks and bags of flour to luckless miners, but to the employees and stockholders of a handful of mega-corporations. Whatever democratic leanings the original Gold Rush embodied in the free-for-all scramble to get rich, the beneficiaries of the new Oil Rush are deliberately confined to a select few – embodied in a locked gate with a beaming sign. Unfortunately, this new El Dorado is likely to be just as transformative to American history as its predecessor, but not in a good way. I suppose time will tell – but time is running out.
Weary, I decided to take another break from driving. I avoided oil fields, however, choosing instead to step back in time by visiting one of the Camino Real missions, called La Purisima Concepcion, near Lompoc, now a state park. I had stopped there years ago, when we lived in Los Angeles, and remembered it as a lovely sanctuary amidst the hustle-and-bustle of modern life. Built in the early 1800s, the original Franciscan mission was destroyed in 1812 by a strong earthquake which the priests told the local Chumash Indians was a sign of God’s displeasure with them. Chastised, they rebuilt the mission and carried on until the Mexican Revolution turned everything upside down. By the time the Americans took control of the area, the mission had faded into obscurity. It was salvaged from the dustbin of history by the Great Depression when a horde of young men with the Civilian Conservation Crops descended on the property to restore its crumbling buildings and spacious grounds to something resembling their former glory. What they accomplished is suspect in eyes of many historians – a kind of quaint Yesterdayland – but I loved it. There are very few places left in California where one can viscerally feel what life was like before the runaway train departed the depot on its fateful journey.
After navigating my way to the mission, I parked the rental in the nearly empty lot, grabbed my camera, and headed into the verdant grounds. The sky was gloriously blue, with only a hint of smoggy white around the edges. I could hear the murmur of traffic in the distance, like a city snoring. I crossed a well-worn trail used by joggers and bicyclists and strolled slowly into a large open field flanked on the far side by a long, buff-colored mission building. All was gloriously still, as if the world was holding its breath, waiting for something happen. Soon, I found myself standing at a corral fence taking photos as two donkeys flattened their ears at me, demanding carrots. They nipped at one as they positioned their noses as close to me as possible. I didn’t have anything to give them, however, except a smile and after a few moments they turned away. I turned away as well, in no rush to return to the 21st century, and wandered deeper into the mission grounds.
California is still the land of dreams, I thought as I walked, still the home of Tomorrow. How it responds to the climate crisis will be a bellwether for America – as it has been a bellwether so many times in the past. In fact, the state’s leaders and citizens are already responding in a variety of innovative ways, including the imminent implementation of a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system, the first in the nation. There’s also a strong effort underway to quantify and put on-the-ground practices that sequester carbon in California’s rangeland and farmland soils in ever rising amounts. And there’s a big push on the technology front, especially in renewable energy, led by the bright minds (and deep pockets) of Silicon Valley. There’s good news to be had among the soft air and green hills, if you know where to look. If we manage to avoid the tipping point looming before us, it’ll be in no small part due to California – the Toasty Brown state. Carbontopia. Will it succeed? Can we slow the speeding train to a safe speed? It’s not clear yet.
We’ll know in a few years.
Ed. Note: You can read more of Courtney's work here: