This is a hobbyhorse of mine, but I’m committed to riding it until people in my home state begin to change their ways. Californian suburbia, the ideal of much of American suburbia, was built and sold on the promise of endless excess — everyone gets a car, a job, a single-family home and enough water and gasoline and electricity to light up the party.
But it is long past obvious that infinitude was a false promise. Traffic, sprawl, homelessness and ballooning housing costs are all consequences of our profligacy with the land and our other resources. In addition to a hotter, drier climate, the fires, too, are fanned by an unsustainable way of life. Many blazes were worsened by Californians moving into areas near forests known as the “urban-wildland interface.” Once people move near forested land, fires tend to follow — either because they deliberately or inadvertently ignite them, or because they need electricity, delivered by electrical wires that can cause sparks that turn into conflagrations.
As the fires blazed around us this time last year, I warned of the “end of California as we know it” — that if we didn’t begin to radically alter how we live, the climate and the high cost of living would make the state uninhabitable for large numbers of people.
Of course, California hasn’t yet ended. Through virus and flame, the state has kept lurching along in the same haphazard way it always has, and here we are again to face another burning season.
It is my hope, though, that with each year we burn, each new wildfire year that we live through, Californians start to recognize the mistakes that are central to our way of life.
And perhaps, this year, the disturbing national political conversation might finally force my fellow Californians to reckon with how they live. In many ways the 2020 election is shaping up to be a fight over the soul of the suburbs — their role in America’s future, and who they are for. At the Republican convention this week, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple who brandished guns at protesters in St. Louis, asserted that liberals want to “abolish the suburbs” by ending single-family home zoning. The liberals who live in California’s suburbs may not identify with the McCloskeys, but their ugly spectacle has helped unmask NIMBYism, one of California’s most reckless ideologies, for the racist vision it has long been.
It just isn’t true that Joe Biden and the Democrats want to abolish the suburbs, or even improve them, which is a shame. Neither Biden nor his party nor just about anyone else in national or state politics has been willing to honestly discuss the incalculable damage that California-style suburban life has wreaked on our world. In California, if anything is going to ruin the suburbs, it is more likely to be a wildfire than a new president.