We’re tinkering at the margins of disaster, putting 40 million people in jeopardy because we’re terrified of upsetting politically powerful corporate interests.
While the news has been buzzing with Governor Jerry Brown imposing California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions in response to the catastrophic drought, what often goes unspoken is that the new constraints leave untouched the state’s biggest water consumer by far: agribusiness. Agriculture uses 80% of California’s water, yet the only thing Brown is requiring agricultural companies to do is provide more information about their water use. Gov. Brown’s response to criticism? “Some people have a right to more water than others.”
This is a preview of the broader politics we’ll see unfold as America struggles to adapt to climate change. On a global scale, climate change is primarily being caused by the unchecked consumption of the rich and the reckless path of the powerful. Meanwhile, the people harmed most by drought and sea level rise here in California, and other negative impacts all over the world, will be the poor and powerless. Much like during our recent economic disaster, as we face environmental disaster, lawmakers and other very serious people will tell us that we all need to tighten our belts and make sacrifices for the greater good in a harsh new world. Yet at the end of the day, it always seems that the only sacrifices made are from everyday people whose contributions are metaphorically and literally a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, the wealthy interests that lie at the root cause of the problem sail along with their profits, subsidies, and guarantees intact.
The people of California didn’t cause this drought. The people of California are not luxuriously long shower-taking germophobes who have crushed our environment beneath the weight of our excessively detail-oriented dishwashing. This drought is the result of generations of poorly managed water policy driven by the political heavyweight of big agribusiness’s lobbyists who demand ultra-cheap water rates. This drought is the result of a housing bubble driven by real estate developers and banks who financed endless expansions of suburban sprawl across the scorching heat of inland California for families who could no longer afford to live in increasingly expensive coastal cities. This drought is the result of hopeless inaction on climate change, where overwhelming warnings from the scientific community are being screamed down by the political megaphone of the fossil fuel lobby.
A real drought response would focus on the root causes of our water consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough that 80% of our water is used by agribusiness and much of the rest goes to golf courses and country clubs. But even our residential water consumption is not equal: The majority of residential water use (and the vast majority not directly used to keep people alive and healthy) is used for outdoor landscaping like lawns. Single family homes have twice the outdoor water use of multifamily apartments, and rich neighborhoods use three times the water of poor neighborhoods.
Here’s what a real drought response might look like if we weren’t so afraid of powerful special interests:
1) Build sustainable affordable housing in coastal cities
In the peak summer months, an average San Francisco resident uses 46 gallons of water a day. Other coastal cities range around 50-100 gallons, while inland cities average around 200-500 gallons a day per person. It takes massive amounts of water to keep lawns green in suburban subdivisions sprawling out from scorching hot inland cities. We need housing growth policies that encourage dense, affordable, water/energy-efficient multi-family housing in cool coastal urban areas rather than McMansions in the hot inland parts of the state. But right now our housing regulations do the exact opposite: it’s easy for developers to build cheap new housing in Bakersfield, Palmdale or San Bernardino, not so much in San Francisco, Santa Cruz or Santa Barbara, where longtime wealthy homeowners are vehemently opposed to higher density apartments being built in their neighborhoods.
Although more people are migrating out of California than in, our population is still inevitably growing as more children are born here. So unless we want some sort of draconian policy restricting childbirth, the question is not whether more people will live in California, but where they will live. Unfortunately, because of the crushing unaffordability of California’s coastal and urban areas, the vast majority of population growth has been moving to inland areas like the Central Valley, High Desert and Inland Empire with cheaper housing, but much higher water needs. Promoting dense infill development of affordable housing in coastal urban areas would help increase economic opportunity for working families while creating the serious systemic reform we need to manage California’s water resources long term.
2) Keep fracking from endangering our water supply
Land is rapidly being snatched up across the Central Valley and Central Coast to open new oil wells above the Monterey Shale. Fracking uses significant amounts of water (70 million gallons in California last year), but the bigger problem is that it threatens to pollute our limited water supply with the undisclosed chemicals used in new drilling methods. Fracking produces massive amounts of toxic wastewater, with the challenge of wastewater disposal becoming a ticking time bomb which could contaminate our dwindling clean water supplies. Oil companies have shown a blatant disregard for California’s weak regulations, with hundreds of illegal wastewater pits being discovered right next to farmland and above groundwater supplies in rural California. Yet along with agribusiness, the oil industry was also given a free pass on Governor Brown’s new water restrictions.
But even worse, oil in the Monterey Shale is as dirty as the Canadian Tar Sands. Fracking California’s shale creates the potential to put over 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, nearly as much as the Keystone XL pipeline, driving forward the climate change that is fueling this extreme drought. The science is clear that climate change increases the frequency and severity of catastrophic drought in California. There can no longer be any doubt for drought-stricken Californians that the climate is changing, and if we want to keep it from getting worse, we need to stop the relentless digging for more dirty energy.
3) Stop subsidizing water-guzzling agribusiness
While agribusiness uses 80% of California’s water, not all farms are created equal when it comes to water consumption. Growers choose between planting different crops, some of which use many times more water than others. Even within the same crop, different growers choose to use more and less efficient irrigation methods. Like any business, California’s growers are making basic mathematical calculations of how to maximize their profits. So when agribusiness is provided artificially cheap water by the government, typically at lower rates than you and I pay as residential consumers, growers pick profitable but thirsty crops, and cheap but wasteful irrigation methods.
Anyone who’s passed an intro economics class would tell you that when you have a shortage of something, the price is naturally supposed to go up. But agribusiness, with its powerful lobbyists in Sacramento, has long been coddled by lawmakers and protected from actually paying fair market prices for water (big business is always all about the free market until they’re not). By keeping agricultural water prices artificially low, the government is directly massively subsidizing drought-causing industries like almonds and cattle. It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond and 10% of the state’s water goes to the almond industry alone. A pound of beef takes 2500 gallons to produce, and one hamburger is about as much water as you use to shower for a month.
I’m sympathetic to the concern that raising the cost of water as an input to growing food will raise costs at the grocery store for struggling families. It wouldn’t be hard to design a simple policy to keep overall food prices low while shifting growers to more drought resistant crops. California could put an emergency drought surcharge on the sale of water to agribusiness, then take that revenue and use it to subsidize low-water-use fruits and vegetables at the point of sale to the consumer. A grower then faces a different calculation to decide whether they should plant another crop instead of almonds, or whether they should invest in that new irrigation system. This would shift the behavior of both food consumers and food producers towards more drought resistant foods, as prices of water-intensive foods go up while prices of water-efficient foods go down. For example in Ventura County where I live (the 10th biggest agriculture producing county in the US), that could mean land shifting from water sucking strawberries, to other major local crops that are more drought resistant, like lemons and avocados. A policy like this could even effectively make it easier for low-income California families to afford healthy foods, a major challenge facing poverty-stricken communities.
We need to step up and take real responsibility for a serious long-term water management plan if we want to sustain life for 40 million people in California and growing. There is simply no way to protect our water supply for future generations without meaningful systemic reforms addressing agricultural water use, oil drilling, and housing development. Yes, they would raise howls of protest from some of the state’s wealthiest and most powerful political interests: agribusiness, oil companies, and real estate developers. But allowing money and corporate interests to control our politics is what’s got us stuck in this climate change mess in the first place. At some point, we have to stop fucking around with our planet, put on our big kid pants, and do the right thing.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, like any internet phenomenon, has had its backlash and the inevitable backlash against the backlash. But whether or not you like it, no one can deny that it’s one of the most effective fundraising campaigns in recent memory.
But at the end of the day, one horribly depressing fact makes it all seem like a heartwarming act of staggering futility: The tens of millions of dollars raised by fundraising gimmicks like this are drops in the bucket (excuse the bad pun) compared to the tens of billions spent by the federal government on medical research. By far the largest contributor to ALS research is normally the National Institutes of Health, a taxpayer-funded government agency which has lost 25% of its purchasing power over the last decade as an insatiable thirst for budget cuts has become the new normal on Capitol Hill.
As of this post, the ice bucket challenge has raised $70 million, which means that this year private ALS research funding will actually surpass public funding. But the problem with internet phenomena is they die quickly. Of course The ALS Association will probably receive some permanent bump from cultivating long-term donors, but no one expects this level of funding or even anything close to it to continue indefinitely.
Let’s say the ALS ice bucket challenge plateaus out after raising about $100 million. Federal government funding for ALS research has declined from $59 million annually in 2010 to $40 million this year. That would mean over five years, federal budget cuts completely wipe out the gains from all those ice buckets. Unless the ALS Association can come up with an equally successful online fundraising campaign every five years, in the long run the future of ALS research looks pretty bleak.
Once you look not just at ALS, but the broader picture of countless deadly diseases the scientific community is simultaneously trying to combat, it becomes abundantly clear how impossible it is to adequately fund medical research through social media fundraising campaigns. It’s difficult to imagine research on another disease having an equally popular viral marketing campaign at the same time—there’s simply limited space in our social media newsfeeds and our attention spans. Even if every couple years, research on one particular disease saw a surge in a few tens of millions in funding from momentarily trending on social media, it will never be enough to make up for tens of billions in slashed federal funding for disease research as a whole.
The larger question we need to ask ourselves is: How should we as a society be funding medical research?
As Republicans in Congress have forced billions in cuts to public medical research, far outstripping anything that can be raised from individual donors on the internet, one can only wonder: What about the diseases who don’t have such a brilliant viral social media campaign? Hell, what about ALS a year from now? Are we moving towards a society where public priorities like curing diseases must rely on appealing to the whims of social media trends, competing for our short attention spans in the jungle of the internet by coming up with increasingly flashy ways to raise money? Are we becoming a society where charities must devote enormous resources to trying to come up with the next viral video or trending hashtag to fill the gap of services the government should be providing? A society where resources are distributed not based on scientific expertise, but based on which cause has the best marketing campaign?
Government is and always will be more effective at raising money to cure diseases than the internet is. Tens of millions of dollars for ALS, which took a social media campaign of one-in-a-million success, could be financed by literally pennies added to an average American’s taxes.
But we don’t like this because taxes mean coercion and coercion means controversy. If I personally don’t want to contribute a few cents every year in my taxes to research ALS, should I be forced to?
The answer is yes: this is what democracy is for.
As a society we can collectively decide some priorities are too important to leave charities scrambling to scrap together resources, and we can democratically choose to raise much larger sums of money through taxing ourselves to fund public goods like scientific research. We can adjust the amount people are required to contribute based on their income, so CEOs give more than janitors. We can have scientists, public health experts, and health economists make decisions about where to spend that money so that even if I have no idea what ALS is (I didn’t before the ice bucket challenge) some small portion of my income is still directed to finding a cure.
We can get serious about curing and preventing disease, ending poverty, improving education, caring for the elderly, keeping our air and water clean. But only if we’re willing to do the hard thing. If we’re willing to say to people: “I don’t care if you don’t know what ALS is. I don’t care if even if you did know, you wouldn’t contribute 50 cents a year to cure it. You can’t get out of this by dumping an ice bucket on your head. Those of us who do care outvote you.”
The ALS Association is doing a great thing, but they are hopelessly outmatched by the callousness and political power of the budget-slashers in Washington. We will never, ever, ever be able to give medical researchers the resources they deserve, no matter how many internet fundraising campaigns we have, unless we recognize the politics of this issue and take a stand against those who would gut medical research in order to pay less taxes, who place private profits over public good. What we need is not fleeting interest from the American public to string together temporary private dollars for the latest cause. What we need is a commitment to using democracy to achieve our goals. Democracy means controversy, democracy means conflict, but democracy is the way to create true lasting systemic change.