At the beginning of April I read a New York Times article about California in crisis over water shortage from prolonged drought. The article has the most extraordinary photographs of lush, well-watered upper middle class areas bordering on desert.
It’s always been like that in California, the land of creative milk and honey with a driving culture of sometimes close to zero constraint, but how long can you sustain man-made solutions against the power of nature when it’s been so interfered with that it’s on a rampage like an angry god? Problem with us humans is we tend to be short on long-term vision and if we can force our will on the natural world or a group of people, or even just one person for a while we think it’s forever.
When you’re riding a wave of monumental success it’s easy to believe you’re in control of everything. We all do it. We’ve all got Superman or Superwoman complexes at some level, to varying degrees.
Too many people and not enough water has always been kind of like railway tracks. You look down them and it seems like they’re merging in the distance but you tell yourself it’s just an optical illusion. Usually it is but not this time. Those tracks have always been leaning inwards towards each other and failing a sudden and dramatic turn in climate change, the collision that’s already actually happening isn’t going to magically unhappen.
But maybe the drought will end at some point. If it does, the Californians with money and/or access to it will probably find a way around the problem in the mean time and on the surface it seems like Californians are pretty well off. California has the 7th largest economy in the world and the average income in 2013 was measured at just over $5,000 a year. But how can median income mean anything in a state with Silicon Valley where a data scientist can get from $120,000 to $250,000 a year, and Hollywood, where an actor can get a couple of million bucks to appear in a scene for one day—and the fruit and vegetables they buy are harvested by somebody who earns from $10,000 to $15,000 a year?
Without Silicon Valley and Hollywood the average would drop significantly. Even with them, taking into account costs of living (including childcare) and taxes etc., 23.8% were living in poverty in 2012, which put California at the top of the US Census Bureau’s list of poverty in all the states.
It’s still the same old story, the one we don’t want to look at. It’s not love and glory. It’s not romantic. It’s ugly, it’s scary, it’s a nuisance. But like any virulent, disfiguring disease, poverty spreads unless it’s dealt with seriously. In a drought it goes viral. And, most inconveniently, poor people are actually human, they affect things like economies. You’d think with all that incredible creativity in California they’d have cracked this one by now. There’s a great song sung by Bessie Smith, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton; Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. Ain’t that the truth.