If one more Californian tells me how “progressive” California is, I am going to scream.
“Progressivism” is the term applied to a variety of responses to the economic and social problems that were introduced to America by industrialization. It began as a social movement and grew into a political one. Early Progressives rejected Social Darwinism, believing that the problems society faced — such as poverty, violence, greed, racism and class warfare — could best be addressed by providing a good education and efficient, safe workplace and protecting the environment.
As the ideology developed, it came to represent four core values: Progressives have a two-part definition of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to.”
First, they believe that all people should have freedom from undue interference by governments and others in carrying out their private affairs and personal beliefs. This includes the rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion as well as the freedom to control one’s own bodies and personal lives.
Second, they believe that all people should have the freedom to lead a fulfilling and secure life supported by the basic foundations of economic security and opportunity. This includes physical protections against bodily harm as well as adequate income, economic protections, health care and education, and other social provisions.
Complementing their commitment to human freedom is their belief in opportunity. Like freedom, the concept of opportunity has two components: one focuses on political equality and the other on economic and social arrangements that enhance people’s lives.
Along with freedom and opportunity comes responsibility — personal responsibility and the responsibility we have to each other and to the common good.
Rounding out these political values is the basic progressive value of cooperation. Cooperation is the foundation of the most important social institutions including families, communities, and civic and/or faith groups. Freedom without cooperation leads to a divided society that cannot work together to achieve common goals and improve the lives of all.
Let’s examine a number of critical issues on the table in California in light of these four core values:
California is the only western state that lacks adequate groundwater regulation. Groundwater is a huge piece of California’s water supply, making up approximately 40% of the state’s water demands in an average year and up to 60% or more during droughts, according to the Department of Water Resources.
“In the absence of governance, it’s a pumping arms race,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “He with the biggest pump or deepest straw wins.”
Groundwater and surface water — rivers, lakes, streams —a re part of the same hydrological system. Excessive groundwater pumping can overdraft aquifers, emptying them faster than natural systems can replenish them; dry up nearby wells; allow saltwater intrusion; and draw down surface water supplies. Taking so much water out of the soil can cause the dirt to compact and the land to sink, an action called subsidence.
For decades, California’s voluntary Groundwater Management Plans have effectively failed to protect the people and ecosystems that depend upon water. Too many entities are siphoning off water from our extremely limited resources, resulting in declining groundwater levels, sinking of land, and drying of streams. Without integrated groundwater and surface water management, California’s water users and the environment will face broad challenges accessing water supplies in future years.
Even though California has recently enacted legislation for a preliminary groundwater policy, it is too little, too late.
An exemption in these newly drafted regulations could give, for example, the multinational corporation Crystal Geyser continued access to unlimited water from any community’s underground supply in the middle of a drought. This is currently being fast-tracked in Mount Shasta, California because Mount Shasta’s groundwater supply is considered to be a “volcanic basin,” not an “alluvial basin” – a geologic distinction that carries significant consequences under a set of new water use laws.
The prospects of a community without an adequate municipal water supply is in direct contrast to the core value for citizens to have the freedom to lead a fulfilling and secure life.
Raw Milk Regulation
The California Home Dairy Farm Raw Milk Safety Act (AB 2505) of 2014 — also known as the “Farm to Fridge” bill — would have permitted a home dairy farm to share, exchange or engage in the direct sale of raw milk that is in excess of the consumption needs of the home dairy farm. The milk would have to be obtained from healthy, lactating animals kept and fed on the premises of home dairy farm, while meeting a list of health and safety requirements. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t make it out of the general assembly Committee on Agriculture in April of 2014.
While numerous other states allow on-farm sales of raw milk and cow-share agreements, California only allows the sale of raw milk in retail stores. This, of course, gives exclusivity to corporate producers, while discriminating against small, local and cooperative dairies.
Here we bump into one of the key distinctions between Progressivism and neo-liberalism, a distinction that needs to be made clear.
Neo-liberalism is an approach to economics and social conditions in which control of economic factors is shifted from the public sector to the private sector. The main points of neo-liberalism include:
- The rule of the market
- Cutting expenditure for social services (like health care and education)
- Privatization and
- Eliminating the concept of the public good or community.
What we have seen with the issues of water and raw milk are indicative of California’s neo-liberalism….not its Progressivism.
As a state, California has become more interested in being the world’s eighth largest economy than it has been in serving the needs of its 40 million people. Money and markets come first. People and environment follow somewhere after that. This is neither Progressivism nor Liberalism. This is neo-liberalism and it’s time to call it what it is.
Let’s continue to look at some more examples of this:
We’ve been told that the California coastline belongs to all Californians. But maybe not for long.
“Think of zoning in your neighborhood. Zoning laws probably prohibit someone from building a 40-story apartment tower next to your two-story house. If the developer, however, persuades the city council to change the zoning, he’ll make a lot of money and you will live in the shadow of a skyscraper,” writes former coastal commissioner Steve Blank in the LA Times.
The Coastal Commission is the zoning board for the whole California coast. And, there’s a proposal before the commission right now to build houses on 1,100 acres at Banning Ranch in Newport Beach, a project worth more than $1 billion. The proposal has a good chance for approval.
“The irony in all this is that the commissioners in collusion with the developers are appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown — the same governor who signed the Coastal Act into law 40 years ago. They have ‘at-will’ appointments, meaning that the governor can replace them in 30 seconds if he is unhappy with them,” writes Blank.
But as the proposal moves forward, so far neither Brown nor John Laird, California’s secretary for Natural Resources, have stepped up to defend the environmental sanctity of the California coastline.
Are Californians going to look at miles of beaches behind locked gates and wall-to-wall condos and ask, “Did Governor Brown sell out 40 million Californians for a few rich developers?”
Neo-liberalism, not Progressivism.
The Spread of Fracking
Governor Brown likes to talk about his strong position on climate change. However, real climate leaders don’t frack. The climate impact of fracking the Monterey Shale is as bad or worse than building the Keystone XL pipeline.
In 2013 California’s Department of Conservation director Mark Nechodom estimated the state “might see around 650 hydraulic fracturing jobs a year.”
Even more common than fracking in California are another kind of jobs. “Acid jobs” use a method to squeeze more production out of old wells that involves pumping chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid into wells to melt rocks and other impediments to oil flow. Companies are not required to report when they do acid jobs.
Meanwhile, a report released in January 2015 reported that nearly half of all new oil wells in the state of California employed the use of fracking.
Fracking is essentially one of the poster-children for neo-liberalism in California.
Its links to Big Oil are indisputable. It counters Progressive efforts to direct research and resources toward developing renewable energy alternatives. It champions the value of “cheap oil” over environmental protection as it injects numerous toxic chemicals into the ground which then pollute aquifers and area drinking water, posing proven health risks. For example, the correlation between ingestion of water polluted with fracking chemicals and cancer is high.
Generally, 2-8 million gallons of water may be used to frack a well, so we see that allowing fracking, again, shows the lack of groundwater policy in the State.
Nationally, only Texas has more fracking wells than California. If a gas company wants to set up a fracking rig on California private property where the landowner objects, the company can appeal to eminent domain and confiscate the land for the “public good.”
And, if certain lobby interests prevail, State and National Park lands can, and will, be fracked. If California is going to stake claim to any remnant of Progressivism, it needs to ban fracking.
Proposition 37 was a state ballot measure rejected in November, 2012. This initiative would have required labeling of genetically engineered food in the state. A couple years later, in May 2014, the California Senate rejected the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (SB 1381) that would have required labels on genetically-engineered foods.
So, proposals to label genetically-engineered foods sold in California have failed twice in recent years as biotech companies and the manufacturers of packaged foods mounted costly opposition campaigns against the initiatives. Money and markets first. People and environment somewhere after that. Again, neo-liberalism, not Progressivism.
There are more examples (California schools, for example, are ranked the ninth worst in the nation), but I think that the case has been made that, despite the hype and memes—and all of the “California dreamin’,” there is nothing Progressive about the Golden State.
— Sherry Ackerman, Transition Voice