California’s Drought of Ideas: Why Jerry Brown’s Executive Order Misses the Mark

by on April 6, 2015 · 2 comments

in California, Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Politics

texas-farm-droughtBy Jim Miller

California’s epic drought has finally made its way to the front page. Last week, Jerry Brown signed an executive order mandating the first-ever water restrictions in our state.

At the press conference announcing the move Brown observed that, “People should realize we are in a new era. The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

However much one might agree with that statement, it must be said that the Governor’s order does not do nearly enough to go after agribusiness and big oil as many have been calling for leading up to Brown’s move. Adam Scow of Food and Water Watch put it succinctly, “In the midst of a severe drought, the governor continues to allow corporate farms and oil interests to deplete and pollute our precious groundwater resources that are crucial for saving water.”

Brown’s emphasis on your “little green lawn” rather than the giant corporations responsible for the lion’s share of water use in the state reveals an ideological maneuver that subtly shifts responsibility in a way that ultimately makes it harder to identify the roots of our presentdilemma. Simply put, as Andreas Malm writes in Jacobin, “blaming all of humanity lets capitalism off the hook.”

Malm’s piece is a larger critique of much mainstream environmental and political thinking that steadfastly refuses to follow Naomi Klein’s lead and engage in an analysis and politics that actually addresses the central economic drivers of climate change and related effects of it, like our historic drought here in California. But that, of course, would mean talking about the excesses of our capitalist economy.

By focusing on our “collective responsibility,” Malm argues, such rhetoric muddies the water and blunts our ability to see clearly and act effectively against the powerful forces that are profiting mightily from wrecking the world. As he puts it:

[U]ndifferentiated collective self-flagellation, appeals to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.

To portray certain social relations as the natural properties of the species is nothing new. Dehistoricizing, universalizing, eternalizing, and naturalizing a mode of production specific to a certain time and place — these are the classic strategies of ideological legitimation.

And in the process of doing so, “They block off any prospect for change” by championing “false solutions that steer clear of challenging fossil capital.” Because, “If everyone is to blame, then no one is.” For instance, in our state, the almond industry alone uses 10 percent of our state’s water with estimates putting the total agribusiness usage at anywhere between 65 to over 90 percent, while fracking pollutes two million gallons of fresh water a day.

Thus it is fair to say that California’s agribusiness empire and big oil are indeed far more to blame than your “little green lawn” and while we should all endorse moves towards more sustainable landscaping, it is a lack of vision at best and political cowardice at worst to suggest that ordinary citizens are just as culpable for the current crisis as the corporate forces that have bought our government’s blind eye and are making a killing by killing the world.

In a recent post, Robert Reich nailed it:

Why did Governor Jerry Brown exempt Big Oil and Big Agriculture from his order this week to cut water consumption by 25 percent? Big Oil uses more than 2 million gallons of fresh water a day in California for fracking, acidizing, and steam injections – nearly 70 million gallons last year alone. Meanwhile, California’s farmers consume 80 percent of the water used in the state and generate only 2 percent of the state’s economic activity.

Oddly, the Governor’s order focuses on urban water use, which makes up less than a quarter of the water consumed here. California could save the same amount of water by requiring its farmers to increase water efficiency by 5 percent.

Hence, the issue here can’t be easily dismissed as one of practical reformist politics versus revolutionary dreaming. As our own history shows, this country used to meet challenges like wars, economic depressions, and other crises with bold programs that did big things like the New Deal or the mobilization for World War II, which serves as a good model for how we might respond to the unprecedented environmental crisis we face.

But alas, though Governor Brown is better than most of the current crop of uninspiring American political leaders, he can’t be bothered to afflict the comfortable even in the face of an urgent crisis. So before we celebrate how much more progressive and far-sighted we Californians are than the rubes in Kansas, Indiana, and other reactionary outposts, let’s get a little perspective.

We have to do a lot more and better.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Schroeder April 7, 2015 at 11:12 am

Wow, “Big Oil uses more than 2 million gallons of fresh water a day in California for fracking, acidizing, and steam injections – nearly 70 million gallons last year alone.” Undeniably, that’s a lot of water!

However, while I’m certainly no fan of fracking, or the oil industry, according to U.S.G.S., California uses approximately 38 billion gallons of water per day (2010 numbers). Two million gallons of water a day represents 0.00525% of our daily water usage. That’s five thousandths of one percent.

The agriculture industry is the real problem here. Let’s focus on what’s important.


tj April 16, 2015 at 7:39 am


The International Nestle Corporations “use” (resale) of our water is also interesting….

Pandering to the big $$$$ is something both elected Republicans & Demoocrats can agree on….


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