University of Southern California (Emily)



Aug '08 - Jul '09

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    3.16 :: California is not green

    Emily Kemper
    Nov 18, '08 2:03 PM EST

    One of the most excellent/torturous aspects of getting a research degree is that it affords me the opportunity to pursue - and think really hard about - topics that interest me. It's excellent because I never felt I had time to pursue such ideas in my design-focused undergraduate degree, but it's also torturous because I can fall asleep obsessing about these things. Take my last post where I talked about sustainable cities. A few hours after I wrote that post, part of Santa Barbara went up in flames ... then North LA ... then part of Orange County. When I see images like this on TV, and then I walk outside and the sunlight is dimmed because of the smoke and my eyes start burning and I start having sinus problems, it's natural to start having an inner dialogue about the environmental health of this city. I mean, why do people live here, anyway? As the author of that article says, on scorched earth whose natural inclination is to go up in flames every year.

    photo courtesy of MSNBC

    Much of the United States looks to California as a leader in environmental standards, or at least it used to. We have some of the tightest emissions standards for cars in the country, and our abundant sunshine grows massive amounts of crops while it waits to be collected for solar energy. But that's just it - everybody here still drives cars and nobody is rushing out to put PV arrays on top of their homes or businesses. And don't even get me started on Southern California's perpetual abuse of its water supply ... there's a water shortage, literally we might run out of it, but that doesn't stop hundreds of ignorant reckless business owners from washing down the sidewalk in front of their buildings every day. When I pass these people I wish I could yell at them - don't they understand how precious that water is? Like Jeffrey Feldman says in his blog on the Huffington Post, can we stop pretending that California is "green", now?

    Downtown LA during the fires

    One of the biggest ironies, in my opinion, is the rapid development of cities such as Dubai. It's ironic to me because Americans, millions of whom are here in Southern California, cling to their cars stubbornly, and despite a spike in gas prices over the summer, largely remain undaunted in their quest to get around by auto. Where does all of that money that we spend on gas go? I'm going to guess places like Dubai. So while the American economy crumbles, and Southern California burns, Dubai, awash with cash, is starting to build the Arabian canal, one of the largest land displacement projects in human history.

    image courtesy of

    But that's not all. I'm extrapolating and generalizing for the sake of discussion, but assuming some of Dubai's money does come from American gasoline consumers, after the big oil companies take some off the top for their record profit, what else can it buy? Apparently the mid-east's largest solar panel manufacturing plant. The irony just got thicker! California is supposed to be "green" and yet, conceivably, 5 people buying gas for a month in Los Angeles could equal one solar panel in the UAE.

    image courtesy of

    Needless to say, my head hurts, and not just because of the smoke. I've never been to Dubai but I'd like to go and see it for myself; obviously with that amount of money they can do almost anything, some projects more worthwhile than others. In the meantime, I am hoping to participate in the discussion of how to make the United States more energy-independent again. We certainly have a long way to go....


    • knock

      I do agree with you on many points ... however:

      -I think you are coming from a distinctly southern california point of view. Many people in the Bay Area specifically don't even own a car. It is part of California, no. In addition, people ARE rushing out to put PVs in the Bay area.
      -You are also ignoring the recent residential building boom in downtown areas in San Diego and LA which has the potential to increase density and reduce resource consumption and pollution (if they can every sell/rent the units). I agree, these torched areas should not be allowed to be redeveloped for years, but this causes quite a stir with private property rights and ownership. The best we can do at the moment is to stop rampant growth immediately.

      -I think most new (aka, 20th century) American cities should be looking to Southern California, as much to see what to do as what not to do. Population growth is a fact, and many of the ideas and principles being hashed out in southern California will benefit the rest of the country in the years to come. The water issues are making it seemingly unique at this point, but with global warming, I think these issues may affect more areas in the future than we think . The fact is, LA and San Diego perpetuates the culture and lifestyle that has grown rampant in this country and created an inhospitable, wasteful and sometimes dangerous place to live, and are experiencing it first because of the population explosion in these areas. I mean, think about what Orange County, of all places, is doing with their wastewater - recycling it for domestic use. Isn' this pretty amazing,? And a technology that can be used all over the country.

      Nov 20, 08 3:28 pm  · 

      The fact is, at this point, much of California isn't green by choice (as much as those trendy greenies like to seem), but rather, necessity (increased car efficency and pollution standards, reusing wastewater, ect.)

      I don't necessarily think that people think of California as the beacon of being green. I think most people think pacific northwest (portland-seattle, maybe san francisco) is the place if they are really thinking about green cities and development. I think they are looking to it as a foreshadowing of things to come for their own urban areas if current policies continue., - and hopefully a message of hope that we can turn this thing around and come out of it OK. People are very reluctant to change their lifestyles, and greenwashing is a rampant and ugly trendy thing , so at this point our Government needs to step up and save the country and unchecked capitalism from destroying our planet.

      Nov 20, 08 3:29 pm  · 

      let it go, let it go!

      Nov 20, 08 5:39 pm  · 

      Thank you for your thoughtful responses, knock. This post was kind of an extension of things I've been thinking lately, and the truth is, there are no easy answers. I did want to be a little provocative though, if for no other reason than I think these are conversations that we should be having ... perhaps even in a larger forum than we currently are having them.

      This country faces huge problems. Hopefully California will try to be part of the solutions.

      Nov 21, 08 12:12 am  · 

      re: scorched earth

      Perhaps Southern California's natural inclination is to go up in flames, if you're looking at the fact that it is naturally meant to be a semi-arid desert climate (with some temperate zones nearer the coast). And of course, under natural conditions there would be the occasional fire-storm, to clear out the undergrowth and promote good soil.

      But many of these fires most recently -- including the sylmar one--were started by arsonists. Southern California has many problems, but I wouldn't say that yearly firestorms are a natural problem, but rather a criminal. Over and over they are proven to be arson-caused.

      Nov 22, 08 11:34 am  · 

      That first picture is amazing, by the way. So trippy! I can't stop looking at it and wondering what to think. It kind of blows my mind.

      Nov 22, 08 11:35 am  · 

      It is very trippy. I wonder if I should start off all future blog posts with that photo. I want to write the photographer and thank him, I wonder if he knows how meta the photo is?

      Nov 24, 08 10:58 am  · 

      ~Population growth is a fact, and many of the ideas and principles being hashed out in southern California will benefit the rest of the country in the years to come. ~

      ~The fact is, LA and San Diego perpetuates the culture and lifestyle that has grown rampant in this country and created an inhospitable, wasteful and sometimes dangerous place to live, and are experiencing it first because of the population explosion in these areas.~

      Really? Then why is it that the same pro-green people want to also allow illegal immigrants to flood into southern California as well as Arizona and Texas. If "population growth is such a concern for the "welfare" of the environment and the planet maybe there should be better follow through with deporting illegal immigrants that broke international law, US law and California law, not to mention many that beak local law with crime, etc. I do agree that when California can control/eliminate its out of control population growth the rest of the country will benefit from lessons learned and actions taken by California, to control the ‘population’. After all, in California, "population growth is a fact" and illegal immigrants are putting a strain on California’s and the country's resources.

      If the people of California want to viewed as leaders in the "green movement" and other areas of social "concern" then start with some meaningful legislation that will reverse the flood of illegal immigrants. Or would you rather have them build, install and service your PV's and pick your organic food?

      Nov 26, 08 10:36 am  · 

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