Farhad Manjoo: Virus, heat, fire, blackouts

(Noah Berger | AP photo) Firefighters protect a home in the Berryessa Estates neighborhood of unincorporated Napa County, Calif., as the LNU Lightning Complex fires burn on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. The blaze forced thousands to flee and destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures.

Across much of California in the last two weeks, many of my friends and neighbors have faced a dead-end choice: Is it safer to conduct your life outdoors and avoid the coronavirus, or should you rush inside, the better to escape the choking heat, toxic smoke and raining ash?

Such has been the gagging unwinnability of life in the nation’s most populous state in the sweltering summer of 2020, in what I have been assured is the greatest country ever to have existed. The virus begs you to open a window; the inferno forces you to keep it shut.

When the coronavirus first landed in America, California’s lawmakers responded quickly and effectively, becoming a model for the rest of the nation. But as the early wins faded and the cases spiked, each day this summer has felt like another slide down an inevitable spiral of failure. The virus keeps crashing into California’s many other longstanding dysfunctions, from housing to energy to climate change to disaster planning, and the compounding ruin is piling up like BMWs on the 405.

Consider: To keep the pestilence at bay, many of California’s children began attending school online last week. But to satisfy surging energy demand linked to record-shattering heat (and a host of other mysterious reasons), state utilities had to impose rolling blackouts, forcing schools to come up with energy contingency plans to add to their virus contingency plans, now that millions of students face the threat of intermittent electricity.

For decades, California has relied on conscripted prisoners as a cheap way to fight its raging fires. But to stave off coronavirus outbreaks in our long-overcrowded prisons, authorities released thousands of inmates earlier this year. Now, as climate change has ushered in a new era of “megafires” that includes some of the largest blazes the state has ever faced, the early release of inmates has left the state dangerously short of prisoners to exploit in battling the flames.

As California’s problems grow, we risk becoming a national piñata. At the Democratic National Convention last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom phoned in from Watsonville, Calif., near the scene of a wildfire, to castigate Donald Trump and the Republican Party for ignoring climate change and fighting California’s efforts to reduce emissions. At the Republican convention, Kimberly Guilfoyle, a fundraising official for the Trump reelection campaign who is also Newsom’s ex-wife, shouted the opposite claim — that “socialism” had turned the state into a disaster of “discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets, and blackouts in homes.”

I found Guilfoyle’s speech hilariously unhinged and off base, and Newsom certainly has a point — California’s efforts to solve its many problems, including the virus outbreak, have often been frustrated or undone by Trump’s shortcomings.

Still, it’s worth remembering that Trump has been president only since 2017, and the seeds of California’s undoing were planted long before. By reducing the cause of California’s many issues to cartoon villains, both Guilfoyle and Newsom obscured the bigger picture.

What is California’s fundamental trouble? Neither socialism nor Trumpian neglect and incompetence, but something more elemental to life in the Golden State: A refusal by many Californians to live sustainably and inclusively, to give up a little bit of their own convenience for the collective good.

This is a hobbyhorse of mine, but I’m committed to riding it until people in my home state begin to change their ways. Californian suburbia, the ideal of much of American suburbia, was built and sold on the promise of endless excess — everyone gets a car, a job, a single-family home and enough water and gasoline and electricity to light up the party.

But it is long past obvious that infinitude was a false promise. Traffic, sprawl, homelessness and ballooning housing costs are all consequences of our profligacy with the land and our other resources. In addition to a hotter, drier climate, the fires, too, are fanned by an unsustainable way of life. Many blazes were worsened by Californians moving into areas near forests known as the “urban-wildland interface.” Once people move near forested land, fires tend to follow — either because they deliberately or inadvertently ignite them, or because they need electricity, delivered by electrical wires that can cause sparks that turn into conflagrations.

As the fires blazed around us this time last year, I warned of the “end of California as we know it” — that if we didn’t begin to radically alter how we live, the climate and the high cost of living would make the state uninhabitable for large numbers of people.

Of course, California hasn’t yet ended. Through virus and flame, the state has kept lurching along in the same haphazard way it always has, and here we are again to face another burning season.

It is my hope, though, that with each year we burn, each new wildfire year that we live through, Californians start to recognize the mistakes that are central to our way of life.

And perhaps, this year, the disturbing national political conversation might finally force my fellow Californians to reckon with how they live. In many ways the 2020 election is shaping up to be a fight over the soul of the suburbs — their role in America’s future, and who they are for. At the Republican convention this week, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple who brandished guns at protesters in St. Louis, asserted that liberals want to “abolish the suburbs” by ending single-family home zoning. The liberals who live in California’s suburbs may not identify with the McCloskeys, but their ugly spectacle has helped unmask NIMBYism, one of California’s most reckless ideologies, for the racist vision it has long been.

It just isn’t true that Joe Biden and the Democrats want to abolish the suburbs, or even improve them, which is a shame. Neither Biden nor his party nor just about anyone else in national or state politics has been willing to honestly discuss the incalculable damage that California-style suburban life has wreaked on our world. In California, if anything is going to ruin the suburbs, it is more likely to be a wildfire than a new president.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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