California, Water, and Civilization

I recently stumbled across a NY Times article, which quite prophetically captures the breaking point facing the state of California, and I think, offers a greater omen for the state of civilization today.

This issue has a good deal of personal resonance with me. For one, I spent last summer working door-to-door sales for a co-op of organic farms in California that delivers fruits and vegetables directly to people’s homes. In a time when we are all too often alienated from the sources of most basic needs, and the life-begetting cycles that sustain life on earth, this company uses the modern paradigms of technology, branding, and scale to reconnect people to healthy origins in the land. In a lot of ways, it epitomizes the “techno-fix”–rather than going “back to the land” directly, and adopting a holistic lifestyle of engagement with the earth, the company is leveraging the force of  technology to fulfill a void that, many would argue, was given rise by the advent of technology itself. It is the National Park revealing “nature;” the processed, middle-aisle trail mix bar boasting “natural;” and in many ways an exposé of the posh and pricy trademark of “organic.”

We’ve known for some time that California is suffering one of the worst droughts in history, but as long as our faucets kept spewing with infinitude, and we can keep dousing our seductively green lawns in the middle of the desert, we could comfort ourselves with the self-assuring sense that the problem was “out of sight, and out of mind.”

But Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate of a 25% reduction in total water use signals an alarmingly different reality. Not only is this a top-down recognition of our need to conserve water, imparted from a barren stretch of the Sierra Nevadas once laden with snow, but it is an omen of our times that the unbridled “growth” and “progress” of civilization alone may be insufficient in solving our most basic problems in life.

In many ways, California can be seen as our world’s pre-eminent laboratory of human aspiration set against the natural limits of the earth. As Gov. Brown explains,

“For over 10,000 years, people lived in California, but the number of those people were never more than 300,000 or 400,000. Now we are embarked upon an experiment that no one has ever tried: 38 million people, with 32 million vehicles, living at the level of comfort that we all strive to attain.”

But the unmistakable irony of it all is that a mandated reduction in our most life-begetting substance–water–demonstrates that the seemingly limitless aspirations and concerns of the “California reality” are ultimately empty and literally fruitless if they ignore the fragile yet absolutely essential sources that make life possible.

I have spent most of the last four months living a rather simple life in the rural, predominantly rice-cultivating village of Ekiriya, Sri Lanka. I eat rice and curry three times a day with a wonderful family–rice that is growth entirely within the village, and vegetables that are plucked from home gardens, the natural environment that abounds, or kindly offered by the neighbor next door in the midst of harvest. I live in a friend’s old house, with a simple outhouse squat toilet, and an outdoor tank of water which I use for boiled drinking water and to bathe. My friendly neighbors help me cultivate 20 different fruits and vegetables on this land, which I hope to contribute to our collective sustenance–the first crop of green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers will be harvesting shortly.

I realize I am far from the culture I know, and I can’t deny the ties that bind me to an American 21st century reality. I took a fossil-fuel-guzzling airplane flight to get here, and I’ve been financially and operationally supported by the Fulbright program, which largely derives from hard-earned American tax dollars.

But I am learning to live with less, and to recognize the ultimate futility and waste of a lifestyle that trivializes our most important concerns of food, water, land, and community as a relic of the past–an indispensable context of our existence we have somehow moved beyond.

California is learning this lesson the hard way–from the top down, from a government waking up to tell people that we need to change, even we can’t see see it for ourselves. I’d like to think that the organic farm delivery service I worked for can be on the right side of history, or that emergent technologies such as drip irrigation, waterless urinals, or fuel-efficient automobiles can help. But I question if “techno-fixing” alone can cure our most basic problems– in a world where the hegemony of “more” is imposed on the reality of “enough,”– and if it can salvage the disconnection and alienation that plague this modern character.

I’ll leave that to ponder in the farm fields of Ekiriya, alongside my neighbors, planting new seeds in the soil, raising our hands in worship of the new life to come.