Once upon a time, the U.S. government looked ahead to a growing population—and looked to make sure that people would be safe and productive where they lived.
It was understood that while the familiar elements of nature—earth, wind, water, and fire—could be life-giving, they could also be death-bringing. And so, as part of the modern social contract, the state stepped in to aid growth and curb destruction.
Yet today, as wildfires engulf much of California, that social contract has been incinerated. That is, at least 79 are dead, and perhaps 1,000 are missing, yet officials seem mostly helpless to stop the damage. Indeed, the entire state seems to be de-modernizing, as air quality plummets, refugee camps are built, and fears of epidemics re-emerge.
But here’s a bet: that can-do spirit that once aided human flourishing will make a comeback. That is, it’s only a matter of time before Californians—and all Americans—demand that the government once again start putting people first.
Why this confidence? Because it happened before.
Back in 1900, Uncle Sam, having just enumerated the 76.2 million people living in the 45 states plus various territories, could see that more land would have to be opened up for settlement. There were two reasons for this realization, both of which can be found in the life of one man, Theodore Roosevelt.
As a young New York politician, TR could see that urban proletariats, huddled in their misery, might cause societal trouble. As he wrote in 1883, “An uprising might come that will overwhelm innocent and guilty alike.” So something had to be done to stave off radicalism. One obvious solution was social reform. TR was in favor of that, yet he also saw value in spreading out the population.
Indeed, he took his own advice a few years later, when he set out for the badlands of North Dakota. There he noticed a permanent natural phenomenon: it rained a lot less than in the East. He could see that if the population was going to thrive in the West, it would need additional sources of water.
We might note that in those days, providing water was a bipartisan goal. For instance, the Democratic Party platform of 1900 declared, “We favor an intelligent system of improving the arid lands of the West, storing the waters for the purpose of irrigation, and the holding of such lands for actual settlers.”
So in 1902, Roosevelt, by now our 26th president, found Congress receptive to the idea of reclamation—that is, reclaiming desolate land for productive use. Needless to say, such reclamation was to be done without anything like environmental impact statements; such paperwork would only come decades later.
TR established the Bureau of Reclamation within the Department of the Interior. As he declared in 1902, “Few subjects of more importance have been taken up by the Congress in recent years than the inauguration of the system of nationally aided irrigation for the arid regions of the far West.”
The urge to build public works for water reached its apex during the presidency of TR’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most notably, FDR launched the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which transformed the South. We might note that the TVA did far more than provide low-cost hydropower, important as that was—the Manhattan Project, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, relied on TVA power—and is. In addition, TVA projects regularized water flows, preventing flooding and draining swamps, thereby all but eradicating malaria and yellow fever.
TVA was so popular that decades later, Democrats were still campaigning on it. For instance, the 1964 Democratic Platform pledged to “continue the quickened pace of comprehensive development of river basins in every section of the country, employing multi-purpose projects such as flood control, irrigation and reclamation, power generation, navigation, municipal water supply, fish and wildlife enhancement and recreation, where appropriate to realize the fullest possible benefits.” (We might note that this was at a time when the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, was musing aloud about privatizing TVA—a foolishly ideological non-starter.)
Yet Democrats’ ardor for infrastructure eventually cooled. The first Earth Day was in 1970, and it was then that they found a new love. In 1972, the word “reclamation” fell out of the Democrats’ platform (they lost that election). They never did return to the old ways of the New Deal. Instead they went green—and, of course, NIMBY.
Interestingly, around this same time, the Republican Party, too, began to de-emphasize public works. To some extent, the GOP had also gone both green and NIMBY, but for the most part, Republicans had a different motivation—they wanted to spend less. That is, the old TR-ish approach of building out the country was giving way to a new emphasis on bean-counting.
The result was a tacit alliance of greens on the left and libertarians on the right, united in a “green scissors” approach to snipping infrastructure spending.
Without a doubt, this left-right combo has been effective in shrinking public efforts. As the Bureau of Reclamation’s history page tells it, “The heyday of Reclamation construction of water facilities occurred during the Depression and the thirty-five years after World War II. The last major authorization for construction projects occurred in the late 1960s.”
This cessation of ambitious new public works—stopped by legislation in the ’70s and by litigation ever since—is regarded as a triumph of green thinking. Red ink-minded budget cutters, too, are probably pleased.
Yet here’s the thing: even if virtually all water development projects have been stopped—as detailed here by Fresno resident Victor Davis Hanson, who’s seen the desiccation first hand—population growth has not stopped. In 1970, Americans numbered 205 million; they number more than 326 million today.
So what do we do with all these people? Where should they live? That’s a question that nobody seems to want to answer. And so, in the absence of policies that permit the continued dispersion of the population to reclaimed land, the default has been to pack folks into increasingly crowded conurbations.
For instance, a look at a population map of California shows that its people are jammed into just a few clusters. The result of this dense packing has been runaway housing costs: the median home price in Los Angeles County—a place of 10.1 million—is $615,000. One might ask: how do ordinary people afford that? Answer: they don’t.
Yet whenever Californians seek to venture outside of the built-up cores, the lack of protective infrastructure haunts them—and burns them. That’s the unmistakable signal of the recent fires, which most grievously impacted small towns such as Paradise, California, in faraway Butte County. The town’s former residents—all 27,000 of them—will have to think hard before they return to the charred remains of their homes, knowing that they face the prospect of another inferno in a few years.
In reaction to all these fires, California’s leaders have shown a curious, albeit purposeful, passivity. Just last week, Governor Jerry Brown mused aloud, in his wistful green way, “Our indigenous people had a different way of living with nature. For 10,000 years, there were never more than 300,000 [people living in California]. Now we have 40 million and we have a totally different situation. …It’s people. …And the truth is…things are not going to get better.”
We might pause over those last words: things are not going to get better. To put it mildly, this is not the can-do, pro-growth spirit of TR and FDR, to say nothing of past California governors from both parties, from Hiram Johnson to Brown’s own father, Pat Brown.
So what should we do? How do we protect rural Californians? We could start by pointing to little things—that aren’t so little if it’s your house—such as the need for more paved roads so that fire equipment can get to the fire.
We might also realize that water is not only the staff of life, but also the stuff of putting out fires. And if there’s not enough fresh water occurring naturally, well, we can make more. Yes, we can desalinate seawater, as this author has written about.
If the leaders of California wished to do so, they could make rural California safer and more hospitable to human development. To anticipate the inevitable criticism, nobody’s talking about paving over Yosemite. The state is almost 164,000 square miles, so there’s plenty of room for parks and people.
Of course, it’s perfectly obvious that California’s current leaders want no such such thing as exurban or rural population growth, because it conflicts with their green agenda.
Yet in politics, nothing is permanent, and anti-people political arrangements are even more fleeting. So one day, the dispossessed people of California—that is, the many millions dispossessed by green-imposed land scarcity—will wake up. We should hope that they will peacefully assert their right to shape their own destiny, that they will realize that if spreading out and owning a piece of land was a good idea for Americans in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, it’s a good idea, too, for Americans in the 21st century.
If so, then the old social contract, the one that guided so much of our economic development, will be revived. Or, one might say, reclaimed.
As before, it will be all about making land and water available to all.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.