City Journal Winter 2016

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Bruce S. Thornton
The Other California « Back to Story

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Hi Mr. Thornton,

I would have liked to meet you six years ago when I worked in California (in San Jose for eBay. I agree with most of what you say and write. I discovered your ideas when I heard about, and read Decline and Fall. I checked for interviews on the Internet and I listened to your interviews with Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge. When I read fellows like you, Shelby Steele (a colleague of yours from Stanford, by the way) and, to a lesser extent, Victor Hanson, who accept the epithet conservative, I feel that there the proponents of critical thought, in United States, but also in Europe with French authors such as Pascal Bruckner and Philippe Muray (a ferocious polemist who died in 2005), are centre-right, not to say conservatives sometimes, and that doesn't bother me. The search for the truth cannot be one-way. So, I anxiouly checked for the publication of Wages of Appeasement last year and I read it too with great interest. You did an exhaustive historical work which provided revealing insights in the case of Philip II. Too bad your books haven't been translated in French so far. In the meantime, I'll keep reading you in English.

Daniel Fournier
Montréal, Québec, Canada
P.S. I'm a translator(English to French), but writing in English, as a second language, is not such an easy task.
And if you think this country has problems now wait till we put the farmers out of business and have to import our food. From Mexico.
No Chris, the salmon population is not, on the margin, worth the destruction of mechanized agricultural production in the Valley. Sorry, the numbers just do not pan out. And yes, native plants and animal populations are down - eradicated is a deceptive way to put it. Especially since I now see populations of antelope and tule elk in the Western San Joaquin Valley that I never saw growing up there.

Let's face it we want to use the land
to feed humans. You apparently don't.
And yes modern agriculture is not perfect -
it's just better than the alternative. Unless, perhaps, someone WANTS a Malthusian scenario - of course the commies in the Ukraine new how to MANUFACTURE human starvation. Is that your plan?

Full disclosure, I am not a university trained agronomist. I only worked on the family farm in Fresno County, then went off to get an MBA. Those of us who were/are in the business I think have a different perspective than academics and urban dwellers (but I repeat myself).

As someone who actually did farm work (and not just in the family business) I can tell you that Americans used to do those jobs so your neo-colonialist meme is pretty well meaningless. Me and my high school and college friends spent plenty of summers working in the grapes and driving tractors. I even took a year off in my 40s to work on the ranch, so I'm current on pruning vines and rolling raisin trays. Send the Mexican citizens home and farmers (who may have to pay a bit more) will hire Americans or automate more or both. With current unemployment levels they'll get some takers, and its better for people to work than to get welfare.

And no Chris I was born here, and I'm not leaving. Perhaps you should consider it though. Not clear where you'll find that is pure enough for your tender sensibilities, but then, that's your problem.
thank god for ppl like you! just recently obama sent 25 department heads to take over any and all aspects of rural life including water and any and all types of mineral rights. i own water/natural gas rights. i was brought up agricultural/ranching this is the communist manifesto to the letter.frightening!
What is truly amazing, RichB, although I wouldn't call it a miracle, is how short a time it took for agricultural development to poison vast portions of the Valley floor, deplete the underlying aquifers (subsidence is permanent), and eradicate most of the native plants and animals. Less than 100 years from John Muir's beautiful depiction to the current state of affairs. [Recognizing that I am not distinguishing here between agriculture on the east side and the west side, which are significantly different in terms of crops, water sources and land tenure but do share some key characteristics]. There is nothing anti-human about seeking to maintain the very environment that would allow people to live in the Valley for generations. That continuity is the very definition of sustainability.

I was a UC Davis Agronomy student who did his graduate work on cotton in the Valley. Far from the disregard or contempt you and Prof. Thornton would project on anyone who disagrees with you, I deeply love the Valley I lived in for many years and I care about the people and their future. But I also care about the coastal communities which have been devastated by the salmon decline. Aren't the livelihoods of fishing families in towns like Crescent City, Ft. Bragg, Half Moon Bay and Morro Bay just as worthy as those living in the Valley?

While there are many likely causes of salmon decline in Central Valley rivers, including urban wastewater discharges and changing ocean conditions, record water exports from the Delta for agriculture and residential use are almost certainly the primary contributor. It has been estimated that water rights exceed the actual water available by a factor of 5 to 8, so all farmers will never get 100 percent of their allocations. Reform of the water rights system, regulation and monitoring of groundwater pumping, removal of subsidies, less tolerance of externalities (air and groundwater pollution), and enforcement of wildlife protection laws are all part of the "push" side of the solution, while the "pull" side must include financial assistance to farmers from society at large (grants, paid for by non-farmers, coastal and inland) to improve water efficiency, including distribution systems. And ultimately, our society will also have to deal with the upstream effects of water exports on Sierra communities, such as the small town I now live in but we are neither as politically powerful as the coast or Valley. I believe in compromise but the Valley's salmon and wetlands are 95% gone. It's time for the other side to give a little if we are to develop the sustainable future our children deserve.

Finally, I don't believe that the minimum wages, poor educational system and pervasive environmental degradation and racism of life in large parts of Texas represents an attractive future but you are welcome to go there. Venture capital - which overwhelmingly flows to California, not Texas, agrees with me that this state represents a better bet on future returns. And while I don't typically think in terms of sinners and saints, God doesn't seem to be particularly happy with Texas these days either, or to be listening very closely to Gov. Perry's prayers! Ignorance is not bliss, and Nature bats last.
Rarely have I read a more factually incorrect article from a University professor. Of course a professor of classics has little knowledge of the complex world of California water or of biology. Ten of thousands of jobs were not lost, water was not diverted from the valley but was not imported to the valley during the drought, etc. I would think that such a stanch ideological conservative would spend his words attacking the agricultural subsidies, tax write-offs, and other gifts of public funds to private business (agricultural has privatized profits and socialized losses - this is true socialism). Sorry Bruce, your lack of knowledge is truly appalling.
Chris White and CMD proves many of Bruce's points about the coast's disregard and contempt of inner California. They think they know better about everything because they happen to have higher end jobs and are more "enlightened". Jobs that could not exist if it wasn't for basic industry and farming in California. They think their talking points will some how or other justify destroying peoples livelihoods if they repeat them enough.

Sickening! I cannot believe how anti-human they are.

Its amazing how short of a time it took to change what is really a miracle in the desert into some weird point on society.

Punishing the many for the sins of a few is blatantly unfair. Ironic since these same people are always talking about unfairness. The sins of coastal population are far more then the inner population. Nobody is talking about cutting off their water supply. There should be empty swimming pools and unwatered lawns in southern California long before you cut water from farmers. Those are luxuries, not farming.

I guess that's why California is in the mess its in. It used to be the place to move too. When I was a kid people moved to California. Now they move to Texas.

Isn't the agricultural miracle you speak of allowed by the fact that the water used is heavily subsidized?
While Prof. Thornton is free to pontificate on any subject he pleases, my advice would be that he stick to those subjects he understands - like classics - and leave ecology, agriculture and economics to others less susceptible to repeating the conservative myths promulgated by the Hoover Institution and its reactionary funders.

While I believe most farmers are conscientious stewards of the land, the "unsavory" and truly unsustainable externalities (public costs) of corporate farming as it is currently practiced in the San Joaquin Valley should not be ignored in favor of meaningless generalities as was done in this article. These widespread environmental impacts include but are not limited to salinization of farmland, nitrate pollution of groundwater, pesticide-salt-selenium pollution of surface waters, and overpumping of aquifers and consequent land subsidence. It is also worth mentioning the social impacts, such as acceptance of a two-tiered, blatantly racist society where "whites" live in towns and their darker, immigrant farmhands and servants live in so-called colonias and slumburbs with no or poor infrastructure and little access to public services.

The salmon which once spawned in the Valley's rivers by the millions have been extirpated by diversions and dams, primarily to serve agriculture. Over 60 miles of the San Joaquin River ran dry for the last 50 years. Feed us all? Please!! 600,000 acres of almond trees are not producing a basic foodstuff but an export commodity that enriches a relative few landowners and employs comparatively few people at rock-bottom wages.

Prof. Thornton is right that regulation is a problem, and wrong that environmentalism is a romantic indulgence we can ill afford. But the problem is not too much regulation, it is too little enforcement of existing laws and over-cozy relations between agribusiness and politicians (exemplified by the likes of Stuart Resnick/Paramount Farms and Sen. Diane Feinstein). For years agriculture in the Valley was virtually unregulated and even now the regulators are moving at a glacial pace to protect the land, water, air and resident species (including humans!)which are the basis of life (and farming!) in the Valley and important to downstream (Delta,coastal) residents as well. While agriculture may generate $36 bilion statewide, I note that recreation and tourism generates $46 billion and employs more people. Perhaps if Prof. Thornton spent a little more time outdoors in the Sierras or along the coast, and little less time near the dairy lagoons, he could do better than meet the so-called "parochial" perspective of city dwellers with an equally parochial and one-sided 1950s-era textbook gloss on the historic contributions of agriculture to human civilization and the importance of Valley agriculture to life as we know it. Good luck!
CDM, so you would rather that millions die of starvation? You sound like one of those DDT zealots who would rather see millions die of malaria than assure their survival with a pesticide. Sick; utterly despicable!

Along your way of thinking might I suggest that you put a plastic bag over your head and breath deeply until you are no longer a burden to the earth with your resource-gobbling carcass.
Superb article! Its basic message is one that is almost always overlooked. Absent food, we die; the first requirement of life is to feed ourselves. Hooray for modern agriculture.
Haven't those chemical fertilizers and pesticides contributed to the population explosion that is degrading ecosystems worldwide to the crisis point? Viewing nature as merely something to be exploited, instead of the matrix which makes life possible, is short-sighted in the extreme.