This summer, my family and I went to California for our summer vacation to see some natural beauty along the Pacific Coast Highway north of LA. We were there during the week of the natural disaster of hurricane Katerina. But we left California feeling as though we had seen a glimpse of the future. What we saw was not pretty.
First let me say that this is not a California-bashing polemic. The state has many great qualities and has taken a leadership role by using its size to force auto-makers and other industries to reduce emissions. But there’s a reason for that.
We arrived at LAX and in our first few days spent time in the lovely town of Santa Monica. It was pretty and clean and fun. But then we decided to start our journey northward by car (we rented a Prius :-). First, we decided to check out LA and took the obligatory picture of my son in front of the Hollywood sign. Just getting from Santa Monica to Hollywood took hours even though it was just a short distance away. Then we headed for Santa Barbara, a “short drive” up the coast.
For no reason we could discern, as soon as we got on the highway from Hollywood, traffic was backed up and crawling. This was the early afternoon on a weekday. The highway was probably ten to twelve lanes across, with a sea of vehicles, idling (except our rented Prius, which stops its motor when the car is stopped). We crawled along for several hours but going perhaps 20 or 30 miles and looking around and saw nothing but ugliness. Cars, trucks, everywhere, with heavy smog. The landscape was completely paved or built upon. It was hot and just felt bad.
Finally, we began to escape the city, but the traffic didn’t abate. And then, we drove into the valleys where our food is grown. In the dry heat, huge plumes of water were being spread through the smog-laden skies, drenching our strawberries or whatever they were in soot and other nasty things. I was quite aware that my dismay was only because I could see the badness (we have bad stuff in the air here in Massachusetts, too), but it still made me realize how terribly wrong this scene was. Even when we got to Ventura, where the sea meets land, the smog continued, and so did the traffic.
Perhaps I am being unreasonable — here in Massachusetts, people spend their weekends heading for Cape Cod or New Hampshire in long lines of slow moving traffic. But somehow, my wife and I were both struck at how much worse, and how unnatural, and how incredibly harmful this kind of thing is. In LA, you can see the badness.
California has been a savior to the nation in some ways: their clout combined with visible need to act was responsible to emissions standards on cars that are stricter than the federal government’s, and largely this benefit has accrued to the rest of the country and world.
But what we saw in LA is a frightening preview of things to come. Urban and sub-urban sprawl, lots of big cars, and a willingness to sit in them for hours on end cannot be good.
Perhaps the recent awareness of energy and environmental issues, sparked by the hurricanes, will help us start moving away from this bleak future towards something you can see through.