Another......Beautiful Day

I have found, over the years, that the effort I have exerted in understanding a particular place from an historical, geographical, botanical, biological and meteorological perspective, is richly rewarded in terms of what I am going to call resonance – the feedback loop between a sentient being and its physical setting.

The scope of analysis can differ, but it does seem that the attention we pay to our surroundings enhances the possibility of symbiosis – where what we learn on a theoretical plane is enriched by the actual experience of a place. Perhaps it’s like knowing the plot of a Shakespearean play before attending the performance: an understanding of the narrative structure allows for an openness to the play’s more subtle emanations.

It is the weather, in southern California, that is one of the subtlest aspects of our environment. I often think of a remark attributed to Alice de Janzé in which she had once flung open the shutters of her window in her house in Kenya and declaimed: "Oh, God. Not another fucking beautiful day." De Janzé was a notorious Chicago meat-packing heiress and a key member of ‘The ‘Happy Valley’ set, a community of wealthy expatriates in East Africa in the 1920’s and 30’s, who clearly missed the meteorological vagaries of the Great Lakes region. I still miss the thunderous cycles of sub-tropical weather washing over coastal Sydney, Australia - that great build up of heat and humidity regularly broken by cyclonic storms - which I experienced for a decade before arriving in California.

Once in Los Angeles my regular plaint was, “and when exactly is the rainy season?” Although I arrived at the end of a wet calendar year, 1980, it wasn’t until January 1983 that I had me some serious southern California rain. It started raining late in the season, on my wedding day, the 23rd of the month, and It didn’t let up until late April, for a total of 32”. At that point, my meteorological acculturation was complete - with a visceral understanding of Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood's 1972 lyrics,

Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I've often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California
But girl don't they warn ya
It pours, man it pours

Between 1986 and 1991, Southern California experienced a drought (I still remember the moratorium on water served at restaurant meals). Then the El Nino returned in 1991-1992 and began a series of wet winters culminating in the ‘super’ El Nino of 1997 – 1998, during which I was commuting a few times a week from Santa Monica to Ojai. In that memorable season the rains did not let up until the middle of May and totaled 41”. 2005 also brought heavy late winter rains (36”) to Ojai and briefly marooned our newly acquired land: the 150 was closed at the Grade and at Santa Paula canyon where it crosses Sisar  creek. The only reasonably wet year we have experienced since we moved in to the house in May 2009 was that first winter of 2009-10, when rainfall totaled almost 30”.

While it does sometimes seem as though ‘it never rains in southern California’ where one glorious sunny day succeeds the next, we remember the exceptions, the wet years….the dry, not so much. So it is that we find ourselves, in 2014, deep into a drought that has crept up on us like a (water) thief in the night. We have not, collectively, been paying enough attention and by now the emanations are no longer subtle: oaks are dying; year-round creeks are going dry and wells are failing.

Kit Stolz, a local journalist and the curator of a fine blog, A Change in the Wind, recently arranged a symposium, “Facing Drought Together, A Call to Community Response and Action” to focus the attention of Valley residents on the fact that we might just be half way through a 20-30 year drought. William Patzert, Ph.D., of JPL/NASA, introduced the audience to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) a measure of average ocean temperatures in the Pacific that, historically, switches from a warm-phase PDO (leading to cold and wet weather in the western states) to a cool-phase PDO, which causes warmer, drought conditions, every twenty to thirty years.

Many of Ojai’s residential and agricultural landscapes are predicated on a permanent warm-phase PDO. California’s agriculture was founded on such wet-year optimism: the cattle industry in the mid-nineteenth century was established during a warm-phase PDO and subsequently foundered disastrously when the PDO switched states later in the century - the industry then suffered a terminal decline from drought and drought-induced cattle disease. Ojai’s citrus industry may one day suffer the same fate as the Ranchos.

So, in denial of our own experience of the flood and drought cycles of southern California, it takes a NASA scientist to awaken us to the meteorological realities of our Valleys. A few days later, The Guardian published a synopsis of a new study sponsored by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that suggests that industrial civilization is likely headed for irreversible collapse…………If it’s not one thing it’s another.

Every age harbors doomsayers, but it is undeniable that every previous civilization of the current post-glacial era, a 10,000 year epoch of civilizational efflorescence (a direct result of a warming climate) has collapsed in circumstances that are now alarmingly familiar. The study highlights the probability that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

The sophistication of our late-capitalist western culture is no guarantee of its longevity. The study notes,

"The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent."

When I taught World History in High School, I used a college level textbook that, from my perspective, was blessedly free of pictures, bar graphs and side-bars. It demanded of the students a sustained textual engagement of which almost all were developmentally incapable. Oh well. But as we marched through the rise and fall of civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Indian sub-continent, we were alternatively entranced or bored stiff by the repetitive story lines. Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy were the recurring characters in these tales of unheeding hubris and mindless careening towards inevitable collapse. This was the mid to late nineties – when the writing on our own civilizational wall was not quite so evident.

It appears now to be all of a piece. Western Civilization is about to be added to the chapters of failed societies where the harvesting of resources outstrips the ecological carrying capacity of the planet and, concurrently, societies are stratified into rich Elites and impoverished Masses. As the lead author of the study, Safa Motesharri  makes clear, our civilization is doomed by either this collapse of the natural world and the resources it provides or a societal collapse engendered by the over-consumption of the Elites and the inequality-induced famine of the Masses or, most likely, a perfect storm of both.

What is striking about the report is that mathematical models suggest collapse is imminent, perhaps within the next fifteen years - which leaves me with the thought: Never mind the drought – Feel the impending civilizational collapse. Pay attention. Time and Place have assumed a profound, dystopian resonance.