February 2, 2001

Energy and Crisis — The Golden State of Contradiction

By Richard Rodriguez

Weeks of Stage Three alerts and rolling blackouts have made Californians gloomy. A recent Field Poll found by a 49-to-43-percent margin, Californians admit to being pessimistic about the direction of the state.

It's worth noting that today's pessimism follows several years ofhigh-tech generated optimism, when California saw itself at the center of the world. It's worth noting, too, that the optimism of those tech-rich years followed several years of xenophobia and recession-fed pessimism.

No other American state fluctuates so wildly between buoyancy and despair.

During our optimistic years, California celebrates itself as one of the world's largest economies. During our pessimism, California is inclined to blame everyone and everything outside our borders.

Ten years ago, native Californians were leaving gridlocked San Diego freeways for the pristine Pacific Northwest. Then-Governor Pete Wilson was quick to blame illegal immigrants for California's recession.

This year, Silicon Valley executives threaten to find sockets for their ideas elsewhere. Governor Gray calls out-of-state power companies "pirates" and vows "never again can we allow out-of-state profiteers to hold Californians hostage."

Recent polls suggest that a majority of Californians believe the current energy crisis is manipulated by the power companies. I am Californian enough to share the general suspicion — but find it more interesting that our current energy crisis is the result of optimism.

Four years ago, the state's Republican governor and the Democratic legislature deregulated the price of energy at the wholesale level. They assumed out-of-state sources would provide lavish, cheap energy so they could assure Californians that the retail price of energy would remain fixed.

Here was optimism, indeed! Our fabulous economy could continue to grow. We could have computers and lighted swimming pools, and crow about the seventh largest economy in the world without giving a thought to the price of natural gas in Kazakhstan.

Now, the 21st century state is humiliated by a flickering light bulb. And we find a bill 60 percent higher than last month!

There may be no out-of state conspiracies, but one notices out-of-state hostility. In the Oval Office, President George Bush narrows his eyes and tells us that California created its problem; California will have to come up with a solution.

And other western states resent California's assumption that we can tap into their energy sources without bothering to build new plants or repair old ones within our own borders.

Arrogant California! An editorial writer in The Wall Street Journal last week called California "the free-lunch state."

But extravagant expectation has always been the theme of California. In its first American years, men rushed here from every corner, expecting to pick wealth off the ground. Most did not become fabulously rich, but this state would retain golden allure for later generations looking for a second-chance.

But lush optimism always met up with pessimism. Because California enjoyed the glamour of being at the edge of the country, this place where the future resided was also the end of the road, and early in the 20th century, California became notorious for suicide and depression.

Who can say? It may be we want to exempt California from disfiguring our dangerous power plants because we are embarrassed at the harm we have already done to this beautiful place — turning fresh, open spaces to chemically-supported farmlands, farmland into tract houses.

And Californians have long been haunted by the suspicion that the land will cast us off. The earth shakes in California; hillsides turn to angry mud after a gentle rain; the canyon sends flames to devour our hidden houses.

No other state has entertained itself with the spectacle of its undoing. Novelists and painters have imagined apocalypse in various forms. Hollywood has made movies about San Francisco crumbling and Los Angeles burning or falling into the sea. In these terms, the current "energy crisis" seems unworthy of California, less an apocalypse than the result of bungling or conspiracy. And to find oneself "in the dark" is embarrassing, in a state famous for prophesy.

But it is worth remembering that some of the most extraordinary ideas to come from California resulted from the knowledge of finitude.

The bearded prophet, John Muir, invented the idea of conservation in cowboy California. As he gazed upon the shoreline, Muir realized that America is finite.

His astonishing idea of conservation travelled west to east, and came as a surprise to the crowded brick cities of the east where Americans dreamt of traveling west.

Richard Rodriguez is an author and essayist.

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