Every U.S. state has its own romanticized identity. New York is the high-energy center of high culture. Wisconsin is the land of beer and cheese. Texas is full of things that are bigger than the things in other places. But no state in the country has been more romanticized, in more ways, than California.
Endless beaches strewn with surfer babes. A perfect climate that nurtures the nation’s television and movie stardust factories. As many breathtaking national parks as New Jersey has clogged turnpikes. California was glorified even before it became our 31st state, when the gold rush of the mid-1800s saw San Francisco grow from a sleepy outpost to one of the biggest cities in the country. Eighty years later, in America’s largest-ever migration, 200,000 dust bowl farmers abandoned their heartland homes and headed to California’s verdant farmland.
In fact, the state experienced such a steady flow of optimistic newcomers for so many years that today, one in eight Americans calls California home.
Never mind that those seekers often didn’t find the land of plenty they’d envisioned (see Karate Kid), and that indigenous inhabitants were massacred and wiped out by disease courtesy of all the new arrivals. The Golden State continued to burnish its gleaming allure as an easy-living utopia where riches and fame waited behind every swaying palm.
These days, however, shocking headlines speak louder than any celebrity-spiked tourism pitch. For every towering sequoia, there’s a towering wildfire. For every personal freedom, there’s a political embarrassment. And for every Elon Musk, there’s…well, also Elon Musk. Remarkably, the U.S. Census Bureau found that California’s population grew slower than the rest of the country over the last decade and, in 2020, actually shrunk. So, one has to ask, is this the end of the California dream?
The Dream: Californians genuinely care about the environment—and more important, they put their money where their mouths are. In September, the state government passed a massive $15 billion package to fight climate change, and before that California was the first big state to pledge to use 100 percent renewable and clean energy by the middle of the century. Any American currently driving a hybrid or electric car should thank California, which instituted fuel standards and goosed markets to help make cleaner transportation an ever-expanding part of everyday life.
The Reality: Remember smog? The ozone-laden, asthma-inducing air pollution was once a common punch line when discussing Los Angeles, but now all of those cleaner vehicles have eliminated it. Just kidding—last year, thanks in part to oppressive heat, the city saw its worst smog pollution since the mid-1990s. In fact, the American Lung Association’s latest data found that six of the 10 cities with the worst year-round particulate air pollution are in California, as are seven of the 10 cities with the worst ozone pollution.
“What is almost completely lost is that we’re a legacy oil- and gas-producing state,” says Danny Cullenward, policy director at the nonprofit climate research firm CarbonPlan. “Their lobbying capacity greatly eclipses the capacity of others, and it’s hard to build meaningful coalitions to change incumbent industries.”
Another factor contributing to awful overall air quality: Half the state is seemingly on fire at any given moment. Every year becomes the new worst year on record for epic, raging wildfires as the effects of climate change compound decades of suppressing small fires (to protect new development edging further and further into the wilderness), a practice that basically allows forests to fill with billions of matches. As time passes, the fires get bigger and hotter—and burn ever higher into the mountains—due to warming temperatures.
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