I used to run from the fact that I’m an Okie. Hide from it. Pretend it wasn’t there. This is understandable: I associated this part of my heritage with a massive collective, generational trauma kind of situation. It was easier to pretend it didn’t exist. But it still existed. And I feel a lot more whole once I stopped running from it. I’ve learned things about myself, my family, and my culture. And I’ve learned what this history — even the bad parts — can teach me about the world, about what I take for granted, what I don’t, and how that differs from other people. And that’s valuable information to have.
So background if you don’t know what an Okie is: In this context, it’s a bunch of people who fled economic and environmental disaster in Oklahoma and surrounding states mostly during the thirties but some before that and some after that. A lot of us, including my grandparents, came to California and worked the fields in the San Joaquin Valley. (The major agricultural center of the state.) We weren’t welcomed. If you’ve heard of us at all, it’s probably from the Grapes of Wrath, which paints a limited picture. We’re from pretty diverse backgrounds and have pretty diverse opinions. By now, we’ve sort of blended in — sort of — and the open hate is mostly behind us although there are subtle reminders, and even a lot of Californians only vaguely know about us. (Especially since a lot of Californians think the San Francisco area and the Los Angeles area are California, but I’m getting off track here. Suffice to say California has its own version of flyover country and my father was born there, raised all over Kern and Tulare counties.)
So okay. One thing I have always understood is that resources are limited. That you can’t fuck around with the physical world around you and not have it fuck you around right back. That you can’t live without water. That no amount of denial, no matter how sophisticated a form it takes, not even any amount of money, can ultimately get around that: You can’t live without water. And you can’t fudge these things. You can put off the inevitable by moving things around, but you’re only making things worse by using up resources faster instead of using them more wisely.
I grew up in and around Silicon Valley. A place with a lot of people in it whose form of denial takes the form of wealth and technology. They think throwing a ton of money, intellect, or technology at a problem will solve it. When they aren’t busy just imagining that the limits of the real physical world will go away if they transcend their physical form using the power of positive thinking or bullshit along those lines. In extreme forms, I’ve seen the technology thing take the form of “Resource shortages will stop existing if we pour all of our effort into creating a superhuman computer that will know how to synthesize elements from scratch.”
Guys, you still need raw materials to synthesize things from, even if that were possible, which I doubt it actually is. And your belief that technology will simply continue accelerating, getting more and more sophisticated and amazing, into the indefinite future, is not born out by history. At all.
And yeah we need people thinking about how to solve these problems. And we need people inventing things to help us solve these problems. But throwing all your energy and money and time into a supercomputer that’ll probably never exist, is not the way, guys. And all of your thought, all of your invention, all of your innovation, it all has to be grounded in certain basic aspects to reality. And there’s a lot of people in Silicon Valley and other technological hotspots who live in a dream world where they can’t even see the people working the assembly lines in the next room over, let alone the people digging up and refining the materials, growing and harvesting the food, the complex physical web of physical actions in physical reality that exists in order to prop them up in their technological dreamland.
My dad was a type of person I actually saw a lot of in Silicon Valley: A rural Okie techie. They acted, looked, and dressed different than the other techies, came from different roots, approached problems differently. My father wanted to be a farmer, but small family farms were being driven out of existence by the horrors of corporate farming that’ve taken over large parts of California. His grandfather, who never graduated junior high, believed strongly in education and had saved up to subsidize an education for his grandchildren. My dad got a two-year degree and became an electronics technician. He moved to the Bay Area to find work. There’s lots of people like him. People who, like him, grew up tinkering with electronics in the attics of their farms in their spare time, cobbling things together from radio parts. People who combined inventiveness and practicality.
And he took that to his job. Technically his job was to build electronics for particle physics experiments. In reality his job was a lot more complicated than that. He might be doing engineering, even though his job title and pay were technician because he had never been to school for engineering. He might be teaching grad students in engineering who knew less than he did. He might be digging ditches and setting up equipment. His job drew really well on the skills he had and he was very valued there.
And like a lot of the Okie techies I’ve met, he had that streak of practicality, that understanding of the hard physical limitations of reality, that a lot of other techies seem to lack. His parents came to California fleeing drought, dust storms, hard times, and the biggest manmade environmental disaster the world had seen at that point. He grew up and worked on farms. He knew where things came from. All of us knew where things came from. And we knew what happens when things run out. And what happens when you run them out too fast.
Okies have been warning of a second dust bowl since at least the fifties. The solutions found for the dust bowl have involved piping water around in ever-increasing quantities without changing much else. Aquifers — underground stores of water — that had been around forever, that had huge quantities of water, are now being depleted. The fields my family worked existed in a converted desert, water piped in from elsewhere. Tulare and Kern counties are now the epicenter of the California water crisis. I’ve seen the change in my lifetime. And it’s only going to get worse.
You can’t live without water.
You can’t produce water by magic. Not even technological magic.
You can run out of water.
You can’t play musical chairs with water, moving it around from one place to another, hoping you won’t be the one dehydrating to death or living on arsenic-tainted water when the music stops.
I’ve always been disturbed by the stock market. I used to think it made no sense because I was dumb or hadn’t been raised by people who invested. And who knows what all makes it hard for me to understand. But I’ve realized part of it is it’s like a giant game of musical chairs where there’s not a lot of chairs and everyone’s running around moving the chairs around trying to conceal how few there are.
But at least stocks are sort-of imaginary. Like they take a level of abstraction to even believe in. They have serious consequences, because symbolic as they are, the things they deal with are based in physical reality, like everything, you know, actually, real. But they’re really just ideas, immensely powerful ideas. (This is one reason I’ve always found them hard to understand.)
Right now there’s people speculating on water like it’s a fucking stock.
Here’s the thing about water: It runs out.
You can move it around in circles and use it and use it and use it and make money off it… and if you try that, you’re gonna kill a lot of people because we all need water. You will run out of water if you do this. You will. There are no questions here.
I understand the specifics of California because I grew up there. But this is affecting the entire world. I live in Vermont. I live next to a giant lake — almost but not quite made one of the Great Lakes. These water speculators have been very interested in buying our water and making money off it. This is going on all over the world. It needs to be resisted whenever and wherever it happens.
You can’t live without water.
The real physical world has real physical limits.
All resources can run out if used badly.
These are things I know because I’m an Okie.
These are things you need to know too.
When you stop running from a problem, you can face it.
We need to face something about this: It is already a crisis. People are already dying. In California, in the rest of the world.
Everything we do to destroy water destroys ourselves.
Speculating on water to make money is basically playing a gambling game with the future of every life form that depends on water (which is all of us): This is evil and needs to be stopped.
The things that many corporations and wealthy individuals are doing to water and other resources are not things that will be solved by taking few or no showers, not flushing the toilet, drinking as little as possible, and not watering the lawn.
And all those farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley who are having to buy water or drink arsenic-tainted water? Let me just illustrate this for you if you don’t realize how fucked up it is.
The only real job I ever did and got paid for was on a horse farm in the San Joaquin Valley. It involved a lot of hard physical work in blistering summer heat. The San Joaquin Valley gets really frigging hot in the summer. Easily 110 degrees in the shade, hotter in the sun. So hot that where I lived, all the stores let you take your dogs inside because leaving them in the car would kill them, end of story.
You need a lot of water to do that kind of work in that heat. And the corporate farms are using all their water on plants — often plants that get them a lot of money — and leaving none for their farmworkers. The farmworkers have to buy their water or use tainted water. People are dying. This is obscene. It’s also part of the nonsense reality lived in by people who seriously think that their money will protect them from drought and famine when their crops can no longer grow, or no longer be harvested. Maybe for individuals, that’s true to a limited extent, but collectively, they’re even screwing themselves over in the long run. And even if you live nowhere near California or the other real centers of this ongoing crisis, they’re screwing you over too. If you have to eat and drink, you’re getting screwed over. Money can cushion you for a little while, it won’t cushion everyone forever.
It alarms me how little many people understand the physical underpinnings of their own survival. Where food and water come from, how they get in the ground, how they grow or are raised, how they’re pumped or harvested or slaughtered, how they’re gotten to you, all the people and animals and plants and fungi and bacteria doing their part in all this. How fragile this is. How our biggest obligation is to protect it because without it we have nothing. And I mean nothing.
Anyway — as I said, lifestyle changes by ordinary people won’t do damn near enough. Hell, even if everyone in California got their act together, and used water as wisely as humanly possible, at this point you’ve got more people there than the natural level of water there can possibly support indefinitely and you’re already dealing with the consequences.
I’m not saying this to make you hopeless.
I’m saying this because I hope someone with the power to do so will wrest control away from the people who are hell-bent on destroying basic physical things that nobody and nothing can live without. Before things get even worse. Things are already bad, going to get worse, but we still have a choice to change things so that they aren’t the worst of the possible worst. (And if you think the worst of the possible worst is human beings not surviving, you haven’t grasped the enormity of the problem.) And we have an obligation to do what we can. An obligation to every person and every living thing who stands a chance of surviving even a little bit longer and suffering a little bit less if we change things. Which is all of us, and our descendants, and all other living things.
I’m just a mostly-housebound disabled person blogging this from bed. I’m saying these things because I have some hope that an Okie perspective on resource shortages may spur some people — people who can leave the house — into understanding what’s at stake, and figuring out what to do about it. Figure out solutions but ground your solutions in practical reality, or they are no solutions at all. And part of the solutions has to be — has to be — stopping various extremely wealthy people and corporations from literally ripping the ground out from under our feet, and our water and other necessities beneath it.
For a brief understanding of the water situation in California, you could do a lot worse than the documentary Water and Power: A California Heist which last I knew was available on Netflix, and for rental on Amazon and YouTube. Here’s a trailer:
If you want to know about the history of the Dust Bowl, its causes, its consequences, and its later implications which are beginning to come true as warned, there’s a longer documentary series by Ken Burns called The Dust Bowl. I learned things from it, and I’m an Okie. But it’s that cultural foundation, learned without being formally taught in any way, that’s allowed me to have the perspective I have on the meaning of resources in general and water in particular. If that or something similar isn’t in your background, you could learn a lot from watching it. Most people have no idea how bad it was, and how much worse it eventually will be. The story’s definitely told from a certain perspective that leaves a lot of people (like the original inhabitants, still there) out, but the basic physical facts are told in glaring excruciating detail by interviews with people who were there. And that’s what you should get out of this: What it was like, how it happened, and how the solutions aren’t solutions, and the likely consequences.
Here’s a trailer for that one:
Most Dust Bowl survivors are dead now. They can’t tell you what it was like except as recorded voices in documentaries like that one. And many survivors were already dead when it was made.
I feel like as an Okie descendant it’s my duty to pass on the knowledge that was passed on to me: What resources are, what misusing them does, the fact that reality has hard physical limits that nobody and no thing and no amount of money or denial or fake quick fixes can ultimately outrun. And why we need to work creatively within those limits and really damn fast, to build the best possible future for as many people as possible.
And as a Californian who lived through Enron, why privatization isn’t the solution (Water and Power gets into it in more depth, there’s devastating information about Australia).
And as a disabled person who’s experienced severe dehydration (from not being able to get enough water, from fluid loss, and from conditions that made it impossible for my body to properly use the water it had, at various times). Like everything from can-barely-manage-it-at-home dehydration, to ER-level dehydration, to hospitalization-level dehydration, ICU-level dehydration. To tell you, at the most visceral level possible, that is not how you want to die.
And this is already happening. If it’s off in the future for you it’s only because you’re really lucky. It’s happening right now. All we can do is throw on the brakes and find a way to truly change how things are being done to the best extent possible within the limits of physical reality and not some distant dreamworld.
If you’re reading this, and can do so, please do more than I can do. If you’ve convinced that things are so terrible nobody can do anything so why try, please read my last post, “We’re doomed, so we can do whatever we want…” and then try to get your head out of your ass before you hurt someone. Despair will kill more people faster and more cruelly than anything else we could possibly do. It’s important to be able to stare reality straight in the face, without flinching away or denying it, and then stand up and say “I’ll do what I can, because it’s the right thing to do.”
We owe this to each other. Hope doesn’t mean ignoring reality. It means facing reality as honestly as possible, finding the point where “What I can do” and “What needs to be done” meets, and doing it, because it’s right.