This morning, Hector Tobar, a respected Los Angeles-area commentator, personally heaped all the ecological sins of humankind on to the current residents of Los Angeles in an editorial in the New York Times, a publication that has gotten increasingly feisty about its hatred for California of late. Tobar writes:
"As a native of Los Angeles, I am significantly more responsible for global warming than your average resident of planet Earth. We pioneered an energy-guzzling lifestyle for the masses and taught the world to follow our lead. Now a parched, endless summer is our punishment.
"My own sins against Mother Nature started when I was 15, growing up in the suburb of South Whittier in the 1970s. Every day, I drove my mother's Pinto station wagon an hour to my first job, downtown. Back then, we burned gasoline with abandon, churning greenhouse gases into the atmosphere before any of us were familiar with the phrase. The clouds of smog that choked the Los Angeles basin of my childhood eventually came to smother Beijing, New Delhi and Cairo."
As a "native of Los Angeles," Tobar should know better.
If The New York Times is going to report old news, why not tell us about the sinking of the Titanic while they're at it? You could poll all 40 million collective residents of Beijing, New Delhi, and Cairo and every one of them would tell you something unflattering, and at least partly true, about Los Angeles' environmental impact. It's not like people didn't notice the 250-mile scar that William Mulholland dug in the Earth in 1913. In the 1950s, Los Angeles wasn't called "Smog City" for nothing.
I can accept old criticism if it's useful and true. Dispiriting self-flagellation is another matter.
In blaming his 15-year-old self, Tobar implies that every choice about releasing carbon is a conscious, autonomous act that inherently acknowledges and accepts its own consequences. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth — especially in the 1970s. Humanity did not know then what it knows now about climate change. We learn slowly as a species, and we implement policy changes even more slowly. That doesn't mean that a kid in Whittier — or any of the 10 million others who live in the L.A. area — needs to blame himself.
People in Los Angeles, even those blinded by some orange-hued vision of the American dream, did not just wake up one day and decide that they "wanted" what they got. The sprawl, freeways, and (not incidentally) segregation of Southern California was as much a function of policy as economics. The federal government's role in suburbanization (partly through the GI Bill) is well documented. Banks contributed too. Plenty of companies, from homebuilders to pipe-forgers loved the idea of building sprawling, infrastructure-intensive developments. This pattern persisted all over the country. (Levittown, the first mass-produced suburb, is in Long Island.)
So let's also look at the national picture. Tobar's ecological footprint isn't large because he's from Los Angeles. It's large because he's from the United States. With the exception of a few oil-rich states, we as a country use more energy and create more emissions per capita than any other peoples in the history of the world. Amid this orgy, guess where California ranks among the states in per capita energy consumption? Forty-ninth.
We're not Manhattan — which is remarkably efficient, because of shared walls and non-car transport — but we're not Bloomfield Hills either. (Here's an interactive nationwide map of carbon footprints. See if you can spot the center cities.)
Tobar blames Los Angeles for ushering in the global age of the automobile. But being first doesn't mean that we are responsible (or even that we are "we" — anyone who had a drivers license in 1925 is long dead). If L.A. hadn't done it first, I'm sure Detroit would have found some other place willing to build roads, highways, and parking garages. Some other city's trolleys would have fallen into disrepair, and the people of that city probably would have been just as thrilled to discover the freedom of the automobile as the people of L.A. were.
I've published many choice words about the short-sightedness and intellectual myopia of Modernist planners — the ones who, following Le Corbusier, dreamed of motion, freedom, and compartmentalization -- but I don't necessarily blame them. Even Robert Moses was doing what seemed right for the time. What's wrong is to keep doing that same thing in the face of evidence of its harm. If I may agree with Tobar for a moment, it's further inaction that makes us sinners today. It just seems like Tobar would have us cut off carbon and turn all of that ticky-tack into apartment buildings all at once. (Elon Musk might be able to help us with the first part; developers will tell you that the second part is going to take a while.)
Tobar solemnly decries our past reliance on driving only to imply that nothing has changed: "In response to the drought emergency, the state is trying to force people to use less water, but only the bravest California politician would suggest we force people to drive less to fight global warming" (emphasis added). In so doing, he ignores the literally millions of people who are trying to repent, incrementally, at least — and who didn't need his beratement to understand their opportunities and responsibilities to create a more sustainable Southern California.
In cities and counties across the state, not to mention at the Capitol, this list grows nearly by the day. This may not qualify as heroism. We haven't reversed the thermometer yet. But I'll be damned if people aren't trying. And,yes, every one of these policies calls, explicitly or implicitly, for Californians to drive less. I literally cannot go to a conference without multiple public officials touting a car-free future.
These laws, policies, and funding measures — which have made California the greenest jurisdiction west of Iceland -- represent the will and effort of politicians like former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Assemblymember Fran Pavley, former Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg, the board and staff of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his staff, current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his staff, the majorities of the state Assembly and Senate, the staffs and boards of the state's metropolitan planning organizations, and, indirectly, the voters who elected them.
Speaking of voters: one of those policies, Measure R, represents 67 percent of Los Angeles-area voters in the 2008 countywide election. That's 2.039 million people -- 2.039 million people in our smog-choked wasteland who get to be proud of the progress they are trying to make and who are primed to support more efforts to come.
I guess Tobar wasn't one of those voters. But that's OK. We don't need him. We have a long road ahead of us (hopefully one with fewer roads) and many brave souls leading the way.