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“People should realize we are in a new era,” Mr. Brown said at a news conference here on Wednesday, standing on a patch of brown and green grass that would normally be thick with snow at this time of year. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.” —California Governor Jerry Brown as quoted by the New York Times
The bar at the Nipton Hotel, CA, FOP 2009
The news is remarkable. Last Wednesday, April Fool’s Day ironically, California residents were mandated to consume 25% less water for the first time in history. California is our most populous state. How will millions of Americans adapt to this change? Consuming a quarter less of anything seems rather daunting. Imagine consuming 25% less food or getting 25% less sleep. Is water different? If so, how excessively have we been consuming it? How much do we really need to survive — and then what of the rest? It seems residents in California could be some of the first American’s to signal back to the rest of us what’s actually necessary and what we’ve been borrowing from the future (that no longer exists).
Generally in the United States, we’re used to an abundance of resources and affordances. Much of our current collective lifestyle depends on not being distracted by considering the systems that reliably deliver our food, water, technologies, energy. Yet, last week’s mandate in California marks a turning point in our national mythology. We’ve been overreaching our habitat’s material limits. Earth magnitude change and the physical consequences of our individual daily life practices can longer be denied. And it’s we who will change and adapt in turn.
Water and energy are two major affordances Americans have been able to waste — abundantly — for decades if not centuries. We waste somewhere between 30-50% of the energy and water that flow through our buildings. (Notably, 20% of our nation’s energy is generated from nuclear power. Eliminate such “leaking electricity” and we could, arguable, eliminate our need for nuclear power plants.) At home, the devices we mindlessly leave plugged in continue to consume “vampire power” even when we’re not using them — amounting to an estimated 10% of household energy use.
The drought in California didn’t start last Wednesday. Though its severity has intensified over the last four years, it’s been building for years and things are likely to be getting drier for many more. We are all systemically entwined with how well Californians manage this drought, we’ve all got a stake. Half of all of fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the United States come from California, including up to 90% of foods such as broccoli, almonds, grapes, strawberries and tomatoes — many of which are water intensive.
What’s inspiring to us at FOP about this moment is that the actions being taken are not being framed in terms of stopping or reversing this particular drought. Actions being taken now are about adapting to changing conditions caused or intensified by the Anthropocene.
If you have a crisis of meaning about what your life/dreams/work might be in this era of great change we think this moment offers a remarkable opportunity to make regular, daily life practices more intentional. If we were to actually pay attention to that shimmering, increasingly elusive and essential liquid that we’ve been taking for granted, what other possible daily practices might flow into our imaginations?
Rising California lettuce with water gushing from a faucet in Brooklyn doesn’t feel like the act it was before the news of the mandated water restrictions broke last week. What makes this the “different era” proclaimed by Governor Brown is the fact that daily life is being lived differently by more and more individuals. It’s a necessary difference. It’s also the inspiring part of this unfinished story. We can pay attention to the consequences of our own daily acts — and there’s meaning in that. It’s even possible that we may find more meaning in our lives than before, as we perform simple acts of not taking for granted the systems that sustain us.
The backgrounds and foregrounds of our lives are starting to flip, and that flip is a part of larger realizations and practices to come. As Timothy Morton likes to say, “Giving up a fantasy is even harder than giving up a reality.”
Mojave Desert, outside Nipton, CA, FOP 2009
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