As we are learning this election season, American exceptionalism is alive and well. Both candidates offer the public endless praise, extolling our supposedly historic virtues, our uniquely epic fortitude, and our allegedly unprecedented commitment to ‘getting things done’. It’s all hogwash, and nothing illustrates the depths of our delusion better than a story which recounted the twenty-first century’s version of the Hetch Hetchy debate: “Could Yosemite’s ‘Second Valley’ be Restored?
The damming of Hetch Hetchy in 1923, with an aim to securing a water source for San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 quake, provoked one of the first modern environmental conflicts, with John Muir proclaiming, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man”. Muir and the preservationists lost the battle for the Sierra valley to proponents of growth, but their campaign provided a blueprint for successive environmental efforts. And things are coming full circle as San Franciscans vote next month on Measure F, the first step in a process which some hope could restore Hetch Hetchy to its pre-1923 state.
As an unabashed romantic, I find something compelling about the scale and ambition of efforts to un-do what many believe was a hubristic, misplaced intervention, driven by all of the wrong values which continue to dominate our political discourse and drive our approach to natural resources. Supporters of Measure F (which only requires that alternative plans be drawn up to recycle San Francisco’s water and study the possibility of a future in which the valley could be drained) argue that this is as much about breaking San Francisco’s dependency and forcing the city to look at alternative water sources as it is about restoring the valley.
Biologists envisage a 100-150 year timeline before Hetch Hetchy would resemble the Yosemite Valley most of us know, and this is just one of the points being picked up by opponents of the measure, who resemble a “Who’s Who” of San Francisco Society. Why, they are asking, should we undertake a project which no one who is living will see through to its conclusion (a bizarrely self-centred question)? Why should we undertake something which stretches over such a long term?
California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, scion of conventional wisdom, said “Every so often an effort emerges to remove the O’Shaughnessy Dam and drain the reservoir. Each time, the same conclusion is reached: there is simply no feasible way to replace the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, return the valley to its original condition and still provide water to the Bay Area”. If it was a foregone conclusion that any attempt to find water for San Francisco from another source was doomed to failure, that would be an argument against the plan. But the plan is designed precisely to address this question. Feinstein and others are coming out with guns blazing at the wrong point in the process: they’re trying to keep the question from being answered. Rather disingenuously, “No on F” bellows that the initiative “does not identify any sources of water to make up for the 85% of the supply that Hetch Hetchy currently stores...it does not reveal what will happen to the Tuolumne River if Hetch Hetchy is drained and floods miles and miles of wild and scenic river runs” (all points that would be addressed by the investigation, not the ballot initiative).
The other objection is, of course, money. Reports cost money, detractors declare, aghast. So would restoration, if voters voted to reclaim the valley in 2016. And, so says Conventional Wisdom, California is broke (never mind that as late as 2011 the combined wealth of the two richest Californians could have closed our budget deficit, or that Mitt Romney can afford elevators for his cars).
There are plenty of ecological, cultural and environmental arguments both for and against seeking to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley (for example, some would argue that by now, the reservoir is a more “natural” environment than a reclaimed valley would be, given that it’s been the norm for nearly 100 years). But the character of the argument that is playing out in our public sphere illustrates how bankrupt our political ethic has become. There was a time and a place when, if we decided that there was a compelling environmental or cultural imperative to undertake a project of this scale, we would have committed to it without agonising over the cost—because we as a polity, a republic-within-the-republic, actually comprised a functioning political unit, one capable of imagining a way for the cost to be met by our combined wealth and efforts.
People who oppose environmental restoration or virtually any other public infrastructure project which requires significant expenditure of public funds on purely financial grounds resemble the toddler who has learned to be master of every situation. Proponents of the project no sooner open their mouths when the anti-tax zealots begin screaming. And like the poorly-behaved toddler, they don’t stop screaming. Their volume makes any conversation impossible, their intractability means that reason doesn’t apply, and pretty soon it all gets so embarrassing and unproductive that parents give in or, in this case, the subject is dropped.
Restoring Hetch Hetchy appeals to me. But I understand and agree with some of the biological and cultural and historical arguments against reclaiming the valley (less so the rabid opposition to studying the problem). What is sad is that both sides of the argument will be drowned out by those who declare that we are no longer in the business of considering large questions, undertaking big projects, or even having an intelligent debate about the future of our state, our society, or our environment. Instead, these people will ensure that every question, irrespective of how fundamental, gets drowned out by small-minded cost-benefit analysis which ignores social costs or intangible benefits to Californians. Our opportunistic, self-absorbed culture, and the cynicism that our broken political structure generates has incapacitated our state.
The character of the debate over Hetch Hetchy is, at the end of the day, just one more illustration of what has become abundantly clear during debates about budgets, education, taxation, social services, state parks, and our politics during the past few years. We are finished as a society, a culture, or a polity capable of responding to our world in anything resembling a meaningful way. We have no capacity to invest in infrastructure, environmental regeneration, the social public sphere, or in any kind of large-scale technological innovation. And we lack the will to tackle the source of that incapacitation. Perhaps saddest of all, we appear to be increasingly incapable of so much as envisioning a successful state, which provides opportunities to all of its inhabitants, makes intelligent decisions about its resources, responds to public needs, respects public desires, possesses a cultural aesthetic mirrored in its approach to politics, in which all sectors of society are committed to a public good, and in which people can discuss a common vision.
What exactly the attenuation of our collective imagination means for our future, I’m not entirely certain. But I suspect that little by little we’ll begin to find out. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be pleasant.