The triumph of Africa in America

In Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, he spends a great deal of time talking about the fife and drum music of the northern Mississippi hill country, a genre I was completely unfamiliar with. He makes a big deal about how “African” the music is, but his prose alone didn’t quite convince me. (How does one describe completely unheard music, anyway?) I took a look on YouTube found several fascinating clips.

I was instantly enchanted with the unique sound — jazzy flutes and polyrhythms. It reminded me of something, too, but not something I knew in American music. I racked my brain and decided I had heard something like this when I was briefly in Chad in 2006. I looked through my old files and found the following.

I got chills as I watched my 10 year-old videos and realized that this was, in essence, the same music. I compared the audio again and again and found that the drums were all but synced, the phrasing of the woodwind was almost identical, and the vocals at the end of the phrase were quite similar as well. These two groups could easily jam together, with few adjustments.

It’s common to hear music in Latin America and the Caribbean, from Haiti to Colombia to Brazil, that has pretty obvious African antecedents. Although we all know that African music had a huge influence on American music, the links are not always quite as easy to hear. (And sure, Fela Kuti and James Brown may have some similarities, but they were listening to each other.) This is different. I don’t think Mississippian fife and drum players and Chadian flute and drum groups have had any recent interaction, yet they play, in these recordings at least, almost as if they know each other.

Slavery in America was singularly extreme in its repression of cultural heritage. Drums were banned almost everywhere. Ancestral languages were lost. The hinterlands were isolated and the control of the slave state probably more total than in other countries. Yet, through all of that and more, these black Mississippians kept their musical heritage alive. In the notes of their music we hear the voices of West or Central African ancestors who brought a specific musical skill with them and transmitted it to their children, and they to theirs.

Maybe they didn’t think of that transmission of music as a heroic act. Maybe they didn’t consider it “African” — a word that in many contexts was almost a slur for so long in America.  Definitely, it would have been hard for those musical stewards to guess that something called the internet would one day make their sounds so widely available. But they kept the flame of this musical tradition going because it was good and they recognized its power.

I can’t help but feel that those fife and drum players are heroes. Their performance is the telling of a history whose record was forbidden. It’s a triumph of human spirit through generations of unthinkable suffering. It is music as resistance. They kept a flame alive that had gallons of water thrown on it. They didn’t just endure: they overcame.

Bonus video: a short documentary, produced by Lomax, shows more context for the Mississippi music.

Roots music break: “Spike Driver Blues”

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me

Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I’m gone,
Won’t you tell him I’m gone
Won’t you tell him I’m gone

So go the “Spike Driver Blues” as sung by blues legend Mississippi John Hurt. It’s a song that captivates me because, like so much great folk music, its simple vignette has a constellation of stories packed between its lines, a wealth of history, and not a little wisdom. It’s a song of quiet rebellion. Have a listen.

Or (for those who can’t be bothered with Spotify)

Most Americans know the story of John Henry, the legendary African American railroad worker who was strong enough to defeat a machine, but died in the process. There are countless folk ballads, poems, and children’s books celebrating his life. Most narratives celebrate his strength, and tell the story as the tragedy of the triumph of machine over the working man, who is nevertheless an enduring hero.

Hurt’s description of events takes us in another direction. Here we seem to be hearing the account of John Henry’s death from the perspective of a partner on his spike-driving team. He sees the great man fall, his hammer “all painted in red” (his blood?), left beside the road. Does John Henry ask the narrator to take the beloved hammer to the captain as he’s dying? Maybe — but it also sounds as if the narrator is asking a third person to take his hammer to the captain, because the narrator, still standing, is leaving.

The somber lyrics and melody don’t dramatically valorize John Henry, as other songs about the steel-drivin’ man do. Instead, they explain the narrator’s decision to walk out on a deadly job.

In other words, the narrator is a quitter. What’s so rebellious about that? The notion that leaving work is valiant runs counter to the American ideals of industriousness and bootstrap pulling. We make movies about pioneers and virtuous gunfighters and heroic sheriffs. We don’t tell so many stories about people who just said No. Besides, people chose to work those jobs. John Henry is a post-slavery character who personified the pride in labor — paid labor — that was finally available to the majority of African Americans after the Civil War. Right?

Well, not quite, actually. In his 1993 book, The Land Where the Blues Was Born, Alan Lomax compellingly describes the social setting and historical context that gave rise to music like Hurt’s. After the Civil War,  the Delta (where Hurt lived most of his life — he was born in 1892) was a frontier of sorts, a sprawling swampland wrestled into fertile farm country by thousands upon thousands of freed slaves and their descendants who had nowhere to run and no other way to live. Making the soggy Mississippi flood plain inhabitable meant the massive moving of earth to build and maintain hundreds of miles of levees, and it took the running of steamboats, the building of networks of railroads that reached from the cotton fields to the towns and cities, and ultimately the highway system.

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The vast majority of this enormous enterprise, which took decades and created billions of dollars of wealth for rich farmers, was the work of black laborers. They were “free” — to a degree. Many chose the arduous, dangerous jobs as the only alternative to sharecropping, which was essentially indentured labor. Some were on the run from white landowners who claimed they were owed work or money. Others found a measure of dignity in the life of a rambler with a bit of money in his pocket. Still others were pressed into work, something Lomax says was particularly common in the lawless levee camps, where everyone carried a pistol and a walk by the river meant a good chance of being kidnapped and forced into bone-crushing work in hellish conditions. Those who perished from exhaustion were sometimes simply thrown in the dirt and made part of the levee.

And then there were the chain gangs, a Southern institution for many decades. The prisoners, who lacked liberty just as much as their enslaved forebearers did, were often in jail for long terms because of trumped up charges or cursed luck in a land where oppression made life a minefield of catch-22s. (Accounts of chain gang life that Lomax collected are harrowing and nightmarish in ways that recall Eli Wiesel’s Night). Some historians’ view is that the real-life John Henry, if there was one, was actually a prisoner, too.

In light of this, when Hurt sings about leaving we must understand that he’s not talking about going home to drink coffee while he scans the newspaper for other job openings. He’s singing about escape. Even more, he’s singing about refusing to accept personal injury for another man’s project, cloaked though it may be in the mythology of heroism, industry, and advancement. Hurt’s narrator is a muted cynic — a quitter, sure,  but a quitter of a game whose rules are impossibly rigged. As Lomax writes, “[Prison] officials and underlings were filled with a zeal for work that might well be called Souther Protestant Colonial; they had a passion for forcing others to labor hard in the hot fields and woods, and were enraged if there was shirking…. [They] humiliated, bullied, beat, often tortured, and sometimes murdered their charges.” The levee bosses were only a little better. Goldbricking was protest. Escape was war.

Knowing what we do of the obstacles Hurt’s narrator will likely face down the line — prison, death, or at the least, constant struggle — there’s nothing easy about the road he’s chosen. Just maybe, though, he’ll find a way — down the river, out west, or up north in some distant city.

Whatever the case, he’ll make sure that hammer won’t kill him too. Not by choice, at least. In the circumstances, the strength of the act of leaving is a victory worth writing a song about.

 

A look back at my trip on the Lunatic Express

The Lunatic Express got its name from its notorious expense and the high death rates of the largely South Asian workforce that built it at the turn of the last century. But the main thing that was insane about the railway when I rode it in 2010 — and I suspect little has changed — is the absurdly long time it took to transport me from the coast of Kenya to Nairobi: some 14 hours for a trip that could be made by road, in good conditions, in about six.

Why rush though? My overnight journey on the clattering train was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my many trips to Kenya. Waking up in a cheap sleeping compartment and watching giraffes watch you from an expanse of parched savannah was otherworldly.  Those 14 hours were some of the most peaceful I’ve had in a long time.

I reported a story on the trip for the Global Post, though they seem to have taken down the (awesome) audio slide show I did for them. Good thing I still have the recording of my interview of a curator of the Nairobi Railway Museum. Have a listen.

 

With news that a significant portion of the new coast-to-capital railway will supposedly be finished by 2017 — and I must stress the supposedly part here, given the disappointing pace of recent Kenyan infrastructure improvements — it seemed like a good opportunity to resurrect a few photos of my trip.

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Fort Jesus cannon, Mombasa.

Laborer, Mombasa train station.

Laborer, Mombasa train station.

Mombasa station.

Mombasa station.

Troubadour, Mombasa train station.

Troubadour, Mombasa train station.

Deseerted station houses in the middle of Kenya, dawn.

Deserted station houses, dawn.

Morning breaks on the savanna.

Morning breaks west of Tsavo National Park.

Dining car detail.

Dining car detail.

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Lonely house.

Lonely house.

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Shambas on the way.

Near Nairobi.

Near Nairobi.

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Nairobi shantytown.

Nairobi shantytown.

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The Times nailed it with their article on Bay Area housing wars

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New homes with a view of the Alemany Projects in Bernal Heights

I’ve been waiting for a deeply reported article like today’s Times piece, “In Cramped and Costly Bay Area, Cries to Build, Baby, Build.”

No, not everyone who supports building lots of market-rate housing in San Francisco, asap, is a Reagonomics-spouting spoiled Libertarian who doesn’t understand the values of community and diversity.

And not everyone who opposes lots of market-rate development is a spoiled knee-jerk lefty who doesn’t understand the basics of economics.

Today, at least, the Times seems to get that, and I wish more people did. When I moved back to my native San Francisco a year ago I was a bit shocked to see, close-up, just how bitter the affordable housing debate had gotten. Wading into the argument online about Proposition I, the ultimately failed ballot measure that would have temporarily halted market-rate building in the Mission,* you had to steel yourself. If you said you thought it was a bad idea because it wouldn’t bring down rents, you were a 1% apologist who wanted to whitewash the Mission. If you calmly stated you supported a pause in development so that the community had a moment to strategically respond to the unprecedented pressure on housing costs — without losing its soul — you were an anti-progress oaf who feared change and trafficked in identity politics.

Yeesh.

The crazy fact is that while these warring sides apparently despise each other, when you talk about the kind of future they want, many on both sides are chasing the same thing. Practically everyone is disgusted that you have to be rich to move to San Francisco now, that the city has changed from being an outpost of diversity to an exception to the growing diversity in the state, and that the things that made the city so notable as a countercultural mecca are being overshadowed by ritzy eateries and billionaires’ pied-a-terres.

Take this essay by Zac Townsend . If you hate the pro-development crowd, see if you can just digest the vision he has before passing judgment on his proposed solutions. He wants an affordable and diverse city. Don’t most of us?

When  I read something like Townsend’s post, I initially find very little to really disagree with. My understanding of economics (and I think at this point in my “career,” such as it is, I can say I’ve got some kind of understanding of economics) is that supply and demand are real forces. They have no moral compass and should not be trusted with shaping society — FOH Ayn Rand — but they are real and you have to contend with them in any policy solution for a malfunctioning market. Low supply and/or high demand will put upward pressure on prices. San Francisco has both. There’s not much you can do about the demand — you can’t easily make people not want to live here. (The guys I saw this week sitting on some steps on Valencia and shouting insults at the people getting off one of the Google buses may disagree.) But you can increase the supply — whether luxury or not — to take some pressure off price. How much supply will reduce the price how much is up for debate, and the subject of plenty of studies.

So basically, I agree with the mechanics of what Townsend argues. You have got to build.

But, but. There are so many buts. And they are legitimate and cannot be written off as bad economics. It’s just not as simple as building more housing, of any kind. Townsend cites New York City as an inspiration. But that city is a great example of how increasing supply sometimes does not push down prices, because it changes the nature of the demand. As CityLab reported last year:

That such a large quantity of global capital is seeking real estate assets in cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami Beach, Chicago, Boston,Seattle, Washington D.C., Sydney, London, Singapore, and Dubai means that the “laws” of housing supply and demand are not functioning like the simple model presented in an introductory economics textbook. According to the prevailing theory, adding more housing supply at any price point should ease the upward pressure on rents across the board, and ultimately lower prices. But the overseas demand for such housing assets, for both investors and buyers, has of late been basically insatiable. In Manhattan, Billionaire’s Row is one very shiny example.

So there’s this vast global demand for pricey real estate, which will not be satisfied by 5,000 or 50,000 new luxury units. Or, adding such units might bring prices down, but only within the market for luxury apartments.

Another issue is that if you build luxury condos in a non-luxury area, it changes the kind of people who want to live there. This is the classic dance-movie trope wherein an evil developer wants to tear down a community center in the hood to drop a glass-and-steel yuppie hive on top and wipe the community off the map.

(No, I’m not suggesting that we can breakdance our way out of the housing crisis, as amazing as that sounds.)

Would building more lux condos in San Francisco just free up more housing and push the price down? Or would it change the market so much that you’d actually have a new “product” — newly luxury-ized neighborhoods — with prices even higher than before? In economics-speak, this would mean supply goes up but then the demand curve shifts to the right, making the effect on price ambiguous. Both outcomes are possible, actually. I often think that most of SF is so luxury-ized already that it can hardly get worse — the richest people in the world already want to live here. But maybe I’m wrong. A lot of the new buildings that will go up in the next five years are in the southeast of the city, which really hasn’t been luxury-ized that much (last time I use that word, I promise). Those neighborhoods will probably change as a result. I’ll bet that rents may even go up across the board in Bayview as shiny apartments on the water become a more prominent local feature than the Alice Griffith housing projects. That’s what has happened in some New York neighborhoods, where red-hot gentrification continues faster than ever as new lux condos pop up left and right.

Yet another stumbling block for the fast development argument is that San Franciscans in formerly working class neighborhoods are entirely justified in being suspicious of the Build lobby’s insistence that we must not stand in the way of progress. There is something predatory about the kind of change that is happening — has already happened — in the city. The people who might make some of the wealthy newcomers uncomfortable have been chased out. Some days, it feels like they are actually being assassinated. Some of the neighborhoods being unwillingly changed are communities that suffered through decades of official neglect, that years ago were rocked by the crack epidemic and then decimated by the war on drugs, where nonwhite people rented and bought houses with their hard-earned money because they were not allowed to live elsewhere. To acknowledge so little of that history and simply assert, over and over again, the laws of economics can feel like a slap in the face. I believe there may even be a sense  in some communities that, spiraling rent be damned, you won’t roll over for a group of people who have no respect for your struggles and sacrifices. (Such an extreme position is only tenable if you’re a home-owner or are lucky enough to have a rent-controlled apartment.)

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Finally, the issue of character and quality of life is not as precious and privileged as some of the more vocal YIMBYs would have you think. In fact, the whole NIMBY vs. YIMBY debate can be a total red herring — a lazy shorthand to avoid a drawn-out argument. Is there a time when you’re justified in being a NIMBY? Of course there is. When someone wants to dump toxic waste in your backyard or run a freeway through your local park, you do what you can to avoid that outcome. And San Franciscans have done that pretty successfully for a long time, succeeding in preserving our breathtaking open spaces and shutting down ridiculous mid-century freeway plans. It’s prudent to evaluate measures and projects on a case-by-case basis, rather than resorting to a slogan for making decisions.

It’s tough stuff, and the enmity makes it tougher. Further, the problem exists throughout the Bay Area. From this crucible of distrust has emerged a situation that is benefitting no one except the speculators. Maybe today’s Times article, which so deftly grasps the complexity of the issue and refuses to demonize any side, can be the start of a more fruitful dialogue.

I mean, that’s probably pathetically optimistic. But it’s given me some new energy to try bring the discussion forward.

 

*This is such a controversial issue that I won’t be surprised if a commentator takes issue with my summary description of this old-news ballot measure. Like discussing climate warming or Israel-Palestine, there’s no consensus on even some of the most basis facts.

Palmyra: A time of loss

This week we found out that ISIS has blown up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, the millennia-old Syrian UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of many destructions of ancient Syrian structures that carry special sadness for me. I lived in Syria for two years, and had the good fortune to visit Palmyra’s spectacular ruins on a couple of occasions. I saw bas reliefs of veiled women from pre-Christian times, set beneath corinthian columns and other classical features–features I suddenly recognized from San Francisco Victorians that mimicked the architecture of antiquity. I saw a mélange of influences from the Roman empire and peoples further east. I learned about Queen Zenobia, one of the few rebels who came close to resisting imperial hegemony. The sprawling site was a window into a rich and complex heritage that belied simplistic ideas about Middle Eastern history. For all these reasons, the ruins appear on Syrian banknotes: they are a symbol of the nation, a stand-in for its old soul.

Tom Holland writes eloquently about the news of the temple’s annihilation in this fantastic column in the Guardian:

The temple of Bel was (and how it stabs the heart to be obliged to use the past tense here) a monument fit to be ranked alongside the Parthenon or the Pantheon as one of the supreme architectural treasures to have survived from classical antiquity. Built soon after the absorption of Palmyra into Rome’s sphere of influence, it was dedicated in 32AD, at a time when Tiberius ruled the empire, and Jesus still walked the Earth. …

The very process of constructing the great complex, by giving to the various tribes who inhabited the oasis a common purpose, seems to have played a key role in fostering a shared sense of identity among them. As the focal structure of the city, and a cult centre open to all, Bel’s temple served as a fitting symbol of what the Palmyrenes were gradually becoming: a single people.

Every thriving polity has its Palmyra, I believe. That shared treasure that reminds a group of diverse people that, despite our differences, there are some things we stand beneath together, in awe. As a Californian, I feel that way about Yosemite, about the redwoods, and the giant sequoias. What would it be like to see those things destroyed? (Maybe we don’t have to wonder: biologists are now intensely studying the Big Trees and asking whether this exceptional drought–and similar episodes that are likely to become more frequent this century–could be their undoing.)

The annihilation of one of the most remarkable features of this site gives me the feeling that we are living in a time of great loss. In a way, it should only be a footnote to the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and the displacement of millions more, in the country’s civil war. But it is also a sort of apt headline for a heedless violence so vast it is hard to describe.

From a far distance, most of us are all but powerless to do anything about it. The best we can hope for, I think, is to seek an opportunity for greater understanding out of this incredible turmoil. And try to apply those lessons in our daily lives and our nearby communities.

Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem

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A few weeks ago an old-timer whom I’ll call Bill struck up a conversation with me on a bench outside a laundromat on 116th street. According to him, the neighborhood is “gone” and will never be the same.

It’s the type of comment you hear a lot these days in rapidly changing places like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland.

But Bill wasn’t talking about the new lux apartments and throngs of moneyed and increasingly white restaurant-goers on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For Bill, the glory days ended definitively some 55 years ago.

In an exchange that began with some unsolicited advice on how to correctly hold my baby daughter, Bill revealed that he had spent the formative portion of his 73 years just a block from where we were sitting. The father of nine children, he had lived around the world as an adult and only recently returned to an apartment building on 116th. Continue reading

Nature going nuts in California

Mountain lions are roaming the streets of San Francisco. Great white sharks are massing just a few feet off the shore in Monterey.  California is in the midst of the worst drought in centuries, but it increasingly looks like there will be a historically strong El Niño this year. (Someone called it a “Godzilla”El Niño… we’ll see.) And while temperatures hit 112 in Red Bluff earlier this month — that’s way up north in the Central Valley, toward Shasta and Lassen — it appears to be snowing and/or heavily hailing in the High Sierra since yesterday. (Keep an eye on this fantastic webcam for an impressive daily timelapse — the source of the screen grab in my tweet.)

It’s the End of Days, I tell you. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

The gangs of San Francisco: remarkable footage from the late 1950s

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“Ask Me, Don’t Tell Me,” an amazing short film that I learned about through the Bernal Heights History Project, shows a glimpse of San Francisco street life in the late 1950s. (The film was published in 1961, but the aesthetic of its “juvenile delinquents” seems to owe more to the 50s, so let’s call it that. The 60s in San Francisco brings to mind flower children, which these aren’t.) It’s got some dated moments, but sparkles nonetheless as a little historical treasure.

The film is more interesting to me for its poetic pastiche of street scenes (and gritty bongos-infused blues) than it is as a record of the program, Youth For Service, that it was made to promote. I’ve never seen anything like this, nor have I read very much about these scenes in San Francisco. But as I watched the clip, I felt like I knew this world, if obliquely. These young men were the progenitors of the San Franciscans I grew up around. In their gestures, their expressions, their postures, and their voices, they foreshadow the later Bay Area culture with which I’m much more familiar.

This is post-War San Francisco. The Mission is just becoming a Latino district. The Fillmore — which the narrator calls “The Moe,” a nickname still in use today — has just undergone the disastrous redevelopment project that sent many of its residents to the East Bay. (Thus the “Harlem of the West” was stifled.) Eureka Valley, now known as the Castro, was still a working class Irish area. (Read all about it in Randy Shilts’s classic, The Mayor of Castro Street). The multiethnic San Francisco of the late 20th century was just taking shape — the city was still more than 70 percent non-Latino white. (The city today may be on its way to losing its exceptionally multiethnic character.)

Growing up, I didn’t know about any gangs with names like the Lonely Ones or the War Lords (feel free to correct me in the comments if I was simply oblivious —  a distinct possibility). And aside from motorcycle clubs, the days of wearing cuts had passed by the time I was watching the city through Muni windows. But in the slouched posture of kids on the back of the 14 Mission, in their slang, in the braggadocio and micro-awareness of neighborhood distinctions in San Francisco rap music, in the men congregating on corners like Cortland and Moultrie in Bernal Heights, I saw and heard the echoes of these earlier times.

The film also has some value as an artifact of the type of program it was made to promote, Youth For Service. Considering what happened with street violence in the rest of the century, it would be easy to laugh at the naïveté of this simple program. (Others like it exist today, of course.) It seems to be the sort of thing Tom Wolfe humorously ridiculed in his 1970 essay “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers.” But the history of what actually happened in the decades after this hopeful-seeming project is really about much bigger forces: the Vietnam War, racism, the isolation of red-lining and the freeway system, the collapse of manufacturing in the United States, Reagonomics, the prison industrial complex, and crack cocaine and other hard drugs.

The 50 years since the film saw many changes in San Francisco, but there was some continuity to the story.  Here’s an idealized bookend to that period.

And it is something of a bookend, because now, San Francisco has definitely entered some kind of new era. It’s the capital city for one of the fastest growing, most powerful industries in the world. Its high quality housing stock — in enforced shortage — is some of the most expensive anywhere. There is still grim poverty and occasional, horrific violence — like the massacre in Hayes Valley this winter. But for better or worse, the days of a hundred neighborhoods, each with a thousand tough guys holding down the corners, seem now to be a thing of the past.

This film is that history.

Flipping out intelligently over California’s drought

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Everyone is flippin’ out about California’s drought, and with good reason. Skim the excellent California Weather Blog‘s last few months of posts, and it’s clear that the state* is going through a period of warmth and dryness that it has not experienced in thousands of years. And evidence over the last decades points to us being in the middle of a climactic shift with wide-ranging but hard-to-predict effects.

But as the flip-out reaches a crescendo, I’m finding the quality of the conversation on the drought to be a bit uneven.

Take this NYT story. The work of five reporters, it asks questions such as the following:

Can Los Angeles continue to dominate as the country’s capital of entertainment and glamour, and Silicon Valley as the center of high tech, if people are forbidden to take a shower for more than five minutes and water bills become prohibitively expensive? Will tourists worry about coming? Will businesses continue their expansion in places like San Francisco and Venice?

Which have the feel of comments thrown around during an editorial meeting, but which end up having very little to do with the rest of the article, terrifying as they sound. We’re also told the California Dream may finally be crumbling because desert communities are replacing lawns with palo verde trees and cactus. For me, this particular anecdote is a hopeful sign of innovation and adaptation — as is any reconsideration of the cancer-like sprawl that’s characterized much California development in the last 60 years. It’s the upside of the drought, in a way: forcing people to confront the limits of their environment, and using human ingenuity to keep moving forward.

There’s much to be confused about in this article. “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live” in California, a USC historian tells us. But did Mother Nature “intend” for North America to have 530 million? For Planet Earth to have more than 7 billion? Of the many observations that the Times could have chosen to quote, this one seems more on the useless end of the spectrum.

And what about little details like the fact that much of desert SoCal draws its water not from the extreme-drought afflicted Sierra Nevada, but from the slightly less dried out (but massively over-allocated) Colorado River watershed. (Compare precipitation in the Rockies to the Sierra in the image below, from the aforementioned California Weather Blog.) The report does not even mention the Colorado or the Sierra.

Then the story tries to link the drought to the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is quite a stretch. When we say we have to cut back on housing developments, what I assume we’re talking about are McMansion subdivisions in the exurbs with expansive lawns and golf courses, not high-density apartments in a NorCal city. And as Mother Jones has reported, the major strains on the state’s water come from other sources, mainly agriculture.

But the Times article essentially glosses over the all-important facts about who is actually using water in California, and what they’re providing to the state in return: Agriculture, which drinks up 80 percent of California’s water (as we find out toward the end of the article), accounts for just 2 percent of its GDP (which the article does not mention).

The picture that begins to emerge is not a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the water crisis, but a secret wish for a Walking Dead/ Mad Max-type drought-apocalypse society in which those surfing, sun-tanned, different-priority-having Californians finally get their comeuppance.

Artist’s depiction of hydro-militias in the water wars of 2030. (Source: http://walkingdeadaily.tumblr.com/).

Of course, the drought is cause for great alarm, and for a reevaluation of economic priorities across the West, including rethinking the way we grow and by how much. But it is not, as you might guess from reading only this article, a new and surprising situation. Those of us who grew up in late-1980s California remember well the fun of drought-themed school recitations: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down!” Since the early days of river-rerouting, California’s fantastically shortsighted exploitation of its water resources has ensured near-constant crisis in years that have even a little less than normal precipitation. It’s absolutely not surprising that climate change has tipped the state over the edge. (See the late Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for the classic history of Western water mismanagement.)

Here’s the problem with all of this: When we miss the long-term context of the crisis, and the Hobbesian droughtpocalypse fails to materialize, there’s a risk that the next time we have a good rain year, we forget all about the changes we need to make and just celebrate the short-lived surplus.  Which is what often happened in 2011, when the West got dumped on, and everyone wondered if we could stop worrying.

California does have solutions available. The question is just whether people are civic-minded enough and have long enough attention spans to adopt them — and whether we’re courageous enough to stand up to wealthy agricultural interests.

But in the somewhat confused conversations about the drought that I’m seeing, there’s not a unified push for these measures. Slideshows of empty reservoirs are great fodder for “These photos of Californias drought left me speechless”-clickbait, but they don’t necessarily tell us what’s really going on. Elsewhere, you’ll find people talking about their personal decisions to change consumption habits — certainly not a bad goal, but hard to use to effect really meaningful change in statewide water use. Take this viral-friendly graphic from the LA Times. Connect this to policy, and you’ve done something meaningful. Get a few conscientious consumers to avoid the mango bin at Wholefoods (even though most of the fruits are not grown in California), and you haven’t accomplished much.

Worse, until we have a less-panicked conversation, there will be space for right-wing responses to the drought like this absurd, opportunistic column by Carly Fiorina, which accuses liberals of pitting the endangered Delta smelt against California families.Besides highlighting the need for more poetic names for our endangered species, arguments like these are just populist propaganda for big agriculture and other water-guzzling business interests, who can’t be bothered to figure out how to be slightly more water-efficient for the common good. Until there’s greater clarity on the challenges California is actually facing, though, such arguments will find a toehold. (As an aside, how crazy is it that there are people who view it as waste any time a river actually reaches the ocean?)

Instead, what we need more of is this sort of sober analysis, posted to Robert Reich’s Facebook page a few days ago.

Why did Governor Jerry Brown exempt Big Oil and Big Agriculture from his order this week to cut water consumption by 25 percent? Big Oil uses more than 2 million gallons of fresh water a day in California for fracking, acidizing, and steam injections – nearly 70 million gallons last year alone. Meanwhile, California’s farmers consume 80 percent of the water used in the state and generate only 2 percent of the state’s economic activity.

Oddly, the Governor’s order focuses on urban water use, which makes up less than a quarter of the water consumed here. California could save the same amount of water by requiring its farmers to increase water efficiency by 5 percent.

That’s what I call an intelligent flip-out.

*Note: I’ll soon be back in California somewhat permanently, which is partly why I’m taking such a renewed interest in my home state.