Water, oligarchs, and ignorance in California
Few in California know much about the aqueduct system that makes life here possible. And that ignorance is bliss, as far as our ruling class is concerned.
My friend Rowan is coming to Los Angeles in a few days so that we can do another big push on the edit of our Oligarch Valley/Pistachio Wars doc.
We’ve been working on this thing for years — and it’s finally starting to look like the end is more or less in sight. Our hope is to have a cut ready in the next few months. I gotta admit, though, it’s been a brutal process.
As many of my readers probably know by now, the main through line of the film is about California’s oligarch farmers — led by a cartoonish pair of billionaire cutthroats from Beverly Hills — who have been secretly working to privatize the state’s water supply. But the film goes beyond this slow motion water grab and traverses all sorts of thematically related territory: real estate bubbles, oil and gas extraction, pollution, environmental destruction, marketing and advertising, the imperative of our modern industrial society to grow and to consume everything in its path, the war on Iran, the genocide of American Indians, and my own immigrant experiences growing up here…Turns out it’s not easy to cut together a historical and political story that spans almost the entire colonial and industrial history of California — and to do so with the tiniest of budgets. But we’re trying.
Whatever else happens in California, water sits at the center of civilization here. Every major city and every major industry depends on massive amounts water being brought from hundreds of miles away through a system of concrete dams and aqueducts and energy guzzling pumping stations. It’s the largest aqueduct system in the world. It was built in the name of never-ending expansion and progress, and for the benefit of big real estate developers and oligarch farmers. And it absolutely annihilated California’s wildlife and terraformed the land for full industrial suburban colonization.
Speaking of aqueducts and colonization…
In the mid-1990s, after my fresh-off-the-Boeing Soviet family got settled in San Francisco, my mom got a small family tradition going: we’d drive up to Lake Shasta for Independence Day and carry our patriotic American duty to waste as much petroleum as possible. We’d stay in a motel, rent a boat, and spend a few days swimming, water skiing, revving the engine, making a lot of noise, and generally doing all we could do burn through several hundred dollars worth of gasoline a day — with my brother looking like a Calvin Klein model the whole time.
Real Americans doing patriotic things. (Photo of the dam: apaliwal)
I knew Shasta wasn’t a real lake. It was reservoir backed up by a giant dam. We could see a lip of concrete if we pulled the boat close enough. But for years I never connected Shasta or the dam to anything else in California. To me it was just part of the landscape. I had no idea that it fed into a cybernetic water system that eventually dumped all this water into the San Francisco Bay Delta — and then pumped it out again and sent it south to feed the suburbs and never-ending oligarchic plantations of the Central Valley.
We were immigrants, so it made sense we didn’t know. We at least had an excuse. But as I found out when I started digging into the history and politics of water, we weren’t the only ones who didn’t know. Almost no one in California knows about any of this, even though the whole state depends on this water system to function. Even if people do know, it’s all very fuzzy and general.
Californians are like people of Venusville — but totally clueless about it. And that ignorance is bliss, as far as our ruling class is concerned. So this doc is important. We want to expose these fuckers.
Anyway, we’ll be working on the film in a big way in November. Pray for us!
PS: Thank you to all people who backed this doc on Kickstarter!
Haven't finished reading yet, but if for some crazy reason you've never seen "Chinatown" with Jack Nicholson, you definitely should. Other than the pistachio part, I thought I was reading the 2020 era follow up to that story. Interestingly, now that I think about it, the topic of water, land and who controls it in southern California seems to find its way into the noir genre pretty often. Same themes touched on in "Inherent Vice" and the second season of HBO's "True Detective" (not recommended unless you've reached the end of streaming during COVID). Sorry for the somewhat off topic dissertation on movies!
Glad to hear it’s moving forward Yasha. Been excited to see it since I threw a little cash your way. I grew up close to the Mexican border, and it took awhile for the class system in CA to make itself clear to this not-quite-poor white kid, even at school alongside poor undocumented kids and drugs all over the place. You can hardly blame someone growing up there for their total ignorance, given the tempting lie of sun-baked middle class prosperity and bliss for all. It feels so good you want it to be true even when you’re faced with evidence to the contrary. Anything that helps pop that bubble is the lord’s work. Good onya.