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California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader

Author(s):Vogel, David
Reviewer(s):Kanazawa, Mark

Published by EH.Net (November 2018)

David Vogel, California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. xi + 280 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-17955-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Kanazawa, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

 
This is a highly readable broad-sweep account of California environmental history in a nutshell. But it goes way beyond mere description to advance a thesis that explains how California has attained a position of leadership among U.S. states in environmental policy, while still managing to support a vibrant economy. The argument is essentially a series of stories of how environmental policy has been shaped by competing political and economic interests. The basic thesis, stripped to its bare bones, is that three factors have made California’s enviable position possible: citizen mobilization, selective support from businesses, and a steady growth in regulatory capacity over time.

The argument progresses in a nicely-structured series of chapters that literally span the history of the state. The first substantive chapter is about gold mining, which was the main environmental issue of nineteenth century California, especially after use of the environmentally destructive process of hydraulic mining became widespread. It then proceeds to devote a chapter to each of the main environmental issues — land protection, coastal protection, water management, clean air policy, and energy policy — that the state has experienced, in a series of overlapping phases, over time. It turns out that each issue has presented a different set of challenges because of differences in factors that fostered citizen mobilization and in the economic stakes of different segments of the business community. The contrasting ways in which the politics and economics of each issue played out is used to illustrate the roles played by citizen mobilization and business stakes. The overall explanation is compelling and nuanced.

A key recurring theme is the active support for environmental protection by some businesses, not out of any sort of humanitarian concerns but rather, when it was in their own best interests. In cases where the business community was unified in opposition, it was typically difficult to enact effective environmental protection. However, when business was divided, we often observed unholy alliances between some set of businesses on the one hand, and citizens and environmental groups on the other, to enact environmental policy. This “bootleggers and baptists” coalition idea has been around since at least the early 1990s but has made surprisingly modest headway in penetrating popular debates over environmental policy, which all-too-often portray businesses as staunchly and unreservedly anti-environmental. In contrast, Vogel shows how commonly such unholy alliances have appeared in California environmental history.

Another recurring theme is the importance of the visibility and salience of environmental problems in mobilizing citizen support for environmental protection. What has often mattered in California history in rousing citizens to action has been direct experience with environmental degradation. For example, offshore oil drilling that sometimes caused damaging oil spills led irate coastal communities to effectively push for coastal protection. On the other hand, environmental problems that were out of sight — such as the famous flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley to provide San Francisco with drinking water — were often out of mind and failed to provoke the necessary citizen ire to bring out sufficient support for environmental protection. On a number of occasions, physical topography was a key factor that increased the salience of a particular environmental problem. For example, the fact that the Central Valley was basically a floodplain exacerbated the environmental damages of hydraulic mining. And later on, the peculiar topography of the Los Angeles basin trapped smog at a very early date, leading to early demands for policies to control air pollution.

Much of the argument of this book will resonate with many public choice scholars, who may interpret the episodes as reflecting the imperatives of political coalition building, conditioned by perceived stakes and transaction costs of political organization. Relatively large and concentrated stakes in policy outcomes have mattered a great deal. Divisions across different business sectors have increased the political transaction costs of the business community. Citizen and environmental groups have been galvanized by environmental problems that posed clear and present dangers. Droughts, smog events, and oil spills all served to provoke demands for changes in environmental policy.

Perhaps the biggest question I have concerns the broader lessons of the California experience for environmental policy more generally, in other contexts and looking forward into the future. On one level, it is hard to argue against the ideas that direct personal experience with environmental problems galvanize popular support for policy and that ‘bootleggers and Baptists” coalitions may arise. Both of these seem clearly correct. However, given the present state of extreme political polarization and ideology-based opposition to policy actions on issues like climate change, one wonders about the explanatory limitations of a narrative that focuses on relative special interests while largely ignoring the role of ideology.

It is striking to me, for example, that except perhaps for the concluding substantive chapter on energy use and climate change, political parties are largely invisible in Vogel’s story. This is counter to a number of narratives that highlight the importance of political parties, such as Robert Kelley’s scholarship on nineteenth century hydraulic mining, and my own reading of the early historical development of California state water policy. As an economist, I would not be inclined to go on the record as arguing that ideological factors swamp economic pressures: I do not believe that they do. Indeed, there is something ironic in an economist criticizing a political scientist for not paying more attention to party politics. However, lessons from these areas and others lead me to believe that models based solely on relative economic interests, though powerful in many respects, may be too simple and perhaps misleading in enabling us to draw lessons regarding effective environmental policy for the future. Especially now in our present political climate where too many people are calling climate change a “hoax” and science is sometimes demonized by a significant portion of the population.

These concerns aside, however, this book is well worth reading for its careful, detailed, judicious, and sensible interpretation of the historical record. On the whole, this may be the best single brief overview of California environmental history that I have read. In this book, David Vogel continues to cement his well-deserved reputation as one of our leading scholars in the academic study of environmental regulation and policy.

 
Mark Kanazawa is Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College. His recent book Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush was published in 2015 by University of Chicago Press.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII