The Great Water Conservation Grift

Governor Gavin Newsom shoveling something with Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Source: CalTech.

For many years we’ve been in a drought here in California as a result of climate change. In response our elected officials, through the mainstream media, push out a message of water rationing in cities. Here in Los Angeles we’ve all been asked to restrict watering to two days a week.

There’s no doubt that we’d all benefit from ditching lawns in favor of native and low-water landscapes. However, I believe these calls for household water conservation are a kind of misdirection from what’s really going on. In short, we as individuals are being blamed for a water shortage that would be better attributed to a class of Central Valley agricultural oligarchs whose profligate water use dwarfs what we use for our urban landscapes.

Journalist Yasha Levine did a superb story on the unholy relationship between governor Gavin Newsom and billionaire pistachio/pomegrante/Fiji Water oligarchs Stewart and Lynda Resnick that deserves more attention. Levine details a hustle typical for our billionaire class. The Resnicks launder their destructive, extractive capitalism through “philanthropic” schemes, in their case things like art museums and a “sustainability center” at the California Institute of Technology. Of course, they are also generous donors to politicians such as Newsom. Here’s now Levine describes Newsom’s trip to the opening of that sustainability center,

“Philanthropists” is an interesting way for the Governor of California to describe one of the most powerful forces in farming in the state — a billionaire family that owns something like 300 square miles of Oligarch Valley land, has its own toxic corporate farm worker town, and, from their ridiculous mansion in Beverly Hills, has been on a destructive quest to eviscerate the state’s river system and plunder its aquifers, helping fuel a mass extinction in the San Francisco Bay Delta…all so they can grow and export pistachios, a fringe snack food that people around here barely eat.

But then calling these rapacious oligarchs “philanthropists” is exactly the point. Governor Gavin was going out to Pasadena to do some public relations work: to lend his name and image and the respectably of his public office to Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s ongoing effort to rebrand themselves as do-gooders and environmentalists, rather than the industrial-scale destroyers of the environment that they are.

Levine also notes the irony of a family that exports water from Fiji and even had a journalist deported for digging around into their sleazy business practices in that country.

In addition to the misdirection issue, hastily conceived water conservation policies have gone poorly when it comes to our urban landscapes. Take, for instance, LA’s horrible lawn replacement rebate program that ended up in the hands of fly by night operators who exploited their workers and left us with acres of gravel and plastic lawns. Or, since most homeowners don’t have any understanding of climate or horticulture, we just get dead lawns or, at best, decomposed granite and a few sad cacti. Coastal California is not a desert yet, and our landscapes can be both lush and not use a lot of water. Plus we might want to use water for things like parks, schools and athletic fields especially when that use is small compared to what the Resnicks extract to make their billions.

My big fear is that, while technically the water restrictions don’t apply to trees, in practice people withhold water from trees and we end up with a further destruction of our already stressed urban tree canopy. Our cities get hotter and the Resnicks get richer.

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5 Comments

  1. Matt and I had read this post (separately) and then had an interesting (and outraged) conversation about it last night after dinner. The water shame/reduction conversations seems a kin to the recycling and waste solutions discussion in which individuals are made to feel bad about their household impact as a smoke screen to obscure that the impact from huge corporate manufacturing interests is really the bulk of the problem. We should “do our parts” of course, but we really need to harangue the “big guys” into doing theirs instead of just raping our natural resources in the pursuit of perpetual profit growth.

    The sense of outrage is inspiring for me, really.

    • Exactly–recycling is the same issue. It’s pure ideology, done to make us think things are okay and deflect our attention away from a system that is destroying life on this planet.

  2. Hi! I’ve been quietly following your blog for years thanks to a mutual friend of ours who introduced me to it.

    Felt compelled to comment on this one in particular since, well…I’m actually one of the staff who had to photograph/document that groundbreaking event at Caltech. I’ve been frustrated for a long time with the school’s (and a lot of other organizations’) willingness to hold hands with monsters in public for the sake of funding. It’s extra disheartening, too, in that there’s only one faculty member I know of who’s been somewhat vocal about the hypocrisy of the Resnick’s attempt to buy themselves a conscience with this sustainability institute. The whole thing is a perfect example of why philanthropy under capitalism is a complete farce. I spent that morning staring at a clear plastic lectern filled with Fiji water bottles as a parade of administrators and the governor walked up and sang the Resnick’s praises. There was also catering all throughout the area filled with plastic dinnerware and Resnick company products, plus giant decorative plant walls (you know, classic greenwashing-type design choices). The absolute tone-deafness would be funny if it wasn’t such a serious matter. In all honesty, that event broke me a little, and I decided to give my notice.

    Totally appreciate you highlighting Yasha Levine’s article, and bringing this up on your blog. These things don’t get nearly enough attention!

    • Hey Gina–thanks for your comment. I wish that this event had been covered with more scrutiny but, other than Levine and the faculty member you mentioned, this stuff flies under the radar. There’s a whole lot more of this reputation laundering stuff going on than most people have any awareness of. Sorry about your job too and wish you the best of luck.

  3. I’ve been thinking about what people can do as individuals to save trees ever since you wrote about the drought, the stupid astroturf landscaping, the importance of trees and so on, years ago. Even though I live in Oregon where we get regular rain, I still try to conserve water. For example, in the summer, I shower with an empty bucket in the tub to catch water for the garden. Would it be possible to create some kind of neighborhood by neighborhood “adopt a tree“ registry in LA for people to do something similar, only with trees? Apartment dwellers could save water from showers, from washing vegetables, etc., and use it to water “their” trees on public land or easements. The register would help folks find trees that need help and make sure that watering was spread bout appropriately.

    I really don’t know enough about LA or keeping trees going in a drought to have any idea if this would work or not, but what do you think?

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