I went out on Black Friday 2018 to enjoy Santa Barbara. A storm had just blown through, and it was one of those heavenly days, with perfectly clear air and lovely clouds moving across the sky. And as I roamed around I was struck by how orderly the city is. The streets are clean; the public spaces are well designed and well-kept. The city government, over the years, has regulated building so that the urban clutter typical of American cities is minimal. You can see the mountains from the shoreline, because there isn’t a wall of hotels and condominiums fronting Cabrillo. Instead, there are miles of public parks and beaches. One of the best community colleges in America sits on one of the most valuable real estate locations in Santa Barbara, on the heights commanding the city and the islands.
I ended up at Chase Palm Park. The grass was lush, watered by the rain. Women were walking by themselves, unafraid. Children were playing on a brand new elliptical trainer and a spinner bike by the softball field. A couple were snuggling together on the grass. A skateboarder was sailing, holding up a big palm frond to pull him along. The space was as well kept as any enclave of the wealthy, but it was all public space, made and preserved and maintained by a citizenry that understands the importance of planning and restraint.
Then I looked to the east and got a shock. I knew, intellectually, that the Thomas Fire had been a big one, but I hadn’t really realized the scope of it until I saw it through the crystal-clear air, a whole mountain range burned over from Gibraltar to Ventura, a scar on the landscape that can easily be seen from space. And I had to reflect that I stood on a borderline of sorts, between a soft, lovely, organic order, and a savage disorder of public consciousness that permits and accepts such a vast destruction of the shared environment.
On that same Black Friday the Trump administration released the National Climate Assessment, the work of 13 federal agencies, mandated by Congress. The assessment states that tangible effects of climate change are already here. Among them are sea-level rise, ever more severe storms and downpours in wet areas, increasing droughts in dry areas, and more and larger fires like the Thomas Fire.
None of this has to happen. There doesn’t have to be a planetary environmental disaster. Human impact on the climate is controllable. There are alternatives available, equally as economic as continuing on the same path. What’s missing is a commitment to restraint in the service of the greater good.
From the beach at Cabrillo I saw two archetypes, two possible paths. On the one hand I saw the order of Santa Barbara, the civil society that has allowed all its beauty, safety, and increasing property values to come into being. On the other hand I saw the stark devastation that is ever more likely to result from a disordered society and culture. Which path will we follow? Can we control ourselves? I can imagine a nation and a world that makes the kind of choices we have made here, a world that is well-governed, temperate, and tolerable for those who come after us. From Chase Palm Park, I can see that it’s possible.