Santa Margarita Lake in Southern California holds a fraction of its usual water supply due to drought.
Santa Margarita Lake in Southern California holds a fraction of its usual water supply in 2015 due to drought. Credit: Courtesy / Linda Tanner

Leading environmental historian Char Miller explores California’s ecological history to expose some of the problems affecting our planet in his new book, Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dreamrecently published by Trinity University Press.

The book is comprised of a series of essays that look into the environmental tensions in valleys, coasts, and mountains, while we see the continuation of urban sprawl and built landscapes. With a special attention to the Los Angeles area, Miller explores how nature, in the end, still has a way of defining built environments.

The last chapter of the book, Miller said, is really the story, as it begins with him and his wife driving from San Antonio to Los Angeles.

Char Miller
Char Miller Credit: Courtesy photo

“These are stories that move across the wider landscape,” Miller told the Rivard Report in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s an evocation of what I left behind and what I was heading toward … the globalization of the economy and the movement of people across the planet are the same (wherever you are).”

Miller is no stranger to San Antonio. He lived in the city for 26 years and worked as a history professor at Trinity University. Today, the author is director of the environmental analysis program and W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College.

“Having lived in SA for a lot longer than California, it remains a touchstone for my understanding,” he said.

On Oct. 26, Miller and Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard will partake in a discussion, California Dreams, Texas Schemes: Two States in Environmental Crisis and What They Can Learn From Each Other, at Trinity University’s Holt Center, located at 106 Oakmont Ct.

The 6-8 p.m. event is open to the public and will include a reception and book singing.

During his time in San Antonio, Miller remembers that the primary environmental discussion always revolved around water. When he moved to California in 2007, a place much more arid than South Texas, he was surprised that people there weren’t having the same conversations.

The Tower Life Building casts a shadow over the San Antonio River. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Tower Life Building casts a shadow over the San Antonio River. Photo by Scott Ball.

“But now with the sixth year of drought in California that has changed – we are (having those conversations) now,” Miller said. “California is so dependent on water coming from other places (such as) the Colorado River or the Sierra Mountains.”

With his experience watching floods in San Antonio, some of the essays in Miller’s book explain how we need to begin thinking like a watershed when we decide to begin building around landscapes.

“When I served in the Open Space Advisory Board, we talked about how the rivers and creeks in San Antonio should be used to build up parks, bikeways, and linear parks that would run around the watershed. It forced me to think about topography landscapes and how water flows across the ground.”

When he moved to California, he saw how equally true that was in the Southern regions of the state and drew parallels between the handling of water and floods in both places. Today, looking at a lot of the parkscapes in San Antonio, he sees the fruition of what the Open Space Advisory Board was thinking about years ago.

“To think of rivers as watersheds – these deeply connected natural systems – all of a sudden you can start thinking about how to grow a city around that and give better recreational activities for people,” he added.

Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream by Char Miller.
Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream by Char Miller. Credit: Courtesy / Trinity University Press

During the discussion on Oct. 26, Miller hopes to talk with Rivard about the relationship between sprawl and urban development, and its connection to natural landscapes.

“Fire for example, is a major issue in Southern California, and can be in Central Texas too,” Miller said. “Fire itself is not a problem, but people live in a lot of places that burn. Fires are started by people most of all. It’s a very interesting issue.”

Miller said this is a central theme in his book – how fire is a consequence of human presence. In addition to the built landscape, wherever we locate ourselves, we are pushing other things out of the way, such as endangered species.

He said he finds it interesting how and why people decide to step back and protect a certain animal or landscape, and choose not to build there. One such example, Miller said, is the Edwards Aquifer.

“They’ve recognized the endangered species that inhabit the Edwards Aquifer a lot,” Miller said. “If we protect them, we protect us. That means clean water for us. There are unstated benefits of preserving environments that actually help us live better lives.”

Freeways represent a kind of social geography, he said: where you put down roads determines how a city grows.

“This theory can work anywhere,” he said, explaining that it ties into his other book, Deep In the Heart of San Antonio. “If you look at how people move through Laredo, San Antonio, or L.A., you see the way in which (a city) grows, but also class and ethnic division. Where highways go and who they run over and who they sustain … all the rings of highway shape who got the social benefits of the highways and who did not.”

Rocío Guenther

Rocío Guenther worked as a bilingual reporter and editorial assistant for the Rivard Report from June 2016 to October 2017. She is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and holds a bachelor's in English...