North America

The (Temporary) Rebirth of California’s Once-Huge Tulare Lake?

The southern half of California’s vast San Joaquin Valley is almost never depicted as a desert nor is it officially classified as one. But it clearly is a desert by climatological criteria. Most of the San Joaquin Valley gets less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, with much of the southern valley receiving less than seven, and it has an extremely high rate of evaporation from late spring through early autumn. But with abundant water flowing from the adjacent Sierra Nevada range, the southern San Joaquin Valley is a verdant, intensely cultivated land. Before the late 1800s, it was the site of the third largest freshwater lake entirely within the United States (as measured by surface area). But when the rivers that formerly flowed into Tulare Lake were diverted into canals to irrigate crops, the huge lake disappeared. Today, the former lakebed is highly productive farmland with only a few small seasonal wetlands providing natural habitat.

As the paired maps posted below indicates, the extent of Tulare Lake varies greatly in different cartographic depictions. This is because the lake itself varied significantly in size on both a seasonal and multi-year basis. As Tulare Lake did not drain in most years, it would expand in winter and spring and then contract through summer and early fall. It would also grow to an especially large size in wet years and shrink dramatically in dry ones. In particularly wet years, the lake would rise high enough to drain to the sea through the San Joaquin River, thus flushing out any accumulated salt and ensuring that its water remained fresh.

A shallow and nutrient-rich lake, Tulare was extremely productive. The Yokuts people who lived around its shores were reputed to have had one of the highest levels of population density of any indigenous American ethnic group. For several decades after the gold rush, Tulare’s aquatic resources from were shipped in huge quantities to San Francisco. As the Wikipedia article on the lake notes:

Even well after California became a state, Tulare Lake and its extensive marshes supported an important fishery: In 1888, in one three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were shipped through Hanford to San Francisco. It was also the source of a regional favorite, western pod turtles, which were relished as terrapin soup in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Turtles in Tulare Lake were so abundant that they were even fed to hogs. Today the western pond turtle is classified as a vulnerable species, suffering from competition with invasive exotic turtle species and undermined by the loss of habitat.

Environmentalists occasionally dream about bringing back Tulare Lake, emphasizing the vital habitat that it once provided and contending that its revival would be a relatively easy way for California to store excess runoff. Such a scenario, however, is extremely unlikely. Not only is the former lakebed highly productive farmland, but it also contains the city of Corcoran, home to some 22,000 residents.

But regardless of human plans and desires, Tulare Lake will probably reappear this spring, if only for a short period, owing to the extremely heavy precipitation that has been experienced this winter in the southern Sierra. Tulare County has already seen levee-breaks and the flooding of several towns, and water is now beginning to accumulate in the old lakebed. Local flooding could easily persist as snowmelt begins in April or May. Noting such factors, a recent article by Dan Walters claims that “It’s almost certain that Tulare Lake will once again spring to life.” Walters concludes by arguing that, “the probability is generating some hopeful, if unrealistic, speculation that state and or federal governments could buy up the lakebeds fields and bring back to Tulare lake permanently.”

This season’s reborn Tulare Lake will probably evaporate over the course of the summer, which will almost certainly be hot and bone dry – as is always is in the San Joaquin Valley. But if California enters a multiyear wet cycle, which is possible although not probable, winter and spring drainage could become a big problem for the farms and towns of the Tulare Basin. The city of Corcoran well known for its continual subsidence, dropping in elevation by about two feet a year due to the overuse of groundwater. Subsidence has already created major headaches for Corcoran. As noted in The Science Times,

The town levee had to be reconstructed for $10 million after the casings of drinking-water wells were crushed, flood areas changed, and the town levee had to be rebuilt. The situation has increased homeowners’ property tax bills by around $200 a year for three years.

Another powerful storm is slated to slam into California on Tuesday, March 21. Like most of this year’s major storms, it will be most pronounced in central and southern California, largely missing the normally much-wetter northern third of the state. More than 48 inches of additional snow is expected in the southern Sierra, which drains into the Tulare Basin. Thus far this winter, the southern Sierra has received an astounding 268 percent of average annual snowfall.

As can be seen on the map posted above, the northern and central parts of the Sierra have also received much higher-than-average amounts of snow this winter, but not to the same extent as the south. This pattern is highly unusual and was not expected. Until recently, the eastern Pacific was under La Niña conditions, which usually means a drier than average wet season, especially in Southern California. By winter 2024, El Niño conditions may assert themselves, which usually means a wetter than average winter for southern and central California. If so, Tulare Lake might fill up yet again.

California, the Californias, and the Possible Loss of Far Northern California to Greater Idaho

In English, the word “California” is almost always restricted to the U.S. state of the same name, excluding the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. To include these areas as well, the term “the Californias” is used. Wikipedia has an informative article on this concept, detailing its history and including the two maps posted below. But the idea of “the Californias” is seldom encountered. A Google image search of “the California’s map” returns hundreds of images of the American state and almost nothing depicting the two Mexican states, let alone maps of the three Californian polities combined. Google even hesitated to search for this term, first showing an array of images of “the Californians.” A Neeva search gave much better results, showing many historical maps as well as a few contemporary ones that join California, Baja California, and Baja California Sur.

This erasure of the broader meaning of the term “California” is unfortunate, as it obscures some important history. The place name originally referred to the peninsula of Baja California, and was only much later applied to the area that now constitutes the U.S. state. This restricted California was first depicted by European mapmakers as an island, as it took a long time for cartographers to determine that it was a peninsula. Maps showing California as an island are of interest to both historians of cartography and map collectors. Stanford University is fortunate to house the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection: California as an Island, which includes 800 items.

The idea that the three Californias constitute any sort of a unit has had little if any salience ever since the United States annexed “Alta California” in 1847. Interestingly, however, there was a brief period during the Mexican revolution when some Mexican leftists nurtured dreams of reunion and reconstitution. As explained in the Wikipedia article:

The reunification of the Californias or Greater California is the irredentist idea of a united California often consisting of modern-day California, Baja California, and Baja California Sur, or largely based on the former lands previously governed by the province of Las Californias (1767-1804), including much of the American Southwest. There were fears during the Magonista rebellion of 1911 from both Americans and Mexicans of a Magonista expansion into California from, then Magonista-controlled, Baja California that would establish anarcho-communism across the Californias and inspire rebellions from indigenous Californians against the US and Mexican governments.


Rather than being reunited with the south, there is a far greater likelihood that the American state will itself be partitioned. Proposals to divide California have a long history and occasionally attract political interest and media attention, although the chance of actual division remains remote. But there is growing animosity toward the state government in many of California’s more rural and conservative counties, particularly those in the far north and northeast. As Sacramento stresses its environmentalist credentials and seeks to quickly reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuels, such secessionists attitudes can be expected to intensify.

California is by no means alone in experiencing such regional tensions. In neighboring Oregon, many primarily rural eastern counties have voted to leave the state and join Idaho, which would generate an enlarged state to the east dubbed “Greater Idaho.” This proposal is currently being considered in Idaho’s legislature. Most experts, however, think that the chance of this happening is slim if not negligible, as it would need approval by the legislatures of both Idaho and Oregon as well as the U.S. Congress. But as political polarization increases, agitation for such a political-geographical realignment could intensify.

Although the Greater Idaho movement is currently focused on annexing Eastern Oregon, many of its adherents have larger ambitions. The maps collected on the Greater Idaho webpage show several versions of the would-be expanded state, some of which extend to the Pacific Ocean in what is now southwestern Oregon. Some also include far northern and northeastern California. Merchandise advertising Greater Idaho on mugs, T-shirts, and sweatshirts usually include a sizable chunk of California.

Relatively few maps of an enlarged Idaho include much of eastern Washington, another generally conservative area that is increasingly dissatisfied with the political environment of the state in which it is located. Eastern Washington is more densely populated than eastern Oregon or far northern California, and as a result its inclusion would greatly change the structure of an enlarged Idaho. Spokane is almost as a large as Boise and would therefore form a secondary core region of such a “greater Greater Idaho.” But if only eastern Oregon and northeastern California were to be included, Boise would still be the state’s main metropolitan area, and it would be much more centrally located than it currently is.

The Cannabis Conundrum: Is California a Pseudo-Green State?

[Note: This final post in the GeoCurrents series on cannabis legalization strays from the blog’s stated guidelines, which emphasize factual reporting and seek to minimize political interpretations and ideological stances. It also leaves its own arguments hanging, providing no solid answers to the two central questions: why does California’s government favor high-carbon corporate cannabis over low-carbon artisanal production, and why does it allow criminal organizations to undermine the legal regime that it has so arduously created? Such matters will be explored later in a separate forum devoted to opinion-based essays.]

According to conventional thinking, California is a deep-green state, its leadership unwaveringly committed to environmental protection. No state is going to greater lengths to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of the short-term sacrifices that they entail. Although many doubt that California will be able to fulfill its ambitious energy mandates, few question the sincerity of its agenda. Even those who are skeptical about climate change are convinced that California is doing everything it can to guard against it, unwisely in their opinion. By the same token, California is widely regarded as highly progressive, leftwing state, its leadership devoted to helping marginalized communities and willing to take on the corporate establishment to improve the lot of the common person. In the rightwing press, California is sometimes portrayed as leaning so far to the left as to verge on socialism if not communism.

But when one examines California’s cannabis industry, a different picture emerges. Here official policy is not merely indifferent to carbon emissions, but rather acts as if it wants to increase them. Indoor growing facilities with massive carbon footprints are favored, while full-sun cultivators who seek carbon neutrality are hounded out of business. By the same token, the monied corporate sector is rewarded, while smallholdings are seemingly slated for liquidation. In the process, entire communities are being systematically devastated, Humboldt’s County’s Garberville being the prime example. What little rural prosperity was found in the backwoods of the Emerald Triangle is withering away. Only the elite-focused winery districts and coastal tourist towns will emerge unscathed. When it comes to cannabis, California follows a policy agenda that in other domains would be regarded as rightwing if not reactionary.

The resulting ironies run an ocean deep. Poor and middle-class Californians are asked to make major sacrifices to reduce their carbon emissions, with rising fuel and electricity costs burdening millions and sending many into energy poverty. Yet in cannabis we find an economic sector that could realize a massive carbon reduction at virtually no cost to consumers. Low-carbon artisanal cultivators could easily supply the market with high-quality and reasonably priced goods, as indeed they did for years under the medical-marijuana program. For some unspecified reason, this is not the path that the state has taken under full legalization. But California’s preferred course is heading quickly into its own dead end. As its political logic plays out, even the favored corporate sector is floundering, unable to compete with tolerated illegal operations. These well-funded growers  flout all the state’s carefully crafted regulations, often trashing the environment, exploiting their workers, stockpiling guns and biocides, and delivering to the public untested and sometimes highly contaminated products.

Why should cannabis form an exception to the supposed goals of the Californian political model? Why would the state’s government turn a blind eye to such blatant assaults on everything that it supposedly holds dear? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. When I ask my friends and relatives in Silicon Valley, all of whom are loyal supporters of the Democratic establishment, I get feeble responses that focus on incompetence and unintended consequences. The root problem, I have been told, is a simple a lack coordination, with cannabis regulators not receiving adequate guidance from the state’s environmentally devoted leadership.

I remain skeptical, to say the least. The conviction that climate change is an immediate existential threat that demands unwavering action on all fronts is ubiquitous in the Democratic Party. As a result, the idea that those in charge of cannabis would have somehow forgotten about carbon emissions when crafting their regulations is ludicrous. If we are to resist special pleading, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that California’s political establishment does not prioritize climate change when it is inconvenient to do so, and thus does not really regard it as an existential threat. Its environmental policies, in other words, seem to be designed instrumentally to satisfy allies and make electoral gains, not out of conviction or principle. Put differently, California appears to be a pseudo-green state.

Why would California’s political establishment pursue a pseudo-green political agenda? Perhaps I am being unduly harsh, and it is all merely an unfortunate error, due mainly to the lack of coordination between state agencies. But if this is indeed the case, then California must rectify this mistake by prohibiting indoor cannabis cultivation. If it does not do so, one can only conclude that its environmental rhetoric is mostly posturing, and that its decarbonization campaign is deeply dishonest.

The Carbon Footprint of Artisanal Cannabis Cultivation in California

[Note: This post is mostly based on discussions with small-scale, legal cannabis growers in Mendocino County, California. I have spent a lot of time in Mendocino since the early 1960s, when my parents bought a very small share of a very large ranch near the town of Covelo – my boyhood paradise. Since 2001, I have co-owned a piece of property near Anderson Valley, which I use as a rural retreat. Most of my neighbors and friends in the area are cannabis cultivators, and they have been eager to talk about their farms and tribulations.]

Every economic activity comes at some carbon cost, and artisanal cannabis is no exception. Most organic growers use large amounts of commercial compost, which has its own modest production footprint and must be trucked to their farms. More significant, irrigation water is almost always pumped from deep wells, an energy intensive procedure. The cannabis itself must be transported to testing and packaging facilities, and ultimately driven to the dispensaries in which it is sold. The big energy draw, however, comes just after harvest. From early-October to mid-November, the flowers are hung in drying sheds, one of the trickiest aspects of the production cycle. The proper humidity levels must be maintained; if the air is too damp, Aspergillus mold can easily spread, contaminating everything. If the weather is moist, dehumidifiers must run constantly, and even in dry conditions, dehumidification is necessary at night.

A few growers go to great pains to reduce their energy expenditures. Some make their own compost and compost tea from plants found on their own farms. I know one who gathers winter rainwater from his rooftops and stores it for summer irrigation. There are no alternatives, however, to dehumidifying the drying sheds. For those whose properties are tied to the electrical grid, the carbon footprint here is relatively modest. It is more substantial on off-grid sites, although still minuscule in comparison to indoor facilities. Although most off-grid growers have a few solar cells, few have enough to power dehumidification. Generators must therefore be used, powered by diesel, gasoline, or propane. Here, no surprise, is where the government suddenly finds its environmental concern. Generator-using off-grid growers find themselves falling out of compliance, putting their cultivation licenses at risk. When it comes to artisanal cultivation, regulation tends to be unforgiving.

Although carbon dioxide emissions are inevitable, they can be offset by sequestering carbon in the soil. This is done by heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen, converting most of it to charcoal. Once infused with nutrients, the charcoal is transformed into biochar. Buried in the earth, biochar remains stable for thousands of years, greatly enhancing soil texture and fertility. Geographers and anthropologists have known decades that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon used charcoal to create large expanses of extremely productive terra preta soil in what is otherwise an area of impoverished soil. In California, small-scale cannabis cultivators can use biochar to become carbon neutral and potentially even carbon negative. Doing so is regarded by some as the ultimate investment, one that improves their land for millennia. Yet they get no credit for such eco-conscientious behavior, as carbon sequestration is not factored into California’s cannabis regulations.

[Illustration: biochar, in buckets, ready to be sequestered in an artisanal cannabis farm]


If off-grid cultivators are to come into compliance and retain their cultivation licenses, they will have to install full solar arrays, at a cost of some $50,000 to $100,000 per farm. Few can afford such expenditures, adding to their woes. But those lucky enough to have been unlucky enough to have been harmed by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1970s and 80s, a potential lifeline is offered through California’s “Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions.” As the program’s website explains:

The purpose of the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions is to advance economic justice for populations and communities impacted by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs by providing support to local jurisdictions as they promote equity in California and eliminate barriers to enter the newly regulated cannabis industry for equity program applicants and licensees.

In the Emerald Triangle, many artisanal growers are eligible for such equity grants, and have been advised by local officials to use any funds that they might receive to install full solar arrays. Getting the money, however, is no easy matter. The necessary paperwork is so involved and extensive that some growers have been forced to hire consultants. Even so, their applications might linger for months are often rejected on technical grounds, forcing them to reapply. Some have reached the point of exasperation, suspecting that the program is little more than a cruel jest. As one grower told me, “It doesn’t matter what we do, as the government is determined to drive the hippies out of the hills.”

The Gargantuan Carbon Footprint of Corporate Cannabis

The huge carbon output of modern cannabis production is no secret. According to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, 1.3 percent of the state’s total annual carbon emissions stem solely from cannabis. A rigorously researched and widely publicized 2021 article in Nature Sustainability found that indoor production, the dominant form in many areas, generates “2,283 to 5,184 kg CO2-equivalent per kg of dried flower.” This staggering carbon output comes mostly from the voracious energy demands of indoor cultivation. Rather than relying on the sun for photosynthesis, artificial illumination is necessary; rather than relying on the wind for ventilation, industrial-scale fans must be used. Dehumidification is also needed, as is cooling during warm periods. In Southern California’s scorching Coachella Valley, the state’s emerging center of corporate cultivation, air-conditioning expenditures can be astronomical. Here even the local water supply requires energy-intensive purification. And, as if to add insult to injury, carbon dioxide is intentionally released into growing facilities to enhance production, some of which inevitably escapes into the atmosphere.

Bizarrely, large cannabis corporations and their cheerleaders sometimes brag about their energy use. Consider, for example, this 2016 article from the Coachella Valley Weekly entitled, “Canndescent: Setting the Bar for Cannabis Cultivation in Desert Hot Springs”:

Impressive at every turn, Sedlin gave a tour describing how the Canndescent facility intends to grow, clone and package premium weed.

He proudly, and probably with more detailed information than necessary, showed how the plants require the perfect temperature, water and light for maximum growth.

The facility is equipped with a 160-ton air conditioner. DHS [Desert Hot Springs] water, known for its award-winning minerals and taste, is not however good for cannabis, so Canndesecent has to use a reverse osmosis system with a 5,000 gallon water backup supply. Plant fertilization is electronically distributed. A shiny outdoor tank containing 1,000 gallons of liquid CO2 pumps the right mixture into sealed rooms producing the ideal growing environment. …

Canndescents’ grow rooms look like something on a Mars’ space station. Everything appears sterile, bright, well-organized and utilizes every inch of space with custom, stainless steel, movable grow beds. Hi-tech monitors are taking constant readings of the air quality. Fans insure the air is moving evenly.

When confronted with this outsized carbon footprint, indoor cannabis apologists typically point to their solar cells, arguing that they are doing their part to reduce their impact. This is simple greenwashing. Solar cells provide “clean” energy only in a relative sense, insofar as they substitute for fossil fuels. If they are used instead to replace sunlight, they are anything but green. Few indoor facilities, moreover, have enough solar cells and battery banks to provide all their energy needs.

In California, indoor cultivation accounts for only around thirty percent of cannabis production, less than in most states with a legal market. But outdoor growing, known in the business as “full sun,” accounts for an even lower share (see the graph posted below). Most California cannabis is grown in greenhouses under “mixed light” conditions. Here most of the energy needed for photosynthesis does come from the sun, but supplementary artificial lighting is used as well. Power-hungry ventilation is also necessary, as are other energy expenditures unknown in outdoor growing. In the final tally, mixed light is far less carbon intensive than indoor cultivation – but far more carbon intensive than outdoor growing.

There are several reasons why indoor and greenhouse production predominate. Outside of California and a few neighboring areas that have a Mediterranean climate, high-quality cannabis cannot be easily grown in the open air. Low humidity is necessary during the crucial late summer and early fall flowering period; otherwise, the flowers will be attacked by mold. Dry weather through September and October, however, is uncommon over most of the country. As federal anti-cannabis laws prevent interstate commerce, each state must produce its own crop, requiring in most cases enclosed growing environments and extensive dehumidification. Under a rational, environmentally sound cannabis regime, most production would take place in California and neighboring states; a state like New York would no more use massive, artificially illuminated buildings for cannabis production than it would for lemons or artichokes.

The triumph of high-carbon cannabis in California stems from both market pressure and government policies. When large-scale corporate cannabis began to flood the market a few years ago, artisanal cultivators came under increasing stress. To remain competitive, many took up mixed-light production themselves, as it allows multiple harvests per year and thus helped maintain profits as the wholesale price started to drop. More insidious are the pressures imposed by consumers in the retail marketplace. Most self-styled connoisseurs prefer indoor flowers, as they tend to be more uniform, visually appealing, and potent than those grown in the sun. As a result, indoor growers enjoy a pronounced price advantage, easily making up for their additional energy costs. The root problem here is the adolescent nature of the core cannabis market, where raw potency reigns supreme, while social, environmental, and cultural considerations, as well as flavor, are usually ignored. If alcohol operated under the same market constraints, fine wine and artisanal beer would be marginalized long ago by 190-proof Everclear.

But the more fundamental reason for the collapse of low-carbon cannabis in California is government policies that discourage and sometimes even prevent full-sun cultivation, while favoring indoor and mixed-light production. Many of these policies are covert, as they are ostensibly aimed at other issues. Some, however, are straightforward. As a recent MJBizDaily article notes:

Onerous regulations or outright bans on outdoor cultivation sites by many California counties also have made it harder for outdoor grow operations to expand their footprints.

Of the 26 counties in the state that have issued cultivation licenses to date, 14 haven’t awarded any to outdoor growers.

To say that California’s  cannabis policies are hypocritical is an understatement of the first order, as will be explored in the final post in this series. But first we need to consider one more issue: the carbon footprint of full-sun cultivation. Although very low by comparative measures, it is not negligible. Some growers, however, do everything they can to minimize their emissions, and a few might even achieve carbon neutrality and perhaps even negativity. Yet for all their efforts, they receive little if any credit, whether in the market, from regulators, or from environmental organizations.

Why Is Desert Hot Springs California’s Emerging Center of Corporate Cannabis?

When most people think of cannabis cultivation in California, they imagine a bucolic setting in the northwestern hills, with back-to-the-land cultivators tending tiny plots deep in the woods. That is indeed where the business originated, but, as noted and the previous GeoCurrents post, such artisanal growing is rapidly disappearing. The emerging center of the industry is as different as could be imagined. It is found in the scorching Coachella Valley of Southern California, where cultivation is carried out in nondescript industrial facilities scattered across a suburbanizing desert landscape. Although other parts of California, particularly Santa Barbara County, produce more cannabis, the Coachella Valley is becoming the focus of corporate cannabis — and corporate production is overwhelming the family-farming sector.

Like the tiny farms of the Emerald Triangle, these operations are suffering from the collapse in the wholesale price and are likewise finding it difficult to compete with large-scale illegal cultivation. But they also bear much of the blame for the oversupply that has undermined the legal cannabis market. As will be explained in a later post, they are also anything but green, coming as they do with a gargantuan carbon footprint. The current post takes on a much more straightforward topic: why has the little city of Desert Hot Springs emerged as such an important center of marijuana production?

The answer appears to be straightforward. The leaders of Desert Hot Springs made an explicit decision roughly a decade ago to make their city the most cannabis-friendly jurisdiction in California. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the town, “Desert Hot Springs was the first city in Southern California to legalize medical marijuana cultivation and has since been overwhelmed by marijuana developers and growers.” Desert Hot Springs has an entire business park devoted to industrial-scale cannabis production, and advertises it widely. A real-estate website focusing on this kind of development outlines the situation nicely:

Morongo Business Park is a master planned cannabis business park located in the light industrial district of the city of Desert Hot Springs, CA. At full build-out, it will feature over 200,000 SF of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, processing, distribution, and non-storefront delivery. Phase Three has an approved conditional use permit (CU21-17) for 136,173 square foot building, which meets all requirements for CA state cannabis business licensing. Being the first city in the state of California to allow recreational cannabis operations, Desert Hot Springs is one of the most cannabis business friendly environments in California. The city has recently reduced their cultivation tax and have also eliminated city manufacturing tax. Call listing office for complete due diligence package.


Desert Hot Springs turned to cannabis after everything else had failed. In the mid 20th century, it was a thriving little town, noted for its boutique hotels, modernist architecture, and sulfur-free hot springs. But it failed to keep pace with the nearby resort community of Palm Springs, and subsequently experienced pronounced decay. In 2001, Desert Hot Springs filed for municipal bankruptcy. It simultaneously earned a reputation for crime, violence, and prostitution. Widely circulated rumors claim that the city intentionally opened its doors to convicted sex offenders who were being hounded out of other communities. I have found no evidence of this allegation, but Desert Hot Springs does have an inordinate number of sex offenders living within its boundaries. By 2009, the situation had become so worrisome that the city adopted a tool that would allow its residents to locate the homes of such individuals. According to a news report from that year:

There are currently 69 sex offenders living in Desert Hot Springs, according to KESQ Channel 3. The station reported that Desert Hot Springs is the first city in the Coachella to invest in the OffenderWatch, which has been around for about 10 years. Parents can conduct a computer search around schools, gyms, parks, day cares and homes to see if a sex offender lives nearby. Residents can also register addresses within the city, and the Web site will automatically monitor the address and send an e-mail alert if an offender moves to the area.

Not surprisingly, Desert Hot Springs developed an unwholesome reputation, which is readily evident in on-line discussion forums. In 2009, City-Data published the following conversation:

Question: I want to move from Connecticut to Riverside County to be near family. Is it safe living is Desert Hot Springs? The house prices are very appealing to me. Also, how are the school ratings?
Answer 1: NO, no and no. DHS is notorious for high crime, paroled felons, sex offenders and general blight. Home prices reflect the state of the city, which is just terrible. Recent budget cuts are taking police officers off the streets when there already aren’t enough to go around. Not a place for families trying to raise good, educated kids.

Answer 2: No. The houses are cheap for a reason. The area has the highest concentration of paroled offenders. Horrible City government. Terrible schools

To emerge from the hole in which it found itself, Desert Hot Springs turned to corporate cannabis. This experiment has been relatively successful, although more than twenty-five percent of its population remains below the poverty level. As the city’s official website notes, crime has declined significantly since 2015. Desert Hot Springs is currently experiencing substantial growth, its population expanding from 25,938 in 2010 to 32,512 in 2020.

Industrial-scale cannabis has undoubtedly brought benefits to the city. Its effects on the environment, however, are another matter altogether, as will be explored in the next GeoCurrents post

The Triumph of Illicit Cannabis Cultivation and Retailing In California and the Liquidation of the Artisanal Growers

Across much of the United States, legal cannabis firms are failing, and large sums of money are being lost. As noted in a recent Investopedia article, “Retail investors who once looked to cannabis to make them rich would now in many cases settle for getting their money back.” The collapse is most severe in the agricultural sector. Plummeting wholesale prices are driving most small-scale cannabis farms into bankruptcy. According to the same Investopedia article:

In California, … the wholesale price has wilted to less than $700 per pound. Some 60% of the pot farms in the Emerald Triangle, the traditional heartland of cannabis cultivation in northern California, have reportedly gone out of business since California legalized recreational use six years ago.

If anything, this article underplays the dire situation in the Emerald Triangle, a region usually defined as encompassing Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties in northwestern California. I know several artisanal cannabis farmers in the region who would be happy to receive $500 a pound, which is near their break-even point. Some cannot get more than $300, resulting in a substantial loss with each sale. A few years ago, they were receiving around $1200 a pound.


As might be expected, the wholesale price collapse is the result of oversupply, which stems from two main reasons. First, the state has awarded a sizeable number of cultivation permits to large, well-capitalized corporate farms, which have flooded the legal market. Second, illegal cultivation continues unabated in many areas. Illicit growers do not pay fees or taxes, nor do they fulfill the many onerous obligations faced by legal growers to remain in compliance. As a result, illegal operations often outcompete above-board farms, driving them out of business.

A downward spiral has thus emerged, with both county governments and the state losing the licensing fees and other revenues that they have been counting on. California now faces a lose-lose-lose situation, one in which scofflaws succeed while those who have gone to herculean efforts to become legal find that it has all been for naught. (I know retirement-age growers who had no computer experience whatsoever, as they had moved to the woods in part to get away from modern technological society. But to gain legal status they have had to master the intricacies of California’s online track-and-trace Metrc system, in which even leaves destined for the compost heap must be weighed and reported to the state. It has not been easy.)

The burdens placed on legal growers can be overwhelming, as will be explored in later posst. For now, a quote from an article by Kevin Rector, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, will suffice:

In place of handcuffs and prison sentences to deter cannabis cultivation, the state has established a vast system of taxes, fees and regulations to control it. The taxes are steeper and the rules more onerous than those in other agricultural sectors. … “Are all the small farmers destined to fail? That’s our biggest fear,” Casali said one recent morning at his farm. “It’s the War on Drugs Part II.”

But this a very different “War on Drugs” from the one that preceded it, as it focuses on those inside the law, while largely ignoring those outside of it. California’s political leadership feels guilty, for good reason, about the harms imposed on marginal members of society by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. As a result, illegal growers are now largely tolerated. Small-business owners, however, are regarded differently, and are given much less consideration.

A recent Fox News article outlines many of the problems generated by illicit cultivation. It begins by describing a massive illegal grow in  Riverside County, which is also California’s new center of corporate cultivation. As the author writes:

“The illegal industry is competing with the legal industry and essentially putting them out of business,” says Sgt. James Roy, head of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s 12-person marijuana eradication team. “This place is no different than thousands of others we hit this year confiscating about a half-million plants in Riverside County alone,” Roy said…. Along with these growers, these illegal growers, comes a fair amount of violence and a lot of weaponry,” says Roy. “We serve warrants on operations like this every day. And in 80% of the locations, we are finding weapons, high-powered weapons, assault rifles, things like that.”

The same article tersely explains why legal growers cannot compete: “By requiring licenses to grow and transport pot, permits to sell it retail, and taxes to buy it, the state effectively imposed a 70% tax on legally purchased marijuana.”

One might expect the legal risks incurred by illegal cultivation to impose a stiff penalty of its own, thereby leveling the playing field. But that’s not how it works in California, where large-scale illicit growers, despite the violence, uncertain product quality, and environmental degradation associated with their operations, have little to worry about. No one in California is facing prison or even county jail for illegal cannabis operations, and the modest fines that are occasionally levied are just considered a part of doing business, if not just ignored.

It is not just cannabis farmers who are facing devastating competition from illegal operations, but also dispensaries. Particularly in the Los Angeles area, unlicensed and unregulated “trap shop” dispensaries have become widespread, and now significantly outnumber above-board operations. These illegal businesses are typically set up in conventional retail space and have the appearance of legitimate dispensaries. As a result, customers often have no idea that they are engaging in an illicit transaction. A recent article in outlines the problem:

Recently, an audit revealed that California’s 900 licensed cannabis operators have about 2,800 illegal competitors, more than three times the number of total legal sellers, which could be higher today. These unregulated stores, most of the time, have untested stock products that are not up to state-issued production standards, nor do they follow the state’s regulations for cannabis operations. Patronizing an unlicensed store is more or less the same as buying from a dealer around the block. You only get promises that you’re purchasing the best product in the area, whereas it’s basically junk.

Unlicensed dispensaries are so widely tolerated that Yelp has a page listing the “best illegal cannabis dispensaries near me.” (I cannot say, however, whether the dispensaries listed here are truly illegal.) For several years, the important cannabis website Weedmaps also listed unlicensed dispensaries, although that is no longer the case. If one wants to avoid patronizing illicit operations, the maps provided by Weedmaps are a good place to turn.

With these stories in mind, it seems that the root problem of the California cannabis crisis is a perverse set of attitudes on the part of the state’s political leadership. To put it simply,  California, and particularly its large cities, are tough on small legal businesses and lax on illegal ones. Under such a regime, it becomes extremely difficult – and often simply impossible – for the legitimate sector to compete with the underground one. As a result, the entire legalization experiment in California is failing. The expected revenues are not filling state and local coffers, and the myriad pathologies of the illicit market remain firmly ensconced.

The “soft-on-crime, hard-on-small-business” attitude is on its surface rooted in a left-wing political philosophy, one based on compassion for those who have supposedly been forced by circumstances beyond their control to engage in illegal activities. But, as will be explored later, what is actually encountered here is a form of pseudo-leftism, a perverse political philosophy that favors the corporate sector and is hostile to minuscule family farms and tiny retail firms.

Cannabis Legalization in the U.S. Elections of 2022

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States had mixed results for cannabis legalization. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legalization measures, easily in the first case and by a relatively narrow margin in the second (see the charts below). Missouri thus became the third solidly “red state” to allow cannabis consumption without a medical recommendation, following Alaska and Montana. Voters in Arkansas and South Dakota, however, rejected legalization, with a 56% “no” vote in the former state and a 55% “no” vote in the latter. The South Dakota vote took many by surprise, as just two years earlier a legalization referendum passed, which was later invalidated in court. South Dakota voters will again take on the issue in the fall of 2023, but indications for legalization are not positive. As reported by, “a statewide poll conducted this summer revealed that South Dakotans’ general sentiment toward legalizing recreational marijuana has shifted over the past two years, signaling that a referendum on the issue this fall could fail.” At the federal level, meanwhile, congressional efforts to eliminate the de jure cannabis prohibition stalled out, yet again.

The failure of federal cannabis legalization, and in some states as well, seems to defy the general public will. Opinion polls conducted by a variety of organizations show overwhelming support. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that even 50% of Republicans favor full legalization, with Democrats and independents offering overwhelming approval (83% and 71%). Similar results have been obtained by other polling agencies. A 2022 CBS/YouGov poll found a 66% level of support for legalization at both the federal and state levels. According to this poll, Republicans overall narrowly oppose legalization (51% to 49%), but those below the age of 45 solidly support it (59%). A 2022 Pew survey found that only 10 percent of Americans think that cannabis should be illegal for all purposes. According to the same poll, Americans in every age bracket except that of the elderly (75+) favor full legalization.

Given these numbers, along with the fact that American voters are roughly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, the persistence of federal anti-cannabis laws is difficult to explain. In this arena, seems that Congress is defying the public will. Quandaries also emerge at the state level. Even in deep blue Hawaii and Delaware, cannabis remains legal only for medical uses, and in several purplish states it remains fully illegal (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia). How can these results be squared with public opinion polls that shows overwhelming support for legalization?

A variety of factors are probably at play. Simple inertia probably plays a role, and as a result it seems likely that Hawaii and Delaware will opt for legalization before too long. More important, however, is the concerted opposition of anti-cannabis forces. A sizable minority of Americans is vehemently opposed, with many regarding marijuana as nothing less than the “devil’s weed.”* As is often the case, the desires a vehement minority can override the less passionate concerns of a substantial majority. It is significant that legalization has often occurred through popular referenda rather than through legislation, as legislators can be more easily swayed by interest groups than the voters at large.

But another factor may be involved as well. Legalization, it turns out, has often yielded discouraging or even disastrous results. With revenues much lower than expected, chaotic business environments, and a thriving black market, states like California demonstrate the potential hazards of a poorly formulated legal regime. As a result, some legislators, and many voters, may ultimately favor legalization, yet still reject whatever proposal is put before them, skeptical that it gets it right. These issues will be examined in much greater detail in later posts

*The term “devil’s weed” is used most often for Datura, or jimsonweed, which contains several powerful and poisonous psychoactive substances. For a religiously informed discussion of cannabis as the “devil’s weed,” see Marijuana – The Devil’s Weed?, by Dr. Joe Fawcett.

ARkStorm Fears Recede in California Despite Flooding; Anomalous Lack of Rain-Shadowing Explained by Weather West

Fears of an impending ARkStorm in California have receded, although much of the state has been receiving prodigious amounts of rainfall and the forecast remains wet for the next 10 days. In the most recent storm, the heaviest rains have fallen in the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas, northwest of Los Angeles. The map posted below shows total precipitation amounts of up to 14 inches in a 24-hour period; other reports indicate that a few areas have received more than 18 inches. As would be expected, floods and mudslides have hit the region, causing considerable damage and taking several lives. For the state as a whole, however, the damage has been less than has been reported in many sensational news articles. I have read stories and seen videos that describe California as being “devastated,” “drowned,” and “underwater.” Despite the localized destruction, which should not be minimized, the recent storms have been beneficial for the state as a whole, washing away a devastating drought, at least temporarily. Even in some of the hardest hit locations, some rain enthusiasts posting on the Weather West blog are joyful for what they have received.

From a climatological perspective, the most interesting feature of the map posted above is not the torrential rain in places like San Marcos Pass, which periodically receive heavy and extended downpours. More unusual are the relatively high figures in inland areas that are rain-shadowed by mountains, such as the Cuyama Valley. Cuyama is extremely dry, receiving only 8 inches of precipitation a year on average. As bands of rain typically move from the south or southwest to the north and east, they dump most of their moisture over the coastal highlands as the air rises and cools; as the air descends and warms on the lee side, precipitation rates plummet. This dynamic is especially noted under conditions of an atmospheric river, which brings a relatively shallow but extremely wet airmass streaming in from the subtropics. As the recent flooding rains in the Santa Barbara area came from a stalled atmospheric river, the relatively high level of rainfall in Cuyama was unexpected.

A more pronounced precipitation anomaly was found further to the north, just to the east of the Sierra Nevada crest in east-central California. A high range, the Sierra rings most of the water out of winter storms. And as result, the Owens Valley, lying just to east of the southern Sierra, is extremely dry. The town of Bishop in the northern valley receives less than 5 inches of precipitation in the average year. Yet over the course of a mere 24-hour period on January 9th and 10th, 2023 – under conditions of an atmospheric river – Bishop received over 3 inches. And the downpour continues; just 11 minutes ago, commentator Unbiased Observer noted in Weather West that Bishop is closing in on 4 inches. This oddity demands an explanation.

Fortunately, such an explanation was made available, again by Unbiased Observer, on the Weather West blog, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. I have posted the pertinent information below from the blog’s discussion forum. Such sharing of information among a devoted community of weather watchers is one of the many reasons why Weather West is such a valuable resource.

Should California Be Bracing for a Possible ARkStorm?

The storm currently hitting California has not produced as much precipitation as was anticipated, irritating some Weather West readers (see yesterday’s post) while reducing flood concerns for the present. But the forecast remains extremely wet over the next week and beyond. As the maps posted below show, rain in the lowlands and snow in the mountains could fall in prodigious quantities, which would probably cause extensive flooding (note the 256 inches of snow over roughly two weeks forecasted on one of the maps posted below). If the current seven-day forecast verifies, and if the wet pattern remains entrenched, California might even experience what is known as an ARkStorm, an event that occurs on average once every several hundred years. In an ARkStorm, much of the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland and home to millions of people, could be inundated for weeks.

As noted in the previous post, California has been locked in a persistent drought, experiencing only two wet years out of the past 12. An abrupt end to a long-term drought by devastating floods would not be unprecedented. Indeed, this is precisely what happened in the mid 19th century. As reported by EarthDate:

In the 1840s and 1850s, California was exceptionally dry, so by the fall of 1861, California ranchers were hoping for rain in late November they got what they were wishing for and – then some. It didn’t stop raining for 43 days and by January 1862 the Central Valley was filled with an inland sea.

The Great Flood of 1862 was that an extraordinary event, one that affected much of the western United States. The Wikipedia article on it provides a good summary. As it notes:

The event dumped an equivalent of 10 feet (3.0 m) of water in California, in the form of rain and snow. .. An area about 300 miles (480 km) long, averaging 20 miles (32 km) in width, and covering 5,000 to 6,000 square miles (13,000 to 16,000 km2) was under water over a period of 43 days.

Although this was the biggest flood in California’s recorded history, geological evidence shows that even larger floods have occurred over the past several thousand years. Of particular note were the years 440, 1418, 1605, and 1750. The largest flood was that of 1605 (± 5 years). As noted in a 2017 Quarternary Research article, this event may have even produced a large lake in the Mojave Desert that lasted for several decades. The Quarternary Research article claims that this flood may have been linked to a global cooling cycle associated with this so-called Little Ice Age. As the authors note, “This cooling was probably accompanied by an equatorward shift of prevailing wind patterns and associated storm tracks.”

The current concern is that global warming will lead to increased flood risks in California – along with increased drought risks. As Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain wrote in an August 2022 Science Advances article:

Despite the recent prevalence of severe drought, California faces a broadly underappreciated risk of severe floods. Here, we investigate the physical characteristics of “plausible worst case scenario” extreme storm sequences capable of giving rise to “megaflood” conditions using a combination of climate model data and high-resolution weather modeling. Using the data from the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble, we find that climate change has already doubled the likelihood of an event capable of producing catastrophic flooding, but larger future increases are likely due to continued warming. We further find that runoff in the future extreme storm scenario is 200 to 400% greater than historical values in the Sierra Nevada because of increased precipitation rates and decreased snow fraction. These findings have direct implications for flood and emergency management, as well as broader implications for hazard mitigation and climate adaptation activities.

(See the map made by Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain posted blow to compare historical ARkStorms and those predicted for the future.)


Daniel Swain’s avid followers at Weather West have noted how the current situation follows Swain’s recent ARkStorm article:

Many researchers are concerned that California is not doing enough to prepare for the possibility of devastating floods. One proposal for dealing with extreme precipitation events is to allow rivers to occupy more of their natural floodplains, as outlined in a New York Times article published today. Such an approach would also help recharge California’s aquifers, many of which are severely depleted. But as the author observes, this would be an expensive solution that would generate pronounced opposition. From an environmental perspective, however, it makes a lot of sense.


The Weather West Blog Community and the Possible End of the Great California Drought

One of my favorite blogs is Weather West: California Weather and Climate Perspectives, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. Posting once or twice a month, Swain focuses on current and upcoming weather events and conditions. He delves into meteorological complexities but writes in an accessible manner that can be easily understood by non-specialists. More important for the concerns of GeoCurrents, Swain’s posts are always illustrated with informative and often striking maps. For those who appreciate the aesthetic properties of cartography, it can be difficult to beat meteorological mapping. I often find the patterns and colors almost mesmerizing.

Equally impressive is Swain’s devoted readership. Each of his posts receives thousands of comments. Many are deeply informed, and they are also often illustrated with useful maps and dramatic photographs. For weather enthusiasts such as myself, the cloudscapes that are periodically posted on Weather West are reason enough to follow the blog.

What I most appreciate about the Weather West community, however, is its idiosyncratic perspective on precipitation. Here we find a group of devoted people who love rain and fully understand just how essential it is. Given California’s seemingly interminable drought – 10 of the past 12 years have been dry, the last two exceedingly so – one might expect this attitude to be common in the state, but in my experience it remains rare. Even National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters in California sometimes write about the “threat of rain” during times of dire drought. A few years back I was so frustrated by such mindless wording that I wrote a letter to the NWS urging them to replace “threat” with “promise” under drought conditions. I was surprised to receive a reply, but it turned out to be defensive and entirely non-apologetic. But some people understand. The best birthday present I ever received was a CD put together by my wife filled with rain-positive song in many genres and from several countries. One of the most memorable was Luke Bryan’s raunchy country tune called “Rain Is a Good Thing.” As Bryan emphasizes, farmers certainly understand. As his song opens:

My daddy spent his life lookin’ up at the sky

He’d cuss kick the dust, sayin’ son its way to dry

It clouds up in the city, the weather man complains

But where I come from, rain is a good thing

When rain does come to California, the Weather West community exults. They post their own precipitation numbers with pride, and bitterly complain when their own locations are stinted, ending up in the dreaded “donut hole.”  Some tend toward pessimism and sometimes find themselves gently chided by those more hopeful about coming storms. Overall, they seek to teach and inform each other, and thus form a model blog-focused community. (“Model” is used as something of a pun here, as Weather West readers often urge each other to beware of “model riding,” or giving too much credence to particular meteorological model outputs. This is especially the case when the output in question refer to “fantasyland,” or the time beyond the period of relatively reliable forecasting.)

Currently, the Weather West community it very excited but also worried. California’s long-term drought has just broken, at least temporarily. December precipitation was pronounced over almost the entire state, and January looks to be wetter still. Swain’s most recent post, of January the 2nd, is titled “Major Norcal Storm Wed.; Potential High-Impact Storm/Flood Pattern to Continue for 10 Plus Day. Wet Antecedent Conditions Set Stage for Future Flood Risk.” Even the blog’s most rain-besotted commentators are now concerned that they may get too much of a good thing. Some are even sheepishly admitting that they are now hoping for a mid-winter ridge that would produce a spell of dry weather.

California’s abrupt transition from dry to wet this winter was not expected. Until quite recently, mid- and long-range models predicted yet another rainy season of little rain. As almost all the state’s precipitation falls between November and March, this is a crucial matter. Driving these dry forecasts was the fact that the Pacific Ocean is still in La Niña* conditions, which have persisted for the past two years. In La Niña winters, far Northern California often gets ample precipitation, but the rest of the state is generally dry. In these years, the jet stream is typically displaced to the north and must ride over a large high-pressure ridge somewhere in the eastern Pacific. If the ridge is displaced too far to the east, California is hard hit by drought. If the high-pressure zone is instead pushed westward, cold storms can ride over the ridge and produce moderate rain and decent amounts of mountain snow. Under the contrasting El Niño** regime, a different winter pattern typically prevails, with the jet stream ripping directly across the Pacific. El Niño years usually bring abundant precipitation, especially to Central and Southern California. What makes the current situation so unusual and perhaps even inexplicable is that California is now experiencing an El Niño pattern in a La Niña year, with one relatively warm storm after another lined up across the Pacific. Meteorologists are trying to figure out what is going on, and undoubtedly much more will be written on the subject.

If the current forecasts through January pan out, California could end up with full reservoirs and a very healthy snowpack in the higher elevations. But that does not mean that drought conditions will not necessarily return before the wet season ends. Last year, heavy precipitation in December was followed by a parched period stretching from January through March, generally the wettest time of the year. By the end of the summer, the state’s crucial reservoirs were frighteningly depleted.

But even if this February and March are dry, fears of a disastrously water-short summer of 2023 are currently being washed away. Indication for the 2023-2024 wet season also look promising, as La Niña is dissipating and El Niño looks like it might return. But El Niño sometimes fails to produce the predicted downpours, as was the case in the winter of 2015-2016. As U.C. San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported:

Most long-range forecast models predicted a potentially drought-ending deluge in California from the climate pattern known as El Niño in winter 2015-16, but the actual precipitation was far less than expected. … “Comparing this El Niño to previous strong El Niños, we found big differences in the atmospheric response across the globe, including California,” said Nick Siler, lead author of the study that was published in the Journal of Climate, and a postdoctoral scholar in the research group of co-author Shang-Ping Xie at Scripps. “We found that these differences weren’t all random, but rather were caused by tropical sea-surface temperature anomalies unrelated to El Niño.” … The results of the study suggest that El Niño events might not have as strong an influence on California precipitation as previously thought. They also suggest that recent warming might have had a hand in making El Niño drier. The Indian Ocean is known to be warming faster than other ocean basins

Climate change seems to be intensifying California droughts, just as it might be undermining El Niño rains. But it might also be making wet periods wetter, particularly those produced by so-called atmospheric rivers. As a result, the chances of a devastating “arc storm” are increasing. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, Daniel Swain is one of the leading experts on this topic.

*Wikipedia Definition: “During a La Niña period, the sea surface temperature across the eastern equatorial part of the central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3–5 °C (5.4–9 °F).

**Wikipedia definition: “[El Niño] is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.


Political Orientation and Attitudes Towards NATO (& NATO-Enlargement Map Sequence)

I recently gave a lecture on issues surrounding NATO in my Stanford University adult education class (Continuing Studies Program) on the history and geography of current global events. In preparing the lecture, I came across an interesting poll conducted by the Pew Research Center on attitudes towards NATO in different member states. This study found that in Europe those on the political right have a more favorable view of NATO than those on the political left. This divergence is especially notable in Greece, Spain, and Sweden, but less so in the United Kingdom. Contrastingly, in Canada and especially the U.S., support for NATO is associated with the political left. As can be seen in the chart posted below, American conservatives generally have a favorable view of NATO, but not nearly to the same extent as those on the left.

These findings are interesting but not necessarily surprising. The political left in Europe tends to be suspicious of the United States, and the U.S. is NATO’s dominant military power. On the other side of the Atlantic, American conservatives have been steadily abandoning their support for international military engagement and defense arrangements. To some extent, this change represents a return to the traditional Republican suspicion of foreign entanglements that was dominant before the Cold War.

But if Democrats and Republicans hold markedly different views on NATO, the U.S. public as a whole shows evidence of moving in the same direction regarding American foreign policy more generally. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Democrats and Republicans alike decreasingly favor the deployment of American troops overseas and are increasingly suspicious of U.S. involvement in military conflicts abroad. The same poll found similar tendencies regarding fundamental issues of economic globalization. Apparently, Democrats and Republicans alike increasingly favored tariffs on foreign goods and barriers to foreign investment. Such convergence is evident in the policy realm. Despite their many deep political differences, the Biden and Trump administrations both pursued protectionist policies during their periods in power. It will be interesting to see if these trends continue and if they will play a significant role in the 2024 election.

Part of my lecture on NATO examined the creation and expansion of the organization. I was frustrated in my search for maps that could clearly portray the organization’s enlargement. As a result, I created my own map sequence, beginning before the creation of NATO and ending with a peek into the possible future of the organization. These maps are available here in PDF format.

NATO Creation and Enlargement Map Sequence

This winter I will be teaching again in Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, offering a foundational political geography class entitled “The World Political Map.” It will be given remotely through Zoom and can be taken by anyone willing to pay the rather hefty fee. The description of the class can be found here.


Opposing Views on the U.S. Suburban Electoral Shift, and the New York/Philadelphia Paradox

The changing political orientation of the American suburbs has emerged as a major topic in recent electoral analysis. As a 2019 New York Times headline asked, “Are the Suburbs Turning Democratic?: The Political Dividing Line in America Used to Be Between Democratic Cities And Republican Suburbs; Now It Runs Through the Center of the Suburbs Themselves.” As this article correctly notes, since 2016 inner suburbs have generally moved in a Democratic direction, whereas outer suburbs have remained in the Republican camp. Just this week, the New York Times ran another headline proclaiming, “Democrats Retained Their Grip on Diversifying Suburbs: Modest Gains by GOP Can’t Reverse a Trend That Started In 2018.” Although the article contains some insightful analysis and is accompanied by two revealing maps (posted below), the implications of the headline are frankly bizarre. It implies that the authors can predict the future of electoral geography in the United States based on their analysis of recent trends. Such trends, as we all know, can pivot quickly. As recently as 2010, Newsweek ran a headline reading, “Dems Lose Grip on Crucial Suburbs,” with the article noting that, “When Long Island flipped from red to blue in recent years, Republicans looked unlikely to ever win another statewide election.”  Long Island, however, has flipped back and forth several times since this article was published.

The most recent New York Times headline, with the crucial word “diversifying,” might also be read as an implication that ethnic and racial diversification will determine the outcomes of future elections in American suburbs. This “demography is political destiny” thesis implicitly rests on the earlier works of Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira, particularly his co-written 2004 book The Emerging Democratic Majority. Teixeira, however, has largely repudiated these ideas, based on his detailed demographic analyses of recent elections. He shows that minority voters, particularly Hispanic ones, have been drifting away from the Democratic Party, and he argues that this shift will likely continue unless the Democrats alter some of their positions, particularly on social and cultural matters. A recent article by Teixeira interprets suburban voting trends quite differently than the New York Times does. As he writes:

And just how much hold do the Democrats have on suburban voters anyway? In the AP/NORC VoteCast survey, the most reliable election survey available, Democrats carried suburban voters nationwide by a single point in 2022. That’s a slippage of 9 points from the Democrats’ 10 point margin in 2020. Interestingly, the slippage in Democratic support from 2020 to 2022 was actually larger among nonwhite than white suburban voters. These data indicate strongly that Democrats might not be in quite the catbird seat they think they are with suburban voters and therefore with the 2024 election. But they appear to have a touching faith that the anti-MAGA playbook will work anytime anywhere.

As both Teixeira and the New York Times writers fully understand, the American suburbs are by no means electorally uniform. One major discrepancy, highlighted by the Times, is that between New York and Philadelphia. In the 2022 election, the modest red shift in the Philadelphia suburbs was not enough to make up for a more substantial blue shift in previous elections. In the New York suburbs, on the other hand, “the four point shift towards the Democrats in 2020 was more than undone by the five point swing toward the Republicans in 2022.”

The 2022 shift toward the Republicans in the New York metropolitan area occurred in both suburban and urban districts. In the the 2022 New York State Assembly election (second map posted below), the shift in the Republican direction was been more pronounced in the outer boroughs of the city than in the Long Island suburbs.

The New York Times attributes the Republican gains in the New York suburbs to two main factors: “governor Kathy Hochul proved a weak Democratic standard bearer … while Republicans mounted a visceral campaign assaulting Democrats over crime.” While rising crime was no doubt an important issue in the New York election, one must ask why it was not equally important in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Violent crime, after all, has risen more in Philadelphia than in most other major cities. Why then would Republicans be able to capitalize on this issue in New York but not in Philadelphia? Perhaps one factor is the more prominent role of the tabloid press in the former area (particularly the New York Post), which reports extensively on crime. Comments from readers who have more knowledge of these two metropolitan areas would be highly welcome.

The Vermont Paradox: A Left-Wing State with a Remarkably Popular Republican Governor

Historically, Vermont was one of the most Republican-voting states in the union. In 1936 it was one of only two states (along with Maine) to favor Alf Landon over Franklin D. Roosevelt, and did so decisively. But since 1988, Vermont has voted for Democratic presidential candidates. It is now by some measures the country’s most left-wing state. In 2020, Vermont gave a higher percentage of its votes to Joe Biden than any other state. Its democratic-socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, won his most recent election easily, gaining the support of 67.4 percent of Vermont voters. In the state’s 2022 U.S. Senate election, Democrat Peter Welsh overwhelmed Republican Gerald Malloy, who took only 27.6 percent of the vote. But these were all national elections; at the state level, a different picture emerges. Vermont not only has a Republican governor, Phil Scott, but an extraordinarily popular one at that. In 2022, Scott enjoyed a landslide election, taking 69.2% of the vote. Of all the sitting governors in the United States, only Mark Gordon of Wyoming received a higher percentage of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial election (see the map below).

Vermont is not the only state with different political environments at the national and state levels. If one compares maps of gubernatorial and presidential elections, the general correlation is relatively close – but the exceptions are significant. As of early 2023, three “red” states will have Democratic governors (Kentucky, Kansas, and Louisiana), and three “blue” states will have Republican governors (Virginia, New Hampshire, and Vermont). Currently, deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts also have Republican governors, although in 2022 both states elected Democratic replacements. Of these seemingly incongruous states, Vermont is by far the most aberrant. It is extreme on both scores, being the most Democratic-voting state in recent national elections and the second most Republican-voting state in the most recent gubernatorial elections.

Like other recent Republican governors in New England, Scott occupies a left-center position on social and cultural issues and a center to center-right position on economic issues. According to his own self-description, “I and very much a fiscal conservative. But not unlike most Republicans in the northeast, I’m probably more on the left of center from a social standpoint. I am a pro-choice Republican.” Scott’s fiscal conservatism is probably key to his success. Vermont is a high-tax state, and evidently many of its residents want to hold the line on further taxation and expenditure.

Scott’s landslide 2022 victory was also related to the unpopularity of his Democratic opponent, Brenda Siegel. Siegel took only 23.4 percent of the vote, losing every county in the state (independents and write-ins took 5 percent of the vote). Siegel is a noted progressive activist, who focused her campaign on homelessness, the housing crisis, the opioid epidemic, drug-law reform, and climate change. As noted by VTDigger,

[Siegal] gained the most attention last fall when she slept on the Statehouse steps for 27 nights to pressure leaders to extend the state’s motel voucher program for Vermonters without permanent housing. The goal, she said, was to serve as a constant reminder to lawmakers about the realities of living outside, confronting them on their walks to work and pressuring them to act. After nearly a month of sleeping on the cold stone steps, she and fellow activists prevailed when the program was extended through the winter.


One might have expected Siegel’s political positions and steadfast determination to prove popular in a state as left-wing as Vermont. Electoral returns, however, indicate otherwise. Although the Democrats’ progressive wing has substantial clout within the party, it is regarded with suspicion by moderate Democrats and is rejected outright by most independents. As a result, progressive candidates often have a difficult time winning elections. But if Vermont Republicans had nominated a Trumpian populist, Siegel’s probably would have prevailed. Vermont Republicans, however, incline away from right-wing populism. In 2016, Donald Trump won the Vermont Republican primary, but did so with only 32% of the vote. John Kasich, a center-right if not centrist candidate, came close to winning, taking 30% of the vote.

In several deep blue states, most notably California, Republicans currently have little if any chance of prevailing in a gubernatorial contest. If they were to nominate a moderate candidate, success could be possible. But the Republican base in most parts of the country disdains center-right candidates as “RINOs,” or “Republicans in name only.” In California, where Donald Trump took 75 percent of the vote in the 2016 primary, Republicans are unlikely to nominate a candidate who has a serious chance of winning.

The United States has not only undergone pronounced political polarization in recent decades, but it has also entered an era of what might be called “negative politics.” In this environment, both parties are unpopular with the public at large, and many voters opt not for the party or candidate that they like the best, but rather the one they dislike – or even hate – the least. This unstable dynamic will be explored in a later post.


The 2022 Republican Losses in Pennsylvania and Michigan

By the 1990s, Pennsylvania and Michigan had become solidly Democratic states in national elections, forming key blocks in the so-called Blue Wall stretching across the northeastern quadrant of the country. In 2016, however, both states swung to Republican Donald Trump, albeit by very narrow margins. In the 2022 two midterm election, both states returned to the blue camp, with Democratic candidates outperforming expectations. In all likelihood, Michigan and Pennsylvania will be critical states in the 2024 President presidential election.

In Pennsylvania’s election, several Republican candidates severely stumbled. In the gubernatorial contest, Doug Mastriano took only 42% of the vote. Mastriano’s defeat was expected, as he was widely regarded as an extremist candidate associated with the fringe Christian nationalist movement. The U.S. Senate election in Pennsylvania, in contrast, was expected to be close. Many Republicans were optimistic about the prospects of their candidate, Mehmet Oz. Oz had won a close Republican primary in which the endorsement of radio broadcaster Sean Hannity may have been decisive. But in the end, Oz received only 46.5% of the vote. Many Pennsylvanians were evidently skeptical about Doctor Oz. Beyond political issues, objections focused on his dual Turkish citizenship, his career as a television doctor who dabbled in pseudoscience, and the fact that he had only recently moved to Pennsylvania.

In the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, the Republican Party also performed poorly, losing 12 seats and control of the body. Comparing the 2022 election map to that of 2016, the biggest difference is the massive loss of support for Republicans in the affluent southeastern corner of the state, located in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. The Democrats also gained a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate, although they did not win control. In the 2022 U.S. House of Representatives election in Pennsylvania, the Republicans lost a seat while the Democrats held steady (the state dropped a seat in redistricting). Yet in terms of the popular U.S. House vote, the Republicans triumphed, taking 52.6% of the vote. This result show that Pennsylvania is still a purple state, one in which Republicans can win if they put forward the right candidates.

Pennsylvania is deeply divided by electoral geography. The eastern part of the state, particularly the Philadelphia metropolitan area, is now firmly in the blue category, as is the Pittsburgh metropolitan area in the west. Contrastingly, central Pennsylvania, often disparagingly referred to as “Pennsatucky,” is in general a socially conservative area that leans in a strikingly populist direction. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary election, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania handily, with 58% of the vote. Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania Republicans were able to nominate a number of Trumpian populists who were not competitive in the 2022 election.

Trump was not nearly as popular in Michigan in the 2016 Republican primary election as he was in Pennsylvania, taking only 37% of the state’s vote. But Michigan Republicans nominated several very conservative candidates in 2022. They had high hopes for their gubernatorial choice, Tudor Dixon, widely regarded as a charismatic candidate. Dixon’s opponent, incumbent Gretchen Whitmer, was viewed by many as vulnerable, partly because of her rather draconian COVID policies. In the end, however, Whitmer triumphed handily, taking 54.9% of the vote. She won in several  counties in the Lower Peninsula that have often supported Republican candidates (compare the 2022 and 2014 maps). Abortion may have been a crucial factor in this election. Tudor Dixon was noted for her strong pro-life stance, opposing abortion even in cases of incest and rape. In the same election, Michiganders gave 56.6 percent of their vote to a referendum “Creat[ing] a Constitutional Right to Reproductive Freedom.” The Republicans Party also lost a Michigan seat in the US House of Representatives, as well as the state’s popular House vote, albeit by a narrow margin. Michigan Democrats took control of both chambers of the state legislature, gaining four seats in the senate and three in the house.

Although Donald Trump is still polling ahead of other possible Republican contenders for the presidency in 2024 and is therefore the apparently front-runner, the 2022 elections in Michigan and Pennsylvania indicate that he would difficulty winning these crucial states. Although several right-populist pundits and politicians, including Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance, have warned against blaming Trump for the disappointing Republican tallies in 2022, the Michigan and Pennsylvania results point in a different direction.