February 28, 2018 Climate

Homesick: the Story of a Bakersfield Transplant

Written by: Stephanie Valenzuela

Two weekends after I moved into my dorm at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), I found myself back at square one: visiting home and experiencing the same ailments that plagued my adolescence.

My initial eighteen years were spent in Bakersfield, California, a city that in 2014 Time called “the Worst Place to Breathe in America”. Pieces that focus on our small community are always widely shared among us locals, but any Bakersfield native could summarize the article’s contents from personal experience. 

We lie at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, just north of the Grapevine, in what is almost a geographical bowl. Living here, we are surrounded by oil and natural gas refineries, and we typically develop an immunity to what is known as “valley fever” — an infection caused by exposure to fungal spores which come out in Bakersfield due to the high winds and loose soil. It’s a product of the Central Valley’s strong agricultural industry, and the origin of my community’s chronic respiratory conditions like asthma and obstructive pulmonary disease.

I was no longer accustomed to the terrible air in Bakersfield, and as a result, being home was making me sick.

I woke up that first morning at home, shaken at being back in my own bed, and feeling like I developed a cold overnight. I was unable to breathe clearly and felt incapacitated by a massive headache. As the weekend progressed, I ruled out the possibility that it was a common cold, yet I could not figure out the cause of my discomfort.

It finally occurred to me after my second trip home: I was no longer accustomed to the terrible air in Bakersfield, and as a result, being home was making me sick. Homesickness is common among college students, but it took on a different meaning for me; acting on the desire to return to home meant that I would become physically ill.

This discovery was not a surprise. I, like many of Bakersfield’s youths, spent a significant part of my formative years in a doctor’s office, dealing with my share of respiratory and sinus issues. During middle school and high school, these complications often caused debilitating headaches. They subsided as I got older and my body got used to its maladies, and by the time I left for college, exposure to cleaner air was enough to eradicate them completely.

When I joined the speech and debate team in high school, though, my coach warned me to be cognizant of my audience when crafting an argument, saying “we live in the Texas of California.” While Bakersfield is one of the country’s fastest growing cities, it retains its small town mentality. Part of what drove me to Santa Cruz was Bakersfield’s unrelenting conservatism, which generally results in the prioritization of the health of industry over the health of the environment and the community. This is abundantly clear in the widespread belief within American conservatism that if climate change is happening, it is not being provoked by humans. While belief in climate change should not be aligned with a political ideology because its existence is scientific fact, unfortunately it is and the impact of this is palpable in Bakersfield.

My inaugural escape from home made the juxtaposition between these two communities  strikingly clear. My family bought a pack of plastic water bottles every week in Bakersfield, and in Santa Cruz I go thirsty without a reusable bottle. Before university, I had never heard of Patagonia, an outdoor company that seeks to “cause no unnecessary harm” and protect the environment that its customers enjoy. But in Santa Cruz, I cannot walk down the street without seeing someone donning one of their pieces. Santa Cruz’s beauty and climate make outdoor recreation much more appealing and this, coupled with the area’s progressive political climate, means that its denizens feel much more of an immediate call to action to protect the environment.

Bakersfield is not pretty — sure, there a few beautiful landscapes and a nature preserve in the area, but it is overwhelmingly made up of standard commercial spaces, sprawling residential development, and fields for both agriculture and oil drilling. Santa Cruz, by comparison, is absolutely picturesque. My dorm literally sits at the edge of a forest.

When I arrived here, the air felt so fresh that it stung to inhale; being so close to so many redwoods, I can literally taste the difference in the quality of the air.

According to the Kern Economic Development Corporation, Bakersfield is responsible for 10 percent of the nation’s oil and gas production; additionally, the Kern County Farm Bureau recently ranked the county #1 for agricultural production in the US in 2016.

Growing up, it was common to have bad air quality days in school, during which we were to remain indoors for most of the day. Some kids get snow days, but kids in the Central Valley get bad air days. The sky during the sunset on those days was not just blue, but a vibrant mix of pink and purple and blue and orange—my mother used to say it looked like God had made a watercolor painting.

The middle school in my district was across the street from an almond orchard and usually smelled like a dairy in the mornings; my high school was surrounded by corn fields. Dust storms are common, but on one particularly wild occasion, the winds were so fast and the dust was so plentiful that my high school football game was cancelled because no one could see the field.

Most places experience this with snow or rain, but not dust and soil.

My home relies on oil drilling and industrial agriculture, two trades that have the capacity to overwhelm each other due to agriculture’s need for clean water and the potential of oil and natural gas to seep into the groundwater. Neither of these means of surviving are sustainable.

Our leading commodities within agriculture are almonds and dairy, but feeding the country comes at a massive cost for my community. Almonds are terribly wasteful, using an enormous amount of water in an area that is often stricken with drought. Similarly, the many dairy cows release a profusion of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, thus exacerbating the effects of an already changing climate.

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Because these two industries dominate Bakersfield’s economy, many choose a career in one of these fields, and it is common for someone you know to constantly be in a state of economic limbo due to the instability of the oil industry or scarcity of high-paying jobs within agriculture.

Typically, Bakersfield’s conservative voices are its loudest, and they do not see climate change or our dependency on the oil and agriculture industries as a problem. Rather, they praise these industries for allowing the county to be economically prosperous, ignoring the fact that this prosperity is not a constant.

As the city continues to develop, its new homes often feature solar panels, an attempt to make these projects environmentally friendly on their face. However, a more in-depth evaluation quickly shows one that so much new development is also unsustainable, as it continues to eat up more land for commercial use by building out rather than up. This can effectively price out lower-income residents from affording solar power.

Inaccessibility is a substantial problem in the struggle for sustainability, with those most economically disadvantaged often feeling the weight of pollution, and subsequently climate change, most heavily. Yet they are unable to exercise their power as consumers because of their economic situation.

The transition between these two radically different places shows me the dangers of escapism — seeking relief from unpleasant realities, especially by engaging in a fantasy — particularly as it applies to climate change, an issue that is easy to relegate to the abstract. It would have been far too easy for me to move to a place like Santa Cruz from a place like Bakersfield and feel as though all is suddenly well with the world and the environment because I was no longer being directly affected by the pollution caused by the unsustainable industries at home. However, I do think that the change in my surroundings was important for my understanding of the gravity of the situation in Bakersfield — and in many places across the country — and for the expansion of my understanding of what could be in regard to climate justice.

Creating your own radical spaces rather than migrating to well-established ones is crucial. The reality that these industries are doing more to harm us than help us must be addressed, and although this work can seem near impossible, particularly in places like Bakersfield which have been reluctant to change, it is work that needs to be done.