Turning Green into Gold

New book details how California has prospered by embracing environmental regulations

Turning Green into Gold

California was founded on the most environmentally destructive industry of its era—hydraulic gold mining—and its towering redwoods and rich oil fields soon attracted a stampede of profiteers.

So why was it, in the face of such powerful economic incentives to plunder its natural resources, that the state became the nation’s environmental leader?

That’s the question Prof. Emeritus David Vogel set out to answer in his new book, California Greenin’: How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader (Princeton University Press). It’s the first comprehensive account of the forces and feuds that shaped California’s longstanding environmental leadership.

The book’s timing is apropos: The Trump administration is rolling back environmental regulations on the grounds that they’re a burden on business. Yet Vogel points out that California has long been on the front edge of environmental regulation–protecting coasts and forests, restricting oil drilling, and enacting the country’s most ambitious climate change regulation–and has also been the nation’s richest state since 1971.

It is, on balance, a remarkable success story. “There are gaps, but California proves you can combine environmental protection and economic growth,” Vogel says.

An expert on international environmental regulation, Vogel says he was surprised when he delved deeply into the reasons behind the state’s green streak. Environmental wins are often cast as a triumph of citizens and regulators over business interests, but in California, business support has been critical.

“Without business backing, California regulatory laws would, without a doubt, be much weaker,” says Vogel, the Soloman P. Lee Professor Emeritus of Business Ethics. “One of the things that was most striking to me was the importance of a politically divided business community, and how often some influential businesses found that they could benefit by protecting the state’s environmental quality.”

For example, steamship and railroad companies served as powerful allies for Yosemite and the Sierra’s sequoias—which they recognized as valuable tourist attractions. They pushed for Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to became the first federally protected wilderness in 1864, and later, to expand the size of the national parks in the Sierras.

When smog threatened to obscure Los Angeles’ growing glamour, it was the real estate community that helped fight for pollution controls beginning in the 1940s. In 1964 California passed the world’s first emissions standards for motor vehicle pollutants, and in 1967, business interests helped the state win out over the Detroit auto industry to enact emission regulations that were stricter than the federal government’s (an exemption now threatened by the Trump administration).

Vogel also details the extent to which regulation has benefited business, even opening up new industries. California is now the nation’s leader in solar energy and in electric vehicle adoption, and Silicon Valley venture capitalists have invested billions in clean tech.

Vogel, who has made the state home since 1973, says the research was a personal eye-opener. In the ace of planet-changing environmental threats, he says California is more important than ever as a model for how states can lead the way on protecting their natural resources.