How the Golden State got so green

Brown may be the new green in California during the drought, but a UC Berkeley authority on the politics of health, safety and environmental regulation says the state is, and historically has been, unabashedly green.

Half Dome panoramic

This panoramic view of Yosemite’s Half Dome, as seen from Glacier Point, captures some of the splendor of the valley given to the state for “public use, resort and recreation.” (Photo by David Liu, Wikimedia Commons)

At a conference of the American Political Science Association (APSA) recently in San Francisco, David Vogel, the Solomon P. Lee professor emeritus in business ethics at the Berkeley-Haas School of Business and a professor emeritus of political science, outlined his research on California’s leadership and innovation in environmental policymaking since the 1800s.

That record ranges from regulating gold mining in the state’s early days to protecting trees and passing strict vehicle-emission standards and enacting landmark climate-change legislation more recently.

More than ‘dumb luck’

What makes California so green is much more than “dumb luck,” according to Vogel, who pointed to four key factors that explain the state’s environmental orientation. They include:

  • A natural environmental beauty critical to the state’s identity and appeal as a place to live and work.
  • Substantial environmental threats that could undermine that identity and appeal, as well as the state’s physical and economic health.
  • Influential and well-educated citizens and civic groups with material interests in protecting or restoring the state’s natural environment.
  • Business interests that benefit by safeguarding California’s environment.

Other states are blessed by natural beauty, acknowledged Vogel, but they have historically had lower economic growth and been sparsely populated compared to California. “Having a lot of people matters,” Vogel told his APSA audience, adding that California has long been the most wealthy and populous state in the West.

David Vogel

Author David Vogel (UC Berkeley-Haas School of Business photo)

“What makes California distinctive is both its natural environmental beauty and the vulnerability of that environment to rapid economic development,” he said in his conference paper, “How the Golden State Became Green: Environmental Regulation in California,” a precursor to a forthcoming book.

Costs of environmental damage

The state has long prioritized environmental protection because it had more to lose from environmental deterioration, and more to gain by protecting environmental quality, Vogel continued in his paper.

California’s environmentalist leanings began in a big way 14 years after it achieved statehood. In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln gave the breathtaking Yosemite Valley and an adjacent 60-acre grove of sequoias to the state, on the condition they be set aside for “public use, resort and recreation.”

Vogel noted the 1864 land grant — of an area that quickly became a major state symbol and even a national cultural icon after its “discovery” in 1851 — marked the first time in American history a scenic or wilderness area would be protected from economic development. By contrast, there were no restrictions on economic activities around Niagara Falls, the county’s best-known and most popular natural tourist attraction of the 19th century.

Gold Rush to regulation

The Yosemite designation also marked a shift away from the widespread economic exploitation of the country’s and state’s natural resources, especially during the Gold Rush, which triggered a population boom in California and introduced a newly enhanced, high-pressure hydraulic mining process to extract more Sierra gold than possible with a pick and shovel.

hydraulic mining

Hydraulic mining was an initial aid to the search for gold in California, but a photo of one such operation in Dutch Flat shows its environmental destruction too. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Hydraulic mining also generated an array of dams, reservoirs, tunnels and canals. At the North Bloomfield gold mine in Nevada County, now part of the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, workers built a 150-mile network to funnel a hundred million gallons of water a day.

But mining water cannons created craters and washed away hilltops, and the process created debris and silt that filled rivers with sediment, exacerbated flooding and damaged forests as well as salmon spawning grounds. By 1884, a federal district court in Northern California ordered an end to the dumping of mining debris into rivers, ending hydraulic mining and shutting down many gold mines. 

Business partners

Throughout California history, powerful commercial interests have threatened or severely damaged the state’s environmental attractiveness, said Vogel, but well-educated, middle- and upper-class constituencies as well as business interests have mobilized to keep California on a green path.

As examples, he cited Sacramento Valley farmers who supported stringent environmental regulations to guard against problems associated with gold mining, a coalition of railroads, steamship companies and road-builders who pushed legislation to protect Yosemite and its burgeoning tourism, and growth-oriented Los Angeles business leaders who lobbied for better air quality.

A state of mind

Living in California, according to Vogel, comes with an expectation of enjoying and benefiting from a high level of environmental quality. It also sometimes comes with a front-row seat to visible threats to that environment, such as the gritty air pollution of Los Angeles, destruction of ancient Sequoias, oil rigs dotting beachfronts and bays and infilling of San Francisco Bay.

View of downtown LA

Los Angeles has been among the smoggiest cities in the country, but pollution controls led to much clearer skies in the LA Basin. (Photo by David Illif, Wikimedia Commons)


California residency also comes with awareness that most of the state’s environmental challenges are isolated geographically — such as the air of the Los Angeles basin or the coastal beaches — and cannot be diverted elsewhere or hidden.

“This means that both the costs and benefits of environmental protection are internalized within the state,” he writes. “Accordingly, if its environment was to be protected, it was up to Californians to do so.”

“California’s most important lesson may be the extent to which it has demonstrated that economic growth and environmental protection can reinforce each other,” said Vogel.


  • Authors of a new UC Berkeley study recommend that policymakers interested in making progress on climate change should first build political support by investing in clean-energy industries, before instituting penalties for polluters.
  • A poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies shows Californians support stronger efforts to fight climate change by requiring more electricity to come from renewable resources and cutting gasoline use in half.