Time magazine this week sees 100 years of dry in the California drought, a condition it says which could get much, much worse. Other reports say it is the worst drought since the 1500s. It is not the first of our American conditions which has gotten much, much worse.

Ten years ago I teamed up with a retired Duke professor, Thomas Naylor, to help him and novelist Carolyn Chute (author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine) declare state-based civil disobedience and state and regional solutions to tragic and unrelenting conditions which had under the federal system these past 250 years cornered us in the place of no return. Naylor said it came to him watching the black poverty surrounding Duke University where my children went to grammar school. The federalization of poverty brought more poverty and danger, with no escape for the children. 


Naylor well saw the problem as two-fold. First, central government had failed disastrously in helping these children in the last 50 years. But this was equally important, and he came to this thinking during the Clinton administration. Naylor was a lifelong liberal who was noted for stretching the boundaries in his career as an economist at Duke. But he had come to understand that liberals and conservatives alike were to blame through party identification and even idolatry that advanced the willful delusion that things would work once we got “our guy” in. Clinton will solve it; Obama will solve it. But they didn’t, and they won’t. And the tragic condition remains through the cultish clinging to party politics and ideology as if to a religion.

Both parties would fail, because both applied the central government solution, and it failed every time because it relieved the locals of the responsibility to amend their own situations. At the beginning of the war on Iraq, Naylor — with advice from economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard chaplain Peter J. Gomes and the great ambassador George Kennan — suggested that citing Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions, Vermont need not participate in the war and started the Second Vermont Republic.

Naylor, who passed away a year ago in December, should be remembered as the father of state-based civil disobedience in the modern era. He was the first, in our times, to awaken to the idea that if people in their own states and regions did not solve their problems, the problems would not get solved.

Every time, no matter what the problem, the same solution will be provided: central government tinkering with a system flawed from the beginning by its own creation. And that is what will happen now in California. There will be vast technical solutions advanced by the federal government, but the problem was inherent from the beginning.

Should Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Southern California have been settled in the first place? It is a desert and clearly there are water problems. But centralized governments — America’s, Russia’s, China’s or anyone’s — can think only in big solutions, like changing the flow or rivers, building aqueducts like the Romans. Should we not run a pipeline to the Southwest from the Great Lakes and drain that?

These are the solutions that make us proud. But in time, they don’t work. And a 500-year drought is as predictable as a Sausalito sunset. Is it too stupid to suggest that we should not go to deserts to live in the first place?

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. For 20 years he has been an amateur farmer, raising Tunis sheep and organic vegetables. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at quigley1985@gmail.com.