California is a crazy dream that has survived more than 150 years of reality. The Golden State has surged ahead of France to become the world's sixth-largest economy. But like a kid that's grown too fast, California still hasn't figured out how to handle the hassles that come along with such rapid growth, including housing shortages, traffic gridlock and rising costs of living. Escapism is always an option here, thanks to Hollywood blockbusters and legalized marijuana dispensaries. But California is coming to grips with its international status and taking leading roles in such global issues as environmental standards, online privacy, marriage equality and immigrant rights.
California Dreams vs Reality
Even after you’ve seen it 1000 times on movies and TV, California still comes as a shock to the system. Venice Beach skateboarders, Santa Cruz hippies, Rodeo Dr poseurs and Silicon Valley billionaires aren’t on different channels here – this is their natural habitat. California is all over the map politically: by turns liberal and conservative, Californians have also cultivated a certain wackiness that blurs party lines. California's long track record of conspiracy theories and fringe movements can only partly be explained by the state's legendary fondness for marijuana, legalized here in 2017.
Californians may not seem to have much in common, but they're not afraid to take controversial stances on issues affecting their communities. California's trailblazing support for LGBT rights was instrumental in securing marriage equality in 2013. With first- and second-generation immigrants making up more than half the state's population, Californians vocally opposed federal immigration bans by nationality and religion in 2017. Even under threat of federal defunding, Californians continue to march, file lawsuits and support passing a statewide sanctuary law to ensure that all are welcome here.
California’s culture of conspicuous consumption is world famous, thanks to soda-shilling Hollywood movies and reality TV stars who have spawned entire butt-padding industries. But ever since John Muir established the Sierra Club in the 19th century, many Californians have deliberately sought out a more sustainable way of life. In the midst of lumber and oil booms, Californians helped kick-start the world’s conservation movement. They passed trailblazing laws curbing industrial dumping, set aside swaths of prime real estate as urban green space, and protected California wilderness as national, state and county parks.
Over the years since, California has become fertile ground for radical new ecological schemes. California's eco-activists have declared nuclear-free zones, held marathon tree-sitting vigils to preserve old-growth forests, and established the USA’s biggest market for hybrid vehicles. But ordinary Californians have also taken green initiatives home, becoming early adopters of organic farming, green construction methods, plastic-bag bans and mandatory composting. The Golden State's green movement has become so mainstream that even flashy Hollywood stars and celebrity-politicians such as 'Governator' Arnold Schwarzenegger now back environmental issues. No wonder over 60% of Californians admit that, yes, they’ve actually hugged a tree.
Fast Companies, Slow Food
Perhaps you've heard of PCs, iPhones, Google and the internet? Then California’s technological innovations need no introduction. Between Silicon Valley and biotech, Northern California is rapidly overtaking Southern California’s gargantuan entertainment industry as California's main economic engine – and the self-driving car is already in the works. While building the infrastructure for the AI-enabled Internet of Things, multitasking Silicon Valley pioneers are also busy laying the the groundwork for online ethics, including net neutrality, data privacy and online civil liberties through the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Less than 10% of Californians live in rural areas, but they sustain California's other powerhouse industry: agriculture. Each year, 80,000 Californian farms raise $42 billion worth of food, including specialty produce that has changed American diets and created new food cravings worldwide. Climate change and drought are top of mind for many Californians, but especially farmers and foodies.
You may notice that Californians seem downright religious about their food. They proselytize about their diets, worship star chefs and ritually photograph dishes before they take a single bite. Sounds ludicrous – but after a few bites, you may begin to understand the obsession. Local menus reflect values close to many Californians' hearts: organic and non-GMO farming, protections against animal cruelty, sustainable natural-process winemaking, fair-trade coffee and support for small local businesses. Californians coined the term ‘locavore’ – people who eat food grown locally – and once you've tasted the difference for yourself, you may become California's newest convert.
New World Religions
Though they may not have many followers outside their yurt villages, California’s alternative religions and utopian communities have long captivated the popular imagination. Since its inception California has been a magnet for spiritual seekers, from modern-day pagans to new-age healers. Many Californians have pursued quiet contemplation, forming the largest Zen communities outside Japan and establishing Quaker silent-retreat centers in the redwoods.
But California is better known for making sensational headlines in the 1960s and '70s with hippie spiritualism, primal scream therapy, Jim Jones’ ill-fated People’s Temple, and Erhard Seminars Training (EST) hype-heavy self-help movement. Founded in 1954, the controversial Church of Scientology has attracted converts with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Californian doomsday cults caused commotions in the 1990s with the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult in San Diego, and again when Oakland radio minister Harold Camping proselytized that the Rapture was imminent. That was back in 2011 – perhaps it's a miracle we survived. So there's still time to find religion, or invent your own in California.