There is an important decision coming up in Kern County that tackles a critical "wicked problem." A wicked problem, of course, is what two political scientists, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber titled a poli-social issue that is forever incomplete, contradictory and never requiring just one solution.
California's historic move to ban oil would hit the heart of California, Kern County, the hardest. The step will potentially prepare us for an uncertain environmental future, but will undoubtedly cause considerable and immediate pain for many families across the region.
Oil is derived into many aspects of our quotidian daily life. From how we commute to work each morning and well into our nightly bedtime rituals. One reason why oil has penetrated our collective lifestyles is that we have relied on its relative ease to extract, store and transport. According to the Duke Energy Initiative, Kern County produces more oil than all but three other states (Texas, North Dakota and Alaska) and is responsible for more than 70 percent of California's oil production. Petrol properties also pay appreciable portions into our local government's coffers through the assessment of the property tax. The resource is also nested in many other vital industries in the county, including almighty agriculture.
Many of you, like me, reading this have family or friends that will be directly affected by the state's change in outlook. While a dangerous occupation, the oil industry has provided livable wages to many families in the region, and it has ensured employment continuity in the area. On the flip side, it is also likely your loved ones have already overcome a steady decline in this enterprise. Although the oil rig has become the symbol of our community since oil was "discovered" in 1899, surprisingly, Kern reached its peak production as far back as 1987. Oil field working families have long known the profession is risky with happy highs and dreadful lows. Still, change is difficult, especially when few other states are requesting the same revolution.
Tuesday gave residents and county leaders have a unique opportunity to decide the future of Kern. This meeting marked the beginning of a long-winded conversation that will undoubtedly shape the core of our community character. Immediately, we can measure the success of change by the ability to sustain livable wages and ensure the workforce is enabled with the skills to thrive in this new face of the labor force.
However, the community and the state are not alone. Many cities across the country have taken measurable steps to curtail fracking and oil extraction. Our neighbors in the Northwest, like the state of Oregon, can also teach us some valuable dos and don'ts about diversifying economies away from environmental resource-dependent industries. I suspect the fix lies somewhere between delicate financial transitional support coming from the state and a massive investment in workforce training and education by the county and local governments.
Perhaps doing nothing feels like a less painful choice. Though, let's not be sanguine — doing nothing has already charged lofty fees. Just last year, the state's Water Resource Control Board found oil industry contaminants soiled many water wells in the county. Unfortunately, continuing this practice has already cost us a lack of access to water for many communities across Kern, creating adverse multiplier effects across the valley. This concern becomes more prominent when we consider Kern recently grew $7.2 billion worth of the world's food. If we worry about the quality of life of each other, then we should probably follow an almost knee-jerking saying. Water and oil don't mix, or at least not without some preventable burns when cooked together.
What Kern County and California are embarking on is an uncertain experiment. It will take time before we can reliably know if the risk was worth the sacrifice. While we wait, let's remember change is also a privilege — a new opportunity to ratify our behavior for a livable future. The good news is our communities have the tools to usher in this new philosophical approach to governing and its inverse, living through these wicked problems. Only time will tell, but I do not doubt other states and local governments are intently watching.
Jennifer Martinez is a public policy Ph.D. student studying democratic institutions and civic participation.