Our diversity protects us from calamity

A helicopter is dwarfed by smoke clouds in July while fighting the Sobranes Fire on the northern Big Sur coast, which has become the costliest to fight in U.S. history.
A helicopter is dwarfed by smoke clouds in July while fighting the Sobranes Fire on the northern Big Sur coast, which has become the costliest to fight in U.S. history. The Monterey County Herald

In California, diversity is not just about embracing demographic change. It’s about protection from disaster.

When calamity strikes here, diversity of all kinds keeps bad times from becoming even worse.

The central insight into diversity as protection is biological: A diverse ecosystem – a forest or a neighborhood or an industry – is more resilient because it has more ways to respond to stress. When an ecosystem loses its diversity, you get disasters that are more damaging than those we’ve seen before.

That’s the story behind California’s mega-wildfires, like the Soberanes Fire at Big Sur, which is now the costliest to fight in U.S. history.

Instead of allowing smaller fires to thin and renew our lands, keeping them diverse, we’ve suppressed fires for decades. Now, when the calamities of climate change and drought are upon us, our lands lack protection.

Something similar can happen when disasters strike neighborhoods. The most resilient communities are ones with diverse people of various ages, levels of education and sources of income. When the housing crisis struck California a decade ago, the hardest-hit communities were newer low- and middle-income ones inland whose residents shared a similar socioeconomic profile. Such tracts were all but wiped out by foreclosures, while neighborhoods that mixed retirees with families and young single renters were more likely to muddle through.

At the same time the housing crisis hit, a lack of diversity was making the economic catastrophe even worse in my own profession, journalism. Economic and technological changes (especially the rise of the internet) were going to damage established newspapers and TV stations no matter what. But media outlets made things worse by employing too many of the same kinds of people.

At the papers where I spent my youth – including the Los Angeles Times – editors almost exclusively hired people with journalistic training, and were wary of technologists. In addition, the near absence of racial and ethnic diversity in newsrooms meant that they lacked community allies willing to support them when times got rough.

When you think about how a lack of diversity leaves us exposed to danger, the lesson should hit home. Diversity is not something to be celebrated as a virtuous luxury. It must be developed as a core strategy for survival.

Unfortunately, California is so diverse that we’ve come to take our diversity for granted.

With immigration to California declining, we need to think about renewing our diversity by attracting more people from around the world. In our old-line neighborhoods, we need to stop fighting affordable housing and new developments that bring badly needed diversity.

And we need to stop obsessing about income inequality – which is really just diversity of income – and instead make sure that people with different incomes can afford to stay in California and live and work productively together.

We must stop protecting our highly centralized system of state government, in which Sacramento makes regulatory and tax decisions for us all, and return real control to local governments. And we should fight those who demand ideological purity in our politics.

Biologists say the healthiest ecosystems often have gradual borders of transition, where forests slowly become grasslands. California communities need such spaces too. If your town is divided by a big highway or railroad tracks, build big parks or grocery stores over these divides, to attract people from both sides.

In the meantime, meet new people not like you, move to a different neighborhood and ignore all your like-minded friends on Facebook. You’re not just turning over a new leaf. You’re protecting the forest from a bigger fire.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at