Category: Excerpts

Excerpts

Twenty-First-Century Sublime

by Amy Scott

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

“The word ‘nature’ is a notorious semantic and metaphysical trap.” —Leo Marx¹

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Amy Scott’s essay”Twenty-First-Century Sublime” from our Fall 2014 issue. 

On the Merced River, Albert Bierstadt. Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

Tension between the desire to experience nature in its unadulterated form and the urge to exploit it for material gain has long been at the center of landscape painting in the American West. This is especially true in California, where spectacular examples of both natural and built environments often exist in close temporal and geographic proximity. Here, you can begin your day on a remote stretch of the Pacific coast and within the hour be watching Chinese shipping containers unload in the Port of Los Angeles; you can take in the sunrise over suburban San Fernando Valley and the sunset in Yosemite National Park.

The connection between these places is as much about the conceptual as it is the geographical, however. Whereas nineteenth-century artists projected visions of the “Golden State” as a faraway place flush with natural resources, California’s landscape today is less exotic and more closely entwined with human industry. Yet far from rendering previous methods of depicting the landscape obsolete, contemporary artists are using historical practices and conventions to convey contemporary experience. The influence of the classic California landscape has not waned, but rather evolved.

Of the traditional methods for representing California’s natural environment, perhaps none has enjoyed more staying power than the sublime. This is due in part to the multivalent, flexible nature of the concept itself. The American sublime emerged in the late eighteenth century but underwent a significant transformation in response to the opening of western lands following the Civil War. What once represented a fear of the unknown became a more distinctly market-based interest in expansion. Shifting the mood of landscape art away from a solemn meditation on nature’s mystery to a more passive contemplation of its development potential, the New York–based painter Albert Bierstadt asked his audience not to fear the wilderness but to look hopefully toward a bicoastal future.²

Indeed, paintings such as On the Merced River rejected metaphysical interpretations of nature in favor of the rationalist logic of survey science (Bierstadt accompanied the Lander Survey to the Rocky Mountains in 1859) and thus encouraged a more tangible connection to the West as a place. This is reflected in Bierstadt’s work both in the easy visual access he provides to deep space as well as in his tightly painted foreground fauna, which caused critics to marvel.

As Bierstadt’s career suggests, the sublime is not a fixed concept but one that draws upon contemporary ideas of nature to respond to external changes—including developments in technology—that shape the ways in which we imagine both the natural and the built environment in relation to ourselves. An aesthetic formula designed to elicit an emotional response to an apparently natural vision, the sublime has been reconfigured in the postmodern era as a means of naturalizing the presence of technology within the contemporary landscape. Consider, for example, the aesthetic proximity between Bierstadt’s version of Yosemite and Michael Light’s large-scale photographs of San Pedro. The former is a preindustrial ideal, the latter a fully realized commercial setting dominated by the machinery of international shipping. Both evoke an ambitious sense of scale drawn from singular vantage points: Bierstadt’s oft-used magisterial view and Light’s aerial perspective; both use receding diagonals to create a sense of deep space and visual command; both are cleared of human presence, reinforcing the independent nature of the systems at work within them. Painted shortly after the close of the Civil War, Bierstadt’s On the Merced River anticipates California’s future as the gateway to Pan-Pacific commerce. Light’s San Pedro fully consummates that vision by the shipping containers stretching endlessly toward the horizon.

The technological continuum between Bierstadt’s Yosemite and Light’s San Pedro, between the Romantic era and today, is more than superficial. In Bierstadt’s painting, technology—though not visible—is implied throughout the composition. Survey science is there, in the carefully painted, highly detailed foreground topography. A sense of materialism and accumulation is there, too, in the vignette of natural wonders on display, especially the ample timber supplies represented by the forest. Although Bierstadt does not directly reference the coming industrial landscape, he nevertheless anticipates it. In its perfectly ordered scene of natural abundance, his On the Merced River speaks powerfully to nationalist expectations of postwar economic growth and progress.

Light’s San Pedro shares this sense of mastery over the natural world and a seemingly unshakeable faith in America as a geopolitical powerhouse. There is, however, a darker aspect to the fully realized technocratic state as depicted in Light’s work. In his San Pedro, one of several photographs of the Port of Los Angeles bound together in an oversize folio, a literal sea of commodities expands across the image, bleeding past its borders. Visually organized by its dense grid of intersecting lines, the photograph combines the realism of immense amounts of surface detail with the aerial, all-encompassing perspective of the map. Light requires not only a wide-angle lens but also a plane to produce these photographs (Light has had his pilot’s license since age sixteen)—images that elicit a sense of wonder in the face of a totalizing spectacle of technologic power, a “techno-euphoria,” as some scholars have called it.³

Rancho San Pedro 04.28.06: Evergreen Container Terminal Looking Southeast, Terminal Island; Exxon Mobil Facility At Left, Michael Light. Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles.

Light’s visual embrace of heavy industry is intended to be both awesome and beautiful. Yet for all the dynamics of order and control that pervade his technocratic landscapes, they also resonate with an element of “terror at the power and progress of industrialization,”4 in which the scales threaten to tip from order to the chaos of industry run amok.5

Bridges, James Doolin. Courtesy of the Estate of James Doolin and Koplin Del Rio Gallery.

 

Mulholland Above Universal City, Los Angeles, California, Karen Halverson. Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles.

 

Notes

1 Leo Marx, “The Idea of Nature in America,” Daedulus 137:2 (Spring 2008): 9.

2 The “transcendental sublime” was coined by Earl Powell in his essay “Luminism and the American Sublime,” in John Wilmerding, ed., American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1980), 69–94. See also Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 1995, 2007).

3 See Rob Wilson, “Techno-Euphoria and the Discourse of the Sublime,” boundary 2 19:1 (Spring 1992): 208.

4 Ibid., 207.

5 For more on the idea of horror and the banal as related to Los Angeles, see Cécile Whiting, “The Sublime and the Banal in Postwar Photography of the American West,” American Art, 27:2 (Summer 2013): 51.

Excerpts

Mapping Our Disconnect

by Kristin Miller

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

On the transit system we have, not the one we might have had, or wish we had

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Kristin Miller’s essay “Mapping our Disconnect” from our Summer 2014 issue. 

Maps have power. They can make the illegible legible and the invisible visible. They can make the obvious even more obvious and the impossible seem possible.

When Stamen Design mapped the routes of the private buses that ferry techies between their homes in San Francisco and their jobs in Silicon Valley for the 2012 Zero1 Biennial, the aesthetic choice to render the map as a transit-system schematic made an open secret within San Francisco obvious to the world. The city is becoming a suburb of the Silicon Valley suburbs.

The “Google buses” had had the aura of urban myth since they began running in 2006. There was a vague sense of their increasing presence, but little knowledge about how many of the large, unmarked motorcoaches blended in with the tourist traffic on city streets. San Francisco’s transit authorities requested Stamen’s data because they were unsure how many tech buses were using city bus stops to pick up and drop off workers. The “Google bus” was mentioned in jealous wonder by those without a free, comfy commute, and more angrily when the arrival of the buses began to be implicated in ever-higher rents in city neighborhoods or when their outsize bulk bottomed out on San Francisco’s precipitous hills.

In a piece in The London Review of Books shortly after the appearance of Stamen’s map, Rebecca Solnit appropriated a geek-world in-joke from “The Simpsons,” dubbing the buses the “the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.” But she and many others were not ready to welcome them. The buses had become a synecdoche—a part that symbolized the whole, like the crown signifies the monarch—for all the ways that the most recent tech boom was altering San Francisco.

In 2012 Stamen Design mapped the routes of the private buses that ferry techies between San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

MAP COURTESY OF STAMEN DESIGN.

With a plan in hand that showed not only where the buses stopped but how often, San Franciscans suddenly had a sense of the impact of the tech shuttles. By adding width to the lines to convey the volume of riders, the map also showed the scale of the problem, using a venerable graphic technique famously used by Charles Joseph Minard to chart Napoleon’s campaign against Russia and eventual retreat with a much diminished army. By compressing the routes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo!, and eBay into a single visualization, Stamen’s design made it possible to argue that these routes in fact constituted a de facto transit system using city bus stops to move tens of thousands of people each day. In fact, Marty Lev, Google’s vice president of safety, security, and transportation, had said back in 2007, when the Google buses carried only 1,200 employees daily: “We are basically running a small municipal transit agency.”

A debate now rages over whether the buses should be permitted and taxed by the city. Tech bus stops in San Francisco and Oakland have been hit by direct action protests. A decision to charge the bus operators a $1-per-stop fee for using 200 approved city bus stops temporarily quieted the protests, but not the ill feelings.

The argument over the buses and the change they represent often breaks down into pro- and anti-tech camps, with personal attacks against the culture of tech workers or protestors, as embodied in a recent piece of street theater where a protestor playing a techie belligerently told those blocking a Google bus to “get a better job,” or the all-too-real comments made by former AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman that San Francisco is “grotesque” and “overrun by. . .drug dealers, dropouts, and trash.”

What’s really at stake—and what is foregrounded by visualizing the presence of the buses as Stamen did—is a failure of belief in the city as a commons, a city that supports existing residents and new arrivals by integrating them into the collective spaces and systems perhaps best represented by public transportation. That there are entire networks of free transit options available to only some of the city’s wealthiest residents cannot help but create tension, especially against a background of skyrocketing housing costs and a wave of no-fault evictions.

Excerpts

Bring the World to California

by John Aubrey Douglass, Richard Edelstein and Cecile Hoareau

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

A global hub for higher education.

The world is thirsty for higher education. International talent continues to seek access to colleges and universities in the United States, and particularly in California, which boasts a pioneering higher education system with global brand-name appeal that is unmatched by any other state—indeed any other nation. Yet California, and the United States in general, are underperforming when compared to our economic rivals in terms of the percentage of international students we have enrolled in our higher education institutions.

At the same time, California’s public higher education system has suffered dramatic long-term cuts in public funding, creating unprecedented financial challenges and threatening its ability to grow in enrollment and academic programs required to keep pace with the state’s growing population.¹

California, and the world in general, are also confronted by a long-term projected shortage of people with advanced educations, including engineers, managers, and decision-makers trained in science, technology, engineering, and math needed to sustain knowledge-driven economies. California, like other major economies, always should be looking for ways to boost regional economic activity. International students already represent a significant positive cash flow to the communities in which they live and learn.

These circumstances pose a tremendous opportunity. In the following, we propose and discuss the idea of developing a coherent strategy related to attracting and enrolling significantly more international students by establishing one or more regional-based “California Higher Education Hubs.” California’s EdHub would voluntarily link a regional set of universities and colleges to help recruit, enroll, and provide support services, such as housing, for talented international students. At first, an EdHub might include a set of five to ten institutions in a region, offering degree programs in fields that have international demand, or possibly in a sequential mode between, say, a community college and a private, bachelor’s degree–granting college or a local California State University campus. It would require a minimal investment by universities and colleges, along with some form of “joint venture” capital from local governments and business sectors that would gain the most from the talent and business activity generated.

One goal is to expand California’s capacity to enroll talent from throughout the world, in part to support California’s economy; but another equally important goal is to help formulate a funding model that, as demonstrated in other parts of the world, generates new revenue to help subsidize and expand access to higher education for native Californians. Even with an improved economy and projections of a state budget surplus for the first time since the Great Recession, there are few indicators that California’s government will make any significant new investment in public higher education. We need revenue growth for California’s still cash-starved public higher education system.

The California EdHub idea is about the money, but it is also about solidifying California and metropolitan regions such as the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego as global talent magnets, further elevating the state as a global actor with both economic and, as we will discuss here, humanitarian benefits—and it is achievable.

boom.2014.4.1.54-f06

The most competitive economies in the world will be those that both nurture and develop native and international talent from throughout the globe. These are not mutually exclusive goals. Higher education and its two primary outputs—talent and new knowledge—are recognized worldwide as major contributors to regional economic growth, and they are the primary indicators of future national prosperity, so it’s no surprise that our hub concept is a California twist on an idea already being tested elsewhere around the world.

Clearly recognizing that the global market of international students is growing rapidly, China, Singapore, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Malaysia, and a number of cities in the European Union have all launched highly publicized efforts to create “world-class universities” and higher education hubs in cities or regions over the past decade. Largely inspired by the experience of the San Francisco Bay Area in demonstrating the power of using prestigious research universities, such as Stanford and Berkeley, as key resources and partners in creating new knowledge-intensive industries and enterprises, these nations have launched their own new higher-education “hotspots.” These efforts usually leverage large investments of public and private funds to attract leading research universities from the United States and Europe to locate satellite campuses or facilities in foreign countries.

These global hubs for higher education represent a new competitive force in the global market for talented people. Higher education administrators and scholars are curious and concerned about the sustainability of these new and rapidly expanding initiatives. Many are currently functioning with large government or private sector subsidies. Will that continue? Will international student demand ebb?

One recent report estimates that world demand for international higher education will increase from 1.8 million in 2002 to 7.2 million or more in 2025 as countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, South Korea, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia grow economically and struggle to meet domestic demand for high-quality, advanced education.² International students are already a major stimulus to the US economy. American colleges and universities enroll over 800,000 international students. These students paid tuition and fees estimated at a total of $13 billion during the 2009–2010 academic year. Add in housing and other living costs and the direct total economic impact of international students is nearly $19 billion a year. The real economic impact is likely much larger than this, if indirect impacts such as job creation and additional potential for international business ventures are included. While those numbers may sound large, only about 3 percent of undergraduates in accredited colleges and universities in the United States are international students. This compares to over 10 percent in a similar grouping of European nations.³ Even in graduate education, top providers in Europe have a higher number and higher percentage of foreign students—over 28 percent versus 24 percent in the United States. International student numbers continue to grow in American universities and colleges, but those numbers are growing faster in other parts of the world.

Americans are used to the idea that we draw talent to our universities and colleges from throughout the world, in turn helping to create the highly skilled labor pool essential for high-tech and other industries. The United States has done this for decades, in large part because of the reputation of our existing higher education institutions and also because the nation is known as a land of immigrants, open to those who can come and contribute to its economy and society. But that comparative advantage is eroding, as world demand for higher education continues to climb, driven by the insatiable desire for socioeconomic mobility of individuals and by governments that widely recognize that broad access to higher education and the production of degrees at the baccalaureate, professional, and doctoral level are primary factors for economic development.

Lawmakers and business leaders in the United States need to better understand the global market position of our higher education institutions. Of all America’s exports, higher education is one of the service sectors with the most potential for growth. It is, however, also an industry in need of a larger global view. When administrators look at the bigger picture, they will see that global competition is gaining rapidly. As universities elsewhere in the world are improving their quality and marketing, and as governments expand programs intended to draw the world’s pool of talented and increasingly mobile young people, California—and the United States—has been underperforming at the undergraduate level, and our strength in enrolling foreign students in graduate programs has become less competitive.

Notes

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF KENT KANOUSE AND GLENN BELTZ.

1 See John Aubrey Douglass, “Can We Save the College Dream?: The Death and Life of California’s Public Universities,” Boom: A Journal of California Vol. 1, Number 2, pps 25–42, http://www.boomcalifornia.com/; also John Aubrey Douglass, “To Grow or Not to Grow? A Post-Great Recession Synopsis of the Political, Financial, and Social Contract Challenges Facing the University of California,” Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS), Center for Studies in Higher Education, CSHE.15.13 (December 2013): http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/grow-or-not-grow-post-great-recession-synopsis-political-financial-and-social-contract.

2 A. Bohm, et al., The Global Student Mobility 2025 Report: Forecasts of the Global Demand for International Education (Canberra, Australia, 2002).

3 John A. Douglass and Richard Edelstein, “The Global Competition for Talent: The Rapidly Changing Market for International Students and the Need for a Strategic Approach in the US,” CSHE Research and Occasional Paper Series (ROPS), CSHE.8.2009, October 2009: http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/publications.php? id=341; A shorter version of this paper was published in Change magazine, July/August 2009. On recent data regarding international graduate students in the United States, see Sarah King Head, “US: Chinese Help Spur Modest Graduate Increase,” University World News, 10 November 2010: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20101110133853841.

Excerpts

Bajalta California

by Michael Dear

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

The border that divides brings us together.

The United States–Mexico borderlands are among the most misunderstood places on Earth. The communities along the line are far distant from the centers of political power in the nations’ capitals. They are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with hybrid loyalties. Historically, since the borderline was drawn between the two countries, Texas border counties have been among the poorest regions in both countries. Those in New Mexico and Arizona were sparsely populated agricultural and mining districts; and in the more affluent west, Baja California was always more closely connected to California than to Mexico. Nowadays, border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. They are places of economic dynamism, teeming contradiction, and vibrant political and cultural change.

Mutual interdependence has always been the hallmark of cross-border lives. After the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo settled the Mexican-American War, a series of binational “twin towns” sprang up along the line, developing identities that are sufficiently distinct as to warrant the collective title of a “third nation,” snugly slotted in the space between the two host countries. At the western-most edge of this third nation is the place I call “Bajalta California.”¹

The international boundary does not divide the third nation but instead acts as a connective membrane uniting it. This way of seeing the borderlands runs counter to received wisdom, which regards the border as the last line of national defense against unfettered immigration, rapacious drug cartels, and runaway global terrorism. It is a viewpoint that substitutes continuity and coexistence in place of sovereignty and difference.

In 2002, I began traveling the entire length of the US-Mexico border, on both sides, from Tijuana/San Diego on the Pacific Ocean, to Matamoros/Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a total of 4,000 miles. I voyaged in the footsteps of giants. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado came this way. Generals Santa Anna and Zachary Taylor fought important battles for these lands during the Mexican-American War.

US-Mexico Boundary Survey Map, 1853, Tijuana section. Image courtesy of Linea Divisoria Entre Mexico Y Los Estados Unidos, Colección Límites México-EEUU, Carpeta No. 4, Lámina No. 54; Autor: José Salazar Ilárregui, Año 1853. Mapoteca ‘Manuel Orozco y Berra’, Servicio de Información Estadistica Agroalimentaria y Pesquera, SARGAPA. Digital restoration by Tyson Gaskill.

What began as an impulsive journey of discovery was rapidly overtaken by events. I had the good (and bad) fortune to begin before the United States undertook the fortification of its southern boundary, and so I became an unintentional witness to the border’s closure, an experience that altered my understanding of the two countries. My experiences of the in-between third nation provide a powerful rejoinder to those who would relegate the borderlands to the status of surrogate battlefield against migrants, narcotraficantes, and terrorists.

In his 1787 biography of Fray Junípero Serra, Francisco Palóu included a map of the first administrative division of Baja and Alta California, indicating the Spanish allocation of mission territories between Franciscans to the north and the Dominicans to the south. That border was recognized on 2 February 1848, when a “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement” was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo, thereby terminating the Mexican-American War, which had begun in 1846 and was regarded by many (including Ulysses S. Grant) as a dishonorable action on the part of the United States. Article V of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (as it came to be called) required the designation of a “boundary line with due precision, upon authoritative maps, and to establish upon the ground landmarks which shall show the limits of both republics.” The line would extend from the mouth of the deepest channel of the Rio Grande (known in Mexico as the Río Bravo del Norte); up river to “the town called Paso” (present-day El Paso/Ciudad Juárez); from thence overland to the Gila River, and down the channel of the Colorado River; after which it would follow the administrative division between Upper (Alta) California and Lower (Baja) California to the Pacific Ocean.²

Ancient boundary monument No. XVI was a simple pile of stones, early 1850s. From Jacobo Blanco’s Memoria de la Sección Mexicana de la Comisión Internacional de Límites entre México y los Estados Unidos que Restableció los Monumentos de El Paso al Pacífico. 1901.

 

In a multivolume history of the American West, historian Carl Wheat refers disparagingly to the post-war boundary survey as the stuff that “dime novels” are made of. To justify this characterization, he invokes yarns about political intrigue, deaths from starvation and yellow fever, struggles for survival in the desert, and the constant threat of violent attacks by Indians and filibusters. He also complained that the US field surveys seem to have been plagued by acrimony and personal vendetta: “if ever a mapping enterprise in the American West was cursed by politics, interdepartmental rivalries, and personal jealousies, it was the Mexican Boundary Survey.”³

It’s true that the letters, diaries, and official memoranda by individuals on the US team portray just about every American participant as a scoundrel or self-promoter. Yet to me the boundary survey is a story of heroism, skill, and endurance of epic proportions. It might lack the glamour of war, or the grandeur of Lewis and Clark’s opening of the lands west of the Mississippi in the early 1800s, but the survey is one of the greatest episodes in US and Mexican geopolitical history. It remains deeply etched in the everyday lives of both nations. Dime novel it most certainly is not; it is more a narrative of nation-building centered in American President James K. Polk’s vision of territorial hegemony extending as far as the Pacific Ocean, with all its momentous consequences.

 

This marble monument marks the first point established by the boundary survey following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the late nineteenth century the original marble monument was renovated and fenced to prevent vandalism. From Jacobo Blanco’s Vistas de los Monumentos a lo Largo de la Línea Divisoria entre México y los Estados Unidos de El Paso al Pacífico. 1901.

Notes

1 The toponym is my amalgam of the territorial names adopted by the Spanish colonialists for Baja (Lower) and Alta (Upper) California. Parts of this essay are adapted from Michael Dear, Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide (Oxford University Press, 2013), where more complete citations may be found.

2 Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 187–188.

3 Carl I. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, 1540–1861. vol. 3, From the Mexican War to the Boundary Surveys, 1846–1854 (San Francisco: Institute of Historical Cartography, 1959), 208–209.

Excerpts

What Is Sustainable?

by Miriam Greenberg

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Toward critical sustainability studies.

Editor’s Note: This is only an excerpt from Miriam Greenberg’s article. 

Sustainability is a futuristic, even utopian, project par excellence. As with all utopian projects, sustainability offers a vision of the future to galvanize us to imagine our world otherwise and engage in the work necessary to change it.

Sustainability asks us to define those things of greatest value in our present that ought to be sustained in order to achieve this utopian vision of the future. Simultaneously, it forces us to consider those things that are not of value, and should not be sustained. Sustainability is thus a striking example of the power and limits of utopian ideals.

This dream of a sustainable future, in all its complexity is deeply rooted in California. Sustainability is now a global discourse. But California has played an out-sized role over the last century in promoting the discourse, as well as in embodying sustainability in the eyes of the world. This has especially been the case in California’s most famous green zone, the Bay Area, which has been at the forefront of eco-oriented lifestyles, cultural experiments, and politics for over a half century.¹

Wildflower mural in Union City by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

Indeed, the Bay Area is often imagined as the heartland of “ecotopia.” Ernest Callenbach coined the term in his 1975 cult novel of the same name, in which an Edenic Northern California, with San Francisco as its capital and the Sierra Nevada as its defensible border, has seceded from the rest of the nation. Ecotopia helped establish a futurist mythos in which sustainability is identifiably Californian, and California itself becomes less a place than an ideal—one that others around the world can only dream of attaining.²

This ecotopian vision has had remarkably wide and enduring influence. Given the global cultural, media, and economic influence of California, as well as the dramatic natural attributes of the West Coast, sustainability projects hatched in the Golden State have had something of a branding advantage.³ Green Californian vistas have been reimagined through advertising, product design, regional vision plans, lifestyle magazines, architectural experiments, films, and literature. They have also had a profound impact on modern, eco-oriented organizations and social movements—from the Sierra Club to the alternative food movement—that remain associated with the state’s unique landscape and supposedly unique state of mind.

This has had the effect of reifying a dominant vision of sustainability, providing authentically “Californian” images, experiences, faces, and products to ground this inherently abstract notion, and has thereby solidified the state’s reputation—and in particular iconic cities, regions, and landscapes—as the spatial and cultural embodiments of our sustainable future. California, and especially Northern California, have become a sustainable mecca to make pilgrimage to, gain inspiration from, and seek to emulate.

If Northern California is cast as the capital of our sustainable imaginary, Southern California is its inverse: a dystopian nightmare of sprawl, smog, and reckless overconsumption. Ecotopia‘s promised land was based on a regional binary of North/South, with the dividing line drawn somewhere below San Jose. The Central Valley, meanwhile, is erased altogether. As explored through Kristin Miller’s photo essay in this volume, this binary has been rooted in, and an inspiration for, science fiction fantasies of film, television, and literature since the 1960s, preoccupied as this genre has been with the prospect of imminent environmental and social collapse.

Photograph by Mona Caron.

To scholars of utopia, this juxtaposition of expansive dreams and rigid boundaries will be familiar. For as with all utopian projects, visions of sustainability are both vitally hopeful and frought with contradictions. Collective “wish images” of our idealized future have long been presented as universal and all-inclusive across lines of class, race, and geography, while also drawing boundaries that exclude. They have been portrayed as monolithic and consensual, while necessarily being shaped by multiple and often competing imaginings. And while appearing as visions of an ideal future world, these visions are inevitably cobbled together from past experiences and ways of knowing, which themselves go unacknowledged.4

In everyday life, these contradictions lead to real dilemmas for all of us working in the field of sustainability—as teachers, scholars, practitioners, activists, and citizens. As urgent as our current situation is, and as pressing as our desire is to push for a sustainable future now, if we are to overcome these dilemmas we first need to step back and ask some very basic questions about the nature of our goal. Namely, what is to be sustained and what is not? And who gets to choose and who does not?

Upon trying to answer these simple questions, one soon realizes the inherently political nature of the pursuit of sustainability. The complexity of these politics assert themselves even though—perhaps especially because—sustainability’s adherents and promoters tend to view and present the concept as so common sense and unquestionably good as to be “post-political.”5

This is an alluring proposition—who doesn’t want to sustain something, and who doesn’t want their ideal future to be easily achieved? Moreover, any argument against sustainability can seem like one for the forces of the apocalypse. Yet, seeking answers to these questions, one sees that in fact sustainability is neither simple nor singular. Rather, multiple sustainabilities are in circulation, and in competition. What’s more, these different versions reflect the particular values of the individuals, communities, industries, cities, nations, and so on, that are in position to define the term. Hence, the sustainable future we seek to build depends entirely upon whose sustainability we are talking about.

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El Camino mural in Hillsdale by Mona Caron. Image courtesy of the artist.

Notes

Image at top by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

1 Richard Walker, The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

2 Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (Berkeley: Bantam Tree Books, 1975).

3 For example, see Abraham F. Lowenthal, Global California: Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) and the program in Global Californian Studies at UC San Diego: http://globalcalifornia.ucsd.edu/.

4 My approach to the study of utopian ideas is particularly influenced by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. For analysis of Benjamin’s concept of dialectical “wish images,” see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), chap. 5. For critical theories of utopia, see David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

5 On the “post-political” uses of sustainability discourse, see Erik Swyngedouw, “The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33 (2009): no. 3, 601–620; and Melissa Checker, “Wiped Out by the Greenwave: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” City and Society 23 (2011): no. 2, 210–229.

Excerpts

The Future of Futurism

by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

A view from the garden, looking to the stars.

“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Once California was, in the eyes of invaders arriving by ship, horseback or wagon, something like pure future into which they carried their past. I’m not standing on some Marin County promontory overlooking the Pacific as I think these thoughts, gazing out at the horizon line the ocean forms with the sky. I’m sitting in a place remade at great cost to resemble the past of other places: the Japanese and Chinese gardens at the Huntington Library outside Los Angeles. The brilliant green stands of bamboo glimpsed through an imported Japanese gate remind me of all the world history that money and immigration have brought here over the years, all the works of art and architecture, all the music and languages, all the traditions, as if Californians have been desperately trying to keep up with the past at the same time as their eyes were supposedly fixed on the future.

In previous generations, California served as a geographic focus of “Go West!” optimism, and California currently enjoys what we might call a “futures boom,” offering opportunities to thinkers and dreamers who imagine decades and centuries ahead. The new devices of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs set off instant reverberations throughout our networked world even before they are real. Their visions of the future are praised or, just as often, mocked by a public that’s struggling to deal with a present infused with an insistent future. But sitting here in the garden at the Huntington, I want to take a deep breath and think through this frantic futurism, for the key to understanding and coming to terms with this rush to the future, I believe, lies in the past, in the history of futurism. This “futures boom,” after all, has been going on for decades now in California and is now merely taking on new forms.

Most people with a professional interest in the future talk about it with care, partly out of fear of being associated with bearded Methuselahs announcing the immanent end of the world. Even in California there has always been something “fringe” about displaying excessive optimism or fear for things to come. But futurism in California has enjoyed increasingly frequent and successful bids for mainstream attention. The rise of organized and professionalized forms of futurism, beginning in the 1960s, was coeval with the rise of the computer and consumer electronics industries. Along with the acceleration of technological progress, we’ve seen a commensurate increase in the volume of tech-talk and futures-talk. Ideas with their roots in technology are deployed to address nontechnological concerns. Consider the terms “hacker” and “to hack”: as recently as the 1990s, they carried associations with the criminal violation of government or corporate computers, but now are thrown around beyond Silicon Valley to conjure cleverness and the ability to solve problems either digital or analog. Entrepreneurs searching for talent hold “hack-a-thons”; activists speak of “hacking” democracy, and they mean opening up new avenues for participation within it, rather than rigging elections. Hacking enjoys a vernacular association with breaking the symbolic “code of the world” and clearing a path toward innovation.

The temporal future itself is “virtual reality” in the most literal of senses, and whether we imagine ourselves rushing toward it or it rushing toward us is an individual matter. In the sense that we all think about our personal futures and the futures of our communities, futurism is everyone’s constant and quotidian practice. But futurism as I use the term in this essay means a professional interest in helping people think creatively about the risks and opportunities ahead. Sometimes this means selling them a particular vision of the future; and sometimes, more laudably, in my view, it means “the liberation of people’s insights.”

There are experts and consultants who offer predictions, forecasts, and scenarios to help us understand where a given financial market, environmental crisis, or technology trend may be headed, and others who make it their job—sometimes, notably by writing science fiction—to imagine entirely different worlds ten, twenty, or a hundred years in the future. While talking about climate change is technically just as much a form of futurism as talking about robots, the term is most conventionally used to mean conversations about technological progress and the way it could reshape society, for good or for ill. This may simply be due to money. Predictions about the future of technology have substantial financial implications; and, indeed, this dimension of futurism resonates with one prominent element in California’s history, the promise of quick wealth by capitalizing on a newly discovered resource. Futurism is many things, but its California variation often plays between the promise of the boom and the fear of the bust (sometimes, a refusal to accept the reality of busts). The anxious desire to be part of the next big thing and not be left behind courses through California futurism.

We can trace many elements of contemporary futurist practice back to the think tanks and consultancies that developed during WWII and grew increasingly important in the decades after. Herman Kahn, perhaps the most important American futurist of the mid-twentieth century, whose persona inspired the titular character in the film Dr. Strangelove, worked at the Santa Monica–based RAND Corporation. There he developed scenario-planning and game theory techniques with direct application to the Cold War. Even more ambitiously, his RAND colleague, the mathematician Olaf Helmer, sought to extend customary planning horizons into “a more distant future.” Helmer, along with other members of RAND, developed a method of forecasting called “Delphi,” which involved the collection and cross-referencing of predictions by experts in a given scientific field. “Convergence of opinion” translated into “accuracy of prediction,” writes historian Jenny Andersson. Despite his invocation of the Oracle at Delphi, Helmer’s goal was to render “fatalism a fatality.” Like many futurists after him, he wanted to eliminate utopianism and dystopianism from the culture of futures thinking while devising an ultimate scientific theory of prediction, a general theory on the model of physics that would be aided by the data-gathering and processing power of computers. He acknowledged the powerful incentive offered by the Cold War, which made American planners wonder how the United States could grow and survive in competition with the planned Soviet economy. The planning-oriented futurists of RAND and other institutions were expected to help contribute to policy recommendations. In his 1972 The Futurists, Alvin Toffler—coauthor with his wife, Heidi, of the most widely read late-twentieth-century futurist text, Future Shock—called for futurists to serve as the newest version of that classic twentieth century figure, the intellectuel engagé or public intellectual. All such ideas about futurist practice and the responsibilities of futurists, of course, were subject to a question: Whose future were they trying to predict? A global future or a national one? An elite or a popular future?

Some say that you simply can’t predict the future and that talk about what might happen is empty. In fact the impossibility of perfect prediction may be the secret of futurism’s appeal. This is its “dark matter” or the binding element that makes futurist work endlessly interesting and worthwhile. Consider the model of the bet, a familiar, everyday sort of forecasting in which we engage without thinking of “the future” writ large. San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation, which is most famous for its efforts to construct a clock that will run for 10,000 years (roughly the length of time our species has been practicing agriculture), maintains a registry of “long bets” about future events. Anyone with an Internet connection can offer predictions, and most are backed by moderate financial commitments. Many of these bets are very short term, when compared with the 10,000-year timescale the Long Now encourages the public to think about. One bet hinges on whether the average number of miles driven by Americans will rise or fall over the next ten years. Another asks whether political parties will hold their traditional conventions in the future or acknowledge that these have become nothing but theatrics. The fantasist in me imagines a world five hundred years from now in which our early twenty-first century longshot bets on the distant future have been passed down from one generation to the next as a matter of sacred trust. But why should they care how we bet on the future, which will be their present?

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Note

All photographs by Jon Christensen.

Excerpts

How it Works

Chris Plakos, as told to Kim Stringfellow

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

The Los Angeles Aqueduct

The Upper Owens River is the top end of the watershed that William Mulholland and his crew of engineers tapped into to take water to Los Angeles. The headwaters are giant springs that come out of the canyon called Big Springs. There is a Forest Service campground right adjacent to where the springs are; and if you go to the end of the campground and walk down a little hill, there’s all this volcanic rock. And from that rock, you’ll see water bubbling up all over the place.

From here, it flows to Crowley Lake—originally named Long Valley Reservoir—the largest reservoir on the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. It has a huge capacity of 183,000 acre-feet, which can supply half a million people a year. That water is stored in Crowley until it’s needed and, of course, it’s let out constantly, raising and lowering the level depending on what’s coming into it.

From there the water goes into a pipe and tunnel and into three hydroelectric plants because Crowley Lake is about 2,400 feet above the Owens Valley floor, and that’s a great way to generate electricity. They run the water through three hydroelectric plants built in the 1950s and put the water back into the river just above Bishop, at a much lower elevation.

Then from there it flows in its normal river channel until it comes to the intake, about thirty miles south of Bishop, where Mulholland determined he needed to take the water out of the original Owens River channel and put it into an artificial conveyance system—the aqueduct—so he could take it all the way to Los Angeles via gravity. There’s no pumping on the system; it all flows downhill via gravity. The other way to think about it is that the aqueduct intake is the one place where, from there south, everything is at a lower elevation. Water is taken out of the river and put into the aqueduct. It’s amazing. For a stretch of about 10 miles, it only drops about a foot per mile; it’s a very gradual flow. Most of the section in the Owens Valley is open to air.

We have an unlined stretch—I call it the “big ditch”; it’s just a 40-foot wide ditch—that the water flows in. The groundwater is so high in that portion of the Owens Valley that it makes water. More water comes in than is lost to groundwater infiltration.

Then it goes into a lined concrete channel that’s open to air for about another 35 miles and in the south end of the valley. Once the aqueduct skirts around Owens Lake, it spills into Haiwee Reservoir. There are actually two reservoirs there; both are fairly long and narrow.

From there south, the water is all in conduit tunnel and pipe, all the way to Los Angeles; and it first appears at the LA Aqueduct filtration plant at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 14, just above Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Notes

Transcribed from Kim Stringfellow’s There It Is—Take It! project. Chris Plakos is a public relations officer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Photograph by Chad Ress/Center for Social Cohesion.

Excerpts

Anti-Democracy in California

boom_analyses

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

October 8, 1911 New York Times Editorial

In 1911, the state of California amended its constitution to create the ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall. In response, the New York Times published the following, remarkably prescient warning.

We have received the official statement of questions submitted to the people of California in connection with the recent special election, setting forth the amendments to the Constitution to be then voted upon, together with arguments pro and con. The statement is in more senses than one monstrous. It is printed in small and nearly unreadable type on both sides of an immense sheet, the reading matter covering in all twelve square feet. The amendments are twenty-three in number. Four of them are really important—woman suffrage, the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. Most of them are not fit for constitutional enactment at all, but should be within the scope of the powers of the Legislature.

The number, complexity, and minuteness of the propositions submitted to the popular vote make it physically impossible that the ordinary voter shall understand their nature and effect or the actual consequences of his own act. And the process of confusing and practically paralyzing the faculty of discretion and discrimination in the mind of the voter is, of course, a continuous and cumulative one. The multitudinous changes in the “fundamental” law wrought at one election invite and, indeed compel, further changes, correcting the mistakes made, or adding to them. Consistency, stability, and continuity are simply impracticable under this process. The rights and interests of the community are involved in a perpetual flux. Human experience has shown that certainty, simplicity, clarity, and reasonable uniformity are the prime safeguards of justice and reason in the making and in the application of the laws affecting the public. These cannot be had in a State where the Constitution is made to meddle with details innumerable and where its provisions are subject to the passing whims of popular feeling and opinion.

This new method of handling the basic law of the State is advocated in the name of democracy. In reality it is utterly and hopelessly undemocratic. While pretending to give greater rights to the voters, it deprives them of the opportunity effectively and intelligently to use their powers. They receive the right to vote much oftener and on a larger number of matters than before, but the number and variety of the votes they are called on to cast does away with all chance of really using sense and discretion as to all of them. The new method is proposed as a check on the machines. But the strength of the machines lies in the inattention and indifference of the voters, and the voters are sure in the long run to be more inattentive and indifferent in proportion to the number of the questions forced upon them at one time. When the machine managers get familiar with the working of the new method, they will work it for their own ends far more readily than they work the present method. The average voter, muddled and puzzled and tired by the impossible task of really understanding and deciding on a mass of matters, will give it up, and then the politicians will get in their fine work.

The remedy for the undoubted evils of machine politics is not in multiplying, confusing, and making more troublesome the duties of the voter, but in simplifying and restricting them and making the discharge of each of them more effective. So long as we make our political business so difficult that common men cannot, will not, and ought not to give to it the time and labor absolutely needed for success in it, so long there will be professionals to attend to it. It would be as easy to run the business of a big railway by leaving every detail of its management to a vote of the shareholders as it will be to run the business of a State under the new system. And the results in the latter case will be as mischievous as those in the former would be sure to be.