Category: 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.


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:

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.


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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All photographs by Jon Christensen.


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.


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.


Anti-Democracy in California


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.