Category: Interviews


The Boom Interview: Peter Karieva

From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3

A conservation scientist at home in a megacity

Editor’s Note: As chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization, Peter Kareiva has spent much of the past decade in the air, touching down to work with other scientists, conservationists, community organizations, and political and business leaders on projects to protect nature—for nature’s sake and for people’s—on every continent except Antarctica. Now he’s coming to roost in what might seem an unlikely perch: Los Angeles, a city not known as a paragon of preservation.

This summer, Kareiva became director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Los Angeles is changing, Kareiva told us. And cities are a crucial site for conservation science and solutions to the grand challenges of the twenty-first century: population growth and urbanization, threats to ecosystems and biodiversity, climate change, and sustainability in a world of inequality. What better place could there be for a scientist who has been called “one of the most innovative and provocative thinkers in conservation today”? We sat down for a long conversation with him on a sunny day with a light ocean breeze blowing across the City of Angels. This interview was conducted by Jon Christensen and Hillary Rosner.

: Welcome to Los Angeles.

Kareiva: It’s nice to be here.

With The Nature Conservancy, you’ve been all over the world. What attracts you to L.A.?

Kareiva: Well, you know, I lived in L.A. twenty years ago. At that stage, I was surfing and enjoying the weather. This time around, it’s that I like cities! I know that’s kind of unusual for a conservation biologist. But I’ve always liked cities. And L.A. is a great city.

I like cities because of the creativity and the people in them. And now I like cities as a conservationist because I think they’re essential to get right in order to solve the big environmental problems: food, water, climate, transportation, all the supply chains that drive what happens in the world. Getting that right depends on cities because that’s where most of the activity is, the energy is, the people are.

L.A. is a pretty neat city because I like to run against the grain a little bit. And when I told my buddies I was going to L.A., they all said, “Why L.A.?” Most conservation biologists would go to Montana or go to Wyoming. But L.A. is doing a lot of interesting things with conservation. The whole notion of restoring the Los Angeles River is just wild. L.A. was a leader in dealing with coastal pollution decades ago. And now L.A. is facing a big water shortage, and how it is dealing with that, in everything from residential to industrial use, is fascinating.

The energetics of the city—just in terms of carbon emissions—are daunting. You have a sprawling city, notorious for not having mass transit, that could actually turn out to be carbon neutral. That would be remarkable. And that would tell you that other cities could do it too, that you wouldn’t have to start with a perfectly designed city. So all of that is pretty appealing. And then there is the diversity. Why do biologists do conservation? They like biological diversity. I like people diversity. I like food diversity. And L.A. has all that.

So you’re making a move from where you’ve been for ten years now—The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization—and doing all these great, exciting projects on the ground, around the world. Why make the transition to academia, to UCLA?

Kareiva: Well, I’m still going to stay connected to The Nature Conservancy in some ways, precisely because of what you just said: they’re always doing stuff. But there is a problem with organizations that are always doing stuff, whether they’re NGOs or the federal government. They’re called action institutions. And action institutions do not pause to think about what they’re doing. They do not pause to ask, really, how well is this working? Is there a better way or is there a different way to do things? Rarely do they even pause to analyze the data they’ve collected. And so, after ten years of doing stuff, I think there now needs to be some research and deep analysis of what’s working and not working and all the things everybody is doing in the environment.

And the other thing is that, you know, universities are places where, ideally, it’s fine to have arguments. It’s not always so fine to have arguments in the NGO world or even the federal agency world because there’s a tremendous cultural push to reach consensus, sometimes somewhat artificially, even when that doesn’t mean resolving the issues. It’s understandable that federal agencies have to achieve consensus. It’s understandable that NGOs have to reach consensus. But I think we’re at a time now in the environment where we don’t know what the consensus should be, and we should be having these arguments.

Boom: You’ve also taught at universities around the United States, public and private. What attracts you to a big public university?

Kareiva: Well, my very first job after I did my PhD was at Brown University, which is about as elite as you can get. My dad was first a coal miner and then a construction worker and finally a groundskeeper at a college, so I had a little bit of a working-class chip on my shoulder. Then when I moved from Brown to the University of Washington, just looking out at the students and seeing lumberjacks and a tremendous diversity of students, I really liked it. There’s something about the big public university that’s special. They really are the American dream. Somebody told me the statistic that one out of three UCLA undergraduates is a first-generation college student, and I can see it, just from the little time I’ve been on campus. Just looking around and talking to people, you see that diversity. They’re much less entitled. They’re much less cynical.

So I think there’s something special about public universities. But also, many who have been at a university realize that public universities are in trouble in the United States. The state and the public are cutting back support for them. They’re asking the faculty to do more with less. Students are being asked to pay higher tuitions. And it’s really kind of cramped from every side. Private philanthropy gives to the big famous private schools. They really should be giving to UCLA and other public schools, in my opinion. I just love big public schools. They’re exciting.

So you like a challenge.

Kareiva: I always like a challenge. I’m competitive too. I think that major public universities like UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the University of Minnesota, those big schools actually can do better research and do things better in general than—I won’t name the schools, but you can name them—all the elite private schools, partly because they are more diverse. There’s more hunger.

UCLA Ecology and Evolutionary Biology student Sarah Ratay describes how the Western Scrub-Jay makes use of chaparral habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains. Courtesy the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science.


And energy.

Kareiva: Yes, and energy.

Boom: You said after ten years, now seems like a time to step back and assess what’s being done and perhaps argue with the consensus. So do you have a specific research agenda based on that, that either you want to see carried out or you plan to carry out yourself?

Kareiva: Yeah, I do, and it’s been evolving pretty rapidly, even within the last year. If you had asked me a year ago, it would be different than what it is now, partly because of analyzing data and thinking about things.

Probably the trendiest thing in conservation and the environment right now is urban conservation, green infrastructure, resilient cities. All of those are connected, but they’re connected pretty uncritically right now. And I think the way people are dealing with it, because they’re natural scientists like me, they’re coming in with a too mechanistic, biophysical point of view. Like, let’s put, you know, this much permeable surface, this much of this building type, this much green roof, this much of that, and then let’s write out a model that tells you what the city is like environmentally.

And that’s all valid. I would do that myself. But because I travel so much and I’m a walker, whenever I go to a new city, I’ll spend a whole day walking around the city. And you get different views. You see how people are different. But I don’t think that type of research captures that. It doesn’t capture what makes people really enjoy the city and the nature of the city, what makes people really connect with nature and feel different about the city. I don’t think it’s well captured by the way we’ve traditionally been doing this research on cities.

This research is also tied to the notion of resilience. There are a number of major philanthropists funding what they call the resilient cities network. And we all have an intuitive idea what resilience means. It means bouncing back when something like Hurricane Sandy happens, or not getting hammered when something bad happens to you. When I see conservationists and environmentalists take up the term “resilience,” often their interpretation of it is about keeping nature the same, and they think that maintenance of the same nature produces resilience for resilient cities. The hypothesis is often that if we maintain the biodiversity we have, if we maintain the vegetation we have without any nonnative species, and if we maintain nature as it has been, then we will get resilience. Well, that might be resilient for nature, but I am not sure it is resilience for cities and people.

There’s good reason to argue that what would make a city socially and economically resilient is to fundamentally transform nature, not keep it the same. In fact, spending energy trying to keep it the same could just waste energy, and it could be the worst thing in the world you could do. So I’m interested in exploring that idea of resilience, not just with cities, but in a variety of systems that are taking up this word “resilience.” I’m interested in trying to collect data and write mathematical models, frankly, and conceptual models, that ask the question: what type of nature would make socioeconomic systems resilient? The default answer of ecologists has been that nature has to stay the same to be resilient. But that might not be the case at all.

And then one other big thing that I’ve really become interested in is working with corporations to create environmental benefits. Related to that, what’s the role of consumer and investor behavior in prompting changes in corporate practices? There’s no question that corporations will not just automatically decide to become environmentally wonderful for the sake of “goodness.” But there have been cases where corporate practices have changed dramatically. Look at dolphin-safe tuna. We used to kill millions of dolphins a year. Now we kill less than a thousand a year. That involved totally revamping an industry. And it was an industry that resisted for a while because it made it more expensive and harder to catch tuna. They had to change their gear and everything. They totally changed.

And technology has a role in this. A lot of corporations, when you come to them, say, “Well, we can’t give you the information you want.” I think in this big-data era, they can. Also, most corporations, when they do “sustainability,” all they’re really doing is energy efficiency—and now maybe water efficiency. Sustainability is about a lot more than energy efficiency and water efficiency. But those are easy to report and tend to be as far as corporations go in their sustainability efforts.

The best case is from food safety and tracking E. coli outbreaks. There was an outbreak that originated here in California from lettuce grown in Salinas. There are ways of tracking supply chains that allow you to know where your food is coming from and how it was grown. Well, that same technology allows you to do that for any product, much better than corporations are actually using.

Nike is the best at it. Nike got very serious. You can go on Nike’s website and look at their MSI, or Materials Sustainability Index, and find out what material is in your running shoe and where it came from and how sustainable it is. And if you put that information together for all of a corporation’s products, you can actually really get what I would call the sustainability footprint and impact of that corporation.

So, I’m interested in thinking through the whole business enterprise from a supply-chain point of view and seeing what could be done with it. I think you have a lot of leverage there. And a lot could be done. We make it too easy by being satisfied with emissions reporting as though that captures all of sustainability.

Boom: Both of these things—focusing on what nature can do for people or for cities and your interest in working with corporations—have gotten you into some trouble with the traditional conservation community. And some of the debates you’ve been involved in have become very heated and personal at times. I wonder if there are things you’ve learned that have changed your approach.

Kareiva: Well, the two immediate, short-term, personal things that I’ve learned are, one, to be a lot better at listening and paying attention to other people’s values. The other is to open every paper and every talk with some sort of statement that says, “Hey, look, I love nature too. I go out. I like species. I don’t want to see them extinct.” And then move on from there. It’s sort of like announcing, “I believe in God too,” or, “I’m a patriot as well. I believe in the United States.”

Emily Ann Parker, a student in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability senior capstone practicum research course, conducts a survey on water use at UCLA’s Unicamp near Big Bear. Photograph by John Vande Wege.

Boom: “I believe in nature.”



Boom: But wait, you’ve been the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. What made some people think you don’t care enough about nature?

Kareiva: By paying so much attention to what nature can do for cities and people or corporate behavior, there’s sometimes the assumption that that means I don’t love nature as a value. And that by not loving nature just as a pure value, as an ethical value, I’ve surrendered too much and made it too easy to compromise and not produce the outcomes that conservationists want.

Where I come back on that is, well, you have to realize that nature is one of many values. And there certainly is an ethics to extinction. But there’s also an ethics to freedom from violence. There’s also an ethics to freedom from hunger. There are all these values and ethics. And so love of nature is one of many values that shape our decisions. And you can’t just make it automatically the trump card, because if you do that it means you’re not going to listen to anybody else or even have a conversation with anybody else. It ends all conversations to tell someone that nature is the highest value that trumps all other values. I am not willing to say that nature should trump all other values. And that unwillingness makes some conservationists squirm and think I am uncommitted.

The other thing—and this is what I think I did wrong and scientists often do wrong—is that there are a lot of debates about conservation and the environment that really are all about values, and we couch them in science. And I should have known better. Now that I reflect on a whole bunch of debates that I’ve been involved in, they were consistently about values. What does one part of society value versus another part of society? Science was used to create an answer to support a preference that had already been arrived at by values. And I should have been smarter about that.

Now, the way I like to reframe it is this. I know it sounds like it’s, you know, kind of a smiley-face answer. But I say everybody is an environmentalist. And to a certain extent, everybody is an environmentalist. You’ll find very few people who would say, “I don’t like the environment. I don’t like nature.” So everybody is an environmentalist. And the right way to ask the questions we face—in L.A., in national parks, with endangered species, the whole environmental movement and conservation movement—is “What do we want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” If we actually frame the question that way, “What do we want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” I think we’ll find a lot more common ground, because it’s looking forward. Almost everybody loves running streams and rivers with fish in them that their kids can play along, and everybody loves the coastline, and everybody would love the opportunity to go to a place like Yellowstone.

So let’s ask, “What do you want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” Start with that and then ask, “Okay. How might that happen?” Instead, if you look at environmental debates, it’s all about, “What do we do tomorrow?” What do we do tomorrow about building this road, or this corporate activity, or this housing development, or this invasive species, or this threatened and endangered species? By making it so proximate, you lose sight of the common ground that people have. People might differ about what they do tomorrow because they’re worried about jobs lost or not lost. But in fact, looking to 2030 and 2050, they have a lot more common ground. Let’s paint a picture. To make it real, you have to pick real dates. And it would either be 2030 or 2050 because that’s where all the models and projections go when you’re starting with science. So you pick one of those two dates. I’m inclined to go with 2030 because that’s not too far off. And then just start from there.

I think it would be an interesting exercise—something we could do at UCLA—to do some of that visioning. But it has to be based on science. It can’t be fantasy. You have to do some hard calculations and say, “Would there still be enough land to feed people, and where are you getting your energy from? And how much?” You know, it’s not just science fiction. It’s got to be grounded, with real constraints.

A team of students in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability senior capstone practicum course work on their research projects at UCLA’s Young Research Library. Photograph by John Vande Wege.

Boom: OK, so everybody wants to go to Yosemite at some point in their lives. And everybody wants clean air and clean water. And everybody wants a world without runaway global warming. But there are still going to be big debates about what we need to do to get there. So how do we go from debating about what we’ll do or not do today or tomorrow to debating about how to get to a better 2030 or 2050?

Kareiva: People don’t see a path to getting there. There has to be path laid out to getting to that future world. And that path has to go all the way there, not just be about what you don’t do tomorrow. Do you know what I’m saying?

I’m trained as a mathematician. There’s a classical form of mathematical problem solving called dynamic programming, where you work backward. You end up at the final solution, but you step backward to get it, so you know how you get there. It’s a very deep mathematical insight. And it’s used all the time to solve complicated problems.

It’s actually not such a bad idea when you think about applying it to environmental things. Start with where you want to be and work backward. Because what we learn from dynamic programming is that you can’t do it the other way around. You actually can’t come up with a solution going from the starting point and getting to that desired outcome. You’ve got to start with the endpoint and work backwards. And I think that’s really true. If you don’t see a path there, why would you say, for instance, “I’m going to bear this burden of an increased property tax? All it’s going to do is protect a few hills in San Diego for a few species.” You’ve got to see a path the whole way, to conserving an ecosystem that’s crucial for the future of the place you live.

When you do this future visioning, where you’d see the real difference is in what type of nature people imagine in those futures. Are nonnative species okay? Nonnative species are out there. Are they okay as far as your joyous nature? Eucalyptus is a nonnative species. Are we going to try to eliminate eucalyptus from California, or are we just going to accept that eucalyptus is actually part of what most people think is California because we smell it everywhere? And it will be that way with a number of nonnative species.

Is it okay to have some engineering mixed in? Look at Kruger National Park, where in various places you see wells that were drilled to provide water for wildlife. Is that okay? Clearly it is for those people who go to Africa to see wildlife.

So when you’re teaching environmental science students in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, what else do you teach them that scientists need to know and need to be able to do to make their work really effective and have an impact in the world?

Kareiva: We need to think about how we might use social media to change behavior. We need social scientists, cognitive psychologists, economists—that’s obvious. There’s no question that environmentalists need all that, and, I would say, we also need the humanities. The humanities are a way to learn how to tell a story that inspires and makes people thoughtful, or that enables your story about GMOs or your story about climate change to relate to their family history and their work. Humanities can also teach you empathy, which can so often be lacking in heated environmental debates.

Boom: These are questions about values as well as the stories that we tell. And science can clearly tell us what the problems are. But then there’s this huge arena of values and people making judgments about those problems. If science can tell us what the problems are, should scientists then step aside and let the social sciences, humanities, and politics deal with the rest? Or is there some role for science beyond just illuminating the problems and pointing to potential solutions?

Kareiva: Well, science can tell you the problems. It also can tell you the constraints and tradeoffs, which allows you to play out your scenarios in the future. For example, if you’re considering whether we should ranch or farm tuna offshore in California, as opposed to relying on catching wild tuna, science can tell us what’s the maximum energy efficiency by which you can convert food into tuna and what the yield will be, so that we’ll be able to make better decisions. Science doesn’t just tell you what the problems are. It tells you what constraints limit your solutions. It can also tell you rates. Rates are really important. And it can also tell you what variability and potential surprises to expect. It never gives you prescriptive answers. Scientists sometimes will make mistakes, of course, in thinking that it can.

Boom: But is there a role for—maybe not for science, but for scientists to be active in public and advocating for solutions? Or do you step back and say, “Here is what the science shows. Here are your options. Now you decide.”

Kareiva: I think there’s a public role for the scientist, although in my profession, opinion is divided on that. So many scientists would say that once you become engaged in that public debate, you have reduced your credibility as a scientist. I would say maybe even half of scientists today still think that—maybe even more. I think otherwise. And I think the way you have to guard against that is what you publish. It is kind of arcane, but what you publish in peer-reviewed literature has to maintain high quality and not be biased and be pretty, pretty clear. That’s not always the case for scientists who become activists. Some clearly fish for data and try to get results a certain way.

But you can have a public persona where you mix the two. You can say, “Based on my expertise, my values, and all this, this is what I think,” or, “This is the conversation we should be having.” We have to step up, because if we don’t, who is going to do it? Who else is going to take the science and bring it into the realm of values, other than scientists?

Boom: Writers? Artists?

Kareiva: Well, they can. You’re right. I agree. But they’ll be better off if they have scientists to talk to, as friends and colleagues and collaborators.

Boom: For sure.

Kareiva: Just like when I started out in biology and I went into mathematical biology, I had mathematicians to talk to, and they didn’t talk to me in just math. They talked to me in other ways.

I think we have to step up. But there are a lot of people on campuses around the United States who would sit there and say, “Oh, that’s not really science.”

Boom: Why do you think that is?

Kareiva: You know, people basically say, “Be like me. And if you’re different than me, you’re not good. That’s all there is.” I don’t think everybody has to be engaged publicly. Just like not everybody should teach. Not all scientists should be out in the public. They’ll only do more damage. They might be so obnoxious that they turn the public off of science. But a significant number of scientists have to be out in the public, and they shouldn’t be shunned or scorned because they are. And people who are out in public shouldn’t shun or scorn the ones who don’t go out in public.

Boom: Is there anything special about California in terms of the world of conservation and conservation science?

Kareiva: You know, there is, in a way. All biologists recognize it because of the many different habitats in California, from the deserts to the mountains and ocean. It’s a really special place biologically and in terms of biodiversity. Then you have the fact that California is also a huge economic engine—this state alone has the eighth largest economy in the world. It’s a huge source of economic growth and wealth. And it has a culture of innovation. Even if that’s just a made-up story or fairy tale, it doesn’t matter. It creates a mindset that we can innovate our way out of things. That whole Silicon Valley thing extends through the state.

So you have a biodiversity conservation hotspot. You have wealth and innovation coupled together; and it’s not wealth based on, for instance, selling oil, which would not have innovation associated with it. And then you have population diversity, in a diverse state where soon Hispanics will be the majority.

What makes that special is that the cultural diversity and the wealth here offer the means to try experiments in conservation and the environment, to do things differently, to be bold. The traditional John Muir–type conservation is not necessarily part of the cultural heritage of the Hispanic family.

So I think these things all come together so that California can try some pretty bold things. Look at Jerry Brown’s push for carbon emissions limits and renewable energy. Look at The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to buy back and refit trawlers. By doing that, they have created a private market solution so that fishermen ended up making more money. The Nature Conservancy in California has also created auctions around agricultural lands that can be flooded for bird habitat, so that instead of regulating who gets flooded, you have the farmers saying, “We think we’ve got land here that would be a stopover for a thousand birds, and we’ll flood our lands longer. So we’ll plan. And if we get those thousand birds, then you pay us this much money.” That’s pretty clever.

So I think the mixture of the enormous biological diversity and the wealth—it’s a lot harder to have environmental solutions when there are no resources, no affluence—enables California to come up with these things. And then just the diverse population.

We could talk about so many things. I’ll bet if you just went down the list of environmental problems—water. There’s a lot going on in California with desalination experiments. The only other place that’s doing as much is Israel. Energy. There’s a lot going on in California with respect to energy. Just go down the list, and you will find a lot more experimentation in California than in other places. They’ll do some stupid stuff, and they’ll get it wrong. But it’s that experimentation that’s pretty cool.

With a toast and a drink of reclaimed water, visitors from the California legislature, governor’s office, and state water board celebrate UCLA engineering professor Yoram Cohen’s demonstration project using reverse-osmosis to clean contaminated water in California’s Central Valley. Photograph by John Vande Wege.

Boom: One thing you haven’t mentioned, of course, is our great creative industry that gives us so many dystopias. You do realize you’re moving to the capital of dystopia?

Kareiva: Oh, yes. The film industry. I’ve seen Blade Runner many a time. A lot of people have said that if you really wanted to get people to pay attention to climate change and water and all these other things, wouldn’t the film industry be a big help? But look at gay marriage. It wasn’t the film industry, it was television. There’s no question, most people think that television shows had a lot to do with how rapid the transition was to supporting gay marriage. So you would think that the film industry could do more with for the environment. It’s made efforts.

I’d like to look at films as experiments and try different types of films and get a sense of how they resonated with the culture, whether or not they changed things. Maybe we can’t do it as an experiment. But maybe we could think of them as natural experiments and try to take advantage of it, because the media makes a difference.

Boom: What are you most looking forward to about living and working here in L.A.?

Kareiva: You know what I’m most looking forward to is this: I’ve always collaborated with people. I don’t think I’ve done anything by myself since my PhD thesis. And there’s a whole set of people here that I want to do joint research projects with—in a deep way, not a superficial way. I can hardly wait to get started. There are so many cool research projects I can do, collaboratively, with people.

And then a second thing is I like the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. I like the vision of it. I always just feel like it doesn’t tell its story that well. People don’t realize how good it is. And people don’t realize some of the neat stories that are going on at the Institute. At The Nature Conservancy, we learned the power of storytelling for raising money and effecting policy change. So those are the two things I’m most looking forward to: making what’s really good better known by telling our story better, and (at a sort of selfish personal level) collaborating with great people.


Photograph of Peter Kareiva by John Van de Wege.


The Boom Interview: Lauren Bon

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

The Metabolic Studio’s devices of wonder

Editor’s Note: Lauren Bon is a transformative figure—her canvas is huge: Los Angeles, the American West, the way we think about landscapes, our water and where it comes from, and what we owe the land and communities, our moral, economic, and political relationships. “ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE AT THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY” proclaims a red neon sign on one wall of the Metabolic Studio in a warehouse on the edge of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a very high standard, and one that Bon takes very seriously in every aspect of her work from her first major work, Not A Cornfield, which transformed an old contaminated railroad yard, a literal brownfield across the street from the studio, into a verdant color field in view of downtown’s skyscrapers, to her latest work, Bending the River Back Into the City—a waterwheel that will draw water from the Los Angeles River and distribute into the City. For its monumental images of the Intermountain west, the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio uses landscape material rather than traditional chemistry to document the landscapes that the Metabolic Studio is working to transform. Bon sat down to talk with editor Jon Christensen about her work reconnecting Los Angeles with the source of it’s water and about how silver and water mined out of the Eastern Sierra has catalyzed photography and film making for this special issue of Boom on photography, art, and landscape.

I wonder if we could just start by you describing where we are sitting right now.

Lauren Bon: Well, right now, we’re sitting inside of a frame that was built to house the Salon De Fleurus, which is a re-creation of Gertrude and Leo Stein’s art collection in Paris at the turn of the last century. That salon space has now been moved. This frame we are sitting in next to the Amtrak lines that run adjacent to the LA River corridor—[pauses for a train passing by]—this is a new vista for us. This concrete block wall didn’t have any doors or windows that opened to the east. Between 2006 and 2013, the front of the studio was looking at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, and the back of the studio opened to the underside of the Spring Street Bridge. We were actively cultivating these places, and both closed at the same time. The park went into construction and so did the bridge. So now we are looking at the industrial corridor of the city of Los Angeles when we come out here. Your back is to the Spring Street Bridge, and my back is to the Broadway Bridge. And those two bridges cross the LA River from the west side of the river to the east side of the river.

Where we are sitting will be very different by next year at this time. Everything you see around here is transforming. The Spring Street Bridge is being rebuilt now. Across the river Albion Park is being put together. The state historic park is under construction. And if all goes well, a year from now where we’re sitting right now will be a massive hole in the ground.

Lauren Bon in a cottonwood grove. Saplings were grafted from a mature cottonwood grove in Owens Valley and transported to Los Angeles via One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 2013.

Boom: Just because our readers won’t all have been here, we’re sitting right outside your studio, Metabolic Studio in this warehouse, a former warehouse.

Bon: Current warehouse.

Boom: Your studio, where many of the things that we’re going to talk about have happened. But pretty soon, there’s going to be a giant water wheel bisecting this building.

Bon: Yeah. Cutting it in half.

Boom: And that’s La Noria. Can you describe that?

Bon: So historically, where we’re sitting right now would have been a floodplain of the unbridled LA River. And Spring Street was a very active spring that pooled quite a bit of water from the LA River all the way to a giant sycamore that was located behind what’s now Union Station. If you look at old photos of LA from up until 1890 when it was cut down, it was the largest visual object in this area. So all of the early photos of LA have this giant sycamore called “El Aliso” or “the sycamore.” It was rumored to be 400 years old and have a 200-foot canopy, and all the tribal people would come from miles and miles around to sit under that tree for problem solving.

So we’re sitting in a place that has lots of history, both told and untold, and lots of mythology, both told and untold, and La Noria taps into some of that. La Noria is a kind of avant-garde nostalgia. In looking forward to what can be, we’re looking back at what was. Because when the river was here, it supported trees. When the river was here, it supported industry. And it supported industry in that age-old way by creating power for things to happen. And one of the means by which power was created was waterwheels. The state park was a place that supported about six different power waterwheels. And we’re alluding to that typology in the waterwheel that we’re about to build.

We are about to build a waterwheel that will bisect this building and pick up water that will be redirected from the LA River channel via a pipe under that railway track where the trains are going by. So the trains will still be going by, and all the sounds you hear will be pretty much, more or less, like they are. And all that you see around you—the riverbank, built of concrete and covered with graffiti—will still look the same. The LA River’s reintroduction to its own flood plain will happen through a single hole that will puncture that jacket. Water will be pooled up from the river by a dam that will be right out there. Water will enter the pipe, run under the railway track, be picked up by La Noria and deposited on the roof of this building before it begins its journey through a new network of pipes, and channels, an infrastructure artwork that aims to form a distribution network that we call the “Delta of Mount Whitney.”

Boom: What does that mean, the “Delta of Mount Whitney”?

Bon: Every river has a delta, the place where it deposits its load before it dissipates. The delta of this new river, the parallel river that will form from moving our wastewater that would normally go out to sea back into the city will be known as the “Delta of Mount Whitney.” We have chosen that name to allude to a source of our water, 240 miles away. It’s only one source of that water, but we think it’s an important one to name in that delta, which is the snow peaks, or what once was the snow peaks of the Eastern Sierra.

Boom: You’ve talked about La Noria as a device of wonder. What do you mean by that?

Bon: I know it when I see it, that thing that raises you up out of the daily discussion of a thing into a kind of transcendent appreciation of it. The motivation of the work that I do with the Metabolic Studio is to utilize devices of wonder to catalyze a paradigm shift. So one can talk for a long time about master plans for the LA River, but in proposing a device of wonder, like a waterwheel and a dam and a new distribution system, I’ve been able to catalyze a change that needs to happen. It’s happening because it needs to happen, not because I’m a great artist. But maybe I am a good enough artist to get that ball rolling. And I’m happy with that, you know?

So the work that I’m doing with the studio is about creating an opportunity for a paradigm shift through utilizing devices of wonder. These devices and the engagement the studio has around them can help reframe the discussion from master planning alone to intervention that can perhaps catalyze the master plan because then there’s one that’s done. This piercing needs to be one of many piercings. It alone will only provide 100 acre-feet of water per year to me. And then I can choose how to redistribute it. But through that paradigm, I hope that the California Water Board sees potential for other kinds of interventions in the stormwater management system.

One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, October 18 to November 11, 2013, an artist action to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

What is the paradigm shift that this is part of?

Bon: Well, we need to reuse our wastewater. Right now, all of the water that’s going out to sea does not reenter the city for any beneficial use, and that’s a paradigm that needs to shift. That’s the primary goal of La Noria.

Then it will be up to the contracts that we develop with other delta users to see if we can also galvanize other paradigms to shift. For example, we’re in negotiation with the state historic park across the street. They wish to receive water from us. We have agreed in principle to supply water, but there are conditions. One of the conditions that they have agreed to is to change the pesticides and herbicides that they use on what they grow, so that the watershed does not become compromised. That’s become policy in the whole state park system, not just this state park, as a result of that contract from the Delta of Mount Whitney. So the device of wonder utilizes language to create a connection to a snow pack, but its knife angle is in changing paradigms of behavior within entrenched bureaucratic systems.

Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. First, an inflatable dam will pool wastewater headed out to sea. Then a piercing in the storm channel will move water under the railway tracks via a pipe. Finally, a waterwheel will lift the water from the river bed to the roof of the Metabolic Studio.

This might be a good moment to talk about the metabolic in Metabolic Studio. Why “metabolic”?

Bon: Metabolic means that we’re dealing with life processes. All living things are divided up into two activities, the anabolic and the catabolic. The anabolic builds up and the catabolic tears down. The Metabolic Studio looks at taking land and water that can no longer support life and aims to return it to supporting life.

In our work along the Owens Dry Lake, we’re actually playing within the catabolic dust and repurposing it to find it has some agency. We take a system that has almost ceased to support life—the Owens Dry Lake—and explore it for new potentiality. The water that has been redirected from the lake is held in trust for us as citizens of the state of California. And now the dust from the dry lake is blowing dangerous chemistry into the air. All kinds of health and safety problems have ensued around that.

But it’s still a lake in terms of how it’s politically organized. It’s held in trust for the people of the state of California as a water body, which means that as a water body, we all have access to it for recreation.

So our Metabolic Studio Optics Division uses it to recreate. We’ve found we can use the dust as photographic chemistry. We go out onto the dry lake in the middle of the night to bury exposed film, large format sheets of photographic paper in the mud. We leave them for the night and pull them out in the morning. The images we make there are not just images of the landscape but made out of the landscape itself. And the action of making them is an activist action. Taking time to work out there is an important thing to do because we participate in a civic right by occupying that space. We know other artists who are thinking similarly and have launched kayaks on the dry lakebed.

As an art practice, we don’t want to leave physical objects behind, but to use our labor as transformation—to make art work as a verb rather than a noun. Up until the waterwheel, all of my work in the last ten years has been ephemeral. Everything is about catalyzing other things to happen through these devices of wonder. The waterwheel is the first piece that is permanent.

Boom: Speaking of Owens Valley, on the hundredth anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct you traveled with a hundred mules along the whole route. What was your vision for that project? And what was it like?

Bon: One of the puzzles for me is how to draw a line for people in Los Angeles between those two points. They see the river. And they see the snow. They recreate in that snow. But the 395, the massive highway that drives up there, has a whole lot of Mojave Desert in it. And people tend to listen to their music and enjoy what deserts do best, which is to get you into the bubble of your car and that kind of great space of the West that allows us all to think differently.

But I really felt that for the centenary of the aqueduct, I needed to build a device of wonder for people in both locations, in the Owens Valley and in Los Angeles, to acknowledge that the snow pack of this year is being moved to Los Angeles, and to acknowledge it by spending time with the intention of celebrating the physical object, saying that this is an amazing piece of engineering that has a physical reality, that has a fiscal reality, that has a historical reality, that has a relationship to the history of engineering. It’s not just this secret pipe.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, the physical reality of it, is a phenomenal thing. It will be, in the distant future, the central ruin of our civilization, of our moment. It’s reasonable to assume at some point, all of this will be gone. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But when it is gone, the aqueduct will be there. The aqueduct was built by mules as was the Panama Canal, which opened the next year. So it seemed to me that in drawing that line to connect the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles, how wonderful to be able to use the very animals that built it to begin with, the very animals that have been so critical to the construction of the West as we have come to know it.

Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct with one hundred mules was moving on so many levels. Quite literally. It was great to be able to move that slowly—twenty miles a day, over a one-month period. It was wonderful to be part of something that was so well organized. Days just kind of had this rhythm to them, because everything was organized around moving the mules. And I also really understand every inch of the LA Aqueduct now, probably better than most people, because I walked that slowly the entire network of open channel, pipes, siphons, and underground channels covered with concrete from the intake through the Alabama Hills, through the canyons like Jawbone Canyon where the heroic siphons are, into the Mojave Desert, through to where the California Aqueduct meets the LA Aqueduct in Neenach, into the Verdugos after the Cascades. I really know it. I know how it looks. I know how barren the Mojave really is. I understand that the aqueduct was a miraculously lucky thing to be able to build because it’s all downhill.

Walking from the Owens Valley to LA means you’re walking downhill the whole way with an occasional climb up a pass. The mules did that with not a lot of work. The mules thought this trip was super easy. Basically, they didn’t carry anything but a pad that said “100” and an occasional rider. There was only one rider per every ten mules. And it was all downhill. They were extremely well kept. They all came in plumper, happier.

Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. The water filtered through this three-part metabolic sculpture will become a community asset ready for redistribution via a new network, or Delta.

Your work in the Owens Valley has taken place under the rubric of what you’ve called AgH20—silver and water. Why silver?

Bon: Silver mined from places like Cerro Gordo on the top of the Inyo Mountains gave birth to the film industry—perhaps the best example of any of a devise of wonder. George Eastman, way over in Rochester, New York, figured out how to take silver from the mountains out here in California and turn it into film stock that could become a populist activity. “You press the button and we do the rest.” Film stock for motion pictures was shipped back from Rochester across the country to Hollywood and brought back up to the Owens Valley where they made Westerns.

So silver and water mining from the Owens Valley are the two elements the city of Los Angeles has been constructed from. This body of work that I’ve done with the studio since 2008 called “Silver and Water” includes a myriad of action, hundreds, in fact, of artists’ actions that have been taken around this idea of silver and water, including the photographic prints and experimentation, including the sonic work being done at the silos, including the mule march, including the metabolic soil project, including the IOU Theater project and the IOU Garden project, and all of these devices of wonder are, in effect, tending to this space, which is the kind of sacrificial twin of the city of Los Angeles. The more I understand Los Angeles, the more I realize that it kind of has a symbiotic birth, like it is born with the Owens Valley, which has ultimately been the compromised twin. One has thrived at the expense of the other. And I feel that part of AgH20 is the consciousness of acknowledgement saying, “We do owe you.”

Boom: The project that I think you are really best known for was Not A Cornfield. Is that where the idea of a metabolic practice really came together?

Bon: Oh yes, the “Chlorophyll Revolution.” The moment when the old train yard became emerald green with corn, things shifted. That was a big, big shift, and I could see the power of both a metaphor of corn and the reality of how life brings life, whether it’s ladybugs or hummingbirds or crickets at night. The power of living things in juxtaposition with a place like this gave birth to a notion of a practice that I would call a “metabolic sculpture” to differentiate it from other kinds of sculpture.

It’s not land art, per se. A lot of times Not A Cornfield would be construed as land art because it was on the land. It’s not that it wasn’t land art, but there is also a whole lot about it that was not normally associated with land art. One of the things that it was about was transformation. Because we weren’t going to have a cornfield there forever, it was both a cornfield and not a cornfield. It was a way of creating the potential for something else to occur there because the site had stalled in its process of becoming, and the cornfield was meant to galvanize it into that possibility again. So that seems to be an unusual way to look at sculpture, which is often about its formal end being the subject of the work, rather than it consuming even its formal end into a greater notion of transformation, which seems to be more about metabolic things than it does about sculpture in a traditional sense.

Boom: Your artistic practice, a practice that is engaged in activism, sometimes provokes some pretty strong reactions. Not A Cornfield got some pretty strong reactions at the time.

Bon: I see it now as a kind of acupuncture needle. I hit a nerve when I began this work, and like the work that I had done in the Owens Valley, it’s been the fact that I have stayed put for ten years that things have changed. I think people were concerned that I came in to take something away rather than to offer a transformative potential that I would then stay and support. And I think over the ten years, I’ve shown who I am around here. And now times have changed, but at the beginning, it was very frightening and very confusing. I have come to understand where it was coming from, and so I see it differently.

I don’t think I would do anything differently, by the way. I thought about this, knowing now what I know, how would I do things differently, and I think it’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes things are -check-the-box “Other.” One of the things that Not A Cornfield was not was public art. I think a lot of people would have liked me to go through the way public art gets commissioned in a city, and it wasn’t that way. So would I, knowing what I know now, do it that way? No.

Boom: You have this neon sign in the studio that says, “Artists must create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” Is that your saying?

Bon: Actually, I thought it was, and it turned out not to be. I love to take notes in notebooks, mostly around drawings, and I had an old notebook from the years I lived in Belgrade where I had written that quote.

I found it during Not A Cornfield. People would question me about scale. Not A Cornfield was thirty-two acres. It’s a lot, a big, big piece.

It turned out to be Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz from Electronic Café. It was a statement that they made during the work they were doing with the early Internet about connecting people in the Soviet Union and in the United States via a café that had Internet in it in the 1980s. That was their statement, not exactly that, but pretty close to it. And we now call that the “metabolic manifesto” via the Electronic Café manifesto, which is also cool because it’s West Coast thinking.

One of the things that’s interesting about art coming from the West Coast is that there’s something about these vast expanses that causes you to think differently. You think about these big things, these big expanses. In living out here as an artist, this mandate to operate on a scale that society is destroying is where that comes from.

Lauren Bon and Richard Nielsen at Owens Dry Lake Bed.

Boom: What did you take in your experimenting and your self-education and the decade that you spent in Europe where you really said, “I’m just going to experiment for a decade”? What did you carry there from California and the West?

Bon: Liability obsession. I realized while I was there that a lot of things don’t happen in the West out of feared of being sued. That certainly, places in the Eastern Bloc, places like Russia, Mongolia, China, ex-Yugoslavia, are different. So a project like what I’m undertaking now, which is a metabolic sculpture in the form of a revisionist review of infrastructure comes straight from Belgrade in the years just before the war, the wars in Belgrade, where what it meant to be really modern was to have the best possible infrastructure. So societies were really proud of hosting conversations when the city streets would be ripped open and people would be showing these new pipes and new roads. And they would allow people to walk over these crumbling pieces of sidewalk in a way that if that happened here, people would be terrified that somebody would sue.

And I find that that’s a really big difference. Like even in phobia about—there’s a definite phobia about lawsuits that operates—even in the water dispute site, I was talking to a journalist who recently passed away, who lived up in the Owens Valley. I said to her, “If there was one thing that you would like to see changed with the Department of Water and Power and the Owens Valley situation, what would it be?” She said she’d like them to stop their litigious behavior, that it was a waste of time and money. I thought that is really important to hear. So much of the energy of transformation is being subsumed into litigious behavior. So that was one thing I really got through my self-educating period around the globe is that not all countries are equally litigious, and that was a big, big difference.

Boom: That’s interesting. The other side of that question is, what did you bring back to California and the West from those experiences?

Bon: You know, really from my days as a college student, I’ve been interested in the collapse of the avant-garde and the relationship of the last century to this idea that to be totally modern meant to be working on a collective project, and that the whole of an avant-garde was that community of creative enterprise, and this mandate to be modern, and how that came about during the World Wars—so the relationship between destruction and art production and collectivity and art movements and an avant-garde. When I was a college student in the eighties, most of the smartest people would say very definitively that the avant-garde was dead. And I’ve tried to bring the avant-garde back to the West with me because I think about the West as still an open field for creative life. In other words, it’s very different in tone and temperament from the East Coast, which is much more referential to the art market and to Europe than the West Coast needs to be.

A lot of the reason why people come to Los Angeles is that it’s really possible to reinvent one’s self here and to define the terms of one’s engagement. And I’ve really worked on collectivity since I’ve been back. I’ve worked on demystifying art practice as the bastion of genius and tried to really support and incubate talent without a host of intermediaries that usually divide us so that we are not engaged with one another. The whole notion of collective engagement is something that I have focused on that really had its beginnings in my work at the Hereford Salon in London, where I brought artists together to work on what I called “work in progress.” The only thing that we wouldn’t show at the Hereford Salon or discuss is finished work. So the rule of thumb was, it had to be something you were stuck on or wanted to address.

Our work has intersected with a lot of different galleries and art museums. So in no way are we not wanting to engage with them. But at the same time, there’s a whole world of opportunity for creative life that we’ve tried to make tangible for people, so that when people come, they see it. We definitely, ten years into it, see how much it inspires especially young people to see that there’s another way of being an artist outside the traditional system.

Boom: Another thing that you seem to have brought back was a kind of artistic and a philanthropic practice that was based around projects.

Bon: You know, one of the things that we talked about is how Not A Cornfield was not a public art project, partly because there wasn’t an intermediary that made it happen. In a similar way, I can say that a lot of the work I do is not philanthropy because there’s no nonprofits involved. There’s no nonprofits that are involved with AgH20. So Silver and Water is not a normal practice of philanthropy whereby money is passed to a nonprofit for programming or capital campaigns. This is direct project-based philanthropy, which doesn’t exist, like the term I gave metabolic sculpture. I mean, you’re not going to go look it up in a book for my definition. But what it has meant is that I’ve been able to activate potentiality toward a nonprofit in places like Owens Valley. There is today a growers’ co-op in the Owens Valley that receives funding from other organizations that came about because of my soil production project.

Similarly in the Veterans Administration site in west LA, there was no nonprofit by which I could do Strawberry Flag and activate that site for anything new. So Strawberry Flag was a means by which potential could be grown. And now there is a new nonprofit, the Veterans Print Studio, that comes from the work that we did in turning art supplies we found in the basement of an under-purposed building into an art studio for veterans.

So in many ways, I’ve been able to, through the devices of wonder, like a strawberry aquaponic farm, learn a lot about how to catalyze potentiality toward the more traditional philanthropic approach.

So ten years in, a lot of the work is not as unusual as it was when I began, because we succeeded in growing the potentiality to support more traditional approaches. But what we’ve also done as a team is the Metabolic Studio. Since 2010, we’ve called ourselves the “Metabolic Studio,” and the Metabolic Studio is different from Not A Cornfield in one important regard and that is that the eighteen full-time employees of the Metabolic Studio share my trustee-hood in the Annenberg Foundation. So they are the philanthropists in the studio. I’ve decided in order to be able to focus my time on what I do best in this life, which is to make art and to organize community and to speak to power from my experience as an outsider, I need to be able to make sure that I have a team that is backing me up with the work that people do in making philanthropic decisions.

The Metabolic Studio is different from those earlier incarnations of my work in that that relationship is formalized. All the full-time people here are my trustee-hood manifest, so we work through that collaboratively. And I no longer function as a unique philanthropist in this city. I pass that on to the community that I work with. And we call that “citizen philanthropy” because the eighteen people who work here are not trained to do that job any more than I was. They are just living their lives, and they found themselves in this position. And we have trained ourselves to process that potentiality through our direct engagement with site, not through papers or applications or any of that. The foundation does that for us. So we are like the satellite to the foundation, a satellite that is operating on the ground and in places that are challenged in the absence of sufficient nonprofits to pass the money to. The demographics of philanthropy are often in cities, so when you move into places outside of cities, there can be a real drop in the opportunity for traditional philanthropy to be practiced. We really run into that question quite a lot.

Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke using alternative chemistry on a Metabolic Studio Optics Division photograph.

That’s true in some cases in cities, too, though, like the Veterans Administration project, no? Tell us about that project.

Bon: In the year and a half that I worked on a daily basis at the VA of West LA, I learned about the complexity of creating the opportunity for paradigm shift. In the case of the VA, that means that land should stop being just a hospital. The VA of West LA is on land that was donated to the US government in 1888 by Arcadia de Baker, who owned all of the land in one hacienda between the beach in Malibu and downtown. And she gave choice land for recuperating veterans in perpetuity as a home. In the 1960s, the asset moved from being part of the Department of War to the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was no Department of Veterans Affairs before Vietnam.

When the asset was moved from one department to the other, it just ceased to be a home anymore. They built a new hospital. They moved all the functions out of the home. It’s now the most valuable asset in the VA chain. And it’s been a big puzzle for people for forty years about what to do with all of that land that was left undeveloped, underused in the midst of the largest homeless population for veterans in the country.

So the question as an artist was how to bring awareness to that, and Strawberry Flag was the answer. What we learned in the time it took to make that artwork became a lawsuit.

I realized that there was no nonprofit out there that protects veterans’ land use. There are nonprofits that deal with veterans who are homeless. But we’re talking specifically about land use. How do you make that land operate for the people it was left in trust for?

So the thing I was able to do when Strawberry Flag ended was write a lawsuit that showed how donor intention has been upheld in the court of law over time, and say, to begin with, that we would never sue the federal government. This was simply a lawsuit in case someone else wanted to sue the federal government, because I don’t want to be litigious. But the ACLU picked up that lawsuit and sued the federal government, and the result is, five years later, everybody in charge of the VA has been fired. And the whole thing has cracked open again for a discussion.

So what I’ve been able to do through my art practice is focus more incisively because I have time where I’m actually working on something—a lot of these projects are durational—to ascertain what can be done and what can’t be done to shift the paradigm and utilize my trustee-hood at the foundation to take those actions that I can take to move the agenda toward some kind of happier return.

Bubblers of Owens Lake Rehydration Project, 2012. Indexical image of the lake made with materials from the lake itself.

I want to come back to this phrase that “Artists must create on the same scale the society has the capacity to destroy.” A lot of your work in the last ten, fifteen years has gotten you involved with very big institutions like the VA, State Parks, the LADWP, the Army Corps of Engineers on the river. It seems that part of this practice has made you need to learn about these big institutions and how they operate and how they might change in order for the practice to succeed.

Bon: I think that’s true. Every one of the signature projects of the Metabolic Studio has had to engage with the structure that the land or the water is owned by and controlled by. In the case of Not A Cornfield, we were working directly with the State of California as well as the City of Los Angeles. So my role as an artist and private citizen and trustee of the Annenberg Foundation was, in a way, to build a bridge between the people of the state of California and an asset held in trust for them. And, therefore, the work cannot be classified as public art because it’s coming from a very different place.

Similarly, with the VA of West LA, that land is held in trust for veterans by the federal government. So even though it’s in Los Angeles, it actually has very little to do with the city of Los Angeles in terms of how it’s organized or run. It has its own police force. It has its own, essentially, mayor, who is the person in charge, and it’s like the Vatican. It’s a separate city within Los Angeles.

So, it’s partly because of my unusual practice at the intersection of art and philanthropy that I’ve been able to have these direct engagements that are usually not available for the general public, and to sometimes slowly, sometimes not so slowly, see change happen. I don’t think any of us thought there would be these massive transformations at the VA of West LA in five years since Strawberry Flag.

Boom: In order to create at the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy, the art has to engage with these big institutions.

Bon: Yeah. It has to become sympathetic with those agencies. When the LADWP agrees to allow the Metabolic Studio to walk 240 miles of aqueduct, something is happening systematically. That’s a first—that they opened up all of the gates to let those mules through. I think that’s an important consideration of the project—that we didn’t break their trust. They had a good experience for a public-private partnership. And part of what we were aiming to do for the centenary is also reframe the LADWP from being the villains of the water system that we have, to being an agency that’s doing a job, and is also the largest employer in the Owens Valley. So there is no human being who is the LADWP. It’s an agency. And it doesn’t do any good for us to continue to place the LADWP in the role of villains in a narrative they didn’t create.

The project was really about let’s try and move forward into a new century of thinking by looking at rehumanizing, reconnecting with the human beings who actually work at the LADWP, who are showing up every night for dinner as the mules pass through their section of the aqueduct, who show up and tell stories or bring a violin to play by a section of the pipe. Let’s allow this agency to be a series of individuals who like the benefits that the LADWP community gives them. I think it’s a good job. I think it’s a good service. It’s certainly one that we can’t do without right now, and it could be a lot worse. It could be a private system, and that would be worse.

So these are the kinds of things that each of these projects have been able to do—make small changes within the VA and create opportunities for a different VA, create different opportunities for a different California urban state park system, create opportunities for the LADWP to rethink its public face. And that’s where those intersections of the devices of wonder, which are the artworks, dovetail with my trustee-hood.

Boom: There’s always artistic authorship in all of these projects. There’s the really authentic and reciprocal engagement with community, with these institutions, but there’s also always your artistic vision that is important there.

Bon: The art is what’s driving the agenda. The art and the urgency. This is something that needs to happen. And they know that. Somebody has to be first. Somebody has to pierce that jacket and bring that water back into the city, and this is the best way to do it.

Boom: And if it’s based on the art, the agent here is the artist.

Bon: The water right I have for one hundred acre feet of wastewater that we pull from the river via La Noria is not a water right to a philanthropic organization. It is not for the Annenberg Foundation nor the Metabolic Studio. It’s my water right. As an individual, I applied for a water right in order to create a distribution network to share the water, without exchange of capital and without commodifying the water. I ascribe to the United Nation’s dictate that water is a human right. So just like I have shared my trustee-hood with the Metabolic Studio, I will share my water right at no capital cost to the people or organizations that will form the Delta of Mount Whitney. As human beings, we speak for all living things, all the animals, all the wildcats in these hills who need water too. That’s the big challenge.

Boom: Where do you see going from here?

Bon: Me personally or the project or the water?

Boom: You as an artist.

Bon: Oh. I don’t know. There’s so much to do. Right now, I’m forming a new country, the country of Rose, so I think that’s the next project.

Boom: Can you say more about this country? Where is it?

Bon: Well, to really try and understand what the waterwheel is and is not—it’s a drop in a bucket in a systemic collapse. The LA Aqueduct gave birth to the Hoover Dam, Lake Powell, the California Aqueduct. And because of the drought, we’re getting a glimpse into a system in crisis. Because whether or not there is a drought, we’re maxed out in terms of what we can do demographically with the amount of water we can move in the Intermountain West. So the country of Rose is an opposition that we need to reorganize, not around states, but around watersheds. It’s based on the idea that there are four basic watersheds in the country of Rose: the Columbia, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the water table of the ancient lakes Lahontan and Bonneville that run between Lake Tahoe and Salt Lake. The basic idea is that outmoded state boundaries don’t serve us anymore. And for metabolic processes to continue in the Intermountain West, we are going to need to reorganize around the protection of our watersheds as the primary purpose of all political organization.

Los Angeles and LA Aqueduct are just a small part of a system that’s all interrelated through its water. So when I really came to understand that, I realized that’s probably the next body of work. And that’s what I’m working on with the mule team packers for them to do a survey of Rose as a relay of all the packers in the Great Basin. We’re going to get them all involved.

One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 2013. Penultimate trek with view of Los Angeles Skyline.

Wow! That’s huge.

Bon: You can apply for a passport, by the way.

Boom: Really?

Bon: Yeah. The passport is on the Metabolic Studio website.



What Use Is the Future?

by Alex Steffen

The Boom interview

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Editor’s Note: Alex Steffen is a futurist and a self-described optimist. A native Californian, Steffen is keen on the future of the Golden State. So much so that he moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area from Seattle after taking futurism by storm with his influential blog and book Worldchanging, an eye-opening encyclopedia of the people, technologies, trends, and forces of the future at work in the world today to create a bright, green tomorrow. Steffen wanted to be closer to the future, in the state that has made the future a core part of its identity—the California dream.

But Steffen is now deeply worried about the inertia he has found in his home state. The power of the past—which, it turns out, has much to do with the California dream, too—weighs on the present, preventing the changes needed to ensure the California dream continues to evolve. The irony is that how we think about the future is a big part of the problem. Steffen sat down with Boom to explore the conundrum we’re in.

© Justus Stewart.

Boom: How do you imagine California in relation to the Pacific world in 2115?

Alex Steffen: A lot depends on much broader global questions. What will the world will be like in 2115? That’s an open question. We know that the range of possibility is pretty dramatic, including some pretty catastrophic outcomes, potentially. And when we look at California, in the context of the Pacific Rim, in the context of the planet as a whole, I think we really have to ask ourselves this question: Will there be another California?

Because it has been so successful for so long, some people want to believe that California is a category of place, a formula that can be replicated elsewhere, that the next Silicon Valley, for example, is just a matter of arranging inputs. And I think that really mistakes what California is.

California is a set of circumstances that I don’t think can happen again: this weird thing, a place, sort of without history—and “without history” in air quotes here, because our history was erased; it was ripped out by the roots—a place without history, made vastly wealthy then suddenly landed right in the middle of the global cultural discussion and the global economic future, and it has been there for eighty years, arguably more. That, I don’t think, is a thing that can happen again, because there’s nowhere left without history. There’s nowhere left where there’s a fresh start, with “fresh start,” again, in air quotes.

California is, by its very nature, the end of one kind of possibility. We got to the coast and we ran out of frontier. That means that California has stayed the frontier for a very, very, very long time. In fact, the frontier is a thing of our past, everywhere on Earth. You won’t find it in the Arctic or Antarctica or the deepest Amazon or the Sahara. They’re not landscapes of human possibility. They’re simply the most remote places left.

Boom: If this California will no longer exist here or anywhere else, what are the processes and events that are changing that possibility?

Steffen: There are two parts to that question. One part is what’s happening on the planet. By the middle of this next century, we’ll be living on a planet with very little in common with the twentieth century. To begin with, we are in this moment of ecological inflection, where we are coming to grips with planetary boundaries in a way that we simply haven’t ever before. Limits are a major pressing concern for the very future of civilization itself, whether we’re talking about climate change or species loss or the death of the oceans or soil and water depletion. All of these things are tied together in a way that is now an active determinant of what humans can do, and will become more and more so. So we have that global problem of wrestling with the reality of earthly constraints and our obligations to future generations. The implications of needing to live for a very long time on a planet of tight limits are so huge that our minds are unprepared to meet them. But meet them we will over the next few decades.

We are also midway through the process of raising all of humanity out of poverty. The follow-on consequences of globalization and development are similarly huge, not the least of which is a demand for planetary equity. People all over the world are saying, “We deserve our share.” It’s simple geopolitical realism that whatever we in the developed world wind up doing, we’ll have to accommodate international fairness.

After the last American century, I think we’ll find a planet of distributed prosperity disorienting. By the middle of this century, we will be looking at as many as nine billion people on this planet, with perhaps five billion people having risen out of poverty, and perhaps as many as one billion living lives as prosperous as those of the American middle class. And essentially everyone will be living in or around globally connected cities. We’ll all be tied together.

That is going to change absolutely everything about what it means to be “developed,” quote-unquote, and what it means to be a person who is an active part of the global economy. There are things running through our society now that we can already see, like the de-skilling of professions, the automation of things that we used to take for granted could not be automated, off-shoring of manufacturing—all of these things are just reality, and they’re nowhere near close to finished. So any future that we have is going to be a future that takes place in that context. I don’t think it’s necessarily grim at all, but it’s very different.

And then there’s this ongoing, deeper process of technological and cultural change. And I say those two things together because I think we really underestimate the degree to which technological change is primarily cultural change. Especially here in California, we’re surrounded by lots of people who have made a lot of money off of “technology,” quote-unquote, so we think technology itself is the driver. But without a doubt, it is people’s willingness to engage on a cultural level with technologies and do new things that is actually creating the value there. I’m of the opinion that our cultures shape the technologies they need and desire, more than the other way around.

All three of those forces demand that we have a different vision of what we do, as a species, but I think even more so, a different vision of what we do here in California.

Because California is a stance toward the future, and the future is not what we thought it would be, the most important question here is: Can California become its next iteration of itself, or is it stuck somehow? I get a sense out there across the state that a lot of people feel we’re stuck, like we’ve sunk into stasis at a really inopportune time.

Boom: But we like the California we had.

Steffen: But which California did we like? California is this really strange place, and we are constantly being overrun and reinvented, often against our will, but also often with our active participation. Losing the version of California we like is perhaps the most common cultural experience of being a Californian. I have some ancestors who were here before it was California, and I guess they liked that one pretty well. I grew up on nostalgic stories of that California, when people worked on ranches and grizzly bears could still be found somewhere other than on the state flag. There are other people here who like the New Deal suburbs California, others who like the sixties California, and there are other people who like the nineties California.

Boom: And some of us even like the early twenty-first century California.

Steffen: Exactly. There are some people who really like what’s happening right now and don’t want it to change. And there is this constant sort of eating of itself that California does. At the very same time, that’s the source of this kind of constant tension, where California never quite knows if it’s having a boom or a revolution or both at any given moment. I think one of the things that’s really deeply unstable about this moment right now is that people believe that we’re having a boom when we may, in fact, be having another revolution.

Boom: You have said, “I’m particularly keen on the future of California.” What do you mean by “keen,” that you feel good about it or that you’re keenly interested in it?

Steffen: Well, you know, I’m a native. I love this place. But more what I meant then was that I think there’s probably nowhere more interesting right now to be thinking about the future than California. In fact, I moved back to California in part because this seems to me to be the place in America where the really difficult questions about our future are being worked out.

In much of the world, the solutions are actually pretty easy to find. They’re just damned hard to implement. If you have a city of ten million people, three million of whom do not have water, there’s a lot of hard work to do there, but we know that it can be done. It’s not a matter of can this place find its future. There are all sorts of questions about equity and how it can happen, the practicalities of it, but that’s not where the future is being worked out. That’s where the nineteenth century is being worked out.

California, on the other hand, has an extreme version of the problem that so much of the world has, which is that it has this landscape of wealth, which has ceased to be a form of wealth and has become a liability. Sunk costs. That is the primary problem for the developed world. We essentially have a Ponzi scheme on our hands. We have a form of wealth that was incredibly expensive to create—ecologically, but also financially—for which we are massively indebted, for which we run giant deficits, at all levels of government, and for which individuals have borrowed enormous amounts of money. And the way of life we bought with that money has a very uncertain future, if it has a future at all. What I mean by that is not just that a lot of our wealth is unsustainable, but, also, that a lot of our wealth has ceased to actually be productive. It’s based on hiding the costs and extracting economic rents from the people who are living here. And that is not a future. Unsustainability and lack of productivity are not what a future is made of.

But the idea that we change, the idea that we open up the future of the places we built and the economy we built to new possibilities is terrifying to a lot of people, especially a lot of older people. And I think that it’s not much of a stretch to divide a lot of California politics into that issue—the issue of are we going to reinvent ourselves so that we have a more prosperous future or do those who are currently benefitting have the right to keep it playing out for a little while longer, no matter what? I actually think that conflict—between those who see their interest in preservation of the status quo, and those who see their only hope in change—may well define our politics for the next decade or two.

Boom: How can we imagine a way out of that? Can you imagine that either we fail to reinvent ourselves? Or we succeed in doing that? What do those alternatives look like?

Steffen: Unfortunately, the failure scenario is really easy. The failure scenario is we do exactly what we’re doing. We believe that some magic force—whether it’s venture-funded technology, or the next boom, or the inherent vitality of multiculturalism, or whatever—that these forces will just show up and everything will be fine. People joke about business plans that claim, “I do this, and then I do that. Then the magic happens, and we make a lot of money.” California’s default plan is, essentially, “then the magic happens.”

The predictable outcome there is that we bankrupt ourselves. And we bankrupt ourselves at precisely the time when the bill is coming due in other ways, for what we’ve done—ecological, social, and fiscal. We sink into the mire precisely when we most need to move quickly.

But failure is not our only future. We might, instead, choose to reinvent ourselves again, to become the people who can reconcile prosperity, sustainability, and dynamism. We could raise our vision to take in the whole state and imagine for it and ourselves new ways of life that fit its realities and our own. Because failing exurbs and potholed freeways, government bankruptcies and climate chaos, eroding clear-cuts, dwindling salmon runs and drought-ravaged crops, a permanent underclass and a massive housing crisis—these aren’t the only way to live. We know enough to know that remaking all of that is at least possible. We could rebuild our cities with lots of new green housing and new transit and infrastructure, run our state on clean energy, remake forestry and farming, and look at water in a more sane way. We might even find a future for the suburbs, because if the twenty-first century has a frontier, it will be, as Bruce Sterling says, in the ruins of the unsustainable. All of these things would make us richer, and done properly they would actually become an export industry, because the whole wealthy world needs to figure out all this stuff, too. So those who figure it out can sell it, and should. We need the scale and speed of change that comes with a boom, and the self-transformation you see unleashed in democratic revolutions.

The practicalities of how we build a bright green state are tough, but even tougher is the cultural question: Who are “we” when we talk about ourselves as a group? The questions of who we are together are thorny and deep-rooted here in California, and we need a new and better answer.

Boom: How do you define success a century out, which is, essentially, success for those who are not yet born?

Steffen: Well, actually, some of the people who will be here in a century have been born.

Boom: Yeah, that’s true. But they’re very, very young, at this point.

Steffen: Our landscape of the future has foreshortened as the baby boomers have gotten older. People treat 2050 as this distant, unknowable world.

Boom: But many people who are forty today will be alive then.

Steffen: Absolutely. In fact, 1970 is farther away than 2050, and 1970 is like right around the corner for a lot of people in California.

Boom: I remember it well.

Steffen: I don’t. I think I was teething.

I believe that we are in the process of reclaiming our kinship to the future. I mean that in the most literal sense. The people who are going to be alive in the near future and in the distant future are us. They’re our descendants. They’re the people we love and their descendants. The future isn’t some make-believe land where weird things happen. That is a very strange conception of how time actually works and has far more to do with marketing things than it does with actual human experience. In 2115, a whole lot of people, who are the children of people now alive, will still be alive. So we’re not talking about a distant them. And I think that’s really important to recognize, because there’s a tendency to believe that because the future is some distant, crazy place, we can leave the future to the future. In fact, there’s a very explicit ideology about not trying to fix our problems now, but wait until nanotechnology, or intelligent robots, or visitors from Mars, or whatever the hell comes along and fixes it for us.

There’s this idea that transcendence is right around the corner, so don’t get bogged down. That is, of course, now a rusty, ancient ideology, despite the fact that we keep putting new coats of paint on it. The idea that we’re going to become immortal in machines was invented by the Bolsheviks, when they were trying to find a communist replacement for heaven. Maxim Gorky led a commission that literally invented the idea of uploading brains and having an online culture of digital beings. Basically, it was a way of being like, “Yeah, you don’t have to worry about dying!” The idea of individual transcendence, that we’re going to biologically engineer ourselves into super beings? That’s eugenics. That’s the nightmare that came out of reaction to Darwin when people were like, “But if nobody put us here, then where are we supposed to be going? We must command our own genetic destiny!”

Space, which is deeply tied into the Californian identity, is a dead end. We’re not going anywhere, for a very long time. I mean, we might go to Mars, but that’s a stunt. That’s not an expression of human destiny. All of these things are part of this idea that the future is a place where we’ll transcend the suffering and fear of the human condition and of living on a single Earth and that it’s just around the curve.

And part of what planetary futurism—a description I made up for the work I do—is about is trying to acknowledge that almost all of the conditions that will be present in the future are things we can sniff out now. The outlines of the future can already be made out in the fog, precisely because we won’t be transcending anything. Demographics are slow and inexorable, human nature changes gradually if at all, technology can do amazing things but is very unlikely to rewrite the laws of physics.

Our confusion on what is and is not within our powers is astonishing. Take, for instance, the very telling muddle around the word “Anthropocene.” In its scientific usage, it describes simply an era when humanity’s impacts on the planet will be recognizable in the geological record. But in popular use, it has come to mean the time when we took control of the planet. That, unfortunately, is absurd. We’re nowhere near fully understanding our world, much less running the show. All of our powers are those of disruption: we know how to fill the sky with pollution and heat the planet, for instance, but that very definitely does not mean we have some sort of global thermostat at our disposal. We know how to destroy ecosystems, but not how to re-create them. We know how to increase entropy, but very little about how to restore dynamic stability. We’re like monkeys breaking china cups and thinking that means we’re master potters. The best way we know to have more cups in the future is to stop breaking them and fix the ones we’ve smashed, if we can.

So we know that in 2115, the problems we’re creating now will be playing out in their full form. And I think that when we look at that, the real obligation that comes down to us—if we want to be good ancestors in that situation—is to leave open options.

And the options that we should most leave open are the options that are the most impossible to replace. So, right now, we don’t have any idea how to resurrect a dead species, despite press to the contrary. The best we can do is kind of play with a species that’s like it, that will produce results that are somewhat akin to what we had. That’s like making a model of an extinct species. That’s not making the species. We are, at the moment, around the world, driving into extinction species we don’t even know exist. So there’s definitely no coming back for those.

Extinction is the permanent closing of an option for the future, and that’s part of why it’s such a terrible idea. Similarly, because of the physics of climate change and ocean acidification and ecosystem loss, it is far, far more expensive, in money and energy terms, to try to alter the impacts than to try to prevent them. Once we put a ton of CO2 up in the air, it’s going to cost us much, much, much more money to deal with the consequences of that, and try to change it, than it costs us to not put a ton of CO2 in the air. Every ton of CO2 we release, then, forecloses options for the future and commits people in the future to more disasters and disaster management.

Where it gets interesting is, what are the things that are hard for us to see as options that people in the future might really want? One of these, for example, might be oil. We might want to leave a lot of oil in the ground for future generations to do things with, because it turns out those hydrocarbons can do a lot of interesting things and probably can do things that we can’t yet quite figure out. So it might be that leaving a bunch of oil in the ground for them is something that they will wish we did. There’s a similar ethos in archaeology now, where there’s a policy of leaving parts of many sites undug, recognizing that our grandchildren and their grandchildren may have techniques and understandings that reveal different things that we can’t even see now and might destroy using existing techniques. Leaving the option open for the future, to explore part of Troy or whatever in a new way, is a very sensible example of this idea.

But there are even weirder things that we don’t really know about, like our own microbiomes, our own bodies, and what we’re doing to our bodies, and what we’re doing to our descendants’ bodies in the process, and what things they might wish we had done or not done. I’m pretty sure, for that reason, that trying to engineer humans, in terms of the genome, is probably a bad idea, precisely because it’s so hard to figure out what the ongoing effects are going to be, beyond very specific genes that we understand very well. We’re starting to understand our genes aren’t computer code, that they are part of the far squishier system of our bodies.

I think that being a good ancestor is largely about leaving the playing field as open as possible for the people who come after us, giving them as many moves as you can.

Boom: So there’s a lot we can know about 2115. Does it matter if there are things that we can’t know about 2115?

Steffen: It does matter. Futurism is a deeply confused industry. It’s confused about its own job. In part, this comes from the conflict that we have in English of having the future mean a whole bunch of different things. The future means any time after now—so the time where you will do something. It also means a mythical place in which we put things that aren’t now, ranging from science fiction stories to predictions of market share. And it also, in American society, means the idea of things changing. The future is an ideology as well as a time in America. And all of these things make it really hard to talk about the future.

I once read an explanation of the Norns, who are the three sisters who weave the cloth of fate in Norse mythology. And it really rang true to me. I fear that it may not actually be true, but it’s one of those things that’s too good to fact-check. Anyway, the names of the three Norns supposedly mean that which was, that which is becoming, and that which may be. And that is actually a really interesting way to think about things, because, first of all, we are so enmeshed in history as humans. The past didn’t go anywhere, as Utah Phillips said. We’re living in the past, still. And that’s a part of the human condition—to live surrounded by the past.

And, a lot of what we talk about as the future is, in fact, what’s already unfolding around us. Much of what we’re trying to do when we’re doing futurism is just to see what’s already here with fresh eyes. Because we’re so surrounded by the past, it’s sometimes hard to see something that has shifted, that’s really important, that’s already true. I think the best futurists almost all see the core of the work as predicting the present.

But there’s also what may be. And I think that’s where it gets really hard to say useful things, because clearly there are events and processes that change us and that change the range of possibility. We’re really obsessed about gadgets and fleeting technologies, but that doesn’t mean that our discoveries aren’t widening the range of things that could happen, in ways that are very hard to anticipate. For instance, things are happening with cognitive science, with brain interfaces, with data extrapolation and modeling, and so forth that could change our experience of thinking. What we’re often blind to, though, is something much more radical, which is social innovation and social evolution.

The fundamental fact about people is not that we are individually smart. It’s that we do crazy things together. We take for granted, especially in the Anglophone world, that the institutions and mores that we got from the nineteenth century are reflections of human nature. So we take for granted that capitalism, in a certain form, is the end of history. We take for granted that the aspiration of people is to be consumers in a middle class way. We take for granted the idea that politics is notionally democratic, but in practice is about competing elites. There’s a whole series of assumptions that we make that go right back into Victorian England. And I think that those assumptions are far more open to disruption than the way our brains interface with technology.

One of the things that is really potent about California is that this is a place that has had social, cultural upheavals, regularly, one after another, for decades on end. There is this idea now that that might be over. If that’s true, I think California has the bleakest future imaginable. But I don’t think it’s true. I think California might well be a place where we see civic and institutional innovation on a popular scale in the near future. The fact that institutional innovation sounds like an oxymoron just demonstrates how much there is to change though.

Boom: Has thinking about the future changed from 1915 to now? And how do you think it will change between now and 2115?

Steffen: To an extent that makes some people very uncomfortable to acknowledge, we are still living in a 1915 sense of the future. Almost all of the tropes of futurism, of science fiction, et cetera, are things that come out of the late 1800s and the very early years of the 1900s. And our reactions to a combination of the displacement of God by evolution, and the ability to tell the age of the planet, and the inability to find a physical soul, all of these things, and this overwhelming force that was raw industrialization, seemed to suggest that everything was malleable…”All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx said. In fact, any trope I have been able to find about the future, you can find somebody saying it in 1915 or, if not 1915, at least by 1925.

We don’t like to acknowledge that. We like to think that advocates of space travel, like Elon Musk, or the Singularity, like Ray Kurzweil, are the cutting edge. But Musk is just following in the tracks of the Russian Cosmists, as Kurzweil follows Gorky and his Immortalization Commission. We like to think that the transhumanists are blazing a new frontier, but they’re really like H.G. Wells, who was talking about a lot of that stuff, just in a much more racist context. Our movies are packed with the fiery futuristic visions of people who were mostly dead before anyone we know was born.

None of those ideas about the future are real anymore. And I think one of the things that’s really emotionally difficult for a lot of people is recognizing that not only did that future not come true, it was never going to. We were never going to get flying cars, and even if we did, they wouldn’t mean what we thought they’d mean. People cling to the idea that, “Oh, look, the classic sci fi future is coming true!” But that future is almost a definition of what’s not happening, it’s where we aren’t.

So, when we look at how people looked at the world in 1915, there are some things that are different—at least I hope they are, social Darwinism, for example, and imperialism—but we have never had a reckoning with that outdated idea of the future. One of the trends that I find hopeful is that this new generation of futurists is fully aware of that situation, and is simply uninterested in the rusty technological sublime.

But right now we still tend to talk about the future—especially older futurists—in terms of what is Apple going to make? So, for example, as we’re talking, the iWatch just came out.

Boom: Yeah, and we’ve been waiting for it for sixty years.

Steffen: Right. Exactly. When your big move is something that cartoons from the prewar era featured, that’s a problem. That’s not an achievement. That’s a problem. And there’s still this sense that the future is being made in Cupertino and Mountain View. And I think the future of technology is being made in much weirder ways and is much more about things like questioning models of intellectual property, reclaiming and restoring privacy, creating widely sharable innovations. These are things that you wouldn’t get a sense are happening in the mainstream tech world.

That said, I’m starting to see this quote everywhere: “If you don’t know what the product is, the product is you.” The idea being that if you’re signed up to a free service that tracks your actions and harvests your data, then you’re actually being exploited, not helped. Or those little anti-Google Glass stickers, which I’ve started to see more and more places: “Don’t wear Google Glass into this business.” There’s a not-so-subtle backlash to that idea of technology, which is really interesting, because in the technology press, it’s portrayed as Luddism. But all the people I know who are most feisty about those things are far more technologically sophisticated than most of the people who write the business press. They’re more immersed in it. It’s a very youthful, techie thing to be skeptical about technology and the way it’s marketed to us.

I suspect that I’m probably too old already to figure this one out as a futurist, but one of the things I feel is this undercurrent that the next technological shift has nothing to do with Silicon Valley’s definitions of what innovation looks like. It might be huge and world changing, without being something that we can recognizably call a technological industry.

Boom: You’ve said that you are particularly interested in our cultural understandings of our built and natural systems, and that the connection is blurring between them. Do you think that the notion of a difference or divide between these two things, the built and the natural environment, will go away?

Steffen: Well, at its most fundamental level, that notion of a divide is false. We are wholly within the natural world. We live within the planet, not on it. And every single thing around us is a piece of nature. We haven’t actually left the natural world, because even when we shoot people into space, we take Earth minerals, make them into a shell, fill them with Earth gases, Earth water, and Earth food. We detach that for a little while from Earth and then bring it back. So this idea that there’s some artificial world that exists outside of the context of the natural is just not true.

There was once a useful distinction between the systems that we have dominated and built into designs of our own making, or unintentionally created, and systems that have evolved on their own. But we have an influence on everything now. There’s no place that’s not warming because of our fossil fuel use, for example. This demands thinking in new ways. Aldo Leopold said, “To be an ecologist is to live alone in a world of wounds.” Culturally, we do not have a path to understanding the interaction of the systems we have heavily engineered with those that we are not in control of, other than this sense of loss. Environmentalism gave us this amazing gift of understanding, actually, that we live entirely within the planet. But it also created a narrative of decline. Even now, some of the most eminent elder environmental thinkers spend their time musing over whether it’s too late for civilization or whether we can still retreat back into the past. How far back into the past is a matter of disagreement. Wendell Berry believes we just need to retreat to horse-drawn plows. And you have others who are like, “No, no, no. We need to undo industrial civilization as a whole.” These are all back-to-the-garden fantasies, and again quite old ones, dating back to the very dawn of the industrial era. They have nothing to do with our actual set of options. These dreams of retreat to a simpler time, I believe, are attempts to retain psychological integrity in the face of an overwhelming reality, which is everything is not quite as we’ve been trained to see it.

But I also think that there’s something happening where we are beginning—and California is actually very much in the epicenter of this—to understand that the systems we influence and the systems we have changed, we have built, don’t have to be disastrous breaks with nature, that there can be a harmony across the landscape, which is not natural and not human, because there is no separation of those things, so we seek the health of both. It is us trying to live within the patterns of the planet we’re on while meeting our needs. And there’s a way to do that which is very different than what we have, but better.

Right now, we’re sitting here in Berkeley, and I can see out the window, past you. There’s a busy street with asphalt, and cars zooming down it. I can see air conditioning units and power poles. And it’s very difficult to come to grips with the reality that none of that is sustainable, even over a very short period of time. If ecologists and environmentalist have largely retreated into the past, a lot of people who work on the built world dwell with a comforting illusion that we’re going to somehow make our unsustainable cities work without reimagining them from the ground up.

The most potent question of all, I think, is how might a bright green—both prosperous and sustainable—future outcompete the present? Because this is America. Futures don’t get built because they’re better. They get built because they outcompete. That, I think, is a really interesting question.

Boom: I’m looking over your shoulder and there’s a backyard orchard and garden and trees. Some of that probably is sustainable.

Steffen: It might be. Yet one of the big changes that has happened in the last ten years is people understanding that you have to think in systems. You have to think about consumption footprints and supply chains. One of the really big problems with 1970s environmentalism was this whole idea that you could do things on a local scale and become sustainable. But even looking back across the yard, at the house there, even that vision of urban sustainability is dependent on oil and huge industrial systems, on things that are manufactured in China—it’s likely that even that food there in the garden is being grown in topsoil mined elsewhere and dumped into urban yards, et cetera, et cetera. We are all of us enmeshed in these global systems, and there is no escape from it. One of the really big problems we have is this sense that urban sustainability means making cities like rural areas. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Urban sustainability has to be about making cities so much like cities that their footprints shrink to that which can be met sustainably. And that way of thinking is like a whole new thing. And it’s another source of big conflict in California.

Boom: I was going to ask what might California’s vision of itself be in 2115. But it sounds like California’s vision of itself as some place distinct goes away. Or does it?

Steffen: Well, who knows? See, I think there’s a challenge there, because there is this mindset that if you aren’t local, you must be just globalized in some way that destroys everything. But that mindset, I think, is, frankly, not very different from the mindset that fueled harsh xenophobia and racism—that we’re going to become mongrelized or something if we interact with people who are not like us. I think that what we will do is come to more fully understand our places, more fully inhabit them, because the story that we tell about them being distinct was never true, or it was never the whole truth, at the very least. And I suspect that just as you go to Europe now, and seventy years ago Europeans were killing each other by the tens of millions, but you go to Europe now, and you go to a place like Berlin, and there are people from all over Europe, hanging out together, marrying each other, starting businesses together, living in a shared future. But they’re still people from different places. They still speak different languages. They still have different cultures. They have different dialects within their languages, et cetera. That doesn’t go away.

So I don’t think the sense of California will disappear just because we think in planetary terms. If anything, it may sharpen, in a weird way. We may understand that there is something very special and unique about the West Coast and about California, and we may come to see those things as sources of real pride rather than just tourist attractions.


Market Street Railway mural and photographs by Mona Caron.

Boom editor Jon Christensen spoke with Alex Steffen at length in person. The transcript of their conversation was then edited and revised by both Steffen and Christensen.


California’s Heyday


Jon Christensen interviews Malcolm Margolin

The Boom Interview

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s note: Malcolm Margolin doesn’t answer questions. He tells stories. Sitting down to talk with Malcolm is like settling into the shotgun seat of an old pickup truck. You know you’re in for a ride. You’re going to go places you’ve never been before, explore back roads and byways, stop in on some old friends, and sit and chat for a while.

Getting out of the office and deep hanging out—Malcolm says that’s his job as publisher of Heyday, which this year is celebrating forty years of publishing books on California. Looking back across four decades of Heyday’s backlist and perusing each beautiful new catalog as it comes out every season—the catalogs themselves tell stories—the gifts that Malcolm Margolin has brought California overwhelm any attempt to contain them. A new book appears about every two weeks.

As is his wont, Malcolm is moving on to find the next thing of beauty to bring back to Heyday and all of us. But before doing so, he sat down for a spell in Heyday’s Berkeley offices with Boom editor Jon Christensen to talk about books, publishing, and his California.

Jon Christensen: There will be a lot of people who will read this who haven’t, amazingly, heard of Heyday and Malcolm Margolin. So what is Heyday? Tell me a little bit about its mission and its history.

Malcolm Margolin: It wasn’t deliberate. I didn’t want to set up a publishing company. As I’m getting older, people are giving me credit for great vision, that forty years ago Margolin had a vision of a magnificent California publishing enterprise. He’s worked hard, and he’s fulfilled that vision. The vision that I had was wanting not to work for anybody. The vision I had was being free and independent. The vision that I had was getting through the week, and it’s been forty years of getting through the week. It’s been forty years of doing what’s been in front of me.

As for history, it started somewhere around ‘73 when I got fired from the East Bay Regional Park District. I turned thirty—I actually turned thirty three years before, but it took me three years to work on it. Houghton Mifflin gave me ten thousand bucks for a book that I’d written. I was a free man with money in my pocket, and I spent the next year hiking in the hills and looking around. I just took off and celebrated the amazing, incredible beauty of the world, the fact that I was free. I had thought that I’d been had. I thought that I was trapped. I thought that I was going to be a pawn in this whole society, that I’d be pushed around by forces beyond my control. But I got my hands on the steering wheel of my life, and I discovered it was a sports car, and that the freeway was leading to someplace that was utterly marvelous. I just stepped on the gas and I took off. I hiked around, and I wrote these marvelous thoughts about hiking in the East Bay, and I put them together in a book that I typeset and designed and put out. The book ultimately sold a hundred thousand copies. It’s called The East Bay Out.

I loved writing and I considered myself a writer. But I now discovered that I loved the physicality of putting the type down on the paper. Many years later, I met the poet and printer William Everson, and he was particularly eloquent on what it was to generate something out of your mind that never existed before, to create it, to put it on paper, to give it a physical form, and that physical form I loved. And I also ended up loving getting it out in the world. There was something about just writing a manuscript and giving it to somebody else that seemed so incomplete and unsatisfactory. It would be as if I was a writer and only did the verbs and let somebody else do the nouns.

The process of writing is getting something into somebody else’s mind, and I loved being part of that whole process, of getting it out into bookstores, and giving readings, of being part of the distribution, of being active in the world. And the whole business of sitting there writing, it was so lonely and so filled with delusion and so helpless, so dependent upon other people. But publishing was a way that I could be active. I could get something out in the world. I could ride that horse out into the meadows, into the valleys, into the mountains. I could explore things.

So its origins were to do one book and do it well. So then I did another book.

Christensen: And here we are with twenty-five books a year.

Margolin: Twenty-five books a year, a couple hundred events a year, a staff of about fifteen.

Christensen: How do you describe what Heyday is today and what its mission is today?

Margolin: The official mission statement has something to do with deepening people’s appreciation and understanding of the natural and cultural resources of California, and something about boundary-breaking ideas, and a lot of other shit like that. What I do is, I go out into the world. I go out into the world and I find beautiful things and I bring them back in here, and I bring them back in here to make the people that work on them beautiful. We don’t just shape the stuff that we work on. The stuff that we work on shapes us, and I’ve watched the people at Heyday be shaped by it, and I’ve watched it go out into the world to shape others.

Perhaps the real mission of Heyday is to create a beautiful place in which there’s joy, in which there’s creativity, in which there’s pride, in which there’s a soundness, in which there’s playfulness, and to see this spill over into the world at large. But, once again, it has to do with my being regional. It has to do with my being nearsighted. It has to do with my not being too good at systems. It’s the specificities that I go for, projects and people that I’ll bring into the office and astonish everybody, including myself.

Christensen: So that specificity and that regionalism, why California?

Margolin: Because I was here. If I’d been in Indiana, I would have been the best publisher in Indiana.

Christensen: Is there a California literature, or literatures?

Margolin: You know, going on my own experience—let’s not talk about Joaquin Miller. We could, but let’s not. Let’s talk about more recent times, and let’s talk about it from a publisher’s perspective.

Back East major and long-established publishers dominated the scene. When I came out West, it was swarming with little presses. When I started Heyday, in Berkeley alone there were dozens of them—Alta had Shameless Hussy Press, and John Oliver Simon had Aldebaran. Bob Callahan and Eileen Callahan had Turtle Island. Ishmael Reed had I. Reed Books. Don Cushman had Cloud Marauder. George Mattingly had Blue Cloud. Jerry Ratch had Somber Reptiles Press, a wonderful name for a press. There were these and so many more. And these were all enterprises that had grown up around personalities. And yet it was all invention. This was invented whole cloth. This was not a Houghton Mifflin. This was not a Harper & Row. This was something that sprung up at the spur of the moment, bursting with freshness and energy.

My wonderful friend, Ron Turner, had Last Gasp, with all these underground cartoonists, with Crumb and all these characters arising up. Printers like Clifford Burke were doing limited edition fine-art books. Ferlinghetti had just started publishing under the City Lights imprint. Stewart Brand did the Whole Earth Catalog. There was an inventiveness and excitement to it all. It was a snubbing of the nose at the proprieties and at the stuckedness of major publishing. I remember that Harper and Houghton and all these places were sending scouts out because something was happening out here. They didn’t quite understand what it was, and they sent scouts to see what they could find out.

But there was something about this self-invention, and there was something about the looseness of this whole thing, that I think gave rise to the Lou Welches, to the Richard Brautigans, to the Gary Snyders, to the Maxine Hong Kingstons, to the Ishmael Reeds, to the James Houstons and Ray Carvers, to the Bob Hasses, to all these people that created Western literature, and I’m not sure they could have created it back East. I’m not sure that that rigid structure would have allowed that sort of thing. And this goes back to the Gold Rush days, when California was cut off from the East, and it created its own literature. It created its own magazines. There were wonderful magazines back then, and there was something in that self-creation that made it different, it made it more accessible, it made it more vibrant and more connected to the people, to the place around here.

From Take me to the River: Fishing, Swimming, and Dreaming of the San Joaquin by Joell Hallowell and Coke Hallowell. Courtesy Sally Adlesh.

Christensen: Describe for me this idea of the roundhouse model of publishing. It’s more than a book. What is it? Where did the idea come from?

Margolin: The idea came from the sad experience of doing books that would go out into the world and not work very well. Splendid books that would have such a short lifetime, like a mayfly that just kind of flutters around briefly and then disappears. But whatever the sales, doing books is a wonderful way of organizing ideas. The doing of the book brings out greatness in people that do them. The editing process, the design process, the commitment of the publisher, they’re all tremendously valuable. Once it gets out into the world—or maybe doesn’t get out into the world—there’s often disappointment, regret, and apology.

And, despite the explosive growth of digital publishing, for many kinds of books the commercial vehicles for distribution are attenuating—there is this shriveling of opportunity. There has to be some other way of getting stuff out into the world. And what we deal with are ideas, and what we deal with are emotions. I’m an emotion junkie. I’m not an intellectual. I’m an emotion junkie, and Heyday is an emotional place. When somebody comes in with something beautiful, the staff will spend a lot of time talking about the core of beauty that it has, the core of meaning that it has. What is it that the world has to know, and how do we get it out? And we’ll get it out through multiple channels. So there’s the book, there’s the events, there are the museum shows we originate, the alliances we form with other cultural and environmental organizations, there’s the fact that the roundhouse doesn’t just support itself by sales. It has donors. It has foundations that support us. We’re a community center, and I love it when people come into this place. There’s a porosity to this place. People just come wandering in and they find things. We have a marvelous archive. People are furthered by it all. If people need advice, they’ll come to us for advice. They’ll come to us for connection. It’s a social center. I think the bookstores of the future are not going to be bookstores. I think they’re going to be community centers. I think they’re going to be intellectual centers. I think they’ll be replacing universities—not for professional training but more as refugia for the life of the mind. I think they’ll be clubs. I think there’s something else that people are hungry for, and it’s that sense of community. It’s a place that exists on real friendship.

The first law of publishing is you don’t deal with anybody you don’t like, and the second law of publishing is anything that gets you out of the office is good, that you don’t find truth in the inbox. You just get out into the world. And there’s something about being out in this world, in multiple platforms, in multiple forms.

From Vital Signs by Juan Delgado and Thomas McGovern. Photograph by Thomas McGovern.

You know, we do twenty-five books a year, so every two weeks or so, another book comes back from the printer. Anna will bring me a copy of the book, or Diane will bring me a copy of a book when it comes. I’ll take a look at it. I’ll admire it. I’ll compliment everybody on it. I’ll heft it. I’ll look at the price of it. I’ll think about it. I’ll put it aside. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the quality of it. I’ll stand by it proudly but I may never look at it again. What I love is the social network that created it, the artist, the editor, the writer, the people that criticized it, the conversations that were around it, what formed the idea. What I love is what comes out of it all: the radio shows, the reviews, the sales, the publicity. If the book were to disappear, if there were to be no book but everything else were intact, there would certainly be a loss, but what remains would still be of immense value.

Christensen: The roundhouse idea comes from the Native American communities you’ve been involved with and publishing with, and the roundhouse is a kind of community center.

Margolin: The roundhouse is a community center. It is a multipurpose community center. It’s a church. It’s a university. It used to function as a hotel, and in some places as a recreation center. In the old days, when it was built, people would come from different places. They would help construct the place that corresponded to where they were coming from. There were seating arrangements in those old places, where you would sit in a precise place that defined your relationship to the society around you. Maybe your clan and my clan have reciprocal undertaking arrangements. We bury your dead; you bury our dead. Where we would sit in the roundhouse would reflect this relationship.

Where you would sit was the physical manifestation of the community. There would be a center post, and that center post was a living entity. Those center posts had memories. The center posts had intelligence. The center post was a living thing. And when you were next to that center post, you had to speak the truth, and if you didn’t speak the truth, then terrible things would happen to you, because that center post had the power to do that sort of thing. There was something in that place where you would come to tell the truth.

When you go into those old roundhouses, the light is always the same. There’s a fire going on. There’s a fire there. People are sitting around waiting for a dance. When you go into those old roundhouses, it’s the sense that this is the permanent world. The rest of the world, the birds and trees and rivers and cities, it’s just an illusion, that this round space is the center of the world. It’s always been there, it’s eternal and it’s immortal, and this is what’s holding the whole thing together. It is the most beautiful kind of thing.

Christensen: What’s interesting is that the roundhouse has to be rebuilt. It’s a permanent place, but it has to be rebuilt every generation.

Margolin: There was that story that my Miwok friend, Dwight Dutschke, told me, of how a roundhouse has to be built so that it will collapse every twenty years, so that every generation will have the experience of rebuilding it. And what he said was, if you want to build a roundhouse that will last, there’s one method of doing it. If you want a culture that will last, there’s something else you have to do. It was built for that kind of transmission.

I once did the most marvelous study of Indian pedagogy, of how people learn things, and how knowledge was preserved in this world before books, before writing, how you preserve sacred text, how you preserve technical knowledge, and the various means by which knowledge was embedded in things and people, and that marvelous Indian way of knowing. There’s a different way of knowing that they have. The stories that they have of how buckeye is married to rattlesnake and gives birth to grizzly bear, and all those stories that are so completely incomprehensible to us, they preserve wonderment. They don’t preserve knowledge. They preserve wonderment. They preserve relationship. They teach us our place in the world and they define attitude. They’re laid over the world like a blanket, to give it meaning, to give it texture, to give it relationship, to give it magic, to bind opposites together. They don’t kill the magic in the world. The magic in the world is embedded in these stories, in those ways of seeing things, and there’s that wonderful sense that you get there, that the world is bigger than our capacity to understand it, that the world is inherently mysterious.

There’s that great story that Jaime de Angulo, a linguist and storyteller active in California during the first half of the last century, tells of being up in the Pit River country, talking to some old guy, and asking him about the creation of the world. And the guy says, “Well, in the beginning, it was coyote,” and Jaime says, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. In a nearby village they told me at the beginning, it was silver fox.” And this Indian says, “Well, there they say it was silver fox. Here we say it was coyote.” In Europe, you would have had a religious war in which three million people would have been killed to settle who the true creator of the world was. In this older California, they say it one way, we say it another way. What a marvelous world, a people so at home in it that they don’t need to cling to brittle illusions of certitude.

And the story goes on that Jaime tells. There’s a point in the creation—Bob Hass wrote a poem about this one. He got it from me, and he wrote a poem about it, and he garbled it in the most marvelous way that only Bob Hass has. In garbling it, he improved the part. But the guy says something like, “So, at one point in the creation, the world maker was about to do something, and he says, ‘I better not do this because what will people think?’” And Jaime says, “Wait a minute. There’s no people around. He’s creating the world. He can create any kind of world he wants, he can create any kind of people he wants. What do you mean, what will people think?”

And the Indian says, “You know, I always wondered about that. When I was a kid I asked my father about it, and my father said, ‘You know, I always wondered about that. When I was a kid, I asked my father about that.’” It’s a world in which there were questions that were being asked. It’s not a world that’s defined tightly. It’s a world where people recognized that the wonderments of being alive are so great, and the human intelligence is so limited, that all we can do is be in awe of it all. These stories pay homage to the wisps of knowledge that swirl around the great mystery, rather than try to nail the thing down and kill it.

From Edges of Bounty by William Emery. Photograph by Scott Squire.

Christensen: Your daughter, Sadie, says, “My overseas was here in California, visiting Indian country, places where you can imagine an alternate history to what we have now, perhaps even a history that should have been but isn’t.” What did she mean by that?

Margolin: We can give her a ring and find out what the hell she meant.

Christensen: Well, what are your thoughts about that?

Margolin: I think that that alternate history is a different way of looking at history. We look at Indians as a function of the dominant culture. They were a defeated people. They’ve been marginalized. They’re trying to regain their culture. But we contextualize it within our own dominant culture. We try to make them fit into our own narrative. It’s nothing more than continuing the conquest. When you get into an Indian perspective, you see something else. You see survival. You see change. You see transmission. You see evolution of things.

Let me see if I can get at this, because there’s something remarkable about that other perspective, when you see things in a different manner. We have a triumphalist view of history. It’s the triumph of the Western people that have come in. Indian history is not a triumphalist history. This is a different history. It’s a history of pain. It’s a history of humiliation. But it’s a history of greater victory. So we’ve got this character working for us now, named Vincent Medina. About two years ago, we had twenty local Indians that I invited to our office. We invited some foundation people to listen to them, and I wanted these foundation people to hear what the Bay Area Indians had to say about their world. Vincent is somebody who was twenty-six years old. He’s relearned the Chochenyo language from the wax cylinders that his ancestors had created in the 1930s, the last speakers of this wonderful language. They left behind some wax cylinders and some notes. He has relearned the language with utter fluency and utter grace.

So it goes around the table and Vincent is sitting there, and it comes to him and he says, “My name is Vincent Medina. I’m twenty-six years old. I’m Chochenyo Ohlone from this area. I know my language. I’m practicing my customs. I didn’t have the same experience as you people in this room. I’m younger than you. I grew up in a different age. I never experienced the brutal prejudice. I never experienced the hatred. I’m not filled with resentment and anger. I’m so grateful for everybody at this table for keeping things alive during such difficult times, but I want to let you know that I have my language, I have my culture, and I’m going to take it somewhere where it’s never been.”

And there was something marvelous in that statement. There’s something of a victory to that statement, and something in having resurrected something and kept it alive that’s such a different vantage point from our own history. There’s something in it that’s so rooted, that’s so emotional, so inconsequential to the culture at large, and yet so self-defined and central, in and of itself. I find that utterly beautiful, and I find going to these pockets of integrity, going to these places of memory, going to these places of emotion and attachment—there’s another history in there. There’s another way of seeing things in there, and leads me to a hopefulness.

Christensen: Describe for me deep hanging out, as a method.

Margolin: If you have to describe it, it’s hopeless. It comes naturally.

Christensen: What don’t we know about the rest of California?

Margolin: I’m not sure.

Christensen: Do I need to clarify who I mean by “we”? So it’s partly a question of what are the things that you think that we need to know about the rest of California, and by that “we,” I mean those of us who live in the cities, the Bay Area, Los Angeles. But maybe it’s the other way around, too. What don’t we know about each other?

Margolin: This is such a big and wonderful question. Some weekends ago, I went down to Southern California with Lindsie Bear, who runs the roundhouse. We stopped in at Sam Maloof’s house—Sam was a well-known furniture maker—to talk to these people about doing a book on Sam. And then we went off to the Morongo Reservation, where my wonderful friend, Ernie Siva, had a fundraiser for his Dorothy Ramon Learning Center. His aunt, Dorothy Ramon, was the last full speaker of the Serrano language, although Ernie speaks it, too. He has a center devoted to her, and this was a gala to celebrate the center.

We got up early the next morning in Banning and went out to the Mission Inn in Riverside and had breakfast. We then walked up to the street to this Mexican restaurant that has this outsider art in the backyard, magnificent sculptures. Each and every one of these was a self-defined world that somebody had made. Each was a world off the grid. And the capacities of people not to follow the agenda, to create their own worlds of great beauty is just, to me, an utter marvel. And maybe I see this as a publisher. Maybe people come to me only when they have great ideas or something unusual to say.

I think that what we don’t understand is the capacity of people for joy, for creativity, for lives of meaning and for lives of beauty, for lives of devotion to causes, and this great sincerity and this great integrity that people have around us. I’m always stunned by it. I’m always so moved by it. I’m always so moved by the loyalties of people, to their own culture. I’m so moved by the authenticity of the “Hapa” generation, of these mixed-bloods. Whether it’s Indian or Asian, it’s a crossover of people that are forging something new that means something to them. They’re not just taking their identity off the shelf. They’re creating new identities for themselves, and these people among us that are doing things that are so quietly creative and heroic.

And I think what we have to know is there’s been something in the general tone of the media that diminishes people, that diminishes our capacity for joy, that diminishes our capacity for political solution, that diminishes our capacity for competence in the world, that would present people as a race of incompetents that are addicted to toys and are greedy and are living in a world that’s deteriorating, too lazy, selfish, short-sighted, and greedy to be effective. I think you go around and there are people that are just so marvelous, the Mas Masumotos of the world, the people that are doing great things. And this is what I’ve been doing. I’ve been going off and meeting these people, and recording their stories, and they’re people I’m attracted to. I don’t know whether this is statistically widespread. These are the people I know.

From Scrape the Willow Until it Sings by Julia Parker. Photograph by Deborah Valoma.

Christensen: How many Californias are there, or how many should there be?

Margolin: The population is thirty-two million. You could say that there are thirty-two million Californias. But I think California has this reputation for self-invention. I think everybody is convinced they own California, and it’s such a flimsy concept. It’s such a undefinable concept. In 1849, a bunch of alcoholics sitting around a table in Monterey drew some lines around a map through places that they’d never been, and created this thing called California, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. It’s not real. It’s not real. In no way does it conform to geography, culture, or anything else in the real world.

We’ve been doing a lot of work up in the Sacramento Valley. To some extent, parts of the Sacramento Valley are a culture area. You go up into the rice-growing areas up there, and there are people that live up there that are the most peculiarly traditional, conservative, optimistic people. They’re so inventive in their technology. They’re so forward-looking. And, at the same time, they’re so conservative in their social values. I don’t know how you make people like this. Bryce Lundberg and the Lundberg family, they’re just astonishing people. The people that have Sierra Brewery, the people that are out there on the farms—and this is a culture area, and I’m not sure how far it extends. The people that seem to live around Davis seem to have more of an organic, small-community sort of thing.

We did a lot of work down in what’s called the Inland Valley, and there it’s completely fragmented. Riverside has its own culture. San Bernardino has its own culture. Colton has its own culture. Fortuna has its own culture. Idyllwild has its own culture. In the Bay Area, Berkeley has absolutely nothing in common with Fremont. Fremont has absolutely nothing in common with Marin County. Marin County has absolutely nothing in common with San Jose. Nobody knows anything about what the others are doing, and yet we call ourselves the Bay Area. I don’t know how many Californias there are. You tell me.

Christensen: I argue that we’re one. We have one state.

Margolin: Well, maybe we can have one state. As a political entity, maybe we do have one state. There’s a great statement by Walter Lippmann, “Where all people think alike, no one thinks very much.” There’s something about these differences and dynamics that are so invigorating. So you think there’s only one California. How about less than one?

Christensen: At times it seems that way.


Margolin: Why stop at one? Why not continue?

Christensen: But it’s more of an argument, right? It’s an argument I’m making, about more than one California. I’m happy to entertain these ideas that there’s more than one California, or there should be more than one California, but if there are, I want them to be things that are useful for us to think with, or think about the California we have, rather than things that are destructive. I think that Tim Draper’s proposal for seven—

Margolin: —for six or seven Californias is idiotic.

Christensen: I think it’s destructive. It doesn’t help us think about the California we have.

Margolin: It’s completely destructive. It’s completely destructive. It assumes that unanimity is good. It assumes that homogeneity is good, and you end up having homogeneous groups, and this is good. And it’s one way of eliminating conflict, but with it comes no thinking. With it comes no progress. And we’re connected. The waters connect us. The air connects us. It’s all bullshit about California being an island. California is not an island. In California, the storms come in from the Pacific, the salmon come in from the ocean, the whales come down from the Arctic, the geese and the ducks come in from Siberia and Alaska, the people move throughout, the transmission—the air pollution comes from China. It’s always been part of the world, and this whole business of insulating something from the world is just absolutely—well, I can’t say I care for it very much.

So what are some of the changes you’ve seen since you’ve been in California? What do you think of California?

Christensen: I think perhaps the reason why I agreed to take on this foolhardy proposition of editing a quarterly magazine—and dedicating it to California in the world and the world in California—is that I’m trying to figure out this question. Or perhaps just keep asking it. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure it out, but it’s an interesting question to keep asking.

Margolin: So Jim Quay came by for lunch. He was head of the California Council for the Humanities, and for thirty years he would ask the question, “What does California mean?” He never found out. He never quite pinned it down. What I keep thinking about is that there’s been a major shift, that for the first time in our history, more people are born in this state than migrated in. For most of our history, people have come in as migrants, so they have left family and culture behind, they’ve come to a new place. They’ve come to reinvent themselves in some way. And there was something in that reinvention that I think defined California. It defined it in the Gold Rush, when some schleppy young farmer from New England with zits would come out here and suddenly take on another identity of Tennessee Joe, and take on a romantic past that created a new identity for himself.

I’ve created an identity for myself. This is not the kid that grew up in Dorchester. I left that person behind. And it’s a place where you could re-create yourself, and there’s something in that milieu that allows people to change, that creates something. There’s a dynamism to this culture that’s really great fun. Silicon Valley began here. Underground comics began here. A new type of music began here. There was something about the innovation of the place, it’s the innovation of people that are allowed to reinvent themselves, and maybe that’s what here.

Christensen: Thinking about this story of the ancient Polynesians setting out on boats to colonize Hawaii, packing seeds of things for the future, what would you pack for the future?

Margolin: For the future of Heyday or for the future of California? There’s a difference.

Christensen: Well, let’s take one and then the other, for the future of Heyday.

Margolin: The Rolodex. I’d pack the Rolodex.

Christensen: You still have one, actually.

Margolin: Yeah. I think the question is better than any answer I have. I think that a person lives on a body of values, and it lives on something. I think I would pack it into a theme song. I think I would pack it into an app, a kind of morning prayer, and the prayer would be for the capacity to take risks, the capacity to be open, understanding that this is not a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a kind world and to be kind to other people. I think it’s a body of values, that I would bring along. I think this is all that I have. I don’t have possessions. I don’t own a house. I don’t own anything. I own absolutely nothing that if I lost it, I would care about it. This is not just an idle Zen kind of comment. I think that if I was stripped of everything, I wouldn’t care. I just don’t care about these sorts of things.

I think what I have to offer is a kind of system of values, and it has to do with playfulness. It has to do with risk. It has to do with a desire to see other people happy. I love the happiness of the people that are here. I love to see them happy. I don’t want to dominate. I want people to be strong, and I want them to be in a position and place where people are thriving. There’s something about that, I think, I would end up capturing that in some kind of a poem, some kind of a song, where a sentence could repeat, and it wouldn’t be corrupted by time. These things tend to be corrupted by time, and I’m not sure how you keep that core that has not been articulated. I think that I would keep alive disgust with meanness and selfishness. People come in here with that kind of stuff and I just have no use for it. I just have no use for it. I just don’t see it here.

Christensen: What about for California?

Margolin: I think what you would end up packing for the future are environments. I think there are environments that need to be protected, and I think that what has to be protected is not the species that live on these places but the capacity of a place to change, the capacity of a place to be fruitful and fecund and healthy, and I think it’s the underlying health of a place that has to be preserved. And I think that great areas of land have to be taken into the future. I think that we have to preserve the limited waters that we have. I think for California, the future is in the natural resources that have to be preserved.

I would love to be able to preserve the literature of California. I once created something called the California Legacy Project over at Santa Clara University, to get that older literature out. Somehow, there’s been no cultural interest in it. There’ve been no courses in it. The state of the new, this worship of the new, nobody wants to read this Gold Rush stuff anymore. Nobody wants to read these marvelous works from the past. And somehow or other, I would like to see these preserved. I would like to see these memories preserved of what places were like, what the tonalities of people’s lives were like, what the hopes of the people that came here were, what their aspirations were, how these aspirations got molded and realized or obliterated. I think I would love to keep alive the lives of people.

I would love to see more deep hanging out. This art of deep hanging out, it’s not done too often. People have become like billiard balls on a table. They click against one another, and they bounce off into their separate worlds. I go into these Indian communities. I’ll go to somebody’s house. I’ll knock at the door and somebody will open the door, and this old woman will look at me—this has happened recently—and she’ll look at me and she’ll say, “Malcolm. How good to see you.” And you know you’re in for a three-hour visit, in which nothing much may get said, but you sit there for three hours and you absorb each other’s personality, and the bigness of their lives, the sadness of their lives, the humor of their lives, and this whole business of just getting to know one another. It’s so essential.

Buckled gypsum, from Saltscapes by Cris Benton.


Outdoor Afro

Jon Christensen interviews Rue Mapp and Carolyn Finney

The Boom Interview

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Carolyn Finney and Rue Mapp. Photograph by James Edward Mills

Editor’s Note: We asked Carolyn Finney and Rue Mapp to talk with us because their work is at the very heart of thinking about people and nature in California, in all of its glorious and challenging diversity. It only occurred to us later that their work and this conversation is also an apt illustration of what we’re trying to do with Boom: bring important, innovative thinkers and doers from our great universities into conversation with important, innovative thinkers and doers out in the world.

Carolyn Finney is an assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the new book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). She is a member of the National Parks Advisory Board and is a member of California’s Parks Forward Commission.

Rue Mapp is the CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro, a social community that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening, skiing, and more. Outdoor Afro aims to disrupt the false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature and works to shift the visual representation of who can connect with the outdoors.

Finney and Mapp, of course, have been in conversation with each other for many years. They met with Boom editor Jon Christensen at Mapp’s house in Oakland, California.

Jon Christensen: I’m curious: what is the first question that you usually get asked about your work?

Rue Mapp: Often it’s not a question. It’s a reaction. When I say Outdoor Afro, a lot of times people laugh, and I’m okay with that because Outdoor Afro, the name, is meant to disarm and be fun and accessible, but, at the same time, concise. So we know who we’re talking about, and we know what we’re talking about.

Carolyn Finney: Because I’m in academia—and I never call myself an academic, I work in academia—people want to know what information I have. They somehow assume that it’s not personal for me. And for me, this is an entirely personal endeavor.

The other thing people say, when I say I’m interested in the issue of difference, of race, they say, “Oh, so you’re doing environmental justice.” Just because I’m talking about black people, they think I’m talking about environmental justice. First of all, that’s a disservice to those who very specifically do environmental justice work. But secondly, just because I’m black and I’m talking about black people doesn’t mean I’m only talking about the “bad” things that happen to us. We actually have great ideas. We’re actually quite creative. We want to contribute.

Christensen: I remember when Rue and I first met, it was in Yosemite, and we were at a meeting of conservationists and environmental activists who were concerned about connecting with diverse Californians. Their first question seemed to be: “How can we get these people to appreciate nature?”

Finney: The assumption is that they’re not engaged! So often the well-intentioned action of saying we’re going to go out and engage this community means that you can’t see what’s already creative and generative within the community. So, for me, it’s about building a relationship, as opposed to saying that with all that good intention we’re going to go get you to come do what we’re doing. Maybe they are doing something really great. Maybe you should try to figure out how you can get involved with that and support that!

Mapp: Give me a nickel for every time that I hear someone saying, “I take the children from the community.” It’s always children. Never mind their parents, their grandparents, people who could be contributors. Well meaning people say “I take the kids and we take them to this—insert wild place.” The next line is always, “And they’ve never seen—insert wild thing.” And, “Oh, my goodness, we’ve really done something.” But you really have just made yourself feel good. You’ve taken your picture for your newsletter. But what happens when that child goes back home? Or how is that connection that child makes related to what that child’s generational experience is, or community experience, or day-to-day life is? People are not talking about that. I think that we have this opportunity to be a little bit more bold than the pedestrian way that people have thought about differences, and who we’re talking about within those differences, and recognizing the diversity within the differences, when we’re talking about specific groups of people.

Finney: And there are many people who don’t believe they’re separate from nature in the first place! It’s like, “Are you breathing?” You have a relationship with nature, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Even the privileging of a point of view that humans and nature are separate puts groups of people that tend to be either people of color, or indigenous people on the margins, because they have a different way of looking at the world. We miss all the knowledge and experience and the wisdom and the possibility that come from having a different point of view. Because, partially, historically, they had to have a different point of view. They had to negotiate all these rules and laws and policies that were put in place that inhibited their ability to do certain things. So, for example, people have gone on to create their own black beaches in the South because they weren’t allowed to go to the white beaches during Jim Crow segregation. And now they’re celebrating that. We’ve done this throughout history—found ways to create and express our own stories. And we are still doing it, whether it’s community gardens or environmental justice. We’re not always going to wait for someone to invite us into the space.

Mapp: When I go out on a hike, I see people who look like me all the time. And I’m like, why is it then that when we have these conversations we’re assuming that people are not engaged? Are people not out here seeing what I’m seeing? I think that people engage with those natural spaces in proportion to their populations and their opportunities. So if you go to Lake Merritt in Oakland, for instance, right now, it will look like the United Nations. But if we drive three hours north, where there really aren’t a lot of black people who live in that local area, surprise, surprise, you’re not going to be bathed in blackness when you go to places like that.

I think we can capture what’s already happening and stop making it into a problem when you don’t see more diversity in areas that are remote. If you’re a busy, working family and you may even work on the weekend—there are a lot of assumptions about free time, privilege, access to transportation that often get applied to you. When I ask Outdoor Afros what the number one reason is that they’re not getting out, it isn’t about historical stuff usually. It is: how can I practically fit outdoor experiences into my life? So I just think sometimes this issue gets so weighted down. And we’re not capturing what’s already happening, and not thinking more practically about what people’s lives really are, and how local parks might be able to fit in people’s lives in ways that are relevant and appropriate.

Finney: People are doing stuff all the time outside, especially in the city. It makes me crazy, this idea that somehow nature isn’t in the city and that people aren’t in nature in the city. I want to say, really? I see people out in gardens, or playing outside, or doing whatever they’re doing. They’re outside in nature. Not everybody is going to Yosemite. Not everybody should necessarily go to Yosemite. And not everybody wants to go to Yosemite. But all those assumptions are there. So how can we support people where they live?

Mapp: And not privilege some types of outdoor activity over other ones! You get people who say, ugh, car camping, no! And, really, for some people, especially for people who now have children or who maybe cannot take the time away to go farther, car camping at your regional park is your gateway experience. I find that, especially in working with the larger outdoor industry and with other stakeholders, that it’s all about how we get people to experience these pristine, remote experiences. For someone to go from East Oakland to the backcountry wilderness, maybe they don’t want to. So we have to be really responsible about how we reintroduce and imagine what’s appropriate for people to experience. I know that you get some real strong guys out there—and they might be real tough in an urban context—but place them out in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no door to lock, and they hear sounds that they’re not accustomed to hearing in the city. That’s a big ask! So it’s been a big part of my job to think compassionately of many different ways that people could engage with the outdoors. We need to ask people what they want, and actually do those things that they want to do, versus me deciding for them what outdoor engagement needs to look like.

Christensen: How did you come to create Outdoor Afro?

Mapp: I started using social media as a vehicle to tell our story, to help shift the visual representation of who gets outdoors. People responded by sharing with me images of getting outdoors in all kinds of ways, all over the country. And then I was using that platform to tell those stories. These are the stories that are not picked up in the mainstream magazines. So that disrupts the assumption that black people don’t get outdoors. Because oftentimes people lead with the question—”Why don’t black people hike?” or whatever. Black people might not call it “hiking,” but we’re still out in nature, walking, or strolling, or skipping, or whatever. So it’s also disrupting the language of how we talk about it. And it’s also disrupting that usual representation.

And what’s happened, unfortunately, is that black people, without seeing our images reflected back these spaces, people buy into it. And then when you see yourself in those spaces, in nature, images that look like you, there is an embedded invitation. It’s not just disruption for its own sake, but also to welcome people in places and spaces, or help remind people of their connection to those places and spaces.

Photograph by James Edward Mills

Christensen: Carolyn, we know from your research and the research of others that the demographic composition of the National Park Service’s staff does not represent the diversity of America’s population, nor do visitors to parks. The agency is trying to address both of those issues. What are the challenges?

Finney: I am not interested in demonizing or vilifying the park service, because the truth is the National Park Service is part of this country, so it only reflects what this country reflects. And it was founded at a very particular time, during segregation, and just coming off slavery. And the Native Americans had their lands taken away from them, and sometimes that land became a national park. Our history is very complicated. Black people weren’t allowed to go to participate in the same way that Euro Americans could. We know that context, that history, is real, and the parks were created within that. More diverse people are coming into the park service now, but it was still largely white and largely male for a long time. It also has a military background. It’s really important to think about the way it’s structured. It’s also important to remember that it’s a government institution, a federal institution, so it has all the baggage that comes with that, as well.

What are the challenges to build the capacity of the organization to actually engage difference? Oh my gosh, they would really have to look at all those layers. It’s not going to happen overnight. I think that one of the biggest challenges the park service is having now— with more than 400 units in the park service—each park is almost its own little entity under this larger umbrella. So part of the challenge is that you may have a superintendent at one park where the issue of difference and diversity is big and important and central, so they are personally motivated to actually engage. And then you have a superintendent in another park who privileges other priorities. And you’re going to have some superintendents that aren’t interested in it at all, and don’t think that diversity should be pursued. And those that do pursue diversity don’t always have the resources they need to do the work.

One of the things that I’ve been saying for a long time is if you want to work on diversity but you have to do it in a calendar year, with limited funding, the odds are it’s not going to happen. It’s a long-term investment. It’s a long-term practice. There is no end. So that means, particularly at the front end, you have to really be invested in making those changes. You have to apply your resources to that—your people resources, your money resources, your time resources, the willingness and the ability to actually revisit everything, from pamphlets that you put out for your interpretive exhibits to who you’re hiring to run your intern programs. Everything. It’s huge. The National Park Service is like this big ship, and you have to turn it now. It’s hard to do, and I actually have a lot of empathy for that.

The Park Service is an agency that’s made up of people, people with very particular ideas about difference and diversity. They bring those ideas with them. Nobody leaves their stuff at home. They bring their values, their beliefs, their perspectives, their capacities, and their competencies with them wherever they go. So now some people are saying, “Now we have to engage diverse peoples.” But what if they’ve got no skills at doing that or they’ve got no interest in doing that? You’ve got people who aren’t interested and don’t want to do anything, who don’t care, who don’t know how to, who are afraid, who don’t like you if you’re different. So what do you do with that? You can’t brush it under the carpet or just apply a rule that everyone has to engage diversity. How do you weed that out? How do you change that? What does that mean? That’s hard to do.

Then you’ve got different communities, and you need to build relationships with those communities. Yes, we can talk very specifically about the national parks, but for me the national parks are about something larger too, not just engaging people with nature. The parks were largely founded on this idea that the United States was trying to create an image of who we were to the rest of the world. We have Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. We don’t have our old cathedrals and old buildings like they do in Europe. We have a landscape and natural resources that are simply tremendous. So those in the position to do so created a narrative out of this about who we are.

Photograph by James Edward Mills


Photograph by James Edward Mills

Christensen: There is this idea that we’re nature’s nation. That’s part of the message of the national parks. But is the question whose nation, whose nature?

Finney: Right, and who counts. And wait a minute, whose land was that before, anyway? There is so much that’s problematic about it. And for me it’s not about beating ourselves up over that, because for me that’s a waste of time. And it’s a way not to take responsibility. So you feel bad. How do we engage that legacy? How do we understand that? How do we tell a story that actually engages what’s painful and difficult, because, for me, that’s authentic—not that you have an answer for it, but that you’re willing to actually look at that and go, “Oh, crap. Some of that’s kind of messed up.”

Christensen: So you’ve been involved in trying to change that. How’s it going?

Finney: One of the things that most of us were saying to the National Park Service was: “Let’s do this thing!” The park service decided to have these community conversations and wanted to see if we could have six or seven. We were all gung-ho. We had our first conversation in Cuyahoga National Park a couple of years ago, and it was wildly successful. It was great. It was so successful that they had to stop having the conversations for a while, because they didn’t have the capacity to actually hold the fruits of it. All these friend groups in the community were like, “Okay, we’re ready to do it!” It was great. And then the park staff was overloaded. They had full-time jobs already.

Mapp: And this goes to the issue that comes up time and time again: what do you do with the information? Do you even have the capacity to not only hold the information, but to act on that information?

Finney: Now we’re rethinking it. We are going to pull back from the community conversations and really look at what conversations have to happen within the park service. So it feels like it’s stalled out. But, actually, this is where they have to do a lot of the work. I’m an adviser. I’m not part of the park service. And I’m not going to tell anybody what to do. I don’t have the know-how or the right to do that. I’m here, along with others, to work with them and support them. But they have to work that stuff out.

Christensen: You’re also on the Parks Forward Commission here in California, which is working on reforming state parks. How is that going? And are the challenges different from the national parks or similar?

Photograph by James Edward Mills

Finney: Remember, we’re all in the same country, with the same challenges, as far as I’m concerned. At a macro level, the challenge with the California State Parks is not so different from the National Park Service. They’re trying to engage these ideas, but you can’t do it if you don’t get your house straight. That’s the thing. That is so clear.

Christensen: Rue, what’s your experience with this kind of work?

Photograph by James Edward Mills

Mapp: I really value working outside of systems, outside of the bureaucratic formats, because I’m an entrepreneur. And my instinct as an entrepreneur is to be amenable, to test assumptions constantly. Scale if it’s working, and dump it if it’s not. I just find that nonprofit structures and governmental structures can’t easily lend themselves to that kind of flexibility. And I feel like right now there’s such urgency. We talked a little bit about environmental justice. But the climate disruption that we’re living with right now is real and we’ve got to get people on track and get engaged with what’s happening. Like right now. Not tomorrow. But it won’t come any sooner than when there is an authentic and relevant relationship with our environment, so that people really can understand the complexities and how we’re all connected in this big conversation.

Outdoor Afro started as a blog, a place to share my personal experiences. And then that conversation quickly became a national one. Because of the platform that social media provided, it really leveled the playing field of communication, where from my home, I could touch exactly who I wanted to touch. It wasn’t, back then, pay to play. The algorithms are completely different now. And you’ve got to really have a commitment to invest financially to reach the kind of audience I was reaching back then for free. So it was a real golden time to have that particular conversation, and also reach the scale that we did.

People then started sharing their own stories and photos with me. And I was pushing those stories and those images out. But people wanted to go to that next step. They wanted to actually go out in nature with people who looked like them. And many already had relationships with nature, through family, like maybe fishing and gardening. Maybe they lived in the city and wanted to reconnect. So people asked me to find a way to get that connection back. And using social media, we invited people to be leaders in the outdoors, and brought together the first group of leaders. They came from a wide variety of professional backgrounds—some were attorneys, some were accountants, and fathers. You name it. But they all had a fire in their belly to share nature with other people, in ways that they were already doing. So it wasn’t that I was telling them how to do it. They were already in the practice and just wanted to do it with other people.

We now have fifteen leaders around the country. And they’re getting thousands of people out, right in their own backyards. What I think this group represents is not only diversity of people, but of regions, because we’ve got people from Atlanta, to the Pacific Northwest, and Los Angeles. And there are different natural assets in each of those places, and a different vernacular. So having leadership that represents and can speak authentically to what’s happening in the backyard of those particular urban hubs has been of tremendous benefit.

I think oftentimes when we’re talking about black and brown people, we tend to just kind of lump us all together, and not really recognize that the African American experience in Chicago is very different than it is in southern Mississippi. So having people from those regions who are able to lead in a very authentic way has opened the door wider for more people to participate.

We do collaborate with the parks and with other regional and national organizations. We tap into those resources to visit, to join us, and enhance the interpretive experience. And really it’s true partnerships. So we’re not seeing these agencies and organizations as the experts. We actually recognize that it’s so important that people, when they’re getting outdoors, and they look like Carolyn and I, that they don’t just see participants that are in that space, but they also see leadership in that space.

Often people will come to me and say, “We would love to lead your group on a trip” as if we don’t have the expertise, which is untrue. We’ve got the expertise and the knowledge to lead. And we enhance that knowledge by bringing the national parks and other partner organizations together to have a conversation and annual training about what it looks like to lead. We’re able to empower people who don’t necessarily identify themselves as traditional environmental educators and are not a part of a professional organization. They are leaders, knowledgeable experts in their own communities. So that’s what we celebrate and inspire. We consider the National Park Service and other agencies true partners, but not necessarily our leaders.

Christensen: I’m just curious. You talk about different vernaculars. Is there a difference in your work between Northern and Southern California?

Mapp: San Francisco is where we got started, and there are different natural assets here. Our redwoods and the experiences that people have in places like Muir Woods are different experiences than the weekend beach party that might be happening in Southern California. I also find that the motivations for people to get out into nature are different between Northern and Southern California. For instance, in the south, people are much more interested in the intersection between nature and health and healthy living. So the messaging is just a little bit different. I’m not saying that people in the north don’t care about their physical wellbeing. But I think that there’s a lot more interest in that conversation in Southern California than here. And there are some differences that are just subtle, but the person who represents LA for Outdoor Afro, she was born and raised in Los Angeles. She knows the community. She knows the organizations. She knows how to message and interact in a way that inspires people to get outside.

Christensen: The environmental justice movement is now around thirty years old. So we have been talking about some of these things in a really concerted way for a long time. The conversation seems to evolving in some really interesting ways. But, on the other hand, we’ve been talking about this, really, for thirty years or more. Has anything really changed?

Finney: The environmental movement and the environmental conversation are not divorced from what goes on in this country. We are still having the same conversations about race that we’ve been having for as long as I’ve been alive. So when I look at the environmental movement, I don’t expect to see something totally different. I do see some shift when I think about institutions and organizations—government institutions, academic institutions, nonprofits, and other organizations—that have been controlling and shaping that conversation, because we, people of color, are showing up in those spaces. We weren’t in many of those spaces a few years ago.

Mapp: I just think there’s a demographic shift that is going to force change. What the environmental movement has to get is that this is also a market-driven conversation. This is not just about how it feels. This is about the fact that environmental nonprofits are not going to have the members they have right now, forty years from now. Outdoor retailers are not going to have the consumers that they have today, forty years from now. How are they cultivating not only the members, but the leadership that might reflect that new and different demographic? You can certainly brownwash your environmental messaging, but if your executives, leadership, the C-suite, and board don’t reflect the populations that you say that you prioritize in your organization, then I think it’s inauthentic at a minimum. We know the demographic shift that’s happening in this country means we’ll be an even more brown country. If environmental organizations do not respond to that change, they have a risk of becoming obsolete. And I think that there is some change in the conversations happening that is driven by that sense of panic. Unfortunately, I don’t think that that’s the right motivation.

Finney: I don’t either.

Photograph by James Edward Mills

Mapp: This work is really about love for the people, love for the environment, love for place. It should not be because we want to save our own jobs and organizations to stay in the game, or be credited for solutions. You don’t have to have a brand, organization, or personality visible in the middle of change for it to happen. There are many things already underway. People are already creating their own destinies and pathways to engage with nature. Making those visible and supporting those existing pathways, I think, is really what’s needed here versus yet another initiative by an agency or a big nonprofit organization.

For me it’s still unclear how some of the larger organizations are going to adapt to the current needs of the movement in the timeframe in which it needs to happen. I mean, if we’re just going for transactions, such as getting a certain number of people into our parks, maybe you can achieve that. But what we’re really looking for is a culture shift that makes visible and valid ways that people are connecting with parks that are not about the parks for their own sake but for everyone’s sustainability. I think a lot about smoking and how people used to smoke cigarettes everywhere—in banks, in bars, on buses. And to get to the place where people were not doing that took about twenty years.

So what we’re talking about, I think, ultimately, is not something that’s going to happen within a year, but something that is a part of a whole culture shift, and on a longer time continuum, similar to what civil rights represented. I think forty years from now we’ll probably put the end date on the civil rights movement much further out than we imagine it now. We’re still in the middle of it. And I think this environmental question is still in its infancy.


The Boom Interview: Rebecca Solnit

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

My imperiled city.

Editor’s note: Rebecca Solnit is an impassioned voice for San Francisco—around the world. And she comes by it honestly. She grew up in the Bay Area and has lived and worked in the city her entire adult life. She has made it her city, while becoming one of the city’s—and, indeed, the world’s—most gifted, insightful, consistently relevant, and provocative writers, independent scholars, and public intellectuals. Many of her books have taken a hard look at San Francisco and at the same time celebrated the city, from Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism to Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, and many others. In the last couple of years, her columns on the perils the city faces—most notably symbolized by the great white Google buses—in the London Review of Books and elsewhere have made her an international voice for what’s at risk in San Francisco and other cities in our new Gilded Age. And that has made her a lightning rod, too. Here at Boom, we wanted to step back from the byte-sized debates and flame-wars that have raged online around Solnit’s views and take the time to listen to her concerns in full and in the context of the diverse voices in this issue exploring what’s the matter with San Francisco. We spoke with her across the kitchen table in her home in the Mission District.

Photograph of Rebecca Solnit by Sallie Dean Shatz. Courtesy of Viking Books.


Boom: What’s the matter with San Francisco?

Solnit: You can imagine San Francisco as full of dynamic struggle that’s been pretty evenly matched between the opposing sides since the Gold Rush. There have always been idealists and populists and people who believe in mutual aid in the City of San Francisco. And there have also been ruthless businessmen and greedy people: the “come in and get everything and be accountable to nobody and hoard your pile of glittering stuff” mentality has been here since the city was founded. But it has not been so powerful that it has rubbed out the other side.

Now, however, it feels like Silicon Valley is turning San Francisco into its bedroom community. There’s so much money and so much power and so little ability to resist that it is pushing out huge numbers of people directly, but it is also re-creating San Francisco as a place that is so damn expensive that nobody but people who make huge amounts of money will be able to live here. Of course, San Francisco has been a really expensive city since the 1980s. It has been steadily getting more and more so. Or not steadily. It has really been more like “punctuated equilibrium,” to use a Clarence King geological term. Whatever equilibrium we had after the last inflationary spiral of both the housing boom and the dot-com boom is over. And now we’re in the midst of a huge boom. And with each boom, we’ve lost a little more of the affordability and economic, ethnic, cultural, and maybe professional diversity of the city. It has become more like a resort community: the rich live here, and the people who service them and perform the vital functions are going to have to live somewhere else.

There are ways in which Silicon Valley now is absolutely unprecedented in human history. It is this bizarre, new, corporate, global power center with no accountability. It’s also just a new phase of San Francisco’s increasing gentrification and unaffordability, its housing crisis. That’s an old story. Or you can tell the story yet another way as a more intensified clash in the global conflict between the haves and have-nots as the economic middle gets hollowed out, and we have rising economic inequality. And it’s a clash of values. In a way, it’s all those stories and more than you can tell. I don’t think one framework explains the whole phenomenon.

So what’s the matter with San Francisco? It’s becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, while Silicon Valley becomes a global power center for information control run by a bunch of crazy libertarian megalomaniacs. And a lot of what’s made San Francisco really generative for the environmental movement and a lot of other movements gets squeezed out. And it feels like the place is being killed in some way.

BoomIs this different from the situation you wrote about in Hollow City?

Solnit: This feels different for a number of reasons. We lost so much in the dot-com boom. A lot of cultural organizations and nonprofits, ways of life got pushed out. And the city became much more exclusionary. We have already lost so much. We can’t afford to lose anymore. It’s like, okay, you lost one limb, but you can still walk with a prosthetic. How many more cuts can this death of a hundred cuts, a thousand cuts sustain?

There is a lack of meaningful conversation about what’s happening in the Bay Area. You don’t hear newcomers say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be the engine of mass displacement. Maybe we don’t want to be completed hated in this city. Maybe we don’t want to run so many tech buses that they’re displacing public transit from its public bus stops,”

I’m just somebody who sees the Google bus go barreling by every day and sees my city changing. How can I not look at it? I think it’s everyone’s business.

Boom: It’s a horrible metaphor, but it seems like this bus kind of ran over you and you had to respond. As you said, it’s in your face. It’s in your life.

Solnit: It’s kind of amazing to me that my most recent very San Francisco book, Infinite City, my atlas from late 2010, has so little to do with Silicon Valley. I would be mapping a very different Bay Area if I were doing that atlas four years later. And it’s interesting, because we had really kind of stopped watching Silicon Valley nervously, the way that we had at other times, and then it just exploded again. I’m a San Francisco watcher, and now that Silicon Valley has decided to annex San Francisco, I’ve got to watch Silicon Valley. If the crazy billionaire who wants to divide the state into six new states has his way, the whole Bay area will even be called Silicon Valley, which is a kind of ugly, weird name on top of everything else.

Boom: In a sense, Silicon Valley is becoming the synecdoche for the Bay Area and even California. You travel around the world and you say you’re from San Francisco, and people’s eyes light up.

Solnit: Yeah.

Boom: Do they do that for Silicon Valley?

Solnit: Hell, no. It’s interesting, because I used to always say that I was a San Franciscan and a Californian rather than American. Schwarzenegger kind of ruined your standing as a Californian in Europe.

I was in Reykjavík last summer. And everyone has got iPhones and MacBooks and is using Google and Yahoo! and Gmail and stuff. And you realize this is not just some local thing. This is what the world looks like. This is where the new world is, and a very sinister new world. I keep using the word “unaccountability.” We are not in an era of antimonopoly. Google has left a whole host of antitrust lawsuits in its wake. They are the dominant search engine and they skew results in very weird ways. They are the dominant mapping entity and have attempted to buy up and rub out other mapping entities. They buy up robotic corporations like crazy. And it feels like they have a drive towards monopoly with everything they do. And that’s really scary.

BoomSo what happened? What was it you didn’t see in Infinite City? And then in the last couple years and even in the last few months, what happened that made this explode?

Solnit: Silicon Valley keeps getting bigger and bigger and creating new billionaires and becoming more powerful. Twitter moved to San Francisco. Google keeps enlarging and buying up more corporations and expanding its clutches. And more and more crazy things keep coming out of the mouths of billionaires. And they keep messing with politics in more and more weird ways. The fact that Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and some of the others all belong to ALEC, the deeply antidemocratic, pro-petroleum industry American Legislative Exchange Council, is really creepy.

There is good journalism. But the picture is so big, it feels like the blind man and the elephant. You’ll get a great report on the leg or the trunk or the tusk, but do we even have an overview of what it all adds up to?

Boom: One of the reasons that this kind of relationship in part became visible, I think was because of the map that Stamen did. So then this relationship became visible, and it was like a very old mapping technique. It’s like the Minard map of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

Solnit: I don’t think it was that influential. San Francisco just kept seeing the damn Google bus every day. When Stamen’s map came out, somewhere in the middle of it all—and I would circulate it on Facebook and stuff—I did not see it widely circulated on Facebook or referenced a lot elsewhere. Actually, MUNI, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, put out for public comment maps showing where the 200 bus stops are that the buses are now stopping at. It’s so much more scary than Stamen’s map, which kind of makes it look like they’ve got a few big arteries and a few stops. They’ve got 200 stops now, and they are really running a major transportation system inside the infrastructure for public transit.

I think it’s about the experience for us of literally seeing the Google bus. I’ll be sitting at a window in a café or a bar or in a restaurant anywhere in central San Francisco, and they will roll by every few minutes for hours. And part of what makes them sinister is they’re unlabeled. The double-deckers are usually Google buses, but how do you tell an Apple bus from a Yahoo! bus—you know, there’s just tons of them out there.

They couldn’t have chosen a better vehicle to be kind of scary and sinister, these things that look like, as I put it in another interview, a cross between armored personnel carriers and limousines, except that they’re much bigger than either of those. They are bigger than—they’re so fucking huge. So I think that we just responded to what’s actually out there on the street.

One of the big mysteries for me is I got really interested in this because I live here, but Europeans and people all over the world seem really interested in this. Is this because they are all being governed by Google and Facebook and Twitter? Or is this because San Francisco seems like a bellwether for the new economic divide or the new hipster Stasi or what?

BoomSo how did the Google bus become a kind of meme or a synecdoche for what’s the matter with San Francisco?

Solnit: Google is the biggest, and it runs the most buses, and so Google became the shorthand for all the tech buses. And I think Google is also the biggest corporation of them all, in terms of power and financial and political and a personal kind of presence. You may not use Facebook, but you probably use the Google search engine. There’s a good chance you also use Gmail and Google Groups and Google Maps, and that it’s on your phone and your computer and iPad. Google has become so pervasive so quickly.

I don’t know if I played a role in the emblematicness of the Google bus. My piece in the London Review of Books in February 2013 was entitled “Google Invades.”

Boom: What happened then and how did it feel to all of a sudden be in the middle of this?

Solnit: Well, the piece circulated like wildfire. And I think a lot of people had been observing it and feeling nervous. It was the first really widely seen and circulated piece to articulate what was happening and why it was creepy and scary and upsetting, though David Talbot did a really great piece the fall before. So it circulated really widely from the outset and got discussed really widely outside of San Francisco.

The buses gave us this very visible kind of symbol, and as my friend, the poet Aaron Shurin has said, you couldn’t have stumbled onto a better symbol, this big, scary, bland, blank, and intrusive behemoth cruising the city streets with its tinted windows. And these people who are just so not there getting in and out.

There isn’t a meaningful conversation about what’s happening to San Francisco. There are just these attacks on people who don’t think it’s wonderful.

And Tom Perkins referring to it as Kristallnacht is about as articulate—I feel like now I’m defaming middle school students—as junior high. It’s this really lame discourse. And maybe I shouldn’t say lame. That insults the disabled. Let’s choose a better word than “lame.” Let’s just call it “wanker discourse,” if that doesn’t insult penises everywhere.

I’m not seeing people say, “Well, actually, this is why it’s good and productive.” You just get these billionaires calling everyone who doesn’t love them a Nazi, as though you should not only be able to buy everything in sight, but everyone should worship you like the king or something. It really does feel like a dictatorship or a monarchy where they are shocked and upset that the peasants have a right to their own opinion. So the discourse is just really—well, it’s not a discourse. It’s like hostile tweets and libels and slurs. And there’s an irony within: that the new technologies have created these debased discourses within which we have to try to articulate what’s debased about the discourse.

Then there are also these mountains of magic mantras that don’t have anything to do with anything. For example, Silicon Valley is very libertarian. There’s this idea, unfettered housing development would solve the housing problem, except that we need about 100,000 new units. Do we even have room to build 100,000 new units of housing in San Francisco? How long would it take? Would it really solve the housing crisis before anyone was evicted?

In my most recent LRB piece, I quote a Silicon Valley kid who said we should just deregulate development and raise the minimum wage and we’d have no problem. I did the math on that. Housing prices would have to fall to a fifth of what they are now for a $10 an hour minimum wage to make housing affordable at market rate, because market rate housing now, you’d have to make $50 an hour to be able to get in the gate. And I don’t see us raising the minimum wage to $50 an hour. That’s a world I might like to see. But that’s not actually the world you think you’re advocating for, because you haven’t actually done your research, and you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. We’re not getting really insightful counterarguments.

Boom: What would such a conversation look like?

Solnit: It would look like democracy, but you can’t really have a democratic conversation when you have the very opposite of democracy economically—so it’s not the conversation that matters; it’s the economy. Silicon Valley is this dark star that’s come along with an enormous gravitational pull that’s kind of pulling everything out of its orbit. And there’s no accountability. I’ve seen other people use the phrase, too, but I’ve been calling it the “military tech industrial complex,” because it feels like it’s a quasi-governmental body now. And there are a lot of overlaps with government and military; Silicon Valley arose from military contracting and was never the bohemian entity it likes to portray itself as, Think Different Land.

Boom: Do you think this is a product of the libertarian ideology that dominates Silicon Valley, or is it a product of the constraints and tendencies of the media, the 140 characters of a tweet, the toxic culture of commenting online, or is it a toxic stew of those two things?

Solnit: It’s a perfect storm. When Harry met Sally, when libertarian megalomania met semi-anonymous name-calling. It’s a kind of discourse that doesn’t deserve the name of “discourse.”

There has been good research from the SPUR Urbanist and others since I started to write. Somebody at UC Berkeley mounted a major study of the Google bus and its impact and confirmed that it’s actually not green carpooling. It’s displacing a lot of people. A lot of tech people wouldn’t live in San Francisco if they didn’t have free shuttles that count their long commute as work time. A lot of them would actually take existing public transit, et cetera. But you get these memes. New technology is good at creating these things people think are true, because they’ve been floating around, and they haven’t really checked them.

Boom: What did San Francisco mean to you as you were growing up? And what did it come to mean to you as you fell in love with it as a young writer?

Solnit: Well, the funny thing about growing up here is that this is normal. It’s like our weather is normal. You have to go someplace else to understand what’s particular to here. You know, San Francisco has been a wide-open town. It was really a city of refuge. It’s named after St. Francis, the man who was kind to animals and the poor, who was really an inclusive, empathic figure of mutual aid. And I think that there are some real resonances there, despite the brutalities of the Gold Rush. It was an unusually diverse city from the Gold Rush on. We had Chinese and Chileans and European refugees from the collapse of the revolutions of 1848 and free thinkers and people like Henry George the socialist, great union movements. It was a place where women were able to have a public presence, and Jews were able to have a public presence and participation that they weren’t able to have in the East. There was a real sense of freedom for people and inclusion. It was a place where people came for refuge as pacifists during World War II, and for long before as openly gay and lesbian and transgendered and cross-dressing people. And it was a port town, so it had the same wildness other port cities like New Orleans have. And it has been a great city of literature and the arts.

The f/64 photographic movement is often described as though it was really based in Carmel and Monterey. Edward Weston was there. But Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham went back and forth. And it was as much San Francisco as anywhere.

Maybe “San Francisco Renaissance” is a better term for the incredible explosion of poetry here in the forties and fifties that never really ended but may be ending now. There are probably not so many young poets in San Francisco, though there are still a lot of old ones.

But it was also a place that created new institutions. And I think the Sierra Club in 1892 was really paradigmatic. It was a bunch of businessmen and lawyers who thought you could do well while doing good—and John Muir. They really were turning the idea of the private mountaineering club, which had been a very elite entity in Europe and the East, into something more populist and radical and engaged. And I think the global environmental movement, if it starts anywhere, it starts here.

And all these experiments in lifestyle and the expansion of rights for women and people of color and gays and lesbians and farmworkers and disabled people, that comes out of the greater Bay Area. It has been a place that has produced a lot of new ways of living and doing things, with liberatory and egalitarian and inclusive ideas for the whole planet. It has been a kind of a beacon and a laboratory. And that’s what’s at stake. That’s why San Francisco matters.

You think of so many individual people who have been absolutely amazing and done wonderful things. And I don’t see that in the new San Francisco, where it just costs so damn much to live here, you either have to have a trust fund or be working really hard at making money. You can’t be doing what people have been doing in my tenure in San Francisco, which is to do something part time for a living, but do for free with no expectation of return what you’re passionate about, whether it’s human rights or environmentalism or painting or poetry or scholarship. That scope to be poor and idealistic no longer exists, and it was those poor idealistic people that made the great culture of San Francisco. They are portrayed as slackers in the mainstream conversation, and there have always been slackers, but also people working on AIDS issues, on environmental justice, on human rights, on after-school programs for at-risk kids, and not getting rich at it.

One of the great misunderstandings in our society is that wealth is culture. That’s ridiculous. The Fillmore District, a poor African American district, was the Harlem of the West. It was tremendously culturally generative. It was a place that was rich in culture. And the Batman Gallery, which was a great gallery for artists like Bruce Conner and Joan Brown, a kind of avant-garde gallery, had tremendous empathy and connection to the Fillmore. It was at 2222 Fillmore Street. When I started working on my book on it, in the late 1980s, it had become a classical music store. And, okay, a classical music store is just selling culture made elsewhere, but it’s a pretty nice cultural entity. Since the nineties, it’s been a Starbucks. Now I think it’s a Lululemon yoga clothing store. And you can see from an art gallery giving really radical, outspoken, experimental artists a place to show and strengthening a community, to a place selling classical music, to a Starbucks, which is still a café where people can hang out and read and write, to a yoga clothing corporate chain with $90 pants, is a trajectory of gentrification in a nutshell, all at 2222 Fillmore Street. While the space that the Six Gallery was in—where the great “Howl” reading happened in 1955, one of the great landmarks in American literature and the rebirth of poetry as a spoken participatory live thing rather than just something you read—that place became a kind of wonderful Middle Eastern rug store that felt like it kept that spirit alive in some way through the nineties. And now it’s a boring, upscale restaurant, wine bar. So wealth is not where culture comes from.

Megan Wilson, who is one of the Clarion Alley Mural Project artists, got harassed under the sit/lie law that was forced through by people like Gavin Newsom and the more gentrifying supervisors, the law that criminalizes sitting and lying in public. She’s a muralist who has made that alley—which was a kind of drug alley, full of piss and shit—into this beautiful place, full of brilliant, evolving murals. It’s not a static museum of the murals that were there in the 1990s. She was painting a new mural, and the police came and hassled her. Here’s one of the people who has given the most to the community. And the police are serving a version of community that doesn’t tolerate people like that.

René Yañez—who Guillermo Gómez-Peña calls the “capo,” the godfather of the Mission—has been evicted while his wife is being treated for cancer. Who does those things? And who moves into their homes when they’re vacated? The brutality and the indifference to the culture, with so much money sloshing around like a tsunami! Why has nobody bailed out Adobe Books, which was evicted, and is now sort of limping along as a nonprofit? Why has nobody bailed out Modern Times, the great bookstore that was also evicted, and is now deeper in the Mission on Twenty-Fourth Street and possibly going to go under? Why has nobody bailed out Marcus Books, the oldest black bookstore west of the Mississippi that’s also got housing troubles?

That is one of the big questions of Silicon Valley: with that much money, where is our golden age? You think you’re the Medicis. Where is your patronage? We’re not seeing great cultural patronage. Not that I like the word “patronage,” but that’s what the Medicis did. We’re not seeing giveback. We’re not seeing engagement. We’re not seeing people saying, “We’re the great innovators. Here’s how we’re going to solve the housing problem.” They’re just like, “Oh, you just need to deregulate, and things will magically become beautiful and inclusive.” And it’s like, “Yeah. We’ve heard that story before with free trade and corporate globalization and stuff.” It was incoherent then, and it’s incoherent now.

The San Francisco that we all cared about always had bankers and corporations in it. The San Francisco I moved to had Bechtel and Chevron and Bank of America headquartered here. Chevron has moved to the suburbs. Bank of America has moved to Delaware. Bechtel is still here, a great war profiteer in the war on Iraq, deeply involved, like Chevron, in the global oil economy and other kinds of scary developments. So there have always been many faces to San Francisco. It’s always had businesses and corporations and conservatives and massively affluent people and ruthless people and things like that. I don’t know what the future looks like, but the present magnified is a homogenized, de-cultured, denatured San Francisco.

And I also feel very strongly that one of the things that make a place meaningful is cultural memory and continuity. It’s something I’ve learned very deeply from New Orleans, which was the least mobile population in the United States before Katrina—that when you have cultural memory and continuity, you really build community. You can start to build practices and conversations and institutions that require long-term involvement. No matter how lovely people are, if they’re transient, if they all got there last week, there’s no cultural memory. You cannot truly understand change if you don’t even know that things were different.

Boom: You have written that in addition to being a refuge, San Francisco has been an anomaly. Is it no longer an anomaly?

Solnit: I don’t know. It’s weird, because it’s now becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, and more and more being assimilated into Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is an anomaly. But it’s also not an antithesis to the status quo—despite their sentimental fantasies about themselves. It is creating and enforcing and marketing and profiting from the status quo, which is the new world of digital technology, communications, media, et cetera.

BoomIn that sense maybe it’s the capital of the twenty-first century?

Solnit: Yep. I’ll take that. It’s funny because it feels like the way Europe has the city of culture that rotates, America has the city of crisis that rotates. LA after the riots was the dystopian vision of the future. And then Detroit has had its moments being the vision of a post-industrial, post-capitalist future. New Orleans has had its moment being the poster child of the city of the future with climate change and catastrophe and a city of government failure.

In that sense, I don’t think that every city will be like San Francisco. I think every city may end up getting controlled from San Francisco in a way. Twitter and Wikipedia are here. Facebook, Yahoo!, and Google, which owns YouTube, are down the Peninsula, and that’s five of the six biggest websites in the world.

San Francisco used to be this very left-wing city that is an anomaly within the United States. That seems to be ending, or it seems to becoming another kind of anomaly, the global capital of technology, the fraternity house of the junior members of the new technocracy.

And then the other way it ceases to be an anomaly is that cities all over the world are becoming increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots as we polarize economies and the middle class gets eliminated. Then you have the masses of poor and precarious and struggling and debt-burdened and desperate people and the new overlords, and that’s happened to London in a very intense way.

Boom: A lot of your work is filled with a love of place. Are you falling out of love with San Francisco?

Solnit: My wonderful friend, Stephanie Syjuco, has been writing as though she’s having flings with places and they’re betraying her. She actually wrote a breakup letter to San Francisco that’s just tremendous. I joke that I’m not leaving San Francisco; San Francisco is leaving me. Rupa Marya—the band leader of the band Rupa and the April Fishes—used to live in the Mission. So did a lot of her band members. So did a lot of the musicians they played with. They got their start at Red Poppy Arthouse on Twenty-Third and Folsom. And she comes here now and says it feels like a ghost town. All the musicians are gone. They’re all in Oakland, which doesn’t have the same kind of density that allows for the same kind of easy mingling. You have to get in your car and drive someplace. There are a lot of wonderful things about Oakland, but I know Oaklanders feel like they’re being invaded.

I love the same things I love. They’re just thinning out and relocating. And I love the physical geography of San Francisco and the Victorian houses and the weather and the farmer’s markets and things, and there are still a lot of wonderful people and institutions here. I had drinks with Paul Yamazaki at City Lights Books last week. City Lights is here for the long haul. The Sierra Club is still on Second Street, and it will be for the foreseeable future, although a lot of environmental groups are also moving to the East Bay.

There have always been things here that I didn’t love, including ruthless greed. And there’s a lot of that now. And I don’t love Silicon Valley’s culture as it’s manifesting. There are programmers in my family. And I don’t think that people who are in technology are inherently evil or anything like it. I know well that there are software people and website managers and things at institutions like the Sierra Club. And somebody is running the website for San Francisco Zen Center. But we have an overwhelming number of newcomers coming from a homogenous culture with fairly weird beliefs, libertarian philosophies, a gaping lack of philanthropy in ways that matter, an apparent wholesale willingness to destroy its host community. And that’s not pretty.

Boom: You once wrote about Walter Benjamin’s angel of history and imagined an angel of alternative history. Could you imagine an alternative history for the possibilities that didn’t play out as we have had this technological revolution and it has gone down this path?

Solnit: The utopian narrative is that we realize that the rise of digital communications is the rise of a new sphere that we declare as a public commons and that will be regulated for the public good by publicly accountable people, for the benefit of the public. Your privacy is protected. We come up with a great pay-per-view model for newspapers and keep newspapers in business, where you pay a penny or something for each article. If I made a penny for everyone who looked at my pieces on TomDispatch, I’d be making thousands on some of those pieces instead of $100 while Arianna Huffington is making a fortune off reposting my content and everyone else’s on the Huffington Post. We’d have models where content providers get paid for investigative journalism and good journalistic sites get support.

Search engines would also have to be a public commons, run for the public good. So how searches are ranked would have to be decided by law, because it’s such a tremendously influential thing. And the fact that it can be determined by money, and you can be made to disappear by a search engine that doesn’t happen to like you, is really totalitarian. They disappeared human beings in Argentina. Now they can just disappear information or ideas. I think we regard it—as we once regarded the airwaves before Reagan—as a global public commons that has to be regulated for the public good. And “regulated” isn’t a very charming word, but governed by democratic means. I think that would make a tremendous difference.

I think we would also have a tremendous conversation about whether we want to spend all our lives being wired. Consciousness is changing. We haven’t made a meaningful decision that, yes, that’s the road we want to go down; yes, that’s what the good life looks like. Iceland had a massive conversation about what its constitution should look like. What if we had a massive conversation about what communication and entertainment should look like and what we want and who controls it? And not even getting into the misogyny of so much online communication and online gaming and things like that. There are so many arenas.

BoomIs there hope in the dark, to quote one of your book titles?

Solnit: Absolutely. I don’t know what the future holds, and I don’t think there is a simple, obvious, near-term change coming, but I don’t believe any of those adjectives are impossible to apply. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

One of the things that’s really interesting is the new way that Silicon Valley is being described. Apparently lots of young banker and MBA types are coming here because this is the new money machine. And people are starting to think about Silicon Valley with all the passion and enthusiasm and respect they have for Wall Street and bankers. Occupy Wall Street was a movement against Wall Street. That’s why it was called “Occupy Wall Street.” We may see some form of Occupy Silicon Valley.

When you want to understand how the world works look at what your enemies are frightened of. If they are frightened of you, maybe they know better than you do that you have real power. And those billionaires are really nervous. And I think people around the world know at some level that when you return to the nineteenth century, a world where the great majority is desperate and a few are insanely wealthy robber barons, you return to a world of revolution and revolt and class war and class conflict and resentment and rage. A lot of what the twentieth century was about was creating social democracy in Europe and the New Deal and Great Society in the United States and similar solutions in other countries to quell class war. Because they have no memory, they have forgotten that that’s what their stake was in our having a nice life. I don’t think they have any stake in us having a nice life. But they take away our nice life, and we all go back to the nineteenth century and go back to class war.

The fact that people have gone from having a crush on Silicon Valley to hating and despising it in a year, I think is kind of auspicious. Who knows where that will go?

And I think there are very positive things about the new social media. My major political outlet is, which is a little electronic wire service run through The Nation Institute, and that has tremendous power. And I think the fact that we have counter-media is the best part of the new tech landscape. It is creating room for the Glenn Greenwalds and Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings and WikiLeaks and TomDispatches and a host of radical voices that are actually quite powerful. So that’s what’s hopeful for me in this landscape. And I do feel like there’s a global critique of capitalism and neoliberalism, corporate globalization and Wall Street bankers, et cetera, that’s very different than it was before the collapse of 2008. A lot more needs to happen to act on it, but it’s really interesting.

And who knows what’s going to happen? Hope for me has never been optimism, which like pessimism thinks it knows what’s going to happen. It’s been uncertainty, and I think the very volatility of Silicon Valley could implode, backfire, give rise to revolutions and counter-revolutions and backlashes, be used against the overlords, et cetera, et cetera. The fact that the United States through all the new technological abilities to spy on everybody is pissing off everyone right and left, and may weaken American power, which might be a good thing for the world and might be a good thing for getting other countries to say that, actually, we want to close these privacy loopholes. It’s like all these dominoes are falling. And we can’t see into the mist, or, since we’re in San Francisco, the fog, to see what’s going to get knocked over. It’s a period of tremendous upheaval.



Google Streetview models created by Coll.eo. COURTESY OF COLL.EO.


California Soul

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

The Boom Interview: Richard Rodriguez

It’s hard to read Richard Rodriguez’s essays and books without feeling that there is something deeply Californian about them. Every one of his books—Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: Arguments with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography—takes place, at least in part, in California. Rodriguez has lived in California nearly all of his life. So what is it that now makes him say he once was but is no longer a California writer? There is something world-weary in the statement. Rodriguez has seen too much of the world in California, and perhaps too much of California in the world. At his writing table in his apartment in San Francisco, Rodriguez spoke with Boom about California’s soul, why he is no longer a California writer, what’s the matter with his hometown, San Francisco, these days, and love.

Boom: In your last book, Brown, and in your new book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, you write about your friendship with the late Franz Schurmann and his book American Soul. Could one write about a California soul?

Rodriguez: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I do think that I tended to read California as a Midwesterner. I had conflicting images of California. One was my uncle from India. The others were my parents from Mexico and the Irish nuns, to whom I dedicate Darling. They were almost all foreign people who had come to California.

But when I was a newspaper boy for the Sacramento Bee, everybody on that route or at least the majority, I would say, was from the Midwest. I would collect their subscription money—I think it was $2—every month. I would be at the door, and the lady would say, “Is it cold outside?” I said, “It’s freezing out here.” She said, “Oh, honey, that’s not freezing. If you want freezing, go to Iowa. This isn’t freezing. It’s a little chilly out here. Why don’t you wait in the hallway?” So I had an experience through her eyes.

So I guess I had a Midwestern soul as I was growing up, and a sense of relief for living here, but a sense of wonder, because I didn’t see snow until I was about twenty-two years old. I had never seen snow, except in the movies. The Central Valley of California got very hot, but it was also life giving—agriculture everywhere. You could smell the burning in the fields in the autumn, and at the State Fair at the end of summer, almost as a climax of summer before school started, there was a central pavilion, which of course was torn down, in which every county contributed agriculture. Tehama County. The agriculture products of Tehama—I don’t even know whether I’ve been to Tehama County even to this day—were beautifully displayed. It was so beautiful to see that California, that benevolent California, and even a place like Los Angeles was contributing lemons to the fair, you know. You didn’t see Lana Turner. You saw lemons. I knew that I was related to that place. And the Sacramento Bee used to have on Saturday a special section with agricultural news. It was called “Superior California,” and I did not understand what that was, whether it was superior in the sense that we were better than other Californians or what. I found out later from my brother it just meant Northern California.

Well, did I have a California soul in those years? I guess I did. When I came to Los Angeles, which I discovered after having been in London, I discovered a city that suited me. It suited me in the sense that I liked all of it. I found its architecture reminded me of Sacramento a great deal, and somebody would tell me, “Well, this little house, this little bungalow cost $2 million.” I would find it amusing. It’s like the bungalow I grew up in, except once you went inside, of course, they tarted it all up and so forth.

LA seemed to me both the combination of something I knew in Sacramento and then not. And the not was Mexico. It was filled with Mexico. Mexico was teeming around me. And the people, you know. Coming out of a breakfast in Santa Monica, this skinny kid would come up to me and start talking Spanish and say he just arrived. He would ask me for impossible directions. I had no idea how to get to Tarzana. I didn’t even know where Tarzana was, because my LA was so limited. And then in the middle of all this kind of blond, bleached, muscular, exercised, gaudy, glamorous Santa Monica, there was this kid who was desperate. I couldn’t manage it. I didn’t know how to relate to him.

And then LA became more and more a city that in my imagination became more Mexican and more a desert city. I felt the proximity of desert. By that, I mean metaphorically desert, a city of want.

The other California was Asian, and I feel that profoundly now in San Francisco. I don’t know whether I’ve satisfactorily accommodated myself to Asia. I was talking to a mathematician last night about his students. He’s a university professor. And he said 80 percent of the students in his math classes are Asians. And I said, “Why? What is that? Is it linguistic? Is there something about learning Mandarin that allows you to decipher mathematics more easily? Why don’t I have that?” And he said, “Well, I think I am seeing first-generation immigrants. I think I am seeing kids who are coming with such a sense of urgency to California that they will do anything. They don’t fall asleep in my classes. They want to do more than I give them.” I said, “But that’s not an answer. There are a lot of first-generation immigrants around. There are Russians. There are Mexicans galore. Brazilians. There are Chechens. What are you telling me, that they’re first generation? That doesn’t tell me anything.” I think the ambition of Chinese California is so lavish that it just dwarfs anything that we dreamt of as Gold Rush people. It is just this magnificent place.

Toward the end of his life, Franz Schurmann was of the opinion that America was in decline, but the American dream was quite alive. I saw an interview with a Vietnamese shopkeeper in San Jose once. His English was not very good, but because his shop was the shop that sold the winning Lotto number, he got a million dollars. The people who won the Lotto didn’t come. They didn’t want to be filmed, but he was more than willing to be filmed. And the state officials put “million dollar winner,” or something, on a big banner outside. And they asked him, “Does the American dream exist?” And in Franzian tones, he said, “Yes, yes. I am the American dream.”

Well, I think to myself, there is that. But you have a little Saigon in Orange County. And maybe in a generation, it won’t be the case, but there is still the memory of tragedy so intense that it feels to me different in tone than the experience of Midwestern California that I experienced as a child. People who came from Kansas were not leaving, generally, tragedy behind. They were coming for a softer winter. That is very different from coming from a civil war where your father was killed, being a boat person off the coast of Southeast Asia. That experience of tragedy, of losing is just not characteristic of the California that I grew up in, and it feels more Mexican to me in the sense that you come here out of desperation, not to become a movie star, but to pick grapes.

I remember talking to these Mexicans at a really fancy house. Friends of mine up in Napa. They have a vineyard. And I just went wandering around one day, started talking to these Mexican guys about their lives. Their California was so basic and so unromantic. Even though they loved the landscape around them, and they thought this place, these vineyards were really beautiful, and they worried about the weather, they worried about the season; they did not, most of them, admit to drinking very much wine. They drank beer more easily. They recognized that they were within a culture, this kind of Tuscan California that was built by the very wealthy.

Once I went to the Mondavi mansion—it was on top of a hill—and the living room is a swimming pool. It’s an Olympic-size swimming pool. And I thought why not? And I said to him, “This really is the most unusual house I’ve ever seen. This makes Versailles look like Potter’s Field”. And he said, “You know, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy your life to the full.” Well, there’s every reason. He was elegant and European, even though I think he was American-born, Robert Mondavi, but he was wealthy enough to indulge fantasy. And the thing about California, about this landscape, because it is so moderate a climate, is that you can build anything on it, and you can build a castle. You can build a pyramid. You can build anything on this landscape and it takes it.

And then it does take it, if you don’t take care of it. I gardened as a kid. As a teenager, I worked with this guy. Jan was his name. I liked the sexual ambiguity of his name. Jan was a woman’s name to me, but there he was. This is a young man. I thought he was an old guy. He must have been late thirties, early forties. I had worked with him on weekends and summers till my mother said I couldn’t, because I was getting so dark-skinned, and it just terrified her, the harshness of nature. But he would take his shirt off. The sun was out, and Jan would take his shirt off. He had a wonderful torso in that fifties sort of way, but just naturally muscular. But there were these spots on his shoulders. And I didn’t know about skin cancer. I mean, I knew but I didn’t know, and I didn’t know how to appraise his skin. I didn’t know whether he was too light-skinned to be doing this to his skin. He would get very dark in the summer, a reddish brown. The last time I saw him in Sacramento—this was many years ago, but his skin had just turned to a kind of—it turned into my wallet. And then I knew that California would take its toll. And California would not forgive. And California would remember everything you did in the sun, as it reminds me. There is nothing you did that day, carefree you in the California sun, that California doesn’t remember.

So did I live in California? Yes. But I don’t know which one, and I’ve lived in several, and now I live in the Chinese city that’s populated with kids who are making billions of dollars by distracting us from our reality. So, yes.

Boom: Do you think of yourself as a California writer?

Rodriguez: No, I don’t think so anymore. I used to.

I have almost no relationship to Los Angeles, for example. I have friends in LA, and I go to LA. I had a good time in LA. But I have no relationship to the city anymore. It just seems either uninteresting to me or uninterested in me, which might be the same thing. So, for example, I’ve never lectured at UCLA. I’ve never lectured at USC. I’m giving a lecture on Darling at Loyola University in February. It’s very rare. It almost never happens. I haven’t been on an LA radio or TV station for twenty years. So I don’t exist in that city.

Darling has had all of its success on the East Coast. It’s really quite amazing. I don’t have any relationship to LA. It just doesn’t exist for me. It doesn’t exist in my life. So that if I get an invitation for an interview, it’s usually Boston. Or Providence, Rhode Island, will review Darling, or Buffalo, New York, will review Darling, and not Seattle, not Fresno, not San Diego. And the LA Times is tepid.

So if you ask me about LA, I just don’t belong there anymore. I know that sounds petulant but it’s just I’m more often in New York than I am in LA now, and I live a lot of my imaginative life in London, for whatever reason. I’m in London a great deal. And I’m very much interested in the death of Europe, the reverse of Europe right now. When I come back to America, this country seems exhausted. I think this war between the conservatives and the liberals is just deadly. It’s the death rattle.

I think what changed me, too, and what made me an old man was AIDS. I helped a lot of guys die in those years, a lot of guys. So I really got burned out. There are characters in some British novels who survived the First World War and who end up walking in Piccadilly, and they’re in the swim of the crowd, but they’re wasted. They’re just not there. I went through a period like that after that many deaths. I couldn’t go to a funeral. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t do all of that anymore. But I could do some things. I knew when to call your mother and when to say this sounds like it’s going to be tonight, and if you’re going to come, you should come now. I knew that. I knew how to give you morphine, not to give you too much, but give you enough. I knew how to hold your hand. I knew what to say to you. I knew how to make you less afraid.

Well, from all of that, even now in this city—I’m going to start crying, but even now, I can’t go to certain places in the city without thinking, “Oh, that’s where Tom or that’s where Will spent that last year,” or hospitals, so many hospitals.

When my parents died a few years ago, it was nothing. It was like the coming of autumn. It was the most normal experience. But to see that much youth cut down. And the celebration of hedonism sort of ended in California that way. That really did change a lot of things, and I became very, very tragic. That whenever I would see this car crash, two kids die, I thought, oh, there’s youth cut down again.

Even now in the Castro District. I go to this gym in the Castro. There’s death everywhere for me there. It’s really treacherous. I have to be really careful not to walk by it too much, but it’s there, and so that was my California too. And I met people from all over the world in those years who thought they had come to paradise. That motif—that we had found a place of bliss and freedom with a temperate sky—was so large in my rendition of California. I grew up in a destination for so many people, and so many of those people I knew had died. It really changed a great deal. I can’t say too much about that, because it really was profound, but at a level in which it sounds maudlin to say it now, you know?

Boom: Yes. When you travel around the world and tell people you’re from California, how do they react now?

Rodriguez: Oh, they still react with a great deal of interest. California is its own country. It’s its own mythology. I saw a survey recently of young teenagers in China and the place in America they would most want to visit. And Mountain View was on top.

My closest friend was once the mayor of Mountain View. She was really wonderful. There’s a little street by the city hall named after her, and she loved Mountain View. It was just at the point in which Mountain View was becoming Mountain View. She came from Long Beach, and she was passionate about kids at Crittenden, the junior high school where she was a teacher and a counselor. That was the same school that Steve Jobs went to, but Steve Jobs was so overwhelmed with the sense of black and brown at Crittenden that he got his parents to move him out of the school. They moved to Los Altos. Steve Jobs the great cosmopolite, the great internationalist, could not deal with brown and black California in Mountain View.

Well, Marcie, my friend, taught there, and she loved those kids. She was a real Californian. So when I see someone say that’s the place they want to go to, I think, “Oh, I misjudged Mountain View. It’s really that interesting.” I guess, in a way, it is interesting that all of that happens there.

I go to the gym and I come back to my apartment about 6:30, and as I get to these neighborhoods, the big buses are going by. They’re dark-windowed and very, very gleaming buses going to the suburbs. That already is interesting that there are kids of the suburbs who made huge fortunes in the suburbs who would prefer to live in the city, even one that’s as false as San Francisco, as unreal as San Francisco. And at some expense of their time, they are taking these buses. Presumably, they are wired in these buses, so they can work. And there is no destination on the marquee of the bus. It’s just floating through these neighborhoods.

Boom: A lot of people seem very concerned about the change that those buses signal in San Francisco. Do you share those concerns?

Rodriguez: No, because I’ve always loved wealth. I’ve loved being around it. And if I knew you were wealthy, I would have made friends with you in grammar school. I knew the house where Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan lived in Sacramento, because I played there. I knew those people. I knew all the people on that block. They went to school with me. My trick was to know your mother, because I knew that if I ingratiated myself to your mother, if I was very polite, if I was invited to lunch or dinner, remarked on how good the lunch was, that she’d invite me back. She’d say, “Who is that nice little boy?” And the kid was not interested in me, with two exceptions. There’s one kid who died of an oversized heart. He taught me to listen to Frank Sinatra. I thought that’s what rich people listened to, because he loved jazz.

I love rich people, and so I love them at the market, these impossibly beautiful Indian women who obviously have money. The way I used to go to the food market in Brentwood and I would love seeing rich people shopping. The way I would watch Fred Astaire walking up to communion. It’s just interesting how they deal with it, their impatience standing in lines, their bratty children, their beauty, their anxieties, their loneliness, their glamour, the sound of their car doors shutting, which doesn’t sound anything like my Honda. It interests me. It’s like living in London in the eighteenth century, a place of people with such enormous wealth living among people who don’t have that wealth.

Look at the lines of people when there’s a Lotto of any magnitude. This is my American character. I’m not threatened by great wealth. I’m interested in it, not that I will have it for myself, not that I even want it, though I have a lot of charities that I’d like to give money to. I don’t have enough money. But there’s so much want. Gosh, just so much, and so many food banks, so many libraries and teachers and organizations, school districts that don’t have anything, scholarship funds.

And then when I see somebody go buy a Lamborghini or a Bentley—I saw this woman in a Bentley the other day, caught in traffic as I was, and she was distracted. And when a beautiful woman is distracted, she can be even more beautiful. But I thought, oh, I wonder where she’s been or where she’s going, and that interested me. And I was happy to live in this city. I was happy to live in the city.

You know, there is a Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs. Dalloway, where the main character is walking up Bond Street, and a royal goes by in a Rolls Royce, and she only sees the arm holding the little support by the window. And there’s speculation about who it is, a prince, princess, or even indeed the king, and the traffic sort of gives way. Well, when I see these buses, I know they don’t live in my world, and yet they do. I mean, they live up the block, and so, of course, it interests me.

I walk home from the gym, up Fillmore, and for two blocks, we’re in the projects. And for one block where there is a police station, there is also a congregation of young males, black males, and obviously drug traffic. And the persistence of white gentrification is such now that white people walk through this like it doesn’t exist. It’s really thrilling to me that the people can be that oblivious and protectedly oblivious too. You don’t make eye contact with these people.

But the other day, there was a shootout. This was at four in the afternoon, on a Saturday afternoon. A kid was dragged out of a car, and he ran. And then right in front of a restaurant—we’re getting just to the edge of gentrification—here were gunshots. I was petrified. I didn’t even think to go behind a telephone pole. I was just watching—bang, bang, bang! And then he runs toward the Safeway parking lot. By that time, the police sirens are sounding, four in the afternoon, a clear, bright day. The odd thing about the sound of the gunfire is that it brings out people. It brings out kids. They’re suddenly coming out of the projects to see what’s going on, whereas, the old people, are going into the coffee shop to get away from it all. The kids make a run for it, and the cops chase after them. This is within two minutes of the event.

One kid, as he’s running away, sees me watching, and we hold each other’s glance for a second. It is really intense, and then he runs past.

I live in that. I live along that Fillmore too, and then in three or four blocks, normalcy has established itself. Within five blocks, we are safely within the yuppie precinct, and it is impossible that that just happened. That’s very interesting to me.

You know, one of the things that is happening in the world right now is that increasingly people are going to restaurants that are in dangerous neighborhoods. In Tijuana, Mexico, for example, there’s a new, very experimental, kind of nouveau something in neighborhoods that I would consider too dangerous to go to. And there are beautiful people going to those restaurants. I do not understand. My nephew, who has a number of restaurants in Oakland, he’s a great believer in being edgy and taking good food to the edge of safety. I don’t know what that is. I find it really interesting.

The relationship of sexuality to criminality, I lived with for many years until we became legal. But the relationship of food now to criminality is really interesting to me, and the proximity of those two realities in our lives is interesting. At the same time that food is advertised as being extremely healthy and in portions that are not overwhelming, there is this possibility that you’ll be killed when you go back to your car.

Boom: Your new book, Darling, is filled with love, as the title implies. What has been California’s role, San Francisco’s role, in changing how we think about love?

Rodriguez: Well, the City of Love. We replaced Philadelphia briefly. Come to San Francisco for the eternal summer.

I want to say several things.

When I wrote Brown, I was quite struck with how much lovemaking there is in America that never gets described. Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson and their descendants cannot be buried to this day in the Jefferson family plot. I mean, we are given American history, and we are told this is American history, but it’s a compilation of hatred, of these wars, of that disagreement, of that shooting, that assassination. That’s American history. The Civil War, those young men dead in Gettysburg.

Then there will be these family stories about a love affair, and you will see these people, this Italian immigrant sitting in a family of black people in North Carolina, and you wonder who in the hell is he. Where did he come from? How does he work? Well, in my family, this blond lady starts showing up at our family Christmases who is always with my uncle’s nephew. He’s very political in San Francisco. I know that. And my first vision of him was with an Adlai Stevenson tie. And then I find out that they got married. And that woman, the blond lady, is there in the middle of all these Mexicans and Indians because—my mother’s words in Spanish—they fell in love. And I realized what this explosive thing is, this love. This takes you places where you never know where you’re going.

So I know there is something brewing in me, this little emotion brewing in me, which can get me killed, you know, if I ask the wrong guy, if I say to the wrong guy, you know, “I’d like to be your friend.” So you learn not to say anything.

It becomes almost this story that just shatters me, because you would hear these people, a little church in South Carolina that gets burned down, the minister and priest, and they all gather around. We talk about hate crimes. I think to myself why don’t we talk about love crimes in America, how people are killed for falling in love, or how people are destroyed because they fall in love, how people are put in jail for falling in love, how even glancing at her for a black man could get you lynched in America, you know. Let’s talk about love crimes. That’s what I want to say first of all about love, just how explosive it is and how unruly.

And I guess what I want to say now in the world is that I don’t understand a lot of what goes on. I remember as an altar boy—because I used to go to lots of funerals and lots of weddings, what I knew as an altar boy in my Catholic church, a beautiful church, still is—was that if the groom or the bride weeps during the service, it will usually be the groom. It will not be the bride. What I also knew at funerals is that if anybody weeps at a funeral, it will be several rows back. It usually won’t be in the front row, because they had to clean the shit, and they know what a blessing death is.

Anyway, I guess what I feel right now is there is this enormous disconnect between men and women in our society. And what I was struck by at an early age as a young man in Los Angeles and then in Northern California is the fact that at a time in which there was this gay liberation going on and my gay friends told me about all this sex they were having, it was kind of a carnival. I wasn’t having any. Men were not interested in what I was selling, but women were, and I developed a number of relationships with women, two of which were sexual, but all of which were very deep—the darling in the book in Los Angeles being one of them. Many of these women were married. A number of them had been married several times or divorced, and there was a relationship that we had, a sardonic gay man with a thrice-married divorcee, that was really interesting, partly because we regarded men with some chagrin and partly because—a lot of my straight friends will say, “Well, the reason you knew so many women was because you were free of this animal urge,” you know, that we could be friends. We could have conversations. We could look in each other’s eyes and not seduce each other into a hotel room. I think there was some of that, but surely, I would say to my friends that you have that relationship with a sister. You are not driven by a sexual urge—or with your mother, presumably, although Freud might disagree. But I think there was always that odd relationship, and it’s one that we satirize as we were the interior decorators that they would call upon to decorate their houses because their husbands didn’t care, and we would furnish their houses, or we would cut their hair, the salon in Beverly Hills, or we would take them to lunch. Nancy Reagan had one, you know, because we would amuse them. We could tell them stories when their husband had nothing to say.

I developed quite early this relationship with women, so that I began to hear these stories about their unhappiness, and increasingly, this ambition to be Ms., to be judged not as somebody’s wife or even as somebody’s mother, just to be judged in a civic life as my own woman. And it really did lead me to the conclusion, which now I believe, that my emancipation came from women—came from heterosexual women, that the suffrage movement in Europe, which extends into the early twentieth century in America, the desire of women to leave the parlor and to march down the great streets of Europe and America to demand the vote, demand in the public realm equality with a male is astonishing, because here are women who do not want to be, as they’re going to a ballot box, somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother. They may be both, and that may be the motive in their vote, but they are being judged as essentially a woman in their own right. That freedom it seems to me preexists the gay liberation movement, which is casually and stupidly referred to as the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, which were a wonderful sort of refusal to kowtow to the police and to demand the freedom of one’s own leisure in the night. But the decision of women to seek out freedom in the city apart from their relationships at home, I think it’s the beginning of something that is really quite astonishing.

And that taught me to see that the women I knew as my teachers, the nuns, who were as covered up as Arabic women now—never saw their arms, never saw their hair, never saw their necks, they were completely covered—that was their freedom. And when they begin to emerge in nineteenth century Europe, they are the first women who are allowed to do that, precisely because they are like this. The burka becomes their freedom essentially, and they are able to open hospitals, run hospitals, open schools. When they come to San Francisco, they are able to do things that no one can do. And the local anti-Catholic newspaper says, “We don’t want you here. You’re whores.” What are they doing here? They are sleeping at the back of St. Patrick’s Church on Mission Street because there is no place for them. They are remembered on the north side of the State Capitol. There is a monument to them, those Sisters of Mercy. These were vulnerable women, and the only reason for their decline is they became influential, and they essentially created generations of women, like my mother, who would follow them, who would become educated—my mother didn’t—but who would get jobs outside of the family, who would learn skills, who would in the end, as my mother did, earn more money than their husbands and so forth.

You can sort of mute the power of love, but when it explodes, it explodes, and it is really something, really something.

The dynamic of male-female relationships is so strained now by that assurance that women have in the world, even when it’s a job at Walmart that nonetheless pays more than the unemployed husband is getting right now. It already establishes a dynamic that we haven’t worked into mythology of what a family feels like or looks like. I think that what women are doing right now feels like a negativity that’s moving away from marriage, but you asked me about love, and there is an Israeli writer who I quote in the book who says, “You know, if God had come to Sarah saying, ‘Give me your firstborn son. I want to kill him,’ rather than to Abraham, she would have said, ‘No way. There’s no way you’re going to take my kid to do whatever you are going to do on top of a mountain.'” A woman came up to me on Temple Square in Utah, in Salt Lake City, and she knew me from television. She wanted to talk about having a gay son, and she said, “You know, the church teaches me that God loves everything.” It is a desert religion and the patriarch is there. “But then they want me to disown my son,” she said, “I won’t do it.”

What I hear increasingly from women is this antagonism toward religion, what they called the patriarchal religions of the desert, and I am quite interested in that. What I am increasingly interested in is just the unruliness of love and how surprising it is, how unexpected, and how dangerous it is. I still think now that what love is, is so strong that we better get out Valentine cards and candy. We better put it at a distance, because it is really, really strong, and you give a society reasons to be distracted, easy sex, pornography, fast cars, and you can sort of mute the power of love, but when it explodes, it explodes, and it is really something, really something. That’s what I think about love.

I think last of all, to understand this in the churches, I think they preach love all the time, but they have no idea what they are proposing. I remember the nuns used to warn us when we were little kids about the danger of mixed marriages, by which they meant marrying a Methodist or something. But then one could fall in love with someone not of one’s kind, you know. That was in some way even more likely. So I’m walking up J Street—I must be about ten years old—with this secret looming in my chest that I am in love with the wrong sex, and I see this black man walking—this is in the late 1950s—hand-in-hand with this woman, this blond lady, who is really white. I mean really white and buxom. And I know enough to know that this is not safe. No one is going to lynch him in Sacramento, I think, but I want to protect them, because I know that this thing that they are doing is really risky. And there is California all around, you know, and we are all continuing on our way. Wow! California story.

So there are streets now in Irvine where there are children—children being born all over California, all over the world—who don’t have a race and who belong to several races, and faces now in California that are so enchanting for being indescribable, unattributable. Yeah, that’s pretty good. California cuisine. Pretty good.


This interview was conducted and edited by Jon Christensen.

Portraits of Richard Rodriguez by Timothy Archibald. © TIMOTHY ARCHIBALD.


The Future of X

Taking inspiration from “Face the People and Speak: On the future of expertise and public conversations,” Abby Smith Rumsey’s essay in this issue of Boom, we asked colleagues from universities around California to talk with us about the future of higher education, politics, prisons, transportation, nature, Hollywood, wine, the family, food, and music.

Why 2050? There is something about mid-century. We’ve noticed a lot of thinking and writing about the future of California and the world focusing on 2050. It is a key date. Around then global population growth is expected to level off. And if we don’t get our act together by then, climate change will really start kicking in.

We’ve talked about a lot of these big ideas in this issue of Boom. But 2050 is also not that far off. If some of us will be long gone, many others of us, including our students, will still be around. This is their world. So we wanted to ask the experts what it looks like, and what they would put in a time capsule to be opened in 2050.

These interviews were conducted and edited by Boom staff: Eve Bachrach, Jon Christensen, Annie Powers, Robert Smith, and Sara V. Torres.

Let the conversation begin.

On the Future of the University with Alessandro Duranti, UCLA

The future of politics with Thad Kousser, UCSD

The future of prisons with Sharon Dolovich, UCLA

The future of transportation with Daniel Sperling, UC Davis

The future of nature with Brad Shaffer, UCLA

The future of Hollywood with Jennifer Holt, UCSB

The future of wine with Andy Walker, UC Davis

The future of the family with Elinor Ochs, UCLA

The future of food with Allison Carruth, UCLA

The future of music with Josh Kun, USC


Future of Hollywood

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

We asked Jennifer Holt, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, about the future of Hollywood and movies.

Boom: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have warned that Hollywood is going to “implode.” Do you think this doom-and-gloom forecast of the industry’s future is accurate?

Jennifer Holt: Certain aspects of the entertainment industry are facing some serious challenges, thanks to new technologies, consumer demands for “anytime, anywhere” access to entertainment, and new options for distributing content that open the playing field dramatically. That doesn’t necessarily mean Hollywood is going to “implode,” but it does mean those working in film and television production at the studios are going to have to continue adjusting the way they do business. Don’t forget that we have heard these cries of impending doom before, many times. And yet, Hollywood is alive and well, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are still making movies, television, and money.

Boom: Can California survive without Hollywood?

Holt: I don’t think a “California without Hollywood” is a scenario we are going to be realistically facing anytime soon. While the percentage of films being produced in California is definitely shrinking, the state still accounts for nearly 40 percent of all entertainment employment nationwide, and 60 percent of all labor income in the industry is earned in California. That doesn’t even begin to account for the service and support sectors that are crucial to the workings of the entertainment business—everything from dry cleaners to hotels and restaurants—or the goods purchased by the industry, most of which come from California. Hundreds of films and television series are produced in California each year, and entertainment is consistently one of the country’s largest exports. This industry is facing challenges, but it is not facing extinction.

Boom: You’ve done work on deregulation in entertainment. How will this phenomenon impact the entertainment industry of the future?

Holt: Deregulation will continue to impact the entertainment industry and the audience in profound ways, until the government decides to take action on behalf of consumers. The consolidation of media industries that has resulted from the deregulation that began in the 1980s has impacted the quality of our media culture, the accessibility of information, and ultimately the fabric of our democracy. The same conglomerates that create the latest blockbusters also produce most of the television news that Americans consume. Companies like Comcast also control the cable wires and Internet service that deliver this information. Further consolidation in these industries only means less choice, higher prices, and more homogenized media. Future combinations of high-tech industries and content producers are something to watch. Should they begin to gobble up one another and impact competition that would limit our options even more.

Boom: How do you think the increasing availability of film and television online will affect American culture?

Holt: I think in one sense, it will continue to fragment the audience. We have more choices of what to watch on any given night with streaming platforms such as Netflix or Hulu, and more devices on which to enjoy this content. We don’t have to limit ourselves to one viewing space either—studies have found that many people are increasingly using tablets to stream media in the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. So the more connected devices and available content we have, the less likely we are to converge in one place, around one screen, to watch the same show. Media is also becoming easier to share and discover with online delivery, so there is also the potential for exposure to more and different types of shows that we would otherwise see, even if we are watching them alone, on our phones.

Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?

Holt: I would include an episode of “The Bachelor,” because otherwise nobody in the future will believe this actually happened, a cable box, a clunky remote with buttons that you actually have to push, a special section for physical media such as DVDs, CDs, newspapers, and books so we don’t forget what they once looked like, an iPhone which we might all laugh at someday as much as the brick phone, a landline telephone with its connection cord, a cable bill, a modem, a copy of Minority Report (set in 2054), a broadcast network scheduling executive, and pictures of domestic and public spaces that don’t have screens on the walls—that will probably look as quaint in 2050 as images of families gathered around the radio do now.


Image at top by Waltarr.


Future of Nature

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

We asked H. Bradley Shaffer, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, about the future of nature.

Boom: What do we need to do now to preserve biodiversity in the future in California?

Brad Shaffer: One of the things I am really hoping we can accomplish is to collect baseline population genomics data, ideally for every species of plant and animal in California, and beyond for that matter, so that we know what kind of genetic diversity currently exists across the state. What we have now is a poor substitute for what we had, but it’s all we’ve got. And as we move forward, having that baseline is really useful in that it allows us evaluate how we’re doing in ten years or twenty years or whatever—how we’re doing in terms of retaining what we had and how we’re doing in terms of potentially improving on what we had or what we lost.

Boom: What is “conservation genomics” and why do we need it?

Shaffer: The relationship between conservation and genetics is a very old and very deep relationship, and it simply says that there is a lot of information in the genetics of wild populations of organisms that’s relevant to how we should conserve and protect them. Say you have a species that is in trouble and we want to try to come up with a conservation plan for it. One of the things we want to do is conserve the diversity within that species. If that species occurs in Central California and in Southern California, we would like to know if they are genetically very different on either side of the Tehachapi Mountains that separate those two parts of their range. If there are genetically different parts of a species’ range, we want to make sure we conserve populations in genetic region one, genetic region two, etc. You can also use genetics to learn about how plants and animals move across landscapes. You can do studies of migration and gene flow—the movement of individuals and their genes—by using genetics. When people use the term “conservation genomics,” what they mean is scaling up the genetics that we would have traditionally done in the past to much larger and more informative studies. So, traditionally we might have studied five or ten or fifteen genes, and now genomics means scaling that up by one or two or three orders of magnitude and studying a lot of genetic material from those individuals and populations in a species—going up to a thousand or ten thousand genes. In principle, it could mean studying the entire genome and analyzing all of the genetic variation found in a species, although that hasn’t been done except in few model systems to date.

Boom: Does conservation genomics mean that we can afford to be ecologically risky or reckless––as long as we are going to conserve these genomes, then it doesn’t matter about the effects we have on the environment?

Shaffer: Let’s say we had full genomic knowledge of population variation for every species of plant and animal. Would that allow us to be ecologically risky or reckless? Hopefully not. It would allow us to be ecologically and environmentally better informed in terms of what our actions will mean for those populations of plants and animals. What that might mean is that certain things that we thought we had to be careful about, in fact, with that greater depth of knowledge we now feel we don’t have to be as careful about. Other things we felt that we didn’t need to be careful about, perhaps we do. My way of looking at it is that it will allow us to better understand what it means to be reckless and avoid it because we’ll be better informed. Deeper knowledge does not provide carte blanche to do things that are going to destroy or scramble the environment even more. Hopefully, it gives us better insights into what the consequences of different actions, different environmental and ecological actions, will be.

Boom: How does conservation genomics change the way we think about traditional threats to conservation, like increasing land conversion, infrastructure, and agriculture? Does genomics show us that species might work around or adapt to these threats?

Shaffer: Genomics may in some cases either inform us or allow us to make more educated predictions about how organisms will deal with those threats. It can do that by informing us about specific ways that organisms adapt to the environment and change. It can also allow us to make better predictions about what they will do as they adapt to human mediated change. Climate change, and how organisms will and will not adapt to it, is a great example. If you learn about how organisms in the past—or currently—have been able to successfully adapt to some natural change, and humans are currently creating similar kinds of changes, that should help us better predict how organisms might adapt in the face of human disturbances and environmental challenges.

Boom: What would you put in a time capsule for 2050?

Shaffer: I’d put two things. One is a frozen sample of a native plant—say, an oak tree acorn—and a weed to look at changes in those species’ DNA over forty years as they adapt to climate and other human-mediated changes. The other is a sample of dirt from Pershing Square in downtown LA, from the Santa Monica Mountains, and from the beach in Santa Monica to be able to look at changes in soil bacteria and fungi over the same time period.


Image at top courtesy of Ed Schipul.