Tag: Environment


Imperial Landscapes

by Noé Montes

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Editor’s note: Photographer Noé Montes knows the Imperial Valley of California as few do. His long relationship with the land began in childhood, first taking it in through the car window as his family looked for work in the fields of the vast valley bordering Mexico south of the Salton Sea. In his twenties, Montes crisscrossed the valley when he worked as a farm equipment repair technician.

Though possessed by a desire to photograph the Imperial Valley since he first learned to use a camera, Montes hadn’t acted on that desire until recently. Last year, with a journalism fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, he began a project to document the valley’s landscapes and people. He continued that work in this photo essay for Boom.

Montes sees the valley’s spare environment as not just aesthetically compelling, but also saturated with meaning—meaning that has changed over time, and that continues to change as California agricultural changes.

“I thought about the pictures I would make here for many, many years,” he says. “I am, of course, seeing the same things that have always been there, but these things are now imbued with much more history and meaning. They speak to me now of systemic, historic, abuse of power.”

The Imperial Valley “is very rich in resources, but the people who live there are almost all very poor,” Montes says. “This needs to change.”

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

The Code of the Desert

by Geoff Nicholson

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

In one of those bits of LA synchronicity that no longer surprise me much, I happened to talk to Ed Ruscha at a party in John Lautner’s “Chemosphere” the day after I’d watched the 1972 documentary Rayner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Ruscha appears in the film, discussing the aesthetics of the gas station. In our conversation, Ruscha reminded me—not that I needed much reminding—of Banham’s assertion that people in the desert are very respectful of things that belong there and have a tendency to shoot things that don’t.

The relevant passage appears in Travels in America Deserta, where Banham writes: “Whatever reasons Americans may pretend for taking a gun out into the desert, most of them are going to fire at road signs, water tanks, memorial plaques, wind pumps or old beer cans.…Even if it is no more that than a symptom of mindless vandalism, this mania for shooting at human artifacts is not quite senseless: the identifiable humanness of their origins gives these objects a different status from everything else in view. The works of man inevitably attract the attention of mankind.”

I would add a couple of things. First, certain items are taken into the desert specifically so that they can be shot at: those beer cans, of course, and various domestic appliances, televisions, and computer screens, all the way up to cars and trucks. I’d also say that I’ve seen quite a few cacti and Joshua trees that have been on the receiving end of “the attention of mankind.”

But in general terms, I think Banham was on to something. Most of us have our own, very specific idea of what does and doesn’t “belong” in the desert. And if you see something you think shouldn’t be there, then sure, why not shoot it? When it comes to architecture, in the broadest sense, to desert structures, whether domestic or commercial, or industrial or military, the question of “belonging” becomes far more complicated. An open-pit borax mine is clearly a blot on the landscape, in my view, but then, if you ask me, so is a solar farm.

We might not want to shoot out the windows of that James Bond villain house that somebody’s built on the top of an otherwise untouched desert outcrop—all villains live in modern houses, as singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane observes—but in some cases, we definitely wish somebody would take a bulldozer to it.

It’s now the best part of thirty years since I first stepped foot in the California desert, as one more Englishman living out his own, still no doubt rather derivative, desert fantasy. To say that I immediately fell in love with the desert isn’t quite accurate, since in many ways I was already in love with it, or with an idea of it, long before I ever arrived.

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

Like most Europeans, and indeed a great many Americans, I first knew the desert from photographs, movies, and literature. I’d done my time looking at the desert photographs of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, watching Vanishing Point and Baghdad Café, and even watching Roadrunner cartoons. I’d read Travels in America Deserta and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And in due course I traveled to Barstow solely because of that opening:We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Inevitably, some of these depictions of the desert were a lot more “accurate” and “authentic” than others, though the desert of the real made them all suspect, including my own firsthand observations.

I was drawn to the forms of the territory, the beauty and the emptiness of the desert itself, but I was always far more moved by a landscape that contained some human element, an intersection of the natural and the manmade: a road, a prospector’s cabin, an isolated motel, a gas station, a store that might or might not still be in business.

I could see there was a contradiction here. In one sense, you might think “naturally,” I wanted the desert to be pristine, uninhabited, untouched by human presence. But how could it be if I was seeing it through the lens of images somebody else had made of it, reading descriptions by people who had been there before me? The human presence was inevitable and was, in fact, part of my attraction to it, but it also felt like a kind of desecration. The paradox is one I have never quite been able to escape.

My first desert trip was remarkably free-form and aimless. It involved a lot of driving, a lot of walking, and a considerable amount of confusion. A lot of the time I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I usually didn’t know what I had found. In this state, I came across the strange, chunky, elemental, abandoned cabins strewn around Wonder Valley, east and north of Joshua Tree. I now know that they exist in other parts of the Mojave, too.

There was, and remains, something both improbable and archetypal about those cabins, their strangely perfect, geometrical proportions, sometimes with muted, dusty pink, stucco walls that stand out against the pale yellow sand, sometimes not much more than wooden skeletons. They looked utterly out of place in one sense; but given the patina of time and neglect, they also fit right in. I had the sense that some careless, god-sized giant had been using the Mojave as his own personal model railroad layout, and these were the miniature buildings used to add scale and detail. There was also, if I’m honest about it, something a little scary about them.

The majority of those cabins were in quiet ruin when I first saw them, and they looked as though they’d been that way for a good long time. I had no idea who had, or ever could have, lived in these cabins, but I imagined some grizzled, snaggle-toothed, half-crazed, desert rat. Not exactly.

In 1938 Congress passed the Small-Tract Homestead Act, giving away five-acre parcels of land to those who agreed to build a small, habitable structure within two years. The scheme didn’t really take off until after World War II; but once that was out of the way, there was a minor building boom in the Mojave. People like things that are free. Some built their own cabins from scratch. But local contractors also came up with schemes for ready-designed buildings that fit the government guidelines.

Homesteading had been used historically to distribute land to farmers, but clearly there was no farming to be done here. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything to be done, and few reasons at all for many people to want to live here full-time. Consequently, many of the new owners, rather than grizzled desert rats, tended to be Bohemian Angelinos who wanted vacation homes conveniently located a couple of hours from the city. Most people, however, evidently didn’t find them as convenient as all that, hence the abandonment.

Today, many cabins remain, sometimes in a state of gorgeous ruin, and are occasionally used for art projects and activities of one kind and another. Poking around in them, as I sometimes do, I often see evidence that somebody has crashed or squatted there in recent times, but these days even the most rugged individualists tend to want something a bit more substantial, a shipping container, a trailer, a boxcar, a prefabricated metal building, complete with solar power and swamp cooler. And who can blame them?

Photograph by Flickr user Jason Pier in DC.

Occasionally, people complain that the homesteader cabins are cluttering up the desert and should be demolished and cleared away, the desert made clean and spotless again. It’s easy enough to see their point and easy, too, to feel a genuine ambivalence. Sure, in one sense they’re utterly out of place, but they look so good, so picturesque. Fortunately, inertia plays a big part in desert life. Bulldozers seem plentiful, but the urge to remove the cabins doesn’t seem all that pressing. One way or another, they endure.

Thirty years ago, when I first saw those cabins, I was sure I wanted to own one of them—though since I was then living some five-and-a-half-thousand miles away in London, it seemed the most improbable of dreams. Today, I now live about a hundred and fifty miles away, and although the dream hasn’t died, and I’ve thought hard about it, and looked at a lot of cabins and quasi-ruins along with their attendant five-acre patches of desert, with a sincere view to buying one, it still hasn’t come to fruition. Did I mention desert inertia?

One of the more serious drawbacks to owning a five acre spread, is that five acres really doesn’t count for much in the wide open spaces of the Mojave Desert. Solitude and isolation are so much harder to come by than you might at first imagine. If you really want to separate yourself from humanity, you need a good couple of hundred acres. If you own a five-acre patch and your immediate neighbor likes to hammer sheet metal and breed pit bulls, you’re going to know all about it.

Consider, as a case study, the Black Desert House in Yucca Valley, attributed to Marc Atlan Design, with Oller and Pejic, architects, a blocky low-slung construction, its matt exterior as dark as a stealth fighter. Consider the wording on the website designed to sell it: “Beyond shelter, Black Desert House is an artistic counter-point to a landscape born of fire, and sculpted over the last 100 million years. Conceived to read as a shadow cast within great piles of monzogranite boulders, the residence offers the quintessential desert experience: immersion into the timelessness of the vast desert panorama.”

But then the clincher—the killer—that it’s “sited at a cooler elevation of over 4,000 feet on 2.5 acres.” Two and half acres? Dude. That’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. You’re likely to have squads of ATVs running around your boundaries. More than that, you can be sure that at least some of your neighbors are going to be looking in your direction and thinking that this black, million-dollar bunker really doesn’t belong there. Of course, you can also be sure that whoever eventually buys the house isn’t going to care much about what the neighbors think.

When it comes to the presence of art in the desert, there’s a whole different set of issues about belonging. Spray painting faces or skulls onto native rocks we can all agree is just plain bad and wrong. But what about simpler interventions, like spray painting a face on a shack that’s already in ruins? What about land art? Say, rocks arranged into spirals or circles or cairns? There’s actually something deeply moving about walking through the wilderness and coming across an arrangement of rocks or sand, knowing that someone’s been there and taken the time and trouble to signal something for the next passerby. Even if you don’t know what it means, and you don’t particularly like this kind of intervention, it doesn’t seem the greatest of sins. Nature will eventually reassert itself.

But how about a ten-acre plot strewn with massive sculptures made from various kinds of domestic and industrial detritus? I’m thinking of the Noah Purifoy sculpture park in Joshua Tree. Part of the land was a gift from Ed Ruscha. The works are frequently ramshackle constructions that often resemble buildings of one kind or another: a theater, a hangar, a bunker, a bridge. Nothing there is strictly speaking “natural,” very little comes from the desert itself, but the works nevertheless do fit quite well. Much of it looks as though it’s falling apart. Purifoy famously insisted, “I do assemblage. I don’t do maintenance.” Some of the locals are no doubt less than entranced by Purifoy’s works. But the attitude I’ve observed in the neighbors who live in the more conventional nearby houses is that they can live pretty happily with the art. It’s the art-loving visitors they have trouble with.

One of the works that best shows Purifoy’s gifts of assembly alongside his sense of humor and irony is a large “architectural” piece titled “Ode to Frank Gehry.” As far as I know, Gehry has never built in the California desert. Purifoy’s work offered to correct this with an assemblage of white corrugated metal, struts, and a skim of concrete that certainly looks as “deconstructed” as any of Gehry’s work.

Purifoy recently had a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I was afraid that a gallery setting wouldn’t show his work to its best advantage. A patina of desert dust and grime seems to be a necessary part of the work. I think you could argue that a certain amount of over-restoration had gone on. Some of the work looked a little too spruced up, but all in all the show was a triumph. Not least of its attractions, “Ode to Frank Gehry” had, by some transportational magic, been temporarily relocated to the museum’s main courtyard. Did it look out of place there? Why, yes, it did. But it also looked great. You can take the art out of the desert, but you can’t quite take the desert out of the art.

If you were in search of a different structure that looks much like an ode to Gehry, though one built in 1958, several years before Gehry established his first architectural practice in Los Angeles, you could do worse than go to the Salton Sea and take a look at Albert Frey’s North Shore Yacht Club. Here, too, you’ll see corrugated metal and big, basic, curved geometric shapes, though here the overall effect is nautical moderne, complete with faux portholes. It was a wreck when I first saw it and still had a sign out front announcing the Aces and Spades club. But now it’s been restored to become what is surely one of the world’s very coolest-looking community centers.

Frey, born in Switzerland and a follower of Le Corbusier, first arrived in the American desert, specifically Palm Springs, in 1934 and five years later moved there permanently. He stayed for sixty years and became one of Palm Springs’s preeminent modernist architects. And who’s to say he couldn’t have been successful in a different city? But he thrived on both the environment and the freedom he was allowed here. When the planners at Palm Springs City Hall looked at the design he’d drawn up for his second residence here, a house built directly into the rock, they concluded that it was crazy, but they didn’t try to stop him.

Palm Springs isn’t such a bad place to be crazy. It was, and in certain respects remains, a fun city, a recreational oasis where people go to play away from prying eyes. The fact that historically many of these players have been movie types with an easy-come, easy-go attitude toward money has only increased the tendency for architectural experimentation. Bob Hope hardly seemed part of any avant-garde, but he lived happily in a house designed by John Lautner that had the feel of being inside the crater of volcano.

Photograph by Robert Gourley, via Flickr.

Even the banks in Palm Springs look ironic. Whereas in much of the world people want their financial institutions to be housed in buildings of classical solidity, in Palm Springs one of the most exciting buildings I know is the Bank of America. Sweeping white concrete and blue mosaic, it claims to be inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel. It was built by Victor Gruen Associates.

Baker is, in many ways, the anti–Palm Springs, a rough, poor, but likeable desert town, 150 miles or so from LA, just off Interstate 15, with a population of about 700, a place to stop for gas or lunch. When I first went there twenty years back, it seemed to be striving even as it struggled, and it was home to the world’s largest thermometer, 134 feet tall, a genuinely impressive, if nevertheless absurd, structure. It was there to draw trade and attention to the Bun Boy diner and motel. In the gift shop, you could buy a detailed model of the building that housed a thermometer. I bought one.

Diner and motel are currently closed, though the thermometer remains and still works, at least some of the time. The Bun Boy used to be one of a handful of perfectly decent motels in town. Some are still standing but closed; others have vanished off the face of the earth. Just one remains in business: the Wills Fargo, a classic, old-style establishment, with a white arcaded frontage that looks OK from a distance. It gets some amusingly terrible online reviews: “The spider webs were nice in the glow of the sunlight coming through the ceiling,” writes a Trip Advisor member.

The place I used to stay in Baker, and one of the last to close, was Arne’s Royal Hawaiian. It wasn’t the Ritz, but the rooms were big and clean, with shag carpet that came part way up the walls, and some fixtures and fittings you could regard as mid-century if you put your mind to it.

The Polynesian theme was pretty much restricted to the motel sign, a few palm trees, and the building that housed the office, which had a wonderful curving pointed roof, clad inside with two big waves of wood paneling. Otherwise, there was an older section built of cinder blocks, with rooms the size and shape of prison cells. Behind that was a more modern two-story structure where I, and I suspect everybody else, actually stayed.

For a good while after it closed down, Arne’s remained more or less intact, but that’s changed. When I stopped in Baker recently it seemed that every piece of glass in the place had been smashed, doors broken down, and the whole place thoroughly vandalized, including the empty JG Ballard–style swimming pool out back, although the paneled ceiling was still there, looking great, waiting either for architectural salvagers or more determined vandals.

But not everything in Baker is in decline. There’s at least one optimist in town: Luis Ramallo, the owner of the Alien Jerky Store, which also specializes in hot sauce, candy, and space-age souvenirs. It’s been there for a little over a decade and business seems to be thriving. There used to be a very homemade-looking space alien and flying saucer on the roof. There’s now a full-size UFO parked outside, along with a row of movie-prop-quality aliens holding up metallic sunshades.

There are also several billboards showing plans for the future: blueprints, architectural renderings and artists’ impressions of the high-end, thirty-one-room “mothership-shaped” UFO hotel that Ramallo plans to build behind his store. It’ll be like staying in a space station, with a flight deck, sleeping chambers, and animatronic aliens. An alien-themed shopping mall, futuristic restaurants, and a “space-themed spa” are also in the works.

I have no idea whether Ramallo can really pull any of this off, but I really want him to. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors was certainly happy enough to give the project the go-ahead. And really, who could object? Sure, a UFO hotel in the middle of, say, Brentwood might be a problem, but Baker is in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the desert. Who’s going to complain? And if it fails, well, it’s going to leave a set of fantastic, futuristic desert ruins, although you might not want to be living in the house next door.

Inspired, or perhaps simply carried away, I again start thinking about owning some little desert shack, by no means a piece of architecture, just some basic shelter with its own patch of land. It was easy enough to find one online that seemed to fit the bill. “Rustic 400 Sq. Ft. Cabin on 5 acres, close to 29 Palms in beautiful Wonder Valley. Bring your tools and imagination!” It was a very simple, perhaps even archetypal, design: a door in the middle, a window either side, holes in the roof, but the walls intact, though looking a little bullet-scarred. The price was about the same as a well-used Jeep.

The realtor’s ad showed it to be the last property at the end of a dirt road, which had its appeal—nobody driving past your front door. And so I made a little desert field trip to go look at the cabin. After a drive along increasingly rutted and sandy roads, I spotted the place in the distance, and I could also see another house on the road, a sprawling, tattered, but apparently inhabited thing, with collapsed outbuildings, a number of wrecked cars, and a sea of detritus surrounding it: building materials, pipes, scrap metal, chunks of wood, oil cans, domestic appliances. A Noah Purifoy might have taken this junk and made any number of fine sculptures from it. But the inhabitant of the house had no such plans, unless he was creating an installation on entropy and chaos theory.

I could also see that the junk was strewn on both sides of the dirt road, and it’s certainly not unknown for desert plots to have a road running through them. However, when I got really close, I could see that some of this junk was lying in the road itself; it had, in fact, been deliberately put there and arranged to form a barrier. Lengths of tire-shredding metal ran from one side of the road to the other. And there was an expanse of old lumber that looked like it might be concealing a giant hole for the unwary driver to fall into. It would have been possible to get around these obstacles and drive or walk across the open desert to the cabin, but by then I was deterred. However wonderful the cabin was, would I really want to have neighbors who were trying to block my way and shred my tires? Generally, perhaps especially in the desert, good fences make good neighbors. But roadblocks are a different matter.

Photograph by John Loo, via Flickr.



Re-Coding Planning

by Mark Hogan

Art by Casey Reas

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

In California, the code that governs how individual towns and cities develop sprawls across an entire shelf of thick three-ring binders in many planning offices, architectural firms, and building companies. These codes started out much smaller, of course, but over the past 125 years they have slowly grown longer and more complicated as regulators sought to address a seemingly endless number of questions and conditions pertaining to building California.

Sometimes new code is directly at odds with older code, but the older code stays on the books. We have regulations to encourage density and others favoring suburbanization. We have codes favoring public transit and other mandating acres of parking. These goals are contradictory and impossible to achieve at the same time in the same place; each bit of code can be used to stop another from doing its work. So nothing happens.

Computer code can have the same problem, too. New functionality requires new lines of code. And you can keep adding new code to the old until eventually you have what programmers artfully call a “hairball”—a tangle of code, full of bugs, kluges, and workarounds, so inefficient that it slows down the whole program or breaks it altogether. At that point, you face a choice: do you go in and try to kill the bugs and write more kluges and workarounds? Or do you start over and write new code?

We’re at that point with building and development codes in California. We need new code for the twenty-first century. Can we get it by tinkering with our existing code? Or should we rewrite our codes from the ground up?

The hairball of building and planning codes, at multiple levels of government, makes it difficult—and extremely expensive—to address two urgent and related crises facing California today: an urban housing shortage and climate change. The Bay Area and Southern California dominate lists of the most expensive metropolitan regions in the country. Greedy developers, young gentrifiers moving into low-income neighborhoods, and NIMBY groups are frequently blamed for skyrocketing housing costs; but in reality, each is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to recognize that the entire system of regulating housing development is broken. To create affordable cities, responsive to a changing climate and prudent with limited natural resources, we may need to rewrite the rules from scratch with a new set of goals in mind.

Process 15 (A) by Casey Reas.

Most of the rules and regulations governing how and where and what housing gets built were first written in an era when land was cheap. California’s cities were expanding outward, and developers built detached homes while the state connected these new neighborhoods with new freeways. City planners began trying to rein in sprawl beginning in the 1970s, and an increased interest in urban living in recent years has changed what urban Californians look for in housing. California’s codes have not caught up with these larger changes.

Building and planning codes have their roots in the Progressive-era reform movement that sought to promote health and safety through higher-quality housing than the tenements that had been built in fast-growing industrial cities. Light and air were seen as cures to the ills that plagued dirty and heavily polluted late-nineteenth-century American cities, and many early reformers were legitimately concerned about the living conditions of lower income residents. But reformers’ intentions were not always benign. Nativist sentiment, racism, and classism also figured heavily in the reform movement, and upper-class reformers “saw new ethnic, religious, and political subcultures as threatening to hard-won changes in polite family life.”1

As the movement to regulate construction and land use coalesced, many of the well-intentioned early reformers who sought to improve the conditions of working people were pushed to the sidelines as the drive for zoning became more about excluding people, namely immigrants and African Americans.2 California cities had long used police powers to prevent Chinese laundries from setting up outside of Chinese neighborhoods, but Baltimore was the first city to write racial exclusion into a zoning ordinance when, in 1910, city leaders passed a law limiting where black residents could live to a list of specified neighborhoods.3 Racial zoning became common across much of the South. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that this interfered with property rights in Buchanan v. Warley, but municipalities continued to pass race-based zoning laws decades into the twentieth century. Even where racial exclusion was not codified by a city, deed restrictions in large subdivisions were commonly used to keep minorities out of certain areas. Reverberations from these baldly racist and segregationist practices are still felt today.

San Francisco began writing building codes as early as the late 1800s; but rather than legitimately regulating construction, these codes were often more concerned with collecting fees and harassing Chinese immigrants. The earthquake of 1906 and a backlash against what was seen as corruption during the rebuilding process prompted new, more stringent building codes between 1908 and 1909, however San Franciscans showed little interest in implementing zoning at this time.4 In 1908, Los Angeles was first to enact a citywide zoning ordinance that covered uses, principally protecting residential areas from industrial development. But implementation of zoning was focused on preserving high-value neighborhoods, promoting higher property values in middle-income areas, and promoting industrial uses in poor areas. In Berkeley, rather than protecting residents from pollution from nearby industrial activity, zoning codes were written to protect factory owners from lawsuits by low-income neighbors.5

When developers realized that property owners only had control over their own land, and developers could lobby the government to regulate land uses in the surrounding area, they became the biggest proponents of new codes. Broker-subdividers who were building large tracts of housing in the first decades of the twentieth century took the role of “community builders” by lobbying for land-use planning.6 In 1916, Berkeley became the first city in the country to zone specifically for single-family housing as one of only five different kinds of residential use districts, ranging from single-family to apartments. The earlier code in Los Angeles had simply zoned areas as residential or not.7

San Francisco came around to writing zoning codes—as opposed to building codes—after great urging by the Commonwealth Club. The club undertook surveys to document the need for zoning, lumping apartment houses in with lumber mills and stables on the list of undesirable intrusions in residential districts.8 Legislation enabling zoning was passed in 1917, but it took years of studies before the first zoning ordinance and maps were created in 1921. Because San Francisco was much more densely developed than Los Angeles or Berkeley, the implementation of zoning faced more resistance from the real estate industry than in other cities that had enacted zoning regulations. The eastern half of San Francisco was already built out, and there was fear amongst developers, business owners, and architects that a zoning code would stifle further development. The Real Estate Board won at least one battle, ensuring that the Zoning Code of 1921 didn’t include height limits, only restrictions on use.9 But portions of the western side of San Francisco that had not yet been developed got the city’s first detailed zoning restrictions. Areas were zoned into “first residential districts,” mandating single-family homes. Mixing commercial and industrial uses in residential districts was prohibited, with commercial businesses limited only to major thoroughfares where streetcars ran. Hotels and rooming houses were prohibited.

Zoning promoted neighborhood homogeneity that had not existed in cities prior to its creation. While people had legitimate concerns at the turn of the century about dangerous heavy industrial uses being built next to residences, the large tracts of single-family homes that were encouraged by the new code were designed to exclude large segments of the population. Zoning provided a government-backed mechanism to spatially segregate people by income and consequently by race.

Process 11 (A) by Casey Reas.

In Lakewood, the quintessential postwar Southern California suburb depicted in D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land, three Jewish developers purchased land that held the stipulation put in place by the previous development company that lots could not be sold to Jews, Mexicans, or black people. The Supreme Court didn’t ban racial restrictions in property ownership until 1948, and citizens could and did continue to sue to enforce racial covenants until the court banned that practice in 1953.10

Zoning also laid the groundwork for discrimination by other means. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s widely debated essay “The Case for Reparations” was based, in part, on the fact that banks replicated race-based zoning by drawing red lines around black neighborhoods on property maps and refused to lend to prospective homeowners there. This process, called redlining, prevented black Americans from buying homes during the postwar boom and locked them out of the legitimate credit market. While Coates’s essay uses Chicago as a case study, property maps were created of cities nationwide that forbade lending in black neighborhoods, putting residents at the mercy of an extortionist lending system with no regulations.11 In most cities, including San Francisco, the FHA maps showed “A” districts (meaning those areas most desirable for lending) aligned with the areas that had been recently zoned for single-family housing.

In addition to zoning codes that regulated how property could be used, planning codes also regulated the forms buildings can take through prescriptions on height, bulk, lot coverage, shadows, floor area ratio (the total square footage of a building divided by the size of the lot is on), and a wide variety of other measures implemented to achieve the planners’ desired effect. Over the course of the twentieth century, zoning and planning codes were used to control the setbacks on all sides of buildings, the amount of a lot that could be covered, parking minimums, and maximum floor area. Design guidelines were written in many places that dictate such details as building materials and design styles. Taken all together, these regulations have a profound effect on what gets built. The Empire State Building, for instance, was designed via an economic feasibility study for a speculative office building which took costs and potential rental income into consideration, in addition to how far from the street the building had to be set back from the street, as required by New York’s 1916 zoning code. Only then was the architect hired.12

Even across individual states, the regulatory environment differs between municipalities. Local building code amendments then overlay state building codes, meaning that every jurisdiction has a slightly different set of rules. The city of San Francisco’s zoning map shows sixty-five different use districts to regulate land use in a city of less than fifty square miles, and neighboring Oakland and Daly City each have their own separate lists of zoning designations.

Once federal regulations, design guidelines, building safety and energy efficiency requirements, historic preservation zones, and infrastructure considerations are brought into the mix, California’s city planners are left to navigate not only a Byzantine but an often contradictory set of rules. A city planning department may want buildings to have stoops and require them in design guidelines, but accessibility regulations in building codes require wheelchair accessibility. Fire departments advocate for wide streets in order to maneuver and park large vehicles during an emergency, but urban design guidelines often require narrower streets and curb bulb-outs to increase safety by lowering traffic speeds. Some of California’s own largest policy initiatives are at odds with each other. The state will require net-zero housing by 2020 and net-zero commercial buildings by 2030, meaning these buildings will use the same amount of energy as they generate. This is fairly easy to do in the suburbs, where more land is available for on-site energy generation. But it is nearly impossible to accomplish in cities at the scale required. At the same time, SB 375, the state’s Sustainable Communities Act, encourages better coordination between land use planning and transportation in order to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as part of the state’s initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is nearly impossible to do both of these things at the same time. Reducing VMT requires density, but density is nearly impossible to achieve while constructing net-zero buildings, unless transportation emissions for the site are taken into account when measuring the environmental impact of a new building.

Even where layers of code aren’t in conflict with one another, they can be in conflict with neighborhood groups. In California, which allows for a great deal of citizen participation in the planning process, it is not uncommon for neighbors to object to projects that will introduce rental apartments or taller buildings even where they are allowed in the existing code. For instance, the state enacted legislation decades ago to specifically allow for secondary units (also known as in-law units or granny flats) statewide, yet few local jurisdictions have followed through and allowed the new housing because of resistance from homeowners. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed local legislation in the 1980s explaining why the city’s single-family housing was a scarce resource that needed to be preserved, despite it making up the majority of the residentially zoned parcels in the city. To this day, San Francisco does not allow in-law units in single-family districts.

Process 7 (A) by Casey Reas.

Early zoning codes locked many areas into much lower densities than would have developed if previous patterns of growth had taken their course. The densest, most urban parts of San Francisco (and those most frequented by tourists and film crews) are those that were rebuilt following the earthquake of 1906. Farther afield, the southern and western portions of the city built after the zoning code of 1921 are essentially suburban in density and character. This was not organic growth but development as prescribed by city planners and homebuilders. In Groth’s words, “Zoning thus made uniform land use and desired densities as enforceable as the requirements for interior plumbing.”13

If we switch from looking at planning regulations that govern where and what we build, and instead look at the building codes that were created to govern safety, we see a similar pattern of regulations that over time have come to strongly favor suburban development with little regard for their impact on the cost and feasibility of building higher density housing in cities. Architect Tom Steidl compared high-rise residential buildings in Los Angeles and Vancouver, specifically looking at factors that allowed buildings in Vancouver to be much more slender, even when they contained a similar number of units. Buildings in both cities have to comply with stringent earthquake design standards, but he shows that fire safety-related mandates in Los Angeles create a building core—where elevators, stairs and trash chutes are located—twice as large as what is required in Vancouver.14 A larger core means less useable space, making a building less efficient and more expensive to build.

The differences in approach to fire safety are not the result of Canadians’ higher tolerance for risk or greater faith in their fire departments. It is because the best way to prevent deaths from buildings fires is through the use of sprinkler systems, not stairwells. Research has shown an 82 percent decrease in the fire death rate in buildings with these systems, which is why they are installed in most new apartment buildings.15 Germany, a nation with half the fire death rate of the United States,16 allows a single stair in buildings up to 60 meters tall (about 200 feet), which allows for much more compact and efficient floorplans, and in turn means lower per square foot construction costs. But in the United States, multiple stair towers and the separation between them are still the foundation of the regulatory approach toward fire safety, despite the presence of sprinklers and other fire safety measures. Putting risk in perspective is important. There were over 32,000 motor vehicle related deaths and 12,000 gun deaths in the United States in 2013. That same year there were only 325 fire-related deaths in apartment buildings.17

The other largest regulatory factor influencing construction costs and feasibility, and the one communities have the greatest control over, concerns the mandatory parking requirements spelled out in local planning codes. Many of these codes still require two or more parking spaces for each residential unit. This both increases the cost of construction and reduces the number of units that can be built. On a typical site in Los Angeles, parking requirements reduce the number of homes that can be built by 13 percent, and underground parking adds $35,000 in construction costs per parking space.18

Urban sprawl has been widely condemned for its environmental impact, and limits on the distance people are willing to commute mean that outer-ring suburbs are desirable only to the point where commuting distances become too great. But, low-density suburban development is still the dominant form of housing production. By the end of 2014, nationwide construction of single-family homes reached levels not seen since 2008 before the Great Recession.19 In California, there is a slightly different story, as new building permits were nearly balanced between single-family homes and units in apartment buildings between 2011 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of this may be due to an excess inventory of single-family homes in the state, which needed be cleared in the wake of the downturn; so we will see only in the coming years whether or not this trend endures.

Sales prices for single-family homes can be as low as $60 to $70 per square foot in parts of the United States where labor is cheap and land costs are low—especially for high-volume builders who can rely on economies of scale. In California, national builder D.R. Horton is selling homes in Adelanto in San Bernardino County for under $100 per square foot. Roof trusses and preframed walls can be delivered and installed the same day. Designs are standardized and planning approval is typically efficient and predictable. Union labor is rarely used on single-family projects and construction staging (areas for storing materials and equipment) is not an issue. In the case of large developments, the same plans are used again and again, with minor modifications here and there for variety. An architect or engineer is not required to get a permit for a single-family home, and at the smaller scale, many building departments provide typical construction details for homebuilders to include in their drawing sets to speed the process along.

It is a different story when looking at dense urban housing. Building codes for any residential building larger than a duplex have been written in a way that penalizes this type of construction. In cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, the permitting process for a large apartment or condominium project can take years. Even adding a single additional apartment unit to an existing building can easily take eight months or more in city review time. The end result of our acres of code is a process that exacerbates our housing shortage, drives up the cost of housing, and stymies our own plans for building more sustainable cities. Each cycle of building codes generally brings more stringent sets of guidelines, the value of which is often debatable.

We could continue to tweak and tinker our way to building and zoning codes better fit for today’s purposes—but that is essentially what we have been doing for the past century. Or, we can acknowledge that addressing the twenty-first century challenges before us will not be possible with tools that are a century or more old. While California does have its own state building code, it is based on the International Building Code, which is followed by most jurisdictions in the United States. The national preference for suburban-style development means that there is little pressure for reform. If things are going to change, it will only happen at the state level.

Process 9 (A) by Casey Reas.

In Los Angeles, the tension between snarled code, angry neighborhood groups, and a city patching a badly broken process has come to a head. In 2014, the city launched Recode: LA, the first comprehensive reform of the 1946 zoning code, which was written for a city with abundant cheap land but still governs development in Los Angeles today. The original sixty-seven-page zoning code is now a jumble ten times the size, inconsistent not only with itself but with the city of nearly four million people grappling with insufficient housing, frustrating traffic, and local, state, and federal regulations, standards, and goals on energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and water usage. Almost every major development requires permission from the city to deviate from some aspect of the planning code, a process that adds time and expense for the developer, and frustration for residents who never know what someone might try to build in their neighborhood.

In frustration, some activists are proposing a ballot measure that would forbid any development requiring a variance for two years. This would exacerbate an already extreme housing shortage and do nothing to move Los Angeles closer to sustainability. At the same time, some San Franciscans have been fighting a proposed program that would provide a modest amount of additional density to developers in return for building more units of affordable housing. Flyers have circulated in city neighborhoods claiming that San Francisco’s sleepy, fog-draped Outer Sunset district would turn into Miami Beach if the plan were to pass. The housing shortage that plagues all of its large cities is a huge drag on California’s economy, and it is vital that all levels of government begin to address it as a priority on par with fire safety and protecting existing property owners’ home values. Urban areas can no longer rely on sprawling single-family car-oriented neighborhoods to address the pressing need for new housing, and our regulations need to allow for alternatives.

Adding more housing to existing communities doesn’t have to mean “Manhattanization,” as is often claimed. People who grew up watching Three’s Company (set in Santa Monica) or Melrose Place (set in West Hollywood) are familiar with the type of middle-density apartment living that is not being built in most of urban California today, where the majority of the residential land in our largest cities is still zoned for single-family homes or saddled with parking requirements that make increased density unfeasible. Even the popular family-oriented 1990s sitcom Full House, a show about an extended family living together in the heart of San Francisco, features Uncle Jesse and his wife Becky living in what would, in reality, be an illegal in-law apartment upstairs.

If only life could imitate art—or popular culture anyway! New housing in California has come to mean either auto-dependent sprawl or expensive high-density apartments and condos in the urban core, but to really make a difference we have to allow the kinds of middle-density development like the low-rise Melrose Place apartments or the Full House in-law unit in all of our communities. Disallowing this kind of gentle medium density in the name of preserving neighborhood character does a disservice to those who arrived here or were born too late to afford a single-family home within commuting distance of their jobs. It also fails to recognize that making communities more walkable and sustainable will improve neighborhood character over time, not diminish it.

We cannot give up and decide our communities are full, or simply rely on the thinking of the past century to guide our regulations. It’s time to stop tinkering. At the state and local level, we must recode California.

Process 10 (A) by Casey Reas.



The art accompanying this article comes from Casey Reas‘s Process series. As Reas explains, “each Process is a short text that defines a space to explore through multiple interpretations. A Process interpretation in software is a kinetic drawing machine with a beginning but no defined end. It proceeds one step at a time, and at each discrete step, every Element modifies itself according to its behaviors. The corresponding visual forms emerge as the Elements change; each adjustment adds to the previously drawn shapes.”

1. Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 202.

2. Christopher Silver, “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 23–42.

3. Ibid.

4. Groth, Living Downtown, 241.

5. Marc A. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws: The Case of Berkeley,” Berkeley Planning Journal 3, no. 1 (1986): 11.

6. Weiss, “Urban Land Developers and the Origins of Zoning Laws,” 8.

7. Ibid., 17.

8. Marc A. Weiss, “The Real Estate Industry and the Politics of Zoning in San Francisco, 1914–1928,” Planning Perspectives 3, no. 3 (1988): 313.

9. Weiss, “The Real Estate Industry and the Politics of Zoning in San Francisco, 1914–1928,” 315.

10. Donald J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 73.

11. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.

12. See the chapter “Form Follows Finance” by Carol Willis in The Landscape of Modernity: New York City 1900–1940, David Ward and Oliver Zunz, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) for a complete account.

13. Groth, Living Downtown, 248.

14. Tom Steidl, “High-Rise Codes & Housing Affordability in Los Angeles.” Let’s Go LA. https://letsgola.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/high-rise-codes-housing-affordability-in-los-angeles/. [Accessed: 23-Nov-2015].

15. John R. Hall, Jr., “US Experience with Sprinklers.” National Fire Protection Association, 2013. http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fire-safety-equipment/us-experience-with-sprinklers. [Accessed: 09-Jan-2016].

16. FEMA, “Fire Death Rate Trends: An International Perspective.” Topical Fire Report Series 12, no. 8 (2011).

17. Michael J. Karter, “Apartment Structure Fires,” Fire Loss in the United States 2013 (Sept. 2014). National Fire Protection Association.

18. Donald C. Shoup, “The High Cost of Minimum Parking Requirements,” Parking Issues and Policies 5 (2014): 88–90.

19. Erin Carlyle, “2014 Housing Starts Hit Highest Level Since 2007.” Forbes (2015). http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2015/01/21/2014-housing-starts-hit-strongest-finish-since-2007-as-single-family-construction-rises/. [Accessed: 09-Jan-2016].


The California Code

by Keith Schneider

An ecologically sensitive development model for a fuming world

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Even toward the end of a blistering four-year drought in California, it was sometimes hard to tell much was amiss. Dirt-lined canals in northern California were filled to the brim with water destined to irrigate thousands of hectares of rice, sunflowers, peaches, corn, soybeans, and all manner of California’s agricultural cornucopia. Unlike in the southern reaches of the Central Valley, there were no signs of the empty spaces of brown dirt where tomato fields lay fallow, or where laser-leveled orchards had been ripped out under duress.

Quite the contrary, bullet-straight two-lane highways passed by new orchards under cultivation, the roots of each infant tree politely dressed in swirls of drip irrigation line and saluted by the short, red plastic stake of a single spray irrigator. More surprising were the throngs of sunburned bathers and Jet Ski operators enjoying the deep, cooling depths of two blue and bountiful manmade lakes that flank Highway 162, the primary route to climb the Sierra foothills to Oroville Dam, the source of all this water.

At the nadir of the drought last summer, the view from the dam’s spillway described a much different story than the full canals and recreational lakes. California’s second largest reservoir was less than half full. A bathtub ring of rock and soil 200 feet wide circled the lake like a light brown rebuke to the will of its essential purpose.

In many ways, Oroville Dam—the tallest dam in the United States—is a relic of twentieth-century California, a reminder of a time when we looked to enormous engineering projects to remake Earth for our benefit. The twenty-first century calls for a different approach, and California is responding.

More so than in any other state in the United States and nearly any region of the world, Californians have shown a capacity to recognize and reckon with deep drought, high heat, sea level rise, insect plagues, wildfire, and many more of our current, high-risk ecological realities. California is responding with targeted, sometimes statewide, but often smaller, local solutions to the problems facing every person on the planet. In this way, what we might call a California code is contributing to developing a new global operating system for the future.

Look at Oakland. Well before it became standard operating practice in progressive cities, Oakland established a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that released creeks from their concrete straitjackets and simultaneously cleaned up stormwater. That saved the cost and energy needed to operate pocket treatment plants and beautified the city. The city also converts biological waste to methane that fires turbines that generate most of the electricity for its wastewater treatment plant.

Or take Maxwell, where growers stopped fighting the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act and started a Sacramento Valley project to install screens at the end of irrigation pipes that are helping to increase the river’s salmon runs. Or Modesto and Turlock, which are closing in on plans to pump treated wastewater to irrigate Central Valley farms and orchards in Patterson. Or the western side of the Klamath Mountains on the North Coast, where tribes and communities are working together on controlled burns to thin forests that are fueling monstrous wildfires.

Now here’s the requisite paragraph that admits that California is no Eden. Residents are all too aware of the crowded living conditions in a state that has twice as many people as it did in the mid-1970s. Some communities on the east side of the Central Valley don’t have running water. In Los Angeles County, a natural gas leak spewed tens of thousands of tons of methane into the atmosphere for months before it was stopped up. Residents everywhere recoil at real estate prices and the cost of living. Earthquakes are an ever-present hazard. Wildfires are a menace. The gulf between the rich elite and the struggling working class is as wide as it is in any state. In a time of immense grumpiness and cynicism, the list of complaints and criticisms is endless.

In any given year, Californians confront real emergencies—dangerous floods, wildfires, earthquakes, drought. The twenty-first century has added intense heat, sea level rise, and a plague of Sierra forest-killing beetles to the list. Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of precarity, they have been more willing than many to respond proactively to new environmental threats and challenges visible on the horizon.

A series of remarkably astute and aggressive measures approved by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento has systematically formed a model for dealing with Earth’s new conditions, and it is proving to be effective. Among the most significant measures:

A 2002 statute to require sharp reductions in climate-changing emissions in vehicles, which account for 40 percent of greenhouse gases.

A 2005 executive order that mandates a 20 percent cut in climate emissions from all sources from 1990 levels by 2020, principally by encouraging the development of new buildings that are efficient enough and generate enough of their own power to achieve “net zero” energy use.

A 2006 statute that established market tools and new regulations to cut climate emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050.

A 2011 statute requiring California’s utilities to generate 33 percent of their electricity by 2020 with renewable sources other than hydropower.

A 2014 statute that draws California groundwater supplies and use under state oversight in order to limit serious groundwater depletion, pollution, and land subsidence in the Central Valley.

Put all of these civic changes and programs together and the result is a state that has set out a new model for building its economy and sustaining quality of life. That model rests on a foundation of legal requirements and new operating practices fit for the time—drastically reducing climate emissions, increasing energy efficiency, requiring net zero energy use in new buildings, conserving water, electrifying transportation, preventing pollution, and pursuing cleaner energy production.

At the community and state levels, California has elevated ecological sensitivity as a powerful driver of economic progress. States of the Pacific Northwest, Vermont, Ontario, northern Europe, Costa Rica, Panama, Israel, and even Mongolia are among the select number of places that are pursuing something similar. Perhaps only Germany matches California for the comprehensiveness of its approach and the speed of the economic transition it has fostered.

Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. Photograph by Flickr user Hitchster.

But even for a skeptical reporter who’s been on the frontlines of fierce contests for resources globally for decades, and who’s encountered corruption and government mismanagement at epic scales, what’s occurring in California is truly an inspiration. And in a nation and a world that sometimes seems largely indifferent to the plight of our planet, it’s a huge relief. As I tell friends and colleagues, “thank goodness for California.” We might actually see a way forward here.

Living in a state formed from the rush for gold and nurtured by the bright sun, Californians have not always perceived their state as imperiled. In the twentieth century, when California had more moisture, fewer people, and seemingly unlimited moxie, Californians believed they could overpower and subdue the land. The prevailing economic model was based on consuming ever more water, energy, soil, and land to build big centralized projects—big power plants, big oilfields and mines, big transmission systems, big highway networks, big farms, big suburbs, big houses, big malls, big cities.

Managing enterprises of such scale called for spending enormous sums of money on supplies—energy, water, food—and on equipment—trucks, cars, factories, water pipes, power lines, air conditioners. Keeping order required massive hierarchical, vertically integrated institutions—governments, banks, industrial corporations, universities.

The enterprise worked well for a while because it fit market conditions. Energy and water were plentiful and cheap. Land was available and comparatively inexpensive for farms and for suburbs. Populations were smaller and more stable. Government treasuries were growing and so were working class salaries. Ample government, business, and personal wealth built the roads, water systems, transmission networks, and supply lines that kept the enterprise running.

The Oroville Dam, completed in 1968, and Lake Oroville behind it, are apt examples. Among the largest of the West’s dams, and capable also of generating nearly 800 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity, Oroville Dam fit the American twentieth century’s development strategy of building big, centralized, expensive, and durable economic infrastructure. The dam and its reservoir are fixtures in the state’s essential water-supply network, which collects freshwater from the north and distributes it through a network of rivers and canals to farms and cities throughout the state. California would not be California without its surface water collection, storage, and transport system.

Underlying so much of the economic and ecological turmoil unfolding in California and the rest of the world now is a slow collision between the operating systems of the resource-wasting, vertically managed twentieth century and the much more volatile ecological and economic conditions of the twenty-first century.

The old order, it’s clear, is undergoing a severe stress test. The Oroville Dam perfectly represents the twentieth-century conceit that Californians had dominion over California. A drought-depleted Lake Oroville—like many other reservoirs displaying their alarming bathtub rings—became an apt object lesson for California’s challenges in the twenty-first century.

California state is getting hotter. And it’s increasingly clear that California’s twentieth-century network of dams and canals don’t function the way they were intended unless Earth’s climate cooperates. And thanks to us, the climate is increasingly not aligned with that twentieth-century vision. The power of nature to unleash its fury and subdue mankind’s surprisingly flimsy transactional systems—canals, roads, transmission lines, airports, pipelines, seaports, food production, and distribution networks—becomes clearer with every passing year.

California sprang to action in its fourth year of deep drought because water management professionals and state leaders recognized that California’s water-scarce condition could be the new norm. They accepted the scientific consensus that it could get considerably worse. The way out of the trouble was to convince state residents of the need for collective action and to instill behavioral changes in homes and businesses that would diminish demand and provide a higher measure of safety.

California’s response to the drought is even more nationally and globally significant than that. What state and local leaders did to reduce the risks, and how state residents reacted, was a very public demonstration of government’s capacity to act with reason and intelligence to a short-term ecological emergency, with a long-term vision.

Perhaps that should not be surprising given California’s historical ability to set the national and global agenda in culture, technology, environmental restoration, and the like. It’s arguable, though, that what California is up to now in responding to global ecological disarray may be the most important contribution to human well-being that it’s ever made.

The reason is that Earth is fuming. Hurricanes have drowned two American cities. Mammoth wildfires burn hotter and hotter in fuel-stoked forests where fire was deliberately suppressed for a century out west. Toxic algae contaminates drinking water drawn from warmer and more polluted rivers and lakes all over the world.

An earthquake this year damaged fourteen hydropower dams in Nepal. In June 2013, a vicious flood that scientists linked to climate change killed thousands of people in Uttarakhand, India, and wrecked that Himalayan state’s hydropower sector. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

Deep droughts have been especially dangerous. Brazil’s largest city joined America’s largest state, and nearly all of Iran and South Africa in contending with serious water scarcity. A twelve-year dry spell in Australia’s food-producing Murray-Darling basin ended in 2010, but not before it caused the largest rice industry in the southern hemisphere to collapse. More than 1 million metric tons of rice vanished from world markets. Australia’s wheat growers, typically the world’s sixth largest exporters, managed to harvest just over half of the 20 million metric tons of grain they normally produced. Both harvest failures contributed to rising grain prices. And don’t forget that rising food prices helped to touch off the Arab Spring in 2010, while the civil war in Syria was fueled in part by four years of drought.

When world leaders gathered in Paris at the end of 2015 for the United Nations climate talks, they committed themselves—as representatives of nearly every country on the planet—to reducing climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions. But the actual work of reducing those emissions doesn’t begin with world leaders at climate summits, it begins with leadership in states, cities, and municipalities. In California, that work began decades ago.

California Aqueduct crossing the San Andreas Fault in Palmdale, California. Photograph by Michael R. Perry via Flickr.

Last year, San Diego announced it would generate all of its electricity with renewable energy by 2030.

The world’s largest solar photovoltaic and concentrated, solar-electric generating stations operate in the Mojave Desert in California.

Later this year, Sacramento will open a high-tech arena and public square in its redeveloping downtown without any new parking capacity. A smart decision to build a light-rail transit network thirty years ago made that possible.

Oakland’s transformation is particularly indicative. In energy efficiency, pollution control, and waste management, Oakland is setting national standards of policy design and performance, thanks to three programs that form the foundation of the city’s work. Then-mayor Jerry Brown put a plan in place in 2006 to cut Oakland’s production of solid waste to zero by 2020. Four years later, a 2010 green building code and standards required new home, office, retail, and recreation buildings to be much more energy efficient. In 2012, an “energy and climate action plan,” among the country’s most ambitious, set the goal to cut carbon emissions 36 percent by 2020.

Oakland, it turns out, was among the first cities in California to design and enforce energy-efficiency standards for new homes and buildings. With the help of StopWaste, a local organization, Oakland, in 2000, was one of the first cities in the country to adopt an ordinance requiring that 50 percent of construction and demolition waste be recycled. In 2005, Oakland was among the first cities in the country to adopt a green building ordinance for municipal projects. In 2006, the city encouraged new homes and offices to be green by creating incentives for green developers and in 2010 strengthened the program by requiring energy-efficient certification for large commercial projects, and for single-family and multifamily homes. Oakland was among the first cities in the country to adopt a green building ordinance for new homes and offices, and in 2010 strengthened the program by offering technical assistance to builders. A good bit of the city’s green building codes and programs were embraced in CalGreen, the state green building code.

Oroville Dam Viewpoint. Photograph by Wayne Hsieh, via Flickr.

In 2009, pressed by West Oakland’s Ella Baker Center and Van Jones, its charismatic Yale-educated founder and director, the city started to develop this plan, which was consistent with the 2006 state climate emissions-reduction statute. Governor Jerry Brown has since signed an executive order that puts the whole state on the path to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

With city and state carbon-reduction limits in place, Oakland has set out to meet them. The city has audited its buildings, analyzed its fleet of vehicles, and reviewed its solid-waste infrastructure with the clear goal of being more efficient. A big downtown parking garage, for instance, has been rewired, relit with low-energy lighting and controls, and outfitted with electric-vehicle recharging stations. The retrofit, according to city figures, saves $55,000 in annual operating costs and 343,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to 111,000 kilograms (246,000 pounds) of CO2 emissions annually.

In the waste management arena, Oakland is similarly focused on reducing the generation of energy-wasting trash and recycling, both of which translate into carbon-emission reductions. Oakland’s aggressive “zero waste” recycling program is steadily reducing the amount of home, business, and construction waste destined for landfills. Every ton of corrugated cardboard that is recycled reduces carbon emissions by four tons. Recycling a ton of plastic saves about two tons of CO2 annually. The new requirements for green waste and recycling will save an average of 496,000 tons of CO2 annually in Oakland, according to city projections.

In many ways, caring for a city is not unlike parenting a child. It can take a generation of careful nurturing for the results to become apparent. Oakland’s growing tech sector, its rising property values, and its restored parks crowded with visitors are evidence of the city’s vitality. In the guts and bones that support the city, there is much more to do, though, to reach Oakland’s goal of 36 percent carbon reductions by 2020 or to achieve zero waste production. Heavy truck and passenger-vehicle traffic through the city still accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions. The transition to electric vehicles is far off. The city counted just 1,700 homes powered with solar energy in 2014, a fraction of Oakland’s total residences.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the big electric utility, says it is on the way to meeting California’s requirement to generate 33 percent of its power with renewable fuels by 2020. But the utility still relies on natural gas for 27 percent of its generating capacity, according to company figures, and operates a 600-megawatt gas-fired electric-power generating station near Oakland. The generating station’s big claim to resource-efficiency is its low water consumption. The plant is air-cooled, which the utility reports uses 97 percent less water than older water-cooled power plants.

Still, by most measures of economic vitality, environmental quality, and civic energy, Oakland is doing well. Oakland was one of the twelve American cities selected to join world leaders as part of the Local Climate Leaders Circle at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris in December. Mayor Libby Schaaf and eleven other colleagues were in Paris to display the capacity of cities to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

The effect of these and other measures is that residents of Oakland and other cities may be constructing a new kind of California dream that is cleaner, more resource efficient, less polluting, and more right-sized for its time. The city’s streets are lined with new housing and parks that boast clean natural streams that once were concrete-lined culverts. The city’s port, one of the country’s largest, provides electric power to arriving ships to end the use of polluting diesel generators while they are loading and unloading.

While these new indicators of progress gain momentum, many of the old indicators, such as job growth and business starts, provide a powerful counterpoint to old conventional wisdom that reducing climate emissions and pursuing energy development that avoids fossil fuels could cripple the economy. California’s unemployment rate, 5.8 percent in October 2015, is half what it was in 2010. The state has been adding 50,000 new jobs monthly. Business starts are way up.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of late-model cars and apparently content visitors arrive at the Oroville Dam to gauge the lake’s surface. The blue-green water and sable-colored tub ring are a tableau of instability, a sign of unyielding water scarcity and ecological risk. But the murmurs of concern and the long gazes don’t express fright. It’s California. The state has a plan. It’s working.


Image at top:  Irrigation ditch in Grass Valley, California. Photograph by Erin Johnson, via Flickr.


The Boom Interview: Veerabhadran Ramanathan

The Vatican’s Man in Paris Is a California Scientist

Editor’s note: Veerabhadran Ramanathan—everyone calls him “Ram”—was home for a few days over Thanksgiving. He was between a trip to the Vatican and the Paris climate summit when we caught up with him at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. His office is high up on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A long, curving swell broke gently on the beach far below. A sea breeze blew in through an open window. Ram spoke softly, deliberately, as if in the eye of a hurricane, a storm of historic proportions that has blown him around the world with an increasing sense of urgency. A climate scientist—he discovered that chloroflourcarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration were greenhouse gases—Ram recently led an interdisciplinary group of fifty researchers and scholars from around the University of California who produced a report for the Paris climate summit entitled “Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability.” The report was embraced by Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano, who has pledged that the University of California will become carbon neutral by 2025. Ram is taking the report, which draws on lessons learned in California, to the Paris summit, as a member of Pope Francis’s delegation from the Holy See. Between preparations, emails, and phone calls with the governor’s office and the Vatican, Ram sat down to talk with Boom editor Jon Christensen, who was also senior editor on “Bending the Curve,” about climate change, science, and religion; the road to Paris; and what comes next.

Peer -photo-2014

Boom: How did an engineer end up on the Holy See’s delegation to the Paris climate summit?

Ramanathan: That’s a long story. And nobody has asked me that particular question, so let me reconstruct it.

I got my undergraduate degree in engineering in India. Then I worked a few years in the refrigeration industry. I didn’t know that six years from the time I left India, that work experience was going to have a huge impact on what I did and would be what eventually took me to the Vatican.

My job was to figure out why these refrigerants—later we came to know them as freons—were escaping so quickly from refrigeration units. In India, these units would come back within six months, and they had lost all their refrigerants.

At the time, I didn’t see the wisdom of what was happening there, so I hated my job and I hated engineering. I also didn’t have too much confidence that I was good for anything. I mainly went to small-town schools because my father was a traveling salesman, selling Goodyear tires. So my education to high school was primarily in the local regional language, Tamil. And then, in high school I moved to Bangalore. That was the city the British used for their military, so school was in English. And I quickly dropped from the top of the class to the bottom of the class. I didn’t know what they were talking about. But that had a profound impact on me, which still carries with me to this day. I stopped learning from others. I stopped listening to my teachers because I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I had to figure out things on my own.

I struggled through high school, and my grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t get into good engineering schools, and I went to a second-tier engineering school. I already knew engineering was not my calling. The two years in the refrigeration industry made it clear to me that I was not going to be an engineer. And it turned out I had a good break. The Indian Institute of Science admitted me to do a master’s degree. The primary reason I applied for the master’s degree is that I thought it would be a ticket to come to the U.S.

Because my father was a tire salesman, he used to bring home these beautiful brochures of Impala cars. They were selling Goodyear tires, and, of course, there were beautiful people, beautiful women in the cars. I was too young to notice the women, but I noticed the cars. So I got hooked. I thought, “I need to go to the U.S. and own one of these cars, and enjoy the good American life.” I think the story in my head was that milk and honey would be dropping out of the trees.

But, at the Indian Institute of Science, which was, for me, a ticket to the U.S., my grades were not good enough. So they didn’t put me through a degree program where you have to attend courses, because I was very bad at listening to others and spitting out information. That was what education in India was—just memorizing. So they asked me to go into the research track and build an interferometer, a high-precision optical instrument to study turbulence. The interferometer measures very accurate fluctuations in temperature. In retrospect, that’s an impossible project to do, but I took it. It took me three years, but we did build an interferometer, for the first time in India. And I learned what I am good at, which is research, and doing things which others give up as not possible. So, I finally had this confidence back in me.

So then I came to the U.S. to study engineering and get a job in a tire company. Goodyear was my ambition because my father worked there. But my adviser, the day I walked into his office, said he was tired of engineering. I liked him for that. I could relate to that. He switched to studying the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. So that’s where my work was—reconstructing the greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus, where they have pure carbon dioxide atmospheres

Boom: Did this mode of learning on your own, and having to do things yourself, continue through your graduate degrees and into your research on climate change?

Ramanathan: Yes, right through, because I still never believe anything I read or what others tell me unless I can try it out myself, either through a thought experiment or designing an experiment to do that.

When I finished my Ph.D., I couldn’t get a job studying planetary atmospheres, but NASA took me in their reentry physics section. They wanted me to build a model of the atmosphere. And since I’d worked on the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, I started reading papers on that. There was a famous report from Swedish Academy of Science that said, in terms of man’s impact, carbon dioxide is the only thing you need to worry about—and, of course, I didn’t believe that. And this was 1974, and I saw this paper by Mario Molina and Sherman Rowland talking about CFCs causing damage to the ozone layer. And it was the CFCs that I was trying to prevent from escaping in my job in India.

Boom: From the refrigerators?

Ramanathan: Yes. I could immediately relate to that. I said, this must have a strong greenhouse effect. And, in fact, my former adviser, Bob Cess, said, “Oh, you are wasting your time. Carbon dioxide is obviously the greenhouse gas.” So I did that work, and, of course, it showed CFCs were 10,000 times more potent. The CFC work was a breakthrough. That paper got me into the climate field. Paul Crutzen read it—he’s a Nobel Laureate—Ralph Cicerone, who is the President of the National Academy of Sciences, read it. He was the one who reviewed it. So it got me from being an obscure guy from India into the mainstream of climate and atmospheric science.

Boom: Now you’re very much in the mainstream. You’re going to the Paris climate summit as part of the Holy See’s delegation. How did you begin to work with the Vatican and the Pope?

Ramanathan: In the 1990s, one thing led to another. I did a major field study in the Indian Ocean with six aircraft and two ships. There were over two hundred scientists from around the world—the U.S., Europe, and India. And we discovered this vast pollution cloud. I remember the last day. We used to fly mainly in the Arabian Sea because of the pollution coming from India over the Arabian Sea. But on the last flight, I wanted to go to the other side and fly over the Bay of Bengal. That’s where my hometown is on the east coast. And I saw it buried under this massive, thick pollution cloud. I think that did something to me. I said, “Now I cannot leave these billion people to deal with this. I have to do something.”

So this was on my mind when I turned sixty in 2004. I looked at my life’s work. There was a big celebration. Three Nobel laureates were here, and they were talking about my work. And I felt in my gut that all I’ve done is bring one piece of bad news after another about what’s happening to the planet. That celebration made me happy, but it really made me sad and depressed about how my life’s work was such a huge, you know, waste. I thought I should work on solutions.

About that time, I got an invitation from the new U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to come to the General Assembly and address a bunch of high school kids. That was the first meeting he organized—not world leaders but high school kids from around the world. He asked us to talk to them about the environment and climate change, so I talked about this brown cloud from India. And at that meeting a girl from Ethiopia came up to me and said, “Look, you made us cry, but tell me what you are doing?” I couldn’t tell her anything. I was just still carrying on my life. Not being able to answer her was a major thing for me.

And then within six months, I get this email from the Vatican, inviting me to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which was, of course, a huge honor. Paul Crutzen, whom I had met after the CFC work, was a member and he promoted me as a member. Four or five years into the academy, I proposed to organize a meeting myself. Our meetings were mainly on science, but this was about what we are doing to the environment and how do we become better stewards of the planet. We talked about larger issues. So it was at that meeting in 2011 that I realized, my goodness, this church could be used as an agent of change.

I teamed up with the social scientists—the Vatican has two academies, an Academy of Sciences and an Academy of Social Sciences—so that we could organize a meeting on sustainability. I came up with a title, “Sustainability of Nature.” And an economist from the Academy of Social Sciences added “Sustainability of Humanity.” We submitted this. And the church had somebody co-organize these conferences with us. They had Archbishop Roland Minnerath from France, and he added a third third title, “Our Responsibility.” So that’s how the church was slowly working with religion and was slowly changing me. I never thought about this before. But you cannot find a single scientific paper that says “our responsibility.” They all talk about sustainability, global warming, this and that, but not our responsibility.

We proposed that meeting in 2012, and the church reviewed it in 2013, after which the Pope has to agree to it. I briefed Pope Benedict. He was very supportive, but by the time we got to organizing it, he had stepped down, and then Pope Francis got really very supportive. He wrote the cover letter for the invitation, so we could get anybody we wanted. And we assembled the top thirty leaders from various disciplines in May 2014.

And I said, “I need to find out who’s responsible for this.” Looking at available data showed most of the pollution was coming from the top one billion. I then realized this is not a problem of population. It’s a problem of overconsumption. Population is a huge issue—I don’t want to discount it—for climate change. But the bottom three billion, their contribution is less than 5 percent. We have left behind 40 percent of the population. They don’t get enough energy. So I talked about that. That meeting, for me, was really a defining meeting. Our conclusion was that the solution to the problem of sustainability requires a fundamental change in our attitude towards each other and towards nature.

Normally at these meetings, we have a chance to talk to the Pope. But this pope had become a superhero. He was on the front pages. Time magazine was considering him for the “man of the year.” There was a huge demand on his time. So just three hours before we were to close the meeting a note was passed to me that Pope Francis would see you. We quickly closed the meeting and rushed to see him.

Photograph by Gabriella Marino/Vatican.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Pope Francis in 2014. Photograph by Gabriella Marino/Vatican.

Normally, we have an audience with the Pope in the most breathtaking hall in the Basilica. So we were waiting just outside the Basilica, and suddenly I see someone getting out of a small Fiat. It was Pope Francis, right in the parking lot in front of us. And I was told, “The Pope is very busy. You have three sentences to summarize this meeting to him.”

So I think the first one I told him was something like, “We are members of your Academy, we are here on your behalf, and we are all worried about climate change.”

Then the second sentence I told him was that most of the pollution comes from the wealthy one billion on the planet, whereas the poorest three billion are going to suffer the worst consequences. Of course, that would have come like music to his ears. That’s what the Pope was primarily thinking: the poor are going to suffer the worst. So then he asked me, in that picture where he’s looking at me, he asked what he can do about it. But I’m looking at Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Academy, because he translated what the Pope said.

Marcelo said, “The Holy Father wants to know what he can do about it.” So I told him, “You are so well-known. In your speeches, if you say people should be better stewards of the planet, that will be enough.” And that was it.

Ten days later he was with the Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Orthodox Church, and they made a decision to work on climate change. So I thought, after meeting with him, “My God, we now have science and religion working together.” Now it has become accepted that climate change is a moral issue.

Boom: And that came out in the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, which I remember you saying, when we first met, had done more to communicate the importance of climate change and the importance of solving this problem for people and for the planet than scientists had done in decades.

Ramanathan: It’s not to put down what the scientists have done.

Boom: No, no.

Ramanathan: You need the science, but I would go beyond that. I think this Pope, in less than a year, has done more for climate change and more to stop this disastrous experiment we are doing than all the leaders I know. In my view, he has certainly had more impact than Al Gore on our thinking. Gore had a huge impact, but nothing like this Pope’s influence.

Boom: What is that core connection between religion and climate change?

Ramanathan: There’s a core connection, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The core connection is, first of all, what are scientists trying to tell us? That nature has limited capacity to deal with our pollution. We are past that capacity. That we have to take care of nature. But that’s what all religions say: protect nature. We call it Mother Earth. So there is a convergence with what religion says—all the religions. I think that’s the beauty of it. This issue can unite all the religions, unlike any other issue, right? We are divided by our skin color, we are divided by our language, and we are divided by our religion. But environment unites all of that. And there is also this tussle between science and religions, when you talk about evolution, when you talk about genomes, but not environment. So that’s the part I feel we can exploit or capture, to stop this disastrous experiment on climate.

The symbiotic relationship, now that I’ve gone on this path it is very clear to me, is that climate change is a moral issue, on many dimensions. You know, nature was given to us to protect. Okay, we can enjoy it, but not abuse it. The abusing part is only justifiable if nature has infinite capacity. Then we can cut all the trees we want. There will be more trees. We know that’s not the case. We know that’s not the case with air pollution. When you see that we are changing the color of the sky, it’s clear. We have a limit, so that’s a moral issue. The second moral issue is intra-generational morality—one billion people finishing up the carbon in the planet, not worrying about what it does to the others. And the third moral issue is that climate change lasts tens of thousands of years, so we are condemning generations unborn to our unsustainable ways.

As a scientist, I can’t talk about that. I wonder even if our political leaders can. But faith leaders can. That’s what we go to the church, our temples, for—morality and moral behavior. So that’s symbiotic. Science provides the evidence, and religion can pick it up.


The Dalai Lama accepts a framed image of a Sirsoe dalailamai, a deep-sea worm named after him in honor of his 80th birthday. He is photographed with Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk and climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

The Dalai Lama accepts a framed image of a Sirsoe dalailamai, a deep-sea worm named after him in honor of his 80th birthday. He is photographed with Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk and climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

Boom: And the Dalai Lama is involved as well?

Ramanathan: Yes. I was lucky to be involved with the Dalai Lama when he came here four years ago for a major public event. And then his eightieth birthday celebration was held in July 2015, and I was in the event with him. He talked about climate change. And he, of course, translated beautifully that the way to solve the problem is to have compassion without borders. If what we are doing is affecting somebody else or is affecting Greenland glaciers, we have to have compassion for that. So we have the Pope and we have the Dalai Lama.

Boom: That’s pretty good.

Ramanathan: It’s a great start.

Boom: Do you consider yourself a religious man?

Ramanathan: I would say I’m not an atheist. I’m like most people—I don’t know how to define myself. I’m certainly spiritual. And I honestly don’t know. The reason I hesitate to say I’m religious is that I find religions are dividing us. It’s supposed to unite us, right? Because if there is a God, there has to be only one God. We can’t have competition up there!

So, I’m thinking, why are we all fighting about this? It doesn’t matter what name we call that God, if you agree that God is monotheism. So that’s why I hesitate. I don’t know any more what religion means. Religion looks like it’s a source for killing each other or separating ourselves. It’s one more thing which divides us, whereas spirituality…. See, that’s the thing I think of Pope Francis as—as a moral leader for the world. I have to go back to Gandhi in India. He led a moral fight against the British and won that battle. No big armies could beat the British, but this guy, a topless Indian. I think of Pope Francis like that.

Boom: But a single man can’t solve climate change, right? Everybody has to do something. And how do you communicate that? So far, for many of us, climate change has seemed like this big, huge problem that’s out there. It’s a global problem. Governments need to deal with it. I can’t do anything about it. I’ve got other stuff to worry about.

Ramanathan: I agree with you. I’m not an expert in this field, but something like 45 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, or at least they don’t believe you have to do anything about it. That is a catastrophic failure of communication. It’s not a failure of those 45 percent. So then you ask, where have we failed? I don’t know, but listening to the Pope, and listening to what they did to the title of my meeting, “Our Responsibility,” I think we have not brought it to a personal level. We pointed to Exxon and Chevron as the villains.

I was looking for a villain for forty years. Then I found there are two worlds—my world and this bottom three billion world. When I lived in India, I used to go back and forth every five or six days. It was then that I found I was the villain I was looking for. I can’t blame Exxon. I made that choice, right?

So I’m wondering, if people realize they are responsible, whether they will be more amenable to change, because if you are responsible, you can change. And the other thing I’m thinking is that my driving an SUV here could make some villagers in Africa or India homeless, because global warming causes drought. And we know Americans, as a nation, are generous, right? You have earthquakes. You have disasters. American kids are sent there to help, and we send our money, and our clothes. So I’m wondering whether we can tap into that generosity of Americans, if we make it, “Hey, be careful. If you do something, your great-grandchildren, who we have not seen, are going to suffer for it, or somebody sitting in a small village in Kenya, or Rajasthan in India, they’re going to lose their homes because of us.”

I don’t know if that will work or not. I certainly like Pope Francis’s approach, making it our responsibility.

Boom: That’s interesting. It reminds me of the recent poll that showed that the great majority of Americans believe climate change is real, that it’s caused by people, and that they can’t do anything about it. So it’s the third part that we need to change.

Ramanathan: That we can do something about it. But the key first step is we feel responsible for it. I think that’s what the Pope did. See, he made you responsible for it, you and I.

Boom: What do we need to do to succeed in what you have called bending the curve of climate change?

Ramanathan: It’s a technology problem. But my feeling is, having worked with researchers from across the UC system on our report on the top ten solutions, that the technology is there, by and large, to get us halfway there. But I think the first thing it requires, is changing our attitude towards nature. We discussed this last week at the Vatican during a meeting on education for sustainability. We have to start teaching this, from kindergarten on.

We need to educate our kids right now. And the reason is, no matter what we do, we’re still going to face a two-degree warming that many of us think in itself would be quite disastrous. They have to face it, so we have to prepare. We have to prepare them with how to cope with it and how not to repeat our stupid mistakes. And everyone has to know that nature is limited. It has boundaries. That work has to be done immediately in our educational institutions.

I am sad to say, even outstanding universities like UC have not caught on. We don’t see the urgency. I admire what our president did, in pledging carbon neutrality by 2025, but I don’t see that in our education. If I was the chancellor, no undergraduate could graduate without taking one or two courses on the environment. It has to be like literature, part of a broad education. So that has to change.

And I think the second thing is we’ve got to work with the religions. Each one of us, we all go to our church, and I said I’m not religious, but I’m willing to go to church and temple for this. And the third is we have to educate our neighbors, our relatives. Those of us who know it’s a problem, it’s on us. We have to do that. It’s not enough to write our papers anymore. We have to write our papers. But I think people working on environment and climate change have a responsibility beyond writing papers.

This societal transformation, to me, would be the top of my agenda. The rest will follow.

Boom: What do you hope to accomplish in Paris?

Ramanathan: Well, you see, until about three or four days ago my role was more peripheral. I was going to be participating in side events. But I was told that I’m one of the official member delegates of the Holy See now, so I’ve been going back and forth on what exactly is my role. They send a science advisor to help them with their proposals and negotiations, so what I’m hoping, I don’t know if I have that authority, what I’d like to see happen is the Vatican, as a nation, push for a big part of climate financing to go to the bottom three billion, to give them clean energy access, for a number of reasons. They can bypass us and go to renewable energy because they don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have huge coal-fired power plants to dismantle. They have nothing. So it’s easy to construct distributed power plants. I am going there with a mission, to raise consciousness of the three billion, to help them, and so they can become climate warriors for us.

Boom: And is that what you hope for the summit to accomplish as well?

Ramanathan: The summit first has to persuade the top one billion to de-carbonize. That has to come first, and then comes giving energy access to the more than three billion. It will be demoralizing without having some agreement, but I’m pretty hopeful it’s going to happen. If we have a piece of paper that everyone signed, that states that it is an important problem, we are causing it, and we are going to reduce it by so much, even if it is 10 percent, I’ll be happy. Because my own work suggests that in ten years the changes are going to be so large that the dissenters will go into the minority. There will be a huge cry for doing something about it. Then we have this piece of paper. If you said in the piece of paper 10 percent, just changing the 1 to 4 will be a lot easier than starting with a blank piece of papers. Let’s not get stuck on 10 percent or 80 percent. First, we need that paper, that protocol, saying that we are going to cut emissions.

Boom: That’s interesting because that’s what California has done, isn’t it? Starting with a number—10, 20, 30 percent—and then ratcheting it up every few years to ratchet down on carbon emissions. What do you see as the role of California in all of this?

Ramanathan: Huge. I think we show them how to do it, from technology, from policy, and governance. Those are the three key things. And hopefully, we can do that on education, too. On the education front, that’s what I’m trying to push. Let’s take our report and turn it into a textbook and then teach that course jointly on a minimum of five campuses. If we just enrolled, say, sixty students, about twelve from each campus, but use the best technology, to seamlessly go from one campus to another, each lecture taught by three lecturers from three different campuses. Hopefully, after a couple of years it will become a major online course, reaching tens of thousands, and the message is very simple. It’s a solvable problem. The technology is there. We now have religion working with us. So, let’s talk about that multidimensional aspect of the climate change.

Honestly, if you think a little bit, this climate change problem could impact our evolution, how, as a society, we work together to keep going forward. It will set the stage—if we can do it.


Governor Jerry Brown with Scripps Oceanography climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan at the UC Carbon Neutrality Summit.

Governor Jerry Brown with Scripps Oceanography climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan and UC San Diego Vice Chancellor of Research Sandra Brown at the UC Carbon Neutrality Summit.

Boom: I hear some echoes in what you are saying of the kinds of things that Jerry Brown is saying—that this is an existential crisis. How has he done in communicating and leading on this issue?

Ramanathan: He personally has had a huge impact on me.

Boom: How so?

Ramanathan: Well, he opened my eyes that we need to see the worst possible consequences, that you can’t be completely constrained by your science because your science is not complete. You don’t understand the system. Each of us understands one part. I understand the atmosphere. I don’t understand how it’s going to impact the oceans. He said, given the limitations of science, without compromising your scientific vigor, you need to think about the worst possible consequences, which is what is going to guide policy. That was number one, coming from him.

The second is, I saw him putting that into policy. He said, “I know there’s still some scientific debate going on, but I want to do everything I can to reduce that probability of worst disasters.” So, yeah, he’s now the right person for California. He’s going to put us on a path. I think Schwarzenegger started us on that—we should thank him for that—but this governor, I don’t think anyone I have met realizes the urgency of the situation as much as he does, with the possible exception of Pope Francis. I don’t think any world leaders do, because I’ve not heard them say as much. This man does. And that fact that he is in California, where people are willing to support it—if you have Jerry Brown sitting in the middle of Oklahoma, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But here we can use his support from the top to do a tremendous amount of bottom-up things and then propagate it to the rest of the planet.

Boom: What’s interesting to me about Jerry Brown, and the way that he’s talked about all of this, is that he has put the worst possible scenario in front of the people and said you have to face this. He’s called it an apocalypse. And I’ve always thought that an apocalyptic vision is disempowering. It’s demoralizing. You think if it’s going to be apocalypse, there’s nothing I can do about it. Let me go home and spend time with my family or whatever. He has changed my mind about that, with the caveat that if you talk about the apocalypse you’ve got to talk, at the same time, about what we can do to avoid it. So you put in front of people the worst case scenario, and then you say what we can do to make that not come true. And he’s done that by connecting it to the drought, which some people think is controversial, by connecting it to forest fires, which some people think is premature, because the scientific connections are not super robust. And then he’s said: And here’s what you can do about it. You can conserve water. You can reduce your emissions. We can all work together. So that, I think, is the genius of it, putting those two things together.

Ramanathan: Exactly. It doesn’t make it look hopeless because he has a solution at hand, how we can avoid that. And the environment has pushed him to this road, because he was left fighting the worst drought we have seen. I know some scientists who say, “Oh, we are not clear if this drought is due to climate change.” I look at them and say they have such a limited understanding of science because they think they are going to be able to take an event and say convincingly it’s due to this. We know they will never do that because nature is highly complex. What we can work with is probability and basic physics. Thermodynamics says if you have warming in a region like this, that will promote drought because you are evaporating water crazily from your lakes, from your rivers.

Boom: From the earth itself.

Ramanathan: Yeah. And you’re melting your snowpack. And then water is evaporating from the trees. They dry out. They become fuel. But they are looking for something else. I think what they are looking for is an unscientific rigor. It’s never going to happen. But climate change does cause droughts. I can’t say this particular drought was caused by climate change. What I will argue is that climate change made this drought worse. It would not have been as bad without warming. So Jerry Brown is able to sift through scientific advice. That’s his genius.

Boom: Here in California I understand we’ve cut particulates that cause smog by something like 90 percent.

Ramanathan: The black carbon.

Boom: Yes. And I know we still have air quality problems in the Central Valley and in Los Angeles. But I remember when I was a kid and would come out to visit my grandparents in Pasadena and you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains from their house. Now that’s very rare here. But you can look at air quality monitors worldwide online now and see that there are many, many places in Asia and South Asia where the smog and the black carbon problem is horrendous. Is California’s experience relevant to the rest of the world?

Ramanathan: The air pollution issue is also multidimensional. It has public health consequences—four million deaths a year are related to air pollution. Some air pollutants cause global warming—black carbon, ozone, methane—and they destroy crops, too. So for many, many reasons, you need to get rid of them. And I think this is where the California experience is relevant to India and China. We are starting a program, with Governor Jerry Brown’s help, between India and California.

The general prejudice is, oh, you clean up air pollution and you’re going to destroy your economy. California is saying, no, not necessarily. We have the largest GDP in the U.S. That generates a huge number of jobs. Our population is growing. Our economy is growing. So what California did is a myth buster. For sure, cleaning air pollution costs. It’s not free. But the benefit you get is ten to thirty times more than the money you put into clean up. We have to get that message across. We are trying, but not succeeding so far. When I see that China’s actual coal consumption was 30 percent more than they admitted, I feel sad.

Boom: You researched air pollution in India, but growing up you also experienced it intimately with your grandmother cooking with firewood in the house and suffering some of the consequences. How has that shaped your work?

Ramanathan: At the time it was happening, when I was at my grandmother’s house and she used to cook, it didn’t have any impact on me. It didn’t register. What I did recall later was that after every cooking session, she would be coughing, a really nerve-wracking cough, for an hour or so. It’s not something I watched my watch to see how long it lasted, but it would go on forever. I never related that to the cooking smoke in the kitchen.

When I talked about the Indian Ocean experiment—that was where this brown cloud was discovered—it took one or two years of research to link that to cooking as the major source of pollution. Then I thought, this is a problem I can solve because we all figured out how to cook without producing smog, right? So this is an easy problem I can solve. And I can go back to that Ethiopian girl and tell her, “Yeah, I did something.”

So we started this project, but as a scientist I had to collect data. Remember, I don’t believe anything anybody said. I had to collect the data in the village to convince myself the smoke I am seeing outside is coming from the cooking. That took several years to really pin down. Now there’s no doubt that it’s coming from the firewood. And we are now distributing better stoves. But it’s a very complex problem. It was not as simple of a problem as I thought.

But anyway, I was last there early this year. Every time I go into the kitchen I would always see my grandmother there, so that memory got really implanted. But at the time she was doing it, I didn’t link her cough to this cooking.

Boom: How would you answer that Ethiopian girl today?

Ramanathan: Well, I have a long list of things. I would tell her first about what I did to my house. My house is completely solar. My car is an electric car.

That girl—for four years after—I mean, she had such a horrible impact on me. I started taking the bus. But I live on top of a hill, and the bus doesn’t go to the top of the hill. So I had to walk up. Then I had my second heart attack and I had stents, so I couldn’t walk up the hill. I begged my wife to drop me at the bus stop so I could get the bus.

Then I bought an electric car—it’s charged with solar—so at least I travel guilt-free. But it’s not the Impala. It’s a smart car.

I think of all the things I would say if somebody gave me one minute to talk about the things I’m really proud of. I would say it’s the work in the village to change the cooking fuels, and then my affiliation with the church, and seeing the power of science, religion, and policy working together to solve this problem. So I would now have a message of hope for that girl.


The Importance of Small Change

by Katie Langin

From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3

On beaks and biodiversity on island California

In 1835, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin set foot on a peculiar land. Giant tortoises lumbered over barren lava fields, iguanas took to the sea in search of food, and some birds were utterly incapable of flight. He spent several weeks there—on an archipelago called the Galápagos—collecting specimens and observing the remarkable biodiversity in front of him. Many organisms were similar to species Darwin had observed on the South American mainland, but they were clearly distinct, with characteristics that made them well-suited to their island home.

Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands played an out-sized role in seeding Darwin’s ideas about evolution and the origin of species, but among islands they are not unique. Archipelagos are renowned for housing bizarre creatures, thanks to their isolation.

That’s why, as a biologist, I was thrilled when I got a chance to work on the California Channel Islands. I knew I’d find diminutive foxes and supersized jays. What I didn’t know was even more interesting. As I later learned, there was even more to the islands’ biodiversity than met the eye.

The California Channel Islands are made up of eight stunningly beautiful islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente. Many are visible from the beaches of southern California, but they have never been connected to the mainland and house a rich diversity of species found nowhere else.1 They’re home to towering peaks, vast inland valleys, picturesque white sand beaches, and one of the largest sea caves in the world. They also share a remarkably similar evolutionary story with the Galápagos—a story about bird beaks.

On the Galápagos, the central character is a group of birds called Darwin’s finches. They descended from a single South American ancestor and, within the past two million years, rapidly diversified into fifteen species that all make a living in different ways.2 Some finches eat seeds, some eat insects, and still others—vampire finches—feed on the blood of seabirds. Each species evolved a beak that’s specifically adapted to the type of food it eats. It’s a classic example of evolution.

An island scrub-jay. Photograph by Katie Langin.


Recently, my colleagues and I discovered that the California Channel Islands have their own version of this story. Island scrub-jays—charismatic blue songbirds found only on Santa Cruz Island—have different beaks depending on the type of habitat in which they live.3Jays that live in pine forests have long, shallow beaks, which allow them to obtain food buried within the crevices of pinecones. Meanwhile, their next-door neighbors in oak forests have slightly shorter, stouter beaks, which are better suited for hammering open acorns.4

We didn’t set out to look for this. In fact, we happened upon this discovery while we were studying island scrub-jays for an entirely different reason: to figure out if the species is in decline. (Short answer: it doesn’t appear to be.) We captured and marked hundreds of birds with unique leg bands so we could track their survival, breeding activities, and diet. While handling each bird, we also took a few standard measurements and, on a whim, one day I decided to take a look at those data.

At the time, we already knew that the island scrub-jay’s closest relative, the western scrub-jay, has a different appearance depending on where it lives. Jays in oak forests along the California coast have short, stout beaks, but as you move into the interior of the continent—to pine forests in Utah and Arizona—birds of the same species have longer, shallower beaks.5

Island scrub-jays also live in both pine and oak forests, but it seemed crazy to expect the same beak differences, because the species is crammed onto one 22-mile-long island, where you can walk between pine and oak forests in a few short strides. Normally, scientists assume that evolution generates differences in characteristics like beak shape—or feather color or wing length—only if there’s some kind of physical barrier preventing populations from meeting. Without such a barrier—an ocean, say, or a stretch of inhospitable desert—too much inter-breeding will occur. That’s why islands are home to so many unique species; the geographic isolation inherent in island living makes it easy for populations to diverge from their relatives on the mainland.

But within an island, it’s a different story. That’s why it was so surprising when an initial foray into our beak-measurement data revealed that island scrub-jays have longer beaks when they live in the pine forest. The following year, we went back to Santa Cruz and caught more birds to see if this was just a fluke. But the differences only became stronger with data from more birds (all told, we measured 565 birds).

Surprising as these findings may be, they’re actually part of a growing trend that’s changing our understanding of evolution. Similar stories have been reported for maggot flies in Eastern North America,6 fish in Nicaragua,7 and songbirds on the island of Corsica.8 All of this questions whether organisms living in different environments need to be separated by a barrier in order to diverge from one another.

Biologists rarely look for these sorts of patterns within populations; usually the goal is to look for differences between populations. So the few examples of “microgeographic divergence” that we do know about may mean there’s a lot more biodiversity left to discover out there in nature. It’s not necessarily diversity sufficient to declare two populations separate species (island scrub-jays are still considered to be one species), but a more subtle form that includes individuals that are “locally adapted” to different environments.

The information is important because the amount of diversity within a species is one of the best predictors of its ability to adapt to environmental changes. Evolution can do more when it has a wider variety of raw ingredients with which to work. A species may have a better chance of responding to climate change, for instance, if some members are already adapted to warmer microclimates.

One example is a monkeyflower called Mimulus laciniatus, which grows up and down California’s Sierra Nevada. Some populations are adapted to warmer conditions in the foothills, while others are adapted to cooler conditions in the higher-elevation montane.9 If the climate warms, plants from warm-adapted populations might survive in greater numbers—and be more successful at passing their genes to the next generation. That could give the species as a whole a better shot at long-term persistence.

The importance of preserving diversity could be especially pronounced for species restricted to islands. In the case of the island scrub-jay, individual birds will have a limited ability to move elsewhere if the environment changes, because they can’t seem to fly to the mainland or to neighboring islands. (They’ve never turned up in other places.) Instead, the species will have to adapt to any changes that crop up on the island—or it may go extinct. Protecting the full range of biodiversity contained within the species, currently numbered at fewer than 3,000 birds,10 could be critical for its survival.

This means that if a threat erupts on Santa Cruz Island—the emergence of a new virus or the arrival of a nonnative predator—it won’t be enough to protect island scrub-jays in one area. We’ll need to protect birds on different parts of the island. Otherwise, we may lose a critical piece of the species’ genetic diversity.

Islands are hotbeds for extinction events,11 making it all the more critical that we develop sound conservation strategies on the Channel Islands, the Galápagos, and elsewhere. Too often, evolutionary considerations are left out of the conservation equation. We assume that species can’t quickly adapt to environmental change because it takes time for advantageous genetic mutations to appear. But in reality many species may already have the genetic wherewithal to adapt; we just need to safeguard it.

That’s why it’s so important for biologists to identify the breadth of biodiversity that exists in nature, including genetic variation within species. Darwin may have kick-started these efforts on a remote archipelago 180 years ago, but today’s generation of biologists is still working to decipher evolution’s varied results—how they came to be and where they might lead.


1. Allan A. Schoenherr, C. Robert Feldmeth, and Michael J. Emerson, Natural History of the Islands of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

2. Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

3. Kathryn M. Langin, T. Scott Sillett, W. Chris Funk, Scott A. Morrison, Michelle A. Desrosiers, and Cameron K. Ghalambor, “Islands within an Island: Repeated Adaptive Divergence in a Single Population,” Evolution 69 (2015): 653–665.

4. Elizabeth Bardwell, Craig W. Benkman, and William R. Gould, “Adaptive Geographic Variation in Western Scrub-Jays,” Ecology 82 (2001): 2617–2627.

5. A. Townsend Peterson, “Adaptive Geographical Variation in Bill Shape of Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma coerulescens),” The American Naturalist 142 (1993): 508–527.

6. Jeffrey L. Feder, Charles A. Chilcote, and Guy L. Bush, “Genetic Differentiation Between Sympatric Host Races of the Apple Maggot Fly Rhagoletis pomonella,” Nature 336 (1988): 61–64.

7. Kathryn R. Elmer, Topi K. Lehtonen, and Axel Meyer, “Color Assortative Mating Contributes to Sympatric Divergence of Neotropical Cichlid Fish,” Evolution 63 (2009): 2750–2757.

8. Jacques Blondel, “Selection-Based Biodiversity at a Small Spatial Scale in a Low-Dispersing Insular Bird,” Science 285 (1999): 1399–1402.

9. Jason P. Sexton, Sharon Y. Strauss, and Kevin J. Rice, “Gene Flow Increases Fitness at the Warm Edge of a Species’ Range,” PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (2011): 11704–11709.

10. T. Scott Sillett, Richard B. Chandler, J. Andrew Royle, Marc Kéry, and Scott A. Morrison, “Hierarchical Distance-Sampling Models to Estimate Population Size and Habitat-Specific Abundance of an Island Endemic,” Ecological Applications 22, (2012): 1997–2006.

11. T.H. Johnson and Alison J. Stattersfield, “A Global Review of Island Endemic Birds,” IBIS 132 (2008): 167–180.


Return of the Wild

by Emma Marris

From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3

The wolves at our door

It is a frosty spring morning, and I’m tracking celebrity wolves in Southern Oregon. The patriarch of this pack is a big deal. Scientists call him OR7, the seventh wolf in Oregon to be captured and fitted with a tracking collar. Environmentalists call him Journey, a name that pays homage to his epic thousand-mile trek from his birth pack in northeastern Oregon to the California border. A few days after Christmas in 2011, OR7 crossed that border, becoming the first known wild wolf in the state since 1924.1 When OR7 found a mate—a dark black female without a collar, or a known history—they settled in Oregon, much to the disappointment of lobo fans in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and other hotspots of California wolf fandom.

Now I think I might be looking at his poop. The sun is raising steam off the graveled timber roads. We’re driving along, slowly, with a VHF receiver balanced on the front console of the truck. So far, all we’ve heard from the receiver is static—none of the pings that would indicate that OR7’s collar is in range. But John Stephenson, the US Fish and Wildlife biologist I’m accompanying, has a lead. Yesterday, he followed the VHF signal to OR7 and caught a glimpse of the gray wolf and one of his offspring, but the wolves saw Stephenson first and were gone in a flash. “It is so hard to get a visual in this country,” Stephenson says. “Too many damn trees.”

We drive to the site of this very brief interspecies encounter and find a few monstrous piles of poop, bristling with elk hair. Stephenson bags them. We also find at least three sets of tracks headed straight down the road. Wolf prints are larger than almost all dog prints, and they typically run in these very straight lines. “It’s a good way to tell a wolf from a large dog,” Stephenson says. “Dogs tend to wander around.”

We follow the tracks for some time, until we lose the trail on hard, dry ground. We spend the rest of the day crisscrossing the forest, seeing only the odd logging truck—no other cars or trucks, and no wolves. It’s not surprising OR7 finds this nearly humanless place a good home. Wolves generally do their very best to avoid people.

A trail camera snapped this photograph of a gray wolf in Northern California in August 2015. Courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

With an average population density of almost 250 people per square mile, California might seem an unlikely choice for wolves in search of a home. But as far we know, wolves don’t read road atlases or care about statistical averages, and there is some very wild and remote country in northeastern California—from the arid Modoc plateau to the pine and fir forests of Mount Lassen. Stephenson wonders whether there are enough deer and elk to sustain a robust wolf population in the state; but as he prepares to document the second round of pups for this family that lives within one or two long day’s walk of the California border, he says some of OR7’s children could “easily” settle down in the Golden State.

Indeed, on 20 August 2015 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that camera traps had caught snaps of fuzzy wolf pups playing in Northern California. They probably aren’t OR7’s grandchildren—Stephenson thinks they are the pups of “previously undetected dispersers from Idaho or Northeast Oregon.” But even if this family doesn’t make a permanent home in California, the expansion of wolves into California seems inevitable. The first wolves entered neighboring Oregon in the late 1990s, the children of reintroductions undertaken by the federal government in the early 1990s in Idaho. They’ve found Southern Oregon to be a good home, and as their numbers increase, they will almost certainly carve out additional territories in California.

The state has been preparing for their return. On 4 June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to preemptively list gray wolves as endangered under the state Endangered Species Act. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife had been completing a plan for managing the incoming wolves, though now it may need revising. Ranchers, hunters, and environmentalists have all been invited to be part of the process, and wolf advocates are feeling good about the prospects for a more cooperative, less contentious coexistence between wolves and livestock in northern California than in the Rocky Mountains (where the “wolf wars” have turned the animal into a political football). The emphasis is on teaching the wolves not to go after livestock, by frightening them away with flagging tape, loud noises, and livestock-guarding dogs. “We are hoping to do what we can before wolves get here so it can be different,” says Karin Vardaman, director of California wolf recovery at the California Wolf Center. “Because, really, if you keep politics out of it, in areas where ranchers have learned to use these nonlethal tools correctly, the controversy just went away.”

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is struggling to come up with maps of where wolves could live in the state or estimates of how large a population the state potentially could host. Historical records aren’t helpful—but not, as you might think, because of how much California has changed. The problem is that virtually no historical records exist. California eradicated the wolf from its landscapes so quickly and thoroughly that the animals barely appear in the historical record. It’s a testament to the power of colonization and modernization that a species that was no doubt once an apex predator, one of the kings of California along with the grizzly, was reduced to a rumor, a word, a skull, a walk-on role in legend.

Canis lupus skulls from the La Brea Tar Pits.

Indeed, until recently, it was often repeated (notably in Barry Lopez’s book Of Wolves and Men) that there never were any wolves in California. Scientific maps showing the precontact range of wolves in North America compiled in 1944, 1953, 1981, and 2002 omit all or most of the state.2

Only two natural history museum specimens are verified to be California wolves from the twentieth century. There are none from the nineteenth. “I was shocked when I started looking. How could there only be two?” says Sarah Hendricks, a geneticist who hoped to learn about the state’s population dynamics by analyzing DNA from old skulls and pelts. Hendricks was working in a UCLA lab run by canine geneticist Robert Wayne when the state requested a thorough report on what was known about the vanished wolf packs’ population structure just before eradication. Hendricks had only two skulls to work with, both from animals collected in the 1920s and housed in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. The museum sent her the tiniest sample possible—minute shavings from the inside of the precious skulls’ nostrils. “I opened up the envelopes and I said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work, because there is hardly anything here,'” Hendricks says. But she managed to pull enough DNA from the material to establish that a wolf killed in San Bernardino County in 1922 was probably a Mexican wolf, a distinct subspecies currently being reintroduced into the wild in the Southwest. The other skull came from California’s last recorded wild wolf, an emaciated, maimed critter killed in Lassen County in 1924. It had DNA markers linking it to the large population of gray wolves of the Rocky Mountains and Canada.3 Because OR7 descends from wolves reintroduced to Idaho from inland British Columbia, Hendricks’s analysis suggests that more or less the “right” kind of wolf—according to ecologists—is recolonizing Oregon and California. But with just two specimens, it is pointless to even try to guess at population densities or dynamics of these wolves.

“Other states have a frame of reference for what their populations were historically before they were eradicated,” says Karen Kovacs, wildlife program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We scoured every source we could find.” Kovacs and her team looked for trapping records. Nothing. They looked at historical accounts of the first Europeans, but she felt many of these were unreliable because of a widespread loosey-goosey habit of referring to coyotes as a kind of wolf.

Back in 1991, ecologist Robert Schmidt, then at Berkeley, combed through more than fifty European historical accounts, looking for those writers who separately mentioned and clearly distinguished between coyotes, foxes, and wolves. He also gave writers who were trained naturalists the benefit of the doubt that they knew their canids, and he found several sightings that qualified under those rules.4 Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue, for example, saw two species of “wolves” in the San Francisco Bay area—most likely wolves and coyotes. In Schmidt’s estimation, wolves likely lived in the Central Valley, Coast Ranges, and Sierra Nevada until about 1800. Trapping, shooting, and poisoning of these suspected livestock thieves likely occurred so quickly and so thoroughly that they were nearly lost to Euro-American history.

Of course, that’s not the only history in California. Two analyses of native languages and literature have found traces of the wolf across nearly the whole state. In 2001, Alexandra Geddes-Osborne and Malcolm Margolin found separate words for “wolf” and “coyote” in many indigenous languages, and a role for wolves in story and ceremonies, in tribes as disparate as the Karuk in the far north, to the Pomo in the center of the state, and the Luiseno in the south.5 More recently, a report by scholars from the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University found fifteen indigenous languages across the state with different words for wolf, coyote, and dog, and five tribes with traditions in which the wolf features.6

John Stephenson of the Fish and Wildlife Service collects scat from the Rogue Pack, led by OR7 and his mate, in Southern Oregon.

One can go even further back in time, beyond history to prehistory. At the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, little kids stare in horrified fascination at an animatronic saber tooth cat taking down a slightly mangy-looking stuffed ground sloth in the public area. Meanwhile, drawers and drawers of specimens from Pleistocene California—from 10,000 to 50,000 years old—compose a deeper archive. Dire wolves—giant relatives of modern gray wolves, though not their ancestors—are the most common fossils found at the site. Researchers have unearthed the bones of some four thousand individual dire wolves. Presumably, mastodons and ground sloths stuck in the tar were so tempting that they lured the dire wolves to their doom.

A curator at the tar pits looks slightly bemused that I’m less interested in the dire wolves (currently chic thanks to their appearance in Game of Thrones) than regular old Canis lupus. “Does the collection include gray wolves?” I ask.

It does, indeed. We walk down a long, narrow corridor between metal cabinets, open a drawer, and here are riches of wolf bones, looking, as tar pit specimens do, mahogany colored and polished. There are teeth, jaws, and skulls. Nineteen drawers in all. When the first people came to what is now California, there were almost certainly wolves here.

Of course, there are still wolves in California—in Los Angeles, in fact. But these aren’t free-roaming wildlife. They are pets—or prisoners, depending on your point of view. Jennifer McCarthy, a dog trainer, spent four years in Colorado studying and working with captive wolves on a large piece of land. She now applies what she learned there to the dogs of the greater Los Angeles area, including the fully domesticated, nonwolf pooches of celebrities such as Christina Aguilera, the Osborne family, and Renee Zellweger. Some of McCarthy’s less famous clients own wolves or wolf-dog hybrids. For many people, there is an undeniable attraction to being that close with a piece of the wild. But wolves and wolf dogs make notoriously poor pets. They can bite. They don’t follow direction well. Their predatory instincts are strong, and, most of all, they are incredible escape artists. They don’t bond with people the way dogs do. Wolves may sound like a cool companion animal, but they spend their lives trying to be wolves, with sometimes-disastrous consequences.

McCarthy meets me in Redondo Beach at a coffee shop, wearing a black hoodie that says “Wolf Woman” on it. “There are people who live in the city of Los Angeles with 100 percent full-blown wolves,” she says. In one case, she was called to an apartment in Beverly Hills where a wolf had chewed through the floor and escaped into the apartment below.

McCarthy disapproves of breeding and selling wolves and part-wolves. “I really believe these animals were meant to be wild,” she says. “Wolves don’t want a lot to do with us.” But she will try to keep pet wolves from being euthanized, either by working on their behavior or placing them in one of the always-crowded specialty wolf rescues. She also volunteers her time to transport wolves and wolf dogs to shelters when necessary.

McCarthy’s experience with wolves suggests to her that even if they recolonize the state in large numbers, they will stay as far away from people as possible. “I couldn’t picture wolves walking down Santa Monica Boulevard at night, going through garbage cans,” she says.

That’s a job for another California canine: the coyote. Smaller, faster-breeding, and potentially more adaptable, the coyote inherited the lands the wolf left behind when humans exterminated it across most of the country. Coyotes, unlike wolves, are nearly impossible to eradicate. You can shoot, trap, and poison them all day long, and they’ll just keep coming.

In a lot of the native California and Oregon stories in which Wolf appears, he seems to be kind of a straight man to the trickster Coyote, who is sometimes his brother. Geddes-Osborne and Margolin retell a story from the Chemehuevi,7 in which Wolf is a brave warrior who saves the day and his little brother when the Bear people attack. Wolf fights in a magnificent multicolored robe, which becomes the rainbow. He is “wiser, more stately and in charge” than his little brother Coyote. This reminds me of stories from the Northern Paiute, recorded in 1938 by Berkeley anthropologist Isabel Kelly.8 In these stories, Wolf and Coyote are brothers, and Coyote is constantly taking risks out of curiosity, despite the warnings of his sage, conservative older brother, Wolf. Here’s a fragment of a tale told by Bige Archie of the Gidii’tikadu or Groundhog Eater band, in Modoc County, California.

They saw someone camped. Coyote wanted to see whose camp it was. Wolf told him, “Those are pretty bad people; don’t go there.” Coyote thought they might have some ya’pa [camas] roots. “I’ll go anyway,” he said. He went over to the camp. There were some Bear women in there. There was lots of ya’pa drying outside. Coyote found a basket. He scooped up some ya’pa and ran. They came after him; they came close behind him. He threw back the basket and hit those women right on the legs. He didn’t eat much of the ya’pa; he didn’t have time.

Coyote caught up with Wolf, and they went on.9

There seem to be some essential truths here about the natures of these two canines. It may be debatable whether wolves have more dignity. But they are certainly much more risk-averse. They tend to approach novel situations with the utmost caution; they shun humans; they take a long time to warm up to strange wolves. Coyotes are reckless and innovative, and as a result, humans have never managed to kill them off, in California or anywhere else. Stories about coyotes outnumber stories about wolves in most Oregon and California Indian literatures by a considerable margin. Does that mean there were fewer wolves or just that Coyote is a more compelling character for human storytellers?

Coyotes have adapted to a modern, crowded California. They cross Sunset Boulevard in San Francisco in the afternoon,10 nibble on lychee and avocados from suburban Southern California gardens,11 and forage in Santa Monica’s exuberantly varied and rich trashcans.

I have a hard time imagining wolves in those dangerous, liminal niches. Perhaps when wolves come back to a California vastly more overrun with humans than the one they last knew, they will stay hidden in the kind of remote forests favored by OR7 and his pups—places where you can drive up and down ridges all day and hear nothing but the drone of VHF receiver static, the croaks of ravens, and the scold of nuthatches; places where you know wolves are there, but you never see them. Or perhaps wolves will surprise me and everyone else and push in close to human California, appearing on ranches, in coastal suburbs, and even in major cities.

No matter where wolves live and how many there are, humans will be watching. The leaders of California’s first wolf packs likely will be caught and fitted with transmitting collars, just as in the other western states. The first colonists may well have Twitter accounts, like OR7. One thing is sure. In the first year of their official residence in the state, more will be known about them and written about them than all of the wolf generations before 1924.


All photographs by Emma Marris unless otherwise indicated.

1. California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Gray Wolf (Canis lupus),” accessed 11 May 2015, http://dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/nongame/wolf/.

2. Stephanie L. Shelton and Floyd W. Weckerly, “Inconsistencies in Historical Geographic Range Maps: The Gray Wolf as Example,” California Fish and Game 93, no. 4 (2007): 224.

3. Sarah A. Hendricks, Pauline C. Charruau, John P. Pollinger, Richard Callas, Peter J. Figura, and Robert K. Wayne, “Polyphyletic Ancestry of Historic Gray Wolves Inhabiting US Pacific States,” Conservation Genetics (2014): 1–6.

4. Robert H. Schmidt, “Gray Wolves in California: Their Presence and Absence,” California Fish and Game 77, no. 2 (1991): 79–85.

5. A. Geddes-Osborne and M. Margolin, “Man and Wolf,” Defenders Magazine 76, no.2 (2001): 36–41.

6. M., Newland and M. Stoyka, “The Pre-Contact Distribution of Canis lupus in California: A Preliminary Assessment,” (unpubl. draft, Sonoma State University, 2013).

7. http://www.chemehuevi.net/history-culture/.

8. http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/joda/hrs/hrs1b.htm.

9. Isabel T. Kelly, “Northern Paiute Tales,” Journal of American Folklore (1938): 363–438.

10. http://www.sfgate.com/outdoors/article/Coyotes-seemingly-thrive-in-San-Francisco-5045034.php.

11. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74135.html.


Under the Desert Sun

by Bruce Barcott with photographs by Jamey Stillings

From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3

Can wildlife and big solar coexist?

In the cool of an autumn desert night, the photographer Jamey Stillings and I roll out of Las Vegas into the dark Mojave Desert. With the glitz of the Strip in our rearview, we follow Interstate 15 south across dry desert lakes and wide alluvial fans, through miles of scrub and sand. The road is lonely, just a few long-haul truckers and crapped-out gamblers limping home to L.A. It’s a quiet time for humans, but out there beyond the asphalt there’s action in the desert. Owls and coyotes are hunting. Bats are darting after moths. Cacti and creosote open their pores to drink in the air’s moisture. Now and then a sign marks a lonely outpost: Sloan, Jean, Primm, once-hopeful townsites that never matured into towns. About five miles past Primm, on the California side of the border, we turn onto a road leading into the faint outline of the Clark Mountains. Our headlights catch a sign: Ivanpah Solar Project.

Ivanpah is the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) installation in the world. It’s also one of the most controversial. The $2.2 billion project, which came online in January 2014, is capable of producing 392 megawatts, enough electricity to power 140,000 homes—or all of Pasadena—during peak demand. It’s one of a handful of new mega-plants—including the Topaz solar farm in San Luis Obispo County, the Desert Sunlight plant southeast of Joshua Tree National Park, and the Genesis Solar Energy Project in eastern Riverside County—that have turned California into the first state to generate more than 5 percent of its electricity from utility-scale solar. But Ivanpah has come under fire from conservationists concerned about its bird-frying capabilities, and from green-energy skeptics who accuse Ivanpah’s backers of under-delivering on what was promised.

It’s so dark that I can’t make out where we are. Before I realize it we’re among the heliostats, the 173,500 pairs of mirrors that reflect the sun onto Ivanpah’s three power towers. Each tower is 459 feet tall, four-fifths the height of the Washington Monument. The mirrors stand upright at night in what their keepers call “sleep position,” so that when you drive among them in the pre-dawn gloaming it’s tough to make them out, what with the hall-of-mirrors effect and all. Dark reflecting dark reflecting dark.

“It’s like an immense art installation,” I say to Jamey.

He nods.

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

Jamey’s been documenting the creation of Ivanpah for years, so these mirror-made mirages are nothing new to him. But coming upon them with fresh eyes, I can’t help but think of the monoliths of Easter Island, and the light-and-sensory artwork of James Turrell. I can’t wait to see what happens when the sun comes up.

We pass through security and find our way to NRG’s control room, a spacious chamber with computer consoles, dozens of flat-screen monitors, and about ten engineers. At 5:45 a.m., the day crew takes over from the night staff, which has been doing maintenance and prep.

Dawn arrives. Out in the desert, nocturnal owls, rats, mice, and bats retreat to their burrows. They want nothing of the day’s blasting heat. The heliostats, controlled by computers, slowly rotate into position. The first faint light shines on the dark band of the power towers.

At 8:02 a.m., the first of Ivanpah’s three units comes online. It starts small, generating six megawatts. Then nine. Then eighteen. At 8:14, an engineer calls from across the room. “We’re synced!”

Solar power shoots down the line. In San Francisco, customers of PG&E check their email and brew their coffee with Ivanpah energy. In Los Angeles, Southern California Edison brightens traffic lights and gives air conditioners their hum with power from the sun.

For Ivanpah, this counts as a good day: a clear sky with two power towers humming. (The third was briefly offline for maintenance.) Many days, the shift operators aren’t so lucky. Ivanpah was expected to produce more than one million megawatt hours per year, but in its first eighteen months the plant recorded less than half that output. Power plants, regardless of fuel type, aren’t turnkey systems. They require a break-in period during which they run at reduced capacity as engineers work out the bugs. At Ivanpah, that break-in period coincided with an unusual stretch of cloudy days, further reducing its output. The plant’s ramp-up accelerated in early 2015—producing more than double the power of a year earlier—but that didn’t stop critics from pouncing. “High-Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver,” the Wall Street Journal declared, presenting Ivanpah as Exhibit A.

That typified the plant’s first year, during which Ivanpah took a pounding in the media. In 2014, the Associated Press moved a story that claimed the plant was “scorching” as many as twenty-eight thousand birds annually—a total that would have required a full-time shovel crew to remove the constant rain of carrion. The biologist who came up with that number later downplayed it as a “back-of-the envelope” estimate, but the damage was done.

Then there was the erosion of confidence in concentrated solar power itself. Between Ivanpah’s groundbreaking in 2010 and its start-up in 2014, the price of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels dropped by more than half. That encouraged thousands of homeowners to join the distributed power revolution, which lets them use rooftop PV panels to power their homes and feed green energy into the grid. Then in 2015, Congress decided to end many of solar power’s federal grants, loan guarantees, and tax breaks. Green energy now provides about 24 percent of California’s needs, and the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard requires that to reach 33 percent by 2020. But right now, utility-scale PV farms and rooftop solar look like better economic bets than CSPs such as Ivanpah. Things change quickly in this space. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Energy saw Ivanpah and similar plants ushering in a “CSP renaissance in America.” By late 2015, it was uncertain whether Ivanpah’s power towers would be among the first of their kind in America—or the last.

The Mojave is a deceptive place. The driest and smallest of North America’s four deserts—it could fit inside West Virginia—it encompasses an extreme range of topographies and temperatures. The gentle, snow-capped peak of Mount Charleston rises to nearly twelve thousand feet just west of Las Vegas. It’s as much a part of the Mojave as Death Valley, the lowest (282 feet below sea level) and hottest place in the United States. In outline, the Mojave is lumpy and misshapen, like a deerskin tossed over California’s meeting point with Nevada and Arizona.

The Mojave’s defining quality is the difficulty of sustaining life within it. Anyone who’s road tripped from Los Angeles to Las Vegas knows this landscape as the journey’s major crossing, a sandy sea that requires preparation, supplies, and good luck to reach the other side. “The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one,” John Steinbeck once wrote. “It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.”

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

The animals and plants that survive here are finely adapted to do so. The jackrabbit’s paddle ears are lined with shallow blood vessels, which allow the air to cool its blood. Kangaroo rats seal their burrows to capture the precious moisture released when they breathe. Owls and vultures obtain water from the blood of their prey. The desert tortoise, which often digs its burrows under the shade and camouflage of creosote bushes, survives the harshest seasons of the Mojave by estivating: it gorges on cacti, grasses, and wildflowers during spring, then disappears into the cool darkness of its underground home and waits out the heat of summer.

Native Americans have lived in parts of the Mojave for at least ten thousand years, but the human presence has been sparse throughout most of the area’s human history. Until recently, our need for water limited human habitation to areas where it pooled and ran. The Mojave Indians congregated mostly along the spine of the Colorado River. The nomadic Chemehuevi people, whose traditional lands include the Ivanpah Valley, are known as “those who play with fish.” Human impacts were minimal until the arrival of miners and ranchers in the mid- to late 1800s. The Clark Mountains attracted swarms of grubstakers seeking silver, borax, copper, lead, tungsten, and fluorite. In the 1880s, the mining town of Ivanpah popped up about where the solar complex stands today. The town did a brisk trade: saloons, a butcher shop, hay yards, hotels, and a weekly newspaper. Around 1900, the minerals ran out, and so did the people. The town was abandoned and the desert reclaimed the space.

Just as the seemingly empty and forbidding Mojave actually pulses with life, a desert that can appear bereft of industry in truth supports—and sometimes suffers—quite a lot of it. Though the town of Ivanpah never returned, the mining industry still survives here. Just over the shoulder of Clark Mountain sits the open-pit Colosseum Mine, a gold strike that operated from the early 1980s until 1993. A few miles south of Ivanpah is one of America’s largest rare-earth element mines, which produce the metals used in smartphones, high-efficiency lightbulbs, and photovoltaic cells. Mining is no longer the major industry here, however. Today the area’s economic engine is power production.

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

Just over the border in Primm is the Bighorn Generating Station, a 598-megawatt natural-gas power plant completed in 2004. Next to it is the Silver State North Solar Project, a 50-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm. When it opened in 2012, Silver State North became the first power-producing solar project on federal land. It’s expected to be followed in the next few years by Silver State South, a 250-megawatt sister project, and by the 300-megawatt Stateline Solar Farm Project, a PV farm tucked between I-15 and the Ivanpah heliostats. In a little more than a decade, the Ivanpah Valley has become one of the most concentrated centers of power production in the American West.

That could be a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on your perspective. In the United States we produce most of our energy—82 percent—by burning oil, coal, and natural gas. With every megawatt produced from those sources, more carbon dioxide escapes into the atmosphere, stoking global warming. Nuclear power is extremely difficult to finance, permit, and build new plants for. Only solar, wind, and geothermal have the potential to replace big chunks of our appetite for burning carbon.

But no energy source is perfect. Ramping up renewables requires real estate. Wind power only works in places with a consistent blow. Solar power needs acreage. You can’t stack mirrors or PV panels on top of one another. Some of that space exists on rooftops. But rooftop solar has its limitations. If every house and commercial building in America harvested energy, they’d meet only 60 percent of the nation’s electrical demand. We most likely need more conservation, rooftop PV, better efficiencies, and utility-scale wind and solar.

On the day Ivanpah opened, solar power accounted for only 0.4 percent of America’s electricity budget. “There is an enormous gap between what needs to get done and what is actually happening on the ground,” said John Woolard, then CEO of the firm that designed Ivanpah, BrightSource Energy, during the plant’s construction. “I don’t think people really have digested how far behind we are from a policy perspective and how bad the consequences are. On a global basis we have got to put one gigawatt of zero-carbon power online every single day between now and 2040 just to stabilize CO2 emissions.”

That means lots of land. Ivanpah’s heliostats range over roughly five-and-a-half square miles (thirty-five hundred acres) of publicly owned, federally managed desert landscape. That’s four times the size of New York City’s Central Park. The Silver State North PV farm covers about one square mile. Stateline will shade another two and a half square miles.

There’s no way around it. Those are significant chunks of prime Mojave wildlife habitat. And therein lies a dilemma for environmentalists. Back in 2009, local conservation groups raised the alarm about losing five and ahalf square miles of high-quality tortoise habitat to Ivanpah’s footprint. The desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, is a long-lived and emblematic Mojave Desert species. It’s been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1980. In some areas, the desert tortoise population has decreased by as much as 90 percent in the past thirty years.2

And the Ivanpah Valley, by all accounts, is excellent desert tortoise habitat.

That forced a number of environmental advocates, who usually champion solar, to take a critical look at Ivanpah. Solar power “should go on rooftops or in appropriate places, not the pristine desert,” April Sall, director of the Wildlands Conservancy, told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012. “We need to tackle warming, but not forget there are other things at stake.”3

Local chapters of the Sierra Club found themselves divided on the issue. Some favored Ivanpah for its carbon-free energy; others thought the wildlife costs were too high. After the power plant’s partners agreed to significant tortoise mitigation measures—including buying seven thousand acres of private land to set aside as protected habitat, and keeping a permanent biology staff on site at Ivanpah—the national Sierra Club gave the project its blessing.

At midday, Jamey and I drive into the heliostat field with Len Cigainero, NRG operations manager. We stop at the boundary between the inner and outer rings of mirrors that bounce sunlight onto the boiler of Tower 2. “The inner ring is cleared and graded,” Cigainero explains. “Beyond that it’s left in as natural a state as possible.” Jamey and I wander amid the concentric circles. Each heliostat contains two garage-door-size mirrors. “There’s nothing that special about them,” Cigainero tells me. “They’re mirrors just like you have in your bathroom.” Except much, much bigger.

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

As the day’s heat reaches its peak, Cigainero leads Jamey and me into a crude elevator that hoists us 376 feet—about thirty-seven stories—up Tower 2. It’s an awesome sight, standing at the rail, looking out at the mirror field: 120,000 brilliant white cards, all pointed in our direction. I imagine it’s something like Jimi Hendrix saw at Woodstock. Above us, the 800-degree heat generated by the focused solar energy of sixty thousand heliostats is creating superheated steam that cranks a power-producing turbine. All I feel is the warm day and a light breeze. The mirrors are so precisely focused on the boiler that nothing outside their flux zone feels the heat. But within that zone, birds and insects get scorched. If you watch the sky for a while, you’ll see little flares now and then, a visual record of birds and bugs flying too close to the flux.

Wildlife advocates raised early concerns about the effect of Ivanpah’s solar flux field on passing birds. Solar flux is a measure of the light energy in a given area. Ivanpah’s solar flux field encompasses the airspace between the mirrors and the tower boilers. The heliostats don’t create superheated air. Air absorbs very little light energy. Any object placed in the solar flux field, though, will absorb light energy and convert it to thermal energy. It’s the reason you can breathe the air in a car that’s been sitting in the hot sun, but can’t touch the steering wheel. Therein lies the risk to birds. If they fly through the flux field, they can singe their feathers and even catch fire.

It’s an enormous issue, for both Ivanpah and the future of concentrated solar power. Concern over bird mortality has stunted the growth of wind power, and singed wings could do the same to CSP. To ground truth the matter, the plant’s operators hired a team of biologists to record bird sightings and bird deaths for one full year. During my visit, I watched biologists use bird dogs to search the tower and heliostat areas, finding and recording avian carcasses. Meanwhile, engineers such as Cigainero are trying new solutions, including sound deterrents (sudden loud noises) and a scent derived from grapes that’s obnoxious to birds (smells like grape juice). From October 2013 to October 2014, biologists estimated that 1,492 birds were killed by the power tower and heliostats, through heat flux and collisions. A further 2,012 birds were killed by causes other than the solar power plant, and may represent something close to the area’s natural background avian mortality—birds killed by predation and disease. That’s nowhere near the alarming 22,000 number. But it’s still significant.

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

Ultimately, Ivanpah’s bird issue comes down to a question of relative harm. The number of birds lost to solar flux pales in comparison to those killed in the United States by windows (an estimated 97 million) and domestic cats (110 million). But that comparison only gets us so far. It’s more useful to measure concentrated solar plants such as Ivanpah against other forms of power generation in a watt-by-watt comparison. Benjamin Sovacool, a Vermont Law School professor and energy policy analyst, has done just that. Sovacool looked at a wide range of data, from bird collisions with nuclear cooling towers, to wind-turbine mortality, to the effects of mercury poisoning and acid rain. The estimates were astonishing. Fossil fuel power plants (coal, oil, natural gas) were responsible, directly and indirectly, for 9.4 bird deaths per gigawatt hour (GWh) of power produced. Nuclear facilities were responsible for 0.6 avian fatalities per GWh. Wind turbines, which have become notorious for their bird damage, turned out in fact to be the most bird friendly of the compared power sources. Sovacool estimated that the blades and towers were responsible for 0.3 avian mortalities per GWh.4

Sovacool didn’t include concentrated solar power in his calculations. The technology was too new and the data simply didn’t exist. But if we use some crude calculations based on an early, small sample size, Ivanpah’s avian mortality lands somewhere in the wind turbine and nuclear power range. Ivanpah is expected to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 GWh of power in a year. If all bird deaths are counted, that means the plant would be responsible for 0.6 avian fatalities per GWh; if only solar flux losses are counted, the figure comes down to 0.1.

Concern for bird fatalities at concentrated solar power plants seems to be a classic example of what we might call the fallacy of visible harm. We see a bird with singed wings and are moved, rightly, to call for more protection for these imperiled creatures. But what we don’t see are the millions of birds killed by the indirect forces—habitat loss, acid rain, mercury poisoning, climate change—perpetuated by our continued addiction to fossil fuels. The comparison isn’t even close: it’s a full order of magnitude. Coal-fired and gas-fired power plants kill more than ten times as many birds as wind and solar facilities combined. The difference is, those birds are dying hundreds of miles from the causes of their deaths.

As the sun makes its first move toward the horizon, we drive over to Ivanpah’s biological center, a modest collection of shipping-container offices and fenced tortoise habitats. This is Ivanpah’s desert tortoise biological center, a place they playfully call Desert Tortoise Head Start.

At Ivanpah, the desert tortoise acts as an umbrella species. The protocols taken to safeguard the reptiles and their habitat benefit a multitude of other species in the ecological web. NRG’s permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows them just nine desert tortoise “takings”—a euphemism for death—over Ivanpah’s planned thirty-year lifespan. They’ve already had one. “A biologist ran over a tortoise when doing a tortoise check,” Cigainero told me earlier that morning. “The tortoises look for shade, and this one found it under the wheel of his parked truck.” Ever since then, everybody on site does a vehicle perimeter check before starting up. It’s not just direct hazards that Ivanpah workers have to watch out for. There are indirect dangers, too. “We’re very careful about trash,” Cigainero told me. Desert tortoises have a coterie of predators: ravens, kit foxes, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, badgers, and burrowing owls. A spilled Coke or a misplaced Carl’s Jr. bag might be enough to draw these predators—especially ravens—to the site. And then their sharp eyes might spot a tasty tortoise.

At the biological station, I meet up with Max Havelka, a biologist who oversees the juvenile tortoise pens. The heat of the day has come up, and he’s decked out in full desert work wear: a wide-brimmed straw hat, extra-dark sunglasses, and a slathering of sunscreen. He tells me about the tortoise relocation operation.

“This turned out to be better tortoise habitat than anyone imagined,” he says. In the fall of 2010, before Bechtel broke ground on construction, a team of biologists scoured the Ivanpah site. Fall is typically an active time for tortoises, who emerge from their long summer burrowing to graze in the cooler autumn temperatures. The biologists gathered 173 adult and juvenile tortoises and relocated them to temporary holding pens in a 433-acre preserve set aside for rare plants and wildlife. “We started with sixteen tortoise pens, and ended up with more than a hundred,” Havelka tells me.

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

Tortoises have a slow and precarious reproductive cycle. They can take up to twenty years to reach sexual maturity, and females lay eggs only when environmental conditions are optimal. Most hatchlings don’t survive. Researchers estimate that up to 98 percent of juvenile tortoises are killed by predators in their first years of life. That makes what happened after the tortoise-gather all the more curious and remarkable. Female tortoises in Ivanpah’s temporary holding pens began laying eggs left and right. Maybe it was coincidental. Maybe it was a response to stress. Maybe the females looked around at the plentiful forage, water, and predator protection, and thought, optimal conditions! Havelka and other biologists don’t know for sure. What they do know is that by the spring of 2011 they had fifty-three new juveniles on their hands.

After fitting the adult tortoises with tiny transponders, Havelka and his colleagues released them back into the Ivanpah Valley, outside the heliostat fields. The transponders allow NRG’s staff biologists to locate the reptiles and check on their health twice a year. To release the juveniles, though, would be to lose 98 percent of the next generation of a federally threatened species. So Havelka and the Desert Tortoise Head Start crew continue to nurture them behind protective fencing.

“We’ll keep them here until their carapaces”—their upper shells—”reach twelve centimeters in length,” Havelka explains. That’s about long as a Pepsi can is tall, and takes about five years. “At that point they’re able to fend for themselves.”

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

As we stroll through the Head Start center, it’s tough to spot any tortoises. And yet we’re surrounded by dozens of them. “There’s one,” Havelka says. A four-inch juvenile crawls glacially under the shade of a creosote bush. Desert tortoises live up to 95 percent of their lives underground, and when they do emerge they exhibit no darting movements, as these would alert predators to their presence. Rule of survival: you don’t eat what you can’t see.

Photograph by Jamey Stillings.

Like a lot of conservationists, Havelka is aware of the tough trade-offs involved in a project such as Ivanpah. He sees the gains and losses every day. The Mojave, he says, “is amazing. It’s like a desert version of an old-growth forest.” It’s an apt description. The Mojave’s creosote bushes can thrive for centuries. They’re drought hardy and so oily that herbivores don’t touch them. King Clone, a Mojave Desert creosote bush ring, is believed to be one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. UC Riverside botanist Frank Vasek, who discovered the bush in the late 1970s, estimates the plant’s age at around 11,700 years.5

Desert tortoises in the wild can survive for fifty years or more. Their survival into the next century may depend on whether we can ramp up our renewable energy output—because they too are imperiled by climate change. Female tortoises lay fewer eggs during drought years, and soil temperatures affect the sex of embryos. Temperatures above 31.5 degrees C (88.7 degrees F) favor the development of females, so an increasing number of heat waves produced by climate change could leave the population here with a reproductive ratio problem. In other words, doing nothing is as risky to the long-term health of the desert tortoise as are the disturbances imposed by projects such as Ivanpah.

Late in the afternoon, we climb into a helicopter and rise thousands of feet above the desert floor. As the horizon pulls the sun closer, the Robinson R44 offers us yet another perspective on the Mojave. From sixty-five hundred feet up we can see over and beyond Clark Mountain and the Castle Range, the two mountain bands that define and drain into the Ivanpah Valley. The light’s low angle raises the contrast on the land. A multitude of dry creeks, washes, deer paths, jeep trails, rail lines, and dirt roads crosshatch and serpentine over the terrain.

At 5:11 p.m., all three Ivanpah power blocks glow an eerie white. They’re lit up like tall candles on a dining room table. Tiny movements ripple through the mirrors as the computer controlling the heliostats milks every last watt from the sinking sun.

Twenty minutes later, the shadow of Clark Mountain reaches out across the valley floor, nearly touching the outer ring of Unit 3’s heliostats. The darkness moves at a hiker’s pace, slow but steady. All three power blocks blaze until finally, at 5:56 p.m., Unit 1 and Unit 3 begin to fade.

The end of the solar day arrives quickly. Within two minutes the power block on Unit 3 is dark. Unit 2 still shines, but Unit 1 is fading fast. One minute later, Unit 1 is dark. By 6:03 p.m., all three tower boilers are black. Ivanpah is off the grid. One by one the heliostats move into sleep mode, standing vertically, reflecting darkness.

Meanwhile, in the desert, the nocturnal creatures start to emerge. As the intense heat of the day dissipates, they peek out of burrows, foxholes, and caves. Bats flutter into the evening sky. Tortoises crawl out of their holes to forage. The Mojave Desert stirs to life.

As we take one last swoop over the darkening valley, it strikes me that the Mojave has found, in the desert tortoise, its perfectly emblematic species: one that captures all the slow vigor, fragility, reticence, deception, indomitability, and strange beauty of the desert. Like the desert itself, its wonders and charms aren’t apparent upon first glance. But take some time to learn, understand, and appreciate. The same might be said of the Ivanpah project. It’s compelling and strange and not easily comprehended. But it may represent one of our best shots at getting right with the tortoise, the valley, the Mojave, the continent, and the planet. As the light fades, it seems a step in the right direction.


1. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (New York: Viking, 1962): 209.

2. Source: Defenders of Wildlife.

3. Quoted in Ken Wells, “Where Tortoises and Solar Power Don’t Mix,” Bloomberg Businessweek, October 10, 2012.

4. Benjamin K. Sovacool, “The Avian and Wildlife Costs of Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power,” Journal of Environmental Sciences 9, no. 4 (December 2012): 255–78.

5. Frank C. Vasek, “Creosote Bush: Long-Lived Clones in the Mojave Desert,” American Journal of Botany 67, no. 2 (February 1980): 246–55.


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.


Tree Lines

Text by Michael P. Cohen, drawings by Valerie Cohen

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

A Map of Time

Cut across the body of an old bristlecone pine, as someone has done here above the Patriarch Grove at timberline. What you are faced with looks remarkably like a contour map, a map whose scale is time. Can you read this hieroglyph?

The record is before you: a manuscript of life here for a few thousand years. These ridges of wood were once living flesh: What is left is something else. For this map, for what was this tree, time seems fragmented.

Why should this introspection frighten? All around other maps expose bright stone, below a dividing and indifferent blue, and dark wind everywhere.

What were you expecting when you began this journey? Wonder or Horror? Both.

Maps with Trees: Trees Made of Maps

We live in a heroic age of mapping. Yet maps proliferate inside living beings in ways not like the maps humans make. Human maps sometimes aspire to impossible exactitude. Maps inside life might reveal a grasping for opportunity and a letting go.

Consider the well-known fable by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) “On Exactitude in Science”:

. . .the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that. . .those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations. . .saw that that vast Map was Useless, and. . .delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars. . . .

Of what was such a vast map made? One might wonder. Words and maps were once prepared with implements and media drawn from trees. People speak of tree rings, as if they were maps. Trees do not choose to scribe their own rings.

Mean Solar Time by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Local Knowledge

Why draw an individual tree on an individual ridge unmarked on any map, unless what matters most is local knowledge? Why draw at all? This living entity, living in this place right here in the White Mountains, seventy miles southwest of Tuolumne Meadows, as Clark’s Nutcrackers fly, across the Owens Valley. Yes, we are told these days about the construction of nature, by which affluent people understand themselves. How indeed? If not in the broad-leafed trees and river paths of parks, then one goes to the tough and weathered pines, where no water flows.

People admire and count the rings, the wood, its texture, that they call grain. The grain of a map is made by using contours. These contours tell walkers where to go and how they will ascend or descend in a landscape. Landscapes are also constructed by words like mountain, gully, canyon, river, spring.

Maps dwell inside of things, in trees for instance, rocks, mountains, and at the bottoms of lakes. These maps are without names or symbols: it is an open country inside living objects, open in the ways of a bleached ribcage, the vertebrae of large beasts in the desert sun.

On a walk here, the trees are landmarks (to geologists. too) where one follows a path like a child whose attention is caught and lost and caught again. It is hard to believe there is a hurry among old trees.

The wind is always with you, always in the trees, from predictable directions. One sees a lenticular tree or cloud. Wind uncovers maps inside the trees. Wind tears the topographical map from your hands, turns it inside out, and reveals some hidden desire in the watcher who “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

The Abstract Truth by Valerie Cohen. 13in x 10in.


Tree Lines

Up high, you can see lines of trees on limestone ridges—call them tree lines—and might consult a paper map. There are so many trees, and they have so many different things to say. So too with the maps. It has occurred to us that maps are, and always have been, stories. Trees do not tell stories. We tell stories: we draw maps. Story lines: Line drawings: Tree lines.

Tree lines have been segregated by scientists into various categories, Alpine, Desert, Arctic, and Antarctic—this last category being purely theoretical, since no trees presently grow in Antarctica. They grow here, but individual trees are not marked on most maps as, for instance, a favorite, Geology of the Mount Barcroft-Blanco Mountain Area, Eastern California by W.G. Ernst and C.A. Hall (1987).

Maps are made objects: they were once drawn with ink on paper and consisted of hand-drawn lines. Words are made, too—painstakingly—and were once drawn as lines with pens.

We use the maps lovingly; our walks guided by their lines; we use the words, we speak of trees that grow here.

As with the Earth itself, “The system’s not in the parts. It’s in the pattern.” So too, the writing must be of sentences. Good writing requires interesting sentences: good drawings require arresting lines: good maps require engaging patterns.

To which you might reply, “What’s wrong with a map that shows me the way back home?” Nobody high in the White Mountains is likely thinking about that use for maps. Nobody is at home here.

Why would one want a map? Is the impulse natural? What if we map change, of the trees, or of ourselves?

Campeto Mountain, Loud Wind by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Concerning Milford Zornes

The artist asks, “Why do I like to draw the dead and very aged forms?” as she looks through her sketchbook, seeing that she likes them—and now she is speaking of her drawings—because they are so simple. These forms attest to the fact that all drawings are based on only four types of lines—the horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and curve—and these lines are all you need to convey an emotion. Hook them together right, said her teacher Milford Zornes, and you get something that looks like Arabic writing; you get moving lines. Milford said: Horizontal is your foundation. Vertical is your support that conveys power. The diagonal supports, but not so well. Diagonals are subordinate to horizontals and verticals, and “can do mischief if you don’t keep them under control.” Curves are connectors.

These lines are inspirational, not only for what they show, but what they do not show. “When,” one writer asks, “is drawing a line a means of escape?”

Their spaces are openings where desire enters: “Now, when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration.”

Strip Growth by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Some of us agreed with Aldo Leopold when he wrote, “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Maps, we are told, are also supposed to be accurate, informative, and useful to think with, especially about time and space and changes occurring through time and space.


Whatever is happening in the woodlands of the White Mountains is real, though perhaps frightening. One of the things happening now: An artist is drawing trees. Not too long ago a friend (Kay Ryan) wrote to her:

“Thank you so much for showing me these arresting drawings/paintings. What powerful lines the trees offer, a kind of writing itself. You can’t possibly exhaust this wealth.

Lucky you.”

It takes a long time to be able to draw well, write well, or map well. Like living trees (to compare great things to small), people must grow incrementally, and you can see it in the way their bodies, eyes, faces, correspond, but also in the congruence of thoughts, crafts, arts, writing, painting.

Yet we are also told that maps are for strangers.


Limber #1 by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.


It has been said that humans “can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally. It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights.”

These are not private affairs, according to Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street—just as “food must be divided and distributed if it is to be well received,” so too this other sustenance.

To be in the presence of so many old living beings is puzzling and strange, and must be shared. Why? If not to keep the darkness at bay?

Anyone looking at these trees sometimes might think that those who live should be dead, but I have continued to think that those who die would be better off alive, if only for the sake of their companions.

But trees have no companions. They suffer alone: only a human observer may think, with Emily Dickenson, “I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true—.”

Sharing and strangers: you might say that these trees with their spaces are strangers, unless we choose not to make them so. They may seem estranged by the spaces they inhabit and by the spaces between them. Pascal, we are told, said that “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies” or, alternately, filled him “with dread.”

How large or small must a space be to be terrifying? How close must one be to agony for it to seem “true”? One may stand next to a perfect stranger, or watch him die, or get into bed with him. But he may well remain a stranger.

Trees do not open their hearts out of choice. Perhaps people do.

Mary Austin claimed that “The Shoshones live like their trees, with great spaces between. . .,” as if the choosing of estrangement were a dignity or virtue in the environment of the Great Basin. Maybe it is.


Tree Rings by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Trees as Maps

You might think of maps as trees or trees as maps, and you might ask what is revealed and what is concealed.

Dendrochronologists also speak of tree lines in these mountains. They inventory tree rings of one particular species, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Very few trees of interest to scientists grow round in shape or ring themselves with living tissue. Scientists speak of “frost rings,” where the flesh of the living tree, the cambium, has shattered in sudden cold during the growing season. You might imagine that these tree rings map trails of change as climate varies, year after year, and variations have their own patterns, no doubt.

There are built trails here, too—one is called “the Discovery Trail,” where most of the photographers set up their tripods. Maps are texts. Texts of empire.

Trees are named—so many trees, so few names! Such an arrogance in naming (or even numbering) even these few trees that catch someone’s fancy, trees that have lived for thousands of years. An arrogance or a weakness that requires mnemonic aid.

How many of these trees live in the Great Basin? How many of these trees grow as old as we imagine them to be? They are not our children or our pets. Their locations are determined not by our maps but by the conditions under which they have grown. There are so many of them. and they are so artfully or craftily dispersed among the limestone ridges.

To see them or even to walk among them seems to create them. But this is not true. The trees say where to go.