Tag: Environment


Industrial Materials

by Barron Bixler

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

I began photographing California’s sprawling network of mines, pits, quarries, and materials-processing plants a decade before the Mars Curiosity rover touched down in Gale Crater in August 2012. Until then, my sense of the project I call Industrial Materials: Mining California was wholly terrestrial and specifically Californian.

At first, I was drawn to these landscapes by their terraformed brutalism, which seemed at odds with the California imaginary. But the deeper I dug, the more I came to see how quintessentially Californian they are. The incalculable volume of minerals extracted from our mountaintops and riverbeds has been refashioned into the very infrastructure that has paved the way for California’s growth. For instance, detritus washed downstream by disastrous hydraulic gold mining operations in the 1850s was used to build Sacramento, San Francisco, and the Sacramento River levee system. Limestone mined by the Monolith Cement Company in what is now Tehachapi provided the raw material for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Mt. Slover in Colton—once the tallest mountain in San Bernardino County and now a whitish-grey lump of limestone with an American flag stuck on top—became many of the freeways, urban highrises, and sprawling suburbs that today are icons of Southern California and the new American West. Through this project, I have discovered that while tons of ink has been spilled trying to pin down the ephemeral nature of the California spirit, to understand California’s corporeal body you need only regard a pile of unassuming white boulders blasted out of a mountain of limestone.

When Curiosity began beaming back images of the surface of Mars to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August 2012, the meaning of the project changed for me. I thought to myself just how much like Mars my pictures of denuded mining landscapes looked, and how Curiosity, in its many Martian selfies, resembled the hulking machines that have been used to dismantle and scrape bare the California landscape. A part of me was comforted to see novel photographic evidence of a sister planet with a recognizable, Earthlike geology. But another part—the part that has an affinity for dystopian sci-fi stories—was unsettled. Given that our drive to create world-altering technologies is outpacing our ability to mitigate their consequences, I thought, how long will it be before California comes more closely to resemble the surface of Mars?


Dry Season

by Matt Black

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Like the weather, what’s news comes and goes. As a documentary photographer whose work has focused on California’s Central Valley for more than twenty years, I’ve become accustomed to the whims and sometimes fickle span of public attention. But the drought has broken through. Legions of reporters and photographers from all over the world have been dispatched to the Valley’s small towns and farm fields. Communities I have worked in for years have become headline material.

Of course, the drought is news. The world’s richest farming region may seem on the verge of collapse as groundwater levels plummet, towns go dry, and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland stand empty. But the Central Valley’s water supply has been declining for decades, and droughts have come and gone for as long as anyone can recall. The question is, whether this one is really different. Is this the mega-drought that finally turns the Golden State a permanent shade of brown?

On the ground, glimpses of apocalypse can certainly be seen. But the Central Valley is complicated, and its stories rarely check tidy boxes. Its contradictions and rough-hewn realities routinely confound even the most well-crafted narratives. The story of the drought is no different.

After decades of being ignored, a moment or two on center stage feels good in the Central Valley, even if some of the questions make us squirm. Like the neglected child in the back of the class, the Valley appreciates attention when it can get it, but deeper issues remain. A wet winter or two might erase this drought, but decades of declining resources, collapsing infrastructure, dirty air, and entrenched poverty will take longer to correct. When will we talk about those?

Sinamon lives in a makeshift home she built in a vacant lot just feet beyond Fresno city limits.

A dead almond orchard. Los Banos, California.

A shepherd’s camp in Mendota, California. Raul’s water for drinking, bathing and cooking comes from this 55-gallon drum.

Flea market. Tulare, California.

A man out of water. Alpaugh, California.

An almond harvesting machine leaves a trail of dust. Firebaugh, California.

A man whose well went dry. Farmersville, California.

Children at home. Alpaugh, California.

Fallowed tomato fields. Corcoran, California.


The Great Thirst

by Jon Christensen

A critical appreciation of Norris Hundley, Jr.

In the 2009 preface to the new edition of his book Water and the West, Norris Hundley, Jr. wrote: “Water is today, as it was when the first edition of this book appeared thirty-five years ago, among mankind’s greatest concerns, a problem that remains a crisis of worldwide importance. Scientists, statesmen, environmental groups, and people everywhere recognize that water is a resource not to be taken for granted. Even those areas with considerable water are struggling with pollution and problems of management that worsen yearly as population grows and industry and agriculture expand.”


“No area of the world is more aware of the current water crisis than western America,” he asserted, “a vast arid and semiarid region embracing nearly half the continent of North America. Except for a strip along the north Pacific coast and isolated areas in the high mountains, the West is a region of sparse rainfall and few rivers. The implications of these facts of geography have been enormous. From the time of the first settlers to the present, few westerners have failed to comprehend that control of the West’s water means control of the West itself—its industry, agriculture, population distribution, and, withal, the direction of the future. Because the West has always had a water problem, its experiences provide valuable insights into the crises faced by other water-shy areas; and they also offer a preview of the even more serious problems that must involve the entire nation and the rest of the world as population grows.”

A Dutch photojournalist recently visited my office to talk about “disputed waters.” That’s actually the title of a project he is working on with colleagues—journalists, photographers, and videographers—around the world. They’re exploring stories about transboundary rivers—the Nile, the Mekong, the Jordan, the Danube and Rhine, and the Colorado—rivers that are a source of conflict because of climate change and increasing populations of people dependent on their waters. They’re working on a multimedia website, a book, and a traveling exhibition.

I’ve written about water in the American West for going on thirty years, and I did my best to help him, knowing all along that the person he really should have been talking to is no longer with us. But his books are.

If you’re like me, you probably have people you feel like you know through their work, although you’ve never gotten to know them in person. I wish I had had the opportunity to get to know Norris Hundley in person before he died in 2013. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had not just the opportunity, but the necessity of getting to know him through his work. Because you cannot claim to care about understanding water in California and the broader American West—and, I daresay, understanding the state and region as a whole—without knowing the work of Norris Hundley, Jr. And there is, I believe, no way to read and know his work without getting to know a great deal about the man.

So I’d like to share with you what it is like to know a great historian through his great work.

Let’s start with the boundary waters the Dutch journalist was interested in, since that is where Norris started. (Because I feel as though I have come to know him through his work, I’d like to call him Norris here.)

dividingNorris’s first book, Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy Between the United States and Mexico, came out of his dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles, and it was published by UC Press in 1966. We historians treasure objects that give us a feeling for a particular time and place. I have an inscribed copy that looks and feels and, I like to think, even has the smell of a small, personal, scholarly library of someone, I imagine, who loved Southern California and the West, but also wanted to understand it critically, to be a part of it. It is a book I like to think I might have found in my grandfather’s home in Pasadena when we came to visit when I was just a kid in the sixties. He owned and ran Vroman’s bookstore with his cousins. I’d sit on the floor there and pull books off the shelf and read. But what I remember more is my grandfather’s personal library stuffed with books about California and the West.

Looking back, I realize I’m letting time slip. Norris’s book would have been brand new then, not the copy I now hold in my hands nearly fifty years later. Although this book is burnished by time, it still speaks to me now of our history, of this moment even, and of the man who wrote it.

“This has been a difficult book to write,” Norris states in the preface, “not only because the subject matter is often technical, but also because it deals with events that were—and still are—highly controversial.”

Note that “still are” remains true today.

He continued: “The great need for water in the arid southwestern United States and northern Mexico understandably prompted sharp conflicts between the countries as well as among the citizens within each country. For this reason, objectivity on the part of participants in the story has been almost impossible to find, and, obviously, it has not been easy—and sometimes has been impossible—to determine which side had the stronger case on a particular domestic or international issue. Nevertheless, judgments have been rendered where it was thought possible, and I candidly admit that some of them will not please everyone.”

There it is: the clear voice of the historian, aware that his sources come with strong points of view, to say the least, and aware that while he has done his best to practice objectivity—be faithful to his sources and present their arguments fairly, even as a debate of vital importance to his own region continued to rage around him—the historian has a point of view too, and will render judgment, openly inviting continuing debate.

Norris concluded Dividing the Waters with these words: “The United States and Mexico have made significant headway in the nearly century-long battle over their border streams, and, hopefully, their record of successes and failures will benefit other nations faced with similar problems. But any benefits that have been achieved should not be marred by neglecting to solve newer points of controversy.”

Here we have, in his first book, what I think of as the Norris Hundley point of view: broad-minded—he’s thinking about other places in the world facing similar challenges that might benefit from his history; fair about the progress, that “significant headway,” that had been made in the face of all kinds of problems; and aware of the challenges ahead—in the sentence before this conclusion he pointed to two of them: water quality and the vagueness of treaty provisions regarding the meaning of “extraordinary drought”—words that have an eerie resonance today.

Water and the Westwaterwest

Dividing the Waters examined the history of three rivers shared by Mexico and the United States: the Rio Bravo del Norte or Rio Grande, the Colorado, and the much smaller, but still very complicated Tijuana River. In his next book, Water and the West: The Colorado River and the Politics of Water in the American West, Norris took hold of the most vexing river’s history and wrestled it to the ground, mostly. I say “mostly,” because he would return to this history again and again.

“This book is about the greatest conflict over water in the American West,” he wrote. “To be more precise, it is primarily a book about an alleged peace treaty, the Colorado River Compact. But like most books about peace, it is really an account of war. No bullets were fired in this war, yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake. The Colorado River drains the entire left-hand corner of the continental United States. It is not a particularly heavy-flowing stream (ranking about sixth among the nation’s major rivers), but it is virtually the sole dependable water supply for an area of 244,000 square miles, including parts of seven western states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California—and Mexico. Its influence is also felt far beyond its own watershed, for its waters have been diverted hundreds of miles and used to stimulate and sustain the urban, industrial, and agricultural growth of other areas such as eastern Colorado, western Utah, and the coastal plain of Southern California, a vast megalopolis stretching from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.”

I’ve come to wonder what Norris really thought about Los Angeles, which he called “the West’s most notorious water hustler.” I would have liked to talk with him about what seems, from his writing, to have become something of a love-hate relationship with this city and the role it has played in shaping California and the American West.

Norris was born in Texas, but California became his home from a young age. He met his wife Carol at San Gabriel Mission High; they fell in love and were married a year before Norris graduated from Whittier College in 1958. After receiving his Ph.D. in History in 1963 from UCLA, he taught at the University of Houston for a year before returning to UCLA, where he would spend his entire, enormously productive career, a career that helped shape not just the history of water in the West, but several other fields, as an advisor, mentor, colleague, and editor of the Pacific Historical Review for three decades.

In Water and the West, Norris worked several important veins in Western history. First, he put the Colorado River Compact in the context of federalism: “the attempt,” as he wrote, “of the Colorado River Basin states to work out their shared destiny in concert with the government in Washington. The attempt has been dogged almost from the start by conflicting notions of sovereignty, as each side has sought to assert its supremacy in areas jealously coveted by the other.”

In Western history, we sometimes say that the modern American West is a child of the federal government. You know the trope: the college student revels in the freedom, but still emails the parents to “send money.” As Norris wrote of his own work, “a prominent theme is the western desire to tap into federal largesse without incurring federal control.” But, as he noted, “the attempt to get the purse without the purse strings proved an impossible task” in the creation of the compact, as well as in a host of other projects that required the federal government to help build the American West.

The second vein that Norris continued to work in Water and the West was international. “Mexico is present in the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote, “though denied participation in the compact negotiations. Another international dimension,” though beyond the scope of his book, he continued, “emerges from a realization that other countries (most notably Egypt, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Jordan) have looked to the compact for insights into the handling of their own water problems.”

Norris was well aware of what we now like to call the “transnational” dimensions of much of our history. The compact, he wrote, was “the first and most significant treaty of its kind, and one that has inspired a host of similar pacts.” The history of the American West, as he wrote it, is not a history of exceptionalism, a history told in isolation. It is a history tied to world.

There was one more significant prospect that Norris opened up in Water and the West, which would continue to shape his work. Historians had tended to see the conflict over water from the Colorado River, and other water conflicts in the West, “in simplistic terms,” he wrote, “in which advocates of cheap public power battled with the monopolistic forces of private industry—the ‘power trust.’ There was such a battle,” he continued, “but public agencies—federal, state, local, and municipal—also battled among themselves, as revealed in the conflicts among groups such as the city of Los Angeles, the state of Arizona, the Interior Department, and powerful chartered agencies such as the Imperial Irrigation District and the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association.”

It’s not for nothing that we often talk of western water wars. What Norris showed is that at times this looked not so much like the imperial, all-knowing conquest of a hydraulic society in the American West, but instead like a chaotic war of all against all, in which, as he wrote, “no bullets were fired,” “yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake.” Or, what we might just call democracy, messy democracy, a theme to which Norris would return, again and again.

A reviewer in the Western Political Quarterly, called Water and the West “vivid…. A well-documented case study of how not to go about making public policy.”

We’re taught to resist the temptation of responding to reviewers, at least in print, but I like to imagine Norris, in private, saying something like “perhaps the worst way of going about making public policy on the Colorado River, except for all those other ways that were tried before the compact.”

Which is not to say that Norris was not critical of the compact. He was very critical of the compact, from its foundation on lousy data, which estimated average river flows based on a series of the wettest years on record, to the way apportionment was mandated, which guaranteed that upper-basin states would have to deliver flows to the lower-basin states even during dry years, to the lawsuits that resulted, and the ways in which the compact has limited innovation.

Norris Hundley, as far as I can tell from reading his work, resisted simplification, which is not the same as clarity, I hasten to add. His prose was clear and direct, even as he waded into some of the most complex situations imaginable—and water in the West is nothing if not complex.

In his next book, The Great Thirst, a magnum opus for those of who know and love and hope to understand California, Norris fully integrated two more complexities in this history: Native American water rights and the environment. The first, he had already begun to explore in Water and the West, as tribal rights to water figured in Arizona v. California, the key Supreme Court case that settled compact claims in the lower basin, although, as Norris showed, the decision was based on a misreading of the historical record. Moreover, while the Supreme Court could decree peace, it could not end water wars in the West.

“‘Basin of Contention’ would be an apt name for what generations have called the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote in a new epilogue to Water and the West in 2009. “A limited supply of water in a vast arid and semiarid region is hardly a recipe for tranquility among those who covet that water. The drafters of the compact were clearly aware of that truism, but they nonetheless failed to determine with reasonable accuracy the long-term annual flow of the Colorado River…. They had a glaring need for sound information, but no concerted effort was made to call on the scientific community for help. The drafters were mesmerized by their desire for haste and their political and personal goals. Without authoritative information, they had an opportunity to pick and choose information that best suited their interests and uncertainties—and that is what they did. The situation would not change significantly until others recognized and studied the importance of tree-ring data—data that revealed a distinct pattern, going back centuries, of severe and lengthy droughts, and the probability that this pattern will continue in the future. The consequences of the compact remain with us.”

In that epilogue, Norris pointed to other issues that would continue to complicate water in the West: the threat of global warming, endangered species, a resurgence of Native American water rights claims, and here in California, the fate of the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the proposal formerly known as the peripheral canal. “As I write this, no one knows when the current imbroglio—which involves much more than a peripheral canal—will end,” Norris concluded in 2009. “But if the past is any clue to the future, there are years of arguing and grumbling ahead.”

The Great Thirst

thirstThe Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History would have been the achievement of a lifetime for any historian. But Norris wrote it not just once but twice. The first version was published in 1992 and instantly became the definitive history of water in California. In 2001, Norris significantly revised the book.

“Even this edition cannot pretend to have the last word on such a complex topic characterized by both fast-breaking and ponderously slow developments,” he wrote. “Such is the fate of any attempt foolish enough to try to keep abreast of history as it is being made. An impossible task, of course, and it is further complicated because water issues are so closely intertwined with the core elements of California’s (and the American West’s) political, economic, legal, and cultural evolution.”

The Great Thirst is a great book, the kind of book that can be written only by a someone in the full confidence of his powers as a historian and a writer, knowing his subject backward and forward, and guided by a vision informed by a lifetime of research, enriched by arguments with his sources, other scholars, and even himself, and based on a foundation of caring, dare I say, love.

Because it’s clear to this reader that Norris Hundley loved California, even as he kept a sharp, critical eye on “the nation’s preeminent water seeker,” or as he modified that in The Great Thirst, “collection of water seekers.” Norris was nothing if not precise in his prose and in his arguments and ideas.

The Great Thirst is guided, much more than his earlier books, by a concern with what he called “the dynamic interplay between human values and what human beings do to the waterscape.” This is no longer a kind of political and diplomatic history brought to the realm of water wars along the United States-Mexico border and on the Colorado River. To be sure, it still has that solid, detailed grounding in politics, economics, and the law, but The Great Thirst is also about a cultural collective. It is, as the subtitle says, a history of “Californians and water.”

This story runs from California before Europeans arrived right up to the twenty-first century. It chronicles the appearance of what Norris called “a new kind of social imperialist whose goal was to acquire the water of others and prosper at their expense, a goal that catapulted California into a modern colossus while also producing monumental conflicts and social costs. At the same time,” he wrote, “this is a story of extraordinary feats of fulfilling basic social needs, in which communities mobilized and focused their political energies on providing abundant clear water to multitudes of people who expressly wanted it done.”

Here Norris took precise aim in an internecine skirmish among historians in these larger western water wars. You know the saying: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Well, there is another great book, by a friend of mine, a great historian too, Donald Worster, called Rivers of Empire, which argues that our western American hydraulic societies created, as Norris wrote, “a powerful, highly centralized, and despotic ruling elite like that found in the irrigation society of Karl Wittfogel’s classic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power.”

“The evidence presented here does not reveal” that, Norris argued. And here, I think, as much as I love Don Worster, Norris Hundley does not miss:

“Rather, the California record discloses a wide and often confused and crosscutting range of interest groups and bureaucrats, both public and private, who accomplish what they do as a result of shifting alliances and despite frequent disputes among themselves. Because of their multiplicity of interests, different combinations of them at different times and for different reasons worked vigorously on behalf of particular projects, but each success brought more growth, which intensified hostility and the competition for supplies always perceived as inadequate. Thus, conflict, rivalry, and localism have permeated the development process, exacerbating the human and environmental costs, with the public, until recently, cheerleading with ballots and in other ways the aqueducts, dams, and reservoirs. There is, of course, some system and order to what has been accomplished, but it is found in attitudes toward the environment, in local and regional considerations (especially California’s traditional north-south rivalry), in interest-group pressures, in the give-and-take of political battle, and it is understood within the larger context of American political culture and policy-making and in the ways in which the national culture resonates in California.”

In the view that Norris gives us, we can no longer blame our predicament on despotic elites. To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Or as Norris writes: “When viewed from both local and national perspectives, California’s water achievements have resulted ultimately from the support and encouragement of the people, who have considered themselves participants in a booming economy made possible by great hydraulic projects. These projects have included the ambitious flood control, reclamation, and irrigation programs of the late nineteenth century; the twentieth-century urban aqueducts to the Owens Valley, Mono Basin, and Hetch Hetchy; the massive federal multipurpose ventures pioneered nationally in the Boulder Canyon Project and replicated in the Central Valley Project; and California’s own State Water Project, the largest public enterprise ever undertaken by a state.”

But, but, and here is the key, turning in the lock:

“Just as the electorate has sanctioned these ventures,” Norris writes, “so too have the people of California begun to register second thoughts, especially over the last several decades. Spiraling costs, runaway urbanization, gridlocked streets and highways, environmental damage, a decline in the quality of life, heavy public expense in the exorbitant subsidies to agriculture, inefficient and wasteful water practices, the persistence of poor working conditions for those laboring in California’s fields—all have contributed to mounting demands for reform.”

Norris knew these reforms were “piecemeal, fitful, and frequently more symbolic than real,” but he believed in reform. He also believed, after years of studying the successes and failures on the border, on the Colorado, and in California, that “the lack of informed and consistent leadership in Sacramento and Washington” did not augur well for the state he loved. In a move that mystified Don Worster, who thought that centralization of power was the root of all evil in water, Norris even argued that we need to centralize more control of water at the state level in order to get better management of water statewide. It was a conclusion drawn from deep knowledge about this “collection of water seekers” called California. It makes sense. We are beginning to see that happen in Sacramento, though still in fits and starts, of course. I know I shouldn’t say this as a historian, but some things never change.

“No one has ever argued that democracy is a perfect form of government,” Norris dryly observed as he brought The Great Thirst to a close. In fact, far from perfect, as his life’s work had shown, when it came to water in California and the American West.

I didn’t know Norris Hundley. I wish I had. I would have liked to talk with him about all of this, but also about something that many of us don’t talk about much outside of our profession: his theory of history. Every historian has one, even if they don’t think they do. The best, like Norris, don’t wear it on their sleeves.

I like to try to teach my students to understand and even develop their own theory of history, particularly if they are not going to go on to become historians (if they do, they’ll have plenty of time for that; but for some of my students, my class may be their only chance). I reveal to them my own theory of history as we work through a class I’ve called “Climate Change in the West: A History of the Future,” though it can also be set in California, or even Los Angeles. We work through books like Norris’s, filled with the messy particulars of nations, states, institutions, policies, laws, economy, cultures, rocks and soils, plants and animals, and groups and individuals. We think about the structures of these things, how they endure and are reproduced by all of us as we go about our daily lives, but also how they change because of contingency—things happen, the St. Francis Dam fails, Arizona wins a key decision in the Supreme Court, the Peripheral Canal is voted down, the Mono Lake Committee prevails on the public trust doctrine—and because of agency, people have power to make things happen, especially in a democracy.

That’s what I want the future engineers and lawyers, politicians and environmental advocates, scientists and teachers to take away from my class. I want them to understand the constraints that have been created by our history of transforming California’s landscape, the limitations of politics and institutions, the ways in which power reproduces itself and makes it difficult to change. I also want them to understand the ways things change, as Norris wrote, in ways that are often at the same time “ponderously slow” and “fast-breaking.”

I have a feeling, from reading his work and listening to colleagues talk about his teaching, that Norris and I might have had some good, long conversations about all of this. And I miss them.

To my ear, Norris always had a small-d democratic voice, a small-p progressive voice. A pragmatic, reformist voice. A moral voice. From the beginning to the end. As I read through his life’s work, I hear that voice growing steadily stronger through the years, gaining clarity, confidence, authority, and passion.

It is a voice that represents the very best of our profession. It is a voice that has a strong point of view but nevertheless follows the careful practices of objectivity. It is a popular voice that is accessible to all, judicious in its use of evidence, fair in its presentation of all arguments, and generous in its humanity.

This is a voice our state and our world needs. It is a voice that is missing from our public square today, but a voice that is still here in these books, for others to take up and bring into the world, to do work in the world. I am glad Norris Hundley, Jr. is still with us in his work.


Image at top by Robert Couse-Baker, via Flickr.



The Man Who Helped Save the Bay by Trying to Destroy It

by Charles Wollenberg

A critical appreciation

In 1961 three remarkable women—Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Ester Gulick— started Save the Bay, a grassroots citizens’ movement to preserve and protect San Francisco Bay. It turned out to be one of the most successful efforts at environmental activism in American history. As University of California, Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker has observed, the movement transformed the popular vision of the bay from a “place of production and circulation of goods and people… of no more aesthetic or spiritual import than today’s freeways” to a “vast scenic, recreational, and ecological open space.” New public policies ended bay fill, promoted the restoration of marshes and wetlands, and opened hundreds of miles of bay shoreline to the public. The bay became “the visual centerpiece of the metropolis, a watery commons for the region, and a source of pride to Bay Area residents.”1

Yet the dramatic achievements of the Save the Bay movement in the 1960s would not have been possible without the defeat of the Reber Plan in the 1950s. John Reber’s proposal to build two giant dams to transform most of the San Francisco Bay into two freshwater lakes would have destroyed the estuary as we know it. Had Reber’s dream come true, there would have been no bay to save. The Reber Plan also became a crucial and lasting symbolic inspiration for the movement to save the bay. Although the history of the Save the Bay movement is well documented, the rise and fall of the Reber Plan is less well known today. Almost entirely forgotten is the personal story of John Reber, a remarkable figure in Bay Area history who seemed to combine the ambition of Robert Moses, New York’s larger-than-life master planner, with the personality and personal frustrations of Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.2

Via Flickr user Anika Erdmann.

Via Flickr user Anika Erdmann.

When twenty-year-old John Reber came to California from his native Ohio in 1907, he planned to become a teacher. But he couldn’t resist the siren call of show business and instead became an actor, director, and writer. He wrote screenplays for Mack Sennet comedies. (Reber said his method was to write tragedies and then “throw in a couple of custard pies” for laughs.) For two decades, he made a good living writing and directing plays and pageants in communities up and down California. Local service clubs such as the Elks usually sponsored the productions, which featured townspeople in the cast. Reber estimated he staged more than 300 performances in sixty towns and cities with local casts of 100 to 5,000 people. This put him in contact with “all the best people,” influential men and women who might later support his bay plan. Senator and former Governor Hiram Johnson said Reber knew more people than anyone else in California. Reber believed his show business experience prepared him to create his grand plan. “What is master planning but stage managing an area?” he asked. According to Reber, the implementation of the plan would be “the greatest pageant on earth.”3

Reber argued the bay was “a geographic mistake,” interfering with the efficient operation of the surrounding metropolis. Because of the bay, the transcontinental railroad ended in Oakland instead of its natural destination, San Francisco. Reber initially favored an earthen causeway to bring the rails directly into the city. But as he traveled around California and learned of the extraordinary value of freshwater to the state’s development, his plan became far more ambitious. By 1929 his proposal included two large earth-filled dams, one located just south of the current Bay Bridge and the other at the approximate location of today’s Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. While the tops of the structures would serve as transportation corridors for rail and auto traffic, the dams would also block saltwater intrusion into both the north and south bays, creating two massive freshwater lakes. Under the Reber Plan, only about 15 percent of the present bay would have remained subject to ocean tides. Reber estimated the lakes would store about 10 million acre-feet of water, more than twice the capacity of Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir. The water would have been available for residential and industrial use around the bay and for irrigation in regional agricultural areas such as the Santa Clara Valley.4

The Reber Plan also proposed massive amounts of new bay fill, creating about 20,000 acres of additional dry land on what was once wetlands and open water. The largest fill would have been off the Richmond, Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville shoreline. The plan envisioned a twelve-mile freshwater channel through these new lands, linking the two lakes and allowing runoff from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to circulate in both the north and south waterways. The plan included locks to allow shipping to pass from salt water to freshwater. Reber added features as time went on: additional port facilities, an aqueduct to transport water to the San Joaquin Valley, an airport, a regional transportation terminal, and a high-speed military freeway connecting the Bay Area to Los Angeles. As World War II approached, Reber planned new military elements, including naval bases on filled land along the Marin County shoreline and secure hangars and fuel storage facilities in caves created by the excavation of fill for construction of the earthen dams. Later Reber promoted the proposed transportation corridors as evacuation routes in the event of atomic attack.5 During its nearly thirty years of design and debate, the Reber Plan was an organic document, changing to reflect new circumstances and political realities. But the transportation links and the freshwater lakes remained the key elements of John Reber’s grand vision.

The Reber Plan, via Flickr user Eric Fischer.

The Reber Plan, via Flickr user Eric Fischer.

Reber belonged to a generation of Americans who had great faith in massive public works. Beginning with the construction of the transcontinental railroad, an enterprise heavily subsidized by the federal government, such projects dramatically affected California’s economic and social development. As early as the 1880s, state engineers studied the concept of saltwater barriers on San Francisco Bay, and in the early twentieth century, a barrier at Carquinez Strait was championed by Contra Costa County business interests concerned about high saltwater content that interfered with industrial processes. Contra Costa industrialists eventually formed the Salt Water Barrier Association to lobby state officials. But by the early 1930s, state engineers had convinced Contra Costa County that the solution to its problem was not a saltwater barrier, but a vast state water project that included high upstream dams on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, combined with freshwater pumped from the delta.6 In 1933, California voters approved a bond issue to support the proposal. When the Depression made it difficult for the state to sell the bonds, Washington, D.C. took control of what became the federal Central Valley Project.

Reber initially proposed his plan in the inauspicious year of 1929. Not only was 1929 the beginning of the Great Depression, it coincided with the state engineers’ decision to reject barriers as a solution for Bay Area water problems. In addition, Reber’s plan surfaced as both San Francisco and the East Bay were building public aqueducts to bring Sierra Nevada water to Bay Area cities. Reber’s transportation proposals were upstaged by construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Yet in an age of great public works projects that routinely transformed natural systems, Reber’s plan continued to attract attention and support. In 1933, a prominent member of the Elks Club arranged a meeting between Reber and former president Herbert Hoover, who had returned to Stanford University after being defeated for reelection by Franklin Roosevelt. A world-class engineer before going into politics, Hoover proclaimed the Reber Plan “the most complete proposal for the bay.” Hoover’s endorsement gave the project significant credibility and publicity. In 1935, Reber retired from show business to promote the plan full-time. In 1940, he put a model of the proposal on display at the world’s fair on Treasure Island, giving his grand scheme unparalleled public exposure. By 1940, then, the Reber Plan was well launched. For the next two decades it was a matter of intense discussion and debate in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and even Washington, D.C.7

Reber devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to promoting his dream. He had little interest in personal wealth. Supported by savings and contributions from his entourage of “Reberites,” he and his wife lived frugally in a modest San Francisco home. He had almost no staff support, turning out a vast amount of correspondence and other paperwork on his home typewriter. Reber was an unusually friendly man, almost always on a first-name basis with supporters and opponents alike. He loved public attention and was willing to talk to any audience, from local garden clubs, service groups, church gatherings, and chambers of commerce, to statewide meetings of business, labor, and farm organizations. Over the course of more than two decades, he claimed to have given more than a thousand speeches on behalf of the plan. He’d arrive at such events with an impressive array of maps and charts and would lace his presentations with homespun humor. His appearances before legislative committees were often tours de force, with Reber the performer dominating the session.8

But for all his public relations skills, John Reber desperately needed technical credibility. Although he studied the dozens of scholarly papers and reports that seemed to fill every available tabletop in his home, Reber was a high school graduate with no formal engineering training. His ability to gain the support of professional engineers was crucial to his success. Herbert Hoover was the first but not the last of such supporters. Philip G. Bruton, a retired general from the Army Corps of Engineers, became one of Reber’s strongest advocates. Probably the most important of Reber’s supporting engineers was Leon H. Nishkian. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Nishkian headed a distinguished San Francisco engineering firm that participated in many of the state’s most important construction projects. Beginning in 1940, he worked diligently and without compensation on behalf of the Reber Plan. He prepared engineering schematics and illustrations and came up with a highly favorable cost/benefit analysis. Nishkian submitted written testimony to government agencies and lent his considerable professional reputation to the cause. Due at least in part to Nishkian’s influence, The California Engineer, a respected professional journal, concluded that “competent engineers have examined the project closely and feel that it is entirely feasible.” According to Reber, Nishkian’s untimely death in 1947 was “the blow of blows.”9

San Francisco business and political forces were among the powerful interests that rallied behind the plan, believing it would have provided increased regional transportation access to the city’s downtown and, in theory at least, an unlimited supply of freshwater. The central waterfront, the heart of the city’s commercial port, would have remained open to salt water with easy access to the Golden Gate, the only Bay Area port facility with this advantage under the Reber Plan. In 1942, the city’s board of supervisors formally supported the plan, a position enthusiastically backed by Mayor Angelo Rossi. San Francisco’s legislative representatives, including influential assemblyman Thomas Maloney, lobbied for the proposal in Sacramento. Much of the city’s press, particularly the San Francisco Chronicle, also supported the Reber Plan.10

But Oakland and most of the East Bay took a very different position. The Port of Oakland had grown steadily in the 1920s and 1930s, but under the Reber Plan, Oakland’s harbor would have been isolated behind a dam. Oceangoing vessels would have had access only through locks located on the filled land off the Berkeley waterfront. (Much the same was true for the ports of Richmond, Stockton, and Sacramento located behind the northern dam.) Irving Kahn, a prominent Oakland retailer and president of the city’s Downtown Property Association, condemned the Reber Plan as “Hitler Tactics,” a plot by San Francisco to keep Oakland in an inferior competitive position “just because you are bigger than we are.” Both the Oakland City Council and Alameda County Board of Supervisors opposed the plan. James McElroy, president of the Oakland port commission, argued the plan would destroy maritime activity in the East Bay. “There is no reason,” he said, “for taking the bay and chopping it into a pond.”11

California farmers were among the Reber Plan’s strongest supporters. The state’s Farm Bureau Federation backed the proposal, and its Bay Area affiliates, such as the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, were especially enthusiastic. Santa Clara Valley fruit and vegetable growers, like many Bay Area and Central Valley farmers, expected to gain access to cheap irrigation water pumped from the new lakes. One of Reber’s most enthusiastic backers was John E. Pickett, editor of The California Farmer and The Pacific Rural Press, two San Francisco–based publications with substantial agribusiness readership. The California Farmer became “a rabid oracle of Reberism,” while the Rural Press referred to the plan as “the greatest project ever conceived.” Pickett eventually became president of the San Francisco Bay Project, a nonprofit corporation established to provide John Reber with financial and organizational support. However, agricultural backing was not unanimous. Many delta farmers feared that during intense winter storms the water backed up behind the northern dam would overwhelm delta levies and flood the region’s fields.12

Reber hoped that World War II would increase support for his proposal. He added significant military infrastructure to the plan and argued that the new lakes would provide a secure water supply in case of attack. But Rear Admiral John W. Greenslade, commandant of the Twelfth Naval District, pointed out that the plan would put most of the Bay Area’s naval installations, including the Alameda Naval Air Station and the Mare Island and Hunters Point Naval Shipyards, in freshwater lakes behind the dams. Ships would have to pass through locks, causing “delay and risk to every vessel including danger of a complete blockade.” Admiral Greenslade concluded the Reber Plan “has no merit.”

Reber simply dismissed this, as he did virtually every other criticism. “We are not interested in people unable to grasp what we are driving at,” he said. “We don’t argue with people who are against us, because we know they will be with us eventually.” With Greenslade, at least, that turned out to be the case. After the admiral retired at the end of the war, he had an extraordinary change of heart and became one of Reber’s most prestigious supporters. However, this changed neither the Navy’s nor the Army’s official opposition to the.plan.13

The establishment of a “Joint Army-Navy Board on Additional Crossing of San Francisco Bay” in 1946 gave the Reberites another chance to gain military support. Only a decade old, the Bay Bridge already was experiencing traffic jams. Any new bridge or other trans-bay link required military approval. Reber offered his proposed south bay dam as an obvious answer. Designed to be 2,000 feet wide, it could accommodate thirty-two lanes of auto traffic, in addition to both transcontinental and interurban rail lines. Reber and Nishkian called for the board to approve at least the southern portion of the Reber Plan as part of the solution to the region’s transportation problems.

But after the war, the state of California turned against the Reber Plan, as momentum turned toward a major water project in the Central Valley. State Engineer Edward Hyatt and chairman A.M. Barton of the State Board of Reclamation both testified against the Reber/Nishkian proposal. Carl Schedler, a distinguished consulting engineer who had once been the president of the Contra Costa County Salt Water Barrier Association, also emerged as a formidable opponent. He challenged Nishkian’s optimistic financial projections and argued the plan posed a threat to delta agriculture. While the Army-Navy Board finally concluded that additional bay crossings were needed, it went out of its way to reject the Reber Plan. According to the board, Reber’s proposal “would result in a dislocation of industry, is considered economically unfeasible, and further is untenable from the standpoint of navigation and national interests.”14

If opponents thought that this strong language would deter Reber and his supporters, they were mistaken. In 1949 California Senator Sheridan Downey brought a subcommittee of the US Senate Committee on Public Works to San Francisco to hold public hearings on Reber’s proposal. Downey was sympathetic to the plan, and supporters outnumbered opponents five-to-one on the list of witnesses. John Reber was the first to testify, entertaining the room for more than two hours in response to Downey’s friendly questions. Emphasizing the importance of hydraulic planning, Reber claimed “there was only one man who could live without water and that was W.C. Fields.” When a senator corrected one of Reber’s many biblical quotations, Reber replied, “I do the work and Mrs. Reber does the praying.” After making his usual strong pitch for the transportation and water elements of the plan, Reber discussed the recreational aspects, promising shoreline parks and “the greatest fishing hole in the world.” He admitted the plan might threaten the bay’s sturgeon fishery, but said “if we can get on friendly terms with Stalin…we can get a few eggs from the Volga River and replenish our supply.”15

After Reber’s testimony, San Francisco Bay Project president John Pickett orchestrated the appearance of dozens of additional supporting witnesses, including San Francisco Recreation Department director Josephine Randall, who strongly commended the plan’s recreational components.16 But opponents, though seriously outnumbered, also had their say. Glen Woodruff, an engineer representing Oakland, said the plan would put his city “at a very decided disadvantage competitively.” State Engineer Hyatt repeated his agency’s opposition, and for the first time was joined by representatives of the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Both state and federal witnesses argued that proper management and expansion of the Central Valley Project would secure California’s water future far better than the Reber Plan. Carl Schedler listed a number of technical difficulties, among them the possibility that there would not be enough freshwater to keep the lakes full during the dry summer months. If lake level fell substantially below that of the remaining bay, operation of the locks would dump salt water back into the lakes. The Bureau of Reclamation feared that that the Central Valley Project would be required to divert water from farms and cities to keep the lakes above the saltwater level of the bay. In effect, the opponents argued the plan would create rather than alleviate a water shortage. Nevertheless, the subcommittee concluded that the proposal had promise and deserved further research. In 1950, Congress appropriated $2.5 million to support a comprehensive Army Corps of Engineers study of the Reber Plan.17


The Bay Model, via Flickr user Wayne Hsieh.

The Bay Model, via Flickr user Wayne Hsieh.

The Corps took thirteen years to complete the study, due in part to delays caused by the Korean War and other priorities. But the congressional appropriation was a victory for Reber and his supporters, and it attracted national attention. In November 1950, The Saturday Evening Post, the nation’s most popular weekly magazine, featured an article on the plan, comparing it in scope to Hoover Dam. The author, Frank J. Taylor, said that because of Reber’s advocacy, the proposal had gone from “a harebrained idea to a project backed by an impressive array of engineering brains.” Taylor described “Old Reber,” then sixty-two-years-old, as a compact, blue-eyed man in perpetual motion. He was “spry as a cricket,” “nimble as a goat,” “bouncing from office to office, to meetings, to public hearings,” always selling his plan. The article closed with Reber’s prediction: “We could be pumping freshwater out of the bay in two years.”18

In many respects, the Saturday Evening Post article was the high-water mark for the Reber Plan. Over the next five years, various agencies and branches of state government issued studies that were uniformly critical of the proposal. In 1949, the Assembly Committee on Tidelands Reclamation and Development commissioned John Savage, a well-regarded Denver engineer, to carry out the first independent professional study of the plan. Savage’s findings, released in 1951, were devastating. He confirmed that there was not enough water to keep the lakes full in the summer and too much water to avoid delta flooding in the winter. He also found that the lakes would become seriously polluted, particularly in the dry summer months. Savage pointed out that the Reber Plan would destroy several bay industries, including salt production and commercial fishing. He concluded that the plan was physically possible but “neither functionally nor economically feasible.” Savage’s conclusions were supported by the report of Cornelius Biemond, the water director of metropolitan Amsterdam, who was commissioned by the state legislature to study California’s hydraulic problems in 1953. Biemond estimated the true cost of the Reber Plan was $1.4 billion, not the $250 million figure used by Reber. In 1955, a state board of consultants, composed of five experienced engineers, said that while the Reber Plan “intended to foster industrial expansion, it would actually be most disruptive…. It would transform a great natural harbor into an artificial bottleneck.”19

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that John Reber took these setbacks “with a smile.” He replied at length to the critical reports in the newspaper’s This World weekly magazine. But instead of directly countering most of the technical points contained in the reports, Reber simply repeated the familiar arguments that he had been making for more than two decades. In effect, he claimed that the technical criticisms could not be valid because the plan was endorsed by distinguished engineers such as the late Leon Nishkian. Reber concluded that his plan was “a must” if the Bay Area was to increase its regional population from the current three million to a projected twenty-one million in the twenty-first century. A Chronicle editorial argued that the state reports should not be accepted as the last word, but the newspaper’s editors admitted the documents had an “impressive air of finality.”20

In fact, the plan never recovered from the combined impact of the state studies. By the mid-1950s, Reber was in poor health, suffering from severe asthma. But he gamely carried on, maintaining his public optimism. After one hospital visit, he told reporters, “I had a talk with the Lord. He told me I have five more years. And I’ m going to see the start of construction on the Reber Plan.” But it was not to be. On 16 October 1960, John Reber died at the age of 73. The Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner covered his death as a front page story. Even the New York Times printed a substantial obituary.21

During the last years of his life, Reber and his supporters pinned their remaining hopes on the much-delayed Army Corps of Engineers study. If it found the Reber Plan desirable and viable, they thought, the study would more than offset the damaging conclusions of the previous state reports. In 1957, the Corps built a giant hydraulic bay model on the Sausalito waterfront to study the proposal. It covered an acre and a half and was located in a large building that had once been the warehouse of Marinship, a World War II era shipyard. In 1960, researchers began running simulations of the Reber Plan on the model. The results confirmed some of the most discouraging findings of the state studies. The Corps of Engineers research report, published in 1963, concluded that the plan was “infeasible by any frame of reference.”22 This was the final nail in the coffin. The Reber Plan was dead, laid to rest three years after the passing of John Reber himself.

The Reber Plan was not killed by environmental opposition. It was defeated by the powerful interests it threatened and experts who believed it wouldn’t work. Neither the San Francisco–based Sierra Club nor any other mainline conservation organization took a position on Reber’s proposal. When the Save the Bay campaign began in 1961, Sierra Club executive director David Brower said his organization had other priorities. Preservation of pristine wilderness was more important than saving a gritty waterway surrounded by a heavily populated metropolitan region. The established conservation groups became actively involved only after Save the Bay generated considerable popular support. In 1965, just two years after the final defeat of the Reber Plan, the California legislature passed the McAteer Petris Act, establishing the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). The new agency had authority to regulate land use along the bayshore and establish a plan to guide future bay conservation and development policy. Four years later, Governor Ronald Reagan signed legislation approving BCDC’s permanent Bay Plan, a document that included powerful environmental protections for the estuary.23

Close up of the Bay Model via Flickr user Erik Ogan.

Close up of the Bay Model via Flickr user Erik Ogan.

The establishment of BCDC and the approval of its ambitious plan were major victories for the Save the Bay movement. That movement was in turn a reflection of the new environmental consciousness that was part of the larger process of social and cultural change in the sixties. Save the Bay, initially an effort to protect the estuary from further land fill, evolved into a broad campaign to preserve and restore San Francisco Bay as a natural ecosystem. By contrast, the effort to defeat the Reber Plan was part of an argument over how best to use and exploit San Francisco Bay as a natural resource. If the Reber Plan had succeeded, there would have been no bay to preserve. The engineers, business leaders, military officers, bureaucrats, and politicians who opposed the Reber Plan made the subsequent Save the Bay movement possible. Without realizing it, they were Act I in the play to save the bay, an act that paved the way for a cultural re-envisioning of the bay that was as dramatic in its own terms as the physical transformation proposed by John Reber. While Reber’s dream is long dead, and the Reber Plan only resurfaces from time to time as a symbol of what might have been, the dreams and aspirations of the Save the Bay activists thrived and remain powerful today.



1 Richard A. Walker, The Country in the City: the Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 110–111.

2 Matthew Morse Booker says the Reber Plan “could have been perhaps the greatest calamity ever to befall the bay.” Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 219.

3 San Francisco Chronicle, 17 October 1960; San Francisco Examiner, 17 October 1960; Frank J. Taylor, “They Want to Rebuild the Bay,” Saturday Evening Post, 18 November 1950, 32–33.

4John Reber, “San Francisco Bay Project—the Reber Plan,” Leon Nishkian Papers re: the Reber Plan, (hereafter cited as Nishkian Papers), box 2:2; David R. Long, “Mistaken Identity: Putting the John Reber Plan for the San Francisco Bay Area into Historical Context,” American Cities and Towns: Historical Perspective, Joseph F. Bishel, ed. (Pittsburgh: Dusquense University Press, 1992), 129–130; Philip J. Dreyfus, Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 152.

5 W. Turrentine Jackson and Alan M. Paterson, The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: The Evolution and Implementation of Water Policy (Davis: California Water Resources Center, 1977), 63–65; Dreyfus, 155.

6 Alan M. Paterson, “The Great Fresh Water Panacea: Salt Water Barrier Proposals for San Francisco Bay,” Arizona and the West (Winter 1980), 308–314.

7 Catherine Way, “Reber’s Dam Folly,” California Living Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner, 29 July 1984, 18; Paterson, 317; Dreyfus, 155.

8 Taylor, 33, 156; Jackson and Paterson, 65.

9 Dan Cameron, “The Reber Plan,” California Engineer (December 1947), 8–9, 26; Dreyfus, 157–158; Jackson and Paterson, 67; Nishkian to Roger Lapham, mayor of San Francisco, 25 October 1944; Nishkian to Honorable Earl Warren, 4 December 1946; Nishkian to R.S. Clelland, Acting Regional Director US Bureau of Reclamation, 10 October 1945, Nishkian Papers, box 1:2.

10 Chronicle, 17 August 1946; Paterson, 317; Dreyfus, 155.

11 Chronicle, 25 April 1942; Oakland Tribune, 25 April 1942.

12 California Farmer, 5 April 1952; Pacific Rural Press, 27 September 1947; Jackson and Paterson, 65; Dreyfus, 156.

13 District Staff Headquarters 12th Naval District to Board of Supervisors City and County of San Francisco, 1942, Nishkian Papers, box 1:2; Taylor, 158; Dreyfus, 156–157.

14 L.H. Nishkian, “Report on the Reber Plan and Bay Land Crossing to the Joint Army-Navy Board, “ 12–15 August 1946, Nishkian Papers, box 2:1; “Report of Joint Army-Navy Board on Additional Crossing of San Francisco Bay” (Presidio of San Francisco, 1947), 5–6, 57, 68–81.

15 Needs of the San Francisco Bay Area, California, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Public Works, United State Senate, December 8–16, 1949 (hereafter cited as Hearings) (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1950), 4–33; Taylor, 156.

16 Hearings, 42–106.

17Hearings, 164–232, 240–255; C.W. Schedler, “Comments on the Reber Plan Prepared for Senator Downey at the Hearings of the Public Works Committee,” (San Francisco, 1949), 1–24.

18Taylor, 32–34, 156–158.

19 California State Assembly, First Report of the Interim Fact-Finding Committee on Tideland Reclamation and Development in Northern California, Related to Traffic Problem and Relief of Congestion on Transbay Crossings (Sacramento, 1949), 23–25, 27; John L. Savage, Report on Development of the San Francisco Bay Region (San Francisco, 1951), 1–2, 24–78; Jackson and Paterson, 67–69.

20 Chronicle, 30 March 1955, 31 March 1955, 29 May 1955.

21 Chronicle, 17 October 1960; Examiner, 17 October 1960; New York Times, 17 October 1960.

22 US Army Engineer District San Francisco, Comprehensive Survey of San Francisco Bay and Tributaries Technical Report on Barriers, (San Francisco, 1963); Way, 19; Dreyfus, 163. In this era of computer simulations, the Bay Model is no longer used for research, but the Corps of Engineers still operates it for educational purposes with an attractive visitor center.

23 Mel Scott, The San Francisco Bay Area, a Metropolis in Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 315–317; Walker, 113–116; Booker, 165. In 2007, BCDC briefly studied and then rejected the idea of a saltwater barrier at the Golden Gate to protect the bay from sea level rise due to global warming. San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, “Analysis of a Tidal Barrier at the Golden Gate,” (San Francisco, 2007), 1–10.



Reading the Drought

Official California has finally gotten serious about the drought. With hopes for an El Niño-assisted recovery well and truly dashed, Jerry Brown announced California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions on April 1. But we, like so many others in California, have been worried about water and drought for much longer.

Water runs through Boom almost every quarter. To get a feel for how California has been living with and thinking about the drought, spend a little time in the Boom archive. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find, with contributions from geographers and futurists, open data evangelists and photographers, designers and more:

From Children of the Drought:

“This summer we sent young reporters from New America Media’s youth-led community projects out on assignment to capture, in photographs, how the drought has affected their Central Valley communities. The photos they sent back were striking in a most unexpected way: they didn’t include any people. So we sent them out again, this time with the suggestion that they include people in their pictures. Yet even as those pictures rolled in, we came to see a deeper meaning in what young people were capturing with their lenses. For them, the drought was not so much about people but about the land itself. The truth is that while Californians have continued to more or less live their lives—washing their cars, taking showers, running through their sprinklers on a hot summer day—it is the land itself that, at least visually, has borne the brunt of the drought.”


From Myth of a Desert Metropolis:

“That Los Angeles is a “desert city” is, in large part, a myth. Writers have chipped away at the myth of the desert metropolis before.5,6,7 Here my objective is not simply to dispel the myth but to explore the history that underlies the mythology and to consider its potential for becoming true—because sometimes myths have a strange way of becoming true. Could we, through our own actions, be transforming the myth of desert LA into a self-fulfilling prophecy? It turns out, we have in fact gone a long way down that road.”

Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photography by Glen MacDonald.

Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photography by Glen MacDonald.


From What Use is the Future:

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


From A New Water Atlas:


“Another abiding mystery in California’s waterscape is groundwater, which is our second New California Water Atlas project. Groundwater usage has never been fully regulated in California. The state of our overused groundwater aquifers has never been fully understood. Our underground aquifers are connected to surface water, and many are being pumped out at rates faster than they are recharged by water percolating back into the ground. This causes the ground to sink, heavy metal levels to increase, the water table gets lower and lower, and streams dry up. But despite potentially disastrous implications, we have no clear picture of our groundwater levels, and no way to understand the practical realities of our groundwater system for all of the watersheds of California. We will create the map that will change that. Working with scientists, governments, coders, designers, writers, community health and environmental organizations, and water users, we will bring in as much real-time data as we can gather to produce an interactive map of where groundwater is in California, how much there is, and where trouble spots are.”


From A More Absorbent Landscape:

“Water scarcity presents a profound challenge and opportunity for designers of the built environment. The questions reach beyond, where do we get more water? And how do we make do with less? Or even how do we build margins of water security into our cities or restore damaged ecoystems in our source ranges and valleys? These are critical questions engaging vast fields of engineers, economists, environmentalists, and policymakers. But the answers do not all lie in policy or technology. For designers, the questions are physical, spatial, qualitative, and experiential—fully vested in the knowledge that space and place matter. How do we craft cities and buildings that consciously and visibly mitigate, anticipate, and even celebrate, hydrologic variability? How would architectural systems, building codes, and zoning laws have to change? What shape would neighborhoods, architecture, and the urban experience take if design fully recognized and exploited the challenges of water scarcity?”



A shepherd opens his pasture's gate. Coalinga, California.

A shepherd opens his pasture’s gate. Coalinga, California.

From Cal-20:

“Using measures of health, education, and income—the Human Development Index—this dusty stretch of agricultural land and small farmworker towns ranks dead last among the nation’s 435 congressional districts. This hidden pocket of poverty is so deep that it surpasses even the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia in terms of pure human suffering: about 640,000 of the most desperate lives in America, just a few hundred miles up the highway from the opulent Hollywood Hills.

Although the average farmworker in Cal-20 makes just $10,000 per year, the district’s approximately 5,000 square miles encompass some of the richest farmland in the world. This is far from an impoverished land despite the intense poverty of its residents: its fields produce everything from tomatoes and cotton to lettuce and pistachios, fueling the engine of California’s $38.4 billion agricultural industry and lining the pockets of some of the state’s largest and richest landowners.”


From The Giant and the Waterbaby:

“In their oral traditions, Paiutes told an ethnohistory of water and water rights in Owens Valley, which detailed the destructive consequences of economic change and offered a critique of historical changes in the Valley. Seen in the context of a struggle over water and culture, these stories enable us to see ways in which Paiutes re-envisioned their past and made it usable for contemporary political struggles, providing a snapshot of Paiute interpretations of past, present, and future.

Other histories of the Owens Valley Water Wars have treated Paiutes as bit players, something akin to the background that the Alabama Hills offers for movies. Paiutes were not scenery to the story; they were central to the Water Wars, which threatened the very core of Paiute life. The stories tell us that small, seemingly powerless people can slay the giant and tickle Rattlesnake. Perhaps nothing is more valuable than these oral traditions as a tool for understanding Paiute history, politics, and culture, or as a guide to assist modern-day Paiutes in future struggles for natural resources.”

Owens Lake. Photograph by Alan Levine.

Owens Lake. Photograph by Alan Levine.



Image at top by Alyssa Castro, from Children of the Drought.



What Comes Next

by Annalee Newitz

Imagining California’s future in the Pacific world

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

San Francisco Archipelego by Burrito Justice.

California is going to mutate dramatically over the next hundred years. Climate changes and cultural transformations will alter its landscapes and populations—perhaps beyond recognition to people living here today. A century ago, the state lured immigrants from around the world, who knew it only as a sunny image stamped on orange crates or, as a seaside paradise in Hollywood movies. Of course those pretty pictures covered up the state’s ugly history of xenophobia and atrocious labor practices in the fields and on the railroads. And that history is still with us, feeding into today’s conflicts over gentrification, racism in the criminal justice system, rampant sexism in the tech industry, and underpaid work for the underemployed in the service sector.

The question facing us now is where Californians will take our state in the future. We are shaping the state with the decisions we make today, whether in our everyday lives, in boardrooms, or in urban policies. In this gallery you see many visions of what direction the state might take, from a dystopian hellhole of scarcity and labor exploitation to a sustainable civilization of green urban designs. There are dreamy visions of Aztec-influenced cyborgs and anarchist collectives. There are ambivalent portraits of cities gone mad with consumer culture and class division. And, of course, there is a map of San Francisco’s new archipelago, created by the inevitable rising waters of a warmer world.

The future is emerging all around us. It’s up to you which direction we will go.

Still from Sleep Dealer (2008), about Mexicans hired to do day labor via telepresence rigs that plug into their nervous systems.

Bleak Gas Station by Jorem. © Jorem www.joremdesign.com.

Los Angeles as depicted in Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two by by Ulises Farinas.


Domador de robots by Raul Cruz.

Cover of Popular Science by Stephan Martiniere.


What Use Is the Future?

by Alex Steffen

The Boom interview

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

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

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

© Justus Stewart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom: But we like the California we had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom: I remember it well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Market Street Railway mural and photographs by Mona Caron.

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


Port of Call

by Robert Gottlieb

On becoming China’s entrepôt

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Start with a doll—a Barbie, say, although it could be an Apple computer or iPhone, a cotton shirt or denim jeans, a clove of garlic or a bottle of wine, dog food or toothpaste. From manufacturing centers in China, to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the huge warehouses in the Inland Empire, and then to a big box store in Chicago or Kansas City, Barbie’s journey is emblematic of what is sometimes called “the global trade and goods-movement system.” And it reveals how Los Angeles’s relationship to China has changed in the past century.

Rather than being at the center of a Pacific Rim periphery, Los Angeles is now an entrepôt in a global system with China at is center. This system for the movement of goods has also brought bad effects—especially pollution—to Los Angeles communities. At the same time, it has spurred a movement for environmental justice and cleanup that is now reaching back across the Pacific to China.

Today, 80 percent of the world’s toys are produced in China, primarily in Guangdong province in the Pearl River Delta in Southern China. Mattel, which produces Barbie, has dozens of suppliers in Guangdong, including the city of Shenzhen, which has grown from a small fishing village to a metropolis of ten million. The major players shaping the goods-movement system are the ship owners (who transport the goods across the ocean) and the large end users (who sell the goods). They have developed a strategic connection to the producers (those who make the goods), the port owners and managers (who bring in and send out the goods), and the rail, truck, and warehouse companies (who take the goods from the ports, repackage them, and send them to their final destination).

Over the last three decades, this system has become a central economic driver and a huge community and environmental burden for Los Angeles. It has also made Los Angeles something of an appendage to China. China, in that same period of time, has strengthened its role as the world’s factory and export powerhouse. At the same time, China has become one of the most polluted countries in the world.

At each stage of the doll’s journey, there are impacts. They begin at one of the Shenzhen factories where different parts have been assembled from other factories and subcontractors in Southern China or from other countries in Asia. Once assembled, the doll continues its journey from manufacturing facility to a port, whether the port at Shenzhen, third largest in the world, or the nearby port at Hong Kong, the fourth largest in the world. Packed in containers, the dolls, along with the computers, iPads, T-shirts, and hundreds of other goods, are loaded onto a giant container ship, vessels owned by some of the largest ocean vessel companies in the world. Most of the ships still run on bunker fuel, a grade of fuel lower than diesel and even more polluting. Absent strikes, fires, or other disruptions, it takes about a day (but sometimes quite a bit longer if there’s congestion) to unload all the containers from ships that arrive at the Port of Los Angeles or the adjacent Port of Long Beach and then reload containers heading back to China (although not all containers are reloaded for their return journey, given United States-China trade imbalances). A crane lifts each container off the ship, placing it onto a truck. The truck hauls the container (with the dolls inside) to a rail facility where it is reloaded onto a train, powered by diesel-fueled locomotives. The train then travels to one of Southern California’s giant inland ports, where the container is moved to another truck, which takes it to a huge distribution center further inland, and another truck ultimately hauls Barbie to the big box store where she will be sold.

These endpoint retailers, such as Walmart or Target, are also key players in the goods movement/supply chain system. Thousands of trucks operate throughout the country along this supply chain, from ports to retail stores; Walmart alone has a fleet of more than fifty-three thousand trucks. Many trucks are operated by independent owner operators, many of them undocumented immigrants, who work long hours with small compensation, while the large trucking companies often lease the trucks and assign deliveries, which further fragments the trucker workforce.

Environmental, public health, workplace, and community impacts arise along this entire system, especially from the diesel pollution resulting from this pattern of moving goods. The diesel emissions can in turn contribute to such health impacts as asthma, reduced lung development in children, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and premature death. Community environmental sacrifice zones have been created in the process, almost all low-income immigrant communities adjacent to the ports, the rail and truck routes, and the warehouse complexes.

This elaborate goods-movement system has significantly expanded during the past several decades. According to port officials, international trade increased nearly thirty times at West Coast ports since the 1970s, with a far more phenomenal growth in Chinese ports such as Shanghai, which has become the largest port complex in the world. Today, the links between Los Angeles and China resemble the dreams promoted by the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s of establishing a “Pacific Littoral” that would stretch from LA to Asia—but reversed. Los Angeles was supposed be the center not an entrepôt in “a maritime world economy” with China at its center.

Clarence Matson, the long time head of the LA Harbor Department, in a 1935 book about the history of the LA port, spoke of the “westward march of empire and civilization which is now reaching its climax on the eastern shores of the Pacific with Los Angeles as its apex.” This focus on Pacific trade expanded after World War II, with interest in new global trade opportunities and investments by American businesses and government officials spurred by talk of a new Pacific Rim constellation of players. When interest in promoting US exports and increasing imports further developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, delegations from LA would continually travel to various Asian ports, including Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila, Tokyo, and Singapore, to highlight the changes that were increasing their port’s capacity and to look for new trade opportunities. By the early 1980s, LA Mayor Tom Bradley had emerged as the major champion for LA port expansion and increased trade, with a strong focus on Asia, and especially the emerging power of China. The growth in international trade from the Pacific picked up considerably in the 1980s and 1990s and exploded even further in the new century with the huge volume of exports now entering the United States from China.

Celebrating this expansion in trade, Bradley would proudly proclaim that LA had positioned itself as the “gateway city for the Pacific Rim.” The ports of LA and Long Beach embarked on massive expansions of their facilities, which included increased cooperation (as well as continuing competition) between the two ports in anticipation of increased trade and to accommodate the largest container ships, which could not fit through the Panama Canal. Periodic efforts were made at anticipating future growth, which led to further changes in port operations and facility developments.

Changes included building new terminals on existing vacant land, redeveloping and expanding existing container terminals, deepening waterside berths, building a bridge replacement to accommodate more goods-movement traffic, and constructing a major rail corridor, the Alameda Corridor, a $2.4 billion, twenty-four mile rail link from the port to the huge railyards and intermodal facilities situated in the low income communities to the south and east of downtown Los Angeles. There were also plans to expand the Interstate 710 freeway, the primary route for the thousands of trucks entering to and from the ports, with the freeway passing through the same neighborhoods that were located next to the large intermodal facilities. At the eastern edge of the Southern California region, in the Inland Empire, massive new warehouses and intermodal facilities (some one to two million square feet or larger) were being constructed or expanded to establish Southern California’s “inland ports,” designed to move goods inland from (and to) the ports, often by rail, to be repackaged and then transferred to their final inland destinations.

Today, the Port of Los Angeles is the busiest container port in the United States, while its neighbor to the south, the Port of Long Beach, is the nation’s second busiest. Together, the two ports constitute by far the largest port facility complex in the United States and the ninth largest (when combined) in the world. The Port of Los Angeles encompasses 7,500 acres, including twenty-four passenger and cargo terminals, on-dock intermodal facilities, and railyards. The Port of Long Beach resides on 3,200 acres and includes twenty-two terminals, ten piers, and eighty cargo berths that handle nearly five thousand vessel calls a year, as well as on dock rail facilities, with more than six million containers passing through the port. About 40 percent of the nation’s imports come through these two ports, and they are the primary destination for goods from China, establishing a new version of the old Pacific trade routes. Policy makers in both Los Angeles and Long Beach have heralded the economic value of the ports and logistics industries, proclaiming that they are the economic drivers and job creators in the region, and that a double and even triple expansion of the ports is poised to occur in the next two decades.

The combination of these developments has led policy makers to talk of a logistics industry revolution in the Los Angeles region, with huge transportation, land use, and environmental impacts identified as side issues, at most. Supporters of this goods-movement sector characterize it as a win-win for the region—good for the ports and the logistics industries such as warehousing and trucking and the railroads; good for other sectors of the Los Angeles regional economy and for the global economy; and good for consumers who buy cheap imported goods. If there are concerns for its boosters, it has more to do with competition from the newly expanding ports in the southern and eastern coasts of the United States—ports and regions eagerly awaiting a new enlargement of the Panama Canal’s capacity. This projected expansion, designed to accommodate the largest container ships, has spurred a frenzy of new expansion in eastern seaboard ports such as Jacksonville, Savannah, Miami, Gulfport, New York, and New Jersey. In addition, the Panama Canal expansion is seen as a major boost for the export of natural gas from the United States, thanks to huge increases in production due to advanced technologies such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

For the communities in the path of this logistics revolution, win-win could better be characterized as lose-lose. Beginning about thirteen years ago, community groups, along with environmental and academic allies, began to identify the enormous negative impacts this system generates. This includes the emissions from the ships, cranes, trucks, railroads, highways and high traffic roadways, as well as the twenty-four-hour bright lights, noise pollution, and land-use impacts.

The core community and residential health and environmental concern has been the diesel emissions that occur along each of these pathways. It is this concern that has led some community residents to describe their neighborhoods as “diesel death zones.” Diesel is considered a mobile source air toxic by the US Environmental Protection Agency. In California, diesel exhaust has been regulated as a toxic air contaminant since 1998, based on more than thirty studies showing that worker exposure to diesel exhaust is linked to lung cancer and other health effects. In 2012, pointing to cumulative research, the International Agency for Cancer Research, a part of the World Health Organization, identified diesel as carcinogenic to humans, based on evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.

The concern over diesel is also linked to the pollution associated with heavy truck traffic and congested high-traffic roads that affect nearby residences, schools, playgrounds, and other community gathering places. As in many other regions in the United States, land-use decisions in Southern California have resulted in homes, schools, and even parks being located near highways, and highways later being expanded so they end up even closer to homes. For example, sixty-five schools are located within one mile of the I-710 freeway with its huge goods-movement-related truck traffic, and there are more than 600,000 residents (including 212,000 under eighteen) who live within 1,500 meters of that same freeway. People living that close to the highway also have higher poverty rates and include a larger proportion of people of color than Los Angeles County as a whole.

It is due to this web of impacts through the goods-movement system that the oppositional movements took root. In 2001, scientists at the University of Southern California hosted a conference on air pollution and invited a number of environmental justice groups in the region to hear the findings of the scientists, including groups located in heavily affected neighborhoods adjacent to the goods-movement corridors. Scientists at USC were in the midst of a longitudinal study of air pollution, with a focus on children’s health, and had begun to map air pollution hot spots. While discussing the problem of exposure to particulate matter and diesel exhaust, several community members spoke of the health, community, and environmental issues in their neighborhoods.

Toward the end of the conference, Jesse Marquez, a resident of the low-income community of Wilmington adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles, rattled off a series of anecdotes about people in his neighborhood facing serious health problems. “The ships at the port are not even regulated for their impacts, yet we face the consequences every day,” Marquez told the assembled scientists. “Of course it’s regulated,” the scientists replied, less knowledgeable about how the goods-movement system operated. The scientists soon discovered that Marquez was right, suggesting that community experiences and knowledge were also critical in helping frame the research. As it turned out, already by the time of the conference in 2001, several of the community groups had linked up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to contest a port expansion project involving a major Chinese shipping company. As these and additional partnerships began to be formed, they set out to change the nature of the debate and challenge policy makers to begin to address community, health, and environmental issues as part of their goods-movement policy agenda.

The community groups were linked to an evolving environmental justice framework. Based in low income, predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhoods, the focus on goods-movement represented not just the classic environmental justice argument about the toxic burdens in such communities, but a strong desire to have residents help create more livable places, underlining the environmental justice argument that environmental advocacy is about the places where people live, work, play, eat, and go to school. What became especially compelling about this place-based focus was the understanding that their struggle was at once local and global. China was also on their agenda, as linkages have begun to be pursued with community and environmental advocates in Hong Kong and China who are addressing some of the same types of pollution and “sacrifice zones” on the other side of the Pacific.

Labor groups also became engaged in these issues. There are substantial numbers of people employed in the goods-movement system, including those represented by a strong and historically significant union at the ports (the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) as well as those not represented and often exploited and subject to some of the same environmental and health impacts as the community residents, including independent truck drivers and warehouse workers (many of them undocumented immigrants).

One of the first organizing and policy battles involved the fight over dockside ship emissions, specifically plans for a major Chinese shipping company to occupy a $650 million 174-acre terminal to be built by the Port of Los Angeles. The terminal would house as many as 9,100 containers for the China Shipping Holding Company, larger than any at the time. It would also include ten massive cranes, up to sixteen stories high to unload the containers. Yet the site was just five hundred feet from homes and would involve new roads to accommodate the anticipated huge increase in truck traffic.

These plans immediately generated community opposition. For one, the ships that would be docked at the port were likely to keep their engines running until containers could be unloaded. Dockside diesel-related emissions for just a single vessel at berth could include as much as one ton of nitrogen oxide and nearly one hundred pounds of particulates each day before the unloading took place. Given the issues involved, the community groups immediately went into action and convinced NRDC to bring suit against the port to stop the completion of the new terminal until an agreement could be reached with the community groups. After losing in district court, NRDC appealed and won a major decision at the appellate court level. As a result, the port (and the City of Los Angeles) decided to settle in order to avoid a lengthy court battle whose outcome was not assured.

The results of the agreement, known as the China Shipping settlement, were impressive. On the one hand, China Shipping agreed that its ships would use “cold ironing,” a long-standing technology used by naval vessels and ferries but never before by container ships. This technology established a simple change: instead of running on diesel power, the ships would plug into an electric source while at berth. In doing so, more than three tons of nitrogen oxide and 350 pounds of diesel particulate matter would be eliminated for each ship that plugged in. The settlement also called for other environmental changes at the terminal, including the use of dock tractors that could run on cleaner, alternative fuels instead of diesel, shorter cranes, and ultimately a shift toward cleaner marine fuels once their feasibility had been evaluated. A community mitigation fund was also established, including incentives to replace diesel-powered trucks, air quality mitigation measures, and community improvements.

The China Shipping agreement turned out to be the opening effort to address future expansion plans and produce environmental changes in current as well as future port operations. The community groups also gave notice that additional expansion of port projects that would increase emissions would likely be challenged. This included expansion of existing terminals, one of which involved an expansion from 176 acres to 243 acres and reconfiguring of roadways to accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic. Once again a lawsuit was filed and a settlement was reached out of court. This included, notably, a $50 million port community mitigation fund to be administered by a community and environmental board; $3.5 million for parks and open space, installation of air purification and sound proofing in the nearby public elementary schools and residents’ homes, new health services resources and research on health and land use impacts, and potential wetlands restoration projects in Wilmington and San Pedro.

The settlement was concluded in the midst of a lengthy and contentious policy process where the community and environmental groups, with their research, legal, and labor partners sought to establish an overarching plan to guide the environmental change, impacts on communities, and additional issues related to truck emissions and the conditions faced by drivers. It resulted in an overarching clean air action plan adopted in 2006 and a subsequent clean trucks plan the next year that included both ports, although the Long Beach port eliminated one key provision of the truck plan. In many ways, these plans provided the most substantial changes to date of any port in the United States and for many other ports worldwide. The clean air action plan set significant emission reduction targets—a 45 percent emissions reduction in diesel particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides by the end of 2011 from the baseline year of 2007; a goal that was achieved and even exceeded in part due to reduced ship traffic during the recent recession. Other changes that predated the adoption of the clean air plan or were put in place subsequently included a ship speed reduction plan, the change to electric shore power, a shift to alternative fuels for cargo equipment, including for cranes, and future changes in the fuel sources for incoming ships.

The most impressive—and contentious—of the changes involved a transition toward replacing dirty diesel trucks with less-polluting trucks at the port. This clean trucks plan included replacing and retrofitting approximately sixteen thousand trucks in order to meet federal EPA emissions standards. To achieve these goals, the program featured a $1.6 billion concessionaire model that would require trucking companies who serviced the port to hire truck drivers as employees in return for securing transport contracts with the port. These new employees would replace the heavily exploited system of independent contractors, the tranqueros, who resided at the economic margins and would find the truck replacement costs nearly impossible to meet.

The adoption of the clean trucks program marked a path-breaking accomplishment for the community, environmental, and labor networks engaged in bringing about changes at the ports. It represented a major potential reduction in the environmental exposures experienced by both truckers and community residents, and a major benefit for the environment as a whole. It directly addressed the exploitative trucking system put in place with the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s that required independent truck drivers to bear the burden of all maintenance and upkeep for trucks that cost over $100,000, along with port fees and other costs of doing business at the port. Many of the individual truckers who owned and operated their own trucks and needed to compete individually for hauling jobs, were those low income, immigrant truck drivers who netted about $30,000 annually and worked eleven to twelve hour days. The immigration status of the truckers also reinforced the potential for exploitation. Immigration issues have loomed large in relation to port trucking and goods-movement issues. For example, on 1 May 2006, a year prior to the clean trucks plan agreement, 90 percent of all the truck drivers serving the LA port refused to make or pick up their deliveries, in solidarity with a massive immigration rights rally that took place that day. Participation in this action was significantly motivated by an immigration raid at the port two weeks prior that had targeted immigrant truck drivers, leading to several drivers hauled out of their trucks and detained, while their trucks were towed away.

Faced with these changes, the goods-movement industries, led by the trucking companies and the big box retailers have fought back, bringing legal challenges and seeking to undermine a key provision of the clean trucks plan, the concessionaire model. With their army of lawyers and deep pockets, and unusual alliances (for example, a Chinese government agreement with the American Legislative Exchange Council to promote fracking and natural gas exports), the community groups continue their battle, securing additional victories amidst various setbacks.

This goods-movement system is just one illustration of the increasing China-Los Angeles links. Los Angeles is an immigrant city—upward of 35 percent of its population are immigrants. Its Chinese population numbers 566,000 according to the 2012 census (the Bay Area is slightly higher at 629,000). One of the new destinations for Chinese immigrants is Monterey Park, which has the largest percentage of Chinese residents (42.7 percent) of any city in the United States. Similarly, Chinese investors have eagerly bought up Los Angeles assets, including commercial and residential real estate and high-end hotels.

But the heart of the Chinese presence in Los Angeles is represented by the goods that arrive and depart from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. For Los Angeles (and for other West Coast ports), the Pacific Littoral has become more of a transfer point than a center for trade, while at the same time increasing the pollution that has for so long plagued Los Angeles. But it is also where the most dynamic community organizing in the country is taking place, seeking to create another notion of what Los Angeles—and perhaps China—could become.


Photographs of shipping containers by Nolan Webb.


Children of the Drought

by Reyna Olaguez

A new generation looks at the land

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

When this part of the lake dried up, it left the boat on sand and brush. Bass Lake, Fresno. Photograph by Faith Her, 13.

This summer we sent young reporters from New America Media’s youth-led community projects out on assignment to capture, in photographs, how the drought has affected their Central Valley communities. The photos they sent back were striking in a most unexpected way: they didn’t include any people. So we sent them out again, this time with the suggestion that they include people in their pictures. Yet even as those pictures rolled in, we came to see a deeper meaning in what young people were capturing with their lenses. For them, the drought was not so much about people but about the land itself. The truth is that while Californians have continued to more or less live their lives—washing their cars, taking showers, running through their sprinklers on a hot summer day—it is the land itself that, at least visually, has borne the brunt of the drought. While water continues to flow for most of us, the land, as these photographs testify, is hurting.

Like many people who grew up in the Central Valley, near Bakersfield, I have fond memories of our beloved Kern River. There is a bike path that runs parallel to the river, and on hot summer days, while walking or biking along the river, it was not uncommon to see whole families floating down the river on inner tubes. When I was in college, my friends and I would meet on the path several times a week to rollerblade.

One hot day, after a few miles of rollerblading, we decided to go in the river. We were unprepared, without a tube or a boat, but as luck would have it we discovered a seemingly abandoned boat on the riverbank. We looked around to see if it belonged to anyone, but there was no one around, so we decided we would take the boat and return it when we were done. We pushed the boat into the water and let the river’s flow take us. We talked about life and laughed, the trees arching over the river occasionally brushed us with their branches. Today, that water is no longer there. The once lush green trees are dying. Families no longer cool off in the river. Only the memories remain.

This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Mize Family Foundation for environmental reporting by youth.

“Due to the drought we have refrained from watering our lawn as an attempt to save water.”— Luis Figueroa and his children, Taft. Photograph by Daniel Jimenez, 21.

“My mom and dad talk about the drought. They worry about it a lot. Sometimes I worry that if it gets worse we’ll run out of water and die.”—Stephanie Gurtel, 12, whose parents work as seasonal manual laborers in Merced. Photograph by Alyssa Castro, 21.

“The grass in my yard is brown. I like the grass when it’s green, but my mom says she doesn’t have water for the grass right now so it’s brown.”—Miley Reyes, 4, Merced. Photograph by Alyssa Castro, 21.

“I remember going swimming more last summer. I haven’t been swimming as much as I wanted to this summer because there’s not enough water. If you have a pool and you want to swim, you have to have water inside the pool.”—Haidyn Reyes, 7. Photograph by Alyssa Castro, 21.

“My brothers and I used to go fishing for crabs in this canal. Now it is completely dry.”—Lizbeth Vazquez, 17, Merced. Photograph by Alyssa Castro, 21.



by Marta Maretich

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Burying my family’s history in Bakersfield.

“Please go away,” the handwritten sign says. “It’s not worth getting a bullet in your ass.” The sign is taped to the wall in the kitchen of the house my family abandoned in Bakersfield.

“I guess they couldn’t read,” my neighbor Mario says and laughs nervously. The house has become a magnet for criminals, a mid-century, ranch-style fortress to be defended by Mario. “Right here’s where I shot through the door.”

He points to a spot on the wall of the front hallway where a spray of buckshot scored the white plaster. The front door itself has been replaced—Mario installed a new one with the same care he’s looked after everything since my father moved away four years ago. He walks me around the side of the house and shows me the old door, leaning up against the side of the garage. The burglars drilled a circular hole around the deadbolt then jimmied the latch with a crowbar. Mario surprised them on the way out and shot at them with both barrels of his shotgun, tearing a ragged hole in the wood at chest-height.

Examining the wreckage, I stand with my neighbor in the weak spring sunshine. It strikes me with a sense of old shame that my family is very bad at cleaning up our own messes.

“What happened to the burglars?” I ask Mario.

Neither of the criminals was badly hurt, he tells me. One “took a little shot” and was arrested. The other got away, running down the street without his shoes. The one they caught got seven years because he had priors. Nothing happened to Mario.

“The police said it was too bad I didn’t kill them,” he says.

I am thinking of all the things inside the house—forty years of my parents’ lives—but then again, not quite that. My mother moved out in the mid-nineties, taking the things she cared about—the art and the antiques she bought with her own money. My father lived there alone until his deteriorating health forced him to move to Oregon to be near my brother. When he left, he took almost nothing with him because he had never cared about houses or their contents. He always said he’d like to live in a tiled room with a drain in the middle to hose it down.

“Is the dump still in the same place?” I ask Mario. I am due back at home in London in two weeks. By that time, the place has to be empty.

“Are you talking about the landfill?” he says.

This change in nomenclature jars me more than it should. When I was planning this trip, I reassured myself that at least I still knew where the dump was. At least I had a starting place for a task I had no idea how I would complete.

Mario sees my face and says immediately, “I’ll help you. Don’t you worry about a thing. We’ll use my truck.”

The cabs of pickup trucks are confessional spaces.

My mission is obvious to everybody I meet on this trip to Bakersfield. People come out of the woodwork to help me, bringing their pickups and their stories. They know my story, so I am free to listen as we go to and from the landfill.

Mario has a ‘58 Chevy pickup he’s owned since high school. It’s metallic blue with the pleasing roundness of trucks from this era, more like a shell than a machine. He rebuilt it himself using parts from the scrap heap when he returned from service in the Vietnam War. “It’s a Frankenstein truck,” he says.

The interior has no seatbelts, but it has a Virgin on the dashboard and a rosary hanging from the rearview. “Sin cinturón, pero con santa,” is my weak joke, one I immediately regret making since I am not a Catholic. Like everything in Mario’s house and garden, the truck is immaculate and runs well.

We pack the bed with the first load: huge black plastic bags full of translucent sheets and rotten food from the kitchen cupboards. My father had walked out leaving everything as it was. We cover the load with a crackling blue tarp, which Mario explains is now a requirement. I feel outraged by this news, more than I should. Covering your load? Despite years of living in European cities and seeing the need for all kinds of civilizing regulations, I am still a Bakersfield girl at heart. I still have a surly reaction when I think some official is telling me what to do.

Instead of going down the main street and turning straight onto Edison Highway, Mario takes a back route which threads through the neighborhoods south of College Avenue. This route, which I will take many more times over the course of the next two weeks, reminds me that our house and Mario’s are set on an important Bakersfield fault line: above College Avenue the neighborhood is prosperous, even rich. The country club is up there, one of the good high schools, the big houses. There is even a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. As if metaphorically, the land slopes upward, leading to better things.

South of College, the slope is distinctly downward. Mario angles the truck through gridded streets of tiny, pimpled stucco houses with penned-in yards, dirt driveways, drifting children, and stray dogs. Eventually, we cross the train tracks and turn east on Edison Highway, heading in the direction of the Tehachapi Mountains. The road runs between vast citrus fields, past the fruit packing sheds with names I know. They look run-down, with their open weighing floors and conveyor belts standing idle. It strikes me that they haven’t changed at all since I was a teenager. Neither has the labor force in the fields. Out in the orchards, I see groups of pickers at work filling crates with orange-green fruit.

“Picking time,” Mario says. “Glad I’m not doing that today.”

That surprises me for some reason. I’ve never really considered Mario’s past, possibly because I met him when I was a child, before I understood that people have pasts. I was twelve when he and his wife, Gracia, and their two children moved in next door, taking over the house from a family of Basque sheep herders.

Mario was a mailman, and in all my early memories of him, he’s dressed in the white pith helmet, sharp blue-gray shorts and short-sleeved shirt of his uniform. I know from my dad that Mario is also a Vietnam veteran. He is very active in Marine Corps veterans’ groups, and he tried hard to involve my father, a veteran of World War II, but with no success.

As we drive, he points out particular fields that he and his family harvested. They came up from Texas originally, first to pick San Joaquin Valley fruit and later to settle. He tells me how he and his five siblings would attend school in the winter and then spend the summer traveling up and down the Valley with their parents, living in camps. They’d go where the work was, up to Fresno, Marysville, or as far as Oregon. It was all families, he tells me, with parents and children of all ages. Even the tiny ones pitched in.

Mario is a fifth-generation American, yet he speaks with a clipped, upward-tending accent that has its roots on the other side of the Mexican border. “Mexican,” in Bakersfield, when I was growing up there, was a purely pejorative term, so much so that even today I can hardly bring myself to use this adjective. I still hear it hissed through the teeth of white people: “Messican.”

I look more carefully at the pickers in the field. Like the packing sheds, they don’t seem to have changed at all. They’re wearing what they have always worn: padded, Pendleton plaid shirts over hooded sweatshirts, hoods pulled up to protect their heads, baseball caps on top of that. They’re a familiar sight to me, but I’d forgotten about them, or maybe I believed that agriculture had moved on in the San Joaquin Valley and there would no longer be any need for them. I almost never see a human being bent double in the fields of England, Germany, Spain, or France. It’s true that some Poles, Romanians, and Roma people still follow the fruit harvest, but in dwindling numbers.

I asked Mario when he stopped picking.

“When I went into the Marine Corps, after high school.”

Mario doesn’t go into detail about his time in Vietnam, not then or at any point during the two weeks he spends helping me clear the house. We work side by side for days at a time—he won’t hear of letting me do this hard job alone. He looked after my father when he was on his own, treating him like a comrade, a platoon mate, bringing him plates of food for every holiday. Now, for my father’s sake, he’s looking after me. He poisoned the rats in the garage before I even knew they were there. He gassed the black widow spiders. His daily help makes what I am doing possible. He’s demonstrating to me the meaning of Semper Fi. Although we talk about a lot of other things, Vietnam is not the conversation Mario will have with someone he still thinks of as a child.

I know the story, though, because he told it to my husband who was also a soldier when he was young. Mario returned from Vietnam wounded, doused with Agent Orange, jungle sick, and decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He also brought back a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. This he does talk about with me because it bears on our situation.

On the way to the landfill, he tells me about his PTSD support group and the counseling he gives to other veterans. He talks eagerly, energetically, like a man describing a beloved hobby or a precious collection. No note of complaint or blame or regret ever creeps into his voice. He is a patriot in the classic mold, with no sense of having been wronged by the US military or being let down by society. As he talks, I begin to feel that he’s trying to make me understand something I may have missed. When I hear him say the burglary put him right back in the theater of war with a gun in his hand and an enemy in front of him, I finally understand: Mario is telling me how close we all came to disaster.

“It was a good thing I only had those two shells with me!” he says.

We are turning onto the frontage road that leads to the landfill. The road curves around a hillside lined with more citrus groves and an old stand of eucalyptus trees. Mario is joking, but now I know what he already knows: if he had had more ammunition, he would have continued shooting until both the burglars were dead.

Gracia, his wife, later told me privately how she had gone out to him after the incident and taken the shotgun out of his hand and hid it where he couldn’t find it. He sat on the steps of our house, she said, shaking, waiting for the police to come, saying he should have done more, saying he should have finished the job.

A friend of mine who lives out of town mobilizes her sister, Laura, who comes down from her ranch in Tehachapi eager to help. She has fine, sun-bleached blonde hair, bright blue, round eyes, and darkly tanned skin. Laura has spent her life crisscrossing the valley floor in her truck, driving between ranches and farms and processing operations, striding around fields and orchards and feedlots. She’s an inspector for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Her truck is midnight blue and serious.

We fill the bed with things from the garage, and I watch Laura sheet it down with a practiced hand, crossing the cord over the top of the tarp, tucking the edges down around the load like a woman making a bed, before finally securing the cord with hooks hidden at points inside the bed of the truck. We climb up into the cab.

Like Mario, Laura avoids the main route and steers the truck through the neighborhood south of College. Her family used to have a house down there, before they moved up the hill, much higher than us, into a perfect fifties’ jewel of a split-level ranch house, the kind of house Rock Hudson might have lived in with Doris Day. My parents’ house is uninhabitable after the break in, so I’m staying there now, with Laura’s parents, in a little guesthouse behind the main house. The family calls it La Casita.

I don’t know Laura that well and feel a little awkward in the privacy of the cab with her. She’s several years older than my friend, her sister, and wasn’t around much when we were young. She went off the rails as a teenager and ended up involved in drugs, living an unimaginable life on the coast in Cayucos. Once, she sold her sister’s horse for drug money, a crime I always thought was the lowest thing I had ever heard of.

Laura turned her life around. She had a child and, with help from her parents, she straightened herself out. Her son is now in his twenties and working as a bomb disposal engineer for the Army. He was living in La Casita until he shipped out to the Gulf. I sleep on the memory foam mattress he bought with the proceeds of his previous job as a bartender in a strip club beside Highway 99.

Laura is a great source of information about everything we see on the way to the landfill and about the landfill itself. She explains the activity we see in the orchards. Every grower wants to get that first, lucrative crop of oranges to the market as soon as possible, she explains, and it’s her job to check that the sugar content and acidity levels are right. If they’re not, the grower has to send the whole pick to juice, or just throw it away, since a bad crop “sours the market.”

I’m amazed at the level of state oversight that goes into oranges. I ask more questions and learn that Laura does a lot of other things, too, from regulating the quality of produce at farmers markets to monitoring the work of slaughterhouses and feedlots in the area. She is knowledgeable about all the agriculture issues of our time: genetically modified crops, migrant labor, sustainability, government subsidies, and the role of huge multinational corporations. Her work puts her in the middle of the Valley’s business, and she likes it.

As she talks, she begins to remind me of her sister, whom I may not get to see on this trip. The tiny fragment of my heart that has never forgiven Laura for the stolen horse slowly gives way to admiration for her.

The changes in the landfill are a measure of how much Bakersfield has moved on—and how much it hasn’t. When I was growing up there in the 1970s, the dump was a series of open heaps at the bottom of the bluffs beside the dry bed of the Kern River. Using it was a simple proposition: you drove up, you shoved whatever it was you didn’t want off the bed of your pickup, and you drove away. There was no charge, no sorting, no regulation that I can remember. Going there felt transgressive, so it was always a treat.

If the packing sheds along Edison Highway are the same as ever, the dump is so radically different now that, once I’ve actually seen it, I can no longer continue to call it “the dump,” which I have stubbornly been insisting on doing because “landfill” seems so euphemistic.

We get a view of the lifecycle of the landfill as we come around the bend. On our right, we pass parts that have already been filled and covered over with a thin skin of valley soil. They form small, soft mountains much like the brown foothills that were here before the landfill arrived. Laura, as knowledgeable about this as she is about everything else, points out the telltale black standpipes and segmented conduits that capture the methane produced by the rotting waste and channel it into underground tanks.

I wonder at the size of these false mountains. This landfill has only been operating since 1992 and already it’s created its own garbage sierra. Its scale testifies to an exploding local population of waste producers: between 1990 and 2013, Bakersfield’s population increased by nearly fifty percent, and it continues to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. The far-sighted planners have engineered the landfill to take it. The site currently occupies 650acres, Laura tells me, but it has capacity to expand to 2285 acres to meet the Valley’s escalating need to dump.

There are booths at the entrance where attentive officials in the dusty brown uniforms of California state employees step out and check our load and ask us pointed questions about where it comes from. Once we’ve passed their scrutiny, it’s still a long drive to the active face of the landfill. The unpaved road curves around the hillside with a long view back to the valley floor. Laura’s truck has the suspension of a trampoline, and we shimmy and glide over ruts caused by city garbage trucks and commercial haulers. We are dumping with the big boys now. On our right, we pass a recycling area where there are different heaps for different materials: plastic (colorful), tires (black), appliances (cubic), garden waste (bushy), and metal (spiky).

“Recycling!” I say to Laura. The sight of it pleases me. Maybe it’s because the heaps remind me of one of those baby toys with different, stimulating textures.

“Oh yeah!” she says. “We have to.” I’m not sure whether she means we have to because of state regulation—Laura is crystal clear on regulation—or because there’s a planetary need.

We come around the bend and descend a slope toward a new terrain. Bulldozers have excavated a wide crater between the hills. As we roll into it, we find it already partially filled with a choppy, confetti-colored sea of trash. A young woman in a high-visibility vest and a hardhat ambles toward us across the crater floor and waves us into a spot beside a commercial truck, which splits in two, tilting its bed to slide a load of unopened boxes full of yogurt drinks onto the heap. Bursting open, they fill the air with the sickly smell of artificial strawberry.

We lower the tailgate of Laura’s truck, unleash the tarp, and start unloading what at home seemed like a shameful amount of rubbish. Here it seems paltry, an embarrassment. The recycling heaps we saw, too, are a joke compared to the epic size of the main landfill. This is not disposal, this is terraforming, not “filling” the land (which doesn’t need filling) but making a new kind of land, a land based on the things we do not want.

Trucks and cars swarm into the crater in a steady flow. They find places near us and disgorge. Some men arrive in a Joad-family-style pickup, its bed extended with uprights and wooden panels, and unload a small, sad houseful of furniture. The bulldozers buzz about, the hosts of this party, organizing our rubbish into new forms. I watch my family’s castoffs becoming part of a future land.

We are 150 miles from the coast, but the landfill is swarming with aggressive seagulls. It’s hard to imagine how the birds found out about this place. Who told them? Thousands wheel and settle on the garbage, keeping up a deafening seaside racket here at the edge of the desert. Every so often a bird-scarer lets rip with a loud explosion and the whole flock takes to the air, white and gray against the cloudless blue sky. I jump every time this happens—it sounds exactly like a rocket launcher to me—and it reminds me of Laura’s son, defusing bombs in the Gulf. If the explosions have the same effect on Laura, she doesn’t mention it.

Larry keeps a loaded revolver on the seat of his truck. It’s in a camouflage holster, a riot of forest green and brown that doesn’t do anything to disguise it against the pale-gray seat covering.

The gun sits there between us as we drive to the landfill. “Larry,” I ask him. “What happens if you get stopped by the police?”

“They don’t say nothin’,” he says, as if he’s already tested this, and smiles. He’s Laura’s dad, and he looks a lot like Laura, with big shiny blue eyes and the sort of white teeth most people have to go to the dentist to buy. He was a pipefitter before he retired, a welder. In my California hippie-punk days, he used to give me his pearl-snap denim workshirts when they were too full of spark holes to be of use to him. I wore them at UC Berkeley where other California hippie-punks offered to buy them off my back.

Larry shouldn’t be helping me. He had thyroid cancer a couple of years ago, and now he has a tumor on his spine, pressing the nerves and causing him leg and back pain. As we drive to the landfill, he is waiting for the results from a biopsy that will tell him if the lump is malignant. He shouldn’t be helping me, but he wants to, because he can see I need his help. Today it’s old shelves and cardboard box files (my father seemed to collect these) and lengths of pipe that we will take to the scrap metal pile. A lifetime of pitching in and lending a hand, the habits of long workdays that began before dawn to avoid the worst of the valley heat, seem ingrained in Larry. He works like an automaton, never sitting down, only pausing to look around for the next thing to pick up and heave into the bed of the truck. He drives a big modern rig similar to Laura’s but painted a subtle fawn color.

On the way to the dump, we talk a little about what’s been happening since I went away. Bakersfield people don’t ever talk about just Bakersfield. They don’t think of the city separately from the surrounding land, because until recently almost everyone made their living directly from the land. Bakersfield people talk about “the Valley” and they are always moving around in it, inhabiting the whole area, not just the city.

Larry is the best example of this restless inhabiting I can think of. His two passions in life are hunting and golf, and both pastimes lock him to the land. The hunting has taken him into every wild corner of the state and earned him a national record for the points and spread of the antlers of a buck he bagged. Behind La Casita, like some high-art assemblage, lesser sets of deer antlers are heaped in a huge brown trashcan. Larry tells me when he was a kid they used to drive over to the coast at San Simeon and jacklight William Randolph Hearst’s zebras.

“Don’t you tell anyone about that,” he says and winks. Looking out the window across the fields, I wonder about the other things Orson Welles left out of Citizen Kane.

But these days Larry doesn’t feel like hunting anymore. Every day he puts out seed for the delicious little ringneck doves that moan and flutter around the fruit trees in his backyard. He still loves golf, though, and plays despite the pain in his legs. His golf bag is the identical camouflage of his pistol holster, so it looks like something that could do double duty. “Sometimes it gets lost in the bushes,” he teases.

The trouble, he tells me, is that “Koreans are buying up all the courses.” At first this sounds far-fetched, maybe a little paranoid, but I quickly realize that it is probably true and not really surprising. A California golf course must seem an attractive investment for a Korean businessman. It’s not that Larry minds the owners being Korean. “I mean, someone’s going to own ‘em,” he says. It’s that they let the fairways turn to dust, the greens scab over, and the clubhouses fall down. To Larry this indicates that the Koreans don’t care about them as golf courses. They have some other purpose in mind for the land. He doesn’t like this, but he accepts it as inevitable. Two things have always been true about Valley land: one is that someone else, someone rich, owns it. The other is that they have plans for it that don’t necessarily include you.

In the second week of my stay, Larry gets the news that his tumor is benign and the mood around the house lightens. He is downright bouncy and even happier to help me haul trash to the landfill, especially on the day I find something sinister in the garage. Packed in a wooden crate, insulated by sawdust, is a gallon of sulfuric acid in a glass jug. I know what it is because there is a little handwritten label on it that says “sulfuric acid.” I have no idea what my father could have been doing with this. I don’t really want to know. My problem is how to get rid of it. When I ask, people just say to take it to the landfill, but I know that even in Bakersfield that can’t be right. It’s my husband back in London who comes up with the answer. After a quick internet search, he directs me to the Kern County hazardous waste disposal site.

Larry has never heard of the place. He’s intrigued and so is Mario, who comes with us when we drive out to the facility. It’s down among the industrial businesses on the east side of Highway 99, an anonymous one story aluminum-clad building surrounded by a wide, asphalt buffer zone. We drive up, and I hop out of the cab, eager to explain why I am bringing them a gallon of sulfuric acid. A man wearing a white hooded jumpsuit stops me and instructs me to get back into the cab. He has a little goatee and looks like a grown-up version of the boys who did environmental sciences at Cal—but his demeanor is as grim and official, as if he were an agent for the FBI. He mobilizes other white-suited workers and carefully they lift the crate of acid from the bed of Larry’s pickup while Larry, Mario, and I exchange what’s-going-on-here looks. Then the men in white suits just wave us away. There is no paperwork to fill out. They don’t take our license number. They don’t even look at our faces. We could have handed over the toxic remains of a meth lab or a barrel of nuclear waste, and they wouldn’t have blinked an eye. I realize that this is the point of the hazardous waste disposal facility.

As soon as we are alone, my best friend, Kris, pulls up her T-shirt to show me her breasts. “Ta-dah!” she cries. One of them is familiar to me from our youth—we often got dressed to go out in the same room and skinny-dipped together in the same pools. The other one I don’t recognize: it has a purple scar running from one side to the other and a nipple that shows signs of being cut out and moved to a new location. Kris pushes down the waistband of her jeans and shows me the other scar. This one bisects the smooth brown skin of her abdomen, side to side. It’s the sort of scar a woman might have if the magician sawing her in half took his job too literally.

This bravado is typical of Kris—when we’re alone. Showing me saves so much time. We don’t have much of it and she has so many things to tell me. When I’m in London, we keep in touch through Facebook. But the things Kris shares with me in private complicate the public posting, the life-affirming snapshot, and for this reason, she asks me not to use her real name when I write about my journey home.

In her posts about her reconstructive surgery, Kris wrote of her “new body” and posed in tight dresses with a big smile, looking beautiful. This was the illusion she wiped away the instant she pulled up her shirt to show me how things really were.

This is what I’ve always loved about Kris: she won’t lie to me. I don’t think she’s capable of it. The transition may be abrupt. It may be brutal. But she’ll tell it like it is. Now she’s driven in from out of town to help me, bringing her pickup and more honest pain than I’m prepared for.

Her truck is the biggest and fanciest yet, a professional vehicle, sprayed a classy metallic gray. It has a stretch cab with a full backseat. She and her husband call it the Limo Truck. It is powerful enough to pull a small circus’s worth of trailers across the country. We fill the bed with rolls of carpet stripped from the floors of my parents’ house. I am getting to the end now, down to the bare bones.

Like all my other drivers, Kris chooses the back way to the landfill. On the way, I point out the yard sales. Every few houses, a couple of ladies sit on folding chairs, knees pointing to opposite points of the compass. On a table are videos, sometimes a few pieces of dishware, a blender. Children’s clothes are displayed on the fences, their sleeves and pant legs threaded through the chain-link diamonds, looking like children pinned there by a strong wind.

These yard sales are not weekend affairs. They are permanent. Most of the stores on this side of town are closed, driven out of business by Walmart and Costco. The malls my mother shopped in are empty shells now, with grass growing through the asphalt of their parking lots. All the supermarkets are gone. On the other side of town, near the I-5, a whole new world of big-box stores is going up. Meanwhile, these ladies are selling the sort of stuff I’ve been donating to the Salvation Army and the Men’s Homeless Mission.

“Selling it to whom?” I wonder out loud. Kris shrugs.

Before the breast cancer, there was ovarian cancer. Then came the financial crisis and the business she ran with her husband started to get into trouble. They had been doing well and had a growing reputation—at one point, they employed twenty people—but when the crash hit, a string of creditors failed to pay them and they were finally forced to declare bankruptcy. Kris tells me her husband just gave up at this point. They’d drive past desolate trailer parks, and he’d say, “Well, we can always live there.” For Kris, a born fighter, this attitude was unforgiveable.

I thought of Kris’s husband, a handsome, gentle, hardworking man I have always thought was a good match for her. Now they are separated, and he is roaming around the West, trying to revive their business. Meanwhile, she works a job that at least brings them healthcare and lets her pay their mortgage. She couldn’t bear to lose the house, though it’s now underwater, the monthly payments are huge, and there’s an $80,000 balloon payment waiting at the end of the road. She fears her teenage son might be getting into trouble, and her teenage daughter is trying too hard to be perfect.

This story unfolds during several rides over two days. We go to the landfill and shove the carpet onto the mountain of garbage. We go to the Goodwill with boxes of things too good for the landfill.

When Kris talks, she cries. I have almost never seen her cry, and when she starts up, I cry too. We drive around, two women in a great big pickup, in tears. It doesn’t affect Kris’s driving. Even when we were fifteen and I was still backing my dad’s El Camino stupidly into lampposts, she knew how to handle machines. But at one point, when she tells me about the trailer park, she’s crying so hard I want her to pull over. I want to hug her and explain macroeconomics to her in order to show her that this is not her fault, as she believes it is, and not her husband’s fault either. I want to draw her diagrams and show her articles from The Economist that will prove to her that they have been caught up in the biggest, almighty economic shitstorm in history and no one could have handled it much better than they did.

Kris won’t pull over. The cab is so big I can hardly reach her when I stretch my arm across the space between us. I put my hand on her shoulder, and I keep it there while she drives, not knowing what else to do, how else to show her what I feel. Eventually, she says, “You don’t have to do that.” I take my hand away.

I can hear the appraiser moving calmly from room to room in the empty house. He trains his laser measure at the bare walls, runs its red beam along the stripped floors. He makes notes on a form.

“The good news is, it’s not subsiding,” he tells me. He’s an old classmate of Larry’s. He’s been in the real estate business in Bakersfield for five decades and knows everything.

His words worry me. “Did you think it would be subsiding?”

“Lots of these houses down here are,” he says. “These were barley fields. They used to plough the barley roots back into the soil, so it tends to be full of air pockets. It compacts down over time and then the houses subside.” He pauses. “Not this one, though.”

Barley fields. I savor this unexpected information about the house I grew up in. It strikes me as poetic. It makes me look at the house in a new light. I can’t stop thinking about it as I pack my bags back at La Casita. I mention it when I say my goodbyes to Mario and Gracia.

At the foot of the Grapevine, on my way south to LA to catch a flight back to London, I stop for gas and take one last look across the Valley. I think I can see a haze hanging over the landfill where the trucks are kicking up the dust. Now that landfill contains the remains of my family’s life in Bakersfield. I put them there. The bulldozers move over them, shoving our relics into some kind of shape. Later, they’ll cover everything in dirt. Eventually, someone will build on top of it, just as we built on top of the barley fields.

All through this trip, I have been telling everyone I’ve come to “clean out” my parents’ house. It sounds virtuous, but in truth I haven’t cleaned anything out. I’ve just shifted our mess from one place to another. It’s still a mess. And now I see it is part of an even bigger mess—Bakersfield’s, California’s, the whole country’s. It’s not the kind of mess we can bury, no matter how big we make the landfill site. I get back in my rental car with a feeling like shame and a strong desire to confess this to someone. But there is no one there to confess it to.
Note: All photographs by the author.