Tag: Environment


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.


How a Mid-Century LA Environmentalist Got Beyond John Muir

by Christopher Sellers

As the centenary of John Muir’s death in Los Angeles approaches on December 24, the inevitable outpourings of praise need to be tempered with both historical awareness and wariness.

Muir’s legacy runs to the heart of why Americans have had such trouble caring for nature in the places we actually inhabit. Extolling the High Sierra, Muir taught his readers and followers to appreciate a nature that could be truly found only in the most pristine of places, where the human hand seemed lightest.

Photo from the Richard Gordon Lillard papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Photo from the Richard Gordon Lillard papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Yet our biggest environmental problems have long lain not in places like Yosemite, but where human hands appear far more dominant, and nature itself is much harder to see. Muir’s legacy has often impeded our inclination and ability to heed ecological realities that are neither so pristine nor so grandiose, but that thread through our society and our lives. And so Muir’s legacy is inevitably being questioned on this centennial.

But there are other, earlier precedents for productively re-examining Muir’s relevance. The modern environmental movement, which took off after World War II in California as elsewhere, was often concerned with places that were far more populous and built up—suburbs and cities in particular—than Muir’s beloved Sierra.

For at least one prominent mid-century California environmentalist, caring for these places required overcoming Muir’s legacy. Richard Lillard was an English professor and author of Eden in Jeopardy: Man’s Prodigal Meddling with His Environment: The Southern California Experience, published in 1966, and the closest thing Southern California had in those years to an environmental prophet. A Muir acolyte when he first arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1940’s, Lillard never would have written his seminal book had he remained so.

At first, following Muir, Lillard abandoned the city whenever he could, spending his summers as a “naturalist” guide in Yosemite, and even holding his wedding in its outdoor “cathedral.” His tune changed while living in a house he had bought in 1947 in a canyon of the Santa Monica Mountains, close enough to the downtown to lie within the city limits of Los Angeles.

In search of a conservation that was more personal and “deeply lived,” Lillard got to know the natural world that lay around his own house. That growing acquaintance became central to his transformation. He “lovingly raised” his own home garden, and turned a keen eye to the local wildlife, even the weeds. When a disastrous flood and mudslide struck his and his neighbors’ homes, he launched into local politics, reviving a homeowners’ association that pushed city hall for tighter rules on hillside homebuilding.

Soon thereafter, writing in his private journal, he rankled at Muir’s legacy. Muir’s admirers, he decided, were “socially immature.” He affirmed instead the inspiration of a Thoreau or Andre Gide who “balance … things well”—the “humane world…of private love and public causes” alongside “the nature he makes his setting.” Part of the reason was that the place Lillard now lived in and cared for faced threats that Muir had never contemplated, threats more associated with suburbs or cities than with wilderness. The great contribution of Eden in Jeopardy was to highlight these threats across Southern California: the heedless paving of roads and rivers, the haphazard raising of roofs across valleys and farmland, the hurdling of tons of smoke and hydrocarbons into the Los Angeles basin’s air.

Lillard’s experience mirrored that of the group owing the most to Muir’s legacy, the Sierra Club. As late as 1955, it remained a small group centered on the West Coast and hewing closely to Muir’s vision. Sponsored trips exposed a membership mostly from cities and suburbs to the transcendent nature of the Sierras. Its political agenda remained confined to protecting the remote federal preserves where much of America’s wilderness could be found.

Only after the club began to take on more urban and suburban issues—not before—did the Sierra Club’s roster soar. Its causes expanded in ways that would have utterly puzzled Muir himself. By the early 1960’s, the Los Angeles Chapter had begun lobbying against the county’s dumps, pushing for a public preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains, and for protection of far less pristine parks in Boyle Heights and elsewhere downtown.

Where the Muir tradition most hobbled the Sierra Club from endorsing Lillard’s broader agenda was over environmental threats to human health. Enraptured by the High Sierra, Muir and his disciples mythologized their own strenuous and daring exertions across them. Rarely did they consider how vulnerable to these or any other surroundings human beings could be. Yet that was precisely the message hammered home by post-war environmentalists such as Lillard and Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring, published in 1962, emphasized that human-made chemicals such pesticides did not just threaten birds and wildlife but people too.

Los Angeles’ worsening smog offered one of the nation’s earliest and gravest instances of how bad the most modern versions of pollution could become. Yet for decades, the Angeleno chapter of the Sierra Club shied away from regional political battles over smog. Only in the late 1960’s did they join in, after Lillard and many others had argued for smog’s relevance to ecological advocacy.

A century out from Muir’s death, humanity’s mounting influence on the planet, and what we now know about that influence, have made a truly pristine nature ever more difficult, even impossible, to find. No place on earth stays untouched by a phenomenon like climate change. To be sure, we still need our Yosemites, not least for the transcendent encounters that Muir and his descendants have helped us to find in them. Yet in a time when human impacts have turned planetary in scale, the project of protecting our wildest places has become far more bound up with what we do in our cities, suburbs, and factories than Muir ever imagined.

More than ever, we also need precedents like Lillard’s: ways we may see, appreciate and protect the natural world in those places where most of us live our lives, but where nature itself sometimes seems far more difficult to find.

Christopher Sellers is the author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th-Century America, and a professor of history at Stony Brook University.


Photograph at top by Ken Kanouse via Flickr.


Island Time

by Peter S. Alagona

On the stories we tell about nature and history

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

There are few better places in California to think with nature than the blustery earthen prow of Fraser Point at the northwest tip of Santa Cruz Island. On a clear day, the point offers a magnificent 360-degree panorama. Behind you lie the island’s arid windward slopes. To your right, sheer headlands overlook the Santa Barbara Channel and distant Santa Ynez Mountains. On your left is Santa Cruz Island’s rugged western shore with its sea cliffs, tide pools, and guano-caked rocks. Directly in front of you across a six-mile strait, Santa Rosa Island’s sand dunes shimmer in the afternoon sun. Far beyond, the hazy, double-humped apparition of San Miguel Island hovers over the horizon, perched on the edge of the wild Pacific.

Standing on Fraser Point, teeth to the gale and hardly a hint of humans in sight, it is tempting to indulge in the fantasy of time travel. Superficially, this place recalls a bygone era in California when people were fewer and nature was still wild. The fact that Santa Cruz is an island, requiring an hour-and-a-half ferry ride to reach, adds to its sense of apartness, as if the channel crossing were a voyage to another age.

Photograph by Ross Doering.

Yet this place is no relic. Santa Cruz Island is the product of a long and complicated history, clues of which are everywhere for those willing to look. Gazing south from Fraser Point, massive shell mounds mark the locations of ancient Chumash villages, now recognized as some of the richest archaeological sites in western North America; a mat of squat tan foliage, including a cornucopia of native and exotic plants, carpets the foothills; deeply incised arroyos recall decades of foraging by feral animals; and a maze of rutted dirt roads, long maintained by the US military, traverse steep mountainsides. Near the end of the visible shoreline, Christy Ranch’s historic buildings once served as a remote outpost for the island’s livestock operations and now provide simple facilities for visiting researchers.

How should one study, interpret, and manage an island known worldwide for both its natural and its cultural histories? This is one of the most important questions facing parks and reserves in the twenty-first century. Santa Cruz Island just happens to be an excellent example. It provides an ideal vantage from which to view the intersection of nature and culture in California, how our state’s institutions interpret, represent, and mobilize history, and how their approaches to remembering the past and documenting change over time bear on the present.

Three institutions—the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of California’s Natural Reserve System—serve as Santa Cruz Island’s custodians. Along with a handful of other mainland organizations, they also serve as the de facto guardians of the island’s history. Each has developed its own relationship with the past, and these relationships inform the ways that each studies, manages, and interprets the island. Each has a different origin, mission, and culture. Each embraces a particular kind of institutional memory, and each engages in some form of organized amnesia. The way these institutions remember and act on Santa Cruz Island’s past will shape its future—and perhaps the futures of other such places in California and beyond.

First, consider the National Park Service, whose relationship with the past is best described as selected memory. Congress established the service in 1916 to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” in national parks and monuments, and to “provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” In 1980 Congress created Channel Islands National Park, which includes Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands. By 2000, the park also had acquired the eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Island.

For more than three decades, the park service has interpreted the Channel Islands’ history in much the same way that it has told the histories of other western national parks. Indeed, many readers who have never visited or even heard of the Channel Islands will immediately recognize the plotline of the service’s official history. It goes something like this:

The four northern Channel Islands comprise a seaward arm of the Santa Monica Mountains, at the southwestern edge of California’s Transverse Ranges. During the Pleistocene epoch, when sea level dropped to 120 meters below its current elevation, this archipelago formed a contiguous landmass. Close enough to the mainland to receive occasional terrestrial migrants, yet far enough away to isolate those newcomers from their source populations, the islands became a remarkable laboratory of evolution. Although not as rich in species as the mainland, they housed a grand menagerie of ice age flora and fauna, including the fanciful, oxymoronic pygmy mammoth. At least 145 species of plants and animals still occur here but nowhere else.

Evidence of human presence on the islands dates back at least 13,000 years. Over time, the Chumash people who lived here developed a sophisticated and cosmopolitan culture, complete with shell bead currency, deep-sea fishing gear, long-distance trade networks, and elaborate rituals. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed along the Santa Cruz coastline, past Fraser Point, and estimated a population of around 2,000 human inhabitants in six villages. Disease and missionization decimated these communities and led to their abandonment by the early 1800s, less than three centuries after European contact. Ranching began on Santa Cruz Island in the 1830s with a Mexican land grant, and agriculture dominated the island for 150 years. Feral grazing and rooting animals denuded the vegetation, threatening native species and leaving a desolate landscape in many areas. Since the 1980s, restoration projects have begun to restore the island’s ecosystems, a process that most observers believed would take decades but is already showing remarkable results.1

If this story seems familiar that is because it is based on a formula.2 Visit other western national parks and you will see the same tale, told again and again, with different details but an identical structure. As a genre, the park service’s official history hits all of the disciplinary high points that national park visitors have come to expect: geography, geology, evolution, ecology, archaeology, and history. By combining the multiple temporal scales associated with these disciplines, national parks offer a God’s eye view meant to convey a sense of wonder in the presence of ancient things and monumental processes. From a practical perspective, the park service cultivates this feeling of awe to instill a code of conduct within the parks and an ethic of support for its mission. From an ideological viewpoint, the official history also serves as a nationalist narrative designed to enroll visitors in a shared heritage that inevitably culminates with modern American society and benevolent bureaucratic management.3

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

Recently, at other sites, the park service has confronted challenges to its portrayals of the past, and this has led to public debates and new approaches.4 But these are exceptions. In a century of honing its official history, the park service has elevated this tale of the western national parks to the status of common sense. Today, it is the dominant narrative not only of ranger stations, trailhead signage, and official documents, but also of websites, guidebooks, and popular lore.

There is nothing nefarious about the park service’s mission, nor anything technically wrong with the story it tells. Its facts are accurate, its chronology sound. Yet its version of the past barely resembles the kind of history that most historians regard as vital and interesting. Historians value questions as much as answers, insights as well as information. They endeavor to treat the past on its own terms, while drawing appropriate connections to contemporary issues. They seek to tell stories that enliven history, while puncturing the air of inevitability so common in textbook accounts. Perhaps most important, they treat all narratives of the past as provisional.

Photograph by Ken Lund.

The official history of Santa Cruz Island sends an altogether different message. It is correct but not especially interesting because it is predictable rather than contingent. It is written in declarative instead of interrogative language that preempts, not prompts, further discussion. It artificially separates the past from the present, even though the consequences of that past are everywhere today. It then conflates the two by asserting that wise managers can turn back the clock, remaking lost landscapes from previous eras. The park service presents a stable and comfortable version of the past. Yet in doing so, it avoids almost all of the complex and important questions that link historical processes to current concerns.

Santa Cruz Island’s second major administrative institution is The Nature Conservancy, whose connection to the past takes the form of directed memory. The conservancy, which owns the western three-quarters of the island, has its roots in the Ecological Society of America. Two years after the society’s founding, in 1915, it established a preservation committee to promote the establishment of nature reserves for ecological field research. In 1946 the society’s governing board disbanded the committee, arguing that activist organizations, not scientific societies, should take the lead in conservation work. Several members responded by forming a new group, the Ecologists’ Union, which in 1950 they renamed The Nature Conservancy. This would become the world’s largest nongovernmental conservation organization.5

In 1978 the conservancy acquired most of Santa Cruz Island from the Stanton family, which, like so many other wealthy Southern California clans, made its fortune in the oil industry. The family patriarch, Carey Stanton, made it clear that he did not want his property to fall into the hands of the National Park Service. After Stanton’s death in 1987, the conservancy assumed full management of its portion of the island. This is where its story of the island’s history begins.

At the time, Santa Cruz Island was, by all accounts, in miserable condition. The conservancy’s restoration work began with the removal of more than 30,000 feral sheep in the 1980s and more than 5,000 feral hogs by 2006. Sometime in the 1990s, golden eagles from the mainland first appeared on the islands. They probably migrated there to feed on the islands’ piglets, but they also found its native foxes easy prey. By the early 2000s, the island fox—an endemic and charismatic subspecies, which, despite its diminutive size, was the island’s apex terrestrial predator—had nearly gone extinct. The conservancy joined with several other organizations to mount a response that included rounding up the foxes, protecting them in enclosures, and initiating a captive breeding program, while eradicating the remaining pigs and revegetating the denuded areas where the foxes were most vulnerable to areal predation by golden eagles. The program also involved removing all of the golden eagles and replacing them with bald eagles. Bald eagles disappeared from the islands by the mid-twentieth century, due to a combination of hunting, harassment, and reproductive failure associated with DDT toxicity. Many biologists believed that bald eagles were once common on the islands, were sufficiently territorial to fend off golden eagles, and preyed on fish rather than foxes.6

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

In its promotional materials, the conservancy describes these events as a gripping tale of loss and recovery through expert management. A short online film, entitled Santa Cruz Island: Restoring the Balance, sets the stage. An airborne camera pans across the island to solemn music while the narrator describes it as “a world apart. . . Every plant and animal is an integral part of a unique, self-sustaining ecosystem. But this is a fragile place, where the slightest human touch can be profound.”7 The conservancy’s website echoes its film, recounting the story, and concluding with a declaration of victory: “Once on the brink of ecological collapse, Santa Cruz Island now offers visitors a glimpse of what Southern California used to be like hundreds of years ago. . . After three decades of tireless work, Santa Cruz Island has emerged as a leading example for successful island restoration and innovative conservation.”8

The conservancy deserves credit for its accomplishments. Yet its account of Santa Cruz Island’s history is filled with contradictions. The claim that Santa Cruz is “a world apart” forgets the extent to which people have shaped its flora and fauna. The idea that every organism is “an integral part” of the island’s “self-sustaining ecosystem” ignores the outsized role of introduced species, particularly nonnative plants, dozens of which are still common there. It also fails to mention the occasional natural colonizations that are typical of a large island so close to a continent. It discounts the several millennia during which humans, not foxes or eagles, dominated the island’s food web. And it overlooks the conservancy’s own history of intensive management, which is unlikely to end soon. Calling Santa Cruz “fragile” may seem reasonable, considering the grave changes that occurred there during the ranching era. But the conservancy’s own description of the island’s recovery suggests that even after decades of abuse, this remains a remarkably resilient place. Given these observations, the claim that Santa Cruz Island offers “a glimpse of what Southern California used to be like hundreds of years ago” is untenable. A more honest assessment would arrive at nearly the opposite conclusion: the past 250 years have been the most transformative and consequential in the island’s long history.

The Nature Conservancy’s account of the past qualifies as directed memory because it is history with a purpose. Unlike the National Park Service—which sees historical interpretation as central to its work, and whose form of selected memory serves bureaucratic needs but also the broader goals of promoting an inclusive and educated citizenry—the conservancy has much narrower objectives and no real allegiance to the past. Its goals are restoring and preserving nature—a project that often involves ignoring or attempting to purge the past—and securing funds to continue its efforts. Ecosystems are inherently historical entities, which makes erasing history impossible on the ground. So where restoration reaches its limits, a rhetorical project begins.

The third institution responsible for Santa Cruz Island’s management is the University of California’s Natural Reserve System, where history has usually taken the form of neglected memory. The UC Natural Reserve System dates to the mid-1960s, when the UC system created a single administrative unit to coordinate its existing reserves, and produced a plan for the development of a larger reserve network that would include representative samples of California’s biophysical diversity. The natural reserve system’s founders envisioned it as serving several objectives. It would provide secure sites for long-term research, facilities for teaching, and spaces for studying environmental problems. The reserves would also act as control sites for measuring ecological change in surrounding areas. Today, the system encompasses thirty-nine sites with access to around 750,000 acres, making it the world’s largest and most diverse university-run reserve system.9

In 1966, a year after the system’s founding, the university established Santa Cruz Island Reserve. The state does not own any land on the island, so the reserve operates under agreements with the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. The reserve’s director, Lyndal Laughrin, a fox biologist by training, is himself something of living historical figure, having worked on the island since 1964.

The system’s founders knew that a reserve’s value depended on effective management and adequate facilities, but they also stressed the importance of supporting documentation.10 This included basic natural history observations, scientific data collected on-site, archives pertaining to the history of the area before it joined the system, administrative records describing the reserve’s management, and libraries of reference materials. These founders conceived of a reserve network whose value would grow each year as knowledge about each site increased and became more accessible. After the system’s establishment, however, this vision was mostly forgotten. Today, the reserves hold only a small fraction of the supporting materials necessary for a rich understanding of their histories. Indeed, many scientists conducting research at UC reserves have no knowledge about the histories of their study sites, or how the legacies of those histories shape contemporary ecological processes.

There are many reasons for this predicament. Because most scientists see the history of their profession as a march toward more knowledge and better ideas, they tend to place little value on the past. During the mid-twentieth century, the biological and environmental sciences in particular turned away from historical accounts toward mechanistic explanations for patterns in nature. In the period of rapid expansion after the reserve system’s founding, its leaders focused more on site acquisitions than on instituting their vision of the reserves as repositories of knowledge. At most sites, urgent tasks—such as construction, maintenance, and fund-raising—took precedence. The need to produce timely results from funded research discouraged many scientists from undertaking long-term projects or assisting with baseline monitoring. Even efforts to compile lists of publications based on data gathered at the reserves faltered. The result of all this is that history, once the source of so much interest in the reserve system, has assumed the same role it so often does in the sciences. It moved from the vital foreground into the neglected background.

The system’s leaders now recognize their past lack of historical mindedness, and along with partners from several UC campuses they are now trying to catch up. But building an information infrastructure isn’t easy. Most reserves operate on shoestring budgets without resources for such work. A few reserves have done admirable jobs maintaining their records, but most have not. Some records have disappeared; others are disorganized, dispersed, or degraded. Basic information about past land use is missing, and only a few sites have extensive collections of historical data and documents. Their capacity to capture such materials remains limited. And the reserve directors are only beginning to develop partnerships with campus archives, libraries, museums, and laboratories whose missions include preserving such materials.

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

Three factors are generating increased interest in the reserves’ histories. The system’s first generation of directors is now in or approaching retirement; if not properly planned, their departures could represent an irreplaceable loss of memory. In 2015 the reserve system will turn 50, an anniversary that will include many celebrations but may also generate questions about the system’s legacy. Finally, increased interest in environmental change has caused many scientists to search for more historical information on California ecosystems. High-quality, well-documented data going back more than a few decades, these investigators have found, is as rare as it is essential.

The Santa Cruz Island Reserve is probably in a better position relative to its supporting documentation than most other UC reserves. This is due in large part to the work of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, an independent nonprofit group founded by Carey Stanton that collects materials related to the island. But the reserve itself is only now beginning to assemble its own archive, from long-neglected records in its office, with the assistance of a lone volunteer.

The National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the UC Natural Reserve System embrace different forms of memory that lead to different relationships with the past on Santa Cruz Island. But why does this matter so much for thinking with nature in California? And if all of these accounts fall short, then what should replace them?

The way these three institutions relate to the past matters because the Santa Cruz Island case is not unique, and because it affects the future in at least three crucial ways. First, it influences the kinds of historical documentation these institutions choose to preserve, which in turn shapes our understanding of environmental change. Preserving such materials requires effort, which may seem like a tall order given the constraints these institutions face. But some nearby parks and reserves provide models of what can be done, often without spending a lot of money. Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, for example, has built a rich trove of historical documentation using mostly volunteer labor. This includes a complete database of all research conducted on the site beginning in the 1920s. With each additional archive and dataset, Jasper Ridge’s value increases. The loss of documents associated with the UC Natural Reserve System is one example of how, even in an increasingly digital world, important clues about the past can be lost without proper care.

Photograph by Ross Doering.

Second, the ways these institutions relate to the past shapes not only what they value, but also what their patrons and the broader public value about places like Santa Cruz Island. The Nature Conservancy’s rejection of most of the island’s human past sends a clear message: what is important here is nature not culture. The conservancy is entitled to manage the lands it owns according to its mission and values. (It is, after all, The Nature Conservancy.) The problem is that Santa Cruz Island is a product of both nature and culture. To truly know this place would be to value both human history and ecological processes, and to understand that both have contributed to making it what it is today.

Third, the ways these institutions relate to the past informs their management decisions. At the time of this writing, The National Park Service was promoting a new Channel Islands management plan that, if approved, will increase the proportion of the park designated as wilderness from zero to 53 percent. This will include almost all of the service’s land there, with the exception of San Miguel Island, which the park service manages but is still owned by the US Navy.11

Photograph by Ken Lund.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wildernesses as places where “earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans, where humans are visitors and do not remain.” Such areas should retain their “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,” according to the act, and appear “to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of humans’ work substantially unnoticeable.” Wilderness designation can be an effective management tool, and the park service has made this a centerpiece of its nature preservation efforts. Yet it is difficult to see how the legal definition of wilderness could apply to Santa Cruz Island. To make it fit, one must accept a number of assumptions about human history and the relationship between the past and the present.12 One must believe that several millennia of human habitation do not constitute a permanent presence, and that human activities on the island have not fundamentally altered the character of its wild areas. One must trust that damaged environments will repair themselves, returning to “primeval” nature with little or no human assistance, given the practical impediments wilderness designation imposes on restoration efforts. One must also consent to the park service’s wisdom in determining which historical features, such as roads and buildings, warrant preservation. Experience from elsewhere suggests that the park service will set a high bar for what it deems worthy. Much of the island’s built environment, including any features not a part of the service’s official history, will eventually disappear.13

Now consider an alternative possibility. Imagine a world in which institutions like the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy stop presenting their versions of history as settled and circumscribed stories for passive consumption and, instead, start posing interesting questions that require us to reflect on the relationships between the past and the present. The result would be a less-manicured history, but it would be more alive and meaningful. It could also have important implications for policy and management. There are many good candidates for such questions; I will conclude with just a few.

How did the island’s native people alter its ecosystems prior to European contact, and what are the consequences of those changes for contemporary ecology and management? Did the island fox begin as a domesticated Chumash animal, and if so what does this mean for our attitudes and values toward native and exotic species?14 Did bald eagles and island foxes really live in harmony for all those years? How can histories of human impact on the islands’ marine ecosystems, which scholars once thought were trivial but now believe were extensive or even transformative, reshape our understanding of environmental history? What does it mean to establish a baseline target for ecological restoration on an island characterized by constant change? How can wilderness and historic preservation be reconciled to promote a richer appreciation of both nature and culture? And how can we develop a monitoring strategy for the island that will enable us to capture diverse data so that we can better analyze current and future environmental changes?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope these are good questions to ponder—and to spark a conversation—if you ever find yourself, as I did recently, with time to think on a clear day at Fraser Point.


Photograph at top by Flickr user Wendell.

1 This paragraph is a summation of material contained on the National Park Service’s Channel Islands website: http://www.nps.gov/chis.

2 Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010); John E. Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994).

3 Popular Memory Group, “Popular Memory: Theory, Politics, Method,” The Collective Memory Reader, Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 254–260.

4 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

5 Abby J. Kinchy, “On the Borders of Post-War Ecology: Struggles over the Ecological Society of America’s Preservation Committee, 1917–1946,” Science as Culture 15:1 (March 2006), 23–44.

6 Timothy J. Coonan, Catherin A. Schwemm, and David K. Garcelon, Decline and Recovery of the Island Fox: A Case Study for Population Recovery (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

7 The Conservancy’s short film is available on YouTube and other websites.

8 See The Nature Conservancy’s Santa Crux Island web page.

9 Peggy Fiedler, Susan Gee Rumsey, and Kathleen Wong, eds., The Environmental Legacy of the UC Natural Reserve System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

10 Lawrence D. Ford and Kenneth S. Norris, “The University of California Natural Reserve System: Progress and Prospects,” BioScience 38:7(July/August 1988), 463–470; Peter S. Alagona, “A Sanctuary for Science: The Hastings Natural History Reservation and the Origins of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System.” Journal of the History of Biology 45 (2012), 651–680.

11 National Park Service, Channel Islands National Park Draft Management Plan/Wilderness Study/Environmental Impact Statement, Channel Islands National Park, November 2013.

12 Matthew A. Lockhart, “The Trouble with Wilderness’ Education in the National Park Service: The Case of the Lost Cattle Mounts of Congaree,” The Public Historian 28:2 (Spring 2006), 11–30. William Cronon, “The Riddle of the Apostle Islands: How Do You Manage a Wilderness Full of Human Stories?” Orion (May/June 2003), 36–42; National Wilderness Steering Committee, “Guidance ‘White Paper’ Number 1: Cultural Resources and Wilderness,” 30 November 2002.

13 Laura Watt, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore, unpublished manuscript.

14 Torben C. Rick, Jon M. Erlandson, René L. Vellanoweth, Todd J. Braje, Paul W. Collins, Daniel A. Guthrie, and Thomas W. Stafford, Jr., “Origins and Antiquity of the Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis) on California’s Channel Islands,” Quaternary Research 71 (2009), –98.


The End of Camping

by Terence Young

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Coming home to the city

Making tea on the summit of Liberty Cap on a Sierra Club outing to Mt. Ritter in 1909. Photograph by Edward Taylor Parsons. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

When twenty-nine-year-old John Muir first disembarked at San Francisco in March 1868, he was a man with a mission. On the road for nearly a year, Muir had walked 1,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf Coast, sailed south to Cuba and Panama, where he crossed the Isthmus, and then sailed north to California. Legend has it that once off the ship, Muir asked a passing stranger which was the shortest route to any place wild. Without hesitation, the man directed Muir east to the Sierra Nevada where for the next twelve years he more or less made Yosemite and the nearby mountains his home.

A Romantic in the mold of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Muir questioned the value of an urban-industrial life and praised the state’s wilder areas as God’s handiwork, the antidote for those who had to toil in California’s cities. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” wrote Muir in 1901. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”¹

Many Californians heard Muir, and took him at his word when they headed out of San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and other cities to pitch their tents in Yosemite, Sequoia, and other wild settings. Over the next century the annual number of recreational campers swelled into the millions as more and more Californians, as well as other Americans, escaped their everyday lives to enjoy the premodern conditions of camping that they were told by Muir and others would restore and refresh them before returning to their permanent residences. These campers, just as Muir had recommended, became pilgrims to California’s natural “cathedrals.”

Pilgrimage is never straightforward nor simply a matter of traveling somewhere. Regardless of whether the ultimate destination is Lourdes, Gettysburg, Disneyland, or wilderness, a pilgrim does not begin to journey unless he is dissatisfied with life’s customary places, people, and social relations. Something in his or her life must “push” the pilgrim away from the profane, everyday world before the journey can begin. At the same time, the pilgrim must desire some exceptional outcome in order to be “pulled” toward and into a sacred, transformative place during pilgrimage and then, hopefully, return to the everyday world satisfied.2

Pilgrimage is generally arduous, forcing pilgrims to endure challenges as a part of their journeys. One of the world’s foremost religious pilgrimages, the hajj to Mecca, has traditionally been seen as so difficult that devout Muslims are expected to perform it only once in a lifetime. In Spain each year, thousands of pilgrims, the majority of whom are not Roman Catholics, hike hundreds of miles to kiss the statue of Saint James in his cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Of course, one could simply fly into Santiago or drive there from St. Jean Pied de Port, a traditional starting point on the French border, but people who do so are dismissed as “tourists” by those who, like innumerable pilgrims before them, walk the traditional path.3

“No American wilderness that I know of is so dangerous as a city home ‘with all the modern improvements.’ One should go to the woods for safety, if for nothing else.” —John Muir, Our National Parks

Camping is not a religious practice, nor is it usually as arduous as the great pilgrimages, especially these days, but it does share this pilgrimage pattern.4 Campers perceive great power at a place—”nature”—which when tapped can counteract the “evils” of urban life and “restore” them mentally and physically. This restoration will occur only if the camper travels to where nature’s power is readily accessible and there resides temporarily. Not just any location will do—and then there’s the pilgrimage itself, from the preparations that must be made before setting off to the journey itself. At the same time, what qualifies as “natural” and how one engages it turns out to be highly flexible among campers as a whole. Parking a large motorhome along the Pacific Coast Highway on the Ventura County shoreline can satisfy some. Others have long preferred to car camp in Yosemite. While for still others, only a backpacking trip along a remote stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail will suffice. Wherever it is, it must be a place where the pilgrim-in-the-wild will cede some element of control and let nature take over.

No matter how it is practiced, the patterns of modern camping are closely tied to the long-standing divisions of urban and wild California. According to one powerful strand of our national myth, a free and democratic America was forged on the wild frontier, not in the country’s “over-civilized” cities, which have long been perceived as unhealthy and hazardous environments. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect involved in the origins of Yosemite as a park and the creation of Central Park in New York, subscribed to this view as he justified his 1866 plan for San Francisco’s “Public Pleasure Grounds.” The city’s population, he warned, was “wearing itself out with constant labor, study and business anxieties. . . Cases of death, or of unwilling withdrawal from active business. . . cause losses of capital in the general business of the city, as much as fires or shipwrecks.” What the city needed, offered Olmsted, was a woodland park with “beautiful sylvan scenes” where exhausted San Franciscans could escape the city and relax in nature.5

Americans may earn their fortunes in cities, but they don’t really belong there. Instead, their true home is wilderness, which Muir declared, is safer than any urban residence. The expressions of this tradition of urban skepticism have been pervasive and monumental, spawning America’s great urban parks, its sprawling suburbs, and camping.

Unsurprisingly, most campers have been from urban areas. For more than 100 years, those who preach the benefits of camping have sounded like Olmsted—bemoaning everyday urban places as burdensome, polluted, and irritating. “We want to emphasize here and now,” began the Sierra Club’s David Brower in Going Light with Backpack or Burro, “even to the point of being evangelical in our emphasis, that one gains a great deal by getting just as far from exhaust fumes and ringing telephones as his feet will let him. . . and that so long as one can walk. . . it is possible to use the wilderness as a sanctuary.”6 Again and again, for more than a century, camping has been offered as a positive escape from stress, overwork, in-laws, and other everyday irritations.

Camping, however, also has a darker side. Paraphrasing historian William Cronon, to the degree that campers have seen themselves as somehow displaced from their “true” homes in nature and have turned to nature to find solace, they have missed opportunities to amend their cities environmentally and to place them on more sustainable paths.7 Camping is not just a pleasant form of leisure. It can also be interpreted as an escape from campers’ responsibilities for their cities. Is city life too noisy? Backpack through the quiet of the Sierra Nevada high country. Is the air polluted? RV camp in fresh air along the Pacific shoreline. City streets too harsh? Car camp out in a lush redwood forest. By escaping cities to find nature, campers have been evading the environmental challenges of a truly supportive and humane urban life.

John Muir, circa 1902.

But camping is in trouble. After more than a century of increasing popularity, the number of campers is declining. Although camping remains among the top-five outdoor recreations in the United States, the rate of participation by Americans sixteen and older is down from its peak in the late 1990s. Automobile, trailer, and motorhome camping at “developed” locations (with drinking water, tables, restrooms, etc.) and at “primitive” locations (without such amenities) has decreased approximately 7 percent overall. Only backpacking’s popularity has held steady, although at much lower numbers than other forms of camping.8

Predictably, perhaps, given how much significance has been invested in camping, some observers interpret this diminution in camping as a menace to our civilization. Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic argue that the decrease in camping and other forms of outdoor recreation indicates that Americans are shifting away from an appreciation of nature and toward “videophilia,” which they define as a “tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.” Such a shift, they conclude, “does not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation.” In an even gloomier piece, author Richard Louv argues in Last Child in the Woods that American children increasingly suffer from “nature-deficit disorder” because fewer of them are camping, playing in streams, and generally enjoying themselves outdoors. This deficit must be reduced, Louv warns, because “our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it.”9

But instead of immediately taking such a sentimental and alarmist view, let’s recall the history and cultural significance of camping, which present at least two potential explanations for its decline:

First, most forms of camping are losing their ability to function as a pilgrimage. As campers embrace the latest in modern, high-tech gear, they transmute “roughing it”—a distinctly antimodern activity—into something comfortable and too much like everyday life. Car campers, for example, no longer have to experience many of camping’s customary hardships. Campers may still sleep on the ground, but it is no longer so uncomfortable when using a microfiber sleeping bag rated to 35 degrees and a self-inflating mattress pad. The culinary limitations of camping have likewise moderated with the use of coolers, propane stoves, and an explosion of gourmet freeze-dried meal options. The physical challenge of hiking vanished when a paved road allowed campers to drive to scenic overlooks. When camping with a trailer, motorhome, or other recreational vehicle, adversity recedes even further. Without its physical and psychological challenges, the transition from daily life to camping can become so “smooth” it’s barely a transition at all. With no bright line between the wild and the urban, how can camping be the refreshing and restorative break it’s meant to be? Like those who fly to Santiago de Compostela to visit Saint James’s cathedral, comfortable campers slide from being pilgrims to “tourists.” By contrast, backpacking’s appeal continues because no matter how much backpackers may adopt the latest in gear, they still have to walk and carry their load. In a fundamental way, it remains “rough.”

“D. A. Stivers and Thor arrive in camp, Camp Kitmear, 1915,” from Panama Pacific International Exposition and Yosemite Camping Views. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

A second explanation for the decrease in camping’s popularity brings us back to California’s rapid and destructive form of urbanization, where for more than a century cities, farms, resource extraction sites, and pristine areas grew increasingly discrete and isolated from one another. Now, however, the distinctions between these landscapes are beginning to fade as they slowly blend back into one another. “Urban agriculture” is no longer an oxymoron; a billion dollar plan to restore the Los Angeles River has been embraced by the US Army Corps of Engineers; and “rewilding” California’s cities with native flowers has thousands of supporters. Distributed, renewable energy, onsite rainwater retention, xerophytic gardening, the greening of alleys, protecting urban mountain lions, and much, much more are increasing the sustainability of California’s cities and decreasing the differences between them, agricultural tracts, protected wildlands, and natural resource areas. Californians are beginning to bring their cities and nature back together.10

As these landscapes become less sharply separate and as California’s cities become more “natural,” campers are decreasingly feeling a need to heed Muir’s call to climb the mountains in order to get the “good tidings.” Instead, they are finding and making it around themselves in everyday life. And, to the degree that camping is decreasing because Californians feel less distressed by their urban homes, these are all signs that we are embracing where we really live, which are good tidings in their own way.

Glenola and Robert E. Rose, 1938. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.



1 John Muir, Our National Parks (NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901), 56.

2 The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff once characterized pilgrimage as simply “in-out-in with a difference.” The pilgrim begins in everyday society, steps out of that society and then returns to her/his society transformed. See Barbara Myerhoff, “Pilgrimage to Meron: Inner and Outer Peregrinations” in S. Lavie, K. Narayan, and R. Rosaldo, Creativity/Anthropology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 218.

3 See Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 26–27.

4 Gwen Kennedy Neville, Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion in American Protestant Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987) has identified a variety of anti-urban pilgrimage patterns in American life.

5 Frederick Law Olmsted, “Preliminary Report in Regard to a Plan of Public Pleasure Grounds for the City of San Francisco” in Victoria Post Ranney, Gerard J. Rauluk, and Carolyn F. Hoffman, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume V: The California Frontier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 522.

6 David Brower, Going Light with Backpack or Burro (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1951), 6.

7 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995), 81.

8 The current popularity of camping is ranked in Outdoor Foundation, “Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2012” (Boulder: The Outdoor Foundation, 2012), 14. The decreasing participation rates for “developed” and “primitive” camping and the steady appeal of backpacking were revealed by the 1999–2001 and the 2005–2009 National Surveys on Recreation and the Environment. See H. Ken Cordell, “Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futures: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment” (Asheville: US Forest Service, Southern Research Station Gen.Tech.Rep. SRS-150, 2012), 33, 35, 37–38.

9 Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Is Love of Nature in the US Becoming Love of Electronic Media? 16-year downtrend in National Park Visits Explained by Watching Movies, Playing Video Games, Internet Use and Oil Prices,” Journal of Environmental Management 80 (2006), 387, 392. See also Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Evidence for a Fundamental and Pervasive Shift Away from Nature-Based Recreation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (2008), 2295–2300. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Updated and Expanded E-Book Edition (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books. 2008), paragraph 13–13.

10 The idea that cities need not be sites of degeneration, but can be places for the mutual regeneration of nature and society is increasingly explored by scholars and students. See, for instance, the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Their website is located at http://www.csupomona.edu/~crs/.