Tag: Environment


Futures Past

by Erin Beller, Ruth Askevold, and Robin Grossinger

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Exploring California landscapes with the San Francisco Estuary Institute

The Sacramento River, then and now.

Heading home from a successful duck hunting trip near the Sacramento River one rainy winter evening around 1850, William Wright got hopelessly lost in a muddy maze of ice-covered tules. Navigating in the pitch dark only by the direction of the wind and sleet, he trudged through a series of cold, waist-deep lakes, falling into beaver holes full of icy water. Disoriented, soaked, cold, and hungry—and lugging dozens of duck and goose carcasses—he and his companion gave up for the evening. They set up camp, making a dinner of raw goose meat and a bed of tules and goose wings—”the worst camp I ever made in my life,” Wright wrote.

At the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Center for Resilient Landscapes, we use accounts like Wright’s to discover California as it was before the rapid and often profound transformations of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our ecological detective work synthesizes clues found in naturalists’ field notebooks and surveyors’ sketches; diary entries by Spanish explorers, Forty-Niners, and farmers’ wives; and photographs of camping trips and family picnics, to name a few of the colorful and idiosyncratic sources left behind by previous generations of writers and artists, scientists and surveyors, residents, and travelers. These early observations allow us to reconstruct past ecological patterns and create detailed maps of long-gone landscapes across the state. They let us visualize change through time, providing a spatially explicit view of how prior generations of Californians shaped their landscapes into the ones we have inherited and continue to reshape today.

The resultant maps, examples of which are shown on the following pages, depict ecological mosaics across the state as they were in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They offer a glimpse of California as no one alive today has ever seen it: full of vast tule swamps, broad riparian forests and oak woodlands, immense tracts of tidal marsh laced with sinuous channels, and more-than-plentiful duck hunting. To date we and our partners have mapped over two million acres across the state.

The maps themselves are fascinating, an intricate patchwork of curves and colors. But this research is not an exercise in cartographic nostalgia. These maps are tools that help us design future landscapes that are better adapted to California’s variable and dynamic climate. They provide a landscape-scale understanding of the complexity and diversity of California ecosystems, allowing us to better understand how landscapes worked, to track persistence and change, and to envision future scenarios. By helping us understand how ecosystems were organized in the recent past, the physical processes that shaped them, and how they have evolved through time, these maps illuminate the potential—opportunities and constraints, the possible and the impossible—embedded in the contemporary landscape.

Taken together, these maps provide vignettes of the complex patterns exhibited by the historical landscape. Each landscape possessed its own inherent coherence, its own logic, reflecting physical conditions and processes. Blues mark the wettest and lowest areas: ocean, bays, lagoons, tidal channels, rivers, and ponds. Teal represents freshwater marsh, the such as the place where William Wright lost his way. Shades of dark green represent forest and chaparral, while lighter greens represent tidal marshes and seasonally flooded meadows. Oranges and yellows represent drier habitat types, including grassland, coastal sage scrub, and oak woodland. Brown and bright yellow are dune and beach. Channels are sinuous and habitat boundaries crenulated, embodying the maxim that nature abhors a straight line. These ecological patterns were shaped by fundamental physical characteristics (such as geology, soils, and topography) and processes (such as flooding and sediment deposition), in addition to shifting variables such as climate, and early land use by indigenous residents and Euro-American settlers.

Over the past several centuries, trails have transformed into interstates; oaks have been felled and gingko trees planted; streams have been straightened and extended; and marshes and lakes have been drained and dredged, planted and paved. In the maps shown here, it is often this loss that is most apparent. California as we know it today is a fragmented and hybrid landscape, and it certainly no longer abhors a straight line. At first glance, the change is so profound it can be hard to believe these comparisons of the past and present show the same place.

Yet from the heart of Los Angeles to the slopes of Mount Diablo, these places—despite generations and layers of modifications—have remained stubbornly ecological, retaining echoes of earlier patterns. Looking closely, a keen observer can pick out traces of the former world. Marsh fragments are found even in the most urbanized portions of Silicon Valley. Ghost channels lace salt ponds, following centuries-old curves. Small ponds mark the former location of large lakes. Even where wholesale changes have occurred, remnants of past patterns remain in the shape of today’s infrastructure: ports nestled in the footprint of a former estuarine lagoon, for example, or elongated agricultural fields whose shapes mimic that of high ground along the river where riparian forest once thrived.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. This observation, attributed to Mark Twain, applies as elegantly to landscape change as to historical events. Our maps depict a version of California that is at once foreign and deeply familiar. It is the same place and not the same place: it rhymes. Glimpses of past conditions enhance our appreciation for our own messy, complex, modern Californian landscapes. The sheer magnitude of change portrayed here reminds us of the enormous power we have to shape the landscapes we inhabit, and of the wide range of potential options available—options to create diverse, resilient, and beautiful landscapes, inspired by the past and grounded in local potential—as we imagine and then create the future.

Bair Island

Sacramento River

Sacramento River

Port Hueneme

Mugu Lagoon

Mugu Lagoon

Mt. Diablo

Mt. Diablo

Palo Alto to Sunnyvale

Palo Alto to Sunnyvale



John Muir, A Century On

by Glen M. MacDonald

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

John Muir, the grand old man of the Sierra Nevada, died 100 years ago in a Los Angeles hospital bed with only an unfinished book manuscript for company.¹ He was seventy-six years old. In the final year of his life he had been stung by betrayal, losing the fight of his life: his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite would soon be dammed to serve the water and power demands of a booming San Francisco.² Yet, here he was, still proselytizing—from his deathbed—on the wonders of nature.

A century later, is anyone still listening?

In his time Muir was a hugely popular writer, environmental activist, and a well-regarded scientist. But how many people actually read his works today? I suspect that most people recognize his name only from the parks, trails, and schools that bear his name. Although his writing was enormously popular in its day, it is somewhat florid to modern ears, as in this passage on Yosemite: “The rose light of dawn creeping higher among the stars, changes to daffodil yellow; then come the enthusiastic sunbeams pouring across the feathery ridges, touching pine after pine, spruce and fir, libocedrus and lovely sequoia, searching every recess until all are awakened and warmed.”³ Likewise, his scientific work was groundbreaking at the time, but today is considered more in line with good natural history than science.

Still Muir’s influence may be felt by every Californian in the vast lands that have been set aside for wilderness, parks, and conservation areas. His science may have faced some revisions4, but Muir’s philosophy is still fundamental to our perceptions of what nature is, why it should be valued, and how it must be managed. 5, 6 How relevant is that philosophy today? Muir’s power to inspire his contemporaries—from presidents on down—was nearly supernatural. Can the old man still move us to deep contemplation or raise our hackles in passion about what nature is and how we treat it?

Abandoned windbreak, 2007, from LA Environs. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

Muir believed that nature revealed the hand of the creator and was, therefore, superior to the works of man. He believed that animals, plants, and even rock formations must be protected against wanton destruction. In turn, immersion in wilderness, he believed, is important for the physical and spiritual health of human beings. As he wrote in his book on national parks, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that the wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not just as fountains of timber and irrigation waters, but as fountains of life.”7 Preserving nature is a life-sustaining quid pro quo.

Muir feared that state and local governments could be induced by powerful special interests to sell off the nation’s wild lands, so he campaigned for a strong national park system. His direct efforts led to the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1890, and the model he advanced resulted in the addition of seven other national parks in California, from Lassen in 1916 to Pinnacles in 2013. Add to this the many other National Park Service lands, such as the Santa Monica National Recreation Area and the Point Reyes National Seashore, and there is a total of 7,599,139 acres of national park lands in California. In total, the federal government controls 44,087,309 acres of California, a staggering 43 percent of the state.8

But federal agencies weren’t always protection-minded enough for Muir. He had a very public falling out with Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the US National Forest Service. Their initial parting was over Pinchot’s support of sheep grazing on forestlands, and the schism intensified when Pinchot became a leading advocate for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir proposal. During that battle, Muir declared: “Pinchot seems to have lost his head in coal and timber conservation, & forgotten God and his handiwork. He has been our worst enemy in our park fight.”9 At that time, wilderness “preservationists” like Muir often battled with “conservationists” such as Pinchot who believed the primary role of the nation’s forests was more utilitarian—to provide timber and other resources—rather than spiritual. Utilitarian or not, the Forest Service has protected millions of acres of California forestland.

Burning Agricultural Debris, 2013, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

The Sierra Nevada still holds one of the most alluring places on Earth in the Yosemite Valley. East of the Sierra Crest, the oldest living trees in the world still cling to the peaks of the White Mountains. Mount Shasta in the north remains majestic, snowcapped, and forest clad. The world’s tallest trees, redwoods, still march down to the sea from ancient strongholds in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties. Much of the Mojave Desert is as remote and eerily beautiful as a century ago. California remains a state of unsurpassed natural grandeur and incredible natural diversity. The preservation of these lands over the past century would have delighted Muir, I am sure, even while problems familiar to him remain. Wild and semiwild landscapes continue to disappear under development. Managing tourists in Yosemite remains a complicated challenge. San Francisco keeps its grip upon Muir’s beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley.

But other modern challenges dwarf these concerns. Expected upheaval from climate change and a growing population larger than anything Muir could have imagined threaten the very heart of his preservationist, wilderness-centric vision for California. At present rates of greenhouse gas production, the average global temperature will likely increase by around 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the twenty-first century. In California, the impact of this anthropogenic climate change will vary by location and season. Yosemite and the High Sierra could experience an increase of 5 degrees in winter temperatures and 7 degrees in summer temperatures. The annual Sierra snowpack will decrease and the timing of snowmelt will advance earlier into spring.10, 11, 12 As the Sierra Nevada warms, many botanical life zones will shift upward. Subalpine conifer woodlands and lodgepole pine forest will replace significant portions of the alpine vegetation that Muir studied.13

Tree in Field, 2006, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

The ramifications of these climatic changes should not be underestimated. In 1871, Muir discovered Black Mountain Glacier in the Sierra Nevada.14, 15 By 1977 it had vanished.16 Today there are 122 mapped glaciers in the Sierra Nevada, and an analysis of fourteen of them shows that since Muir’s time they have shrunk by 31 to 78 percent. If current warming and melting trends continue, every single Sierra Nevada glacier could be gone sometime over the next 50 to 250 years.17

Prolonged drought can cause the direct mortality of vulnerable trees, and it can also weaken their defensives against pathogens such as pine bark beetles.18 The beetles benefit from weakened trees, and they move to higher elevations and regenerate faster due to the higher temperatures. The desiccated, dead, and dying trees in turn provide fuel that promotes larger and more intense fires.

Here, both Muir and Pinchot bear some responsibility. They saw forest fires as a threat to the natural beauty and harmony of the forest, on one hand, and on the other, to the value of timber reserves. The Forest Service and other agencies made an intense effort to put out all forest fires, but fire is a natural part of western conifer forests. Periodic fires keep fuel loads low and stands of trees thinned out, which reduces the spread of diseases and pathogens such as the bark beetle. A century of vigorous fire suppression coupled with climate change has fostered conditions that promote more destructive fires.19, 20

It is clear that Muir’s goal of preserving nature exactly as it was in a specific moment of time is not only impossible but can be deeply harmful to ecosystems. Such an ethos will not serve us in dealing with the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century. We must be adaptable, understanding that some places we love deeply will indelibly change. We must be open to the new natures that will develop—novel and unanticipated combinations of climate, landscape, and species.21

Tree, Terraformed Mountain and Industrial Buildings, 2007, from LA Environs. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

Preservationist though he was, I think Muir would have understood this. Through his writings on ancient glaciations and the Pleistocene history of giant sequoia, he showed a keen interest in changes in climate, landscapes, and forests. The questions he asked and connections he sought to make are the same ones modern climate change scientists ask when assessing the prospects for thousands of endangered species: “Is this species verging on extinction? And if so, then to what causes will its extinction be due? What have been its relations to climate, soils, and other coniferous trees with which it is associated, or with which it competes? What are those relations now? What are they likely to be in the future?”22

At the time of Muir’s death, the population of California stood at three million people. Today the population tops thirty-eight million.23 By 2050 it is expected to grow to over fifty million.24 Although the Sierra Club—in which Muir served as founding president—has had a history of strong views among some members favoring curtailing immigration and stemming population growth, I don’t think this would have been Muir’s way. In 1901 he wrote, “The United States Government has always been proud of the welcome it has extended to good men of every nation, seeking freedom and homes and bread. Let them be welcomed still as nature welcomes them, to the woods, as well as to the prairies and plains. No place is too good for good men, and still there is room.”25 After all, Muir was an immigrant himself.

Yet he could also sympathize with disdain some felt for the masses of tourists who came to Yosemite to briefly view its wonders and then depart without any evidence of a greater spiritual awareness. “All sorts of human stuff is being poured into our valley this year. & the blank fleshly apathy with which most of it comes in contact with the rock & water spirits of the place is most amazing. I do not wonder that the thought of such people being here makes you ‘mad,'” he wrote to a correspondent in 1870. But Muir was also tolerant. His letter continued, “after all Mrs Carr, they are about harmless they climb sprawlingly to their saddles.”26

Brownfield Site, 2007, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

Visitor numbers and their impact on Yosemite and other national parks and wilderness areas remains hotly contested today. The number of visitors to Yosemite has risen to almost 3.7 million each year. Karen Klein, in the Los Angeles Times, wrote of Yosemite Valley: “Cars vie for empty spots along the road, and throngs of tourists march along paved paths to the chief attractions, where they almost invariably ignore signs to stay off the rocks. The parking lots are jammed; the concessions are located for convenient shopping, dining, and lodging; and the campground is so crammed with shoulder-to-shoulder tents that it looks more like a ripstop ghetto than the site of a nature experience. Surely this isn’t what Muir had in mind either.”27

What did Muir have in mind? I cannot find in his writings any definitive guidance for striking a balance between tourism and preservation, or people’s needs for living space and wilderness, or which lands should be developed and which should be preserved. Muir fought to preserve what he personally found beautiful and otherwise interesting. In general, this meant scenic mountains and forests. Muir’s bias has remained in place and influenced the selection of national parks over much of the past century. But in the twenty-first century, as we become more sensitive to the preservation of biodiversity and understand how geography and genetics shape species, the limitations of Muir’s seemingly subjective criteria have become more and more apparent. The geographic areas that support species that we hope to preserve may shift outside the borders of our current parks as the climate changes. At the same time, increasing demands on resources will mean that economic and resource constraints that are imposed by setting aside lands will need to be carefully balanced. We need a new set of criteria for preservation and conservation, which in our time have come closer to meaning the same thing.

Will Muir’s legacy—the current national park system and network of other federally protected wilderness areas—survive through the twenty-fist century? It will depend on our capacity and will. In 1914, the US federal debt stood at about 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Today the public federal debt stands at 70 percent of GDP.28 It comes as no surprise that in a time of declining governmental financial capacity some conservative politicians have called for the sale of some of our national parks and other federal lands.

Orchard and Irrigation Ditch, 2007, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barrom Bixler.

Muir knew there would always be those who disagreed with his preservation values. He had an innate distrust of the elite and particularly the economically powerful. What kept him going was a faith in the transformative power of exposure to nature. He believed that visiting places like Yosemite would promote greater health and happiness for the American population and greater public support for parks. His message was tailored to the Anglo-American world of a century ago. That strategy worked, and the US national park system is its fruit.

But, today, we see a worrying trend. With the nation’s changing ethnic demography and economics some researchers predict that this could lead to a decrease in the proportion of Americans visiting wilderness areas and parks such as Yosemite.29 One wonders if this could ultimately lead to an erosion of broad public support for parks, wilderness, and conservation.

Bringing more people to Yosemite—as Muir might have suggested—may no longer be the best way to ensure societal value of the natural world. An alternative is to bring nature to people through urban parks, open spaces, and wildlands at the edges of cities. This can be done in a way that sets aside new land for conservation that is accessible for an urban population and affordable for cash-strapped agencies to oversee, as we’ve seen with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in Los Angeles. Through a joint partnership of federal, state, and local government and private parties, 450,000 acres have been put aside for conservation and recreational uses. The capacity and cost for management is shouldered by multiple partners making the costs more affordable for each. In many ways, this is a model for the future. This experience of nature may be different than Muir envisioned in his preoccupation with remote wilderness parks such as Yosemite, but he was an innovator and a realist. I think he would have seen the value in such arrangements.

Salton Sea, 2007, from LA Environs. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

I think we can find practical solutions to twenty-first century conservation problems very much in the spirit of Muir’s work. But what about Muir’s work itself? Can his writings and deeds continue to excite and incite despite the century between us? I’ve read much of what Muir wrote. His unbridled enthusiasm for the mountains and forests of California is at once naïvely optimistic by modern standards and completely infectious. It made us remember the same naïve exuberance of childhood and adolescent adventures in Yosemite and the Sierra.

I also reflected upon his darker writings regarding Hetch Hetchy and the loss of that battle in the final year of his life. I thought about how he might have retained his faith that the people were with him even if the vested interests were not. Yet In 2012 when San Franciscans voted on a proposal to study the potential to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley, 77 percent rejected the idea. Muir would have been crushed.

I imagine him raging again: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”30


Thanks to Hollis Lenderking, UCLA Class of 1971, for his vision and generous endowment of the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at UCLA and support for this issue of Boom and the Muir Symposium, “A Century Beyond Muir.” Thanks to my parents, Walter and Mildred MacDonald, for taking me to Yosemite over the years and through the seasons and thus planting the seeds that led to a life of working in the Sierra Nevada and many other wild places around the world. 1 Historical facts regarding and insights into the life and philosophy of John Muir are drawn from Edwin Teale, The Wilderness World and John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954); Holway Jones, John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite (San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1965); James Clarke, The Life and Adventures of John Muir (San Diego: The Word Shop, Inc., 1979); Dennis Williams, God’s Wilds: John Muir’s Vision of Nature (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2002); Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 2 See Holway R. Jones, John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite (San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1965); Robert W. Righter, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Calls to remove the dam and restore the valley continue. See Dan Lungren and John Van de Kamp, “Restore Yosemite? It Can Be Done.” Los Angeles Times, 3 December 2013. 3 John Muir, Our National Parks (Boston: Hughton Mifflin, 1916), 90. 4 François Matthes, François Matthes and the Marks of Time: Yosemite and the High Sierra, Fritiof Fryxell, ed. (San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1962); Jeffry Schaffer, The Geomorphic Evolution of the Yosemite Valley and Sierra Nevada Landscapes: Solving the Riddles in the Rocks (Berkeley: Wilderness Press, 1997). 5 Robert Righter, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). 6 Daniel Philippon, Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005). 7 John Muir, Our National Parks, 3. 8 California Protected Areas Database (CPAD) Statistics Report for March 2014, accessed 7 June 2014, http://www.calands.org/uploads/docs/CPADStatisticsReport_2014a.pdf. 9 Letter from John Muir to [Henry F.] Osborn, 8 February1910. University of the Pacific Holt-Atherton Special Collections, accessed 7 June 2014, http://digitalcollections.pacific.edu/cdm/ref/collection/muirletters/id/7567. 10 Katharine Hayhoe et al., “Emissions Pathways, Climate Change, and Impacts on California,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101, no. 34 (2004): 12422–12427. 11 Cal-Adapt developed by UC Berkeley’s Geospatial Innovation Facility (GIF) with funding and advisory oversight by the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) Program, and advisory support from Google.org. Data from Scripps Institution of Oceanography California Nevada Applications Program (CNAP), accessed 7 June 2014, http://cal-adapt.org/temperature/century/. 12 S.E. Godsey et al., “Effects of Changes in Winter Snowpacks on Summer Low Flows: Case Studies in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA, Hydrological Processes DOI: 10.1002/hyp.9943 (2013). 13 William Cornwell et al., “Climate Change Impacts on California Vegetation: Physiology, Life History, and Ecosystem Change,” California Energy Commission Publication number: CEC-500-2012-023 (2012). 14 John Muir, “On Actual Glaciers in California,” American Journal of Science and Arts, Third Series, (1873), 69–71. 15 John Muir, The Mountains of California (New York: The Century Company, 1894). 16 Bill Guyton, Glaciers of California: Modern Glaciers, Ice Age Glaciers, Origin of Yosemite Valley, and a Glacier Tour in the Sierra Nevada (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2001). 17 Hassan Basagic, cand A. G. Fountain, “Quantifying 20th Century Glacier Change in the Sierra Nevada, California,” Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 43 (2011), 317–330. 18 Alejandro Guarín and Alan H. Taylor, “Drought Triggered Tree Mortality in Mixed Conifer Forests in Yosemite National Park, California, USA,” Forest Ecology and Management 218 (2004), 229–244. 19 Alejandro Guarín and Alan H. Taylor, Forest Ecology and Management (2004). 20 Williams, A. Park et al., “Forest Responses to Increasing Aridity and Warmth in the Southwestern United States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (2010), 21289–21294. 21 Constance Millar et al., “Climate Change And Forests Of The Future: Managing in the Face of Uncertainty,” Ecological Applications 17 (2007), 2145–2151. 22 John Muir, “On the Post-Glacial History of Sequoia Gigantea,” Proceeding of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Buffalo Meeting (August 1876), 3. 23 California Department of Finance, “E-7. California Population Estimates, with Components of Change and Crude Rates, July 1, 1900–2013,” accessed 8 June 2014, http://www.dof.ca.gov/research/demographic/reports/estimates/e-7/view.php. 24 California Department of Finance, “New Population Projections: California To Surpass 50 Million in 2049,” accessed 8 June 2014, http://www.dof.ca.gov/research/demographic/reports/projections/p-1/documents/Projections_Press_Release_2010-2060.pdf. 25 John Muir, Our National Parks p 391. 26 Letter from John Muir to [Jeanne C. Carr], [1870] May 29, University of the Pacific Holt-Atherton Special Collections, accessed 8 June 2014, http://digitalcollections.pacific.edu/cdm/ref/collection/muirletters/id/11718. 27 Karen Klein, “On Hetch Hetchy, John Muir Was Wrong,” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 2012. 28 US Government Accounting Office, “Federal Debt Held by the Public as a Share of GDP (1797–2012),” accessed 8 June 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/661580.pdf. 29 James Bowker et al., “Wilderness and Primitive Area Recreation Participation and Consumption: An Examination of Demographic and Spatial Factors,” Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics 38 (2006), 317–326. 30 John Muir, The Yosemite (New York: The Century Press, 1912), 261–262.


Future of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image at top courtesy of Ed Schipul.


What Is Sustainable?

by Miriam Greenberg

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Toward critical sustainability studies.

Editor’s Note: This is only an excerpt from Miriam Greenberg’s article. 

Sustainability is a futuristic, even utopian, project par excellence. As with all utopian projects, sustainability offers a vision of the future to galvanize us to imagine our world otherwise and engage in the work necessary to change it.

Sustainability asks us to define those things of greatest value in our present that ought to be sustained in order to achieve this utopian vision of the future. Simultaneously, it forces us to consider those things that are not of value, and should not be sustained. Sustainability is thus a striking example of the power and limits of utopian ideals.

This dream of a sustainable future, in all its complexity is deeply rooted in California. Sustainability is now a global discourse. But California has played an out-sized role over the last century in promoting the discourse, as well as in embodying sustainability in the eyes of the world. This has especially been the case in California’s most famous green zone, the Bay Area, which has been at the forefront of eco-oriented lifestyles, cultural experiments, and politics for over a half century.¹

Wildflower mural in Union City by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

Indeed, the Bay Area is often imagined as the heartland of “ecotopia.” Ernest Callenbach coined the term in his 1975 cult novel of the same name, in which an Edenic Northern California, with San Francisco as its capital and the Sierra Nevada as its defensible border, has seceded from the rest of the nation. Ecotopia helped establish a futurist mythos in which sustainability is identifiably Californian, and California itself becomes less a place than an ideal—one that others around the world can only dream of attaining.²

This ecotopian vision has had remarkably wide and enduring influence. Given the global cultural, media, and economic influence of California, as well as the dramatic natural attributes of the West Coast, sustainability projects hatched in the Golden State have had something of a branding advantage.³ Green Californian vistas have been reimagined through advertising, product design, regional vision plans, lifestyle magazines, architectural experiments, films, and literature. They have also had a profound impact on modern, eco-oriented organizations and social movements—from the Sierra Club to the alternative food movement—that remain associated with the state’s unique landscape and supposedly unique state of mind.

This has had the effect of reifying a dominant vision of sustainability, providing authentically “Californian” images, experiences, faces, and products to ground this inherently abstract notion, and has thereby solidified the state’s reputation—and in particular iconic cities, regions, and landscapes—as the spatial and cultural embodiments of our sustainable future. California, and especially Northern California, have become a sustainable mecca to make pilgrimage to, gain inspiration from, and seek to emulate.

If Northern California is cast as the capital of our sustainable imaginary, Southern California is its inverse: a dystopian nightmare of sprawl, smog, and reckless overconsumption. Ecotopia‘s promised land was based on a regional binary of North/South, with the dividing line drawn somewhere below San Jose. The Central Valley, meanwhile, is erased altogether. As explored through Kristin Miller’s photo essay in this volume, this binary has been rooted in, and an inspiration for, science fiction fantasies of film, television, and literature since the 1960s, preoccupied as this genre has been with the prospect of imminent environmental and social collapse.

Photograph by Mona Caron.

To scholars of utopia, this juxtaposition of expansive dreams and rigid boundaries will be familiar. For as with all utopian projects, visions of sustainability are both vitally hopeful and frought with contradictions. Collective “wish images” of our idealized future have long been presented as universal and all-inclusive across lines of class, race, and geography, while also drawing boundaries that exclude. They have been portrayed as monolithic and consensual, while necessarily being shaped by multiple and often competing imaginings. And while appearing as visions of an ideal future world, these visions are inevitably cobbled together from past experiences and ways of knowing, which themselves go unacknowledged.4

In everyday life, these contradictions lead to real dilemmas for all of us working in the field of sustainability—as teachers, scholars, practitioners, activists, and citizens. As urgent as our current situation is, and as pressing as our desire is to push for a sustainable future now, if we are to overcome these dilemmas we first need to step back and ask some very basic questions about the nature of our goal. Namely, what is to be sustained and what is not? And who gets to choose and who does not?

Upon trying to answer these simple questions, one soon realizes the inherently political nature of the pursuit of sustainability. The complexity of these politics assert themselves even though—perhaps especially because—sustainability’s adherents and promoters tend to view and present the concept as so common sense and unquestionably good as to be “post-political.”5

This is an alluring proposition—who doesn’t want to sustain something, and who doesn’t want their ideal future to be easily achieved? Moreover, any argument against sustainability can seem like one for the forces of the apocalypse. Yet, seeking answers to these questions, one sees that in fact sustainability is neither simple nor singular. Rather, multiple sustainabilities are in circulation, and in competition. What’s more, these different versions reflect the particular values of the individuals, communities, industries, cities, nations, and so on, that are in position to define the term. Hence, the sustainable future we seek to build depends entirely upon whose sustainability we are talking about.

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El Camino mural in Hillsdale by Mona Caron. Image courtesy of the artist.


Image at top by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

1 Richard Walker, The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

2 Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (Berkeley: Bantam Tree Books, 1975).

3 For example, see Abraham F. Lowenthal, Global California: Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) and the program in Global Californian Studies at UC San Diego: http://globalcalifornia.ucsd.edu/.

4 My approach to the study of utopian ideas is particularly influenced by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. For analysis of Benjamin’s concept of dialectical “wish images,” see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), chap. 5. For critical theories of utopia, see David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

5 On the “post-political” uses of sustainability discourse, see Erik Swyngedouw, “The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33 (2009): no. 3, 601–620; and Melissa Checker, “Wiped Out by the Greenwave: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” City and Society 23 (2011): no. 2, 210–229.


Climate and Energy Forecast

by Hugh Hart

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

It will be hotter. It will be drier, at times, and wetter at others. We’ll get less water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, and the Pacific Ocean will rise and creep inland. But beyond those brute certainties, scientists, futurists, technologists, and entrepreneurs offer competing visions about how climate change will affect California in the decades to come.

Average present-day snowfall in the Los Angeles region. Photograph by Bob Bernal; rendering by Jacob Cooper, Climate Resolve.

“The choice before us is not to stop climate change,” says Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve in Los Angeles. “That ship has sailed. There’s no going back. There will be impacts. The choice that’s before humanity is how bad are we going to do it to ourselves?”

So what will it be? Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

The bad news. OK.

If we choose to do nothing, the nightmare scenario plays out something like this: amid prolonged drought conditions, wildfires continuously burn across a dust-dry landscape, while potable water has become such a precious commodity that watering plants is a luxury only residents of elite, gated communities can afford. Decimated by fires, the power grid infrastructure that once distributed electricity—towers and wires—now loom as ghostly relics stripped of function. Along the coast, sea level rise has decimated beachfront properties while flooding from frequent superstorms has transformed underground systems, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), into an unintended, unmanaged sewer system.

Short of the nightmare, realistically, California, like the rest of the world, will see temperatures rise over the next four decades. The California Climate Change Center predicts a rise in average temperature ranging from 1.8 degrees to 5.4 degrees by mid-century. By contrast, annual average global temperature increased a relatively moderate 1.8 degrees over the preceding 150 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some areas in California, inland and in the deserts, will get much hotter, with many more super-hot days in the summer.

The sea level will rise along the coast. Polar ice melt-off combined with ocean water that expands in volume as temperatures rise will produce sea level increases from 5 to 24 inches south of Cape Mendocino, and up to 19 inches north of this geo-tectonic pivot point, according to recent simulation models produced by the Ocean Protection Council. The rising ocean will wipe away beaches and wreak havoc on some shoreline communities and infrastructure.

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission Executive Director Larry Goldzband warns of the damages that could result from a bad weather trifecta in the Bay Area. “What happens if you get increasing sea level, a huge storm, and king tides, which happen when earth, sun, and moon come into alignment, all at once?” he asks. “Water from the bay spills into the city.” The Adapting to Rising Tides project predicts that the low-lying Oakland International Airport would be exposed to three or more feet of flooding during storm events with 16 inches of sea level rise.

Potential impact of global warming on snowfall in the Los Angeles region by 2050. Photograph by Bob Bernal; rendering by Jacob Cooper, Climate Resolve.

To the flooding, add fires. California’s three worst fire seasons have all occurred within the last ten years, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Higher heat fosters tinderbox-like conditions that exacerbate human- and lightning-caused flames.

California’s water supply, much of it sourced from snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, will decline. UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Director Glen MacDonald points out that roughly 80 percent of the state’s water is used to grow food. “When water becomes more scarce because of higher rates of evapotranspiration, how much water will we shift from our fields to our city?” he asks. Wherever our food will come from, it could be more expensive and there may be less of it.

Warmer temperatures also translate into a shorter winter chill period that farmers count on to grow fruit and nuts in the Central Valley. The delicate balance of sunlight and mild temperatures that fostered ideal conditions for Northern California grape growers could be thrown out of whack. National Academy of Sciences research notes that vintners in Sonoma County and Napa Valley may be forced to relocate farther north as temperatures heat up.

So what’s the good news?

There is a clean, green, utopian scenario. Gasoline-fueled gridlock becomes the stuff of ancient urban legend as freeways set aside zero-carbon lanes for hydrogen-fueled vehicles and bicyclists. Agribusiness responds to arid conditions with hyperintensive farming techniques fertilized by their on-the-farm organic waste byproducts. Houses and commercial buildings generate their own power supplies with solar-paneled roofing, so homeowners happily share kilowatt surpluses with neighbors on a networked energy grid as easily as Facebook users now share online content, restaurant and reading recommendations, and instant messages.

As temperatures rise in California, more optimistic futurists count on green production and consumption technologies to soften the impact. “Cool roofs” and pavement made of reflective materials will improve energy efficiency in buildings, for example. In Los Angeles, 40 percent of the city’s land mass is street, parking lot, or playground, and much of that is paved in asphalt. “That grabs the heat from the sun and keeps it at surface level because it’s black and absorbs heat,” says Climate Resolve’s Parfrey. “If we remake our streets so they’re more reflective, then we could cool down the urban heat island effect, which adds between 3 to 22 degrees Fahrenheit to a cityscape.”

People will abandon their cars for other ways of getting around these green streets. In the Next 10.org study “Unraveling Ties to Petroleum,” UCLA-based lead author Juan Matute points out that public infrastructure has for decades rewarded the one-person-per-gas-fueled car lifestyle with hidden incentives. Envisioning the day when $80,000 parking privileges might become commonplace, Matute notes that the “Lone Driver” model historically flourished because consumers did not bear the true cost of public space devoted to free or cheap parking. In the future, he says, “If we reduce incentives for people to park on the street and decide that parking has a cost, we’ll probably see more transition to transit and ride-sharing.” The “ride share” concept, stubbornly ignored since its origins in the 1970s, is already quickly gaining traction thanks to profit-motivated, peer-to-peer jitney services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.

Matute’s study projects that by 2050, only about one third of personal travel miles will be attributable to gas-fueled cars. In place of the combustion engine technology that powered Californians’ twentieth century self-image as a free-wheeling, hypermobile society, large gas-fueled vehicles will give way to electric cars, bicycles, scooters, bullet trains, mass transit, and neighborhood electric vehicles described by Matute as “fast golf carts.”

Matute produced a carbon-neutral scoping plan for Hermosa Beach pegged to the year 2075. “We assume a 95 percent transition to electric vehicles over that time period,” he says. “That seems to be the way things are going.” Since 2002, when GM crushed dozens of its experimental electric EV1 vehicles due to insufficient market demand, electric car fortunes have already rebounded, signaling a dramatic reduction in vehicular greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013 Tesla reported record revenues and announced plans for a lower-cost $35,000 electric car to supplement its Model S sedan. IBM’s Battery 500 Project aims to design lithium-air batteries that would boost the ability of electric cars to drive without a charge beyond their current 500-mile limit.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 1970 Clean Air Act dragged car manufacturers kicking and screaming into a forced-innovation mode that put an end to the smog alerts and spared Californians the pollution-clogged scenarios currently facing Mexico City, Beijing, and other exhaust-drenched urban centers. In the twenty-first century, government-engineered carrot-and-stick programs aim to similarly spur private sector ingenuity.

While it’s too late to halt climate change in its tracks, state government policy encourages entrepreneurs, businessman, technologists, homeowners, and consumers to get with the same low- and even no-carbon vision for California. The California Energy Commission’s alternative and renewable fuel and vehicle technology program (created by Assembly Bill 118) invests nearly $90 million during the 2013 fiscal year to develop new transportation technologies, alternative and renewable fuels. California’s renewable portfolio standards mandate that 33 percent of the state’s energy production must come from renewable energy sources by the year 2020. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 mandates that greenhouse gas emissions be cut to1990 levels by 2020*. University of California, Los Angeles, researchers hope to wean Los Angeles completely from fossil fuels by then.

Forum for the Future Director Jonathon Porritt, who outlines an “aspirational” view of the year 2050 in his new book, The World We Made, sees California as an exceptionally hospitable environment for photo-voltaic cells, already widely used in solar panel roofing, as well as solar-concentrated plants that deploy satellite-shaped dishes, parabolic troughs, or towers to collect energy from the sun. Porritt says, concentrated solar power is “a phenomenal technology. It is very expensive in that every single one of those reflecting glass panels has to be pretty much handmade, so it’s not a mass technology yet; but once it is, there will be no limit to the amount of sunshine that can be harnessed.”

Smoke from the Rim Fire blowing east, as seen from the International Space Station on August 26, 2013. Photograph courtesy of NASA.

Wind farms will also figure into the mix with more bird-friendly turbines than some of the older models that line California ridges. With an 840-mile coastline, California could also exploit tidal and wave energy technologies. “We will see a lot of small, discrete on-shore plants that capture the power of the wave as it hits the shore,” says Porritt, “although you would have to do that without causing huge visual impairment of that beautiful coastline. People would not take kindly to that.”

One big challenge for renewable energy production is storage. “You need to smooth out the intermittency of renewables such as wind and solar that depend on variable weather conditions,” Porritt says. Assuming that storage systems catch up with production, Porritt figures renewable energy could provide all of humanity’s energy needs by the end of the century. “It won’t be because we’ve run out of oil,” he adds, “but because people have figured out better alternatives.”

Many renewable advocates regard nuclear energy as a dead issue in California, where state law prohibits the building of any new nuclear plants. But a contrarian cadre of environmentalists, including Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, believe in the potential of fourth-generation nuclear reactors. Following California’s now-shuttered San Onofre reactor dysfunction and Japan’s catastrophic Fukijama meltdown, anti-nuke investors, politicians, and citizens will need a lot of convincing. Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger, who produced a feasibility study on “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” contends that nuclear energy deserves a second look. “New reactors need to be safe, need to be modular, and they need to be efficient,” he says—and he believes they can be.

Department of Energy grant winner Transatomic, run by two MIT-schooled technologists, promises a “walk-away safe” reactor that revives the use of molten salt coolants, introduced in the 1960s, to eliminate radioactive rods that currently bedevil nuclear waste management. Microsoft mogul Bill Gates’s TerraPower start-up markets “traveling wave reactors” as being cheaper and safer than its predecessors. Shellenberger says, “I think you’re going to see a generation of environmentalists who were born after Three Mile Island who don’t remember Chernobyl and grew up worrying about climate change, not about nuclear energy.”

Energy policy at the mid-century mark will not be shaped only by shifting patterns in production and consumption technologies. The stealth game-changer may turn out to be distribution. In place of the long-established central power grid, some seers favor a smaller-is-better paradigm. Kathi Vian, lead author of the “California Dreaming” forecast produced by the Palo Alto–based Institute for the Future, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego, pictures the rise of a “trusted friend” network that enables consumer/producer civilians to share energy with one another. “Our best case scenario is that we’ll develop a smart grid like the Internet,” she says. “You could use a backyard waste digester to generate energy, and if you had a few extra kilowatts you didn’t need, you could plug that in to the grid and donate or lend them to somebody else in the system. Once you get that smart grid hooked up with an open application layer, you could imagine a Facebook app where you assign rights for your energy to someone else. People would start to play with energy in the same way they now play with information on the Internet.”

British futurist Porritt figures that a middle-of-the-road option will gain currency in the decades ahead that would still allow individuals to take better control of their own energy usage and consume less as a consequence. “My hypothesis is that we will move much faster than people would think toward micro-grids. We’ll see small-scale, community-based grids where people won’t go to complete off-grid self-sufficiency as they do in survivalist communities, but they also won’t depend on a central grid system. Instead, people will use distributed energy sources—wind, solar, biomass—to create systems that are just as reliable if not more reliable than the current central systems, and are nearly CO2 free.”

Utopian and dystopian visions of the future can provide powerful motivations. But California’s response to climate change may ultimately succeed or fail on the strengths of another West Coast archetype: the entrepreneurial innovator. A three-person Los Angeles operation called Beehive Lighting, for example, is working right now to revolutionize movie and TV production with a line of plasma lights that reduce on-set energy consumption by 50 percent. As future-casting geologist MacDonald notes, “Americans are ingenious inventors and also good capitalists. If people see climate change as a challenge, there will be opportunities to save the world and make a pretty good profit on it.”

So what will it be? The good news? Or the bad news?

Let’s not sit around waiting to find out.


*An earlier version of this article stated that the California Global Warming Solutions Act mandated greenhouse gas emissions be 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In fact they are to be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.

Image at top is of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert, shown here with the Primm Golf Course in the foreground. Photograph courtesy of Brightsource Energy.


The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenge of a New Era

For decades a global leader, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions, California has recently faced double-digit unemployment, multi-billion dollar budget deficits and the loss of trillions in home values. This atlas brings together the latest research and statistics in a graphic form that gives shape and meaning to these numbers. It shows a new California in the making, as it maps the economic, social, and political trends of a state struggling to maintain its leadership and to continue to offer its citizens the promise of prosperity.

Among the world’s largest economies, California is the nation’s agricultural powerhouse, high tech crucible and leader in renewable energy. The state is the most populous and most diverse state in the continental U.S. Yet its infrastructure is coming under increasing pressure. Water supply systems are strained, the legendary highways are over capacity, and the celebrated system of public schooling is unable to offer affordable quality education at all levels. Health and welfare services, particularly for the poor, needy, disabled, and seniors, are at great risk.

Richard Walker and Suresh Lodha’s The Atlas of California shows a new California in the making.


Dances with California

Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 144pp, $22.95)

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Logan

What might a seed utter while talking back to Monsanto?

What would the creative process of a squirrel writing a poem look and sound like?

Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire dances with seeds and squirrels and will inspire today’s “people moaning at gas pumps” and tomorrow’s ecopoets.

Hillman’s poems embrace the layered world of the everyday – of memories, violence, activism, and the encounters we share with other living species even including termites.  She captures topics running through today’s news cycles such as drones, healthcare reform, and “Facelessbook.” But the work also reveals elements of the foundations of her present, be they onion soup flakes, Camus or brothers playing chess at Christmas.

If your reading style is to skip around like the hummingbirds that fill Hillman’s verses, consider reading first the dedication and then “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie.” Within these two sections, Hillman provides a helpful framing of the work’s themes and concerns.

Seasonal Works is a treasure of letters on fire, miniature photographs, and scientific and non-English phrases. Hillman challenges us to more intensive observation and action. Pick up a copy and wander out into California’s noisy landscapes with Hillman as a guide.

Image at top by Chris.


LA’s Thirsty Muse

by Sara V. Torres

Could a poetic form from the 13th century offer new ways to understand our 21st century conflicts over water? The sonnet may be perfectly suited to the task, a group of poets assert. Historically it has been the poetry of power imbalances: between Petrarch and Laura, Shakespeare and his patron, and Donne and his Three-Personed God. Its fourteen compact lines of verse strain to convey conflicting forces and desires that may, or may not, find resolution. What better creative form, then, to explore the history of guilt and guile, of conflict and cooperation surrounding Southern California’s water wars than the sonnet?

“Such an asymmetrical relationship exists between Los Angeles and the remote sources of its water,” writes Christian Reed, a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA, and one of the conveners of 14 poets who took up the challenge of writing sonnets during the LA Aqueduct centenary this fall. “LA and the Owens Valley have been locked in a dynamic dyadic relation since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct one hundred years ago,” Reed writes. Working on the UCLA library’s collaborative Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform, Reed invited  professional writers, artists, and students to create a traditional (or nontraditional) sonnet using archived images of the LA Aqueduct as inspiration.

Reed saw in the sonnet, the Italianate “little song,” an opportunity to bring together a community of writers and of readers who could re-envision the possibilities for inscribing LA’s past and imagining its future—in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.

“Sierra Nevada Headwaters,” Mixed Media, 22″ x 30″, Valerie P. Cohen

Though most closely associated with the Renaissance, the sonnet form is uniquely suited to this modern endeavor. The tightly-structured sonnet form served as an inspiration for creative explorations in formal innovation and artistic experiment. Contributors to the LA Aqueduct sonnet cycle freely adapted the sonnet form, creating “overflowing” sonnets, prose poems, and even multimedia art. Artist Valerie P. Cohen, when invited to write a sonnet based on archival materials about the aqueduct, instead offered to paint a watercolor whose design is based on Mount Morrison, a 12,241-foot metamorphic peak whose runoff ends up in Los Angeles. The history she captures in her mixed-media painting, “Sierra Nevada Headwaters,” is both regional and personal; her father, John D. Mendenhall, made what may have been the first ascent of Mount Morrison in 1928.

In early December, surrounded by archival images and documents preserving the history of the aqueduct’s construction, the entire sonnet cycle was performed aloud in UCLA’s Library Special Collections. UCLA English professor Robert N. Watson, a specialist in the fields of Renaissance literature and ecocriticism, delivered a response to the cycle highlighting the verbal echoes and imaginative motifs that ran through the entire sequence and gave it thematic cohesion.

Like the sonnet form itself, the ongoing water conflicts in California may or may not find ultimate reconciliation. But the efforts to preserve water resources in California may well require the kinds of creative habits of mind, steeped in both tradition and innovation, familiar to poets. As Reed writes, the aqueduct sonnet cycle “opens a space in which meanings can seep, can saturate one another, can be soaked up by a larger audience and offers an invitation to readers that is something like the opposite of Mulholland’s famous line ‘There it is, take it.’ Rather, these sonnets say: ‘Here comes history, awareness, poetry: be taken by it.’”

And here is my own contribution to the sonnet cycle:

by Sara V. Torres

Long sweep of the desert wind across high mesa meadows,

blue-eyed juniper, lilac, sage, cactus scrub, cascara sagrada,

wide-armed mesquite, pale iris, primroses, piñones thick with needles,

resin-glistened rocks, lone enebro, sawabe dusted across cañon slopes,

sky-divided waters, white-blossomed yerba mansa,

crested quail, meadowlarks, beetles moving on the face of desert lakes.

Two iron-ringed arms reach out across the plains, full-veined,

Crushed limestone cut from the valley, desert-baked concrete, captures streams,

plunging deep across a land of water borders retraced in the earth,

of lost mines and rabbit borrows, hawks and unflinching old vaqueros;

Waters drawn towards sunset, towards pillars and light-bathed stars,

towards invisible cities beyond the somber mesa.

The ending: Frontinus runs dusty fingers through a street-well’s trickle

Plumbed Appia, Anio Novus, dammed Aniene above Subiaco,

His fixed gaze mingles with the Tiber among crumbling columns of stone.

We bring a bronze legend to this outstretched map of arid land,

and think on oar-dipped waves and scrolled papyrus,

our familiar genius at home among these abundant ruins.


Growing the California Dream

Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton and Company, 592pp, $35)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Imagining LA conjures a series of well-known images: the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, the sunny seashore. The less enthusiastic might imagine traffic jams on the freeways, a sea of cars roasting in the too-hot sun. And above all of these symbols, both literally and metaphorically, is just one—the palm tree. From postcards and tourist brochures to music videos and movie shoots, the palm marks any scene as quintessentially Los Angeles—and even quintessentially California. Tree and city, tree and state, are imagined as fundamentally interlinked.

Jared Farmer takes on this connection between trees and symbols in his impressively researched Trees in Paradise: A California History. Spanning the state’s history from the Gold Rush to the present, Farmer analyzes the ways in which people interacted with redwoods, eucalyptuses, orange groves, and palm trees in order to create the California dream. Crucially, Farmer’s history is neither strictly environmental nor strictly cultural. Instead, he carefully details the ways in which the people living in California used and abused trees to create a mythological paradise, a verdant land where anything at all was possible. Californians created that mythology on the trunks, leaves, and fruit of trees—and exported it to the rest of the nation. California’s trees came to signal an imagined state where dreams came true in the warmth of the sunshine and the shade of its leaves.

California has more trees now than it has had since the late Pleistocene about ten thousands years ago, but, Farmer argues, this process was far from natural. While Californians—and Americans—imagine the state and its mythology through its trees, those trees and that mythology had to be carefully planted, grown, and cultivated. With the exception of redwoods and a few species of palm, none of the trees Farmer discusses are native to California, and even those that are native have been modified and commodified for human use. But trees, too, are subject to changing tastes and sensibilities. Although non-native trees like the palm and orange remain embedded in the idea of the Golden State, others, like the eucalyptus, have fallen out of favor. Once beloved, the eucalyptus is now demonized as a hazardous non-native – in language eerily similar to the rhetoric used to criticize and exclude people who have come to California from elsewhere.

Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative. If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you.

Photograph at top by Gregory Wass.


A New Water Atlas

by Chacha Sikes

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

A twenty-first-century manifesto.

We are nerds for nature. Our millennial generation is fairly ignorant about the great California water system we are about to inherit, but we have a plan to solve this problem.

Water sustains our humanity, though many of us have no idea where our water comes from. We don’t need toour modern water systems were created specifically so that we wouldn’t have to think about how we get good, clean drinking water and could instead focus on our lives and work.

Some say we are headed for serious water crises and possibly even water wars. Reduced snowpack, changing rain patterns, and groundwater depletion are just a few of the big changes coming our way.

From The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

The New California Water Atlas. Courtesy of ca.statewater.org

We have a project underway to help our generation make sense of the mess we are about to inherit. We are creating a new “Owner’s Manual” for water in the State of California. This will be a citizen-focused, interactive California Water Atlas that will help us understand where, exactly, our water comes from, where it goes, who uses it, how it interacts with landscapes, both natural and built, and how healthy that water is. We will teach ourselves how to care for our water systems and get ourselves connected back into our democratic public resource management system, but upgraded for modern times.

We believe that the days of Chinatown are over for California. Secrecy is dying out in favor of openness, transparency, science, and full accountability. We want to get as much unpredictability out of the way—and understand the unpredictability we can’t eliminate. We believe by sharing information about our natural resources more openly and understandably, we can make smarter choices with water and heal the devastation caused by previous generations.

We will make it possible to use our best facilitation and negotiation skills to rehumanize our connection to water. Our generation’s talented technologists, cartographers, environmentalists, agriculturalists, journalists, water professionals, and community advocates will work together to create a New California Water Atlas for the twenty-first century.

This is not the first time a California Water Atlas has been created as a public work. In fact, we are inspired by the original California Water Atlas.

In the late 1970s, Californians faced severe water shortages during a prolonged drought. But very few Californians understood our highly engineered water systems statewide, making it difficult to understand how to manage water fairly during times of stress and strain. Governor Jerry Brown commissioned an atlas from the California Department of Water Resources. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, chaired the advisory board. Huey Johnson, Secretary of Resources, worked with state agencies to get basic information about water sources, quantities, and uses into a format that could be visualized in the atlas. The atlas makers used the latest technology available at the time to create maps on computers, and they generated truly beautiful, clear maps that made one of the most complex water systems in the world much easier to understand. The original, giant atlas has since been digitized by historical map collector David Rumsey and can be viewed online.

Standing on the shoulders of those who created the original California Water Atlas, the New California Water Atlas will provide a critical update to decades-old data and put it all online, where emerging technologies will make the new atlas an exponentially more powerful resource for citizens, government, water managers, and consumers. For one, the tools for producing maps have become much less expensive and allow more people to tell geographically based stories. Similarly, a massive culture of “makers” has emerged. Makers look for opportunities to create; innovative projects that make a difference inspire them. We are now capable of designing sensitive sensors and launching our own satellites. We are also expert in finding ways of presenting complex data.

Like the technology, the process of collaboration will also be open. Guidelines and templates for new digital maps will be publicly available. New companies and communities will be able to develop innovative interactive maps for all Californians. We also want to encourage the active participation and collaboration of the many water users and water resource managers in California, including farmers, well-water users, orchardists, government staff, city water users, industry, kayakers, environmentalists, and more. We are excited to collaborate with various mapping communities and to leverage remote-sensing and teach a whole new generation how to use the Web to communicate our understanding of water so that we can all do our part to steward our most vital natural resource.

The New California Water Atlas. COURTESY OF CA.STATEWATER.ORG.

Water is a shared resource in California, and we are all in this together. Partnerships and new collaborations will be encouraged, and we will all get to be proud of what we create. We expect this project to be ramping up for a few years, and for a number of new communities to form that will continue to build upon this new way of presenting public information in ways that will continue to be useful for generations to come. This is because we deserve clear, understandable, accurate, public-friendly, useful information about our water systems.

Once we have the information, we can start to change the way we communicate about the issues. In the open government movement, there is a kind of emerging civic collaboration called participatory budgeting. We are inspired by this process, through which the various needs of a city are made public, and carefully facilitated community meetings are held so that those affected by the budget are able to make fair choices. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want, but it does reduce some of the conflict and encourages us all to be creative and work toward a common goal. Imagine if we could apply this process to our water budget. California actually does create a new State Water Plan every five years, and one is due in 2013. Let’s get involved and overwhelm this obscure bureaucratic planning process with our enthusiasm for understanding water and bringing a peaceful resolution to age-old conflicts over water in California.

A prototype of just one interactive map for the New California Water Atlas was launched earlier this year. The California Water Rights Atlas shows all of the approximately 50,000 current and historic water rights holders throughout the state. A color-coded map of water uses—irrigation, stock-watering, power, municipal, fire protection—shows water rights holders’ names and how much water they are allotted. Tallying tools allow anyone to see how much water is used along a river. The data comes from the State Water Resources Control Board, a state government entity that ensures that water in California is allocated for beneficial use and is not wasted. This information had never before been brought together in one user-friendly place. Now that it has, we as Californians can begin to understand for ourselves how our water is being managed and whether it is being managed in our best interests. Because we are working in an open and collaborative way, the data is now on its way to getting better, and advocates of water in communities across the state can make derivative maps that tell more specific stories about water usage in their watershed.

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 The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

Because a lot of new legislation is happening around groundwater, we are planning to release a digital groundwater visualization kit based on our groundwater interactive, which will make it easier for journalists and policy folks to communicate far and wide about proposed policy changes and why they are important.

Other planned maps can show water pricing, water return flows, and water conflicts. Taken together, these maps will enable us to advocate for responsible management, and at the very least to present challenges in their full complexity back to voting Californians so that we can make more informed decisions about our future. This valuable data will help Californians make critical and informed business decisions where water price and availability are concerned—for farms, vineyards, cities, hydropower, and more.

The availability of water in California is changing. Climate change will accelerate these changes in this century. Our greatest reservoirs for fresh water—the snowpack in our mountains—will diminish. More precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow. The snow will melt faster in the spring, changing the timing of water and requiring us to alter our expectations about the water we can store and deliver throughout the rest of the year. Droughts, floods, and temperature changes will alter the land, water deliveries, and timing of crops. Wastewater treatment, water recycling and reuse, conservation, and desalination will all become even more important. We will try to live sustainably, but will also endure new stresses. Some of us will move away.

For most Californians, the impact of this future is hard to imagine. As it is now, most Californians never really think about where their water comes from or how they use it. For all they know, their water comes from “somewhere in California.” We have handed off responsibility for our water to agencies, which for the most part cannot afford to make big efforts to educate the public outside of urging conservation during major drought years. This has made it far too easy for city dwellers—the majority of Californians—to take no responsibility for the impacts that plans made today will have on our future. We know that California needs to overhaul its entire water system. Dams age. Levees age. Sewer pipes age. It is estimated that California would need to spend $39 billion to catch up on all of its deferred water infrastructure maintenance.

Outside of the cities, water is a much more immediate, serious, and actively political concern. But whether Californians are concerned about their water or not, it has been very difficult for us to learn more about our water, particularly from unbiased sources. When citizens—not to mention lawmakers, policy analysts, institutional ratepayers, farmers, and journalists—try to become more informed to make better decisions, the problem becomes immediately apparent. Data about our complex water system is in disarray, woefully unorganized, inconsistent, and difficult to navigate. Every day that the data remains unorganized and obscured to the public is another day that new platforms for understanding our challenges and new solutions are delayed, to everyone’s detriment.

Now, we could be totally boring, scientific, regulatory, and bureaucratic about this. We can measure our water precisely and manage it wisely. But why be boring when we can be feisty? We can still fight about water. But let’s at least understand what we’re really fighting about—and let’s do it in our own California way, using the best data and interactive social technologies. The New California Water Atlas will present the state of water in California so that we can all see where we are and argue over where we are going and make better long-term decisions together.

There are no rules. So let’s just do this. Join us. Together we can make a New California Water Atlas that tells us what we really want to know about water in California.

Our hope is that when it is possible for any individual in California to see and understand the complexity of our water systems, it will encourage more direct action to conserve water in cities, to plan the future of our cities considerately, to understand our agricultural economies, and, ultimately, to work together through our climate crisis. We can choose and design healthy cities, farms, economies, and sustainable water systems.

The ultimate goal is a California we can take pride in, with healthy watersheds with happy people and happy fish, clean, intelligent, resilient, water systems for farms and cities, managed using quality science and open, accurate, and useful government data. In the end, we really are all talking about the same thing.

Times really have changed. We are part of a movement of millennials who want to effect practical change and do the less glamorous work to really solve our ongoing problems. We want to have at the future and use our abundant intelligence to make California even greater.

We grew up caring for the environment. We want rural areas to have healthy water. We are passionate about having healthy food systems. We do not want to continue generations of ignorance and apathy, to hand off control of our water resources to whoever happens to be there, to whoever happens to be the most greedy and opportunistic. We want to understand water and know that we are doing our part.

From The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

From The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

The atlas makers used the latest technology to make truly beautiful, clear maps that made one of the most complex water systems in the world understandable.

We can still fight about water. But let’s at least understand what we’re really fighting about.

We need this baseline information because the future itself will be full of dramatic shifts, to the climate, to the rain, but also new technological advances, such as instantly purified water, lower-water footprint foods such as in-vitro meats and chickenless eggs, dam removals, flood plain restoration, new city dwellings on stable ground, water recycling, desalination, and who knows what else. We don’t know which future technologies will catch on, but we do know we need to turn our attention to making the most of what we have. A readily accessible baseline understanding of California’s water system will underlie our success in making California stronger and healthier for centuries to come.

We can’t change history. But we can reclaim our connection to our water and feel that deeply human satisfaction that many of us share that we are protecting one thing we truly cannot live without.

How to Get Involved

The New California Water Atlas is a California-wide, open source, collaborative effort uniting the diverse talents of technologists, designers, cartographers, researchers, water experts, water users, and government entities to build next generation visualization tools for improving public understanding of water for Californians. If you are an organization that works to protect water and healthy communities in California, please reach out to us. We would like to find ways to involve you.

We have seed funding through Patagonia by way of the Resource Renewal Institute, http://rri.org, an environmental think tank in Marin, led by Huey Johnson, the Secretary of Resources for California during the time of the creation of the original California Water Atlas. We are very grateful to him for pushing our thinking and encouraging us to take this to the edge in ways that will have widespread policy implications.

More information about initiatives, sponsorship opportunities, events, meetings, guidelines, workshops, field trips, and more can be found at http://ca.statewater.org.