2016-02-01 - Nature and Suburbs

I’m thinking a lot about the potential directions that this project can go. At its core, I still keep thinking about these contested but overlapping landscapes and the ways that conflict shaped the area’s identity and thinking about “nature.” I want to document a few threads I am trying to follow.

Nature and Silicon Valley: The Bird’s Eye View

Looking at the patterns of environmental thought and conservation in the Bay Areas as a whole, there are patterns that reflect other nationwide trends or follow specific regional and state-wide trends.

Nature and Silicon Valley: At the Neighborhood View

There are, I think, a few things I can conclude about the importance of neighborhoods in the story:

  1. I see the suburbs having a far larger impact on modern environmentalism that other historians have given credit. I echo the claim of others, including sellers2013crabgrass, hayden2000suburban, and rome2001bulldozer. Many of the environmental organizations I look at can trace their origins to suburban homeowners who became particularly concerned about the industrialization of the Santa Clara Valley and began to question whether the benefits outweighed the detriments.
  2. walker2008countrycity makes the claim that the Bay Area is exceptionally “green” and tries to document how that came to be. He claims that conservationists and environmentalists in the Bay Area were particularly attuned to the environment. His story tends to focus on elites (which he readily admits) but the story sometimes reads like a laundry list of people and environmental organizations.
  3. Environmentalism in Silicon Valley moves through phases. The first begins in the early 1950s that attempted to protect farmland from urban expansion. Farmland served two roles, the first as food producer, and the second aesthetic. The next phase remained concerned about the disappearance of the countryside, but became much more concerned about industry’s impact on that landscape. The third phase entered the realm of slow-growth and no-growth activism that advocated the end of urban sprawl and strict limits on industrialization. The fourth and final phase (in my study) focuses on public health and environmental justice, finding the toxic leaks and heavy use of chemicals among the supposed “clean” industries to be a significant threat to families and neighborhoods. Through each of these phases, the paramount concern always remained neighborhoods and homeowners.
  4. In many cases, neighborhoods led the way in defining environmental thought: contests with Stanford; contests with industrial parks; contests with businesses. The question is why they took such an interest in defining the landscape. davis1999quartz has argued, for Los Angeles, it centered around property rights and the protection of private property. I see it differently, that activism by neighborhood organizations reflects a genuine concern about the environment (à la rome2001bulldozer—but that concern is defined in very specific ways. Boosters and environmentalists often touted climate and beauty in their motivations for conservation. In some ways that could be viewed as a protection of property values, but I feel the expression of environmental thought actually springs from wanting to experience “nature”—physically through recreation and “picturesque” views. The protection of a countryside landscape becomes a desired feature of suburbanites up and down the Peninsula—zoning lot sizes, preservation of open space, establishment of parks, conservation of farmland. These become manifestations of an impulse to see the environment as something worth preserving. But this is imbued by culture, also.
  5. There’s also an element of historical memory I’m still trying to work through. There’s a memory about the Valley of Heart’s Delight that is embedded in some environmental critiques, and continues to play out well into the 1970s.

Potential Directions

All of these findings have presented me with a few directions I could take as the project moves forward.

What do all of these sources point to?

  • a way to understand environmentalism?
  • a way to explore the growth of environmentalism in suburbs?
  • a new way of understanding shifting perceptions about nature and cities?
  • examining more closely the role of “beauty” and “aesthetics” and “countryside” in the story of Silicon Valley?
  • klingle2003emerald speaks of an “ethic of place” with regard to Seattle. Does something similar happen in Santa Clara Valley?

I have also been thinking recently that my work could fit within the new emphasis on the history of capitalism. Richard White stated at the History of Capitalism Conference (2014) stated that:

“Capitalism has not only affected nature, but has set the very terms of what counts as nature.” (via @cdc29)1

This, in some ways, also strikes a chord with the sort of things I am working on. Industry in Silicon Valley does attempt to define what counts as nature—from the well-groomed lawns around Stanford University to the planned industrial parks in south San Jose. But maybe it goes beyond what industry considered nature. How do debates over city parks reflect competing ideas about nature? How do debates about protected lands, state and county parks, wilderness areas, and recreational facilities shape ideas about “nature”? Even beyond the cultural aspects, does the shaping of nature factor into capital and commodity flows or vice versa (e.g., cronon1991metropolis)? Do these factor into the story?

  1. Also, via @heathwcarter: “Richard White speaking on how nature fits in hist of capitalism at #HOC2014: commodity, capital, exogenous to economy, ecosystem services.”