The Cheap Frontier: Operationalizing New Natures in the Central Valley

Assistant Professor Neeraj Bhatia has published an article in the latest issue of Scenario Journal, on "Extractiona". Bhatia's article focuses on the "Cheap Frontier" of the Central Valley and features work from the Urban Works Agency's Switchscapes studio. Bhatia writes of Abibatou Sane and Jamie Ung's  Proposal:

In 2015, through The Urban Works Agency at The California College of the Arts, we launched a long-term design-research project that attempts to unpack these issues within the Central Valley while redefining nature and our relationship to it. We have been interested in understanding how a singular notion of California that collapses production and consumption into everyday life still allows for diversity, difference, and distribution of wealth, amenities, and quality of life. One issue that we have been examining is the use of water. Emerging as a primary resource for the state, the tensions between agriculture and oil are strongest in Kern County where both industries have consumed approximately 2.7 million acre-feet of water in recent years. To put this in context, Kern County’s water consumption could support an urban population of 15.9 million people at Los Angeles’ per capita consumption rate [41]. Not only is this water a precious resource to both industries — in a place with one of the lowest groundwater tables in the state and a lack of regulation over water effluent dumping, this water and its cleanliness is also heavily threatened.

While the discussion of water has been centered on how we can obtain more and morewater to sustain our current state of production in the Central Valley, we are more interested in is how the production of water creates new natures that act on society to re-pay the cheap frontier. Our entry point into this conversation is to first unpack the abandoned infrastructural relics of historic capitalism and ask how they can be re-operationalized to form new natures that society can exist within and develop alongside. This act of re-operationalization acknowledges that no true “nature” exists in the Central Valley, but rather that all nature is now produced. These new manufactured natures could leverage existing infrastructures not just to take advantage of new needs, but more importantly to consider how this existing framework can be subverted to act within what was once called simply “nature.” This second incarnation of infrastructure, now dissociated from the optimization and efficiency that propelled its initial formulation, is liberated to respond to new variables and evaluation matrices that now include both ecological and cultural dimensions.

More specifically, one thread of design research has focused on the repurposing of old oil pipelines that run from the Central Valley to the coast for transporting water in the post-oil future. One of the rare infrastructural elements running east-west that connect the Central Valley and the coast, we have speculated on how this infrastructure can be adapted to transplant resources and cultures from the coast to inland California. From an operational standpoint, the pipelines could be used to import water from the coast, while the Central Valley’s abundant, cheap, flat land and its dry climate could be centers of passive desalination through greenhouse seawater farming. Unlike large single-purpose desalination plants on the coast, greenhouse seawater farming utilizes evaporation of water across a large surface to distill fresh water while also providing a structure for the growth of plants. This form of desalination transforms industrial processes typically achieved by energy-intensive operations contained within a building (i.e., a desalination plant) into an organizational landscape strategy that incorporates urbanism within the very structure of production. The harvesting (vertically from aquifers or horizontally from distant lands) of what was once a readily available yet abstractly obtained resource, is turned into a collective social endeavor that choreographs new kinds of material and temporal practices for a society operating within nature — minimizing waste and labor, and producing a new cultural relationship to water. By creating inland islands of fresh water that would naturally attract similar amenities and uses from the coast, this operation subverts the coast/valley dialectic, while hybridizing them within the process of production. Ultimately, this collapsing of the distinction between “cultures of consumption” and “cultures of extraction” can create a new relationship of ecological reciprocity between production and consumption.

The article can be read online here.