Dirty Digits and “Pleasant Landscapes”: On Jason A. Heppler’s “Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism”

By W. Patrick McCrayApril 23, 2024

Dirty Digits and “Pleasant Landscapes”: On Jason A. Heppler’s “Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism”

Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism by Jason A. Heppler

DANIEL BELL DIDN’T think much of Alvin Toffler, but what’s most telling about the two men is the remarkable similarity of their vision. Bell saw himself as a serious intellectual, a sociologist, with appointments at the University of Chicago, Columbia, and, starting in 1970, Harvard. Toffler was an academic tourist, an informed freelance writer inclined to package his ideas in easy-to-digest phrases. Bell, who had risen to prominence as a public intellectual in the 1960s, solidified his position in 1973 with his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, a tome of over 500 pages presented as “a venture in social forecasting.” Toffler had become a celebrity three years earlier on the strength of Future Shock, an equally long but far more readable book on how rapid technological and cultural change would soon shake the psyche of global society. If the natural habitat of Bell’s writings was the university seminar room, Toffler’s was the airport lounge. In the end, the differences didn’t matter.

Both books, using different styles to be sure, posited that the United States was on the precipice of radical transformation. The old Industrial Age, based on large, capital-intensive, and polluting factories churning out steel, automobiles, and other weighty commodities, was, they said, wheezing to a welcome end. High-value goods like electronics, produced via leaner and cleaner high-tech industries, were about to dominate the market. Global society was moving, Toffler said in The Eco-Spasm Report (1975), to a new phase that would be “technological, but no longer industrial.” Although the term had yet to be coined in 1970, when Toffler first got under Bell’s skin, the vision both men had for the future of work and manufacturing would come to describe Silicon Valley, or at least one version of it.

For decades, as environmental historian Jason A. Heppler writes in his new book Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism, boosters and business leaders promoted the Santa Clara Valley, which would become known as Silicon Valley, as an alternative to the “smoke-stacks, noise, coal cars, [and] soot” that characterized tired, rusting, “old industry” cities in the Northeast and Midwest. According to one New York Times reporter, not only was San Jose’s horizon pleasantly “unmarred by smokestacks” but its workforce was also dominated by people who worked in bucolic campus-like suburban office parks surrounded by trees and other well-tended lawns. Since the 1950s, these shock troops of Bell and Toffler’s postindustrial society had made the region into the “base of the computer-electronics industry” while still maintaining it as “an unpolluted place to live.” (The irony—more on this later—is that these quotes appeared in a 1982 Times article about the invisible yet potentially deadly chemicals long used by the Valley’s electronics firms, which were now turning up as contaminants in drinking water.)

The high-tech companies of Santa Clara Valley, along with the “real estate developers, bankers, brokers, planners, and builders” who combined forces to promote the region as an exemplar of “clean industry” needed gobs of land. How this land would be used, who would have access, and who would decide which areas to preserve or let fall to the bulldozer’s blade is at the heart of Heppler’s book. This is, in other words, a subversive view of Silicon Valley’s history that keeps the usual suspects—the Hewletts, Packards, Noyces, Moores, and Jobses—in the background. Environmental inequalities, as the title suggests, are in the foreground.

Heppler’s narrative runs roughly from 1945 through the 1980s. Short sections at the beginning examine the agricultural history of Santa Clara Valley, which was the region’s defining activity until the midcentury. Its terrain extended from the fringes of San Francisco southward to San Jose and out to the farming and bedroom communities of Gilroy and Hollister. Crops could be cultivated on an industrial scale thanks to the favorable climate and fertile soil. By the time the United States entered World War II, there were some 6,000 farms, with more than 130,000 acres under tillage. This changed at the end of the war when millions of cherry, apricot, and pear trees were demolished to make way for development. One Santa Clara County planning official observed that you could always tell when an orchard was about to be replaced by suburban development. Strawberries would go in, he said, because “[t]hat’s a quick, one-season crop while you wait for a buyer with the right price.”

Whereas conventional histories of Silicon Valley point to Stanford University’s research acumen as pivotal to the region’s transformations, historians of urbanism and political economy have pointed to other factors, focusing—quite rightly—on the essential role that defense-related largesse and favorable tax codes played in catalyzing transformation. Heppler adds yet another factor by way of real estate. Stanford University was the region’s largest landowner, controlling over 8,100 acres, which Leland and Jane Stanford had gifted to the school with the proviso that it could not be sold. That proviso was extraordinarily consequential. For several decades after the university’s founding in 1885, the land was used mostly just for ranching and recreation.

After 1945, Frederick Terman, the school’s ambitious provost, needed to mobilize substantial funds—enough funds, as he saw it, to catapult Stanford into the ranks of MIT, Berkeley, and Harvard. The university therefore launched a planning office in 1945, which, by the 1950s, had seized on the idea of renting university-controlled land for light industry and commercial development. A bonus: It would help create “a community in which work, home, recreation, and cultural life” would be “brought together with some degree of balance and integration.” Alf Brandin, a young Stanford alum hired in 1946 as the university’s business manager (in 1959, he was made vice president for business affairs), oversaw much of this activity. A high-end shopping center, for instance, brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into the university’s coffers.

However, the crown jewel of the school’s real estate empire was not the shopping center but the Stanford Industrial Park. Created in 1953, SIP featured an eye-pleasing design that quickly attracted high-profile high-tech tenants such as Eastman Kodak and Lockheed Missiles. Eventually, SIP grew to some 500 acres and employed 17,000 people while generating over four million dollars annually for its landlord. SIP was developed with a bucolic aesthetic in mind. The architecture emulated the red-tiled roofs and adobe exteriors of university buildings—branding via design—and, crucially, it was framed by well-maintained greenery. As Brandin recalled, the businesses who rented space in SIP had to be “clean, no smoke, no heavy manufacturing.” Parking lots were placed behind buildings while road setbacks put lush green lawns and landscaping out front. The net effect was to generate huge profits for Stanford while attracting business activity that synergistically interfaced with Stanford’s students and professors and also, just as importantly, did not offend the sensibilities of nearby homeowners.

While Stanford enacted its slow growth policies, the city of San Jose, some 20 miles east, did the opposite. In the 1950s, the city expanded dramatically thanks to its pro-growth mindset. Annexation enabled ruthless city boosters to gobble up land. Add to this three more factors: tax incentives, flexible zoning, and discriminatory redlining practices. The end result was to segregate San Jose, with Black and Latinx families clustered on the north and east ends of the city. Places that received low rankings for mortgages by federal agencies, such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, were often where farming, orchards, or canneries were located.

HOLC surveys were already racially and ethnically biased. As Heppler astutely notes, they can be read not only as discriminatory documents but also “as environmental history.” His point is that the two can’t be disentangled. Places categorized as undesirable with respect to mortgages had, as one description said, “a certain appeal to foreign laborers as sustenance homesteads.” In this way, housing that favored a certain kind of “nature” was given precedence over other kinds of building. “Homeowners came to expect,” he writes, “that the places they moved to had not only low property taxes, upward social mobility, and segregated neighborhoods, but a pleasant environment as well.” It was one thing to desire a one-acre lot with a green lawn and some fruit trees. But living next to a working farm where (Brown) laborers came to pick vegetables every day was another thing altogether. “The labor of an orchard and aesthetics of blossoming trees,” Heppler notes, were “a single feature that homeowners preferred to separate.”

Not surprisingly, infrastructure favored the well-off. Drainage and flood control projects left San Jose’s Black and Brown residents anything but high and dry. Low-income residents, left disconnected from urban services, had to use poorly maintained roads and inadequate sewers. When winter rains arrived, a barrio on San Jose’s East Side faced regular flooding and dysentery outbreaks. Its residents came to call their neighborhood “Sal Si Puedes” (for “Get Out If You Can”). In response to these conditions, César Chávez—the soon-to-be-famous labor activist—co-founded a chapter of the Community Service Organization to protest the city’s lopsided urbanization plans.

In other parts of Santa Clara Valley, the aesthetic tastes of white, middle-class homeowners shaped much of the conversation around what a suburban landscape should look like. When Wallace Stegner arrived in Palo Alto in 1945 to start Stanford’s creative writing program, he described it as “very pleasant country” with “golden wild-oat hills dotted with marvelous old liveoaks.” A new aesthetic—captured rather well by the word “pleasant”—became the mark of a postindustrial landscape that was clean, healthy, and visually attractive. Two decades later, Stegner had changed his tune; he lamented that “[t]he orchards that used to be a spring garden of bloom” throughout Santa Clara Valley had been “crusted with houses […] whole hills carried off to fill the bay, the creeks turned into concrete storm drains.”

What counted as nature, as well as its various preservations, and what a proper landscape should look like, were becoming pressing concerns, albeit only for the privileged. For residents of well-heeled Palo Alto, the issue came to a vote in 1960. Stanford had announced plans to lease 600 acres of its undeveloped land to the Ampex Corporation, one of the region’s burgeoning electronics makers. One resident wrote Stanford’s president that the plan showed little concern for the “‘total environment,’ which he defined as ‘parks, golf courses, and low-density housing.’” Well-off white homeowners complained in hundreds of other angry letters that the university was betraying them, and betraying an environmental aesthetic. Stanford pushed back hard, saying that the Ampex development would be a “thing of beauty,” not industrial blight. Nonetheless, voters narrowly defeated a ballot initiative that would have approved the university’s development plan. Facing considerable local opposition, Ampex decided to locate its facility elsewhere. Although not quite what Bell and Toffler would later imagine, Stanford University, in a case of language outplaying landscape, renamed the Stanford Industrial Park as Stanford Research Park.

Like “nature” and “industry” (or, for that matter, the word “pleasant”), environmentalism is a dynamic and historically contingent term. Throughout the 1960s, a variety of citizen groups emerged to put forth different but complementary visions of what the Valley’s landscape should look like. This activism took place concurrently with national protests about civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia, both conflicts in which Stanford University, a major recipient of defense dollars, was indirectly embroiled, as were local industries. For example, the Committee for Green Foothills focused its energies on the confluence of conservation and recreation while the California Tomorrow group aimed to control (sub)urban sprawl. Reflecting the shift in environmental priorities and politics, La Confederacion de la Raza Unida focused its attentions on exclusionary housing policies—what today we would call “environmental racism.”

Taken together, the work by groups such as these served to “highlight the range of suburban reactions to growth,” whether it came from white professionals concerned with the visual landscape or student radicals seeking to address the deleterious effects of decades of discriminatory urbanization practices. Women, as Heppler shows, played a central part in efforts to control and direct urban growth, especially as the environmental politics of the 1970s “found itself infused with gendered understandings of neighborhoods.”

The tacit agreement made by the boosters and businesspeople of Santa Clara County with the region’s residents was that prosperity would come through the pursuit of clean, nonpolluting industries like electronics manufacturing. But there was a dirty and decidedly unpleasant rub, a blight within the Apple, an unfairness beneath the Fairchild: in the 1980s, a series of exposés had begun to reveal how this promise had been broken. A growing cohort of “tech reporters” began generating awareness about Silicon Valley, its companies, and their products for an audience of technology enthusiasts, computer consumers, businesspeople, and policymakers. Taken together, their articles and books stoked public recognition of “Silicon Valley.” Michael S. Malone was one of the key journalists. His family arrived in Santa Clara County when the region was in the midst of a vast transition, much of it driven by the Cold War’s command economy. Rapid demographic changes produced schoolyard antagonism when the children of blue-collar workers, many of them still toiling in the area’s quickly disappearing orchards, confronted the offspring of well-paid engineers and technicians employed by local aerospace and electronics firms. Decades later, Malone would recalled how he, as a newcomer, had dreaded the fights at his local school. In 1979, after working several years for Hewlett-Packard’s publicity machine, he became a business writer for the San Jose Mercury News.

When Malone joined the paper, it was still focused on local news, and few reporters wrote much about Silicon Valley beyond quarterly reports. Malone decided to delve behind the computer products and companies’ financial statements to find the “real story,” as he called it, of Silicon Valley. One of his first big topics was tacitly taboo for the region’s trade press, dependent as it was on good relations with Silicon Valley companies: the toxic chemicals that were by-products of the chips and integrated circuits that made computers and other transistorized products possible. As one administrator at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration pointed out to Malone, “People think of it as wires, soldering, and transistors. But when you get to the [semiconductor business] you’re really talking about chemical reactions. It’s a chemical industry.”

In April 1980, Malone partnered with investigative journalist Susan Yoachum to produce a damning three-part series called “The Chemical Handlers.” Their reporting showed how the careless use of hazardous materials and then the illegal dumping of chemicals translated into workers’ injuries (some fatal), a high rate of work-related illnesses, and increased birth defects; thus Heppler intimates that Silicon Valley should really be called Arsenic Valley. Malone and Yoachum’s reporting went beyond gathering data and statistics to give a voice to injured workers, and to their newly chronic conditions like dizziness and nausea. The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Scores of articles about the poisonous nature of the postindustrial economy appeared thereafter and throughout the 1980s. In response, local companies were forced to pledge tens of millions of dollars to address environmental and safety issues.

The last chapter of Heppler’s book gives a historian’s take on the issue of Silicon Valley’s less-than-green-and-clean industrial legacy. He explores the work of community activists like Robin Baker, Amanda Hawes, and Pat Lamborn, who started the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health in the late 1970s. Its aim was to serve as a voice for workers whose health had been harmed by their involvement in manufacturing electronics. He also tells of attorney Ted Smith’s efforts, via the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, to hold companies accountable and provide information to the public about chemical leaks. But Heppler is most keen to make the point that activism around this toxic legacy brought a different form of environmental activism to the fore. Mainstream environmentalists were often “too elitist,” noted Smith, and cared more about trees and birds than about people” being poisoned by the tap water in their neighborhoods.

Silicon Valley’s subterranean aquifers were being quietly contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals. Because chimneys weren’t belching smoke, the damages weren’t overtly visible. Instead, there were an unusual number of miscarriages and childhood health problems. By 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency listed some 29 so-called Superfund sites in Santa Clara County, most of them the result of electronics manufacturing and many of them predominantly affecting poor people and people of color. One of the worst offenders—a tract of land bordered by Middlefield, Ellis, and Whisman roads in South San Jose—is now the site of a Google campus, the epitome of the postindustrial worksite where well-paid knowledge workers enjoy the perks of a “pleasant” office.

Although a few passages in the book’s conclusion bring the reader closer to the present, Heppler’s narrative formally ends in the 1980s. While the historical research is impressive, one wishes the author had devoted more attention, perhaps even a full chapter, to the environmental and economic inequalities that mark Silicon Valley’s high-tech urbanism today. The entrepreneurs of “clean” electronics manufacturing have long since fled the Valley and, as documented by Chris Miller, taken up residence in Taiwan, South Korea, and other Asian locales where labor costs are lower. Despite the contemporary emphasis on chip design and software programming—exactly the sort of postindustrial activity that Bell and Toffler imagined—Silicon Valley still has an outsized environmental impact. Energy and water are still essential ingredients, just as they were for chipmakers in the 1970s. Today, however, these resources power and cool huge server farms while the fossil fuel footprint of cloud computing is anything but nebulous. While the focus in Heppler’s book is fixed on the local and regional, the environmental consequences of today’s information technologies are global, as historians such as Nathan Ensmenger have explained.

Silicon Valley was—and remains—an experiment, one that many cities and regions, ignoring the contingencies of history, are quixotically attempting to replicate. Government funding was essential to its success as were the materiel demands of the Cold War’s national security state. Santa Clara County was a political project that attempted to combine suburban capitalism with a particular environmental aesthetic to construct the allure of a “pleasant” landscape.

The result, Heppler writes, was the creation of two places. One was a high-tech region that has since morphed into a metonym for “innovation.” The other was a social construction fashioned by boosters, scientists, businesspeople, and politicians through hucksterism, research, and real estate dealings. Today, seduced by promises of a shiny, gilded future, the tech bros of Silicon Valley and the venture capitalists who fund them are notoriously uninterested in history. Nonetheless, the region’s highly paid engineers and entrepreneurs—along with the nannies, cooks, and gardeners whose labor keeps the Valley’s financial and familial circuits functioning—are living with this not-so-pleasant (and possibly not even postindustrial) past.

LARB Contributor

W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and the author of five books on the history of modern science and technology including Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture (MIT Press, 2020). McCray is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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