The Cheap Frontier: Operationalizing New Natures In The Central Valley

Published in SCENARIO 05: Extraction
Fall 2015

The simultaneous division and interdependence between “cultures of extraction” and “cultures of consumption” are tied to the structural arrangement of historical capitalism, which required continual expansion both horizontally — across the landscape — and vertically — into the earth, for resources. In time, through continual expansion, regions of consumption and those of extraction were increasingly separated spatially, yet interconnected politically and economically. These forms of expansion were contingent on what Marx has referred to as the “free gifts of nature” — exploiting and commodifying the unpaid work of natural processes over time [1]. More recently, Jason W. Moore has expanded Marx’s notion through his concept of “cheap natures.” Moore’s cheap natures are found where one or more of the “four cheaps” exists — labor, energy, food, or raw material [2]. According to Moore, growth and accumulation in capitalism requires the continual search for the “four cheaps.” It is here that the frontier of capitalism resides, through the commodification of previously untapped natures [3]. While the frontier of capital locates itself in many diverse areas of the planet — from sweatshops in Mexico to coal fields in China — sites of resource extraction are always situated within the frontier.


Conduit infrastructure networks across the desert landscape, connecting points of extraction, refining, consumption, and export; North Belridge Oil Field (Photo by Neeraj Bhatia)


Within the state, the greatest political, economic, and cultural divide manifests itself between California’s coastline and the inland Central Valley. Coastal California projects an image of scenic landscape, progressive environmental movements, liberal culture, and density, while inland California is characterized by resource harvesting and extraction, their associated infrastructures, and their byproducts. Separated by topography, wealth, race, climate, and pollution, these two Californias are emblematic of the increasing divide between the realities of resource consumption and the exploitation of land and communities to extract these resources.

Nowhere is Moore’s concept of cheap natures more evident than in this “other California” — the flat desert landscape of the Central Valley. Driving through this region today, one is confronted with a comprehensively operationalized landscape designed to sustain both the state and the country’s resource needs. The “four cheaps” are so prevalent and pervasive in the Central Valley that it continues to be profitable to invest in massive infrastructures that import water to the valley (one natural resource that the area is in fact lacking) to cultivate agriculture and extract petroleum/shale resources. Situated between the Coastal and Sierra Nevada Mountains, this once difficult-to-access desert landscape is now globally networked through mega-infrastructural projects that connect to a vastly different California hundreds of miles away along the coast — a California that benefits from the unpaid work of the Valley’s nature.

As the drought persists in California, this operationalized landscape has become the central economic battleground for future food and energy security at both the state and national level. One might think that a 15-year drought would provide a productive impetus to radically reframe our societal relationship to the cheap natures of the Central Valley and its claim to distant resources, such as imported water. Instead, there are a series of proposed water projects on the drawing board, seeking to import water across increasing distances to support the continued operationalization of the Central Valley. Alternately, how can we locate a singular California — one that situates the production of nature within and parallel to the production of society?

02 Drought_Bhatia

With a lack of water, many farmers have been forced to abandon their crops. Photographed in the Central Valley in March 2015. (Photo by Neeraj Bhatia)


Cheap Raw Material

To understand the how California’s Central Valley was “gifted” with major natural resources, it is helpful to examine California’s foundations. Geologically speaking, California is a relatively young state that resided below sea level for the majority of its existence. As John McPhee describes in his geological account, Assembling California, “for an extremely large percentage of the history of the world, there was no California” [4]. It was not until the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 1960s that the geologic displacement of California’s mountain ranges could be explained. One of the critical clues to understanding the state’s geologic structure was the discovery of displaced ophiolites, a rock that typically occupies the deep stretches of the ocean floor, yet was discovered mysteriously atop California’s Sierra Nevada and Coastal mountain ranges [5]. Through the theory of plate tectonics, it came to be understood that California was the result of the sliding of the Pacific plate under the North American Plate, a process that started approximately a hundred million years ago.

Plate tectonics are responsible not only for California’s existence but also its rich resources — horizontally across the plain and vertically into the earth. The shifting plates are what pushed up the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well as Coastal range, while causing the ocean shore to retreat westward. Originating as an offshore region depressed by subduction of the Farallon Plate, the Central Valley was eventually enclosed by the uplift of the Coastal Range. This enclosure transformed the Central Valley into an inland sea, reinforced by draining snowmelt from the adjacent mountains. As an inland sea, the valley contained diatoms and plankton, which accumulated over the years to create an organic-rich shale. Subsequently, millions of years of sediment accumulated within the valley as alluvial deposits from the adjacent mountain ranges. This had two effects — first, it created the extreme flatness of the Central Valley, and second, it consolidated nutrient-rich soils within the ranges. As the alluvial plain gathered more sediments, it reached depths measuring between ten thousand and thirty thousand feet, the weight adding pressure to the organic material of the once-inland sea.

The result of California’s geologic history is intimately tied to the production of nature’s gifts in the Central Valley. The organic matter that once lived in the former inland sea, through millions of years of pressure, transformed into the large oil and shale deposits in the state. Additionally, it is the nutrient-rich soils of the Central Valley, coupled with its extreme flatness, that fostered an ideal region for agricultural production. Presently, the Central Valley covers 22,500 square miles and stretches 450 miles between the northern settlement of Redding to south of Bakersfield. While geology may have “assembled” the potential for resources in the Central Valley, human invention re-territorialized the Central Valley into a large infrastructure — horizontally and vertically — to cultivate, harvest, extract, and transport these resources.

03 OilField_Bhatia

The North Belridge Oil Field along California State Route 33 approximately 45 miles west of Bakersfield (Photo by Neeraj Bhatia)


Cheap Energy

Cheap energy is a critical factor in the development of any frontier. As Moore posits, since the steam power revolution, the productivity of labor increased primarily through abundant cheap energy. Similarly, labor productivity has been shown to stagnate when energy prices rise, which is also closely linked to economic recessions [6]. The productivity of labor rises because of mechanization — through advanced tools, technology, instruments, and infrastructure — that reduce the amount of labor per unit of yield. Moreover, energy discoveries produce wealth, which is often channeled into instigating new industries. California, like many regions of the planet that have experienced steady growth, has had consistent access to reasonably priced oil for over a century. This is primarily because energy was discovered locally — originally excavated from oil seeps by Native Americans and eventually industrialized in the late 19th century — sparking major growth periods for the state.

California’s first productive well was drilled in 1865 by the Union Matolle Company in the Central Valley (just east of San Francisco). At this time, the population of California was approximately 380,000 people, a fifth of whom were located in the San Francisco and Sacramento region [7]. Just four decades later, in the early 1900s, California was the leading state in oil production and this boom continued into the early 20th century — rising from four million barrels of production in 1900 to over seventy-seven million barrels by 1920 — to become the leading sector of California’s economy. Some of the largest findings included the Midway-Sunset Field (1894), Kern River Field (1899), Elk Hills (1911), and the Belridge South Fields (1911). Most of these discoveries were made in the southern Central Valley, more specifically in a region known as the San Joaquin Valley, which runs from San Joaquin County in the north to Kern County in the south.

California Map_Scenario Journal Copy

Oil and Shale reserves and their associated infrastructures. (Map by Cesar Lopez with Johanna Hoffman  / The Open Workshop)


With the discovery of oil came riches that, among other things, spawned the boom of Los Angeles, massive real estate developments, the film industry, family dynasties, and new infrastructure throughout the state [8]. Oil discoveries, real estate, and property rights were intimately related during this time. Several people who made it rich in the oil industry also entered the real estate game, and the boom in private property ownership enabled the discovery of more oil [9]. Property rights created a haphazard framework for oil extraction. In settled areas, nineteenth-century land laws enabled private landowners to claim subsurface oil deposits from their land in a “rule of capture” system that encouraged competition with adjacent neighbors [10]. Within federal and state lands, oil companies competed for access to large tracts of land that were purchased at relatively inexpensive prices.

Without a comprehensive plan or overview of resources, this piecemeal competition began quickly depleting valuable lands — property rights, as opposed to market demand, was driving competitive production practices, with owners rushing to extract their oil before adjacent leaseholders [11]. The early twentieth century witnessed attempts by the federal government to re-possess federal lands and the enactment of policies to control forces of supply and demand, which in effect determined how companies developed the land. The growth of the state’s population paralleled these discoveries and speculation: the population grew from approximately 1.5 million to 3.5 million residents between 1900 and 1920, with nearby Los Angeles alone increasing from 170,000 to one million residents [12]. This rapid increase in population was inevitably sprawled across the landscape, with each private owner vying for land and its potential subsurface riches, encouraged by the development of petroleum-powered infrastructure that increased reliance on the automobile [13]. The well-known images of the endless horizontal city of Los Angeles and its dependence on the car has overshadowed another form of urban organization motivated by driving — that of the polynuclear arrangement of populations in the Central Valley that clustered into geographic “hot spots” of resources, moving quickly between these clusters by highway infrastructure.

Over the years, the Southern San Joaquin Valley proved to be a fertile ground for continued oil discoveries. With steam flooding technologies, the valley’s oil production peaked in 1985. Following a drop in production from 1985 to 2011, in recent years, the state has experienced a new boom through unconventional oil extraction, such as hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is not new to California, which has been employing the technique for several decades. What is new, however, is the more extreme process and technology associated with well stimulation that requires great amounts of water, chemicals, pressure, and energy. A modern high-volume hydraulic fracturing project uses up to eight million gallons of water per job [14]. This makes fracking highly controversial, particularly in a region currently starved for water. The Monterey Shale formation, which covers an area of approximately 2,520 square miles between Central and Southern California, is the site of the majority of unconventional reserves. Even at the lower estimates of ten billion barrels of reserves, this would position the Monterey Shale as a major competitor to the Bakken shale in North Dakota. Presently, there are approximately 84,000 active and new oil and gas wells in California, most of which are located in San Joaquin Valley, but increasingly these wells require water to keep them feasible.

While energy discoveries and cheap energy controlled California’s population growth, it also directly and indirectly instigated the development of infrastructure, sparked the growth of other economies, and contributed to technological mechanization to reduce labor power. Wealth, development, and speculation incited the purchase of large swatches of land in the Central Valley which were tapped vertically for oil and shale, and horizontally for agriculture. This three-dimensional operationalization of land in the Central Valley by two industries benefited from cheap energy, yet was heavily reliant on the input of water.

05 Kern Oil Field_Bhatia

Pumpjacks arrayed across the landscape of the Kern River Oil Field (Photo by Neeraj Bhatia)


Cheap Food & Labor

Agriculture has been a critical resource and economy in California dating back to the Spanish missions and Mexican ranchos that began around 1769 and operated until 1850. At the time, several miners were migrating away from the exhausted gold mines in Northern California and seeking new opportunities. The Central Valley had ideal conditions for wheat production — fertile soil, flat terrain, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. Already by the mid-1850s, California’s production exceeded local consumption and formed an emerging export economy. These farms differed from the family farms of the American North — not only were they larger, they employed scale-intensive technologies such as gangplows, large headers, and combined harvesters. Powered by cheap energy, these instruments effectively reduced labor-power and thereby increased accumulation [15]. By 1890, however, due to decades of monocrop grain farming, the land no longer yielded profitable harvests. This led California’s agriculture to shift from large-scale ranching and grain-growing to smaller-scaled, intensive fruit cultivation. There were additional reasons for the transformation from extensive to intensive crops during the early twentieth century, including increased demand for income-elastic fruits in urban markets; improvements in transport infrastructure; reduction of profitability of wheat due to falling global prices; the spread of irrigation and its accompanying break up of large land holdings; increased availability of cheap labor; growing knowledge of California’s environment; and reduced interest rates [16]. Already by 1910, intensive crops equaled extensive crops in terms of economic value in the Central Valley.

This shift to intensive crops and its associated infrastructures required ample cheap labor, which in the context of California has primarily been assumed by immigrant groups seeking upward mobility to other sectors of work — Chinese, Japanese, Sikhs, Filipinos, Southern Europeans, Okies and Mexicans [17]. Over the years, acknowledging the critical role and amount of labor required to sustain the agricultural industry, adjustments in policy have been made to ensure continual cheap labor. For instance, when WWII led to a siphoning of excess labor from the agricultural sector, the federal Bracero Program (1942) was initiated to supply Mexican labor to California. In spite of the termination of the program in 1964, the Mexican population still dominates the present-day labor sector [18]. Based on a comprehensive report and survey published in 2005, an estimated 36% of the United States’ farmworkers were located in California [19]. Virtually all of these farmworkers were Hispanic (99%) and foreign born (95%) [20], many without legal work authorization (57%) [21]. Finally, and most importantly for the frontier, this labor was cheap — 43% of all individual farmworkers and 30% of farmworker families earned less than ten thousand dollars per year, while 75% of all individual farmworkers and 52% of all farmworker families earned less than fifteen thousand dollars per year [22]. In California, the populations that have worn the role of cheap laborers often live in a continual state of precariousness — with little job security, income, or voice — that systemically implicates the individual in the production of cheap natures.

Even though labor in California was cheap, mechanized techniques were widely adopted in California’s intensive horticulture industry, in hopes of reducing labor costs even more, as well as of improving land. In the early twentieth century, California led the nation in adopting gasoline tractors, mechanical cotton pickers, sugar beet harvesters, tomato harvesters, and electric pumps. In 1920, over 10% of California’s farms employed tractors compared to less than 4% usage for the rest of the United States [23]. The long dry season and flat terrain were ideally suited to this equipment, and abundant cheap petroleum subsidized the substitution of labor for machinery.

06 Aquaduct_Bhatia

A series of aqueducts and pipelines cross through the Central Valley, primarily moving water from Northern California to the Central Valley’s aquifers and agricultural land. (Photo by Neeraj Bhatia)


Mechanization to improve the quality of land was most evident in technologies to control water — primarily to drain the land and irrigate crops. Despite the nearly ideal conditions for growing, the amount of water obtained by natural means could not keep pace with increasing demand. Between 1869 and 1889, the share of California farmlands that received water by artificial means increased from 1% to 5% and by 1929 was up to nearly 16% [24]. At the same time, as early adopters of electric power, half of California’s farms housed irrigation pumps, compared to approximately 10% across the rest of the United States. California accounted for about 70% of all the nation’s centrifugal pumps by 1940 [25]. The first half of the twentieth century’s valley water needs were satisfied vertically, by pumping groundwater, which accounted for half of all irrigated acreage by 1950 [26]. While groundwater was perceived as an unlimited resource, it was already clear by the 1930s that the falling water table, subsidence, and salinization were the result of over-extraction of groundwater sources [27].

At the same time that smaller-scaled private groundwater technologies allowed for increasing the amount of arable land by looking vertically, larger-scaled state and federal infrastructures were developed to redistribute surface water to the Central Valley horizontally across the plain. This was primarily achieved by hydroscaping — using manmade techniques to move large amounts of water to regions where it did not naturally occur. Both a large effort and a big capital expense, hydroscaping has been employed for the past hundred years to leverage the cheap natures of the Central Valley, with water acting as the key resource to unlock greater capital. With modest beginnings in 1913, the Colorado River Project was constructed to irrigate over 500,000 acres of land. The more ambitious Central Valley Project (CVP) was devised in 1933 to federally manage water in the Central Valley as part of the New Deal. Most of this water was transported from water-rich Northern California to the dry lands of the San Joaquin Valley, with approximately 70% of the water sent to farms and 30% to cities [28]. From 1945 to 1970, the state’s irrigated land increased from five million acres to more than seven million [29]. Following this trend, in the 1960s, the California State Water Project (SWP) started construction. The largest publicly built and operated water and power project, the SWP was comprised of a series of dams, canals, aqueducts, pipelines, and tunnels that transported water from the Northern California rivers to Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Central Valley. The SWP sends the majority of its water to cities, with only 30% of this water being allocated to agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley.

California Map_Hydroscaping Plan

Agriculture, hydrologic and the operationalization of the Valley. (Map by Cesar Lopez with Johanna Hoffman  / The Open Workshop)


Irrigation infrastructures have been the leading instrument in transforming the Central Valley from a dry, sandy, and isolated basin, to a region with highly specialized agricultural land comprised of over four hundred crops, several of which are unique to California. Presently, California harvests nearly half of the United State’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, and the majority of this production occurs in the Central Valley. For the past fifty years, California has been the top agricultural-producing state in America, leveraging the unpaid natural gifts of the Central Valley to master accumulation with reduced labor power [30].

The recent drought in California has forced the government to ration the amount of groundwater that farmers are allowed to tap. This has led to a vast amount of fallow land (approximately half a million acres), and unemployment rates have reached up to 10% in some communities. A recent study [31] conducted by UC Davis predicted the future persistence of the drought would result in a loss of $1.7 billion and 17,100 jobs. The current United States Drought Monitor reveals that 99% of California is “abnormally dry” and 95% is experiencing some form of drought [32].

California’s Governor Jerry Brown has responded with a plan to build a series of tunnels to transport water from Northern California to the Central Valley below the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which typically separates the two areas. Skimming off fresh river water before it enters the Delta’s brackish estuary, the twenty-five billion dollar project centers on the construction of two large tunnels — each forty feet in diameter and thirty-five miles long. The tunnels would drain the Delta’s fresh water and put pressure on local Northern farmers in favor of larger farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Environmentalists have noted that removing too much freshwater from the Sacramento River before it reaches the Delta would change the salinity of the estuary and have associated impacts on the estuary’s ecosystems. Opponents of the plan cite the overtaxing of the delta’s ecological system and the unfair alliance to subsidizing larger corporate farms in Kern County and the San Joaquin Valley [33]. More importantly, Brown’s initiative relies on a consistent ideological position that privileges hard infrastructural projects that commodify nature with an insatiable appetite for expansion, despite the increasing reality that the past century of terraforming, hydroscaping, and extraction has created a volatile situation predicated on limitless inputs. In fact, the new plan could be easily characterized by a description in a 1968 Department of Water Resources Annual Report, which stated at the time:

“California is in the midst of constructing an unprecedented water project for one essential reason — the State had no alternative. Nature has not provided the right amount of water in the right places and the right times. 80% of the people in California live in metropolitan areas from Sacramento to the Mexican border; however, 70% of the State’s water supply originates north of the latitude of the San Francisco Bay.” [34]

While water has now become the key ingredient in the sustenance of cheap food and oil, we must challenge, reframe, and expand our relationship to this resource to be more than an element to be commodified. How can the production of water operate within and parallel to society to instigate a new cultural as well as industrial relationship to resources?

08 Project States_Ung

States of desalination are opportunistically appropriated for differential planting, cultural programming, and atmospheric effects, embedding life within industry. (Image by Jamie Ung)


Within New Natures

While humanity has long distinguished itself from the rest of nature, it wasn’t until the rise of capitalism that humans were positioned as completely separate from nature. For Jason Moore, before nature could be rendered “cheap,” it needed to be situated as a separate external object from society, and thereby controllable [35]. The advantage of this separation was that cheap natures would create a foundation for a new law of value — one where the work of nature was unpaid [36]. This shift, evoked by capitalism, from society in nature to society and nature effectively formed a system of organizing nature in service to capital, [37] creating its own ecology and continually expanding to new frontiers. New frontiers have both inputs (the four cheaps) as well as outputs (i.e. waste) that presume limitless expansion [38]. While capital is infinite, we know that nature is in fact finite. How do we know when we are reaching the limit of an expansionist system that began almost five hundred years ago? Declining ecological surplus and the rising price of the “four cheaps” suggest that since the 2003 commodity boom, this phase of capitalist accumulation is exhausting itself [39]. At the same time, the accumulation of waste is lowering the productivity of unpaid nature, obvious in scenarios such as climate change [40].

Instead of humans acting on nature, the limit of cheap natures could signal a return to humans acting within nature. This is not necessarily a romantic notion of humans living in smaller communities integrated within the natural environment, as much as an understanding of how we form a reciprocity between nature and society, and how we can “pay back” for years of unpaid work. Further, this would require an acknowledgement that nature in the frontier has been a controllable object for so long that it is difficult to separate it from or to return to an “untouched” form of nature. We have created an object, and now we must question how this object can preform in service to other value sets that privilege social and environmental reciprocity and robustness. This concept is slowly being developed through notions such as “natural capital,” which repositions nature as an asset, or “ecosystem services valuation,” which quantifies the “goods and services” of regional ecosystems with an aim towards environmental preservation and/or restoration. While these new forms of environmental economics are promising, they remain abstract. Before a renewed economic system can gain traction, I contend that our cultural relationship to nature needs to be reformed. This can most easily be achieved through the material and spatial realties of these natures, associated infrastructures, and our relationship to them — implicating architects, landscape architects, and urban designers.

09 Desalination Landscape_Sane

View looking West of the Wasco site, showing the anticipated growth of the settlement towards the west into the desalination landscape. (Image by Abibatou Sane)


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 more water 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.

This is but one experiment in a series of studies that are attempting to unpack ways of considering the role and form of society within the production of new natures. What ties the work together is the understanding of the Central Valley as a comprehensively operationalized landscape of resource extraction associated with its production as a cheap frontier. Nature and infrastructure in this context have hybridized into a singular system that currently privileges a singular output — cheapness. The limit of the cheap frontier signals a new opportunity to rethink our relationship to nature as well as how the post-production of infrastructure can repay the unpaid work of the frontier.


HeadshotNeeraj Bhatia is the principal of the design practice The Open Workshop. As an Assistant Professor at the California College of the Arts, he co-directs The Urban Works Agency. He has been exploring the relationship between resource extraction and urbanism through the platform of The Petropolis of Tomorrow, which he founded in 2011.


[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III (New York: International Publishers New World Paperback, 1967 [1847 first edition]), 745.
[2] Jason W. Moore, Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2014)
[3] Jason W. Moore, “The End of Cheap Nature, or: How I learned to Stop Worrying about ‘the’ Environment and Love the Crisis of Capitalism,” in Structures of the World Political Economy and the Future of Global Conflict and Cooperation, eds. Christian Suter and Christopher Chase-Dunn (Berlin: LIT, 2014), 288.
[4] John McPhee, Assembling California (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), 5.
[5] Ibid., 116-120.
[6] Jason W. Moore, “Wasting Away: Value, Waste, and Appropriation in the Capitalist World-Ecology,” World-Ecological Imaginations: Power and Production in the Web of Life (blog), April 1, 2014,
[7] It’s worth noting at this time, that the population of Sacramento was approximately five times larger than Los Angeles. See: Government of California, Department of Finance, “Historical Census Populations of Counties and Incorporated Cities in California, 1850–2010,”
[8] “Oil! And the history of Southern California,” The New York Times, February 22, 2008, accessed July 4, 2015,
[9] Ibid.
[10] Paul Sabin, Crude Politics: The California Oil Market, 1900-1940 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004), 15.
[11] Ibid., 18.
[12] California Department of Finance, “Historical Census Populations of Counties and Incorporated Cities in California, 1850–2010,” accessed: July 14, 2015,
[13] Sabin, 10.
[14] “History of Fracking in California,” CAFrackFacts, accessed December 2, 2014,, 2013.
[15] Alan L. Olmstead and Paul Rhode, “An Overview of California Agricultural Mechanization, 1870-1930,” Agricultural History 62, no. 3 (1988).
[16] Alan L. Olmstead and Paul Rhode, “The Evolution of California Agriculture 1850-2000,” in ed. Jerome B. Siebert, California Agriculture: Dimensions and Issues (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004), 6.
[17] Ibid., 18.
[18] Warren E. Johnston, and Alex F. McCalla, “Whither California Agriculture: Up, Down or Out? Some thoughts about the Future,” Special Report Series, (Giannini Foundation of Agriculture Economics, University of California, August 2004), 13.
[19] Aguirre International, The California Farm Labor Force Overview and Trends from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (Burlingame, 2005), vii.
[20] Ibid., 10.
[21] Ibid., 15.
[22] Ibid., 26-27.
[23] Olmstead and Rhode, “The Evolution of California Agriculture 1850-2000,” 7, 12.
[24] Ibid., 3.
[25] Electrical Times, January 2, 1948; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Agriculture Vol. 11, Part 3.
[26] Olmstead and Rhode, “The Evolution of California Agriculture 1850-2000,” 17.
[27] Johnston and McCalla, 13.
[28] Alexis Madrigal, “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga,” in The Atlantic, February 24, 2014, accessed December 23, 2014,
[29] This peaked at about 8.5 million acres in the 1980s. See: Warren E. Johnston and Alex F. McCalla, “Whither California Agriculture: up, Down or Out? Some thoughts about the Future”, Special Report Series (Giannini Foundation of Agriculture Economics, University of California, August 2004), 23.
[30] American Farmland Trust, “Farming on the Edge,” accessed June 12, 2015,
[31] Richard Howitt, Josué Medellín-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan, Jay Lund, and Daniel Sumner, “Economic analysis of the 2014 drought for California agriculture,” prepared for California Department of Food and Agriculture by UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and ERA Economics (2014).
[32] Madrigal.
[33] Paul Rogers, “Is Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels plan repeating the errors of high-speed rail?,” The San Jose Mercury News, December 9, 2013, accessed November 15, 2014,
[34] California Department of Water Resources, The California State Water Project in 1968, Appendix C: Description and Status, Bulletin 132 – 68 (Sacramento, 1968), 3.
[35] Moore, “The end of cheap nature,” 287-288.
[36] Meaning, work that uses nature but is not regenerative of it. This has environmental and human consequences. Beyond the scope of this piece, the exploitation of the physical environment and its inhabitants in the Central Valley is ‘unpaid’ and often linked. For more on this topic see: Tanja Srebotnjak and Mariam Rotkin-Ellman, “Drilling in California: Who’s at Risk?” (Natural Resources Defense Council, 2014).
[37] Jason W. Moore, “Towards a Singular Metabolism: Epistemic Rifts and Environment Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology” in New Geographies, Issue 6. Daniel Ibanez and Nikos Katsikis (eds), (Cambridge: Harvard GSD, 2014), 12.
[38] Ibid., 15.
[39] Moore, “The End of Cheap Nature,” 298.
[40] Ibid., 308.
[41] Alexis Madrigal, “American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga,” The Atlantic, February 24, 2014, accessed: December 23, 2014,