Renown for its wealth, Silicon Valley is mythic as a source of market-driven innovation. Birthplace to the information age, the valley has had many names and faces. Originally inhabited by Ohlone Indians from 8000 B.C. through the early 1900’s, the valley was once famous for its ecological abundance. While humans have long inhabited the valley, its natural landscape has changed beyond recognition in the last 60 years. This recent and rapid change in landscape tells a story about what Americans and, particularly Californians, value as wealth.
California‘s culture of innovation is famous for its ability to generate economic wealth. Like capitalism, California has a deep cultural/economic habit of ongoing reinvention – a habit that keeps us narrowly focused on the future. Our continual ‘invention’ simply repeats itself – perhaps not so ‘innovative’ after all!?! The High-Tech economy is founded on rein- vention; the industry constantly makes chips smaller and faster in order to outdo the com- petition. While the forward momentum of this ‘newness’ has benefits, it also comes with costs. The wealth that is generated is rich in dollars, freeways, speed, and toxic waste. At the same time it creates a very particular kind of poverty – poverty in ecological, human, and community health.
In the name of true innovation – (to renew, make new, & to see new) let’s try something different. Lets look to our past and ask the question - what are the roots of our current economic wealth? The story of the Santa Clara Valley – aka Silicon Valley – is a timely and telling place to do this. It is an urgent opportunity to look at what we value – at how we create, and live, our idea of wealth.
Human beings and nature
While the Ohlone Indians altered the land-
scape of the Santa Clara Valley by burning to promote growth, and the Spanish cut down its trees and dammed its streams, no change in its environment has been so complete as the one since World War Two.
Silicon Valley = wealth?
Now, imagine for a moment you are walking - walking through a warm summer afternoon, cool sea breezes shift leaves on rows and rows of trees. Orchards forming rows, shady pathways keeping you cool from the mid-summer sun. Dark earth, rich dirt, thriving fruit trees all alive in the midday heat – the sweet, light smells of warm fruit mix with the damp rich smells of the dirt. And you are walking. Apricots, red blushes showing off ripeness, are everywhere. Stop. Pick one. Its slightly fuzzy skin, your fingers dent it easily – still firm yet just soft. Smell it. Eat it. Look around you. What is wealth?
Take the long-term view
Five million years ago the Bay Area was a high standing trough. The bay in its present form came into existence about a million years ago.
Warping and faulting from the Hayward, Calaveras, and San Andreas Faults created the valley. What is today the bay was once a great valley and the Santa Clara Valley was its southernmost extension. River systems cut thorough this great valley and made the deep, 340-foot channel we know as the Golden Gate.
Soil scientists calculate that it takes between five hundred to one thousand years to build one inch of topsoil. Many parts of the Santa Clara Valley can claim up to forty feet of such soil. This would have taken hundreds of thousands of years to build. These soils, combined with the valley’s abundance of underground fresh water aquifers were the foundation for its ecological wealth.
Only two hundred and fifty years ago the region was pristine and ecologically abundant. Picture open grass lands, rolling hills with ancient oak forests. Chaparral grasslands dotted with willow groves, and tule reed marshes filled with hundreds of species of geese, pelicans, quail, eagles, and giant condors. Herds of wild game roamed the land, grizzlies, elk, antelope, deer, pumas, wolves, foxes, and rabbits. The native Ohlone Indians were part of this ecological system from 8000 B.C. through the early 1900’s, over nine thousand years.
Those early native Californian’s were human beings. What makes them different from us? What we value - our idea of wealth. They were able to live in a steady state for 9000 years, while we have transformed and polluted the entire valley landscape in a mere 100.
The valley – 75 years ago & today
Silicon Valley, heart of global innovation for the information economy, is home to twenty-nine federally designated Superfund toxic waste sites (more per square mile than anywhere else in the U.S.) and ranks in the top ten most polluted counties in the United States. How? Why?
The transformation away from an ecologically connected landscape and economy took root during the period, from the 1880’s to the 1950’s when the region was known as the Valley of the Hearts Delight. The rich ecology that had maintained the life of the valley for thousands of years was put to work to create one of the greatest gardens the world has ever known. At this time the valley floor supported 7,000 small family farms, half of which were less than 50 acres. In the spring of 1925 (only 81 years ago), eight million fruit trees bloomed in a milky way of blossoms. That summer was overflowing with apricots, prune plums, grapes, and cherries. So rich was the soil, so mild was the climate, so abundant were the artesian wells, that by 1945 the valley was known as the ‘fruit bowl of the world’ and supplied fresh, canned, and dried fruit for half the world. The valley’s historic ecological abundance was the foundation for this agricultural wealth.
In 1888, Chaucey Depew, a presidential candidate and chairman of the board of the Vanderbelt railway system described the valley this way, “ Say for me, as a well traveled man, that this is the richest valley in the world.” A vast garden, with the democratic ideal of the small family farm, the valley was eden-like in many ways.
The ecological wealth of the area allowed the small farmers to quickly prosper, and with the development of the railroads, the valley’s agriculture positioned itself to capitalize on that wealth. The valley’s earliest technological developments came directly out of its agricultural abundance. The mechanization of cannery and agricultural field work were the valley’s first efforts to put technology to task in reaping economic profit from the soil. Ecolo- gical wealth beget economic wealth. New technological developments, combined with the exploitative gold rush mentality of many of California’s early settlers, and the industrialization efforts arising from WWII set the stage or the valley’s rapid transition to its current landscape.
In the early 1900’s the valley’s entrepreneurs had amassed enough economic wealth to begin the transformation from an ecologically based economy and landscape, to a landscape and economy completely cut off from the region’s ecological health.
Transforming the landscape -from ecological abundance to Silicon Valley.
The history of FMC Technologies tells the story well. The San Jose based corporation traces its roots to 1884 when inventor John Bean developed a new type of spray pump to combat San Jose scale in California's orchards. When local farmers clamored for the device, Bean Spray Pump Company was born. At first, the company made agricultural equipment, but mergers in the late 1920s with makers of food processing equipment and cannery machinery for vegetables, created a larger company requiring a new name - Food Machinery Corporation. By the mid-1930s, FMC was the world's largest manufacturer of machinery and equipment for handling fruits, vege- tables, milk, fish and meat products. And as World War II began, FMC entered the defense business, making amphibious tractors and tanks for the military. In the post-war boom, FMC introduced continuous freezers, providing for assembly-line production of pre-packaged frozen foods and made strides in sterilization of canned foods. The boom also prompted acquisitions in chemicals and petro- leum equipment.
On-going research at Stanford University was key in the valley’s transformation as well. WW11 poured money into both the univer- sity and the valley’s burgeoning technology industry. In 1955 a Stanford graduate student, William Shockley developed a transistor based on selectively controlling the flow of electricity through silicon, designing some areas as current conductors and adjacent areas as insulators. This principal was the foundation for semiconductors. One of his colleagues, Robert Noyce (who later
went on to found Intel) was a founder of Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View in 1959. Fairchild became the first company to success- fully mass manufacture the integrated circuit. Fairchild Semiconductor was first to manufacture exclusively in silicon and rapidly developed into one of the largest firms in the California electronics industry.
The early 1960’s began the rapid and dramatic transition to Silicon Valley. In forty short years the valley landscape was entirely covered over with buildings, homes, freeways, asphalt, and factories.
In 1981, 22 short years after the birth of Fairchild Semiconductor, the Santa Clara Valley had become the sub- urban world of the California tech industry. It had become Silicon Valley. In 1981, valley residents were stunned to learn they had been drinking contaminated water laced with chem- icals such as trichloroethane and Freon, toxics that they later suspected were the cause of birth defects in many of their children.
Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM Corp., two giants of the then fast-growing technology industry were found to be responsible. The companies' underground storage tanks were leaking tens of thousands of gallons of toxic solvents into the ground. The Fairchild-IBM case led to the discovery of numerous other toxic sites in the region. In five years, from 1986-1991, all of the county’s Superfund sites were officially listed on the EPA’s national priorities list.
The economic growth of Silicon Valley is unparalled. That money arose directly from the ecological history of the region. Without that ecological backbone, Silicon Valley would not exist as it does today. Without that ecological backbone – what kind of wealth are we left with? When we look at it in the context of history we can see that this story happened quickly. Our focus on the future perpetuated its speed.
Our focus on the future + speed = habit.
Habit = innovation?
What do you value? What makes you wealthy? Now is the time to decide what we value and to act in this world according to our choice.
Life Support Systems
Mushrooms dining on motor oil.
Soil is the vital support system for plant growth which supplies food and oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide and nitrogen. It is a foundation of life, yet we know less about it than we do about deep space. A shovel full of soil contains more living material than the total number of humans ever born.
Do we know what we have lost in that change, and what we have gained? Try thinking about it this way:
1 inch of topsoil = 800years
40 ft. (480 inches) topsoil in Santa Clara Valley = 384,000 years
480 inches of topsoil +125,00 acres of orchards (eight million fruit trees) + 7000 small family farms = the Valley of the Hearts Delight/Fruit Bowl of the World.
Valley of the Hearts Delight + Gold Rush mentality + mechanization of canneries + development of railroads = Santa Clara Valley’s early technological development and economic growth.
Agricultural wealth (ecological wealth + economic and technological wealth) + WW11 industrialization of agriculture and war = birth of Silicon Valley.
2,275 gallons of water, 20 pounds of chemicals, 22 cubic feet of hazardous gases and seven pounds of hazardous waste = One six-inch silicon wafer.
The Valley + 40 years (1945 – 1985) + tech industry = an economically ‘prosperous’ landscape covered with buildings, asphalt, homes, freeways and factories & 23 Superfund sites (more per square mile than anywhere else in the USA)
A Community Divided compares the changing average rent for single family apartments against the average sales price for housing in Santa Jose. The x-axis are the dates from "00" to "05" on the vehicles at the bottom of the screen, while prices are either determined by the correlation of orange windows to the orange numbers on the side of the leftmost building, or else are stated in the yellow "data bubbles" spoken by the houses.