Essay written for Introduction to American Studies 10AC: Culture Wars
University of California at Berkeley
April 26, 2012
Tepees, Solar Panels and Vineyards: Constructing a Discourse of Consumer Environmentalism in an Economic Crisis
If you are driving along U.S. route 101 — north of San Francisco, in a place called Hopland, California — you will see large solar arrays at the edge of town absorbing the abundant valley sun amid the rolling vineyards. This is the Solar Living center, run by the 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization, the Solar Living Institute. Their mission, as stated on their website (http://solarliving.org) is to "... promote sustainable living through inspirational environmental education." Put another way, one might suggest that the goal of the Solar Living Institute —especially considering that it was founded by John Schaeffer (founder of Real Goods Trading Company (a solar technology company)) — is to facilitate the creation of ecologically minded consumers. If this is a fair assessment, then we may also situate this goal in the context of postmodern theory. Professor of American Studies at UC Berkeley, Michael Cohen relates in his lecture, "Postmodernism and the Culture Wars," that one of the characteristics of postmodernity is the "centrality of commodity production" (Cohen, American Studies 10AC, 4/11/12). In other words, in postmodern experience, everything is subject to being bought and/or sold, including things that may have previously transcended commodification such as education, sex appeal, or in this case, an environmental ethic.
In this way, the odd collage of objects in the photo (which I took at the Solar Living Center), consisting of a Native-American-style tepee, a decorative windmill, a vineyard, and the large solar arrays of the Solar Living Institute's "Solar 2000" project, work together to sell a sort of environmental ethic. They achieve this by blending discourses of Native American stewardship, sustainable agriculture, and 'clean energy' technology. Solar technology, situated amid these objects, adopts the discourses of environmental ethics, and is sold as such. I chose to read this photo as a cultural text because U.S. 101 has become a home away from home for me as I travel between college and home. This image speaks to the profoundly regional (and therefore personal) character of modern environmentalism as it is perpetuated amid the current moment in American cultural and economic experience.
According to the work of cultural theoretician, Stuart Hall, entitled, "The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power," a discourse is "... a group of statements which provide a language for talking about -i.e.- a way of representing - a particular kind of knowledge about a topic" (Hall, 66). In the context of a photograph, the content (who or what is being photographed, and how they are being photographed) are discursive statements constructing that representation. In this photograph, the solar array, seen as the focus of the image, is decorated with colorful flags, suggesting that it is the focus of what is being represented. But it is also decorated with symbols such as the tepee, the windmill, and even the vineyard. These things, statements, suggest the way in which the photographer, and the person or people who placed them there, are attempting to construct a narrative of consumer environmentalism.
The tepee in this image seems polarized against the image of the solar array. It's modern technology meets pre-modern. Another odd thing about the tepee is that Native American's in this region did not live in tepees; according to Lynn Huntsinger and Sarah McCaffrey, as they reveal in their article, "A Forest for the Trees: Forest Management and the Yurok Environment, 1850 to 1994," Native Americans in this region built homes from redwood planks (Huntsinger & McCaffrey, 162). So what does the tepee mean? In my experience, people often conceptualize Native Americans as having lived as passive inhabitants of land, in harmony with Nature. Huntsinger and McCaffrey prove that this cultural perception is not entirely accurate; California Native Americans used fire as a tool for widely managing forest resources, and as a result, had a profound shaping affect on the landscape (Huntsinger & McCaffrey, 163). Despite this contradiction, Native Americans are culturally depicted as a symbol of environmental stewardship. The tepee represents a simple technology that works with the materials of Nature. It brings to mind the slogans of popular bumper-sticker environmentalism like, "live simply," and "... [fill in the blank] local..." These ideas work to suggest that solar technology is philosophically analogous to Native American environmental stewardship.
Similarly, the windmill brings its own popular discourse to the image. It suggests a use of local, sustainable materials (wind). It recalls current debates over globalization and the fear of dependence on Middle Eastern countries for atmosphere-polluting hydrocarbon energy. The windmill and the solar panels alike represent a cultural anxiety about climate change, and a cultural belief that technology will the vehicle for an environmentally sustainable future.
Behind the windmill and the solar array the wine grapes grow. Wine in California is saturated with cultural meaning. As University of California Berkeley geographer, Richard Walker writes in his environmental history, The Country in the City: The Greening of San Francisco Bay Area," "Californians quaff twice as much wine per person as Americans generally, and Bay Area drinkers twice that" (Walker, 185). Walker goes on to write that since the 1990's, wine as an industry has expanded enormously in Sonoma and up into Mendocino Counties (where Hopland is) (Walker, 185). Between 1990 and the early 2000's, wine in Sonoma County grew from a $100 million industry to a more than $400 million industry (Walker, 185). In contrast to the wineries and vineyards in the Central Valley, North Bay vineyards are smaller and grow more specialty varieties such as Cabernet and pinot noir (Walker, 188). I visited one of these wineries recently. It is called Parducci, and they sell their products at the Solar Living Center. They sold me a bottle of "sustainable red" wine, telling me about their commitment to sustainable production. On their homepage, http://www.parducci.com/, the words "green," "sustainable," "environment," "community," "local," "earth-friendly," "carbon-neutral," and "responsibility," become motifs. Smaller farms, attention to craft and sustainability all suggest a contrast to the visions of industrial corporate agriculture.
These images fit together in this strange collage of images (with a tepee, a windmill, a solar array, and a vineyard) to form a narrative, situated at the crossroads of consumer economics and the culture of environmentalism.
At the same time, these discourses, as Professor Cohen often says, provide "imaginary resolutions to real contradictions" (Cohen, 2012). The harmonious Native American steward is a good example. Also, as written above, northern California wines are currently putting great emphasis on "community" and "local" sustainability. However, as Walker relates, "what better illustration of the cultivation of class distinction than wine... marvel at the arcane language of taste... regard the artful labeling" (Walker, 188). Implicit in this, to me, is a division of community. This class distinction along the vines is enforced economically. Walker writes, "today, just 10 percent of people in the United States consume 67 percent of all wine" (Walker, 185). "... Recently," writes Walker, "the gourmet restaurants of the Bay Area food revolution have brought the pleasures of wine to the attention of the consuming classes, as wineries, merchants, and publicists made the sophisticated wine list a natural accompaniment to California cuisine" (Walker, 188). Lastly, Walker states the fact that today, "the North Bay has the most valuable farm-land in North America;" Francis Ford Coppolla spent $350,000 per acre for his Cohn Vineyard in 2004 (Walker, 186). In order to consume this gourmet wine (much less own a vineyard in the North Bay) requires some wealth. And — as has been well documented in Charles Ferguson's 2010 documentary on the global economic crisis, The Inside Job, and elsewhere — as a characteristic of the economic crisis, the chasm between the wealthy and the poor in America has steadily grown (Ferguson, 2010). So, as businesses increasingly establish their products as environmentally progressive, the access to this kind of consumer environmentalism falls into the hands of the relative few.
The way this photo was captured emphasizes color. The gradient of blues on the deliberately large view of the sky emphasizes the natural abundance of California sun as a resource. The objects of the photo weave some of the various discourses of environmentalism to attract people driving along U.S. 101 who are culturally invested in sustainable, community-based, local environmental action. The arrangement of content in the photo fosters the formation of community consumer environmentalism. At the same time, they act in an economy that is subject to growing inequality, which fractures community. The question becomes: in the environmental and economic crises of our time, who can access the tools for environmental action?
1.) Cohen, Michael. "Postmodernism and the Culture Wars." American Studies 10AC: The Culture Wars. University of California Berkeley, Berkeley. 11 Apr. 2012. Lecture.
2.) Hall, Stuart. "The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power." Race and Racialization: Essential Readings. Ed. Tania Das Gupta, Carl E. James, Grace Galabuzi, and Chris Anderson. Toronto: Canadian Scholars', 2007. 56-60. Print.
3.) Huntsinger, Lynn, and Sarah McCaffrey. "A Forest for the Trees: Forest Management and the Yurok Environment, 1850 to 1994." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 19.4 (1995): 155-92. Print.
4.) The Inside Job. Dir. Charles Ferguson. Perf. Matt Damon. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. DVD.
5.) Parducci Wine Cellars. Mendocino Wine Co., 2012. Web. Apr. 2012. .
6.) Solar Living Institute. 2010. Web. Apr. 2012. .
7.) Walker, Richard A. "Ch. 8: Sour Grapes: The Fight for Wine Country." Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. Seattle: University of Washington, 2009. 182-204. Print.
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