Sea Change: What Happened When the Pacific Ocean Went Global

A Union Pacific freight train carries goods east near of Palm Springs, California | Photo: David McNew/Getty Images
A Union Pacific freight train carries goods east near of Palm Springs, California | Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

The road west was filled with signs and wonders. Like the hill-hugging black squall that slammed into us as we rolled up into the wrinkled folds of the Edwards Plateau in central Texas; or the ominous funnel cloud that swirled along the highway in the arid, far-western reaches of the Lone Star State, scattering cattle and cars. Close to the Arizona-California border, a flatbed truck erupted into a fireball as we sped past.

What in the world were we heading into?

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The answer lay not in nature's climatic power or human accident. Rather the real portent seemed lodged in the Union Pacific's shiny tracks that run parallel to Interstate 10. As we followed the sun down that concrete roadbed, moving in the opposite direction was a steady stream of freight trains loaded with double-stacked containers. These color-coded, 40-foot steel units bore their owners' logos: Maersk, Hanjin, China Shipping. Globalization on the move.

I've thought about this wide-angled panorama -- mile-long trains rumbling up slope and down; thundering around wide curves -- every time I drive past the Colton railyard. It is the central hub of the goods movement in Southern California: each day hundreds of 18-wheelers swing off the 10 and 60 freeways to offload containers they have hauled from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles for transshipment.

The tremendous flow of commerce through this node, for all its economic benefits, comes with decided local costs: the polluted air, deafening noise, and jack-hammer-like vibrations it generates compromises the health and well-being of the adults and children who live on its periphery.

By its very nature, globalization creates sacrifice zones like Colton, places and populations that disproportionately bear the brunt of our consuming desires and that are further buffeted by a political economy that can so cavalierly rearrange lives and landscapes.

Such injustice has long been true. I was reminded just how long while participating in a session at the recent American Society for Environmental History meetings in Madison, Wisconsin. The panel's rubric -- "Transnational labor and the environment" -- did not begin to encompass the range of time and topic that its panelists addressed (or the irony that all four of us had flown from the west coast to discuss issues confronting the Pacific World, past and present).

Fort Ross August 2010 | Photo: Courtesy Melinda Herrold-Menzies
Fort Ross August 2010 | Photo: Courtesy Melinda Herrold-Menzies

Begin in California, then, with the Russian construction of Ft. Ross; it was founded in 1808 as an agricultural depot for the czar's imperial outposts in Alaska. To achieve this end required lots of labor, argued Pitzer College's Melinda Herrold-Menzes, and so the Russians rounded up Alaska Natives to serve their economic interests in what would become Sonoma County. Despite this coerced crew's best efforts, the initiative failed miserably, as the site's soils, temperatures, and moisture levels frustrated grain production.

A Sea Otter in Morro Bay, CA | Photo: mikebaird/Filckr/Creative Commons License

Enter the sea otter: Russian merchants shifted the focus of Ft. Ross' mission to that animal's slaughter and subsequent curing of its lustrous pelt for sale in China. Otter fur brought such high prices there that nearby coastal populations were swiftly decimated. Hunters began to move south in search of new sources, and so efficient was the killing on- and off-shore that within thirty years or so the California sea otter was on the brink of extinction; the kelp forests which this keystone carnivore maintained were also in a state of collapse.

Brutal labor practices had been twined with an equally rough ecological manipulation to power the emerging cross-Pacific trade networks of the early 19th century.

These fraught interconnections and implications became even more punitive in the coming decades as British, American, Russian, Canadian, and Japanese fleets chased down whales, seals, and salmon throughout the northern Pacific. The pursuit of oil, fur, and meat promoted the industrialization of fishing; accelerated the destruction of these once-plentiful species; pushed remote villages into the globalizing culture of production and consumption; and troubled international relations.

Spearing sea lion cows near St. Paul Village on St. Paul Island | Image: Drawing by Henry Wood Elliott via NOAA

Historian Lissa Wadewitz of Linfield College traced these "tentacles of contact" between far-flung ports and the open sea, demonstrating how profit, disease, and destitution could follow in their wake, and uncovering a perplexing geopolitics that led to some startling adaptations.

Confronted with nation-states that used their naval power to protect what they considered to be their marine resources, owners of fishing vessels often would register their ships in the relevant countries to flummox authorities; sailors who shipped out under a particular flag were considered its subjects under international marine law, allowing them to continue to work even if their homeland was banned from Japanese or Russian or American waters.

Only when it dawned on these contentious nations that they were extirpating the invaluable species they so diligently hunted did they meet over the negotiating table in 1911 to settle some of their differences.

Pineros at work in the Pacific Northwest | Photo: Courtesy Brinda Sarathy
Pineros at work in the Pacific Northwest | Photo: Courtesy Brinda Sarathy   

There have been no such international negotiations framed around the status and rights of late-20th-century migrant labor so essential to the regeneration of clearcut American forests. Making that case is another Pitzer scholar, Brinda Sarathy, whose new book, Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest, has compelled us to rethink the linkages between economic development, environmental management, and social justice.

"In the shadowy realms of the forest today, one will rarely find the white logger or the environmental activist," she declared. "Rather, one may run into the likes of Juan Cabrera, an undocumented immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, who crossed the border at sixteen and has been tree planting on federal lands ever since. One may chance upon Pedro Zamora Gómez, who was struck by an errant tree limb while thinning overgrown stands of fir, suffered a debilitating back injury, and was left to cope without health care."

These individuals and their many peers constitute the bulk of contracted manual labor operating on the region's public and private forests. Like their predecessors during the Great Depression, and later via the Bracero Program of the 1940s and 1950s, they have taken on back-breaking jobs for low wages and minimal benefits.

Although central to the local production of wood fiber for international consumption, recovering their lived experiences has proven quite difficult. To make the invisible visible, Sarathy conducted interviews with forest workers, thereby giving human shape to their struggles and making active those whom "history" too-often presumes to have been but acted upon.

By listening in on their laments and laughter, we can also better imagine the relationship between their difficult situations and that of others who long ago were pressed into service in the Russian colonial experiment; or who wielded harpoon, net, or club to serve the needs of the burgeoning trans-Pacific marketplace.

Yet these stories, for all their explanatory power, do not constitute the full chronological arc of this vast ocean's internationalization. Its launch, as a member of the audience pointed out, can be backdated to 1565 when the first wind-driven Spanish galleons began plying between Manila and Acapulco.

And those initial voyages set in motion a pattern of economic activity and exploitation that continues to play out every time a diesel-powered Union Pacific engine pulls away from the Colton railyard, heading east.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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