Environmental Inequality in Silicon Valley
When Wallace Stegner arrived in Palo Alto, California, in 1945, he wrote a friend with his first impressions of his new home. The novelist and new Stanford faculty member found the Santa Clara Valley to be “very pleasant country” of “golden wild-oat hills dotted with marvelous old liveoaks and bay trees, with a dark pine-covered ridge of the coast ridge behind, and in front the hills dropping down over orchards and towns to the bay. . . . There are views to knock your eye out all over these hills.” Two decades later, Stegner’s celebration became a lament. “The orchards that used to be a spring garden of bloom down the long trough of the Santa Clara Valley,” he wrote in 1965, “have gone under so fast that a person absent for five years could return and think himself in another country. . . . The once-lovely coast hills reaching down the Peninsula below San Francisco have been crusted with houses in half a lifetime, the hilltops flattened, whole hills carried off to fill the bay, the creeks turned into concrete storm drains.” Employment in high-tech companies drove massive migrations to the valley that, in turn, led to sprawling cities who competed with one another over land.
Stegner arrived at the front edge of a massive migration to the Santa Clara Valley—stretching from San Francisco through San Jose to Hollister—in the immediate postwar era. For the next decade, the landscape of orchards and pleasantness remained a key selling point enticing white-collar workers and high-tech manufacturers. As late as 1953, the San Jose Chamber of Commerce continued organizing blossom tours that gave residents a chance to drive along the county’s highways and witness the seasonal blooming of prune, pear, almond, apricot, and cherry orchards. Yet it was this landscape that helped lead to the widespread and rapid changes Stegner identified in 1965. The valley’s boosters promised a countryside lifestyle for work and home; city councils smoothed the way for new development; and universities pursued military contracts that funneled billions of dollars into the region. Throughout the valley’s burgeoning office and research parks designed to support the growing electronics industry, one booster promised a “pleasant place” of “broad lawns, employee patios, trees, flowers and shrubs, walls of glass, recreational clubs” instead of the “smokestacks, noise, coal cars, [and] soot” of the Northeast and Midwest. High-tech manufacturing, it seemed, solved two problems: assuring the nation of a new form of industrial work as steel-age industry declined while also being a clean and modern alternative to industrial activity. Such promises ignored the material realities of high-tech research and manufacturing, whose reliance on chemicals and attendant urban growth prompted water pollution, environmental inequality, and farmland reduction that reshaped the landscape into the Silicon Valley we know today.
Until the 1950s, agriculture was the valley’s primary economic activity, earning it the 19th-century nickname “the Garden of the World.” The exceptional climate, fertile soils, and plentiful water allowed farmers to cultivate a wide variety of fruits. The region’s farms led the state in fruit cultivation, drying, canning, and packing, making it a major fruit distributor in the early 20th century. As early as 1895, the San Francisco Chronicle estimated nearly 40,000 acres of the valley were devoted to fruit cultivation, reaching a peak of 727,000 acres by the mid-1940s.
After World War II, Santa Clara County’s demographics and economy began to shift. By the 1950s, 4,000 people a month were moving into the county, nearly doubling the prewar population. In 1960, the county surpassed San Francisco as the region’s urban center. San Jose typified the pace and expansion of this period. Contained to just 17 square miles in 1952, the city sprawled outward to encompass 137 square miles by 1965 through an aggressive annexation campaign led by city manager Dutch Hamann and a supportive city council.
The farmlands, so attractive to new homeowners who wished for a countryside experience, quickly gave way to subdivisions. Some farmers saw opportunity in their land used for urban growth as land prices rose dramatically, fetching as much as $7,000 per acre by the mid-1950s. By the 1970s, agricultural land was selling for upwards of $18,000 an acre. Local historian Yvonne Jacobson estimates that 77,000 acres of the valley floor left agricultural production between 1950 and 1980. By 1982, 20,000 acres of agricultural land remained in the valley, falling to just 4,500 acres by 2001, mostly near the South Bay cities of Morgan Hill and Gilroy.
The farmlands, so attractive to new homeowners who wished for a countryside experience, quickly gave way to subdivisions.
Such rapid growth came with consequences, and not just on the surface. Beginning in the 1920s, population growth led to an increase in both private and public wells, which drew down aquifer levels and led to compression of the ground above. In 1921, engineers warned that the valley’s falling water tables and subsidence threatened to disrupt farming operations and damage city infrastructure. Postwar urban growth, however, accelerated the overdrafting of water resources and ground compression. Downtown San Jose sank 14 feet over the course of the 1950s, while Alviso, located at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay and already below sea level, sank six feet. The shifting ground led rivers and creeks to angle farther downward, allowing them to carry larger and heavier sediment and exacerbating flooding. These altered drainage patterns worsened a massive flood in a Christmas 1955 deluge that overwhelmed Sunnyvale and Alviso.
In response, the county’s water conservation district built a new system of dikes and levees in the latter half of the 1950s. But the flood prevention system ended at the Sunnyvale city limits, leaving Alviso, a predominantly Latinx community, threatened by future floods. Town leaders appealed to the Army Corps of Engineers and congressional representatives to find solutions but found themselves in an impossible situation: the corps rejected appeals for new flood control projects because of high costs, and the city could not secure government grants to pay for the project. Over the next three decades, Alviso would face at least four more city-inundating floods. In addition to the flooding threats, San Jose constructed a sewage processing facility near Alviso’s city limits in the mid-1950s, off-loading smells, chemicals, and disposal away from San Jose city limits. Alviso became a dumping ground for the expanding, mostly white communities of San Jose and Sunnyvale.
Situating the spoils of urban growth away from cities allowed them to prioritize the rural aesthetics that mattered so greatly to the growing white-collar class. Undoubtedly the valley has an undeniable beauty, and nearly year-round pleasant weather factored into selling the valley to potential industrial recruits and white-collar workers. But that very perception of the valley’s unique nature helped fuel shifting political attitudes, and voters began questioning the expansion-at-all-costs city councils. Council candidates began running for—and winning—seats by supporting slower growth, opposing higher taxes, and questioning the inability of city services to keep pace with expansion. Again, San Jose typified these changes. Virginia Shaffer’s 1962 election to the council drove the first wedge into San Jose’s drive at growth, followed over the next decade by other antigrowth council members. In 1974, the election of Mayor Janet Gray Hayes solidified a new environmentalist wing of politicians in city government. Hayes, a self-avowed environmentalist and the city’s first female mayor, shifted the city’s policies away from expansion and toward improving city services within existing city limits.
While urban growth presented one way of altering the environment, another came from the economic activity of the valley itself. Today, we think of the largely web- and software-based companies of Apple, Facebook, and Google, but until the 1980s, the primary industrial activity was electronics manufacturing. When technology journalist Don Hoefler first printed the name “Silicon Valley” in 1971, thus rendering its nickname as the place name, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and many other companies employed both white-collar research-and-development engineers and scientists and blue-collar workers, largely people of color and predominantly women, who assembled the chips, circuit boards, and other hardware. While high-tech had sold itself as a cleaner, greener alternative to industrialization, manufacturing electrical components relied on chemicals and gases to give silicon components their conductive properties. These chemicals often threatened the health of assembly line workers. Reports of chemical burns, asthma, cancer, and a host of other health issues became common over the 1970s. So often did laborers bring forth stories of adverse health effects that Robin Baker, Amanda Hawes, and Pat Lamborn started the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health in the late 1970s to represent workers harmed by chip manufacturing.
Until the 1980s, the primary industrial activity was electronics manufacturing.
These chemicals were not widely recognized for their carcinogenic properties, nor were they effectively monitored. In January 1982, readers of the San Jose Mercury reported that chemical contaminants had been found in the city’s public and private drinking wells. When installing a storage tank at Fairchild in the southern end of the city, workers found that an older tank was leaking chemical solvents into groundwater. For residents of the nearby Los Paseos neighborhood, the stories of miscarriages, strange-tasting water, and childhood health problems suddenly had an explanation. The county began a rapid investigation, drilling testing wells throughout the county and revealing more leaks—not just at Fairchild but at HP, Intel, AMD, and elsewhere. Contaminants, it seemed, had left no part of the county untouched. In the wake of this news, attorney Ted Smith formed the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition to track information about chemical leaks, hold companies accountable, and help draft new pollution ordinances. Within a year, California congressional representatives secured investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency; by 1990, the agency listed 29 Superfund sites in Santa Clara County—24 caused by high-tech companies—making the county among the most contaminated in the nation.
Silicon Valley’s relationship to nature was and is cultural and material. The valley’s reputation was closely tied to nature—a reputation that persists to this day through its supposed eco-friendly companies, cars, and leisure. Environmental tensions continue and have expanded beyond Northern California through the mining of rare earth metals, cryptomining operations, and server farms that make possible the internet and the laptops, phones, tablets, watches, and other smart devices that power our modern lives. Silicon Valley’s environmental history urges us to dwell on failure: beneath the green veneer of high-tech companies lies a past that was anything but its clean image.
Jason A. Heppler is the senior developer at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and author of Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2024).
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