Selling San Juan: Part 2

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 2: Bears Ears, by Patagonia

When deep space exploration ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything.  The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.

—  Jack, Fight Club

As asserted in this essay’s Part 1, amenity migration imposes a post-industrial order onto a rural western landscape previously defined by industrial-age logic and values.  It is structurally similar to colonialist projects of the past in its pursuit of the wholesale replacement of a worldview deemed unsophisticated and obsolete.  I will further develop these particular critical theoretical ideas in this part of the essay then move on to a discussion of the practical challenges and opportunities of amenity migration in subsequent sections.

A Brief (and Somewhat Academic) Discussion of Commodification

Nearly anything can be commodified — turned into an object of economic value — in large part because the process of commodification involves the intrinsic utility of the thing only as a starting point and primarily entails the thing’s ability to contain and express personal and social meaning.  We have, for example, the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, in which Thorstein Veblen observed over 100 years ago that the wealthy of his time established their elevated personal worth and social status through displays of ostentatious, wasteful spending not widely available to the poorer classes of society.  Veblen also noted that, for their part and to the extent financially possible, the middle and lower classes often engaged in pecuniary emulation, which is the class-aspirational act of imitating the consumption and leisure practices of the wealthy.

In this way, the process of commodification is about the relationship between people as much as it is about the relationship between things.  Luxury goods command a price premium compared with their substitutes not because of, or at least not merely because of, their functional superiority, but because of their positional superiority.

Processes of commodification are of course always embedded in a particular historical context.  And so, as America has transitioned from an industrial to a post-industrial society, so has the range of possibilities for commodification.  Whereas in Veblen’s era the ordering of class differences revolved almost entirely around material objects of higher or lower esteem — houses, art, jewelry — it now incorporates post-productivist logic and values.  Social status is now fragmented along niche tribal lines from up and down and all across the socioeconomic strata and is sometimes even (paradoxically) expressed in terms that are oppositional to the production and consumption of material objects.  Society may not have become noticeably better at dealing with class, but the market has become immeasurably better at providing the means for its expression.

Post-Luxury and the Connoisseurship of Nature


Photo: bcorporation.net

Our language — as expressed in the academy, in professional business literature, and in mainstream culture — has reflected this evolution.  For instance, some researchers have extended Veblen’s terminology in noting the elevated status now associated with inconspicuous consumption and conspicuous conservation.  Increasingly, avant-garde brand strategists argue that conventional ideas about product-oriented class-signaling are entirely outdated, replaced by a New Luxury or Post-Luxury order in which metaphysical objects such as experiences and time itself have become the new frontier in the endless expansion of commodity fetishism.  And of course the modern marketing apparatus deftly engages such apparent non-commodities as nature and feminism to sell, for example, Jeeps (and vice versa).

New West yuppies — and the businesses, political parties, towns, NGOs, etc. to whom they are the target market — comprise a tribe that fully occupies the leading edge of this evolution.  In the New West, relics of the industrial Old West are not just undesirable but repugnant.  Oil derricks, mines, ATVs and livestock are not just stains on the landscape, but symbols of a low, coarse form of human civilization to be kept out of mind and therefore out of sight in an ugly corner of America or, better yet, offshore in a developing country.  The downmarket offerings of the typical Old West main street are likewise met with disdain.  Instead, the presence of amenities like yoga studios and third wave coffee shops signify the elevated status of a place, and nature itself is made a prestige product, an Instagram-perfect stage for the performance of socially worthy expressions of affluence.

This raises something about the Bears Ears narrative that I think is intuitively grating to many people with a longstanding connection to San Juan County: marking onto a map a boundary around nearly all of the county’s off-reservation backcountry and stamping it “Bears Ears National Monument” is itself an aggressive, reductive act of commodification.  The limited utility of the land along industrial and pre-industrial lines is essentially status quo ante, yet its socioeconomic meaning is completely transformed by the monument designation.  A landscape that went by many names and contained overwhelming multitudes of meaning was reduced not just to a political football, but a slick media brand suitable for easy use as a status good by millions of people who had never so much as heard of San Juan County before December 28, 2016.

The underpinning logic, here as in most New Luxury categories, comes down to questions of connoisseurship, and, in this conceptual move, the potential for drawing hairsplitting distinctions in the service of financial profit and class hierarchy becomes nearly limitless.  Perhaps the most common trope of the post-industrial connoisseur is the performance and ownership of “authenticity,”  and perhaps no corporation in the New West marketspace is more practiced at this form of antimarketing than Patagonia.

Ridgeway [VP of Public Engagement for Patagonia] can sometimes sound a little weary at having to explain to outsiders a way of life that comes quite naturally to him. ‘We don’t want to hold ourselves up in some arrogant exclusivity,’ Ridgeway said, but then described the kind of customer that Patagonia does not ‘necessarily want to invite under our umbrella.’ Namely, people who want to climb Mount Everest for bragging rights – the sort of affluent adventurers, drawn to climbing in part by Patagonia, whose impact Chouinard now regrets so much. ‘Someone who has paid $100,000 for a guided climb where the sherpas put the route in and risked their lives fixing the lines and carried all your stuff up for you and positioned your oxygen balls so you could go up and come back and say you climbed Everest. That doesn’t work for us,’ Ridgeway says. ‘And we don’t mind saying it publicly.’

—  Meltzer, M. Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world – one puffer jacket at a time. The Guardian.

It’s all right there: in a move that deems superficial and vulgar even “Patagonia-adjacent” manifestations of outdoor enthusiasm, we have luxury branding that pretends to be transcendent of both luxury and branding.  Patagonia constructs a particular hierarchy of authentic, enlightened outdoor connoisseurship and, as if by coincidence, those who buy into this articulation occupy the top point of the pyramid.  This is how it becomes not just logical, but an act of supreme good taste and environmental consciousness, to spend $65 on a pair of running shorts fabricated from petrochemicals, stitched in a Vietnamese factory, and shipped halfway around the world to a boutique in Telluride.  Or to launch, with no apparent sense of irony, an expensive, multimedia advertising and political campaign in “defense” of a landscape where the greatest objective threat of development and degradation has long been the one posed by the New West’s own social construction and commodification of nature.

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Selling San Juan: Part 1

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 1: Pandora’s Box

Many of those who support the Bears Ears National Monument want to discuss the public policy implications of the designation. They ask, ‘Is this good policy?’

I am sure that there were some great arguments about the public policy implications of the Stamp Act. But for local residents, and for the Colonists in 1776, this is much more fundamental than a discussion about public policy.

— Boyle, B. Dust in the Wind. The San Juan Record.


Monument Valley, Utah

On January 28, 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, Utah and unleashed a whirlwind.  Monument opponents immediately condemned the designation and promised to pursue its reversal or modification using all three branches of government.  For their part, monument proponents promised to counter such efforts at every turn, and launched a massive national media campaign intended to tilt the court of public opinion in their favor.

For those who followed the process leading up to monument designation, it was depressingly predictable that the post-proclamation debate would generate much more heat than light, especially since the designation occurred in the immediate aftermath of an exceptionally polarized national election.  For the communities of San Juan County, however, the persistent manufacture of political outrage is largely beside-the-point.  Pandora’s box was opened, the forces previously (more or less) contained therein were let loose, and closing the box now won’t change that fact.  The future of San Juan County has been irrevocably altered.

Exactly how the future was affected by monument designation is impossible to say, but it is possible to identify the forces of change and take their measure.  This is no small thing, because this kind of classification and analysis can demystify the process of change and begin to uncover opportunities for preserving a greater degree of community self-determination in its face.  The future may not be fully knowable by San Juan locals, but it need not be fully conceded.

The Transformation of Industrial America

To begin forming a more educated guess about the future of San Juan County, it pays to first back up and zoom out, to put the new pressures on the county in a broader historical context and to define several key terms.

Like other advanced economies, America is decades into a vast shift from a predominantly industrial to a post-industrial socioeconomic order.  This evolution involves both processes of production and norms of consumption, with significant impacts on employment and a broad range of social institutions.  America is still the undisputed king of consumption of agricultural and industrial products, but the processes that provide these goods have been thoroughly consolidated, automated, and/or offshored.  Oligopolistic agribusiness has largely supplanted the family farm and textile manufacturing has mostly been relocated to Asia, to give just two examples.

At the same time as the American economy has evolved away from industry, so-called post-industrial sectors of the economy — broadly knowledge- and service-based occupations — are on the rise.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1915 and 2015, ‘manufacturing’ declined as a percentage of all nonfarm employment from 32% to less than 9%, and ‘transportation and public utilities’ employment declined from 13% to 4%.  Over the same period, employment in ‘other professional services’ grew from 3% to 29% of nonfarm employment, and ‘wholesale and retail trade’ grew from 13% to 23%.

These economic trends are the subject of extensive commentary, yet the social cost of this transformation is only rarely deeply appreciated, especially as it pertains to rural America.  Certainly the numbers alone do not tell the full story, nor does the catch-all term restructuring, which is a dry, academic label for what happens when some occupations, and the people who once filled them, are unceremoniously tossed into the dustbin of history.

Postindustrialism and New West Gentrification

The trend away from an industrial socioeconomic order is certainly manifest in San Juan County.  For example, in 2016, oil extraction in the county amounted to 50% of 1986 output and natural gas about 30%.  But San Juan County is different from many places in several important respects: it is an abundantly wild and incredibly scenic place; a large amount of its archaeological record has been well-preserved in its remote and rugged backcountry; and it comprises a significant portion of the Grand Circle region popular with tourists.  These elements make San Juan susceptible to a specific type of restructuring due to amenity migration:

Rural communities throughout the postindustrial world are in the midst of a significant transition, sometimes referred to as ‘rural restructuring,’ as traditional land uses, economic activities, and social arrangements transition to those associated with ‘post-productivist’ or ‘multifunctional’ landscapes. Amenity migration, the movement of people based on the draw of natural and/or cultural amenities, can be thought of as both driver and outcome of this transition, resulting in significant changes in the ownership, use, and governance of rural lands, as well as in the composition and socioeconomic dynamics of rural communities. Amenity migration is a phenomenon of increasing interest to rural geographers and other social scientists due to the ways in which, in concert with other social, economic and political processes, it is contributing to the fundamental transformation of rural communities in more developed regions throughout the world. (Citations omitted.)

— Gosnell & Abrams. Amenity migration: diverse conceptualizations of drivers, socioeconomic dimensions, and emerging challenges. GeoJournal.

In its focus on ‘post-productivist’ values like scenic aesthetics and outdoor recreation, amenity migration refers primarily not to counterculture back-to-the-land in-migrants, but to seasonal and other part-time residents and full-time modem cowboys.

Perhaps a more useful way of understanding amenity migration is in terms of ‘what’ rather than ‘who.’  One academic has described amenity migration as permanent tourism, which is a helpful way of thinking about the phenomenon, but this term may also be somewhat incomplete, since ordinary tourism is itself really a point on the same theoretical continuum that ends in permanent or semi-permanent residency.

Ultimately, I think the best articulation of the phenomenon is more conceptual: amenity migration, either intentionally or unwittingly, imposes an exurban, distinctly post-industrial order on a rural geography previously structured around the logic and values associated with industrial-age middle-class society.  In other words, the causes and consequences of amenity migration do not begin with a pattern of migration to a particular place, but with that place’s amenitization, which is itself not a naturally occurring fact but a socially constructed process.

I will more fully unpack the characteristics and implications of these phenomena in later parts of this essay, but for now it is enough to preview the argument that amenity migration involves many of the same generic characteristics as urban gentrification and settler colonialism: it is the political domination and economic exploitation by one group of another, especially through the control of land.  This brings me to what is truly at stake for San Juan County post-Bears Ears proclamation: whether the local communities will keep a meaningful degree of self-determination or be the next place to be changed wholesale by New West gentrification.  In short, the battle over Bears Ears is not, ultimately, a land use struggle.  It is a class struggle.

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