Environmental journalist Jon Christensen — UCLA professor, think tank fellow, author, and editor of Boom, a new quarterly journal about California — wears many hats, but his focus is squarely on the dense and diverse relationships between people and the environments they inhabit. We caught up with Jon as he prepares to release Boom’s Fall issue.
BN: Are you originally from the Bay Area? If not, what brought you here?
I wasn’t born in the Bay Area, but I feel like I really grew up here. I came to Stanford at 17, and lived on the Peninsula and in the City for 12 years. So I came of age in the Bay Area. This place formed me. Or I formed myself to it in some ways. And I suppose that was what I most liked about growing up here. It’s such a beautifully mind-blowing place to grow up, intellectually, culturally, and naturally. I was born in Northfield, Minnesota but never lived anywhere for more than a few years growing up: Northfield, Minneapolis, Seattle, Cincinnati, Paris, Madrid, and Chicago. So that 12 years here in the Bay Area was the longest I had ever lived anywhere up to that point. Perhaps that was why I felt that I had to get away to see more of the world and the American West. And why I would come back, again and again.
BN: You’ve had a long career as a journalist, with a particular focus on the environment. What led you into that?
When I started working as a journalist here in San Francisco in the 1980s, it seemed like there were freelance writers on every block. I was writing for Pacific News Service, where I was lucky to work with Sandy Close, who remains a friend, mentor and colleague to this day, and is one of the great editors of our time. I found myself traveling out of the city, often hundreds of miles, to northern California, the Sierra Nevada, New Mexico, to report on stories. That was great. I’ve never really liked writing about what other people were writing about anyway. Environmental journalism was growing at the time. So I gravitated to it as a field of opportunity. But I was never strictly interested in writing about the environment. I’ve always been interested in people, communities, businesses and industries, and how they are changing as our ideas about the environment change and the environment changes too.
BN: Are there a couple of issues that have particularly intrigued you as a journalist and that you’ve tracked throughout your career?
At a dinner party once, someone asked me what I wrote about, and I said, “People and the environment.” My late brother-in-law, the wag, said, “What else is there?” That’s it, exactly. And I’m sticking to my story. That’s what I’m interested in: People and the environment.
BN: Tell us about Boom. What is it and where are you taking it?
Boom: A Journal of California is a quarterly magazine published by the University of California Press. I’m the editor. We’re a magazine of California in the world, and the world in California. And our goal is to open up a conversation between our great universities, writers, journalists, artists, policymakers, activists, entrepreneurs, thinkers of all kinds, and the curious, intelligent public, which, I believe, is all of us Californians. I tell all of our writers that what we want to do in the pages of the magazine is, once a quarter, host one of the most lively, interesting, fun, and provocative dinner party conversations in California. It’s as if you’d invited a dozen of your friends, from all walks of life, over for dinner, and you’re having a super passionate conversation about the things you all care about. That’s the voice of Boom.
BN: Tell us a bit about your upcoming book, “Critical Habitat: A History of Thinking with Things in Nature”.
My book tells the story of the bay checkerspot butterfly, a threatened subspecies that has disappeared from much of its habitat in grasslands around the Bay Area. I use the story of the butterfly to examine how people, especially scientists and conservationists, have thought about things in nature over the years: the butterfly, the native wildflowers it depends on, and the serpentine soils the plants grow on. It’s a fascinating, complex history that touches on ideas about people and other species, of conservation and protection, and how those efforts can sometimes backfire, and even plate tectonics, which help us understand how California was formed. In the end, it’s an argument about how we need to keep data and stories open for reinterpretation and revision, so that we can continue to learn in a changing world.
BN: After so much time living and working in the Bay Area, what led you to pick up and move to Los Angeles?
LA is a really vibrant, diverse city with a lot of exciting things happening on the environmental front. It is a global megacity, so it is, in many ways, a laboratory for the urban future of the planet. The number of people living in cities worldwide is going to double in the next several decades, even as global population stabilizes. That means the urban built environment is going to double. How that all takes place is going to profoundly affect how people live with each other and with nature. We’re seeking to understand and help shape that future at UCLA, where I’m a senior fellow in a think tank called cityLAB, as well as an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the History Department, and the Center for Digital Humanities. And that comes back to my interest in people and the environment.
BN: Is there an essential difference in how L.A. and the Bay Area approach protection of open space?
Many of my Bay Area friends have asked me, “How do you like LA?” When I tell them I love it, more than a few respond, “Really?” Many people in the Bay Area have a pretty bad stereotype about LA. It’s not the Bay Area, that’s for sure. Some people say LA is a great place to live, but a terrible place to visit. It’s a very hard place to read, because if you’re not familiar with the incredible diversity of neighborhoods, the variety at all kinds of scales, it kind of all looks the same at first glance. Nature, parks, and open spaces are not so obviously interwoven with the fabric of the urban space, the way they are in the Bay Area, mostly because of geography. But LA is surrounded by fantastic open spaces in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. And that is the result of the same kind of hard work by many dedicated people over many years that protected so much of the Bay Area and produced the landscape we love so much. I tell my friends in the Bay Area, “We’re one state.” And we share a history of conservation too. It would be good for us to get to know each other better!
BN: Do you still keep a strong connection to the Bay Area? If so, what’s your favorite place to hike or enjoy nature in the Bay Area?
Indeed! When I moved to LA, I told all of my friends I’d be back often. And I am. I’m a partner and senior adviser at Stamen Design, a mapping and data visualization studio, and I’m on the board of the California Historical Society, both of which are based in San Francisco. And I’ve stayed involved in other cool stuff in Northern California, including Year of the Bay, a project to crowdsource a new online environmental history of the Bay Area at yearofthebay.org.
What’s my favorite place in the Bay Area? That’s a tough question. The great thing about the Bay Area is that you can enjoy nature anywhere you are. It’s the wonderful legacy of so much work by so many great people over the years that the Bay Area really is, as geographer Richard Walker calls it, “the country in the city.” All you have to do is look around and breathe deeply, which I relish every time I come back. And I will be back; you can count on that!