Pollution Does Not “Go Away”: Mylar Balloons and Air Quality in California’s Pristine Wastelands

By Julia Sizek, University of California at Berkeley §

Joshua Tree National Park regularly ranks as the National Park with the second-worst air quality, but its pollution is mostly invisible. Ozone, the major pollutant, actually makes the sky bluer rather than hazier, and so only days with high nitrogen and sulfur are hazy enough to visually alert residents to the pollution that the California desert receives from predominantly onshore winds, which carry the LA Basin’s smog up and over the mountains and into the desert (Atagi 2019). Most days, the more common reminder of Los Angeles’ enduring influence on the desert comes from tourism to Joshua Tree. Park visitation has doubled from 1.5 to 3 million visitors per year over the last five years (Dagan et al 2018). Outside of the populated Coachella Valley on the Park’s south side or the string of towns in the Morongo Basin on the Park’s north side, though, it can be easy to forget the impacts of the city on the landscape—until, that is, you find a Mylar party balloon hidden in the brush.

A balloon in a creosote bush. Photo by author.

Mylar balloons are the most frequent item found in Congressionally-designated wilderness areas, according to National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management employees who work in Southeastern California. Balloons, like other kinds of litter, remind viewers that the natural and cultural cannot be neatly separated. Most litter appears along roadsides and commonly used trails, but balloons are widely dispersed because they are carried by predominantly onshore winds (Lindsey 2014). Balloons regularly fall in federally-designated Wilderness Areas without roads meant to be ”pristine” and without human influence.

When they travel so far away from other traces of human activity, balloons unsettle the notions that wilderness is unaffected by human activities or that there is an entirely pristine nature to be saved. However, balloons are specific kinds of reminders: they presence contemporary Anglo settlement in ways that both reenact and maintain the past and present erasures of Chemehuevi, Mojave and Serrano Tribes who continue to inhabit the East Mojave today. While tourists ignore Native presence in wilderness or don’t recognize ways that Native peoples have shaped the landscape, instead imagining it as untouched by human hands (Spence 1999), environmentalists and hikers see found balloons as a reminder of the lack of respect that city people have for the desert, the common notion that the desert is a wasteland or an economically and socially marginal place where trash belongs. With their unusual locomotion, balloons float above questions of intent of those doing the littering—and questions of who is making the desert into a pristine area or a wasteland—and raise different questions of the distribution of air between city and country. Balloons “disclos[e] the dynamic motion of the atmosphere to a public audience” (McCormack 2010). In other words, balloons index the movement of air pollution from Los Angeles to its desert elsewhere.

Below, I look at two stories of the desert as an “away” to which air pollution travels. In the first, an anti-balloon activist today highlights the environmentalist desire to make the desert pristine and how balloons track country-city relations. In the second, a power plant proposed in the 1970s reveals how the desert is an untapped resource for Los Angeles during times of anxiety over smog. Both of these stories concern problems of the distribution of air between country and city, relations that are rendered visible by balloons as they land and accumulate in the desert (see Williams 1973, Shapiro 2015, Choy 2016).[1] Balloons, I argue, not only disclose air’s movement from the coast to the desert, but show the desire and impossibility of a pristine nature to counter against desert wastelanding. Wastelanding, following Valerie Kuletz (1998) and Traci Voyles (2015), is the way that environmental and social relations are co-constituted to render an area degraded, ecologically useless, and socially marginal to allow for uses that are harmful to the environment and both Native and non-Native people’s health. In pointing toward air’s distributions, I argue that the critique of wastelanding is insufficient to think about the country-city relations of the California desert. Instead, I argue that the perception of the atemporal pristine and erasure of indigenous peoples is an asset for proposals of future industrial production that works in tandem with wastelanding rather than against it. In other words, both making-pristine and wastelanding are means of rendering the desert available for city needs under a distributional regime.


Picking Up / Letting Go

“I was talking to someone in my office about it,” Annika tells me, “and she said what I think describes the situation perfectly: ‘when people let these [balloons] go, they think they go away. But there is no away.’” Annika lives in the imagined “away,” in Death Valley National Park. Though Death Valley and areas surrounding it are popular tourist destinations, they are also out-of-the-way places where year-round residents feel neglected by Inyo County officials, federal agency landowners, and by the city people who come to see the desert. Annika has lived in Death Valley National Park as a volunteer ranger for the last decade, and has become obsessed with picking up party balloons, or as she calls them, “the Mylars.” In 2018, she started a yearlong balloon collection program with the idea that visitors could learn about the problem and would be more careful about letting balloons go at home. Her public presentations emphasize not only the aesthetic impact that balloons have on the Wilderness (91% of Death Valley’s 3.4 million acres is federally-designated Wilderness), but their negative impacts on animals who often mistake the balloons for food (Zylstra 2013). After collecting 169 balloons in the first two months, she worked with a colleague to produce a map of the collection locations, which she showed us at a Sierra Club meeting on a temperate May day in the Mojave National Preserve. That day, the wind threatened to blow away the map as she displayed it to us, making it easy to see how balloons blow from Los Angeles to the Eastern Mojave.

The balloons in her map cluster around Death Valley’s road system, but she assures us that it is volunteer trash collectors, not balloons, who cluster by roads. In fact, it is often the places farthest from human presence where balloons can accumulate over years to be found later. In the Sheephole Valley, an out-of-the way area not much more than creosote scrub and WWII tank tracks with very low annual visitation and few attractions, we—employees of a land trust and I—found twenty balloons in an afternoon while checking land trust parcels for illegal dumping and off-highway vehicle trespass. The balloons celebrated Cinco de Mayo, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day, but the seasonality of events celebrated told us nothing about when the balloon landed in the Sheephole Valley—they were simply markers of unknown accumulation, desert arrivals that cannot be stratigraphically dated.

Balloon accumulations. Photo by author.

Months after we initially met, Annika tells me that she has set up research plots so that she can determine how many balloons arrive in Death Valley each year. The only other study on terrestrial balloons relied on opportunistic data,[2] and so Annika hopes that this coordinated research can measure balloon distribution and prove negligence on behalf of balloon manufacturers or encourage a new push to ban balloons in California.

In the meantime, Annika’s anecdotal data is being put to use as educational material at Death Valley National Park. In an argument common to many environmental education initiatives,[3] she contends that balloons end up in the desert because the city people who let them go just don’t think about where balloons go when they are released or care enough to stop them from escaping. If these people knew about the consequences or came to care about the desert, she argues, they would stop their behavior. Seeking to recouple the negative environmental and aesthetic consequences of balloons with their causes, her argument resonates with other desert conservation initiatives that seek to revalue the desert as a pristine area not already ruined rather than a wasteland where a desert belongs.

Yet, underlying these ideas of recoupling of effects and causes are the linking of class, race, and educational status to the production of litter, as anthropologists have already noted (Douglas 1966, Rogers 2005, Argyrou 1997, Moore 2012, Sundberg 2008). The performance of picking up desert trash—as I have found in participant-observation with Adopt-a-Highway crews—is based in forms of middle and upper-middle class environmentalism that depends on Wilderness aesthetics: an idea that balloons and the people who release them are ruining a pristine desert devoid of settler or Native influences. By picking up litter, environmentalists try to recreate a pristine desert—to make it back into a place not already ruined—even as they note the impossibility of picking up all of the trash. In their clean-ups, both organized and unorganized, environmentalists see their actions as enacting a critique of the idea that the desert is a wasteland where trash might belong.


Distribution / Pristine Wastelands

The Morongo Basin is in the central Mojave Desert, just north of Joshua Tree National Park, and the basin’s good air quality has been understood as way of life there since the 1920s. Most Euro-American settlers of the basin were “lungers” from the Los Angeles Basin: that is, men who suffered from mustard gas poisoning during World War I as well as people with conditions like tuberculosis and emphysema. A Pasadena doctor, James Luckie, is often credited with founding the town of Twentynine Palms by encouraging veterans to move there. Lungers in Twentynine Palms and elsewhere were not only agents of Euro-American settlement of the desert, but also carriers of respiratory diseases who infected Chemehuevi and Serrano peoples indigenous to the Basin and forced many to move to more urban areas (Trafzer 2015). Luckie’s daughter Susan subsequently became a local environmental activist. Motivated by 1960s and 1970s anxiety about Los Angeles’ smog coming over the mountains and specifically by the proposal for a coal burning power plant upwind from the Morongo Basin, Susan led a survey of Morongo Basin residents in the late 1970s that found 41% thought about air quality when they moved to the desert and 27% had moved to the area specifically for health reasons (Harris 1982).

Such numbers would eventually give hope in the fight against the desert power plant, but the main questions about the plant were always about the relationship between city and country and the problems of the distribution of air and political power between them. I was able to read Susan’s notes, which she had transcribed from a tape of a 1973 hearing in Lucerne Valley, read:

  1. Since you have to bring in the water, and you have to bring in the gas, in effect you have to bring in everything, why do you build plants out in the desert, why don’t you build them closer to the [L.A. Basin?] ?
  2. [Sebastian J. Nola, Edison Project Manager for the Proposed Lucerne Valley Power Plant] …In the L.A. Basin, we cannot build more plants…The rules are such that they far exceed the national levels and the state levels…far exceed; you’ve seen the smog. So, they’re saying, “You can’t build there anymore.”
  3. In other words, what it boils down to is the fact that we have relatively clean air out here, and so we can stand a little bit more contaminant out here? (Moore 1973)

Her note, tucked in parentheses below the transcription, reads “Pollution does not just ‘go away’ into the atmosphere.” Like Annika, Susan was concerned that the desert was seen as an elsewhere, a marginal place where pollution would not matter. For Susan, the desert was expected to absorb not only pollutants from the South Coast Air District, but its unwanted projects, too. The project had been provisionally sited in the desert because the South Coast District could no longer afford to decrease its own air quality with a power plant in Los Angeles. In other words, the desert was seen as an ideal place to site a project because it is closer to being pristine, not only because it is an underdeveloped frontier or wasteland.

Susan’s original transcript. Photo by author.

Susan was commenting on what contemporary scholars call wastelanding, in which portions of the American desert are viewed as already destroyed and therefore open to pollution and the siting of industrial projects (Kuletz 1998, Voyles 2015). But Susan’s notes show more than just a theory of wastelanding based on an economically and socially marginal place: both her work as an environmental activist and her papers show how the categories of wasteland and so-called “pristine” nature intertwined to produce ideal conditions for certain forms of industrial development. The twinning of wasteland and pristinity mirror the way that Chemehuevi lands in the mountains west of the Colorado River were considered untouched—their pristinity enabling dispossession—and a worthless wasteland. A quote from an unattributed Chemehuevi proves the point: “To the white man, the desert is a wasteland; to us it is a supermarket” (Laird 1976: 5). The creation  The creation of a pristine nature complemented the notion of a desert wasteland, a socially and economically marginal place where the inhabitants don’t matter.



I’ve offered two stories: one, of balloons as symbolic concentrations of desert problems that make visible the invisibility of air pollution and other ill effects of the city on the so-called pristine desert. The second section asked about where balloons go in order to understand how the concept of the pristine—that is, the not-already-ruined—can reshape our notions of theories of wastelanding and pristine nature as they relate to environmental justice and the ongoing presence of Native peoples in the California desert.

Together, these stories demand that we pay attention to how environmental justice work of the American southwest sits at the intersection of perception and distribution; how airborne pollution relies simultaneously on contradictory tropes of pristinity and wasteland. I have argued here that understanding the desert as wasteland—either a frontier “left behind” as an economically and socially marginal or a never-useful space—is insufficient to understand the complexities of city-country debates in which the desert’s pristineness can be an asset for proposals of future industrial production. Yet, such connections depend critically on not only the visibility of desert degradation, but also on its flows and distributions: on questions of where balloons go.


[1] For an analysis of balloons as speculative objects and figures of levity, see McCormack 2018.

[2] Indeed, almost all of the research has focused on problems of marine balloons and litter, and little attention has been paid to terrestrial balloons. See Derraik 2002.

[3] See Hungerford and Volk 1990. For an anthropological critique of environmental education as a means of extending state power and prioritizing tourist revenues over local control over ecological areas, see Mendoza 2016. 

Works Cited

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Argyrou, Vassos. 1997. “‘Keep Cyprus Clean’: Littering, Pollution, and Otherness.” Cultural Anthropology 12 (2): 159–78. https://doi.org/10.1525/can.1997.12.2.159.

Choy, Tim. 2016. “Distribution.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 21, 2016. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/distribution

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Kuletz, Valerie. 1998. The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West. Psychology Press.

Laird, Carobeth.1976. The Chemehuevis. Banning: Malki.

Lindsey, John. 2014. “Why Death Valley Is Littered with Mylar Balloons.” San Luis Obispo Tribune, June 14, 2014, Website edition. http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/weather/weather-watch/article39489087.html.

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Trafzer, Clifford E. 2015. A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe. University of Washington Press.

Voyles, Traci Brynne. 2015. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.

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Zylstra, E.R. 2013. “Accumulation of Wind-Dispersed Trash in Desert Environments.” Journal of Arid Environments 89: 2013. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2012.10.004.

Julia Sizek is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Associate Scholar with the Native American Land Conservancy. She studies contemporary land management conflict in the public-private checkerboard of Southeastern California’s Mojave Desert. Her dissertation research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the University of California Natural Reserve System.

This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times.