Degradation

In his 1925 essay “The Morphology of Landscape,” Carl Sauer launched an impassioned appeal for geographers to return to a classical phenomenological approach to areal study. In the wake of nineteenth-century positivist specialization, in which the natural sciences became a stand-in for chorology and geography, and causality was reduced to a simplistic environmental determinism, Sauer questioned the very essence of his field. Arguing for more integrated, social science-based approaches to geography, he stressed that landscape be treated as both a natural and cultural phenomenon. He lamented the degree to which the natural sciences of geomorphology and physiography had penetrated his field and in response he advocated a static treatment of landscape. For Sauer, landscape was seen as defining the range of possibilities for historical succession, but as far as he was concerned causality and change with time came from cultural processes, not natural ones.[1]

Author: 
Tucker, Richard

Tucker, Richard P. Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. Concise rev. ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

Rooted firmly in the raubwirtschaft genre, Insatiable Appetite looks at the impact of America’s “ecological empire” in the first half of the twentieth century. It frames things in dichotomous terms (i.e. American capitalists and their local lackeys decimating tropical nature) and bestows agency upon the capitalists.

The value of this work is almost strictly empirical, although I would say that even in that sense, it suffers from the same weaknesses that Mosquito Empires does; namely that the net is cast so far that the empirical detail is more broad than deep. So this book gives accounts of the domestication of forest to make way for cane production in Cuba, Hawaii and later the Philippines. But it does not look at the role played by local actors in that process like McCook does. It gives details about the impact of the green revolution, explaining how shifts in cultivated species (Gros Michel to Cavendish), increased reliance on chemical fertilizer and pesticides (1950s) and migration (Honduras / Costa Rica to Ecuador / Colombia / Venezuala) resulted from the banana industry’s struggle against Panama Disease. But it does not give the kind of compelling vignettes of contaminated field workers that Miller does, or the very local-ness of United Fruit Co. enclaves in Colombia that Catherine LeGrand describes. It does, however give interesting detail on Firestone’s Liberia plantations, something that is grossly lacking in the other treatments of rubber history that I have looked at and written about here. (The extended first edition also has a sub-chapter on Fordlandia).

Author: 
Guha, Ramachandra.

Guha, Ramachandra. "Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third-World Critique." In Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez Alier. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. London: Earthscan Publications, 1997.

Guha’s “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third-World Critique” lays out the tenets of deep ecology and dismantles them one by one. He boils down the philosophy of the “New Ecologists” (here interchangeable with deep ecology) to 4 dogmatic principles: 1) that there must be a shift from anthropocentric to biocentric thinking; 2) that pristine wilderness is the ultimate objective; 3) that deep ecology represents a synthesis of so-called Eastern spiritual views; and 4) that deep ecology is the vanguard of American environmentalism.

Author: 
Dean, Warren

Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand the Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Pertaining to the raubwirtschaft—or plunder economy —genre described by McNeill (24), Dean’s With Broadax and Firebrand takes nature as a static baseline rather than a dynamic producer of the historical event. Dean’s theorization of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest as a “palimpsest of super-imposed forms and relationships” (18) in many ways paints the forest as a kind of revolving door for outside exploitation. By anchoring his reader in the Atlantic forest, Dean leverages vignettes of brazilwood extraction, gold mining, coffee cultivation and ranching to tell the story of the forest’s transformation. While he distinguishes his from the other major work of the Latin American raubwirtschaft variety—Galeano’s Las venas abiertas de América Latina—by showing the view from the forest, the events Dean identifies as significant fall squarely within the purview of human actors.

Author: 
Sauer, Carl Ortwin

Sauer, Carl Ortwin. "Plant and Animal Destruction in Economic History." In Land and Life; a Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Declentionist in nature and prone to simplistic causality, this piece is a clarion call for all to beware the ills if capitalist production. Sauer assures his reader that chemistry is not alchemy. That is, the solution to rampant environmental degradation is not to be found in the physical sciences. Social sciences, and primarily economics, need to look at the problem of degradation to find a solution. Furthermore, like Grove, Sauer finds surplus- and export-oriented agriculture in contempt. And he briefly outlines the role of over-production in the extinction of species and varietal forms, the restriction of useful species, and soil destruction. Here he offers a useful precursor to Melville's description of the Valle del Mezquital by showing how the Mediterranean environment was totally denuded by livestock since the Romans engaged in mass herding. Another interesting comment has to do with the erosion of topsoil in the American South, where farming—by the time of writing in 1938—was largely subsoil farming and heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers. Thus Sauer offers something of interest in that here we have a pre-WWII critique of the coming Green Revolution, one in which the capitalist mode of production—not the paucity of naturally occurring phosphorous or other environmental limitations—is put on trial.