Class Research Resources and Assignments

Week 5 - Lecture Video

Our Historical Context: Colonialism, Imperialism and Sprawl     



"It may not be improper to characterize as ecological imperialism the elaboration of a world organization that is centered in industrial societies and degrades the ecosystems of the agrarian societies it absorbs. Ecological imperialism is in some ways similar to economic imperialism. In both there is a flow of energy and material from the less organized system to the more organized one, and both may also be masked by the same euphemisms, among which "progress" and "development" are prominent.
     The anthropocentric trend I have described may have ethical implications, but the issue is ultimately not a matter of morality or even of Realpolitik. It is one of biological viability."

Roy Rappaport, "The Flow of Energy in an Agricultural Society," (1971)

     Although some writers seem to transcend their circumstances while considering issues of environmental ethics, most thinkers are thoroughly grounded in the conditions of a particular time and place. This is also true of cultures as a whole. The values of a culture are "artifacts" of historical circumstance and collective experience.
     It is important to keep this in mind in assessing statements about "what ought to be done" to or with the land. The contemporary concern for land and resource management comes into play only after a particular history of colonial expansion and imperial domination that has characterized global history for the last five hundred years.
     What impact does this history have upon statements of environmental ethics? What "rights" are thought to be inherent in land "ownership" for example? What are "water rights?" In effect, these phenomena are social conventions built up from the history of occupation and control of expanding agrarian societies.
     But what about the other side of the frontier? Should the sensitivities and sensibilities of the "First Nations" whose lands were taken, occupied or conquered be taken into account in developing contemporaty environmental ethics? With the recent history of colonialism in mind, what is an appropriate "baseline" for ethical judgments about appropriate human behavior in the environment?

     To begin, we would do best to consider the "ecological profile" of the colonial chapters in human history? Read and consider the argument put forward in the following article.

Timothy C. Weiskel
"Agents of Empire: Steps Toward an Ecology of Imperialism," Environmental Review, 11, 4, (Winter, 1987), pp. 273-288.
Timothy C. Weiskel
"The Ecological Lessons of the Past: An Anthropology of Environmental Decline," The Ecologist,
Volume 19, No. 3 (May/June, 1989), pp. 98-103.

Related Reading:

James M. Blaut
The Colonizer's Model of the World (Guilford, CT., Guilford Press, 1993).

Thinking about Sprawl

Consider the following two documentaries. View the short clips for each and then, when you have time, allow an hour to view each completely.

- The Sprawling of America: Inner City Blues


- The Sprawling of America: Fat of the Land
What according the Christopher M. Cook, the Producer of these two documentaries, are the major contributing factors to sprawl in post-war America?

Further Case Study Material

  • Sprawl in Montana. The photo spreads in the glossy magazines show big skies, tall mountains and miles and miles of nothing. That's the image of Montana we've been given. But like some exotic species of alien plant, urban sprawl is invading as more people want a home on the range. NPR's Elizabeth Arnold visits the Rocky Mountain state to find out what drives "western" sprawl, and what people there are doing about it. (12:30)
  • The Price of Sprawl. From member station WNIJ in DeKalb, Illinois, Susan Stephens reports that replacing farmland with housing developments is leading to social and environmental problems. A new study says the local community must pay higher taxes; police, fire and ambulances are forced to cover a larger area; and children face up to two hours a day on the bus, riding to and from school. (4:28)
  • Virginia Sprawl - Hi Tech to Suburbs. NPR's Snigda Prakash reports on the boom in technology companies in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, and on the sprawling growth of housing, shopping centers, and traffic in the western part of Fairfax County, Virginia. The economic activity is driven by the computer industry, specifically Internet access providers, such as America Online, UUnet, and PSInet, whose offices are located along the 13-mile road that joins Tyson's Corner to Dulles Airport. Some of the wealthier residents of neighboring Loudon County are trying to keep real estate development from spreading to their rustic enclaves. (6:47)
  • Suburban Sprawl - Albuquerque. As part of The Changing Face of America series, NPR's John Nielsen reports from Albuquerque on the real estate development formula that drives the creation of regional shopping malls and suburban sprawl across the country. Nielsen talks to Chris Leinberger, an expert on 'the science of sprawl,' who says that sprawl is planned, not random or haphazard. (7:35)
  • Changing Face of America: Florida. Our series on the changing face of America continues with a look at fast changing south Florida. Battered by several seasons of severe storms, Floridians are abandoning the coasts and moving inland. Hurricane immigrants have swelled the population of a once quiet farming area on the edge of the Everglades. The neighboring towns of Pembroke Pines and Southwest Ranches in Broward County, Florida, have made different decisions about their destinies. Pembroke Pines is a classic suburban community of subdivisions and strip malls and is the third fastest growing city in the United States. It went from 1,500 residents in 1960, to ,000 in 1990, to an estimated 120,000 in 2000. The city is now almost totally built out and is now playing catch up with problems that were created by the huge influx of people: traffic, school overcrowding, water and environmental issues. Many families moved to Pembroke Pines because they felt that it was a good place to raise a family. The city has numerous parks and recreational activities for kids, including a strong athletic league, and very good schools. Despite the difficulties caused by sprawl, most people still enjoy living there. Southwest Ranches made very different choices about its growth. It is a much more rural town and it plans to stay that way. It fought against annexation with Pembroke Pines, and in March the city incorporated to ensure it had control over its own destiny. Southwest Ranches residents, who number about 7,000, have decided they want no more shopping malls and fewer traffic lights and housing developments. (11:00)
  • Northwest Arsons.Ecoterrorists are suspected to be responsible for fires at a University of Washington botany lab and an Oregon tree farm earlier this week. The arsons are believed to be protests against genetic engineering. Noah Adams talks with Tom Paulson, science reporter for the Seattle Post Intelligencer. (4:30)

The Case of Atlanta - Sprawl City:

  • Atlanta's Growth. From member station WABE, Joshua Levs reports on concern that Atlanta is growing too fast. The increase in new jobs has lead to an increased population that has created a serious case of urban sprawl and traffic congestion. Now, many Atlanta business and community leaders are trying to figure out a way to control (7:30)

  • Sprawl in Atlanta. Urban sprawl is on a lot of agendas right now. Ground Zero for urban sprawl in the U.S is the Atlanta metropolitan area. In the 1990s, suburban development is eating up fifty acres of green space a day. And, on average, a person in Atlanta spends 34 miles on the road every day -- more than anywhere else in the U.S. But in Atlanta, it's not just the politicians and the environmentalists who are concerned about the pace of the city's growth -- business leaders, too, are trying to control Atlanta's development ... and they think they can make money in the process. NPR's John Nielsen reports on developers who have built their businesses in the suburbs who are now focusing on in-town projects and big employers who are moving their offices from the suburbs to the city. (7:00)

  • Auburn Avenue. NPR's John Nielsen continues his report from Atlanta. The southern part of the city, which is traditionally African-American, has been hurt by urban sprawl. Middle class blacks moved out to the suburbs in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. But groups in the city's black neighborhoods are trying to include their communities in the revival of Atlanta's city center. (3:00)

  • Sprawls and Cars. Noah talks to transportation consultant Alan Pisarski about driving in the suburbs. Pisarski says that driving other than commuting takes up more and more driving time and is causing more and more traffic problems. He says that 11am on Saturdays, when people are running errands, may be one of the heaviest traffic times, and that reliance on cars to do personal business will probably not decrease in the future because cars are much more efficient for these trips than transit or carpooling. (2:30)

  • Sprawl and Suburbs. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports from Atlanta that even though there is a movement in Atlanta to develop more heavily within the city limits, the suburbs continue to grow. The Mall of Georgia -- the biggest shopping mall in the area -- is near to completion, and the outer counties of the Atlanta metro area are adding more housing all the time. Suburban developers say that people want to live and shop in the suburbs and they are just following that desire. (5:15)