Ecological Succession in Cultural Geography

30 April 2010


Cultural geography” has become one of those recent catch phrases that also indicates a quasi-academic discipline that is vaguely defined not necessarily because it is intrinsically vague or poorly understood, but, I think, mostly because it is so comprehensive. There is little in the academic curriculum that cannot, with a little bit of creative cant, be called “cultural geography.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I am not invoking the study of cultural geography at this time because I want to criticize it or to mock it.

Eleven cultural realms mapped geographically, not unlike Samuel Huntington's division of the world into thirteen civilizations.

I skimmed a few contemporary books of the sort that would be used for textbooks on Cultural geography, and, despite the painfully pedantic layout of the books, none of the authors I skimmed would risk a straight-forward definition of cultural geography. And for good reason. To do so would be to limit the potential comprehensiveness of flexibility of this handy category. But, clearly, however hesitant we might be in hazarding a definition of cultural geography, we can see that cultural geography is a successor category to geography more narrowly defined. So let us say, roughly, and for the present, that cultural geography is a more comprehensive geography. As anthropology is routinely divided between biological (or physical) anthropology and cultural anthropology, so we might imagine a parallel distinction in geography, with traditional and narrowly defined geography being physical geography (the geographical counter-part of physical anthropology) while cultural geography is the geographical counter-part to cultural anthropology.

The concepts of cultural geography are a bit woolly due to the aforementioned desire not be be stuck with a definitive formulation, but it occurs to me that there is a way that the formulations of cultural geography could be made both more precise and more interesting by bringing the conceptual resources of ecology, which is essentially the study of how organisms live in an environment. Taking our cue from ecology, we can think of cultural geography as how cultures live in an environment.

This thought occurred to me when I was recently listening to George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. In Chapter 7 of this work, “American Power and the Crisis of 2030,” Friedman formulates a theory of fifty year cycles that govern US political fortunes. He argues for four complete cycles since the founding of the republic, and he divides these political cycles in this way:

1) From Founders to Pioneers,
2) From Pioneers to Small-Town America,
3) From Small Towns to Industrial Cities, and
4) From Industrial Cities to Service Suburbs.

Obviously, this cycle invites extrapolation from service suburbs to whatever comes next.

Cultural and economic succession mirror ecological succession.

What I find particularly interesting about the cycles described by Friedman is that this is essentially the description of a process of ecological succession. When new land is built up by vulcanism or existing land is devastated by a storm, there is an process that is called ecological succession, such that the empty land is first colonized by hardy plants like weeds. They are followed by slightly less hardy plants, the soil is enriched over time, larger plants are able to grow, and eventually we reach a climax ecosystem. The process Friedman describes is the cultural and economic equivalent of this, with the pioneers first setting out into the barren lands, homesteading, creating small towns, small towns grow into industrial cities, and suburbs spread outward from the cities. Thus the city surrounded by its suburbs is the equivalent in cultural geography to the climax ecosystem of ecology.

This is not a new theme, and was in fact famously put forward by Frederick Jackson Turner in his influential essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”:

“Limiting our attention to the Atlantic coast, we have the familiar phenomenon of the evolution of institutions in a limited area, such as the rise of representative government; the differentiation of simple colonial governments into complex organs; the progress from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization. But we have in addition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.”

Turner did not use explicitly ecological concepts in his exposition, but we can read in this passage how he conceptualized the westward expansion of the US as an iterated process of building civilization anew from “primitive” conditions at each stage of expansion. We have previously discussed recent criticisms of the Turner Thesis, but I still find much of value in Turner, even if some of this conceptions require further articulation in order to do justice to the conquest, convergence, continuity, and complexity of the American west. Scholarship too exhibits conquest, convergence, continuity, and complexity.

Some interesting possibilities are suggested by this use of ecological concepts in cultural geography that promise a more scientific understanding of history, but we will need to consider this more carefully at another time. Perhaps in the future we will be able to speak of the culture cycle as readily as we speak of the carbon cycle today.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “Ecological Succession in Cultural Geography”

  1. Hank said

    Nice post.

    I seem to remember going over the same ground 40 years ago as an undergraduate forty years ago. Needed no more than then. Except for the required core, most of my major was in Political (i.e. Cultural) Geography.

    Ecology and Environment studies were part Physical Geography back then and it seems a lot of Geography Departments are calling Physical Geography “Environmental Studies” these days.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Hank,

      Now that you’ve mentioned it I can see that I should have mentioned “Environmental Studies” in this context.

      Did you find, when you majored in Political Geography, that the ecological and environmental studies that were part of the curriculum were used for a systematic exposition of the broader themes of the discipline? That’s what I was trying to get at. What cultural geography needs (as I see it) is a set of (relatively) precise concepts that can articulate the discipline in a more structured and disciplined form.



  2. T. Greer said

    “Perhaps in the future we will be able to speak of the culture cycle as readily as we speak of the carbon cycle today. “

    Have you encountered “Cliodynamics”? It is an attempt (made, incidentally, mostly by former ecologists) to model social cycles in the same manner as we do physical ones. The book to read here (I have not yet opened it myself, but many a friend has) is Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations. I think you might find it of interest.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Greer,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I only know of cliodynamics because I had earlier followed links back to your web page, and from there followed the links on the other strategic thinkers that you have on your page. Of course this is of the greatest interest to me, though I remain skeptical. There is much for me to learn here, but it is a different path than by which I would approach it. How would I approach it? Formalistically and philosophically. Hopefully I will be able to post about this in the future. It is difficult, though, so it takes a lot of hard thinking to try to get clear about it.

      Best wishes and thanks again for mentioning me on your blog,


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