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.
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.
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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