Friday, May 30, 2008

The Bulldozer in the Countryside

Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge UP, 2001)

I can't decide if I love it or hate it when a book tells me all of its major arguments in the introduction, summarized in bullet-pointed numbers and even bolded for my convenience. Part of me thinks that this is a sign that I should forsake trying to read this whole book and simply read the intro. But then the other part of me thinks "If I stick to the intro, maybe I will miss something really cool..." Like, for example, the chapter on septic tanks in this book.

Rome argues that environmentalism really took shape around the time of the development of the postwar suburbs (194os-1970s). Contrary to earlier interpretations, Rome says that gov't agencies (such as Fish and Game) had a much bigger hand in conservation efforts than previously thought; that scientists and policymakers acted for conservation even before the publication of Silent Spring (1962) and that common perceptions that citizen action formed the basis of environmentalism are erroneous; and that consumerism, in this case epitomized by the purchase of homes, works counter to environmentalism. Comfort-seekers of the post-war era, many of whom were working-class and were being offered the opportunity to own a house for the first time in their lives, were not apt to mind when developers cut corners with environmental protections.

Rome looks at the septic tank (which was intended to facilitate development of areas distant from the city center) as an exemplar of the way that developers tended to push the limits of the topography where they operated, and that home-owners did not look too closely at the specifics of their new homes (until the tanks failed and it was too late). The anti-detergents outrage, which took hold after some homeowners in Long Island and New Jersey found suds in their tap water, was another crusade that, Rome argues, came about only because of inconveniences to homeowners - not because of fearfulness about damaged ecosystems. The chapter on the fight to preserve open space was also interesting, because of its inclusion of homeowner activists.

teaches at Penn State, and writes that he is working on a book about Earth Day and another about environmentalism of the Progressive Era. I hope he comes out with the latter before I write my dissertation, so that I may read it.

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