The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (review)

To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the author.


Technology and Culture 43.4 (2002) 802-803 Today, about half of all Americans live in suburbs, and four out of five consider themselves environmentalists. Adam Rome traces both phenomena back to the quarter century after 1945, when developers built tens of millions of suburban houses, each year covering an area the size of Rhode Island with development. This building boom forever changed the appearance of the United States, maintained the American tradition of home-ownership, and made commonplace such conveniences as washing machines and air-conditioning. Yet the boom, writes Rome, "was an environmental catastrophe on the scale of the Dust Bowl" (p. 3). So great was the backlash against the destruction of farmland, forest, and marsh, he argues, that it helped spawn the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Bulldozer in the Countryside makes two arguments. The first, comprising the first three chapters of the book, might be summarized by the phrase "haste makes waste." In their desire to build houses quickly, developers chose short-term benefits and long-term costs. The houses they threw up were cheap to build and buy, but expensive to heat and cool. Deals with electric utility companies enriched builders but saddled owners with enormous monthly bills. Building on hillsides opened new land for development but left houses vulnerable to landslides. And by relying on septic tanks, developers doomed buyers to polluted water and sewage backups and local governments to costly sewer installations in future years. To some degree, this wasteful building was a question of timing; fifteen years of depression and war had left the nation desperate for new housing, however shoddy. But Rome also notes that profit-maximizing capitalists will always pass their costs onto others unless restrained by vigorous regulation. The second argument, developed in the final four chapters, is that environmentalism begins at home. Taking issue with historians who see the rise of environmental protection as originating in consumerist desires to preserve wilderness for recreation, Rome suggests that Americans cared less about distant mountains than about the degradation they saw in and around their own backyards. When they turned on their taps and soapsuds poured forth, suburbanites worried about their children, not about salamanders and frogs, and took action primarily to protect their own. Drawing on books, articles, and congressional hearings, Rome traces the rising concern about such matters as water pollution, the loss of open space, and the spread of development into areas previously left to wilderness. In the early 1970s, critics of sprawl secured new legislation and jurisprudence to protect the environment, but a strong tradition of property rights defeated some of the boldest proposals. Rome's is an important tale, clearly told and well-argued. But he does not cover all subjects equally well, and readers of this journal may be frustrated with his treatment of some of the technologies involved. Although he does a thorough job explaining the pros and cons of septic tanks, he does not devote the same attention to insulation. And though Rome hints that World War II vastly increased the availability of earthmoving equipment and revolutionized building practices (and even though the bulldozer appears in his title) he does not fully lay out the history of the bulldozer and its role in suburbanization. A greater weakness concerns politics. Rome traces the evolution of several policies, especially those concerning land use and property rights, on both the state and federal level. One reads of a cluster of magazine articles about a given issue, its adoption by an intellectual or two, and then the enactment of a policy to fix the problem. But, perhaps because of Rome's reliance on published sources, rarely does the reader get a sense of when or why a senator, governor, or state supreme court converted to environmentalism, or saw political advantage in doing so. For example, Rome traces the career of geographer Gilbert White, who called for restrictions on development in flood plains. Rather than fully explaining how White gained the ear of policymakers, Rome simply...

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the author.

ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.