Julian Steward and My Rage Against Machinery

Ever since we read Julian Steward’s cultural ecology in Moberg a few weeks ago I have been trying to figure out if his theory is able to explain industrial state societies’ cultural adaptations to the environment or if the theory just couldn’t do it.  After a little bit of thinking on my free time (I say that as if that exists, ha!) I decided, though difficult since it was my own culture, to try to analyze the cultural ecology of the United States.  Initially I couldn’t get the theory to work, I tried to come up with different ways to define the climate of the United States as a whole but the variation of weather patterns from region to region was too great; we have hurricanes on the Southern Coasts, earthquakes and droughts to the West, heavy snowfall and fairly long winters in the Midwest and upper East Coast, and tornadoes increasing in the Midwest down to the South.  Even within regions there were different sub-weather patterns, such as heavy wet snow in Michigan whereas Minnesota and Wisconsin get lighter snowfall and lower humidity in the winter!  After mentioning the aforementioned list of different climate patterns in the United States to myself later that week I had that Aha!/face palming moment, obviously the environmental aspect to Steward’s cultural ecology could not be used on a large sample, such as the entire United States.  I had focused on the shared culture core I had embarrassingly neglected how the culture core adapted and was used to address the second half of the theory.  Foolishness behind, I had gotten caught up in the assumptions of my own culture and perhaps one of the premises of being an industrial state society, we use machines!  I was strung up with the idea that we are reliant on machinery and as a result fossil fuels (ironically fueling my hatred for our reliance on it still today) to create our own environments to suit our needs such as houses and schools, roads, factories, entire cities so that we can continue living our lives as usual.  The fascination with creating these artificial environments and neglecting the world around us paralyzed my ability to even think past our usage of machinery and how it can change from the cultural ecology theory’s point of view.  Steward’s cultural ecology theory is looking at specific ways that a culture core adapts to the environment so, given our heavy reliance on machinery, here is how I broke down our general culture core and made it more specific to certain climate types by comparing slight changes in agriculture.  In Wisconsin, we use heavy machinery to plant crops but in our area, we have had (except in recent years) steady rainfall so the majority of the crops in the southeast of Wisconsin are rain fed.  Taking the same technology but placing it in California, our crops would surely die given the low amounts of rainfall; this is why agriculture in dryer places requires a lot of water and so sprinkler systems are manufactured and used to grow the crops.  Taking our modified Wisconsin-California watering system and placing it in an area with a lot of rivers and streams, it would be inefficient to use sprinkler systems even though there is little rainfall, the rivers could be utilized for irrigation systems which would not require pumps or reservoirs to use for sprinklers.  So, with these variations of the use of machinery to plant and sustain crops, the culture core changes with the environmental factors.  Despite my distain for the use of heavy machinery (and reliance on fossil fuels, BOO!) to continue the obscene reliance of  monoculture in the United States, to which one day we shall see that polyculture is far more cost-effective and provides protection from diseases and pests to the plants without the use of pesticides or antibiotics, the use of heavy machinery is essential for an industrial state society to provide large quantities of food to its population. 

3 thoughts on “Julian Steward and My Rage Against Machinery

  1. Mike when I read your title I thought you were going to talk about the band. I thought Julian Steward more like Karl Marx. However, I read the post, and I have something for you.I believe you can totally analyze our industrial nation state with the principals of cultural ecology. Part of our culture core is a persistent belief in efficiency and profit. These have led to our reliance on machines.We adapt to our environment by manipulating it with technology. This is at the core of who we are as a culture.The industrial food complex is an example of that.

  2. And, in fact, we would not be able to farm much of this land at all without machines. The Great Plains were not opened to agriculture until the invention of the steel plow by a workman named John Deer. The sods of the Great Plains were far to thick and dense to be plowed by ordinary plowing techniques (much less the digging sticks of swiddening).
    Actually, White would like to analyze this, don’t you think?

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