On the importance of environmental claims making: The role of James O. Wright in promoting the drainage of Florida's Everglades in the early 20th century.
Responding to recent calls to analyze the authoritative role of scientists in producing environmental knowledge, this article conceptualizes applied scientists as “environmental claims-makers” who play an influential role in shaping how the public perceives and interacts with the environment. Analyzing the knowledge claims of scientists, particularly applied scientists, requires a consideration of both cognitive and interpretive claims-making activities. The concept of environmental claims-making is used in analyzing the historical geography of one of North America's most famous wetland landscapes—the Florida Everglades. Specifically, we examine the role played by engineer James O. Wright in making scientific claims about the Everglades and its climate and how he (and others) used these claims to promote reclamation of this wetland during the early twentieth century. Our study critiques Wright's claims-making activities, evaluating the quality of environmental knowledge he constructed, the social and economic context within which his knowledge claims were interpreted and appropriated, the lasting impact that these claims had on settlement patterns, and the hazards of future scientific/engineering claims. Wright made fundamental errors in calculating how much water would need to be removed from the landscape in order to make it agriculturally productive. At the same time, Florida politicians and the South Florida real-estate industry used both Wright's work and his status as a scientist to represent the Everglades to prospective land buyers as an agricultural paradise. Flaws in Wright's drainage plan become clear only after thousands of people purchased land in South Florida that remained subject to periodic flooding. Experts were utilized in an effort to reclaim the Everglades, but the complexity of the Everglades ecosystem and the chronic lack of funds doomed the project until the 1950s. It took more than half a century of research and the technical and financial resources of the federal government to finally convert significant chunks of this vast wetland into productive farmland.
Meindl, C. F., Alderman, D.H. & Waylen, P. (2002). On the importance of environmental claims making: The role of James O. Wright in promoting the drainage of Florida's Everglades in the early 20th century. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 92(4), 682-701. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8306.00311
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