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Holocene in Fragments: A Critical Landscape Ecology of Phosphorus in Florida


This dissertation is a study of the landscape ecologies made by the phosphate fertilizer industry in Florida. Chemical fertilizers are one of the big stories of our times, rivaling fossil fuels in terms of Earth-altering effects. I use the Florida phosphate industry and the human-altered phosphorus cycle as a lens to understand the emergence of what earth scientists call the Anthropocene. Unlike most Anthropocene scholars, I argue that we are not “in” the Anthropocene so much as we are living through the Holocene/Anthropocene transition. Studying the Holocene/Anthropocene transition, I assert, requires arts of noticing patchy multispecies landscapes with both Holocene and Anthropocene parts. It also requires anthropological elucidation of industrial capitalism. Understanding how industrialization drives the Holocene/Anthropocene transition is at the core of a new discipline I call critical landscape ecology.

At the heart of my critical landscape ecology of Florida is a structural critique of the human-altered phosphorus cycle and the industrial food system it fertilizes. In the Anthropocene, phosphorus forms a broken biogeochemical cycle, feeding the capitalist world-system in a one-way flow from mine to farm to fork and to water body. By learning to convert phosphate rock into an overabundance of cheap food, humans have created the biogeochemical foundations for economic, human population, and (sub)urban growth.

Located within Central Florida is one of the world’s largest and oldest phosphate-rock-producing regions, known as Bone Valley. Central Florida is also an agricultural region with lakes, rivers, and estuaries that have been polluted by phosphate fertilizers. Lastly, it is a region transformed by suburban sprawl and the politics of growth. I examine how phosphate mining, the eutrophication of agricultural watersheds, and suburban development have fractured the regional Holocene and generated an Anthropocene. As Holocene natures are destroyed and polluted, Floridians invest in restoration and conservation. I document how environmental managers attempt to stave off the ecological entropy unleashed by phosphorus industrialization. Attending to the natural history of this mosaic Holocene/Anthropocene region reveals a strange and surprising mix of invasive weeds, native remnants, restored habitats, and the ghosts of extirpated species.

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