Thomas Rudel, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Cook Office Building, Room 214
Biography: Tom Rudel conducts research on land use change. He has researched the driving forces behind tropical deforestation both through case studies in the Ecuadorian Amazon and through quantitative analyses at the global scale. The latter set of studies has included work on 'the forest transition'. He has also done research on the forces that have driven suburban sprawl, primarily through field studies in the northeastern United States. He just finished a book, entitled 'Defensive Environmentalists and the Paths to Global Environmental Reform', to be published by Cambridge University Press.
Current ResearchMy current research focuses on two questions: (1) Under what sorts of circumstances do tropical pastures become more biodiverse and carbon sequestering? This work has involved field work among small scale cattle ranchers in the southern regions of the Ecuadorian Amazon. (2) When do states expand their social power and under what sorts of circumstances might these expanded powers be used to create sustainable societies? This project expands and elaborates world polity theory.
Suburban Land Use Changes and ControlsLand use planning processes, at least in theory, try to incorporate and accommodate two seemingly contradictory goals, economic development and environmental preservation, into a single political process. In this respect processes of land use planning should provide a laboratory for understanding the ways in which humans integrate contradictory concerns into the construction of communities. This research effort led to a series of journal articles and a book, Situations and Strategies in American Land Use Planning (Cambridge, 1989), that outlined the conditions in which communities engaged in land use planning. The findings underlined the importance of two factors in the impetus to plan: the increasing scale of proposed real estate developments and the salience of status concerns in the thinking of the community residents who crafted local plans. The absence of any kind of concerted engagement by planners with the ecological consequences of suburban sprawl was striking.
I began a second generation of studies into suburban land use planning in 2005. In the altered context of the late 1990s suburban residents made more concerted attempts to slow down or stop real estate development through the designation of ecologically sensitive parcels of land as open space and the creation of zones of land use that required large minimum lot areas for the construction of a single home. Both changes promised to reduce real estate development, albeit in very different ways, in suburban places. Most recently, I have developed an interest in the social contexts that promote green decision-making among real estate developers.
Forest Transitions: Processes of Destruction and RegenerationThe early calls for more attention to the problem of tropical deforestation struck me in a heartfelt way because I helped a group of landless peasants destroy a large tract of primary rain forest in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin in the early 1970s. In subsequent research I investigated the human causes for the worldwide acceleration in rates of deforestation. This focus produced a set of articles and a book, Tropical Deforestation: Small Farmers and Forest Clearing in the Ecuadorian Amazon that tried to clarify the social and economic processes that drove the destruction of large lowland forests in Southeast Asia and South America. I carried out this work at various scales of aggregation, using a variety of methods. Research, funded by the National Science Foundation, analyzed cross-national patterns of deforestation using FAO data on forest cover change and a variety of socio-economic indicators. I also carried out a detailed ethnographic examination of forest destruction in one small area of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
As someone who first studied processes of forest destruction in a small, not much studied country (Ecuador), I quickly became sensitive to differences between countries and between regions in processes of forest cover change. To combat the 'one size fits all' presumption in so much theorizing about environmental change, I decided to investigate inter-regional differences in forest cover change during the late 20th century. This research effort became a book, Tropical Forests: Regional Paths of Destruction and Regeneration during the Late 20th Century. It and related articles make the case that changes in forest cover occur differently in regions with large forests (Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America) than they do in regions with small forests (Central America, East Africa, South Asia, and West Africa). The book and another related article also argue that the state ceded ground to private enterprises as the principal drivers of tropical deforestation from the 1980s to the 1990s.
My research focus on forest destruction began to shift in the mid-1990s when I began to look at processes of forest regrowth. On hikes in the uplands of the northeastern United States, I had long marveled at the recovery of forests on old fields. An historical generalization about a 'forest transition' in which forest cover first declined and then increased in response to industrialization and urbanization seemed especially appealing because it promised to explain, with one idea, both forest destruction in the tropics and forest recovery in temperate places. This interest led to several investigations of the situations that encourage turnarounds in forest cover, from deforestation to forestation, and an intensive case study of forestation. I am currently planning follow up pieces of research on how one measures regrowth and what drives the gradual repopulation of working tropical pastures with trees.
Biological Models of the Environment - Development NexusSince at least shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species scholars and scientists have periodically tried to use biological models to understand the workings of human societies. Most infamously, social conservatives in the 19th century argued that processes of natural selection explained existing patterns of social stratification; in so doing, they justified their privileged positions on the basis of ‘superior’ biological characteristics. In a book that I am now writing, I draw upon largely discredited theories of ecosystem development to understand, among other things, fertility declines, agricultural intensification, and recycling increases in affluent societies. Through this intellectual salvage operation I hope to articulate a new way of generalizing about historical changes in economic activity and environmental conditions.
- Thomas K. Rudel, L. Schneider, M. Uriarte, B.L. Turner II, R. Defries, D. Lawrence, E. Lambin, J.
Geoghegan, A. Ickowitz, S. Hecht, T. Birkenholtz, R. Grau, 2009, "Agricultural intensification and changes in cultivated areas, 1970-2005." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in press.
- Thomas K. Rudel, Gregory Asner, Ruth Defries, William Laurance, 2009, "Changing Drivers of
Deforestation and New Opportunities for Conservation." Conservation Biology, 23:1396-1405.
- Thomas K. Rudel, 2009, "How Do People Transform Landscapes?: A Sociological Perspective on Suburban Sprawl and Tropical Deforestation." American Journal of Sociology. 115(1):129-154.
- Thomas K. Rudel, 2005, Tropical Forests: Regional Paths of Destruction and Regeneration in
the Late 20th Century. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Thomas K. Rudel, 1993, Tropical Deforestation: Small Farmers and Land Clearing in the Ecuadorian Amazon, New York: Columbia University Press. With Bruce Horowitz. (Spanish. Tr.: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1996)
- Thomas K. Rudel, 1989, Situations and Strategies in American Land Use Planning. London and New York: Cambridge University Press. A volume in the American Sociological Association's Rose Monograph Series.