Capitalizing on grass: The science of agrostology and the sustainability of ranching in the American West

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7 Scopus citations


While concepts of environmental accounting and sustainability may have emerged originally in the context of European forests, they would later be extended to many other places, including the vast American grasslands. To be accountable in the larger political economy, observations and experiences of the natural world had to be rendered in a form that could circulate in an increasingly global, cosmopolitan science. Local, experiential knowledge was converted into a set of categories, tabulations, calculations, statistics, and maps that could be applied to the political management of capitalist development. This process of 'factification' rendered observations and experiments on the western American grasslands in the form of stabilized facts. Factification relied on several modes of scientific practice: the transformation of ranchers' knowledge through the introduction of systematic surveys, field networks and stations. The resulting knowledge entailed the equivalent in epistemic terms of commodification in the material economy. 'Factified' knowledge was embedded in forms of economic calculation and political control to transcend the individualism and resource depletion characteristic of the region's early ranching economy. In the wake of range degradation during the great cattle boom, scientific knowledge of range grasses was increasingly produced to rationalize the use of the grasslands and improve their efficiency and sustainability. Environmental scientists, including state-level botanists and field researchers from the US Department of Agriculture's Division of Agrostology studied the region's native and introduced grasses through systematic modes of scientific practice-modes of environmental knowledge production deeply intertwined with political economy. Range grass science thus illuminates the crucial role of science in constructing how nature has been viewed, classified, and manipulated in the modern world-how natural resources for capitalist development came to be perceived by modern eyes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)483-507
Number of pages25
JournalScience as Culture
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2010


  • Agrostology
  • Development
  • Factification
  • Grasslands
  • Range science
  • Scientific fieldwork

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Health(social science)
  • Cultural Studies
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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