A Review and Reflection on Melosi & Pratt’s “Houston: The Energy Metropolis”

Melosi and Pratt start their piece from the position that the connections between energy consumption, environmental issues, and the growth of urban centers has been “slighted” by historians (Boehm 288). Using the city of Houston as an example of how the connections play vital importance to understanding the region, they are quick to point out that the city hold the unique opportunity to examine just how energy consumption affects the development of a city that mines, refines, produces, and consumes these resources at one of the largest rates in the U.S. Having developed around oil and its refinement for production, Houston became a petroleum metropolis. Striking major oil just as the United States shifted to the automobile proved to be perfect timing for a city that came to be the major domestic producer of fuel. Unfortunately, in an era of unregulated capitalist expansion, Houston came to be one of the countries worst polluters. Having large amounts of natural gas and oil made fuel and other costs of living far cheaper than other metropolitan centers which lead to an influx of new business and labor. And, as populations increase, annexation of hinterlands naturally follows as resources grow scarce. The rate became so rapid and unplanned that Houston has no zoning whatsoever, making it the largest U.S. city with that title. The pollution, therefore, has largely taken a back seat in the minds of local politicians. Though new, non-oil economy does exist, most of it is indirectly related to oil capital or those “in bed” with the petrol companies. This means that politicians are likely to be businessmen and women seeking to create what Melosi and Pratt refer to as a “healthy business climate” (Boehm 292). The drive to expand has also caused the landscape itself to deteriorate. Not only does the refining and drilling for oil cause pollution, but the massive amount of residential and commercial building development has lead to the draining of major wetlands and the loss of natural soil filtration systems for waterways. And, as one may rightly assume, this has been the leading cause of a vast majority of floods in the region. According to a source cited in the work, “between 1950 and 1989, approximately 54 percent of the freshwater marshes in the Galveston Bay watershed were lost because of draining wetlands and conversion to upland areas” (Boehm 296). What is obvious in this presentation is two very important truths. First, as Melosi and Pratt allude, the relationships between environment and development are necessary to compare to that of capital in order to gain a greater understanding of urban history and social issue. Second, when profit is being made and no direct link to severe death or destitution is occurring (or can be proven) reluctance to spend on environmental issues or improvements to the process will be ubiquitous. Unless “green” becomes profitable, social and environmental change will not be plausible.

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