Some societies have proven to be sustainable for centuries or even millennia. Others have degraded their habitat and depleted the natural resources in it to the extent of undermining their economic and social viability thereby leading to sociocultural disintegration and even collapse. Examples of sustainable societies are the highlanders of New Guinea, Inca of the Andes, Menominee in Wisconsin, Norse of Iceland, Pueblo of the southwestern region of the United States, San of southern Africa, Tikopia in the South Pacific, Tokugawa era Japan, Tonga in the South Pacific, and Yanomami in the Amazon between Brazil and Venezuela. Examples of unsustainable societies that eventually collapsed are the prehistoric Anasazi of the southwestern region of the United States, central Classic Lowland Maya of Central America, Norse of Greenland, and Rapanui (Easter Island) in the South Pacific. However, there is considerable controversy surrounding some cases, especially the Maya and Rapanui.
Although many scientific and academic disciplines and professions provide information and insights into the important matters of sustainability, human ecology, and adaptation, anthropology is unique because of the breadth and depth of its perspective. Anthropologists can describe the changing niche of humans at the species level over more than four million years of prehistory and evolution. They can also describe the niche of humans at the population level for many of the more than 7,000 distinct cultures known historically.
Anthropology is the holistic study of human diversity and unity throughout time and space encompassing all aspects of being human, but with particular attention to culture. Culture is the system of socially patterned, shared, and learned ideas and behavior as well as their material manifestations that together distinguish a particular society or ethnic group. There is tremendous diversity in the ways that different cultures formulate and answer these four pivotal questions: What is nature? What is human nature? What is the place of humans in nature? What should be the place of humans in nature? Cultural diversity has been the key to the adaptation and adaptability of the human species. This has facilitated the global dispersal of Homo sapiens into a multitude of very different kinds of environments (biomes) from the tropics to the Arctic. Indeed, culture is more important than biology (morphology and physiology) in the adaptation of circumpolar peoples such as the Aleut, Chuckchi, Inuit, and Saami to their harsh environments. Each biome presents a different combination of limitations and possibilities for relating society to nature. Likewise, each culture also has a different combination of limitations and possibilities for relating their society to nature. Thus, culture can be a decisive factor influencing what individuals and groups identify as environmental resources, hazards, or risks, and how they deal with these and related phenomena. Given such considerations, ecological anthropology concentrates on how culture mediates the dynamic interactions between human populations and the ecosystems in their habitats. Accordingly ecological anthropologists have variously addressed each of the main categories of natural resources, including water, soils, plants, animals, minerals, and energy, but each with special attention to how a particular culture influences daily decisions, choices, and activities in exploiting them. The primary approaches within contemporary ecological anthropology are cultural ecology, historical ecology, political ecology, and spiritual ecology. Building on these approaches is the applied dimension of ecological anthropology called environmental anthropology.
Julian Steward, far more than any other single anthropologist, is responsible for the development of cultural ecology. During the 1920s-30s, Steward conducted pioneering field research on the interaction of a particular human society and its natural environment in the Western United States working with Shoshone, Paiute, and other Native Americans. During the 1950s-60s, he developed formally his generic theoretical and methodological framework for cultural ecology. Steward recognized that there were multiple pathways for adapting to the same biome over time, a process he called multilinear evolution. The investigation of multilinear evolution was based on a comparison of the cultural ecology of societies at the same level of sociocultural integration (bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states) in the same biome (e.g., deserts, savannas, or tropical rainforests). In turn, this was based on detailed ethnographic investigations of the cultural ecology of several societies concentrating on identifying the natural resources that they depend on for their subsistence, the technology and organization of labor used to extract and process the resources, and how these factors in turn influence other aspects of culture. Steward’s basic cultural ecology persists as an underlying general theme in subsequent anthropological research on human-environment interactions many decades later, even though new components and emphases have been added.
During the 1950s-1960s, Brent Berlin, Harold Conklin, Charles Frake, and others pioneered in the development of ethnoecology which may be considered as a research specialization within cultural ecology. Ethnoecological research concentrates on how different cultures view aspects of their environment, especially through identifying their classification of particular domains of nature such as soils, wild plants, birds, or insects. These classifications are pursued through vocabulary lists from the language of the culture in question. Accordingly, ethnoecology operates at the intersection of linguistics and cultural anthropology. Ethnoecology and cultural ecology have helped to demonstrate the profoundly detailed and reliable traditional environmental knowledge that indigenous and other societies have accumulated over centuries or even millennia of adaptation to the ecosystems in their habitat. For instance, William Balee has shown that the Ka`apor of the Amazon in Brazil recognize 768 species of plants from the seed to the reproductive adult stages which they utilize for food, medicines, crafts, building, and other purposes. Ethnoecology provides a most useful entry into understanding human ecology from the perspective of the people in a local community as they interact with the ecosystems in their habitat. However, researchers need to pay more attention to the relationships between what people say and what they actually do in their environment in order to transcend the limitations of purely linguistic inquiries and become more relevant to ecology.
In the 1960s-80s, cultural ecology was transformed into ecological anthropology by John Bennett, Roy A. Rappaport, Andrew P. Vayda, and others. This was accomplished by applying a systems approach to studying the role of a human population in the processes of energy flow and nutrient cycling within their ecosystem. Methodologically there was also far greater emphasis on the collection of quantitative data than in previous work. For example, Rappaport measured caloric input and output in the gardens of the Tsembaga people in the highlands of New Guinea who employ swidden or shifting horticulture. He related this in turn to their ritual and warfare beliefs and customs as mechanisms for maintaining the balance between the human and pig populations which could easily become competitors for many of the same food resources. The development of this systems ecology framework was further stimulated by the International Biological Program from 1964-1974. The IPB contributed to the subsequent movement to study the human dimensions of global environmental change.
Two additional theoretical and methodological frameworks were developed mainly in the 1980s and 1990s to try to render ecological anthropology more scientific. First, Marvin Harris vigorously pursued explicitly and systematically the development of cultural materialism as a research strategy to reveal and explain the ecological rationale underlying various aspects of culture. He divided the cultural system into three components: infrastructure as the product of the interactions among environment, population, and technology; structure as the local domestic and wider political economy; and superstructure as the ideational realm encompassing religion, myth, and the arts. Harris argued that the infrastructure is most basic and most influential because it functions as the ultimate adaptive mechanism for the very survival and maintenance of individuals and society as a whole. He asserted that infrastructure is probably the primary cause of much of the rest of the cultural system and accordingly assigned it research priority. Harris demonstrated the explanatory power of cultural materialism through his ingenious analyses of many cultural puzzles such as Aztec ritual sacrifice, the custom of the sacred cow in India, and Islamic and Jewish prohibitions on eating pork. For example, Harris forcefully argued that the cow was sacred in India because it was far more valuable alive for its milk, dung for cooking fuel and fertilizer for farm fields, and plowing than dead for its meat and hide. The Hindu religion reinforced this pragmatic infrastructural causality.
The second innovative framework is human behavioral or evolutionary ecology. Pioneered by Eric Alden Smith and Bruce Winterhalder, it shifts attention to individuals as the locus of adaptation with an emphasis on decision making in the use of natural resources ranked according to their relative costs and benefits (optimal foraging theory). This connects human ecology more directly with natural selection and other evolutionary theory.
Both of these special frameworks, cultural materialism and human behavioral ecology, have been criticized as simplistic and reductionistic. Nevertheless, both have proven to have some validity and utility in advancing the anthropological understanding of human-environment interactions.
In the 1990s, ecological anthropology diversified further by adding research variously focused on historical, political, or spiritual aspects of human ecology and adaptation. William Balee, John Bennett, and Carole Crumley, among others, developed a diachronic approach to examining the interactions between the sociocultural and environmental systems over extended periods of time as they transformed one another within a regional landscape. Previous research had been largely synchronic, examining a particular society as if it were isolated, traditional, static, and timeless, and also as if the society had no lasting cumulative impact on its environment and the latter was static as well. For instance, in the Republic of Guinea in Africa, foresters, botanists, and conservationists interpreted relics of forests near villages as having escaped the deforestation by villagers that created the surrounding savannas. However, James Fairhead and Melissa Leach demonstrated that these forest patches are actually generated and managed by the villagers as a focus for their rituals and other cultural practices. In other words, the forests are anthropogenic rather than purely natural. Other studies in historical ecology pay far more attention than cultural ecology used to do to the impact of external factors on local societies and ecosystems, such as cultural contact and change in the context of colonialism and, more recently, globalization.
The above are among the considerations contributing to the interest of some researchers in concentrating on political ecology; that is, how power differentials and struggles are involved in human-environment interactions. This in turn links with issues of economic, social, and environmental justice. For instance, Susan Stonich analyzed how the economic development policies of the national government and international agencies impoverished the economy and habitat of farmers in Honduras. The interconnections between the abuses of human rights and the environment have been explored by Barbara Rose Johnston. Most recently she documented the radioactive contamination of the environment of various societies during the Cold War, such as the impact of U.S. atomic bomb testing in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific. Robert Hitchcock and other anthropologists are among those who have collaborated with the San hunter-gatherers of southern Africa to help them pursue community-based resource management to retain their subsistence economy and other aspects of their cultural identity in the face of external forces impinging on their traditional lands and resources including farmers, herders, miners, tourists, and even wildlife conservationists.
In some situations anthropologists concerned with ecology and the environment are faced with a real dilemma. They are committed to both nature and culture, yet sometimes the two interests can be in competition or even conflict. The most striking case in this regard is the Makah Indian Tribe of the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington who clashed with major environmental and animal rights groups when in the mid-1990s they sought to resume their annual hunting of a small number of grey whales as part of their cultural traditions. Yet in such cases, at least ideally, environmental anthropologists might well serve as mediators between the divergent cultural and environmental groups to try to secure a win-win solution since they are knowledgeable and concerned about both interests. Accordingly, more anthropologists need to acquire formal training and skills in the procedures for nonviolent conflict resolution.
Beyond historical and political factors, religion and spirituality can also be powerful influences in human-environmental interactions and in dealing with environmental problems and issues. This is revealed in the most recent approach to ecological anthropology that is sometimes called spiritual ecology. Religion is an ancient cross-cultural universal; no society is known that does not have one or more religions, although individuals within a society vary in the degree of their religiosity and spirituality if any. Spirituality is an integral component of religion, but also extends beyond organizations to personal relationships with other people, nature, and the supernatural. Those who pursue spiritual ecology as a scientific and academic endeavor, a personal path of spirituality, and/or environmental activism, share the conviction that the worsening environmental crisis can only be resolved by a fundamental change in the way humans relate to nature involving sustainable and green environmental worldviews, attitudes, values, behaviors, and institutions. No single religion is considered to be the cause or solution for the ecocrisis; instead, adherents to any religion or spiritual practice need to apply introspection to develop more environmentally friendly orientations and conduct.
Beliefs and emotions are often as important as reason in natural resource use, management, and conservation. For example, Bruce A. Byers and colleagues have shown that the Shona in the Zambezi valley of northern Zimbabwe consider some mountains, forests, and rivers to be sacred. Their sacred places and the biodiversity therein are more likely to be conserved in contrast to secular counterparts.
Part of this substantial diversification of approaches within ecological anthropology since the 1990s involves a growing emphasis on applied rather than basic research, although certainly the two are often interdependent. However, with the worsening ecocrisis and other factors, increasingly research has concentrated on identifying and solving practical environmental questions, problems, and issues. This is the arena of environmental anthropology per se. Researchers in this arena still pursue various approaches within ecological anthropology to investigate matters of survival, adaptation, and change with an emphasis on culture, communities, and fieldwork. However, their work concentrates on practical aspects like using the traditional environmental knowledge of indigenous peoples to promote alternative methods of economic development that are sustainable as they increasingly articulate with the broader regional, national, and global economies. As another example, other anthropologists deal with the relationship between local communities and protected areas established by the government and international environmental organizations to conserve biodiversity. Still others document and advocate the human rights of indigenous communities and other ethnic groups in the face of outside encroachment on their traditional territory and resources. Anthropologists also consider how variables such as gender, socioeconomic class, nationality, and identities relate to environmental matters.
Environmental anthropology is expanding further the realm of ecological anthropology to embrace research at scales ranging from the local to the regional, national, and global levels including the consequences of climate change; to collaborate in multidisciplinary research teams incorporating members from the host country; to use high tech resources such as geographical information systems, remote sensing, and satellite data imaging; to consider rights, politics, and policies as they are linked with social, economic, and environmental justice; to pursue nonviolent conflict resolution in areas where different groups compete for scarce or diminishing natural resources; to community challenges and responses with hazards and risk perception, whether natural or anthropogenic; and to environmental organizations, discourses, and identities.
In the process of the development of environmental anthropology as an extension of ecological anthropology that is more practical, applied research has not supplanted basic research nor have pragmatic concerns replaced those of the academic intellectual, instead these are all complementary. Furthermore, historical continuities persist, like the legacy of cultural ecology, this in spite of discontinuities such as the historicizing of cultural ecology through historical ecology as an additional component in the anthropological investigation of human-environment interactions.
By now anthropological interests and activities concerning ecology and the environment have reached maturity with distinctive organizations like the Anthropology and Environment unit of the American Anthropological Association that has a membership approaching a thousand and its own listserv; special periodicals (Human Ecology, Journal of Ecological Anthropology, and Ecological and Environmental Anthropology ); distinctive textbooks and anthologies; and special training programs at various universities.
Ecological anthropology and environmental anthropology are increasingly contributing research of broader relevance to the local, national, international, and global communities in coping with natural resources, hazards, and other environmental problems and issues. In various ways anthropologists have addressed pivotal environmental issues including the population explosion, natural resource depletion such as soil erosion, unsustainable economic development and consumption levels, habitat destruction like deforestation, biodiversity loss, environmental mismanagement, pollution, and hazards.
Furthermore, environmental matters are important politically, as well as ecologically and economically, because many of the conflict zones in the world are also regions of serious environmental problems including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Colombia, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. Moreover, climate changes, especially those connected with global warming, are destined to further aggravate many environmental problems as societies are increasingly impacted in all levels and aspects throughout the world.
No doubt ecological and environmental anthropology have developed the foundation, maturity, momentum, and achievements to continue to contribute to our understanding and advancement of human ecology and adaptation from the local to the global levels as long as humanity has a future. However, that future depends on replacing ecocide with ecosanity, and that in turn requires far more attention to the information and insights of the disciplines and professions that contribute to environmental studies including ecological and environmental anthropology. Ecocide is by far the greatest threat to the security of every being on planet Earth. Ultimately, any human population, economy, and society can only be as healthy as its habitat.
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