Cultural ecology

Cultural ecology

Cultural ecology studies the relationship between a given society and its natural environment - the life-forms and ecosystems that support its lifeways.

This may be carried out diachronically (examining entities that existed in different epochs), or synchronically (examining a present system and its components). The central argument is that the natural environment, in small scale or subsistence societies dependent in part upon it - is a major contributor to social organization and other human institutions. Particularly those concerned with the distribution of wealth and power in a society, and how that affects such behaviour as hoarding or gifting, e.g. the Haida tradition of the potlatch on the Canadian west-coast.

In the academic realm, when combined with study of political economy, the study of economies as polities, it becomes political ecology - another academic subfield. It also helps interrogate historical events like the Easter Island Syndrome.

Coining the Term

Anthropologist Julian Steward (1955) is associated with the term. In his "Theory of Culture Change; The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution" , cultural ecology represents the
..ways in which culture change is induced by adaptation to the environment.

It is this assertion - that the physical environment affects culture - that had proved controversial, because it implies an element of environmental determinism over human actions. Cultural ecology is, indeed, inflicted with mild environmental determinism, but the approach has value in the types of situations in which it was developed. Less so in connected and globalised societies.

Steward's method was to: 1) document the technologies & methods used to exploit the environment - to get a living from it. 2) look at patterns of human behavior/culture associated with using the environment. 3) assess how much these patterns of behavior influenced other aspects of culture (e.g., how, in a drought-prone region, great concern over rainfall patterns meant this became central to everyday life, and led to the development of a religious belief system in which rainfall and water figured very strongly. This belief system may not appear in a society where good rainfall for crops can be taken for granted, or where irrigation was practiced).

Steward's ideas of cultural ecology became widespread among anthropologists and archaeologists of the mid-20th century, though they would later be critiqued for their environmental determinism. Cultural ecology was one of the central tenets and driving factors in the development of processual archaeology in the 1960s, as archaeologists understood cultural change through the framework of environmental adaptation.

Cultural ecology in geography

In geography, cultural ecology developed in response to the "landscape morphology" approach of Carl O. Sauer. Sauer's school was criticized for being unscientific and holding an of cultural ecology applied ideas from ecology and systems theory to understand the adaptation of humans to their environment. These cultural ecologists focused on flows of energy and materials, examining how beliefs and institutions in a culture regulated its interchanges with the natural ecology that surrounded it. In this perspective humans were as much a part of the ecology as any other organism. Important practitioners of this form of cultural ecology include Karl Butzer and David Stoddard.

The second form of cultural ecology introduced decision theory from agricultural economics, particularly inspired by the works of Alexander Chayanov and Ester Boserup. These cultural ecologists were concerned with how human groups made decisions about how they use their natural environment. They were particularly concerned with the question of agricultural intensification, refining the competing models of Thomas Malthus and Boserup. Notable cultural ecologists in this second tradition include Harold Brookfield and B. L. Turner II.

Starting in the 1980s, cultural ecology came under criticism from political ecology. Political ecologists charged that cultural ecology ignored the connections between the local-scale systems they studied and the global political economy. Today few geographers self-identify as cultural ecologists, but ideas from cultural ecology have been adopted and built on by political ecology, land change science, and sustainability science.

Conceptual views of culture and ecology

Books about culture and ecology began to emerge in the 1950s and 60s. One of the first to be published in the United Kingdom was The Human Species by a zoologist, Anthony Barnett. It came out in 1950-subtitled The biology of man but was actually about a much narrower subset of topics. It really dealt with the cultural bearing of some outstanding areas of environmental knowledge about health and disease, food, the sizes and quality of human populations, and the diversity of human types and their abilities. Barnett's view was that his selected areas of information "....are all topics on which knowledge is not only desirable, but for a twentieth-century adult, necessary". On the second page he went on to say:

"This treatment of biology, centred on man and based on the usefulness of biological knowledge, is the opposite of the conventional one. Even the relatively few who have studied biology at school will find most of the facts in this book unfamiliar. In the schools we may learn in detail about a sea-weed called Fucus, which is not even edible, let alone important; but often little is heard of man's biggest industry, agriculture, on which we depend for food. In the animal kingdom we may begin with the study of an obscure microscopic organism called Amoeba, but perhaps learn nothing of the related malarial parasite, although malaria is probably the worst of all the infectious diseases. The earthworm is studied in detail, but the important part it plays in making soil fertile may go unmentioned. Among insects attention is usually concentrated on the cockroach, which happens to be a minor pest though this fact is often not to be found in the textbooks; the many serious insect pests are ignored. When we come to the group to which man belongs, the vertebrates, the chosen example is commonly the frog, a vertebrate of many highly unusual characteristics, and of negligible economic importance. Some teachers are trying to change all this, and not all biology courses ignore the practical significance of the subject, but many must leave the impression that biology is largely an academic study, of interest only to those concerned with knowledge for its own sake."

In other words, the text pointed some of the concepts underpinning human ecology towards the social problems facing his readers in the 1950s. The second chapter, on nature and nurture (or heredity and environment) defined a topic that underlies much of the rest of the book. This deals with the assertion that human nature cannot change, what this statement could mean, and whether it is true. The third chapter deals in more detail with some aspects of human genetics. The author felt that these two chapters would be, being an academic exposition of the facts, the most difficult ones for readers who were not scientists to comprehend. Chapter 4 completes the story of human reproduction and development under the topic of "heredity and reproduction".

Then come five chapters on the evolution of man, and the differences between groups of men (or races) and between individual men and women today in relation to population growth (the topic of 'human diversity').

"Most people know that men are descended from ape-like ancestors, but few know what the evidence for this statement is, or how the process has taken place. Everyone knows that man exists in many shapes and colours; that some men are stupid, others intelligent; some criminal, others virtuous. These facts raise a number of urgent social problems, to some of which biological knowledge can suggest a solution.

Finally, there is a series of chapters on various aspects of human populations (the topic of "life and death"). Like other animals man must, in order to survive, overcome the dangers of starvation and infection; at the same time he must be fertile. Four chapters therefore deal with food, disease and the growth and decline of human populations.

Barnett anticipated that his personal scheme might be criticised on the grounds that it omits an account of those human characteristics, which distinguish humankind most clearly, and sharply from other animals. That is to say, the point might be expressed by saying that human behaviour is ignored; or some might say that human psychology is left out, or that no account is taken of the human mind. He justified his limited view, not because little importance was attached to what was left out, but because the omitted topics were so important that each needed a book of similar size even for a summary account. In other words, the author was embedded in a world of academic specialists and therefore somewhat worried about taking a partial conceptual, and idiosyncratic view of the zoology of Homo sapiens.

Moves to produce prescriptions for adjusting human culture to ecological realities were also afoot in North America. Paul Sears, in his 1957 Condon Lecture at the University of Oregon, titled "The Ecology of Man," he mandated "serious attention to the ecology of man" and demanded "its skillful application to human affairs." Sears was one of the few prominent ecologists to successfully write for popular audiences. One of his popular books, Deserts on the March, first published in 1935, has become a minor American classic. Sears documents the mistakes American farmers made in creating conditions that led to the disastrous Dust Bowl. This book gave momentum to the soil conservation movement in the United States. As we shall see later, soil conservation is the key to understanding the fundamental message of cultural ecology to urbanised humanity.

However, teachers had to wait until the late 1960s and early 70s for books that were aimed directly at connecting culture with ecology. The social biologist, W.M.S. Russel's publication Man Nature and History appeared in 1967. It formed part of the Aldus Books' Library of Modern Knowledge. The series was backed by Sir Julian Huxley, who writes on the dust cover:

"I find this new venture full of promise. Its main purpose is to present important and exciting features of twentieth-century knowledge and to interpret them in a forceful and visually distinctive manner".

The astronomer Fred Hoyle saw the series as:

"Exciting in its scope, range of subjects and imaginative use of illustration. The facts are handled with a directness and clarity that should win the approval of everyone who responds to the challenge and complexities of our modern world. What I would have given to have had such books when I was young!"

Another Aldus book of this time was J.A. Lauwerys ‘'Man's Impact on Nature'’, which was part of a series on 'Interdependence in Nature' published in 1969. Both Russel's and Lauwerys' books were about cultural ecology, although not titled as such. People still had difficulty in escaping from their labels. Even Beginnings and Blunders, produced in 1970 by the polymath zoologist Lancelot Hogben, with the subtitle Before Science Began, clung to anthropology as a traditional reference point. However, its slant makes it clear that 'cultural ecology' would be a more apt title to cover his wide-ranging description of how early societies adapted to environment with tools, technologies and social groupings. In 1973 the physicist Jacob Brownowski produced The Ascent of Man, which summarised a magnificent thirteen part BBC television series about all the ways in which humans have moulded the Earth and its future.

By the 1980s the human ecological-functional view had prevailed. It had become a conventional way to present scientific concepts in the ecological perspective of human animals dominating an overpopulated world, with the practical aim of producing a greener culture. This is exemplified by I. G. Simmons book Changing the Face of the Earth, with its telling subtitle Culture, Environment History which was published in 1989. Simmons was a geographer, and his book was a tribute to the influence of W.L Thomas' edited collection, Man's role in 'Changing the Face of the Earth that came out in 1956.

Simmons' book was one of many interdisciplinary culture/environment publications of the 70s and 80s, which triggered a crisis in geography with regards its subject matter, academic sub-divisions, and boundaries. This was resolved by officially adopting conceptual frameworks as an approach to facilitate the organisation of research and teaching that cuts cross old subject divisions. As we have seen, cultural ecology is in fact a conceptual arena that has, over the past six decades allowed sociologists, physicists, zoologists and geographers to enter common intellectual ground from the sidelines of their specialist subjects.

At this point it is appropriate to define what is meant by 'conceptual'. A concept is a word or group of words that summarizes or classifies certain facts, events or ideas into one category. Conceptual frameworks are adopted to hold the conceptual parts (i.e. the concepts) together as mind maps, for theories or sub-sets of subjects. Frameworks or scaffolds are constructed by linking concepts representing different attributes, or which belong to different classes, and also by developing sets of interrelated statements concerning the relationship(s) between such concepts. The resultant map structure serves to hold the conceptual parts together within which it can be seen graphically that routes exist between ideas, facts, principles, insights and circumstances of the subject, which are all related to each other. Another analogy is that of an ideational scaffold where concepts or topics and subtopics are the bricks from which a coherent body of knowledge is constructed. "Conceptualization" is now a well-established process of thinking and organizing ideas across disciplines. Mind maps grow from the learning of facts and events to form clusters of concepts and to development of theories (i.e. the development of explanation). The actual business of making the maps is aided with mind-mapping programmes.

The graphical mapping of information to make it easier to assimilate may be traced back to Otto Neurath and his invention of ISOTYPE (International System Of TYpographic Picture Education) in the 1930s. One of the first people to use mind-maps was the political economist Henry Hamilton in his book that combined concepts from history and economics. 'History of the Homeland' was written during the Second World War and published in 1947 with mind maps based on interconnected concepts on a common timeline. He introduced his topic network as follows:

"This book deals with a very small slab of human history, small in two dimensions. The period it traverses is a minute fraction of the millennia which have elapsed since talkative animals with the trick of using tools began to people our planet, and the patch of earth to which its narrative refers more especially is a small island off the coast of the smallest of the five continents. To know something about its comparatively recent past is a paltry substitute for knowledge of the historic record in its entirety; but for those of us who belong to the Anglo-American speech community, the record has a peculiar interest. We are bound to it in a special sense, which extends beyond its laws, its conquests, its trade or even its inventions. Its story is the clue to why we do things in our own way. History of the Homeland must therefore take within its scope and treat fully many topics which are dealt with not at all or but meagrely in more conventional history texts".

His crossing from economics to history is encapsulated in descriptions of the impact of mass utilisation of natural resources on European rural culture that was more or less in a centuries-old equilibrium with their natural resources.

"Sleepy hamlets, long marooned from the main stream of social and cultural activities were brought within a wider scheme of things. Their mode of living, their food, their dress, their social outlook was transformed as their inhabitants were swept within a vaster and more complicated organisation."

Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, there is a plethora of publications dealing with the ways in which we humans can develop a more acceptable cultural relationship with the environment that supports us. A recently created example is ‘sacred ecology’, a sub-topic of cultural ecology, produced by Fikret Berkes in 1999. It seeks lessons from traditional ways of life in Northern Canada to shape a new environmental perception for urban dwellers. This particular conceptualisation of people and environment comes from various cultural levels of local knowledge about species and place, resource management systems using local experience, social institutions with their rules and codes of behaviour, and a world view through religion, ethics and broadly defined belief systems.

Faced with the seemingly endless combinations and permutations of concepts to elucidate cultural ecology we may ask is there a common core scaffold that presents what might represent the pillars of a subject. Despite the differences in information concepts, all of the publications carry the message that culture is a balancing act between the mindset devoted to the exploitation of natural resources and that, which conserves them. Perhaps the best model of cultural ecology in this context is, paradoxically, the mismatch of culture and ecology that have occurred when Europeans suppressed the age-old native methods of land use and have tried to settle European farming cultures on soils manifestly incapable of supporting them. Lauwerys expressed this in his story of the wise farmer.

“The wise farmer is concerned not only with the immediate problem of raising a good crop this year but also with ensuring his future prosperity. Assuming that he does not try to raise crops or stock in an unsuitable environment, his main problem lies in maintaining the fertility of his soil. If he succeeds in this—by the use of rotations, by replenishing the soil's organic content with manure or fertilizers, by suitable ploughing methods, and so on—his soil may remain productive indefinitely. But if he fails, the soil will gradually become exhausted. If the farmer is lucky, fertility may return if the land is allowed to lie fallow for a few years. But if the process of deterioration has gone too far, the very structure of the soil will have been destroyed, and the soil will almost certainly fall prey to erosion.”

Here are the two central pillars of cultural ecology presented as two modes of production. There is a culture of exploitative ecological management of planetary resources, originally only for survival, but now to support a global consumerism, and a culture of conservation management of ecological assets to control factors, that if ignored, would lead to the exhaustion of Earth’s stock of resources. This was certainly the message of the latest of the cultural ecology conceptualisers, Fikret Berkes, who defined cultural ecology as an ethnological approach that sees the modes of production of societies around the world as adaptations to their local environments. His message of how to apply the lessons of cultural ecology was:

“Traditional systems inspire a new resource management science open to the participation of resource users in management, one that uses locally grounded alternatives to top-down centralized resource management. The point is important not only for humanizing resource management, but also for making sure that local needs are addressed and that relevant local knowledge, practice, and values are part of management decision making. In regard to common property resource management and co-management, the general principle, also called the subsidiarity principle, may be stated as, "using as much local-level management as possible; only so much government regulation as necessary"

It is in this sense that there is a sacred ecology associated with environmental awareness, and the task of cultural ecology as an educational scaffold, is to inspire urban dwellers to develop a more acceptable sustainable cultural relationship with the environment that supports them.

Educational topic scaffold


  • Barnett, A. 1950 The Human Species: MacGibbon and Kee, London.
  • Berkes, F. 1999 Sacred ecology: traditional ecological knowledge and resource management. Taylor and Francis.
  • Brownoski, J. 1973 The Ascent of Man, BBC Publications, London
  • Hamilton, G. 1947 History of the Homeland: George Allen and Unwin, London.
  • Hogben, L. 1970 Beginnings and Blunders: Heinemann, London
  • Hornburg, Alf; Cultural Ecology
  • Lauwerys, J.A. 1969 Man's Impact on Nature: Aldus Books, London
  • Russel, W.M.S. 1967 Man Nature and History: Aldus Books, London
  • Simmons, I.G. 1989 Changing the Face of the Earth: Blackwell, Oxford
  • Technical Report PNW-GTR-369. 1996. Defining social responsibility in ecosystem management. A workshop proceedings. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
  • Turner, B. L., II 2002. "Contested identities: human-environment geography and disciplinary implications in a restructuring academy." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92(1): 52-74.
  • Worster, D 1977 Nature’s Economy. Cambridge University Press

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