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close this bookEcology in Development: A Rationale for Three-dimensional Policy (UNU, 1984, 59 pages)
close this folder2. Retrospective
close this folderI. Assumptions
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentOn ecology and human ecology
View the documentOn adaptation
View the documentOn ecosystem
View the documentThe problems of application

The problems of application

Attempts to deal with human behaviour ecologically by arguing from concepts derived from natural science, however elegant some of them may be, are in the final analysis, if not before, disappointing, for several reasons: They imply that equilibrium is normal and change is abnormal. They distort the context of behaviour by defining it in exclusively natural (that is, non-social) terms. They imply that motivation has not changed in the course of either evolution or history. And finally, they imply an assumption that although human technology has continuously increased carrying capacity since the Palaeolithic and currently continues to do so, sometime in the relatively near future it will cease to be able to increase it further.

Because of this disappointment it is legitimate to argue that ecological science forfeits any right it may claim to demand intervention in the lives of "non-scientific" populations. Where intervention is against their wishes as it commonly is- it raises moral issues. The relationship between populations will, of course, anyway continue to be determined not by science but in the political process, where morals are commonly trumped by politics. So. if science is to be used as a bargaining counter in the political process the arguments should be made in terms of a theory of ecological degradation that does not beg moral questions, and does not impugn particular social groups. Human ecology needs "no-fault" theories.

Even without the human factor ecological systems are so enormously complex that it is virtually impossible to comprehend them entirely in a coherent description or analysis. Bateson (1979) and Commoner (1971) both emphasised this problem of complexity and in different ways suggested that any interference is, therefore, likely to be dangerous. Interference is, however, a matter of degree and human populations are now so large, so ubiquitous, and so ecologically dominant that a policy of noninterference is unrealistic. But since any intervention is bound to be selective and partial, favouring some groups and disrupting others, it must be organized from a more broadly-based and open-minded effort at comprehension. This aspect of the human factor is the most important and most neglected: since even our scientific understanding of ecological situations is embedded in particular socio-cultural and historical contexts, definitions and assessments often vary according to the social vantage point and identity of the investigator. This is not to say that ecological trends and causes are not real, but that any one interpretation of them is likely to be partial and relative.

The answer to this problem is not to despair or retreat into mysticism (as Passmore, 1974, pp. 173-176, has characterized some of the more extreme expressions of the ecology movement), but rather to seek always a range of interpretations of any given situation, from individuals related to it in different ways, and to work on the synthesising of those interpretations. Since any interpretation is likely to be (to at least some extent) derived from reality, but is different and partial insofar as it is conditioned by both individual and collective experience and identity, the larger the number of interpretations that get fed into the political process, the closer the final synthesis is likely to be to reality.

A helpful methodological analogy may be found surprisingly, perhaps - in a discussion of the nature of myth by Levi-Strauss. Arguing from the example of the Oedipus myth, he demonstrates (1963, pp. 212-213) that it is not possible to determine the true version of a myth. The way to get as close as possible to what is significant in the myth is to collect and correlate and synthesize as many versions as possible. Further:
At this point the objection may be raised that the task is impossible to perform, since we can only work with known versions. Is it not possible that a new version might alter the picture? This is true enough if only one or two versions are available. but the objection becomes theoretical as soon as a reasonably large number have been recorded. Let us make this point clear by a comparison. If the furniture of a room and its arrangement were known to us only through its reflection in two mirrors placed on opposite walls, we should theoretically dispose of an almost infinite number of mirror images which would provide us with a complete knowledge. However, should the two mirrors be obliquely set, the number of mirror images would become very small; nevertheless, four or five such images would very likely give us, if not complete information, at least a sufficient coverage so that we would feel sure that no large piece of furniture is missing in our description. (Levi-Strauss 1963, pp. 214-215)

The best analysis of an ecological situation involving human populations is similarly one based on the largest (but not necessarily a complete) census of the opinions of people- both scientists and others - who are in some way related to the issue, either intellectually, professionally or personally. It should be noted that any consensus is likely to be influenced by public policy, though not necessarily in favour of it. An analysis of the relationship between a grazing regime and an area of rangeland will be conditioned not only by the relative social values of the pastoralists and investigators. but by the place of pastoralism in public policy- which, in turn, depends on the degree of participation of the various parties in the formulation of public policy and on the historical context. For example, in cases such as Iran, where government is dominated by people from settled agricultural backgrounds, whose cultural heritage includes fear of raiding by nomadic pastoralists, policy has tended to discriminate against traditional forms of pastoralism despite the economic demand for pastoral produce. In other countries such as Somalia and Jordan, or Botswana, where traditional pastoralists have a closer relationship with the government, policies towards traditional forms of pastoralism are more positive despite the existence of similar ecological problems. The solution to the moral problem of the human factor, therefore, lies in providing the broadest cross-section of opinion to inform public policy, representing scientific understanding, technological capability and relevant cultural values.

This brief discussion of some of the basic assumptions of ecology as applied to human problems has focused on the lack of fit with particular situations to which they might be applied. The remainder of this chapter reviews the consequences of this lack of fit in the intellectual history of the recent decade.