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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

(introductory text...)

On ecology and human ecology
On adaptation
On ecosystem
The problems of application

All fields of human endeavour- scientific, administrative, commercial or domestic - develop general orientations. These orientations, which are often now called paradigms (a convenient derivation from Kuhn, 1962), and might more felicitously be called discourses (in similar derivation from Foucault, 1970) derive from the accumulation of concepts which are formulated in the process of explaining temporal and spatial relationships and, generally, ordering information. These groups of concepts are not necessarily mutually compatible or consistent and the argument that interrelates them is often not explicitly worked out. Within a discipline some concepts tend to take priority over others for reasons of historical precedent or intellectual fashion. No orientation is totally coherent and there is plenty of room for legitimate difference of opinion among specialists emphasising different concepts within one general orientation. Ecology is such an orientation. Human ecology is fast becoming another.

On ecology and human ecology

Human ecology is more diverse than most such orientations, because its practitioners scarcely constitute a unitary profession. They come from a range of different backgrounds. Of the scientific traditions they would claim as their heritage, biological ecology would be among the most prominent, though a significant number of them are primarily trained in the social rather than the natural sciences. Within the social sciences they span the range of possibilities from the more philosophical and theoretical to the applied and practical, from anthropology and political science to civil engineering and public health. Whatever their primary training, they tend to accept unquestioningly a number of concepts from biological ecology as the basis of their explanatory repertoire. They rely on these concepts to identify themselves as ecologists, but since they are taking each concept out of context, they run the risk of distorting it and of being rejected by the disciplines that fathered the concepts (which is not to imply that natural ecology has not made significant borrowings from the social sciences; see for example the discussions in Rapport and Turner 1977 and Richerson 1977).

It will be useful here to discuss briefly a few of these basic concepts in order to demonstrate some of the dangers that they present. Awareness of these dangers has increased significantly among the various brands of human ecologists over the last decade. The major concepts selected for treatment here are "adaptation" and "ecosystem." But these also raise questions about others, such as "niche," "population," "energy flow," "equilibrium," "succession," "carrying capacity," "the tragedy of the commons," and "rationality," each of which is introduced briefly here and elsewhere, as appropriate.

On adaptation

The most basic assumption of ecology has been characterised usefully by Barry Commoner in his popular book, The Closing Circle (1971, p. 29): "The first law of ecology," he writes, is that "everything is connected to everything else." But if we proceed from such an assumption, how can we determine for practical purposes where, and how, particular chains of causation begin ?

There is no satisfactory general answer to the first part of this question. The accepted answer to the second is "by adaptation." The two questions may be combined by asking who or what adapts first. In attempting to answer this it would help to understand how adaptation works. For this question - outside the study of biological evolution there is as yet no satisfactory answer.

The difficulty is much greater when the chain of causation moves from physical and biological to social and cultural factors, since there is no generally-accepted explanatory framework common to both the natural and the social sciences. Moreover, natural scientists either assume human behaviour can be changed (and that if politicians cannot change it, social scientists should be able to), or they attempt to apply natural science theory in the explanation of human behaviour. Sometimes, somewhat illogically, they do both. At the same time they have become dependent on a number of social concepts, such as "community." Social scientists, on the other hand, have been tempted to borrow concepts from the natural sciences. especially "ecosystem" and "adaptation." However, although some studies based on such borrowing have been elegant tours de force they have generally been inadequate as explanations. But most social scientists have either ignored the ecological context of human behaviour or understood it only imperfectly, and they have sometimes justified this inattention by insisting that social and cultural processes cannot be explained by reducing them to another order of phenomena, whether biological, physical, or even psychological. There obviously is a relationship, but the exact nature of it not amenable to generalization.

Some ecological problems derive directly from changes in natural phenomena, such as precipitation patterns. In this case human activity may be blamed only insofar as it does not in due course adapt to the new situation (unless it can be shown that human activity somehow caused the change in precipitation, as in the current hypothesis that increasing accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting from the increasing consumption of fossil fuels, is inducing climatic change that will include among other things higher temperatures and increased occurrence of drought in the sub-tropical arid zone). In fact most ecological problems are considered by both social and natural scientists to begin with increases in human activity, especially as a result of population growth. But the term most commonly used to discuss the relationship between human activity and the natural conditions is "adaptation"!

The concept of adaptation begs the question of mal-adaptation. Otherwise, how would any problems arise? But if both adaptation and mal-adaptation occur, how do we know when to expect one and when the other? If we cannot know, then neither is equivalent to a law. In an applied science, especially, neither concept is useful unless we can predict when one will occur and when the other. The combination of genetics and the theory of natural selection makes it possible to deal with this problem in evolutionary biology, but (so far at least) we have no equivalent in the other fields of biology. let alone in the social sciences.

Adaptation is generally defined in both the natural and the social sciences as a process whereby an organism seemingly fits better into its environment and way of life. (See, for example, Bateson 1979, p. 227.) The mechanisms whereby biological adaptation occurs (as natural selection of phenotypes, due to environmental pressures, leads to change in genotypes) by genetic transmission of traits and mutation are reasonably well understood. But when the concept is transferred to the cultural sphere acceptable analogies are difficult to find and little progress has yet been made in the study of them. One extreme position, typical of those who assume adaptation everywhere regardless of all the evidence of mal-adaptation, or who at any rate do not try to explain the incidence of mal-adaptation, re-defines the concept in the framework of systems analysis as the process by which organisms or groups of organisms, through responsive changes in their states, structures, or compositions, maintain homeostasis in and among themselves in the face of both short term environmental fluctuations and long term changes in the composition or structure of their environments (Rapport 1971a, p. 60; cf. 1971b, pp. 23-24).

Such a definition presumably places most entrepreneurial activity beyond the pale of acceptable behavior by dubbing it maladaptive - unless it defines homeostasis so broadly as to comprehend somehow all social change! Perhaps more importantly, it presumably deals only with behaviour, taking no account of intent. A more generally acceptable position, typified by Sahlins (at one stage, 1964), simply uses the concept to draw attention to the effects of non-cultural constraints on human behavior or on cultural processes, whether these constraints are physical, biological, social. demographic or historical. In fact, Sahlins makes the point that the most important constraints on human behaviour are often historical, in that people are seldom able to do more than they have been taught. It is worth noting that the genetic information that sets limits on biological adaptation is of course also in a sense historical (Sahlins 1964, p. 136).

A simple ethnographic example will help us to put these definitions in perspective:
Quite commonly, Eskimo culture is cited as an apt, if somewhat extreme, example of how man's cultural capacity allows him to adapt to even the harshest circumstances. At such a gross level of analysis, such statements are unquestionably true, for it is apparent that culture does make the difference between life and death for the Eskimo as it most probably does for every other human being today. (Burnham 1973, p. 93)

The evaluation of culture as adaptive in this sense cannot help us to explain why some behaviour interacts with natural processes more homeostatically, or with greater apparent conservationist concern, than others.

In the context of development the most serious problem with the scientific concept of adaptation lies in its implicit consignment of all human activity which is involved in degradation to the category of maladaptive and (by a short step) irrational behaviour. Attention to the human factor often stops here. It should of course minimally be extended to the point of suggesting an explanation for the irrationality.

Probably the best that can be said in the present state of our understanding is that in the explanation of human behaviour and of culture the concept of adaptation is not very useful. For all behaviour is adaptive in the sense that in a given situation each individual responds to a range of factors (which include both the historical and the psychological) that are not so much ecological or environmental, as contextual. An individual or a group adapts its behaviour to a set of cultural, social and natural factors in which it may see the cultural or social factors as more immediate or important. Over-grazing may make good economic sense for particular individuals or groups in particular situations. but it is likely to be branded as maladaptive and thus irrational. Since enforcement is often unsuccessful in the long run, it might be more promising to investigate the causes of such maladaptive behaviour and seek to remove them by legislating incentives or disincentives. But our consciousness is so pervaded and conditioned by the values of science that we tend to assume adaptation even when we have evidence against it. Like ecology, therefore, adaptation can become a symbol around which we rally but it may not provide an unequivocal basis for action. It is equated with conscious rational or unconscious useful behaviour, but it does not provide a workable recipe for planning.

On ecosystem

The main problem with the concept of adaptation lies in our inability to locate the mechanism. The need to focus on a particular mechanism always implies to some extent the definition of a unit of analysis. In biological ecology, adaptation is the mechanism that relates the individual to its immediate environment and the population to its niche - a subset of an ecosystem, which includes all the biologically and physically relevant environment. In biological ecology any investigation to a greater or lesser extent implies ecosystemic boundaries to the enquiry. "Ecosystem" was coined from "ecological system" by A.G. Tansiey in 1935 to denote "not only the organism complex but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment of the biome - the habitat factors in the widest sense."

Many attempts to develop some form of human ecology have disregarded the discontinuity between biology and culture and have given ecosystem priority in defining the context of social and cultural factors. This approach has been successfully promoted by the brothers Eugene P. Odum and Howard T. Odum in imaginative ways but ways that are nevertheless severely limiting, in that they discount the dynamics of social and cultural processes and (in the case of Howard T.) reduce all activity to processes of energy flow, which is translated into quantitative terms. These terms are only superficially meaningful, but are treated as though they are an end in themselves. The use of the term ecosystem in this sense is the result of coalescence with general systems theory, which has been very influential in social science. Rapport once again provides an excellent example. He seeks to perfect his ecological approach to culture by subsuming even the "numinous" into a systems analysis of an entire socio-natural system of a small isolated community in Highland New Guinea:
the sacred and the numinous form part of an encompassing cybernetic loop which maintains homeostasis among variables critical to the group's survival (1971b, p. 39).

But when the social and cultural dimensions are taken into account, "ecosystem" as a framework for the analysis of man-environment relations becomes a straightjacket that deprives us of any flexibility, especially in the treatment of the non-behavioural factors. When we move from theory to application the social and cultural factors can no longer be contained in the straight-jacket: it is no longer possible to ignore them.

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.