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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

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.