|Ecology in Development: A Rationale for Three-dimensional Policy (UNU, 1984, 59 pages)|
The rising consciousness of the role of larger political and economic forces and of changes in values is causing a major reorientation in ecology and development. But the basic assumptions of adaptation and equilibrium are still strong. Science, and intellectual endeavour generally, consist of the imposition of order on observed phenomena. The importance of equilibrium in our thinking lies in the fact that it is a relatively simple form of order. It is difficult for us to find a better one to replace it with. The science of ecology is founded upon it.
Ecology has to do with equilibria of various types, and with their achievement, as in the concept of succession, and with the quasi-mechanistic balance between subsystems, populations and (by extension) societies. Ecology is generally ahistorical. in the sense that it is concerned with the evolution, rather than the history, of ecosystems. It is true that for similar reasons - the imperative need to impose satisfactory order- much social science has also been not only ahistorical, but even (because of its need to distinguish itself from history) anti-historical. Although the recent experience of socio-economic change has inevitably led to some historical awareness, nothing has yet replaced equilibrium as an implicit conceptual framework of analysis. New concepts are needed to facilitate the paradigmatic shift. Unfortunately, the available social theories of change all seem partial and unsatisfactory. But although the ecologists' paradigm was not weakened so easily by historical change and they are not forced so insistently by the unpredictability of everyday life to question their framework as are social scientists, nevertheless the theoretical emphasis in ecology appears to have shifted over the last ten years from synchronic descriptive analysis of ecosystems to a more dynamic focus on evolution and natural selection.
Such a trend is promising because it should lead away from the phase-two conception of ecological systems and human disruption to a phase-three orientation in terms of ecological process and social cause. For example, where ecological problems have developed in the aftermath of exogenous technological change in the waterlogging and salinisation of large areas in the Punjab (See chapter 3), it had been taken for granted that the local society was adaptive (even though it was accused of causing the problem), and resilient (though it was obviously suffering from the consequences). Only recently has some attention been given to social forces and cultural values as independent variables interacting with the natural processes (See Merrey 1982).
In the study of ecosystems, where the productivity of natural resources is reduced as the consequence of activities in the human use system that incorporated them, the ecologist's reaction has commonly been to focus on the degraded resource. The degradation is then attributed to the immediate cause in the form of the social group exploiting it, as in many cases of traditional pastoralists and degraded rangelands. Desertification is acknowledged to be caused by social factors, but no attention is paid to their etiology. Remedies are generally designed by focusing on the symptoms of specific desertification problems (for example, reduction in the quantity and quality of vegetation), and by attempting to rearrange the more immediate social factors in relation to them. Judging by the record, this approach commonly fails to lead to a satisfactory solution and, besides, often brings about new adverse social factors which may accelerate the original process. Cause is translated easily into fault, and central authorities with large urban constituencies are comfortably indulged in their prejudices against marginal rural populations. Cultural discrimination of urban against rural increases; the population concerned suffers further reduction in its range of economic options and tends to become an increased burden on its immediate natural resources.
The ecologist focuses on natural processes and sees the fault in the behaviour of the human population which failed to reorganize its activities in the way prescribed. The social scientist is invited in to devise ways to encourage the people to confine their activities within boundaries prescribed by the ecologist. Until recently, most social scientists working in development have tended to accept the ecologists' terms of reference and have sought to apply their expertise as a service in the larger programme. Some now seek to reformulate the terms of reference, and redefine the situation in terms of the interests of the human population, in order to develop an ecologically satisfactory strategy that will serve those interests. In dealing with desertification in particular the social scientist is more likely than the ecologist to look for the ultimate social cause, which is often outside the affected area. It is unfortunate, however, that few social scientists have sufficient ecological awareness to be able to interact persuasively with ecologists.
This problem of difference in orientation between disciplines is simply a permutation of the difference in values - the conflict of interest- between different social groups generally, and is replicated again in the difference between the orientations of "basic" and "applied" research. It is generally allowed that involvement in applied work may condition values and compromise scientific objectivity. It tends to be overlooked that the implicit assumptions underlying the positions of basic research are cultural values that are by no means absolute, and may therefore be morally questionable. The arguments for and against capital punishment or abortion, for example, are based on differences in moral assumptions which no scientific argument can resolve. Scientific judgment faces a similar moral problem in ecology, but it seldom becomes apparent - except when human populations are involved. The introduction of "experts" (in the parlance of the UN system) into any situation where there is already a conflict of interest over the solution of ecological problems changes the moral and therefore also the political balance, either by reinforcing the position of one group vis-à-vis the rest, or by adding a new group. Each group formulates its solution to the general problem in terms of its perception of nature, which is in turn based on a combination of social and cultural heritage and self-interest.
The problem of integrating the explanation of cultural and natural processes in a single theoretical framework is complicated by historical factors on the social-science as well as the natural-science side. Pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which was not immediately replaced either by Darwinism or by genetic theory and still survives here and there in popular writing, was extended in the 19th century to describe a series of stages of cultural evolution, culminating in Victorian society. Revulsion against this model of human evolution which arbitrarily categorized, and failed to explain, spatial and temporal variation, contributed to the theoretical isolation of the social sciences which continues still. This isolation was therefore to a large extent self-imposed, and attempts to bring the social sciences out of it have so far met with little success. One of the more noteworthy attempts is that known variously as cultural ecology, human ecology or ecological anthropology-which is where social science enters the present argument.
Cultural ecology (as the ecological approach from within cultural anthropology has most commonly been known) was defined by Julian Steward as the study of "the adaptive processes by which the nature of society and an unpredictable number of features of culture are affected by the basic adjustment through which man utilizes a given environment" (in Tax 1953, p. 243, quoted in Netting 1977,p. 6). It has been most successful in the study of relatively simple technologies. Since man has occupied most dry lands from the earliest technological stages of history, it is not surprising that many dryland areas have been exploited by pastoralism and irrigation since the beginnings of those technologies. These less-than-ideal habitats have, of course, been exploited mainly by behavioural or cultural, rather than physiological or genetic adaptation, and are excellent material for long-term social science research. But studies in cultural ecology, despite their intrinsic interest, have generally failed to function as bridges between the social and the natural sciences. There are two reasons for this failure. First, instead of trying to integrate social theory with explanations of natural processes, cultural ecologists have sought to explain social processes either by reference to natural factors or in naturalistic terms. Second, by adopting the ecologists' systemic assumptions of equilibrium and homeostasis, which reinforced some a historical tendencies in their own tradition, they have ignored the historical background of their subject matter which might have forced them to take more seriously the ecologists' assessment of ecological degradation and to attempt to explain change. Therefore cultural ecology, whatever the benefits of some of its products (for example, explanation of certain cultural or social similarities in similar habitats) could not provide the basis for a dialogue between the social and the natural sciences.
In order to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding it may be worth restating that there is no intention here to question the reality of ecological processes apart from specific cultural perceptions of them. Neither is it meant to suggest that basic ecological research (as it has been pursued in isolation from social problems and the social sciences) is misguided. The problem is to bring both sides together.
There are in fact signs that a rapprochement of sorts is finally on the way. Though still somewhat faint, these signs are especially discernible in work sponsored by certain agencies of the UN system where the political pressure to reconcile scientific and political opinion is possibly greatest. The accumulation of data from observation, description and analysis of ecosystemic processes in the 1970s, which had been stimulated by the International Biological Programme (IBP) and continues to be supported by UNESCO's Programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB), has been impressive. Dryland research, in particular, received an important boost when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in December 1974 to organize a United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD). UNCOD suddenly became the Maecenas of dryland ecologythough not for long. Meanwhile, ecology had become a historical issue and would never again be convincingly treatable outside its historical context.
The Conference was initiated in the atmosphere of urgency generated by the human tragedies that followed the Sahelian drought, but its subject matter was defined to include a larger set of problems that had for some time been causing increasing concern. The Conference Secretariat commissioned a series of studies to synthesise the state of knowledge on all these problems. These studies (See UNCOD 1977a) were organized in terms of climate, technology, ecological change and the social and demographic aspects of desertification. Other studies (See Mabbutt and Floret 1980) were commissioned by the Secretariat and by other UN agencies and participating countries at the Secretariat's request. To demonstrate experience with and lessons learned from the application of this knowledge, a third series of studies investigated the feasibility of tackling selected problems transnationally. Other agencies - UN, international, national, and non-governmental - contributed complementary studies.
The General Assembly, and following it, the UNCOD Secretariat and the writers of the various studies, all made the point that the human factor should be given special attention. It is important to point out, however, that none of these studies actually succeeded in integrating the human factor into a general ecological argument. The political determination for integration was there, but not the epistemological framework, and not the methodological mechanism. However, during the 1970s two landmarks appeared in the progress of social-science thought in relation to ecological problems. Both are deceptively simple, but their implications are important for the future of the ecology debate. The first is the formulation by a group of social scientists (invited to develop a social science contribution to MAB) that "human use systems" are not coterminous with ecosystems (UNESCO 1974). The second is the concept of the "ecological transition" (Bennett 1976). The two concepts are complementary and it is worth while spelling out their implications here in a little more detail.