Historical geography brings a long, scholarly tradition. Its theoretical background focuses on a description and explanation of spatial differentiation, and helps to reconstruct past environments and landscapes. Patterns are produced by different cultures along history as the result of their interaction with the Earth's surface. The study of landscape history approaches historical geography, but where the former analyzes single landscapes and applies a nostalgic narrative of the natural landscape lost, the latter makes generalizations and elaborates theories of construction.
The debate between determinism and possibilism also occurred in the field of anthropology. However, whereas Alfred Kroeber notably represented the latter paradigm, determinism saw two different perspectives. Environmental determinism understands culture as determined by nature, while cultural determinism, represented by Leslie Alvin White, maintains that culture determines environment. The cultural ecology perspective seeks to explain the interactions of human populations or societies with their environment at the local scale in terms of ecological knowledge gained, human strategies of ecological success, and cultural adaptation to the local environmental conditions, in particular techniques, economy, and social organization.
This subfield of anthropology materialized with the publication of Julian Steward's book Theory of Culture Change in 1955, which challenged the dominant determinist paradigm of culture determining nature, with an ecological or ecosystemic paradigm, where the physical environment influences culture and the formation of political, social, and economic structures. The fragmentation in the field of cultural ecology, due to the conceptual differences with respect to the mutual interaction between the environment and culture, has led to the birth of ecological anthropology. In this approach, interaction occurs with some of the components of the habitat, and the process of adaptation takes place at the scale of the technology used.
The concept of political ecology originated in a paper written by Eric Wolf, a disciple of Julian Steward, titled Ownership and Political Ecology (1972). The discipline is a synthesis of cultural ecology and political economy, and it studies the organization of the world political economy and its impact on the environment. Political ecology works at various spatial scales and takes into account the implications of political structures. It accounts for the effect of resource location on political, economic, and social structures, and the role of these in resource distribution, allocation, and extraction, and their environmental effects.
Decision-making involves interaction among groups based on categories of power, status, and hierarchy in processes of social dynamics; it also implicates the adoption of measures to mitigate environmental problems and the participation of stakeholders, including: state and international institutions, companies, transnational corporations, social organizations, and society at large. In this context, ideology is a factor that figures prominently in the interactions and the adoption of measures. In his book Theory of Cultural Change (1955), Steward introduces the concept of multilinear evolution. He proposes that certain basic types of cul tures may develop synchronically and similarly, with some common cultural features, under comparable conditions, so that their variations are more adaptative strategies than stages in a single path or unilinear cultural evolution, as supported by Leslie White.
The study of the interactions of social organizations with the natural environment, taking into consideration behavior, as well as the resulting societal well-being and environmental quality, is the concern of environmental sociology. This subfield of sociology concerns the perceptual and behavioral factors, social structures, and processes that intervene in the degradation of the natural assets society depends on, and which threaten the sustainability of the human system. It explores social movements as a response to environmental change (modern environmentalism), and the inequities in social exposure to natural and technological hazards, and access to natural resources and environmental quality.
It introduces the concept of environmental justice. The discipline has moved from sociology of the environment, with the environment as an object of study but without changing the classical mainstream perspective of sociology, to an approach with society-environment relationships as the pivotal subject. Several pre-existing areas of interest converged into a unified discipline around the 1970s, in particular, the subfields of human ecology and rural sociology, which have long adopted a human-environment perspective, and then consolidated with the manifestation of global environmental change in the 1980s. The principal themes that human ecology brought to the new field, were the study of resource-dependent communities, natural resource sociology and resource availability, and social movements research.
Riley Dunlap and William Catton published a paper in 1978, reporting the limitations of mainstream sociology in addressing environmental problems. These include the adoption of the human exceptionalism paradigm (humankind as a differentiated species) and the socially dominant Western worldview, which fails to acknowledge the roots of human society in nature. Modern society is unsustainable and vulnerable for its excessive dependence and rapid depletion of non-renewable natural resources. Dunlap and Canton also introduced the concept of ghost acreage, resembling ecological footprint and ecological overshoot, to identify the societal dependence on distant areas for procuring natural resources and the resulting large inputs of energy required for transportation, as well as exceeding carrying capacity of the ecosystems and stocks. They acknowledge the insufficiency of the present paradigm and the urgency for the elaboration of a new ecological paradigm (NEP), based on the necessary adjustments and adaptations to the increasingly disturbing and threatening global environmental change.
The new paradigm first should be adopted by the scientific community, and then extended to the whole society. Allan Schnaiberg proposed, in his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (1980), the notion of the treadmill of production. It denotes the self-reproducing nature of modern capitalism, promoting economic growth and private capital accumulation. Corporations are forced to expand their activity to survive in a very competitive market, and administrations favor growth to gain increasing tax revenues. The escalating process of accumulation leads to an intensification of the demand of inputs, in the form of natural resources, and the production of outputs, as pollution. Frederick Buttel indicates there are two key environmental phenomena that need attention. First, human consumption of goods and services, driving production, with little awareness of the environmental implications, a phenomenon that he designates with the term substructural environmental practice. The second phenomenon consists of the engagement in intentionally environmental practices, such as active environmentalism and environmental regulation, the result of the adoption of the new ecological paradigm.
SEE ALSO: Conservation; Historical Development of Climate Models; History of Climatology; History of Meteorology; Social Ecology.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. D.J. Hughes, An Environmental History of the World: Humanity's Changing Role in the Community of Life (Routledge, 2001); Shepard Krech, J.R. McNeill, and Carolyn Merchant, Encyclopedia of World Environmental History (Routledge, 2004); J.R. Mcneill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World (Norton, 2000); Carolyn Merchant, ed., Major Problems in American Environmental History (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); E.F. Moran, People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations (Blackwell Publishing, 2006);
Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (Penguin, 1991); J.F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (University of California Press, 2003); Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Urbano Fra Paleo University of Extremadura, Spain
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