Modernization Hub

Modernization and Improvement
Human Ecological Theory of Environment

Human Ecological Theory of Environment


This video is going to explore the human ecological perspective of the environment. The term ecology was coined by Ernest Haeckl, as a combination of Greek terms referring to the study of the house. The oikos, house, and the logia, study of . Haeckl was a student of Darwin, and Darwin was influenced by Malthus. We’ve already talked about Malthus in a presentation on demographic perspectives. I do think that the ecological perspective is a complementary one to demography, and that’s why I treat them together in the same module. Ecology eventually evolved into different directions–one of those a more biological branch, and one of those the more sociological, social science-based branch. The focus of human ecology is on how human population evolves with and adapts to the environment. Of course you can see the influence of Darwinian thinking and we’ll see how that is applied by social scientists, in particular. But the key here is that when we’re talking about adaptation from a social science perspective–human adaptation–what we’re really talking about is not genes in biology, but we’re talking about culture, and that includes technology. The Chicago school of human ecology, in the early part of the 20th century, put together by Albion Small, included a number of important figures in sociological history. It was the birthplace of the symbolic interactionist perspective and human ecology as a sociological perspective. The primary concern of the human ecology branch of the Chicago School was with urban space and the changes in spatial patterns in the way that it co-evolved with social life, and so an evolutionary perspective was applied but not so much with a focus on the natural environment–this was an urban cityscape. As we’ll see this is more metaphorical than a literal form of thinking about the environment and ecology. Duncan, in the 1960s, a ladder descendant, would coin an important idea– the ecological complex–which refers to the POET model, and that is an acronym for population, organization, environment, and technology. Arguably, that is one of the most lasting contributions of the ecological perspective that is still a useful framework for thinking about some of the key interrelated variables when we study society and environment. of course. Another key idea has to do with, more closely, than Malthusian idea of limited resources and overpopulation. The idea of overshoot was tackled by a shoot-off of human ecology called new human ecology, and that included the work of William R Catton and Riley Dunlap who were the the founders of this perspective. This prospective of new human ecology would eventually morph into what we now call environmental sociology. You can kind of get a good sense of the intellectual tradition that’s going on within the field of sociology here and the central focus of new human ecology, or environmental sociology, was on environmental problems. A lot of these ideas were coming out in the the 70s, alongside and on the heels of the environmental movement–the modern environmental movement–and many of the early ideas that were offered by these early thinkers, Catton in particular, was focused on the idea of overshoot. Dunlap was focused more closely on the notion of the new ecological paradigm against the backdrop of human exemptionalist paradigm. In fact it was offered both ways at different times. This quote captures some of the basic ideas of this perspective and it says, “This leads us to define the basic task of environmental sociology as seeking to answer two kinds of questions: a) how do interdependent variations in population, technology, culture, social systems, and personality systems influence the physical environment?” We can just pause for a second and think about that first one, and I want you to juxtapose that against the POET idea, offered by Duncan shortly before you could see in the tradition and within the ecological paradigm being carried on. The second part of that, “How do resultant changes (and other variations) in the physical environment modify population, technology, culture, social systems, and personality?” This is sort of the interplay between society and the environment. They go on, Dunlap and Catton, writing about the new ecological paradigm, suggests that this new way of seeing the world is an important one for addressing some of the problems that we’re seeing. They they quote Burch in stating that, “One thing it seems to make clear is that sociology has to take seriously a dilemma traditionally neglected–human societies necessarily exploit surrounding ecosystems in order to survive, but societies that flourish to the extent of overexploiting the ecosystem may destroy the basis of their own survival.” That’s clearly tied to the Malthusian notion of overshoot and the latter idea is offered by biological ecologists, such as Ehrlich, who we mentioned also elsewhere in the demographic presentation, talking about carrying capacity. So I like this this quote because it also points out that exploitation of the environment, to some extent, is required. It’s not something that we can totally rid ourselves of. There’s no such thing as a “free lunch.” People need to be fed and clothed and housed. Those types of things at a bare minimum require a certain amount of resources. The new ecological paradigm refers to a cultural idea, more or less, that we’re shifting to a new set of values, and we’re getting away from this idea that there is such a thing as a free lunch. That humans are exempt from natural processes and laws, and, in fact, we’re not exempt. The awareness of our dependence on natural limits– that is natural resources that have limits– is an important part of the new ecological paradigm. As part of the research tradition in the early days of environmental sociology, a great deal of attention was given to measuring the extent to which this new ecological paradigm had become manifest through survey research. This particular scale went through some revisions but this is pretty much the juxt of it. We see 15 items here and you can kind of get the idea without me reading through all of these what we’re trying to measure. For instance, the first question, We’re approaching the limits of the number of people in the earth can support.” A very Malthusian idea, tied to overshoot. Number two, Humans have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their needs. That’s of course going to indicate an exemptionalist way of thinking. Number three, When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences. Once again, now, we’re getting back to knowledge of limits. So you’re kind of see where these items will measure either the new ecological paradigm or the human exemptionalist paradigm. From this NEP-HEP scale, as it was referred to, has come a number of research studies, and certainly it offers a way of measuring the extent to which society has made the transition into this new way of thinking. Indeed there’s no reason to assume that this will be a linear process, and likely, there is going to be some movement in either direction at different times towards the HEP pole or the NEP pole, and these are of course going to be bipolar question responses. That’s one of the critiques that people have offered of this scale. that it is a bipolar framework and many people are critical of that. Others point out that environmental attitudes are often very multi-dimensional so that to treat it as a two-dimensional scale is also perhaps problematic. We’re not capturing all aspects of environmental concern with these items as listed—it’s a very short scale which is of course the elegance of it: short and sweet. But we’re of course sacrificing breadth of topics with that, so this notion of overshoot, one of the hallmarks of living based on a human exemptionalist basis, the idea that we’re free from constraint imposed by nature, and so forth. It was a central concern of William Catton, who wrote a book called, Overshoot, and referred historically to an Age of Exuberance. When this notion of manifest destiny was in full swing, and the notion of colonists discovering a new world created this sense of abundance, and that natural resources were essentially unlimited. This would set the stage for our current culture to the extent that this paradigm persists. Catton notes that the this idea of human exemptionalism sort of started to take a turn in the era of Post-exuberance, when people began to become aware that there were no more world’s to discover, that the earth was finite, and that there’s a need for a parallel change in our culture and our way of thinking. The notion of overshoot is now being measured as the difference between our consumption levels and the productive and I would add absorptive capacity of the environment. That has really been captured well by the notion of the ecological footprint. That is, in fact, one of the best ways to study the actual material side of all this, rather than the ideal, which is the social psychological, which is what the HEP-NEP scale measures. This has received a good deal of attention in the literature. The IPAT model that we discussed in the demographic presentation turns out to be a very good predictor of ecological footprints. You’ll recall that was a combination of population, affluence, and technology, and it’s going to result in a certain type of environmental impact. So, as we’ll see, overshoot is empirically linked to both the level of affluence, and also urbanization. Additional studies have found links between our footprints and our levels of urbanization. Now we’re going to look at some contemporary applications of human ecology. As it turns out, the contemporary applications take as a starting point, the IPAT model, reinforcing this notion that ecology and demography are kind of mutually supportive–perhaps, one and the same perspective. A colleague and I sometimes refer to it as a spatial demography perspective. Structural human ecology has developed, particularly at Michigan State, they have a Environmental Policy Center that has really adopted the STIRPAT , which is a really just a modification of the IPAT model that we were talking about. Some of the research that has used that, I mentioned, in order to predict the ecological footprint has provided a good deal of evidence that this is a useful framework and that population, affluence, and technology are indeed some of the key drivers of environmental impact. As we’ve changed over time what we’ve retained as they continued emphasis on the sheer impacts of population. When you have a lot of people you’re going to use a lot of resources. you’re going to produce a lot of waste. and frankly the environment struggles to keep up. That idea of overshoot is a critical one, or you can call it carrying capacity, or you can call it the limits to growth–there’s a lot of ways to think about it. Of course, culture or cultural awareness, and those kinds of things, correspond to a realization of these problems. Focusing on destructive technologies, arguably has received less attention in the empirical literature. The scholars have struggled to find ways to measure the impacts of technology, so to a large degree even the STIRPAT and IPAT tests have relied largely on population and affluence. So this notion of affluence remains relevant. Within that IPAT framework, we can see a similar perhaps, idea in the POET model we mentioned, offered by Duncan, now about five or six decades ago. The POET model also remains a good framework but I have not seen research that attempts to to present that in a similar fashion, as STIRPAT, although that would be a good innovation, I think. So, in summary, the ecological tradition was actually the dominant paradigm in the field of sociology, not just environmental sociology, but for, particularly the time of the Chicago School, this was a dominant way of studying society and community, in particular. You can see in this presentation how that evolved into the new human ecology perspective and environmental sociology, so it’s really the the parentage of the discipline that we’re in. Gradually, we’ve learned about the new ecological paradigm, we’ve learned about the way that has influenced politics. Essentially, what happened in the field of environmental sociology is the the political economic, or conflict perspective, has largely sort of taken over–that has become the dominant paradigm, and we’ll study that one in another presentation, when we look at conflict theories. There’s continued focus on population as a control, it’s unavoidable that the sheer spatial demographic impacts do matter. It’s unavoidable. So then the question might be trying to figure out how those relate to political and economic forces. Critiques of the ecological perspective: some of the worst problems have occurred where population sizes are small. That’s as you would guess, probably because those places have a high level of affluence. So the IPAT model could perhaps even respond to that critique, but it is true that from a pure demographic perspective, we’re going to have problems trying to predict environmental problems solely on the basis of population because some of the poorest countries in the world have the fastest rates of population growth and relatively large populations, but very small relative ecological footprints, to perhaps, some wealthy countries where you have very small stable populations with low growth and high environmental and ecological footprints. So this is something that can only be explained I think when you introduce some of the political economic ideas of the conflict perspective. The other thing to keep in mind with this one, is the physical separation of consumption and production and the global economy. That is something that the political economy perspective, and particularly the global political economy perspective of world systems theory, unequal exchange, world polity theory–that these have really done a much better job of theorizing and thinking about. Nobody has really adapted to a global scale, the ecological perspective, which is another, perhaps, missed opportunity that could be seen in the near future. That’s going to wrap it up. Thanks for watching!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *