Cultural Ecology - Connecting the Environment and Humans

What is Cultural Ecology - and Do Scholars Still Apply it Today?

Tonle Sap lake, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
Tonle Sap lake is a natural lake tapped by the extensive water control system of the Khmer Empire [800-1400 AD]. Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Getty Images

In 1962, Charles O. Frake defined cultural ecology as "the study of the role of culture as a dynamic component of any ecosystem"; and that's still a fairly accurate definition: it is the nuances of power that can (literally) kill us. Between 1/3 and 1/2 of the land surface of the earth has been transformed by human development (cited in Head 2007). Cultural ecology argues that we humans were inextricably embedded in earth surface processes long before the invention of bulldozers and dynamite.

"Human impacts" and "cultural landscape" are two contradictory concepts that may help to explain the past and modern flavors of cultural ecology. In the 1970s, concern over human impacts on the environment arose: the roots of the environmental movement. But, that isn't cultural ecology, because it situates us outside of the environment. Humans are part of the environment, not an outside force making impacts on it. Discussing cultural landscapes--people within their environment--attempts to address the world as a bio-culturally collaborative product.

Environmental Social Science

Cultural ecology is part of a suite of environmental social science theories that provide anthropologists and archaeologists and geographers and historians and other scholars a way to think about why it is people do what they do, to structure research and ask good questions of our data. Why do we develop new technologies such as farming and satellites? What drives us to organize ourselves into groups and states? What makes us pay attention to the local environment and what makes us ignore it? Why do we keep grandmothers around after they've stopped producing children, why do we eat plants when animals are available? All of these questions are all a part of cultural ecology.

In addition, cultural ecology is part of a theoretical division of the whole study of human ecology: human biological ecology (how people adapt through biological means) and human cultural ecology (how people adapt through cultural means). Looked at as the study of the interaction between living things and their environment, cultural ecology involves human perceptions of the environment as well as the sometimes unperceived impacts of us on the environment and the environment on us. Cultural ecology is all about humans--what we are and what we do, in the context of being another animal on the planet.

Adaptation and Survival

One part of cultural ecology with immediate impact is adaptation, studying how people deal with, affect and are affected by their changing environment. That is vital to our survival on the planet because it offers understanding and possible solutions to important contemporary problems, like deforestation, loss of species, food scarcity, and soil loss. Learning about how adaptation worked in the past can teach us today as we grapple with the effects of global warming.

Human ecologists study how and why cultures do what they do to solve their subsistence problems, how people understand their environment and how they share that knowledge. A side benefit is that cultural ecologists pay attention to and learn from traditional and local knowledge how we really are part of the environment, whether we pay attention or not.

Them and Us

The development of cultural ecology as a theory has its start with a scholarly grappling with understanding cultural evolution (now unilinear cultural evolution and thankfully abbreviated as UCE). Western scholars had discovered there were societies on the planet who were "less advanced" then elite white male scientific societies: how did that come about? UCE, developed in the late 19th century, argued that all cultures, given enough time, went through a linear progression: savagery (loosely defined as hunters and gatherers), barbarism (pastoralists / early farmers, and civilization (identified as a set of "characteristics of civilizations" such as writing and calendars and metallurgy).

As more archaeological research was accomplished, and better dating techniques were developed, it became clear that ancient civilizations did not follow neat or regular rules. Some cultures moved back and forth between agricultural and hunting and gathering or, quite commonly, did both. Preliterate societies did build calendars of sorts--Stonehenge is only the most obvious--and some societies such as the Inca developed state level complexity without writing as we know it. Scholars came to realize that cultural evolution was, in fact, multi-linear, that societies develop and change in many different ways.

History of Cultural Ecology

That first recognition of the multilinearity of cultural change led to the first major theory of the interaction between people and their environment: environmental determinism. Environmental determination said it must be that the local environments in which people live force them to select methods of food production and societal structures. The problem with that is that environments change constantly, and culture is not driven solely by that but rather makes adaptations which intersect with the environment to ameliorate issues and cope with the changes.

Cultural ecology arose primarily through the work of anthropologist Julian Steward, whose work in the American southwest led him to combine four approaches: an explanation of culture in terms of the environment in which it existed; the relationship of culture and environment as an ongoing process; a consideration of small-scale environments, rather than culture-area-sized regions; and the connection of ecology and multi-linear cultural evolution.

Steward coined cultural ecology as a term in 1955, to say that (1) cultures in similar environments may have similar adaptations; 2) all adaptations are short-lived and constantly adjust to local conditions; and 3) changes can either elaborate on earlier cultures or result in entirely new ones.

Modern Cultural Ecology

Modern forms of cultural ecology pull in elements of theories tested and accepted (and some rejected) in the decades between the 1950s and today, including:

  • historical ecology (which discusses the impact of individual interactions of small-scale societies);
  • political ecology (which includes the effects of power relations and conflicts on the household to global scale);
  • rational choice theory (which says that people make decisions about how to achieve their goals);
  • post-modernism (all theories are equally valid and the "truth" is not readily discernible to subjective western scholars); and
  • cultural materialism (humans respond to practical problems by developing adaptive technologies).

All of those things have resonated and found their way into modern cultural ecology. In the end, cultural ecology is a way to look at things; a way to form hypotheses about understanding the broad range of human behaviors; a research strategy; and even a way to make sense of our lives.

Think about this: much of the political debate about climate change of the early 2000s centered around whether or not it was human-created. That is an observation of how people still attempt to put humans outside our environment, something cultural ecology teaches us cannot be done.