The discipline of anthropology provides a unique perspective on human-environmental interactions and thus generates valuable insights into the social, political, and cultural complexity of modern environmental problems. Anthropologists are hard at work with governments, conservation organizations, and community groups to understand and solve complex environmental problems. I hope this discussion has challenged you to think about the environment and conservation in a new way, allowing you to help reframe these debates and develop innovative solutions to the complex problems that confront us.
In what ways have anthropologists examined human interactions with the environment over time?
What is the myth of the ecologically noble savage? What are some recent examples of this myth? What is the impact of this idea on indigenous people?
How has research in political ecology challenged traditional conservation efforts? What are some of the problems with promoting parks or ecological reserves as solutions to environmental problems?
What is the Anthropocene? How has research in anthropology contributed to an improved understanding of how humans interact with the “natural” world?
What insights from anthropology do you think would be most useful to the public, environmental activists, and government officials when considering policies related to current environmental challenges?
Anthropocene: a term proposed to describe the current moment (or epoch) in geological time in which the effects of human activities have altered the fundamental geochemical cycles of the earth. There is some disagreement about when the Anthropocene period began—most likely, it began with industrialization.
Anthropogenic: environments and pollutants produced by human activities.
Cultural ecology: a subfield of cultural anthropology that explores the relationship between human cultural beliefs and practice and the ecosystems in which those beliefs and practices occur.
Cultural evolutionism: a theory popular in nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropology suggesting that societies evolved through stages from simple to advanced. This theory was later shown to be incorrect.
Ecocide: destruction of an environment, especially when done intentionally by humans.
Eco-justice: a movement to recognize and remedy the adverse relationship between social inequality and the harms and risks that come from environmental destruction and pollutants.
Ethnocide: destruction of a culture, often intentionally, through destruction of or removal from their territory, forced assimilation, or acculturation.
Ethnoecology: the relationships between cultural beliefs and practices and the local environment. Components include ethnobiology, ethnobotany, and ethnozoology.
Extractive reserves: community-managed protected areas designed to allow for sustainable extraction of certain natural resources (such as fish, rubber, Brazil nuts, and rattan) while maintaining key ecosystems in place.
Exurban: a term that describes the migration of generally affluent people from urban areas to rural areas for the amenities of nature, recreation, and scenic beauty associated with rural areas.
Historical particularism: the theory that every culture develops in a unique way due to its history, including the interaction of people with the natural environment.
Homeostasis: the movement of a particular system (a human body, an ecosystem) towards equilibrium. In ecology this is associated with the idea that ecosystems should remain at the climax (stable) ecosystem associated with an area.
Hominin: Humans (Homo sapiens) and their close relatives and immediate ancestors.
Materialism: a Marxist theory emphasizing the ways in which human social and cultural practices are influenced by basic subsistence (economic) needs.
Multispecies ethnographies: an ethnographic approach in which anthropologists include non-human species as active participants in a society or culture and study their influence and actions.
Political ecology: an interdisciplinary field of research that emphasizes the political and economic dimensions of environmental concerns.
Processual archaeology: a shift in archaeological studies toward scientific methods, testing of hypotheses, quantitative analysis, and theory-driven approaches and away from an earlier emphasis on typologies and descriptive analysis.
Protected areas: lands set aside for conservation of the environment for their scenic beauty, biodiversity, recreational value, and other reasons.
Succession: changes in types of species in an area over time. For example, it would describe the different ecosystems that gradually replace one other after a forest fire.
Sustainable development: development that can meet present needs without damaging the environment or limiting the potential for future generations.
Swidden: an agricultural practice, also called shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn, in which fields are cleared, burned, and planted for several seasons before being returned to fallow for an extended period.
Wilderness: a natural area that is untouched or unchanged by human activities and often seen as a cultural construct of the American West.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I grew up hiking and surfing in Hawaii and became interested in the environment and conservation. I studied Biology and International Cultural Studies at Brigham Young University-Hawaii as an undergraduate, including research on how traditional Hawaiian healers adapted to introduced plant species and diseases. My master’s degree is in Environmental Science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where I researched extractive reserves in the Brazilian Amazon. My Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz focused on tourism, urban development, and conservation in a small fishing town in Northeastern Brazil that was transitioning to a tourist economy.
Balee, William. Cultural Forests of the Amazon: A Historical Ecology of People and Their Landscapes. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2013.
Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History (1996): 7–28.
Fiske, Shirley J., Susan A. Crate, Carole L. Crumley, Kathleen Galvin, Heather Lazrus, George Luber, Lisa Lucero, Anthony Oliver-Smith, Ben Orlove, Sarah Strauss, and Richard R. Wilk. “Changing the Atmosphere: Anthropology and Climate Change.” Final Report for the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association, 2014.
Murray, Gerald F. “The Domestication of Wood in Haiti: A Case Study in Applied Evolution.” Anthropological Praxis (1987): 218.
Sahlins, Marshall. “The Original Affluent Society.” In The Politics of Egalitarianism: Theory and Practice, edited by Jacqueline Solway, 79-98. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.
White, Leslie. “Energy and the Evolution of Culture.” In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, edited by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000.
1. Bruno Latour, “Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene: A Personal View of What Is to be Studied,” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., December 2014) http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/139-AAA-Washington.pdf
2. Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society,” in The Politics of Egalitarianism: Theory and Practice, ed. Jacqueline Solway (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), 79-98.
3. Elliot M. Abrams and David J. Rue, “The Cause and Consequences of Deforestation among the Prehistoric Maya,” Human Ecology 16 no. 4 (1988): 377–395.
4. Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking and Penguin, 1985).
5. S.J. Fiske, S.A. Crate, C.L. Crumley, K. Galvin, H. Lazrus, G. Luber, L. Lucero, A. Oliver-Smith, B. Orlove, S. Strauss, and R. Wilk, “Changing the Atmosphere: Anthropology and Climate Change,” Final Report for the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force (Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association, 2014).
6. Simone Athayde, “Introduction: Indigenous People, Dams, and Resistance,” Tipiti: Journal of the Society for Anthropology of Lowland South America 12 no. 2 (2014): 80–92.
7. Paige West, James Igoe, and Dan Brockington, “Parks and People: The Social Impact of Protected Areas,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 251–277.
8. Maria Panakhyo and Stacy McGrath, “Ecological Anthropology,” in Anthropological Theories: A Guide Prepared by Students for Students (University of Alabama), http://anthropology.ua.edu/cultures/cultures.php?culture=Ecological%20
9. Leslie White, “Energy and the Evolution of Culture,” in Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. eds. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000), 249.
10. Julian Steward, “The Patrilineal Band,” in Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, eds. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000), 228–242.
11. Marvin Harris, “The Cultural Ecology of Indian’s Sacred Cattle,” in Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, eds. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000), 287.
12. Harold Conklin, Hanunoo Agriculture. A Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines (New York, United Nations, 1957).
13. Richard Reed, “Forest Development and the Indian Way,” in Conformity and Conflict: Reading in Cultural Anthropology, eds. James Spradley and David McCurdy, 105-115 (New York: Pearson, 2011).
14. Darrell A. Posey, Kayapó Ethnoecology and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).
15. Beth A. Conklin and Laura R. Graham, “The Shifting Middle Ground: Amazonian Indians and Eco‐Politics,” American Anthropologist 97 no. 4 (1995): 695–710.
16. Mac Chapin, “Indigenous Land Use Mapping in Central America,” Yale Forestry and Environmental Science Bulletin 98 (1995): 195–209.
17. Piers Blaikie, The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries (London: Longman, 1985).
18. Melissa Leach and James Fairhead, “Fashioned Forest Pasts, Occluded Histories? International Environmental Analysis in West African Locales,” Development and Change 31 no. 1 (2000): 35–59.
19. For more on this research see William Balee, Cultural Forests of the Amazon: A Historical Ecology of People and Their Landscapes (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2013).
20. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History (1996): 7–28.
21. Ibid., 28.
22. Paige West, James Igoe, and Dan Brockington, “Parks and People: The Social Impact of Protected Areas,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 251–277.
23. Peter A. Walker and Patrick T. Hurley, “Collaboration Derailed: The Politics of ‘Community-Based’ Resource Management in Nevada County,” Society and Natural Resources 17 no. 8 (2004): 735–751.
24. Peter A Walker, “Reconsidering ‘Regional’ Political Ecologies: Toward a Political Ecology of the Rural American West,” Progress in Human Geography 27 no. 1 (2003): 7–24.
25. Paul Robbins and Julie T. Sharp, “Producing and Consuming Chemicals: The Moral Economy of the American Lawn,” Economic Geography 79 no. 4 (2003): 425–451.
26. Andrew P. Vayda and Bradely B. Walters, “Against Political Ecology,” Human Ecology 27 no. 1 (1999): 167–179.
27. Rachel Harvey and Annette Koh, “Landfill in Paradise: Politics of Waste Management and Environmental Justice in Hawaii,” Anthropology News 53 no. 8 (2012):1-16.
28. Richard Grant and Martin Oteng-Ababio, “Mapping the Invisible and Real ‘African’ Economy: Urban E-waste Circuitry,” Urban Geography 33 (1): 1–21.
29. Barbara Rose Johnston, “An Anthropological Ecology? Struggles to Secure Environmental Quality and Social Justice,” Kroeber Anthropological Society 101 no. 1 (2013): 3–21.
30. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton University Press, 2013).
31. See for instance Jenny Reardon, “The Human Genome Diversity Project: A Case Study in Coproduction,” Social Studies of Science 31 no. 3 (2001): 357–388 and Micha Rahder, “But Is It a Basin? Science, Controversy, and Conspiracy in the Fight for Mirador, Guatemala,” Science as Culture (2015): 1–26.
32. Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (New York: Paradigm, 2003).
33. See for instance, Eben, Kirksey, ed. The Multispecies Salon (Duke University Press, 2014) and Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2013).
34. Gerald F. Murray, “The Domestication of Wood in Haiti: A Case Study in Applied Evolution,” Anthropological Praxis (1987): 218.
35. S.J. Fiske, et al. “Changing the Atmosphere,” 6.