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"Conversation between anthropology and ecosystems ecology was interrupted in the early 1980s, due to several well-reasoned critiques of then-popular applications of ecosystems theory in anthropology and due, especially perhaps, to the appearance of promising alternative ecological and evolutionary paradigms and programs. Since then, ecosystems ecology has been both refined and transformed by the study of complex systems, with its radical critique of science. The resulting 'new ecology' answers most of the early criticisms of ecosystems, and proposes theory and methods to address the dynamics of ecosystems as complex systems."
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Abel, T. and J. R. Stepp. 2003. A new ecosystems ecology for anthropology. Conservation Ecology 7(3):
12. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss3/art12
Editorial
A New Ecosystems Ecology for Anthropology
Thomas Abel and John Richard Stepp
INTRODUCTION
Conversation between anthropology and ecosystems
ecology was interrupted in the early 1980s, due to
several well-reasoned critiques (Vayda and McCay
1975, Ellen 1982, Smith 1984, Winterhalder 1984,
Moran 1990) of then-popular applications of
ecosystems theory in anthropology (Rappaport 1968,
Kemp 1969, Thomas 1973, 1976) and due, especially
perhaps, to the appearance of promising alternative
ecological (Vayda 1983, Winterhalder 1984) and
evolutionary (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981, Boyd
and Richerson 1985, Rindos 1986, Durham 1991)
paradigms and programs. Since then, ecosystems
ecology has been both refined and transformed by the
study of complex systems, with its radical critique of
science (Odum 1983, Prigogine and Stengers 1984;
Salthe 1985; Holling 1986, Wicken 1987). The
resulting “new ecology” answers most of the early
criticisms of ecosystems (Scoones 1999: 481–483),
and proposes theory and methods to address the
dynamics of ecosystems as complex systems.
Today, worldwide interest in ecosystems ecology has
resurged, as shown by its prominence in publications
and university curricula, initiatives such as the
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and new journals
such as Ecosystems and Conservation Ecology. It has
persevered, in part, because the criticisms of the 1970s
and 1980s were heeded. Gone is the overriding
concern with equilibrium systems, climax
communities, and simple deterministic models. In its
place is an ecosystems ecology that views ecosystems
as complex adaptive systems that possess intriguing
structural qualities, such as resilience, hierarchy, scale,
nesting, dissipative structures, and autocatalytic
design, and descriptors of dynamics, such as
nonlinearity, irreversibility, self-organization,
emergence, development, directionality, history, co-
evolution, surprise, indeterminism, pulsing, and
chaotic dynamics.
While ecosystems ecology was being redefined, the
situation in anthropology was far from stagnant. It
would seem today that anthropology and the other
social sciences have embraced ecology as never
before. An explosion (perhaps surfeit) of ecological–
environmental specializations is now spreading
through academic departments, including historical
ecology, environmental history, political ecology,
ecofeminism, environmentalism, environmental
justice, symbolic ecology, ethnoecology, human
ecology, evolutionary ecology, environmental
anthropology, ecological anthropology, ecological
economics, sustainable development, traditional
ecological knowledge (TEK), conservation,
environmental risk, and liberation ecology. A number
of insightful reviews have been produced (Biersack
1999, Kottak 1999, Little 1999, Scoones 1999).
According to Scoones (1999), however, the social
sciences have not yet incorporated the “new ecology”
of ecosystems or complex systems theory into their
conceptualizations. He writes that the “theoretical
framings“ of the social sciences often presuppose the
“discussions of environment on an equilibrial view,
excluding the chance of engagement with newer
debates in ecology” (Scoones 1999: pp. 489).
However, he does see some hopeful signs in the
successes of environmental history, in new studies of
structure, agency, and scale, and in case studies of
adaptive management and institutional context.
ECOSYSTEMS ECOLOGY AND
ECOSYSTEMS MANAGEMENT
With so many “ecologies” to choose from, why should
anthropologists be interested in ecosystems ecology
and complex systems more generally? Ecosystems
ecology is a systems science, one that studies both the
biota and its physical environment, located in a
specific place (Pickett and Cadenasso 2002). It is a
relatively young field (Tansley coined the term
“ecosystem” in 1935) that has achieved disciplinary
status only in recent decades, but it has been a focus of
theory and research for much of the last century (see
Golley (1993) or Hagen (1992) for early histories; see
University of Florida
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Pace and Groffman (1998) or Vogt et al. (1997) for
assessments of the current state of ecosystems
research). With the environmental awakening of the
1960s and 1970s, ecosystems research achieved
notoriety for identifying and assailing complex
environmental problems, such as pesticide
biomagnification, eutrophication of lakes, and acid
rain (Groffman and Pace 1998). Although in many
ways a problem-driven discipline (Groffman and Pace
1998), ecosystems science has been a superior testing
ground for theories of systems, including current
research into complex systems (Odum 1983, O'Neill et
al. 1986, Ulanowicz 1986, Holling 1987, Levin 1999).
Ecosystems have been variously defined throughout
their history (Tansley 1935, Odum 1953, Kimmins
1987). Vogt et al. (1997) provide a current list of
important components of an ecosystems definition
(Table 1). Following Tansley (1935) and Odum
(1953), Pickett and Cadenasso (2002) flexibly define
ecosystems as “any size so long as organisms, physical
environment, and interactions can exist within it...[It
can] therefore be as small as a patch of soil supporting
plants and microbes; or as large as the entire biosphere
of the Earth.” We support this definition because it
stresses the importance of place and the hierarchical
scaling of the biosphere. In addition, it facilitates
human ecosystems studies at regional and world
systems scales.
The “applied” component of ecosystems science is
“ecosystems management,” which incorporates
ecosystems theory into practical problem solving
within state and regional bureaucracies (Vogt et al.
1997). Ecosystems management requires active
management of both the human and non-human
components of ecosystems. Its currently popular form,
“adaptive management” (Holling 1978, Walters 1986),
is ecosystems management that emphasizes the
complex-systems features of learning, incomplete
understanding and surprise, multi-scaled cause and
effect, and hierarchical organization. It incorporates
the adaptive cycle model of ecosystem dynamics—a
general pattern with four phases: exploitation,
conservation, crisis, and reconfiguration (Holling
1987). Adaptive management improves both the
production and implementation of ecosystems
management policy by reconceptualizing management
as a dynamic and contingent process that responds at
different times to the actions of bureaucrats, activists,
“catalysts,” and decision makers (Gunderson et al.
1995). Three articles in this special issue productively
apply the adaptive cycle model to human ecosystems
studies (Peterson et al. 2003, Toledo et al. 2003,
Trosper 2003).
Again, therefore, why should anthropologists be
interested in ecosystems ecology and complex systems
more generally? First, who can deny the continuing
need to address environmental problems and their
impacts on people and culture? Food production and
sustainability, fresh water limits, global warming,
deforestation, biodiversity loss are all complex
human–environmental problems with linked biotic–
physical components; ecosystems ecology is an
obvious choice for their study. Of even more general
concern, humans rely on the productivity of
ecosystems for nearly all of their material culture (save
fossil fuels and metals)—on which the world supports
6 billion people. Anthropologists interested in
understanding the present, historic, and prehistoric
provisioning of humanity, and its countless related
effects, should consider ecosystems and complex
systems as models of structure, function, and dynamics
that can be applied to “human ecosystems” studies.
There are other reasons why ecosystems ecology
should be of interest to anthropologists (see Moran
1990), but we will not attempt a thorough review here.
Rather, we take this opportunity to explore more fully
the promising implications of complex systems theory
for ecosystems science and the study of humans
therein.
COMPLEX SYSTEMS AND THE NEW
ECOLOGY
Simon Levin (1998) characterizes ecosystems as
“prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems.”
Complex systems may be less familiar to the social
science audience of this special issue, therefore, a
general, albeit incomplete, introduction is provided.
First, what actually constitutes complex systems
science is not yet settled. Although there are many
threads, we and others (Depew and Weber 1995) see
an integrated, evolutionary science of complex
systems emerging from the synergy between new
computational paradigms (chaos theory, agent-based
modeling, and self-organization) (Kauffman 1993,
Gell-Mann 1994, Holland 1995), dramatic
breakthroughs in the venerated field of nonequilibium
thermodynamics (Prigogine 1980), empirical research
into large, complicated systems such as weather, earth
systems, and ecosystems (Odum 1983, O'Neill et al.
1986, Ulanowicz 1986, Holling 1995, Levin 1999),
and innovation in evolutionary theory (Salthe 1985,
Wicken 1987, Brooks and Wiley 1988, Depew and
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Weber 1995, van de Vijver et al. 1998). As an
emerging field, some researchers claim their part as
the whole, but we prefer to see the connections and the
possibilities of an open, multi-disciplinary,
evolutionary, and integrative systems science.
Table 1. Important ecological components of any ecosystem definition (Vogt et al. 1997:71-72)
1. Integration of all biological (biotic) and nonbiological (abiotic) parts
2. Monitoring the movement of energy and materials (including water, chemicals, nutrients, pollutants, etc.) into and out of
its boundaries
3.
Utilization of a common currency called energy to measure ecosystem function and the strength of the links between
different ecosystem components. In practice, changes in organic matter or carbon accumulation (i.e., net primary
production) over a defined space and over a given time period is used as a surrogate for energy because photosynthesis,
which fixes carbon, is an energy-assimilating process
4. Boundary definitions—a site that can be bounded by identifying the smallest unit that is self-sustaining
5. Explicit incorporation of spatial and temporal scales
6.
Encompassing system or species characteristics that are highly interdependent and have strong feedback loops. Feedback
loops can be expressed at the species or ecosystem level (i.e., keystone or functional groups) and can be driven by
microbes and/or consumers
7.
Incorporating disturbance cycles at defined temporal and spatial scales, explicitly acknowledging that disturbances can
occur at varying scales and are an integral part of ecosystems. Identifies the importance of legacies (imprint of past
disturbances or structures) and how they have contributed to the development of the current ecosystem structure and
function
8. Characterization of all of the above for the multiple states that a system can fluctuate between as part of the natural
development of that system
Biological organisms may be conceived as complex
systems that evolve (in part) through natural selection,
but many complex systems theorists see biological
evolution as only one instance of a more general
process of self-organization found at many scales (cf.
Depew and Weber (1995) for review), including
physical, chemical, and natural selection (Wicken
1988), and self-organization at scales of culture
(Adams 1988), ecosystems (Ulanowicz 1986, Holling
1987), earth systems (Earnst 2000), or even the
universe (Layzer 1991). The biosphere as a whole,
therefore, is understood to be perpetually evolving,
and the permanence that we perceive is the structure
built by self-organization.
Complex systems are systems composed of many
heterogeneous components that interact with each
other in parallel. Natural and computer-simulated
complex systems self-organize spontaneously to
produce global patterns of behavior that emerge from
simple rules (Holland 1995). The link between abstract
computational models and physical, chemical, and
biological systems is through nonequilibrium
thermodynamics (Prigogine 1980). Here, natural open
systems are studied that self-organize by the
dissipation of energy according to the second law of
thermodynamics (Odum 1983). Once conceived as a
bleak process, energy dissipation is now known to
create “dissipative structures” that hasten dissipation
(Prigogine 1980). In open systems, dissipative
structures may appear spontaneously in hierarchies of
larger and smaller spatial and temporal scales (Holling
et al. 2002b). They are autocatalytic, meaning that the
structure they form feeds back to capture and dissipate
more energy. Dissipative structures can be
characterized as evolutionary because they generate
variation that is rewarded by the second law of
thermodynamics for dissipative efficiency (Odum and
Pinkerton 1955).
Although change is incessant, it is also directional,
from concentration toward dissipation, with dissipative
structures built in the process. It is an irreversible
process driven by “time’s arrow” of second-law
entropy production (Prigogine and Stengers 1984).
Self-organization divides natural systems into multiple
temporal and spatial scales. A product of maximizing
energy dissipation, nature is conceived to be
discontinuous across scales, forming lumps or wholes
in nested hierarchies (Holling et al. 2002b). An
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ecosystem is nested within the biosphere, while
simultaneously being composed of nested scales
selected by biological, chemical, and physical
processes. Nature evolving is truly nature complex.
Melding this new ecology to the social sciences will
require some care. Initial attempts have been made
(e.g., Adams 1988, Tainter 1988, Lansing 1991,
Gumerman and Gell-Mann 1994, Acheson and Wilson
1996, Berkes and Folke 1998, Abel 2000, Adams
2001, Bentley and Maschner 2003). Some authors
emphasize the computational side of complex systems
without appreciation for the thermodynamics and
evolutionary components, and vice versa. Within the
social sciences, some approaches ignore the political
ecological in favor of the symbolic, technologies and
material assets in favor of the structural, the force of
human demographics in favor of any of the other
components of “culture” (Abel 2003). These and other
issues remain to be resolved in this young
interdisciplinary effort.
Table 2. Human ecosystems then and now
Anthropologists occupied with: New Directions:
1 Internal flows Producing system indices, emergent behavior from simple rules
2 Human-centered Multiple scales
3 Expected efficiency Systemic energy dissipation
4 Cultural functionalism Directionality is dissipation
5 Regulation (negative feedback) Self-organization (including evolution)
6 Homeostasis Pulsing, chaotic dynamics, adaptive cycle
HUMAN ECOSYSTEMS THEN AND NOW
Ecosystems ecology (as it was adopted by
anthropologists) had features that were very different
from current complex systems science (Table 2).
Anthropologists put great effort into quantifying
internal flows of food and goods to humans
(Rappaport 1968, Kemp 1969, Thomas 1973, 1976).
They expected to find energetic efficiency between
energy expended and energy captured. It was often
argued that symbolic or ritual behavior could be
explained if it functioned to improve these efficiencies
(Rappaport 1968). Human systems were assumed to be
homeostatic, with negative feedbacks regulating the
system in a state of high efficiency. Some of this work
has since been abandoned by anthropologists, and
other components, such as energetic efficiency and
decision-making, have been successfully assailed by
other middle- and micro-range methodologies,
particularly amongst hunter–gatherer societies (see
Winterhalder and Smith (2000) for review).
The “new ecology” of complex systems science is
propelling human ecosystems research in new
directions (Table 2). (1) Recognizing the daunting
complexity of natural systems, some researchers are
content to produce whole-system measurements or
indices, rather than charting detailed internal flows of
energy within a system (Odum 1996). Other
researchers start with simple rules and endeavor to
generate emergent behavior at meso- or macro-scales
(Holland 1995). Although this may not appeal to those
anthropologists who wish to map specific causal
chains, it accepts that causality is multi-scaled and
continuously self-organizing. The best explanation
may exist at the scale of emergent patterns of self-
organization in a complex system, not with the
specifics of a political economy that are constantly
shifting and reorganizing themselves. Causality and
meaning clearly exist at human spatial and temporal
scales. But in a nested, hierarchical human ecosystem,
simple deterministic causal models are often
overthrown by events from smaller or larger scales
such as epidemics (e.g., HIV) or regional or global
resource oscillations; human ecosystem research
specifically attends to this complex nexus of causality.
(2) The study of complex human ecosystems is not
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necessarily human centered, but rather focuses on the
whole-system complex dynamics of matter, energy,
and information from all temporal and spatial scales,
including those that are uniquely human. If complex
human ecosystems are the subject of study, and not
humans per se, then it should not be surprising that (3)
the efficient delivery of energy to humans within the
system does not uniquely determine ecosystem
structure and dynamics. Instead, as complex human
ecosystems, the (4) directionality of the system is
toward whole-system energy dissipation and self-
organization. As explained above, (5) complex self-
organizing systems are constantly evolving or
renegotiating their state within the incessant flow of
energy in natural open systems. The “regulation”
provided by negative feedback is only one part of that
dynamics. Which leads to another important difference
between then and now, (6) complex systems are
expected to exhibit nonlinear dynamics, which may
take the form of pulsing or other chaotic dynamics,
including multiple stable states or the adaptive cycle of
Holling (1987). This differs dramatically from the
homeostatic view of ecosystems of the past. These and
other implications are discussed more fully below.
THE ARTICLES
This special issue of Conservation Ecology brings
together international scholars in ecology and
anthropology to consider the state of ecosystems
ecology within anthropology, and to present
possibilities for future directions in understanding
human ecosystems. The anthropologists in the issue
include specialists in the subdisciplines of
archaeology, anthropological linguistics, cognitive
anthropology, and cultural anthropology. Therefore,
this issue provides an example of transdisciplinary
research, both within and beyond anthropology. It
explores the potential of ecosystems and complex
systems to integrate disciplines and inform theory and
methods in anthropology as a whole.
Some articles in this issue use less of the complex
systems’ “new ecology” while others use more, but all
are efforts to conceptualize the human experiment as a
human ecosystems experiment. They demonstrate that
the questions we ask today and the problems we face
as anthropologists, ecologists, or biological scientists
require holistic and interdisciplinary answers.
Lepofsky et al. (2003) and Pereira and da Fonseca
(2003) are two examples of careful and detailed
studies that illustrate the difficulty of producing
landscape histories or assessing anthropogenic changes
in ecosystems. These studies offer both cautions and
roadmaps for judging human impacts on complex
human–ecological systems. They should interest a
wide range of social scientists, but particularly
archaeologists, who will be compelled to read the
paleo-ecological record with even greater care and
sophistication than in the past.
Wali et al. (2003) are interested in building sustainable
urban environments in a case study of metropolitan
Chicago. They conceptualize urban areas as
ecosystems, a methodological approach that affords
holistic and systemic analysis of urban human–
environmental interactions. They advocate employing
multidisciplinary teams and participatory community
involvement to set conservation and environmental
education goals.
The paper by Heemskerk et al. (2003) addresses the
difficulty facing many interdisciplinary social–
ecological teams today, that of communicating across
disciplines. They describe an innovative approach to
producing conceptual models of human ecosystems in
teamwork settings that builds on conventions
previously established by both ecologists and
anthropologists. They demonstrate that group model
building can initiate discussion, reveal assumptions,
and identify accord and discord between scientists
from different disciplines, a much-needed practical
solution to a problem/necessity of interdisciplinary
research.
Three of the papers apply resilience theory and
adaptive management (Gunderson and Holling 2002)
to understanding complex human ecosystems. Trosper
(2003) searches for three characteristics of resilience,
buffering disturbance, self-organization, and learning,
in a classic anthropological narrative—the potlatch
system of the indigenous people of the Pacific
Northwest. He contends that regional cultural
continuity indicates resilient and sustainable human
ecosystems, and explains such continuity as the result
of specific forms of property rights, ethics, titleholding
rules, and exchange systems. Toledo et al. (2003)
examine the multiple-use subsistence strategies of
contemporary indigenous peoples in Mexico as a case
of adaptive management. They present details of
multiple-use resource management in tropical forests
that have emerged endogenously as responses to
conditions of the contemporary world. Specifically,
the multiple uses of species, resource rotation,
landscape-patch management, and succession
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management are characterized as adaptive
management that constitutes sustainable and
biologically diverse human-ecosystem management.
Peterson et al. (2003) employ a research tool of
growing popularity, scenario planning, to predict
future human ecosystems in the Northern Highlands
Lake District (NHLD) of Wisconsin. With a keen
appreciation for human ecosystem self-organization,
predictability, unpredictability, and surprise, these
researchers produced three starkly different yet
reasonable scenarios for NHLD futures. This type of
exercise exposes a wide range of possible outcomes,
consistent with available scientific information, which
can elicit creative planning and management.
Two other papers are synthetic explanations of the
nature of complex human ecosystems, addressing
themselves especially to the place and role of
information in constructing and maintaining the
human evolutionary experiment. Stepp et al. (2003)
endeavor to bridge the divide between biological and
human ecology by elucidating the unique information-
processing capability of humans in ecosystems. Their
cross-cultural and historical approach allows them to
explore the existence of both complex functional and
dysfunctional properties in human ecosystems. Salthe
(2003) carries on his productive research program into
self-organizing complex systems that he calls
infodynamics (Salthe 1985, 1993). His metatheoretical
approach is one of a number of impressive
programmatic statements regarding complex systems
that explore these natural, open systems (Prigogine
and Stengers 1984, Ulanowicz 1986, Brooks and
Wiley 1988, Kauffman 1993, Gell-Mann 1994,
Holland 1995, Holling 1995, Odum 1996, Levin 1999,
Gunderson and Holling 2002). In his article, he places
humanity in a general model of the growth of complex
dissipative structures that began with the universal
disequilibrating event we know as the “Big Bang.”
Developing dissipative structures pass through three
regimes of system growth and diversification, before
eventual decline. Among the insights in his paper,
Salthe places human ecosystems in a less “mature”
state that taps more powerful energy flows, but
produces more wastes of higher grade energy that act
as pollutants.
The three acknowledged components of complex
systems are information, matter, and energy. The final
two papers emphasize the role of energy and matter in
the self-organization of complex (non-equilibrium
thermodynamic) human ecosystems. Tainter (Tainter
et al. 2003) continues his work on energetic self-
organization in human ecosystems (Tainter 1988) by
proposing hypotheses about high and low energy gain
civilizations and the transition between them. Tainter
et al. (2003) state these hypotheses in a general form,
and then apply them to beaver ecosystems and
ecosystems containing fungus-farming ants. High-gain
systems are roughly equivalent to Salthe’s immature
systems (Salthe 2003), which have a steep energy
gradient to exploit (other comparisons can be made to
Hollings’ exploitation phase (Holling 1995) or
Odum’s growth or early succession model (Odum and
Odum 2001)). Tainter et al. (2003) explore the
historical record and explain the growth and collapse
of the Roman Empire as a transition from high to low
energy gain. Their approach equates low energy gain
with debilitating bureaucracies and overly complex
social organization.
Abel’s article (Abel 2003) goes further in the
application of complex systems principles of
hierarchy, scale, and self-organization to the topic of
social structural organization. He conceives human
political–economic structure in terms of energy
transformation hierarchies. As such, social structure is
expected to self-organize to capture and use new
energies when available, as in his case study of
ecotourism development. Abel argues that large
resource inflows associated with ecotourism have led
to the emergence of a multi-scaled production
hierarchy. As a complex system, the details of this
sociocultural system self-organization are explicable
after the fact in terms of structure and aggregate
energy flows, although not predictable beforehand. His
case study further exhibits an adaptive cycle in which
self-organization transitions the island system from
one stable state to another.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ANTHROPOLOGY
There are many implications to the application of the
“new ecology” of ecosystems and complex systems
science to the study of human ecosystems. One
example already attracting much research is the
application of the adaptive cycle model to the study of
property regimes and institutions (Gunderson et al.
1995, Berkes and Folke 1998, Gunderson and Holling
2002). We do not attempt to summarize or identify all
the possible implications in these closing paragraphs,
but we do suggest a few less commonly discussed ones
that we feel may have special significance for
anthropologists given the historical trajectory of theory
in our field. We hope this will illustrate the fruitfulness
of the approach for social–ecological research.
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Function and Directionality
In earlier ecosystems models, it was expected that
economic “adaptedness” could be measured as
energetic efficiency, i.e., the ratio of energy capture to
energy expenditure. Furthermore, cultural traits, such
as religious practices, could be explained if they could
be shown to regulate energy flows to people in a
balanced, homeostatic ecosystem (Rappaport 1968).
Complex human ecosystems guarantee humans no
such privileged position or secure future. Rather,
complex systems self-organize to dissipate energy by
building structures (autocatalytic dissipative
structures) that maximize useful dissipation (maximum
empower in Odum’s terms, the maximization of self-
reinforcing energy flow, Odum (1996)). This rendition
of dynamic nature is irreversible, nonlinear,
constructive, multiscaled, and directional.
In contrast, the perspective of complex systems self-
organization presents a radically different landscape
for human agency, negotiation, contest, and political–
ecological evolution. System directionality is toward
energy dissipation. This implies diversification and
emergent structural hierarchy when energies are
available. But the parameters of human–ecosystem
structure and function are extremely broad. In complex
systems, history is now important, constraining and
channeling manifestations locally. All this suggests
that individuals and groups can struggle and negotiate
to effect change in relationships of power and
production.
In these terms, it is also legitimate to discuss and
critique the macro-scale “functions” of aggregate
political–economic entities such as corporations, or
military and government bureaucracies. From this
perspective, complex behavioral patterns of entities
larger than individuals become entrained if they
amplify energy capture and use within a larger system.
Larger-scale cause–effect or reward relationships can
structure the environment in a way that channels
individual behavior to fit, without explicitly directing
individual behavior, or even directing it toward a
specific end. The “end” is emergent from the
aggregates of behavior. Aggregate behavior may
rightly receive condemnation and individuals may
indeed be responsible and held responsible. But cause
undoubtedly also rests with the larger scales of
corporate environment, resource flows, and global
political economics, and agitation for solutions at these
scales is equally legitimate.
The resulting social structure in a complex human
ecosystem is composed of impermanent and
negotiated niches. From a political–ecological
position, occupants of these niches can be understood
to vie ceaselessly and occasionally violently to capture
and maintain economic position in hierarchies of
economic production and power. From the position of
complex systems science applied to the long view of
cultural evolution, it can be argued that there is no
reason to expect sociocultural self-organization to
make life “more secure” (White 1959) for all or even
some fortunate inhabitants, as was long contended by
materialist anthropologists. It is not expected that self-
organization will lead to efficiency in energetic
consumption for humans, per se, but rather that the
whole human ecosystem will evolve to capture and use
available energies efficiently, i.e., forming dissipative
structures and maximizing self-reinforcing energy
flow.
Multi-scaled Symbolic and Material Human
Ecosystems
Symbolic culture, sometimes referred to as belief
systems, worldviews, cultural configurations, habitus,
etc., can be viewed as a whole, possessing its own self-
organization, yet simultaneously constrained and
structured by its position in energy hierarchies. This
conceptualization gives cultural anthropologists more
autonomy to theorize about the structure and dynamics
of their subject than was possible with earlier
materialist research strategies (Harris 1979). At the
same time, it suggests that anthropology can ill afford
to ignore technological and structural self-organization
associated with human material provisioning. The
well-known autocatalytic nature of capitalism (M-C-
M’, generation of “surplus value” (Marx 1967)) makes
it a formidable growth engine that supported a
population explosion and the formation of hierarchical
System Functions and Individual Agency
A flood of criticism against 1970s-style ecosystem
anthropology was leveled at the ecosystem properties
of homeostasis, self-regulation, and negative feedback.
Preoccupied with balance and stability in systems,
anthropologists were widely alleged to neglect the
unbalanced and often contentious relationships
between human groups for wealth or power. Historical
change and human action or agency were said to be
irrelevant in models of ecosystems that were viewed as
cybernetic entities, relentlessly returning to a single
climax state of high energetic efficiency.
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world systems when fossil fuel energy became
available. As growth slows with slowing energy
production and increased demand, it will be vital to
innovate at this political–ecological scale in search of
alternative sustainable modes of production (Odum
and Odum 2001).
Time, Change, Evolution, and Humanity’s Past
Complex systems science is especially applicable to
the study of change. The long view in anthropology is
the purview of archaeologists, cultural evolutionists,
and biological anthropologists. Cultural evolution can
and should be studied as self-organization, with
properties such as autocatalytic feedback, emergent
political–ecological hierarchy, and adaptive cycles of
pulse and collapse (Carneiro 1982, Adams 1988,
Tainter 1988, Marcus 1998, Abel 2000, Adams 2001).
The prehistoric “environment” must be viewed not as
a backdrop but as a “moving target” negotiated
incessantly with humans and with other processes at
both larger and smaller scales. The prehistoric and
historic records of emergent structural diversification
and economic intensification, studied and re-studied
by cultural evolutionists and archaeologists for
decades (Morgan 1877, Steward 1955, White 1959,
Fried 1967, Spencer 1973 (1877), Service 1975, Harris
1977, Johnson and Earle 1987, Harris 1989, Sanderson
1990), should be given a fresh look from a perspective
that expects growth and collapse, a dynamic
biophysical environment, shifting resources bases, and
a hierarchical natural landscape. This view of “nature
evolving” (Holling et al. 2002a) should slow the
common practice of producing and then rejecting
simplistic null hypotheses of environmental causality
in favor of more idiosyncratic explanations. History
and symbol have undoubted causal force in any
equation, but in complex human ecosystems they must
be contextualized within multiple evolving scales of
energy dissipation. Methods that can provide a
complete environmental accounting can be applied to
archaeological sites and their evaluation (Odum 1996).
Complex systems-informed environmental prehistories
(Lepofsky et al. 2003, Pereira and da Fonseca 2003)
should be co-constructed with human prehistories.
Ecosystems Science and Critical Anthropology
Most ecologists and ecosystems managers recognize at
least two important roles for social scientists in
interdisciplinary teams. One is as “facilitators” who
can effectively crack the code of culture, overcoming
social resistance and permitting smoother
implementation of environmental policy (Groffman
and Pace 1998). Another is as “interpreters” of
traditional ecological knowledge and the blueprints for
arguably sustainable ecosystem management and
property institutions (McCay and Acheson 1987,
Berkes and Folke 1998). These two roles are of great
value to ecosystems management as it is practiced
today.
However, the “management” orientation of ecosystem
science does leave some questions unasked, some
issues unexplored—topics of great interest to both
cultural anthropologists and archaeologists.
Anthropologists may be interested in contextualizing
contemporary human ecosystems and ecosystem
management itself within their historical and
evolutionary trajectories of power, economics, and
natural resource limits (Crumley 1994, McNeill 2001),
historical trajectories that include collapse or
contraction as often as growth (Tainter 1988, Marcus
1998, Redman 1999, Adams 2001). These
contributions may not accord with the two roles above
and with the popular narrative of sustainability and
ecosystem management. Rather than rational
ecosystem management, anthropologists may look at
the history of expansive states or the contemporary
world system (Wallerstein 1974) and see political–
economic elites or corporations constructing the
“natural resource” debates and management context
for reasons that have less to do with conservation and
much to do with the age-old contests for power and
material assets (Greenberg and Park 1994, Escobar
1998). Can the study of human ecosystems or complex
systems science incorporate these phenomena within
its theoretical structure? Is there ecosystem or complex
systems theory of structure or function that can
contribute explanations of the emergence and
evolution of subsistence intensification, of inequality,
class, power, warfare, and, in general, human
ecosystem history and present? We believe so. Self-
organization, hierarchy, scale, dissipative structures,
co-evolution, history, nonlinear dynamics, these and
other features of complex systems are ripe for
application to the past and present record of human
ecosystem structure and dynamics.
Contemporary anthropological research over much of
the world’s surface finds traditional subsistence
strategies and ecological knowledge overlaid by
multinational scales of resource extraction and
concentration, forming hierarchically organized states
and world systems (Denemark et al. 2000, Hornborg
2001). Within that context must be located “ecosystem
Conservation Ecology 7(3): 12.
http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss3/art12
management” bureaucracies. Explanation of the
occasional failures of ecosystem management may
often be found at this scale, at the scale of
contemporary world systems that depend on
nonrenewable resource extraction for their
maintenance and growth. Some anthropologists,
therefore, who have explored historic and prehistoric
pulse and collapse dynamics or the political economics
of capitalist states, have questioned the “sustainability”
narrative and have foreseen more radical political–
ecological reorganizations (Escobar 1996). Global
economic contraction or dramatic political–economic
reorganization are not topics that bureaucracies or
many funding agencies want to consider. If, however,
human–ecosystems researchers will not broach the
subject, who will? Can neo-classical economics
understand a no-growth world (Hall et al. 2001)? Are
disciplinary social scientists in a position to understand
how social upheavals relate to falling crop yields,
water wars, regional ecosystem perturbations, or
simply to nearly invisible, incremental reductions in
the energy sources that power so much of our world
(Meadows et al. 1992, McNeill 2001, Odum and
Odum 2001)?
Anthropology and Science
Holling has described “two streams” of science, one
experimental, reductionist, and narrowly disciplinary,
and the other interdisciplinary, integrative, historical,
analytical, comparative, and experimental at
appropriate scales (Holling 1998). The second
integrative stream is the science of complex systems.
Anthropologists have had difficulty forcing their
complex subject of study into the rigors of the
traditional first stream of science. Case study
comparisons are often our only choice. Historical
peculiarities are unavoidable. Human ecosystems are
vastly complex, and single dependent variables often
lead to unconvincing explanations. The research in this
special issue suggests a different direction. The
context of our human experience is tremendously
complex and endlessly evolving. An interdisciplinary
science that addresses itself to evolving systems with
determinant processes at multiple scales of space and
time could be a better fit for anthropology.
A LAST WORD
The conversation between anthropologists and
ecologists goes back a long way, even before each
discipline came into its own. This conversation has not
been a steady dialogue, but has been marked by
periods of intense interest and borrowing, followed by
spans of indifference or even neglect. Much of the
borrowing has been from biological ecology to human
ecology by social scientists who sought new insights
to understand human–environment interactions. Yet,
many of the formative concepts in biological ecology,
such as community or hierarchy, were first borrowed
at the turn of the century from human-oriented
disciplines such as sociology and economics (Young
1974). Later generations of social scientists would
then come to borrow these concepts back in the
development of human ecology. What is important to
note is that, far from being continuous, this
conversation has been often interrupted, at times
misunderstood, and often in need of translation. This
“unfinished conversation,” to borrow Sullivan’s
metaphor (Sullivan 1989), continues to this day; this
collection of articles is our attempt at moving it along.
We are committed to the premise that to better
understand ecosystems we need to better understand
the dominant organism on this planet. To do so, we
feel, will require a mature integration of anthropology
and the ecosystem sciences in both theory and
practice. There are many obstacles to integration
between biological and human ecology but perhaps the
most stubborn continue to be disciplinary boundaries
and the inherent complexity of the subject matter. We
hope that the boundary problem is taking care of itself
as journals such as Conservation Ecology and
Ecosystems succeed in attracting a wide range of
research. The second problem too is now being
addressed with scientific methods that focus
specifically on the complexity of systems.
One important question to consider is “What will be
the intellectual and institutional settings or
environments in which individuals are trained to take
up this challenge?” The new breed of integrated
ecologists will need to be fluent in their home
discipline and competent in a range of other
complementary disciplines. They will need to let the
problem at hand guide the choice of discipline(s) to
apply, rather than let the discipline determine the
limits of the problem itself. We are optimistic that this
challenge is being met and that the conversation will
continue.
Responses to this article can be read online at:
http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss3/art12/responses/index.html
Conservation Ecology 7(3): 12.
http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss3/art12
Denemark, R. A., J. Friedman, B. K. Gills, and G.
Modelski, editors. 2000. World system history: the social
science of long-term change. Routledge, London, UK.
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... This socioecological system offers a specific form of community livelihoods (Abel and Stepp 2003;Brosius 1999). Hastrup (2013), emphasizing on ecosystem, argues that water forms a particular societal world based on connection among river flows, seasonal patterns, cropping practices, vegetation and habitat. ...
... Again, the khora season helps to produce the different local crops, wild vegetables and fertilizers. This ecosystem practice follows the theoretical analyses of Abel and Stepp (2003), Clay and Lewis (1990), Johnston (2010) and Vayda and McCay (1975). According to Clay and Lewis (1990), local ecosystem based agricultural practices are helpful for erosion control and for reducing land degradation in Rwanda. ...
... This ecosystem approach can neutralize the current hydropolitics in the Ganges Basin (Brichieri-Colombi and Bradnock 2003). This approach considers the basin as a unit to harmonize the relationships between water, land and community (Abel and Stepp 2003;Brunnee and Toope 1997) based on ecological context of seasonal riverflow (Chowdhury and Ward 2004), floodplain fisheries (Craig et al. 2004), vegetation (Crawford 2003) and watershed (Isaak and Huber 2001). This harmony can protect ecosystem of the Himalaya Mountains based on ecological integrity of the Ganges-Brahmaputra Basin flow in China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh (Pasi and Smardon 2012). ...
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Bangladesh is a delta country dominated by an agrarian society. Two of the largest rivers in Asia, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, meet in Bangladesh before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges River and its major distributaries dominate the southwest region of the country, where this study has done. Rural communities in this region produce agricultural crops on a year round basis, following seasonal patterns and the variable flow of water in the Ganges River. However, this eco-agricultural system is now undergoing major disruptions due to a number of factors including regional hydropolitics, neoliberal and highly centralized approaches to water resource management that follow the principles of “ecocracy” as that term has been used by Escobar (1996) and Sachs (1992). The central governments of both India and Bangladesh follow much the same principles as they seek to manage natural resources like river water through a combination of engineering projects, bureaucratization and the application of economic liberalization policies. But, unfortunately for Bangladesh, India holds the upper hand when it comes sometimes to their competing interests over water resources. The central government in India, for instance, constructed the Farakka Barrage unilaterally on the Ganges River, very near the Bangladesh border, reducing flows to agricultural communities in Bangladesh at critical times in their cropping cycles. The barrage was built to divert water to Kolkata, to enhance navigation and shipping and to provide the city with fresh water. The central government in Bangladesh has been unable to restore this flow to a sufficient level and subsequently has intensified its own top-down water man- agement approaches. The ethnographic fieldwork from 2011 to 2012 finds out effects of these approaches at Chapra in Bangladesh. The fieldwork data evince that these approaches fail to recognize the full range of ecosystem services on which most people rely and they encounter multiple survival challenges. To elaborate this argument, it is important at first to describe ecological character- istics of the Ganges Basin flow along with hydropolitics and theoretical approach.
... Por ejemplo, en el campo de la antropología ecológica, algunas investigaciones se fundamentan en el conocimiento de las estrategias de subsistencia tradicionales y la ecología regional a distintas escalas de extracción y concentración de recursos organizado por estados incorporados a sistemas mundo (cf. Abel 2003Abel , 2007. Incluso, las tendencias ecológicas en la antropología tienen varios matices y posibilidades de interpretación como la ecología simbólica, la ecología histórica y la ecología política (cf. ...
... Por ejemplo, un ecosistema humano puede estar definido por la captación de energía, el substrato físico, es decir, el segmento o áreas de duelo de un espacio determinado, almacenamiento de recurso natural que incorpora "servicios" por parte del ecosistema y una interacción con el sistema cultural humano (cf. Abel 2007;Abel y Stepp 2003;Straussfogel 2000). ...
... The laws of thermodynamics ultimately rule the functioning of complex systems, and the dissipation of energy sustains self-organization and adaptation. Dissipative structures emerge spontaneously in hierarchies of larger and smaller spatial and temporal scales [55]. ...
... Adopting a more formal system-theory approach, political structures, competition and cooperation processes between human groups, all interact with (and try to steer) the underlying flows of energy, matter and information. Complex self-organizing systems are constantly evolving or renegotiating their state, and the efficient appropriation of energy by human system does not uniquely determine ecosystem structure and dynamics [55]. The study of socio-ecological systems rejects an ontological dualism between humans and nature, addressing the whole-system complex dynamics of matter, energy (sociometabolism) and information from all temporal and spatial scales, including those that are uniquely human (ibid.). ...
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... Por último, la característica llamada transformabilidad se refiere a las posibilidades de que un sistema pueda evolucionar hacia mejores formas alternativas, compatibles con su pervivencia bajo las condiciones impuestas por las perturbaciones a las que el mismo sistema ha sido expuesto (Folke et al., 2010;Walker et al., 2004). Es normal que las tensiones fuercen una necesidad de transformación del sistema hacia una dinámica que mejore su funcionamiento, asegurando la sostenibilidad y pervivencia (Davidson-Hunt y Berkes, 2003;Abel y Stepp, 2003;Trosper, 2003;Moberg y Galaz, 2005;Hollnagel, 2011Hollnagel, , 2015. ...
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... Social resilience includes, as it has been said, the capacity of a society to adapt to change, learning and acquiring the right knowledge and capabilities to address new challenges, now transforming its internal dynamics in ways that ensure survival and sustainability [18,82,111,113,114]. This is an important aspect of the social resilience because it has attracted the interest of researchers in determining the learning capacity of a social system [15,[115][116][117][118][119]. ...
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The purpose of this article is to offer a synthesis of the characteristics of social resilience, integrating the different approaches received from the social sciences. We propose to focus this conceptual framework as a previous and necessary step for the later study of the possible ways of promotion of this social resilience, that will help to strengthen the welfare and public health systems. The paper explores the difficulties in defining these characteristics, identifying their constituent elements. After this, the paper study the challenges to the future development of resilience models, showing the ways that offer some advances. Finally, we conclude that the social resilience must be conceived as a dynamic, multi-level, and evolutionary process if we are to help societies not only cope with adversity but also to adapt and transform themselves.
... To the preliminary ranking, the largest area may represent the best-ranked system productivity. On the other hand, natural systems tend to present more complex designs, being 105 more resilient (Abel and Stepp, 2003). Thus, as agricultural systems are closer to nature, they will 106 become more sustainable and efficient, as observed for 5 . ...
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... explotación de materias primas, así como a la expansión y conformación de un sistema mundial. Esta perspectiva teórica, trabaja con tópicos relacionados con dinámicas complejas, propiedades emergentes de los ecosistemas, interacciones bióticas y abióticas, sistemas materiales y energéticos, ciclos adaptativos y fluctuaciones dentro de un sistema.En síntesis, un ecosistema humano es espacialmente definido por la entrada de energía, el substrato físico ("segmento o áreas de suelo en un espacio determinado"), almacenamiento de recurso natural que incorpora "servicios" por parte del ecosistema y la interacción con el sistema sociocultural humano (cf.Abel 2007;Abel y Stepp 2003; Búrquez y Martínez-Yrízar 2000;Straussfogel 2000).Por ejemplo, los pueblos colonizadores que ocuparon las costas del Atlántico procuraron penetrar hacia el interior del continente movidos por varios impulsos.Compitieron en la busca del estrecho que debía abrir la comunicación interoceánica para llegar a las riquezas anheladas del Oriente. También persiguieron el hallazgo de metales, el señorío de áreas agrícolas pobladas por indios sedentarios, al asiento en lugares altos t templados, la expansión de la ganadería, el comercio de pieles, la explotación forestal, el ensanche de las fronteras y la navegación de los grandes ríos(Zavala 1968:24). ...
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... Un sistema ecológico está relacionado con la explotación de materias primas, incluso con la expansión y conformación de un sistema-mundo. Por ejemplo, en un área geográfica se presentan dinámicas complejas, propiedades emergentes de los ecosistemas, interacciones bióticas y abióticas, sistemas y relaciones materiales y energéticos, ciclos adaptativos y fluctuaciones dentro del sistema (Straussfogel, 2000;Abel, 2007;Abel y Stepp, 2003). En consecuencia, un sistema mundial puede concebirse como un ecosistema complejo con estructuras abiertas que se disipan y tienen la capacidad de auto-organizarse a distintas escalas que exhiben propiedades emergentes que hacen uso de la información a niveles genéticos y culturales con ciclos de pulso, colapso, cambios discontinuos o emergentes. ...
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Cultural evolutionism; evolutionary history of humans progressing from savagery to barbarism (marked by invention of pottery) to civilization (marked by invention of written language); all humans have same potential for advancement, psychic unity; similar practices mean similar origins (culture contact); germs of ideas of civilized institutions found in state of savagery; adoption by Marx and Engels: society classified through material technology, evolution fr ancient society based on personal relations and communal property to modern society based on territory and private property