Human ecology is defined as “a branch of sociology dealing especially with the spatial and temporal interrelationships between humans and their economic, social, and political organization” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2009). This overall definition encompasses a vast body of disciplines that are becoming increasingly important in these times where natural resources are getting scarcer and the global ecosystem is under definite strain. This essay examines the concepts of Human ecology and its implications on human society and the planet.
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The way humans settled over the planet, to a large extent depended upon the environment of that place. This study of environmental determinism posited that human cultural development was impacted by the environment in a myriad of ways (Schutkowski, 2006, p. 6). Cultural ecology, a subset of Human ecology, is the “study of the processes by which a society adapts to its environment. Its principal problem is to determine whether these adaptations initiate internal social transformations of evolutionary change” (Steward, 1968, p. 337).
According to Steward, the natural landscape forced the human inhabitants to adopt certain practices that could help them cope with their existence better. These practices became ‘culture’ that had a core and a periphery. The cultural core consists of features that are more closely related to subsistence activities and economic arrangements. The core includes such social, political, and religious patterns as are empirically determined to be closely connected with the arrangements (Moore & Sanders, 2006, p. 103). Moore and Sanders explain that the peripheral features of a culture acquired by diffusion or random variation, give culture distinctive shapes despite having similar cores (p.103).
However, the disturbing effects of urbanization on human ecological balance viewed from a moralistic prism cannot be underestimated. Morality and ethical behavior also impinge on the dynamics of development. The stability of rural life in any country depends upon family and community values. This value system has come under increasing strain due to globalization and intense competition for scarce jobs. Single parent households are becoming a norm and urbanization has further acted as a catalyst for the degradation of traditional values. It therefore comes as no surprise that America has the largest prison population in the world, which according to the U.S. Department of Justice Statistics (2008) is 2,299,116 prisoners held in federal or state prisons or in local jails (p. 1).
The factor of population when added to this dynamics further increases the complexity of studying human ecology. While humans for most part of their history have lived in villages and subsisted mainly on agriculture, the rapid pace of modernization has shifted this emphasis from the rural background to an urban landscape. The United Nations in 2007 had estimated that over half the world’s population were living in urban areas. This rapid urbanization has had its concomitant effect on the overall development of the states. The world’s human population is slated to grow exponentially to “8.3 billion by 2025” (Kapitza, 2006, p. 92) which could lead to numerous problems and challenges.
Human population explosion in various parts of the world has led to over-exploitation of resources leading to environmental degradation, reduced crop production forcing countries to import food leading to economic hardships and civil unrest. For example, the population of Bangladesh far exceeds the carrying capacity of the land leading to epidemics, civil unrest, food riots and illegal immigration. Similarly, population explosion in Africa has led to civil wars, forced migration of millions of Africans from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and much of Sub-Saharan Africa.
The economic subset of human ecology thus becomes an important aspect of study. Under-development occurs when the complete socio-economic resources of a state or for that matter a region are not utilized optimally. It has often been theorized, especially, by Marxist thinkers that Capitalism encourages the empowerment of the few over the many and that resources get exploited to enrich the cities and not the rural countryside. This resulted in a ‘dependency’ in which the urban center dominated “the extraction and terms of utilization of the resources of the immediate hinterland (Flangan, 1993, p. 119)”.
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Thus the urban centers became the dominant core while the outlying hinterland became the underdeveloped areas. This ‘Two-tier dependency’ theory was extended to comprise state relations wherein rich states grew richer at the expense of the poor states. Thus geo-politics too become part of the study of human ecology. When the Industrial Revolution heralded a new age in Britain and Europe, it led to rapid urbanization.
The cities became the magnate for the polity to gravitate to and consequently became choked. The sheer influx of human population outstripped the capacity of the cities to provide basic amenities leading to widespread scarcity of potable water, pollution, and poor sanitary conditions leading to epidemics. This has been a historical trend right from the early days of industrialization where 19th century records show that “mortality rates in large cities appear to have been higher than the national average” (Leon, 2008, p. 3). The reasons why the Western countries were able to overcome the problems of underdevelopment so rapidly has been attributed to colonialism.
European countries could source cheap labor, raw materials and sell their manufactured goods at competitive rates because of their colonies that provided the resources. Thus, the resources of lands almost three or four times the size of the imperial country were made available in the homeland that helped overcome the gap of urbanization and underdevelopment. Having had a head start on the road to modern economic development, the developed countries have managed to maintain momentum till now, where the policies of free market, trade, and globalization are showing their deleterious effect in the present global economic meltdown.
Yet another theory called the ‘World-System’ theory posits that the world system consists of the economically dominant, the underdeveloped and the intermediate semi-periphery states. This theory draws its strength from the example of the East Asian ‘Tiger economies’ that have prospered between the tussle of the rich and the underdeveloped countries. According to Ginsburg and Koppel (1991), Taiwan’s sustained growth with equity has been made possible because of “the effectiveness of both the population strategies and national development policies (p. 193)”. The same rationale is used to describe the prosperity of South Korea.
Social theorists have argued that these intermediate periphery countries have been successful because unique geopolitical space had been created for them due to Cold War dynamics, and thus they could exploit both the Blocs to their advantage. The more syncretistic views on human ecology were propounded by Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Michael Lipton and E F Schumacher. Their theories called Neo-populism holds that for a nation to develop requires holistic development of towns and villages alike.
Migration of humans forms an integral part of human ecology. The present wave of human migration from developing countries to developed countries is caused as Bruggeman says, due to political and economic factors as also due to natural disasters such as floods and man-made crises such as war (2002, p. 1). Influx of immigrants not only tax the developed nations social security systems but also law and order as a vast majority of migrants do not have useful skills other than menial jobs and thus take to a life of crime.
Conversely, there are high- end qualified immigrants such as ‘knowledge workers, IT specialists, doctors, engineers and research scholars from developing countries who contribute to the economy of the host country. Immigration however as helped developed countries in maintaining the ‘replacement level’ of national populations which have been depleted by the so-called ‘Demographic Transition’.
According to the theory of demographic transition, as the standard of living and life expectancy increases, family sizes decline, leading to an overall reduction in population of a country. This affliction of developed countries has now started affecting developing countries also. In the initial stages of demographic transition, developing nations, in a bid to develop their economies, take loans from private bankers in the developed countries, which lead to attendant problems such as the 1982 Mexican Debt Crisis.
To help resolve the debt crisis, world bodies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and donor countries have, in parts, written off the debts owed by the developing countries with conditions of austerity imposed so that the same mistakes are not repeated and measures such as proactive family planning put into place.
Thus efforts to maintain human ecological balance have been sought by limiting biological procreation. Family planning is critical for the overall human development not only for the family but also the nation. Limiting the size of a family to two children is one such measure. A good example is China, which has a one-child family planning policy since 1979, a measure that has helped China to reduce their total fertility rate. “Development economists now say that up to 40 % of the economic growth experienced by China and Korea came through reducing the rate of population growth” (Ssekandi, 2008, p. 14).
However, the social costs of such development have been significant. Elder Chinese now observe that the government’s one-child policy has resulted in a generation of spoilt brats who have become selfish and will in the end cause more harm due to higher preponderance of individualistic traits. The ecological costs too have been severe. Kahn & Yardley (2007) report that “ambient air pollution (in China) alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water” (p. 3). The concept of ‘Development at any cost’ and ‘Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics’ is propelling China into an ecological, demographic and sociological maelstrom.
Therefore, it can be concluded that a definition of human ecology involves a complete and detailed examination of the affairs of man interplaying with the environment. How man is affected by the environment and vice versa, is an important subset of human ecology.
Social and economic theories of two tier and world body systems also are important aspects of human ecological studies. The social and moral dynamics of human interaction with the nature and its deleterious effects on the overall ecological balance is yet another subset of Human ecology. Human ecology thus encompasses a study of not only the effects of environmental degradation by human activity but also human anthropology, politics, economics, social and moral codes which can result in prosperity or poverty depending on how optimally humans conduct their interaction with the planet.
Bruggeman, W. (2002). Illegal Immigration and Trafficking in Human Beings Seen as a Security Problem for Europe. Web.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2008). Prison Statistics. Web.
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Flangan, W. G. (1993). Contemporary Urban Sociology. Cambridge: CUP Archive.
Ginsburg, N., & Koppel, B. M. (1991). The Extended Metropolis. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
Kahn, J., & Yardley, J. (2007). As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes. Web.
Kapitza, S. P. (2006). Global Population Blowup and After. Web.
Leon, D. A. (2008). Cities, Urbanization and Health. International Journal of Epidemiology , 1-6.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2009). Human Ecology. Web.
Moore, H. L., & Sanders, T. (2006). Anthropology in Theory. NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Schutkowski, H. (2006). Human ecology: biocultural adaptations in human communities. Berlin: Birkhäuser.
Ssekandi, R. (2008). Experts Laud China’s Family Planning Policy. Web.
Steward, J. (1968). Cultural Ecology. In M. ed., International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol.4 (pp. 337-344). NY: Macmillan.