Life on the Edge: A Look at Ports of Trade and Other Ecotones

By Gallaway, Terrel | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Life on the Edge: A Look at Ports of Trade and Other Ecotones


Gallaway, Terrel, Journal of Economic Issues


Conjunctures create opportunity. This paper examines both natural and institutional conjunctures that provide unique and valuable opportunities whose beneficiaries range from bugs to businesses. Thorstein Veblen, for example, argued that with the rise of the machine age businessmen sought gain by controlling industrial conjunctures rather than relying on unmanageable ones found in nature (1904, 17). The paper shows that ecotones are conjunctures that have been studied by ecologists, anthropologists, and economists such as Karl Polanyi. Moreover, the examination of ecotones may prove valuable to subjects as varied as economic geography, environmental economics, and economic anthropology.

Ecotones and edge effects are concepts borrowed from ecology and are useful tools for analyzing a wide range of economic phenomena. Ecotones are commonly defined as the transition zone between adjacent ecosystems (Holland 1988; Gosz 1991; Bowersox and Brown 2001). (1) Wetlands, tree lines, and the meeting of savanna and desert are all examples of ecotones. Ecotones, sometimes called edges, frequently support comparatively large amounts of diversity, activity, and biomass--a phenomenon known as edge effect. (2) Part of this edge effect is accounted for by the simple fact that the ecotone supports many of the species from each of the overlapping communities. In addition, there are species "which are characteristic of and often restricted to the ecotone" (Odum 1971, 157). This paper examines the economic analog of ecological ecotones and demonstrates the usefulness of the concept in explaining the locus of economic activity as well as causes and consequences of this activity. Some of these ecotones are the same biophysically defined ecotones studied by ecologists; others are more of an analog or extension. They are shaped by social and institutional systems not emphasized by ecologists.

The history of the ecotone concept illustrates its use as a tool for understanding issues of location, composition, and dynamics. The etymology of ecotone suggests a tension (tonos) between households (oikos). This tension refers to "limit conditions that prevail at the extremes of the tolerance spectrum of populations, species, and communities (conditions between sub-optimal and lethal values)" (Lachavanne 1997, 12). Early use of this term, such as by Frederic Clements ([1905] 1977), focused on intersections between plant communities (Hansen, di Castri, and Naiman 1988, 11). The emphasis was primarily on how such transitions affect diversity and species distribution (Gosz 1991, 10). A more modern approach focuses on a wide variety of boundaries and emphasizes boundary dynamics, or "how boundaries influence ecological processes within patches and over the larger landscape; how boundaries affect the exchanges or redistribution of materials, energy, and organisms between landscape elements; and how these transfers can, in turn, act to change the location and nature of boundaries" (Gosz 1991, 10). This broader, more dynamic emphasis grew out of recognition that, while many ecological studies focused on relatively homogenous landscape units, landscapes themselves are a complex and diverse mosaic. Accordingly, boundaries needed to be studied because "abiotic and biotic components must move across heterogeneous landscapes" and ecotones serve important filtering and control functions between landscape components (Holland and Risser 1991, 1).

Collisions between systems studied by economists also create ecotones. For the purposes of this paper, we can define an economic ecotone as an opportune conjuncture between multiple interacting systems. These ecotones are an important locus of economic activity because they create unique opportunities. Studying the interstices between systems is important to understanding where and why such edge-specific phenomena take place. The conjunctures between market power and competition or between private property and common property help spur economic activity best understood by studying the edge between systems rather than each homogenous system individually.

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