The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living

By Nora Haenn; Richard R. Wilk | Go to book overview

Section One
Theoretical Foundations

This section establishes some foundations for studying human-environment issues in anthropology. Questions of how people modify, symbolize, and adapt to their immediate surroundings have intrigued anthropologists since the discipline's earliest days. Recognizing the importance of early 20th-century work, we begin here with Julian Steward's work dating from the 1950s, because his ideas have had such an enduring effect on anthropological approaches to the environment. This selection provides the outline of Steward's idea of a “culture core,” those cultural features which articulate most closely with a specific environment.

Steward's writing builds on previous debates regarding environmental determinism and “possibilism.” Respectively, determinism and possibilism examined whether environmental features determined or simply made possible cultural formations. By the 1950s, most anthropologists subscribed to this latter approach. Nonetheless, determinist ideas persist as researchers explore the extent to which ecologies are malleable and the extent to which people must adapt to the demands of their immediate environment. Anthropologists, thus, often focus on the creativity involved in developing adaptive systems of exploitation. Past textbooks, for example, focused on a series of adaptations to particular environments (Netting 1986).

Contributions by Emilio Moran and Robert Netting offer two ways to think about ecosystems and adaptation, two of the key terms cultural ecologists borrowed from biology. Moran describes how anthropologists borrowed the ecosystem concept from the physical sciences to assess human populations as a single element within a larger ecological setting. Practitioners working within this framework evaluated human impacts by measuring energy flows, or the transformation of solar energy into plant material, which in turn interacts with a web of animal life. This interest in energy harkens back to the work of Leslie White, discussed in Section Three, although ecosystem approaches differ from White's by using a different definition of energy. Netting's understanding of energy, for example, makes sense in light of his broader and more flexible idea of the ecosystem. Netting focuses on adaptation as a process of environmental management in which people use skill and experience in creative ways. Netting introduces ideas of sustainability to the collection and expands notions of adaptation to include not only adaptation to a physical environment but also to broader economic systems.

Anthropologists have more recently expanded beyond a focus on local communities to emphasize these broader political and economic contexts. Contributions by Conrad Kottak, Virginia Nazarea, and Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter,

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