Book Review of Gerald G Marten, Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development, Earthscan, London, 2001, 238 pp + xviii, ISBN 1 85383 714 8, paperback.
Reviewed in The Ecologist, Vol 32:2, March 2002, pp. 55-56, by Alastair McIntosh, Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology and author of Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum Press).
(This item was published with references to the "Grand Old Men of Human Ecology" cut from it (presumably it was too cumbersome a phrase) but I have left it in for this web version).
As a publisher, Earthscan have led the way over the past decade in communicating principles of sustainable development. It is therefore fitting that they should publish a nuts-and-bolts primer in human ecology – a discipline that the author, Gerald Marten, defines simply as being “about relationships between people and their environment.”
The work opens with a rousing foreword by Maurice Strong, former Secretary General of the UN Conference on Environment and Development. “While human ecology has proved its worth as an interdisciplinary approach for solving environmental problems,” says Strong, “it has not yet attained a clear identity with an established body of theory. The time has come for human ecology to become a major scientific discipline in its own right.”
Marten proficiently lays out the groundwork for human ecology as a scientific discipline. His writing is well-pitched for a senior school, junior undergraduate or lay readership. Step by step, he provides a competent account of systems theory, human population dynamics, ecological metaphors of social systems, ecological succession, coevolution and ecosystem thermodynamics, culminating with the factors that differentiate sustainable from unsustainable human development.
Overall, the book offers a systematic if sometimes rather basic grounding in what might be called the “PRED” approach to human ecology – the notion that human ecology comprises the scientific study of Population, Resources, Environment and Development (or Technology, thus sometimes “PRET”).
This is helpful, as far as it goes. But this reviewer has problems with the limitations of such a paradigm. And this is not a criticism of Marten – it is a criticism of mainstream, dare I suggest, malestream academic mindsets, such as we can observe in some of the discipline’s “grand old men of human ecology” who are perhaps more rooted in nature conservation backgrounds than in the less manageable realm of human development.
Allow me to illustrate with some examples. Marten’s discussion about female infanticide in traditional societies presents as conventionally “scientific”. It neutrally explains that “girls have less social value than boys in many cultures” and that killing them obviously curbs reproductive capacity more effectively than would male infanticide. But it completely fails to alert the reader to the gender constructions, indeed, the brutal sexism, that drives a process that is often more about perpetuating patriarchy’s domination system than carrying capacity.
Similarly, it was disappointing to find organic farming defined as little more than “harmony with nature” and “providing food that is free of toxic chemicals”. The all-important benefits for quality of both soil structure and human culture go unsung. Equally disappointing is the reductionist simplification of world religions, for example: “Judaism believed that God was not involved in the everyday details of what happened in the world.” Well, try reading the personified ecology of Job 36 or Psalms 104!
These are niggles, but they arguably highlight a more general problem with what we might call PREDA – the PRED Approach to human ecology.
PREDA presents a “scientific” or rational discourse that falls short of being an holistic human ecology. It presumes that human ecology will come of age as it becomes recognised by the Powers that Be as a science, rather than seeing human ecology as a new epistemology – a new theory of knowledge - that is more than just science alone. As such, PREDA reinforces the enlightenment world-view that all we need to fix the world’s problems is clear-headedness. It is Ecofix as only one step further on from Technofix – albeit an important step further on. However, it remains the kind of human ecology that leaves us, if we are not very careful, with the paradox of “organic” food grown under supermarket conditions of industrial production.
Missing from PREDA is the engagement of Mythos and Eros as well as Logos in epistemology. As such, an approach like Marten’s is a great starting point, but human ecology also needs to engage the feeling faculties of “heart” and the sensual engagement of the “hand” or body, as well as the thinking capacities of the “head”. We need science, art and passion together!
This is why human ecology needs to be more than just Maurice Strong’s “major scientific discipline” (though thank you, Mr Strong, for helping put it on the map). This, indeed, is what differentiates human ecology from, say, 1970’s human geography.
Science is vital. Without its Logos, for example, we’d never have known about the degradation of the ozone layer. But note, it was Mythos – poetic storytelling if you like – that usefully pictured this as a “hole in the sky”. And Eros – represented here by the dangerous effect of too much UV light on the skin - that generated the social motivation to cut CFC pollution.
Such an emerging paradigm of holistic human ecology requires balancing the science with insights from such challenging areas as feminism, spirituality and social justice. And that’s why this book can be considered only, as its subtitle claims, to be about “basic concepts” in sustainability. Ahhh – how much easier it was back in “the good old days” when history was about chaps, geography about maps, and ecology little more than a twinkle in the Grand Old Men’s eyes!
“How can we understand human-ecosystem interaction when social systems and ecosystems are so overwhelmingly complex? The answer lies in emergent properties: the distinctive features and behaviour that ‘emerge’ from the way that complex adaptive systems are organised.” (p. 42).
“When people damage part of an ecosystem, it adapts by changing to a different kind of ecosystem – one that may not serve human needs as well as before. A multitude of changes through the ecosystem have ‘locked’ it into a new biological community.” (p. 87).
“Sacred groves serve a practical function of maintaining natural ecosystems and biological diversity in landscapes that people have otherwise changed to agricultural and urban ecosystems.” (p. 127).
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18 March 2002