The relationship between culture and nature is on assault on many fronts. Researchers argue that environmental degradation is the single most important problem affecting the quality of life across the globe. Author Manjara Mehta quotes from her research on environmental change and gender in the Himalayan Valley: “Our lives are no different from that of our buffaloes.” The meaning of this becomes clear when we address the reliance on the physical environment for all of our needs. In a slightly different context, the following passage illustrates this intricate connection and daily struggle for survival. “She walked her daily path to the river. When she arrived, she noticed the water looked different today. A bit cloudier than the day before. The sun was shining and it was incredibly hot. The dry season was approaching and the need to store water was more important than ever. With each day, the presence of clean water became more and more vital to the survival of her family. She took what she needed from the river and headed back to her village. The water would suit her needs for today. She would be able to cook, clean, bathe, and drink from the water she collected every day. However, with the uncertain condition of the water, she had no idea of knowing what effects may result from its consumption. Her family’s survival depends on their ability to use and consume clean water. The reliance on this resource directly connects her to the physical environment.” This brief vignette only scratches the surface of the human-environment relationship. The mysticism and complexity of the natural environment has often been associated with women. In many cultures, women are responsible for the everyday maintenance of the family and community. Much of this responsibility relies on their daily interaction with the physical environment. The connection between gender and the environment is but one area where culture plays a role in understanding environmental issues.
Assessing the state of the physical environment is an important factor toward a clear understanding of the cultural and social problems of a society. The environment is not simply a space for cultures to grow and emerge but also serves to provide necessities and natural resources vital for a culture to survive. When environments are out of balance with the life they are supporting, problems emerge. Ecologically, habitats achieve and try to maintain equilibrium in order to continue to function. When systems are stressed, levels of natural resources and vital support for animals and humans become impacted. The idea of maintaining equilibrium can be better understood through the concept of carrying capacity and population. Carrying capacity relates the maximum population an environment can support while being able to support that population. When an environment exceeds its carrying capacity, the population can no longer be adequately supported. This results in a decline in available resources and other problems for the population. This ecological description can be translated to human culture as well.
As important as it is to recognize culture as primary in anthropologic studies, it is also important to reference the physical environments that support various cultures. The natural environment shapes and influences global cultural development. Each aspect of culture is impacted by its natural surroundings. From dress to diet, the environment determines what resources will be available for cultural development.
Both environmental anthropology and environmental sociology have emerged as subfields within their respective disciplines to address the role of the environment from both social and cultural aspects. A key point addressed in each field is the relationship that humankind establishes and maintains with the physical environment. Research questions range from discussion of pollution, resource extraction, and desertification, to social concerns of human rights through environmental justice struggles, occupational health and safety, and the environmental movement. The role of the physical environment must be considered in each of these research areas. Problems affect different environments in various ways. Environmental problems span the range of natural environments, including but not limited to tropical rain forest, savanna, desert, temperate, and arctic regions. The following serves as a brief introduction to different ecological areas.
Ecology is the science that encompasses the study of how organisms interact in and with the natural world. Darwin emphasized the conditions of the struggle for existence and identified the complex relationships through ecology. Throughout his work, the physical environment’s influence on the biological condition points to the importance of understanding both dimensions.
Understanding how physical environments are classified helps to make sense of environmental inter-actions. A biome is a major ecological region within which plant and animal communities are broadly similar in terms of general characteristics and relationship to the physical environment.
Tropical Rain Forest
The biome closest to the equator is distinguished by exuberant plant growth in response to year-round rainfall. The tropical rain forest is marked by little variation in day length or seasonal change. Tropical species may only be found in specific areas of the rain forest; however, it is the greatest space for species diversity. Two of the primary ecological problems facing this region are loss of rain forest due to clear-cutting and loss of species diversity.
The need for open grazing land has led to the disappearance of thousands of acres of rain forest. Worldwide consumption of dairy and meat has led farmers and industry to expand the areas needed for grazing cattle. In addition, demand for resources harvested from the rain forests has also increased. Besides the obvious effects, including loss of habitat for native species, elimination of the rain forest canopy may contribute to global climate change. Researchers note that loss of tree coverage reduces the planet’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide burned from fossil fuels. This in turn adds to the increase of greenhouse gases that have been documented to cause an increase in global temperature.
The savanna is characterized by extreme rainy and dry seasonal change. This bioregion experiences very heavy summer rain and very dry winters. The terrain shifts from woodland areas with grass to open grassland spaces and deciduous trees.
Some argue that the savanna did not derive from natural processes but from human fire. Following this explanation, the savanna is the oldest human-shaped landscape. The history of environmental problems can begin with this transformation of the natural landscape. Even seemingly natural terrain change can be traced back to human intervention.
Desert landscapes are found in two primary global locations. Desert landscapes mark both the subtropics, through high-pressure atmospheric conditions, and the mid-latitudes. Found in continental interiors, deserts vary from no recordable rainfall per year to an annual rainfall of 4 to 12 inches. Vegetation in the desert varies from shrublike plant life to cacti and succulents. These plants are able to store moisture for long periods, allowing a high survival rate despite dry conditions. Because of their extreme conditions, desert environments are not able to sustain much in the way of animal or plant life. The desertification of the Earth’s other bioregions through erosion, clear-cutting, and resources extraction is of global concern. With once fertile regions becoming desertlike, the opportunity for cultures to sustain themselves agriculturally substantially decreases.
Temperate zones, once found 30 to 50 degrees North and South latitude, are marked by warm summers and cold winters. Environmental issues that affect this area include but are not limited to deforestation. Deforestation remains the primary issue altering the landscape in this region. Much of the woodland forest cover that once characterized this region has been removed. Our demand for natural resources found in this region continues to grow. Cultural reliance on lumber as a construction material is but one example of resource extraction.
Known as the tundra biome, this region is characterized by a seasonal temperature that does not exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, most of the area is underlain by permafrost, or permanently frozen ground. Often referred to as the frozen desert, the tundra environment does not offer a variety of animal or plant life. Environmental problems that face this area are similar to those of the desert landscape. The ground is such that it is unavailable for agricultural use. Lack of available water and food create a challenge for any sort of sustainable use of this region.
Because there is not much human activity in this region, resource extraction in vast open spaces is another problem facing this area. For example, the controversial push to explore oil-drilling options in Alaska without a full understanding of the range of use or consequences of drilling characterizes the issues facing the region.
Problems and Solutions
Marked by the first Earth Day, 35 years ago, the environmental movement has developed from a mere acknowledgment of environmental issues in the United States to a global phenomenon. The environmental movement is charged with spreading awareness and working toward solutions for issues facing the environment. Those working within the environmental movement work both sociologically and culturally to promote environmentally friendly policy worldwide. Some key issues facing the global environmental challenge are the development of risk assessment to measure global environmental and societal impact, defining sustainability and developing global environmental policy, and understanding environmental impact in terms of population and technology.
Understanding Risk Assessment
Risk assessment is often used in environmental science to determine risk and calculate possible exposure costs. It is considered somewhat problematic in that many times true risk cannot ever be known. This is the equivalent to trying to calculate the future or probability of certain events happening. For one, individuals have different biological responses to environmental exposure. It would be difficult to say that the same affect would occur each time an exposure response was measured. Political and medical responses to risk will not be the same across populations or cultures. How do we ensure that societies will take measures to ensure the safety of their citizens if risk is left to interpretation? Some may consider a certain event a public health risk, while others may not—leaving populations with different levels of vulnerability.
Uncertainty of the risk outcome is a natural part of this process, and it is something even the most diligent scientific methods can get around. Risk assessment is still our best guess many times. Risk assessment is defined as identifying hazards and calculating adverse consequences, while risk evaluation is the process of determining acceptability of defined risks in order to guide policy decisions. Some questions that must guide our thinking in risk perception include the following: What are some ways of locating risk? How do we identify hazards to humans? How do we calculate acceptable risk in terms of human and nonhuman life? How is scientific knowledge contested? How do members of a community know they are safe or at risk? How do they identify risk and feel safe?
The sociological perspective of risk includes the modernization of a risk society, organizational behavior, and institutional response to risk. The human context in which perceptions are formed involves how constructions are filtered through lenses by social and cultural meanings. For example, research in institutional and technology addresses “normal accidents,” or the routine failure of organizations, as well as institutional failures. In essence, this argument claims that accidents are normal and that the relative probability of their occurrence should simply be accepted in society. We should not be surprised at their happening. Other theorists claim that accidents are preventable depending on the quality of leadership and the priority that prevention takes over capital accumulation and profit making.
Sustainability and Global Environmental Policy
In an effort to stall the current rate of environmental degradation, current policy development is guided more and more by the idea of sustainability. In some sense, this is problematic because the definition of sustainability is rarely agreed upon. Generally, sustainable development entails development practices that consider the availability of current resources levels and consider future use of these resources for generations to follow. Resource use and extraction becomes a primary focus in policy design. Many feel that as a society we have exceeded our ability to correct or even attempt to stall the problems that we already face, while others feel that the state of the environment has been overreported as negative and our real conditions are not as bad as once thought. Either way, knowing that much of our resource use is based on the extraction or processing of nonrenewable resources is cause for concern. There have been small strides to address this through the development of alternative fuels, renewable energy, and hybrid vehicles; however, consumption patterns have not changed enough to see that these efforts make an impact yet.
Population, Technology, and Environmental Justice
Issues of population, technology, and environmental justice connect to form an important aspect of the human cultural/environment relationship. Global population is ever increasing, causing more and more strain on the physical environment’s ability to sustain human, nonhuman, and plant life. The carrying capacity of the Earth is a formulaic determination that considers population density and available resources for an absolute level of survival. If the population exceeds this level, problems such as disease and starvation, among other things, may occur. One such formula to determine environmental impact is known as IPAT or environmental impact = population x affluence x technology. This takes into account the relative level of consumption, population density, and technological promise of a designated area. Determining environmental impact in this way can assist decision makers when they need to consider potential affects of development projects or environmental legislation.
The environmental justice movement emerged in an effort to protect the rights of citizens to live in a healthy, safe setting, free from environmental toxics. Since the 1980s, global strides for environmental justice have focused on the presence of chemical contaminants in communities. Contaminants range from airborne pollution output from nearby factories to the presence of chemical toxins found in soil. Much of the work in the environmental justice movement has been centered on marginalized populations such as minority groups, women and children, and working-class and impoverished members of society.
Work in the environmental justice movement began in the southern region of the United States, where African American communities were carrying the burden of chemical pollution as compared to Caucasian communities. Research in this area has drawn controversial conclusions, but does show a statistically significant correlation between location of chemical waste and race. A similar relationship exists between chemical pollution and class.
Classic works in this area stem from Rachel Carson’s alert in the 1962 publication of Silent Spring. Following that call to action, environmentalists began to recognize the potential problems of chemical contaminants. Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, New York, served as another wake-up call to communities. Citizens were made aware that chemical contaminants resided in the soil, silently existing among them. Lois Gibbs describes her struggle for recognition of the problem and relocation in her 1982 book Love Canal, My Story. Other works in environmental justice include Bullard’s account of environmental racism in Dumping in Dixie.
Today, environmental justice research spans the globe. Development issues in peripheral nations have emerged as primary in the fight for global environmental equities. As basic as they may be, the fight for the right to clean water, available fertile land, and disease control encompasses much of the global environmental struggle.
The degree to which we concentrate on the preservation of our natural environment will inevitably determine how cultures progress into the future. Culture and environment are inextricably connected. We need to preserve the balance between our human footprint and the natural world. This relationship must be recognized in order to curtail the current path to environmental degradation that is seemingly inevitable.
- Bullard, R. (2000). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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