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Concepts in Environmental Anthropology

Environmental anthropology is pivotal in exploring the complex dialectic between the physical environment and human social and cultural processes, and this investigation has numerous practical applications. Generally, it is granted that there are four main approaches in this sub field of anthropology: cultural ecology, ecological anthropology, ethnoecology and cultural environmentalism. These four approaches can broadly be divided into two key oppositional philosophies concerning the complex relationship between the environment and human social and cultural processes; environmental determinism, or materialism, and cultural constructivism, or culturalism. Cultural ecology and ecological anthropology are materialistic, etic perspectives that posit the local ecosystem and environment as the major force shaping social and cultural processes; in contrast ethnoecology and cultural environmentalism are culturalist, emic perspectives that emphasize the role of culture in constructing the environment. These approaches each have their positives and negatives, and differing perspectives when it comes to understanding the complex relationship between human beings and the biosphere, however they share the same foundations: the idea that anthropology as a discipline provides vital and unique tools in understanding and managing environmental issues both in Australia and in the global arena.

Ethnoecology is an emic approach that involves studying local, often indigenous, cultural categories and logics concerning management of the environment. This has applications in understanding and contributing to solutions in controversial land management issues, such as in the case of the contested cultural constuctions of nature between the American government and the indigenous Zuni peoples of Zuni Pueblo. Ford describes how according to Zuni cultural models of nature the government has caused extensive damage through the building of dams and other activity, while simultaneously the government saw the same activity as not harmful to the environment. The Zuni people wished to establish their right to legally practice traditional land management techniques on the land, and Ford worked on the case as an ethnobotanist, adopting an emic or insider perspective, to establish and document the Zuni methods of natural resource management. Essentially Ford established that the Zuni practiced land management in a manner that was more sustainable, according to Western science, than the methods practiced by the American government. Ford helped prove that the American government had caused the land damage, and the Zuni won the right manage the land in their traditional manner. Ethnoecology, through advancing understandings of how local populations construct and represent their environment, ha contributed to a process of legitimizing ethnoecological knowledge in hegemonic cultural paradigms worldwide. In this example it has been shown that from an anthropological perspective environmental issues are issues involving cultural processes including how nature is constructed, claimed, represented and contested. The case of the Zuni is symptomatic of processes occurring across the globe; ethnoecology as a sub field in environmental anthropology has been vital in raising awareness of the importance of TEK, or traditional environmental knowledge in management of the environment and natural resources.

Traditional environmental knowledge, explored through the emic ethnographic methodologies of ethnoecology, has also played an important role in the management of marine fish stocks; an environmental issue of global significance. In the context of global environmental issues such as deforestation, habitat loss, and the loss of biodiversity, traditional environmental knowledge is being perceived as useful in providing tools to tackle and manage these environmental issues as perceived by the discourse of environmentalism. Through ethnoecology demonstrating how indigenous populations culturally construct their environment, and systems of taxonomy, an important contribution is made to the understanding and management of environmental issues.

Cultural ecology differs from ethnoecology as it is a materialist approach. Cultural ecology uses primarily a western empirical conceptual schema concerning energy flows and the influence of the environment on social and cultural processes as its epistemological foundation. While ethnoecology concentrates on emic constructions of nature, cultural ecology focusses on etic constructions; the practitioner of cultural ecology imposes their own conceptual framework and analytical models onto the relationship between nature and culture observed. Harris, utilizing the conceptual schema of cultural ecology, demonstrates how the seemingly irrational cultural assumptions and rituals associated with cows in India appear less irrational if seen as vital components in the processes of the local ecosystem. While the Indian Ministry of Information and other bodies have issued reports detailing how the abundant cows are an economic burden, Harris outlines their many essential functions in the Indian human food energy system. The cows produce milk, and with their dung provide the main source of fuel for cooking fires. According to Harris, most importantly cows are also a fundamental element of the Indian agricultural process, serving as plough beasts; he even argues that without the contributing energy of cows in the ecosystem, agriculture could not exist on its present scale in India. Harris essentially explains that while the Indian Ministry of Information, in the economic paradigm constructs the overabundance of cows as a burden, the Hindu’s construction of cows as sacred is a cultural logic that is intrinsically linked with Indian modes of subsistence and energy extraction. In this way cultural ecology can provide valuable perspectives in understanding environmental issues; furthermore, although a materialist approach, cultural ecology can also recognize and anayze discursive cultural conceptions of an environmental issue, such as the over abundance of cows in India. While traditionally an etic perspective, Harris demonstrates how the cultural ecologist must still engage with and understand the emic cultural practices of the population and biosphere under investigation. Essentially the anthropological perspectives offered by Harris, as a tangible alternative to dominant governmental paradigms in India concerning the environment, contributes to a discussion of how that environment is constructed, represented, contested, and claimed, and furthermore deepens understanding of the environmental issue.

Cultural environmentalism is both the more contemporary and flexible of the approaches adopted by environmental anthropologists. In analyzing the Bhopal disaster of 1984, especially focussing on global contesting representations and cultural constructions of the disaster and its repercussions, Kim Fortun adopted a cultural environmental approach. Through using ethnographic methods of participant-observation, Fortun both assumed the role of advocate for the Bhopal victims, and gleamed emic perspectives of the disaster from the point of view of environmental justice activists, both in India and America. This Emic nature of cultural environmentalism is perhaps its greatest strength; Fortun provides comprehensive analysis of advocacy in response to Bhopal, illustrating the frustration of activists at a globalisation that provides little cultural, legal or historical space for squarely acknowledging the extent of the Bhopal disaster. Fortun’s discussion is essentially concerned with the politics involved in global issues of the cultural construction, representation, claiming and contestation of nature. Her analysis is directly related to the perceptions of nature that motivate environmental justice activists, and she became an advocate in this role. Fortun demonstrates environmental anthropology’s contribution to understanding environmental issues, and also the possibility for advocacy in this role. To move from global issues of representation and contestation of the environment to Australia, cultural environmentalism is important in gaining deep understandings of embedded cultural assumptions in the Australian mining industry. Trigger undertook ethnographic fieldwork with the mining industry to uncover emic constructions of the environment in the culture of the mining industry. He discovered ubiquitous cultural concepts behind the industry’s relationship to the environment such as “moral progress through sophistication and domestication of an uncivilized landscape”. These concepts are also tied to social processes of the miners, It could be argued that these ideologies legitimize the mining process and its effects on the physical environment to the miners. In this way ur understanding of cultural constructions and representations of the environment is enhanced through cultural environmentalism. Environmental anthropology has an important role to play in contributing to a comprehensive understanding of environmental issues in Australia.

Anthropology plays an important role in showing how the environment is “constructed, represented, claimed and contested”, and meaningfully contributes to analyses concerning the understanding and management of environmental issues. At the core of the differences in the theoretical approaches is the debate concerning “nature” and “culture”.

Regardless of the “reality” of the situation, environmental anthropology, through presenting new perspectives, shows the importance of the social and cultural paradigms in environmental issues.


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