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From ecosystem to human use system

The formulation of the human use system as the spatial universe of analysis, to balance the ecologists' ecosystem, answered the immediate need for a conceptual framework that would include all the human variables relevant to a particular question, which could not always be meaningfully explained within the same geographical boundaries as the related natural processes. This was the first stage in the emancipation of ecologically-oriented social science from socially-inappropriate ecological concepts. However, it is necessary to point out that it was still only the first stage, because it continued to imply a materialist explanation of human behaviour. in that it is based on technology and economics and pays no attention to the role of ideas. But even this degree of emancipation from natural science was difficult to follow through.

The "ecological transition" provided a dynamic explanation of the relationship between ecosystems and human use systems. In evolutionary perspective. intensification of economic activity leads to increase in the use of money and breaks down the boundaries of autarky between populations, involving them more and more in wider and wider economic universes, as they develop tastes for, and become dependent upon, new products and the resources of a larger geographical area. The process is generally accompanied by significant and sustained growth in population. It leads inevitably to a change in relationships between the population and the natural resources on which it depends. If an autarkic population depletes its resources, it faces ecological ruin and subsequent disintegration, unless it can migrate to, or develop, new resources. Once it makes the transition to a level of socio-economic integration where the economic or other opportunities in a larger social universe are more important than the immediate natural resources. rationality no longer necessarily dictates conservationist techniques of exploitation. Bennett's ecological transition is a description and interpretation of this process in evolutionary terms.

It is interesting to note that it is only in those developed countries which have progressed furthest beyond the ecological transition that a reaction has set in calling for conservation; and it is only in the smallest societies with the simplest material technologies that a plausible case can be made for inherent conservationism. Most of the societies we are concerned with in the context of development fall somewhere in between these two extremes. These ecological differences are significant, and the ecological transition enhances our understanding of them. It is important to remember, however, that at each stage of the transition people's orientation towards the environment is explainable only as a projection of their view of their relationships with each other.

Before the transition, the level of social complexity rarely reaches the stage where bureaucratic forms begin to develop. The typical small community organizes its use of resources in the idiom of kinship and descent. Ethnographic cases where group solidarity takes precedence over individual acquisitiveness and ambition are common. In recent years it has been argued that in this condition, where ownership of resources is not individualized, there is a natural tendency to over-exploit, because each individual assumes that what he does not consume himself will be consumed by others who will thereby gain economic advantage at his expense. This idea has been promoted in the phrase "the tragedy of the commons" (Hardin 1968; see also Crowe 1972 and other papers in Hardin and Baden 1977) as having significant explanatory power in the analysis of environmental problems. Like adaptation, however, its application is limited since there are traditional pastoral situtions (such as among the Kirghiz nomads in northeast Afghanistan. described by Shahrani. 1979) where over-grazing has been successfully avoided, and there are situations with private ownership (such as the history of agriculture in the American West) where degradation has been significant.

As a population passes through this transition, however, the level and complexity of organization change and there are parallel cultural changes - changes, that is, in ways of thinking. The market becomes the integrating factor in a greatly enlarged socio-economic universe. Kinship and community are no longer sufficient organizing principles; there is a greater risk of a tragedy of the commons (and private ownership does not necessarily mitigate it); and administrative forms of social organization are developed for specific productive purposes, from small agricultural enterprises to large multinational corporations. This qualitative change in forms of organization is a factor of great significance in the evolution of man-environment relations, and it will be necessary to return to it later.

The ecological transition explains why people are generally not, and should not be expected to be, natural conservationists. Desertification has forced itself on our consciousness in the aftermath of a drought that coincided with a particular stage of growth - growth in population and in demand, when resources in vulnerable areas were already under pressure and many populations had become less responsive to the condition of their resources and more responsive to market systems centred outside their immediate resource base. The relationship between the population and its resources - the resources that are undergoing desertification - is less direct and exclusive than it was in earlier historical periods. It may of course never have been totally exclusive.

Where desertification developed in geological time as a result of climatic change, it is beyond our ability to reverse. Where it is known to have developed from premodern land use practices, it has, in many cases, either recovered, or the area has been re-colonised by means of different technologies. But where desertification develops from pressure of human use now, even in the least developed parts of the world, it is less and less relatable to specific production decisions taken by individuals either on behalf of themselves or of groups, and more and more to systemic changes that comprehend large areas, only part of which may be vulnerable.

The ecological transition is seen in the progressive incorporation of nature into human frames of purpose and action - which is rapidly eliminating the cases of distinctive, isolated tribal adaptations to natural phenomena that have been a specialty of the anthropologist. The historical trend is now toward much larger systems in which the behaviour of tribal people or peasants toward natural resources is determined as much or more by social forces beyond their control as it is by internal concepts and needs. (Bennett 1976, p. 3)

Desertification becomes a danger when the populations of vulnerable areas are subsumed into socio-cultural systems which are not co-terminous with those areas, and which restrict their freedom to respond directly to fluctuations in the productivity of the renewable natural resources on which they depend; or, more specifically, when the socio-economic networks of human use cross a particular threshold of complexity, where an individual or a social group is more concerned to conserve its socioeconomic and cultural resources than its natural resources, because it sees its natural resources as only one of a number of possible economic options. If the natural resources fail, the larger society provides other opportunities for livelihood. On the other hand, if the socio-cultural system should fail, or the individual's place in it be lost, the natural resources may no longer be sufficient. Desertification has become particularly dangerous since forms of organization and technical planning methods and also the potential for implementing projects have reached a stage where the physical components have become insignificant in comparison with economic criteria. (Barth 1977, p. 59)

Economic criteria are social. They involve trading off the interests of one sector of a population against those of another. Where the trade-off is left to be decided by supply and demand, moral problems invariably arise. But generally political considerations interfere anyway. both with supply and demand and with moral issues.

Even within the ecosystem there is a moral problem. Where an ecologist is studying an ecosystem without a human component, or where his research interests allow him to ignore the role in the ecosystem of other members of his own species, he implicitly determines relative values for the various species in his study. For example, in an open steppe ecosystem the survival interests of grasses and fortes, shrubs, herbivores and predators are obviously in conflict. The ecologist stands outside the system but bases his research design implicitly on certain inter-related assumptions such as

1) the system should not run down; and
2) the number of species should not decrease.

However objective his research design, the ecologist is led by his assumptions to discriminate in favour of the survival of the system. The survival of the system is, of course, in the long-term best interests of the collectivity of species. It is not, however, in the best interests of all individuals, some of whom will fall prey to predators. A reduction in the number of predators would, therefore, be in the best interests of at least some of the herbivores and a reduction in the number of herbivores would be in the best interests of many of the plants, and possibly also of the species of flora - irrespective of the stability of the system. If a gazelle or a shrub could produce a study of the same ecosystem we might expect their results to differ from those of the ecologist inasmuch as they would, as a matter of course, be based on different assumptions. These different sets of assumptions may be represented as scientifically more or less objective. However, insofar as they relate to the conflicting interests of different creatures which see right and wrong in terms of those interests, they are moral assumptions; and the conflict between them is resolved politically through the respective difference in power of the populations in question. These considerations are irrelevant, even laughable- until the human component is introduced. The application of these considerations to the case of each social group involved in any ecological problem - the approach advocated here will be referred to from now on as "the socio-centric approach," since it is based on essentially social (rather than purely ecological) assumptions.

This reduction of the relationship between the ecologist and his subject matter to questions of morals and politics may seem exaggerated, but it serves to focus attention on the moral and political aspects of the problems that develop between scientists and local populations in the treatment of declining ecosystems, especially in the case of desertification. When the ecologist includes a human population in the system he is studying, his recommendations for treatment and management are likely to conflict with the perceptions of the local population. These conflicts can be presented as differences between scientific understanding and uneducated superstition and self-interest; but it may be more realistic - and more practical, politically- to minimize the difference between science and lore. It then can be seen as the difference between perceptions based on an interest in the long-term survival of a total ecosystem and its usefulness to human populations on the one hand, and perceptions based on less long-term interests in individual economic and group cultural survival on the other.

The formulation of the problem of comprehending human use systems and ecosystems within a single theoretical framework and the development of the concept of the ecological transition are promising steps towards a theoretical bridge between the social and the natural sciences. In relation to problems of resource management and human welfare, they are particularly important at this stage because they are directly relevant to the initial problem of determining criteria of relevance. Desertification is serious because it constitutes the decline not just of productivity, but of productivity for the support of human wellbeing. On the one hand it means loss of resources at a time when demand is increasing; on the other it means human suffering due to lowered standards of living, nutrition and public health, the disintegration of social and cultural systems, and consequent social unrest. These human social and cultural conditions, the biopsychic state of each collectivity of individuals, provide the only logical yardstick for the human evaluation of the implications of ecological change.

The greatest problem, however, is to determine which human social interests have priority in the establishment of the yardstick. The establishment of a non-human factor (for example, soils) might disguise the assumption that a particular set of human social interests - those that valued the present state of soil distribution over those that were happy to see it changed - had priority. The significance of the following example is such that it is quoted in full:

Inj the Valley of Nochixtlan in southern Mexico. . . many. . . side slopes are ravaged by active gullies which remove the surface wholesale and leave the slopes bare of vegetation, fields or houses. Since the Spanish Conquest, an average depth of 5m has been stripped from the entire surface area, producing one of the highest rates of erosion recorded in the world. Set between the forested uplands and the agricultural valley floor, the area seems a wasteland which only drastic soil conservation measures could reverse.

Government experts share this view and have instituted conservation measures including the construction of low earth ridges to slow down soil movement. Few scientifically trained experts would disagree with their general perception of the bellying as a problem but the view from inside the valley is different. Gullies are seen not as a hazard but as a resource. By directing the flow of the eroded material, Mixtec farmers can annually feed their fields with fertile soil and can, with greater effort, extend their agricultural land by building new fields over a few years.

Over the past 1000 years, Mixtec cultivators have managed to use gully erosion to double the width of the main valley floors from about 1.5 km to 3 km; and to infill the narrow tributary valley floors with flights of terraces several kilometres long. Judicious use of gullying has enabled them to convert poor hilltop fields into rich alluvial farmland below, using the gullies to transport the soil. Thus before large-scale gullying began, the agricultural productivity of the valley area was less than it is today.

The difference between the "outside expert" view and the inside Mixtec one rests on the farmers' greater experience and knowledge of the local situation. Their experience of the highly fertile and erodible local deposits, and their familiarity with the technical and social bases of controlling soil movement, are too particular to the valley of Nochixtlan to be readily translated to other areas. Thus the concept "gullies are good" is not part of the outside expert's portfolio. Nor could he be expected to know that intermarriage between the hill-top and valley-bottom communities enables families to "move with their soil" down-valley.

The valley of Nochixtlan is an unusual case; usually different groups agree that soil erosion is a problem but disagree about how to solve it. This example is intended, however, to illustrate the importance of understanding local perceptions of the environment in the context of local resource use and social structure. But this is only the first, important step. In the example of Nochixtlan - as almost every where both perceptions of the environment are valid, within their own contexts. For the farmers in Nochixtlan, gullies are an important agricultural resource. For the government authorities concerned with the area as a whole, gullies are also a problem - not for those farms whose owners remain, but for the farms abandoned by their urban-migrating owners and no longer receiving replenishment and protection from the gullies. Thus, the national "problem" is that of urban migration and rural depopulation, which is the higher-order one, and which is outside the scope of agricultural authorities and local communities. (Whyte 1977, pp. 11-13; italics supplied)

This difference of perception is the central problem in ecological studies involving people. The word "problem" is used in this context because there is conflict. The conflict is not natural, or cultural, but social: it derives not from physical or biological factors, or even from difference of opinion or ideology; it is social because it is generated by differences in interests that derive from people's place in society in relation to the natural resources they depend on. It therefore demands the attention of the social scientist who can assess it in the light of comparative analyses of other social contexts of perception. The above example juxtaposes the different perceptions of a local population and an outside expert. But human use systems generally include a number of social groups with competing interests, and are functionally inter-related with other human use systems.

In this respect, of course, they resemble ecosystems. The ecologist claims to differentiate between different species in ecosystemic processes in terms of an objective hierarchy of trophic levels and general evolutionary and ecological theory. When the same methods are transferred to the study of the relations between the various social groups that compose a human use system, the claim of objectivity cannot be allowed to stand. The investigator's social and political allegiances are much more obviously and closely involved. The principle of natural selection is not only inadequate but morally untenable. Any problem of ecological management or rehabilitation that involves human populations begs obvious moral and political questions. These questions are reminiscent of Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) which illuminated the moral and political dimension of economic problems in the American society of the time, and incidentally has recently been used to excellent effect to explain the recent conflict between Consolidated Edison (which supplies electrical power to greater New York), the population of Manhattan, and the wealthy residents who overlook the Hudson River at Storm King Mountain close to the proposed site of a nuclear power station (Tucker 1977).

Any theory of ecological change that involves change in relationships between people and environment, whether in desertification or industrial pollution, must be socio-centric in such a way that it relates ecosystems to human use systems and differentiates between the interests of populations and social and cultural groupings which are immediately involved in the process and populations that are only indirectly involved; it must represent fully the interests of each social group affected. Further, it must make this representation without assigning or implying fault. It must be a "no-fault" theory.

The argument for a socio-centric theory, however, must face up squarely to the fact that desertification was "discovered" by non-social scientists. The cry was taken up by specialists in the applied natural sciences and in development. They diagnosed it, described it, and have made a number of attempts at defining it. The only role seen for the social scientist was to persuade the local people to stop doing what the specialist determined they should not do, and instead to do what the specialist determined they should do. But if we are to make the next step beyond the human use system. we must include in our reports and diagnoses more attention to the dynamics of the social factor in ecological processes.


From system to organization

The social factor is essentially a question of organization. The study of variation in the organization of social life beyond Western society has been the special province of anthropologists. In fact, attention to temporal and spatial variation in human life remains in one form or another the underlying characteristic of anthropological work. Practitioners differ among themselves partly in what types or aspects of variation they wish to explain, but most importantly in what assumptions they base their explanation on. Their approach is varied, from outright mentalist to uncompromising behaviourist; their assumptions can mostly be characterized in terms of functionalism or structuralism, but the intellectual tradition is held together by the implications of shared faith in the research method of "participant observation" and the aim of interpreting social and cultural phenomena in terms of particular people's own social and cultural universes. This combination of method and aims, whether mentalist or behaviourist in assumption, has generated a cross-cultural view of human life that is unique among the academic disciplines.

In the case of ecological degradation in dry lands the anthropologist is trained to focus on the social and cultural definition of a situation, the differentiation of interest groups within it, and the values and perceptions of individuals as they make the decisions which are the only components of the causality of desertification that are susceptible of preventative, as distinct from curative, treatment. But the anthropologist, as much as any other scientist, also has the problem of scientific objectivity. His analysis is just as vulnerable to unconscious bias in favour of one or another interest group. At an international symposium on "Anthropology and Desertification" held at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur, December. 1978 (See Spooner and Mann 1979, 1982), it was suggested that the best way to avoid such unconscious assumptions might be to pursue anthropological analyses explicitly in terms of the perceivable range of public policy options in any given context, since public policy is the most practical guide to a socio-centric approach. Since there can be no absolute yardstick, public policy (which, though relative, is the most politically acceptable declaration of purpose a society can produce) provides the best guide at the level of government.

Desertification is a new subject for anthropologists. But it is one for which their specialties are particularly important, both because of the type of societies on which (for historical reasons) they have mostly concentrated their energies, and because of their theoretical preoccupations: they are concerned with the organization of behaviour and of thought, which they study comparatively, through its variation. By comparing the different forms and permutations of organization in human life, both synchronically and diachronically, they can discriminate and interrelate the range of different socio-centric approaches and perspectives in relation to a given issue.

In general, it is important to spell out as many examples as possible of different socio-centric approaches, but it is also important to note different levels of discussion. For example, in the various arenas of the anti-desertification debate two levels of discussion have become evident. They are both inherent in the political process and cannot be kept entirely separate: the campaign to organize for the purpose of conserving resources can never entirely free itself from the campaign to reorganize the distribution of resources. The consequent dialectic between overt discussion of how to organize in the existing system and the underlying theme of how to reorganize the system is particularly noticeable in two other arenas. Most obviously, it arises in the relations between populations which are at risk or suffering from Desertification and the planners and implementers of management programmes designed to combat desertification. Perhaps most significantly, it characterizes the relations between natural scientists concerned with the viability of physical and biological systems and social scientists concerned with the viability of social and cultural systems.

To give an example from the arena of implementation: management programmes designed by range scientists to address the long-term ecological balance in the relationship between animals and carrying capacity in the arid and semi-arid rangelands of the world are based on values and perceptions different from those of pastoralists. Coming from a different cultural environment and a different social class and trained in different land use systems, the ecologists are led to define the context of the problem differently and to place a different emphasis in the aims that they pursue in relation to it. The ecologist is primarily concerned with the long-term productivity of the resource; the pastoralist is concerned with survival - first in the short term and then in the long term. Survival for the pastoralist means not only his own personal survival but also his social and cultural survival, which involves the survival also of his socio-cultural group, which invariably depends upon the productivity of the herds. In the interaction between the ecologist and the pastoralist over the implementation of a management programme that would redress the balance in the ecological system of which the pastoral population is a component, the explicit bargaining concerns specific elements of the management programme; implicitly the values of the ecologist are pitted against the values of the pastoralist - in a conflict that will be resolved eventually in the larger political process.

The United Nations Conference on Desertification provides a further example. The slogan of the conference was: "Desertification can be halted and ravaged land reclaimed in terms of what is known now. All that remains is the political will and determination to do it" (UNCOD 1977b, p. 61).

The delegates to the Conference were asked to accept existing knowledge as adequate for the immediate purpose and to focus their discussions on the problem of organizing its successful application. They were told that their task lay in the organization of programmes and resources in order to make possible (in the words of the Plan of Action approved by the Conference) "the immediate adaptation and application of existing knowledge." Like all UN conferences, therefore, UNCOD was political in the sense that it was concerned primarily with organization.

Organization on this scale transcends the province of ecology, where Desertification is diagnosed. Answers to problems of ecological management beg questions of management of the political economy. As often happens in such international forums, discussions were conducted on two levels. While ostensibly the delegates were discussing means and guidelines for the organization of programmes in which they would cooperate to mobilize resources and combat desertification, many were using the discussions to bargain about relations between the parties to the Conference. Most delegates saw that solutions to Desertification lay in the mobilization of resources, but many also blamed the incentives for exploitation of people and resources that they considered to be inherent in the present world economic order, and saw the solution in the reorganization of that order. While all the delegates accepted the ecological explanations of Desertification and the technical solutions that were preferred, many were more concerned with causation at another level: that of the economic and political conditions that generate land-use decisions and access to resources. The organizers of the Conference pursued the strategy designed to keep deliberations at the former level, but the "political will and determination" that they sought to stimulate were more abundant at the latter level, though more difficult to harness (See Spooner 1979, Spooner and Mann 1982).

In general, therefore, we are concerned here with organization on different levels - social, cultural and ecosystemic. As long ago as 1930 Koehler wrote that "physics is becoming the study of organization. . . in this way. . . it will converge with biology and psychology" (1930, p. 5). The rise of general systems theory and cybernetics accelerated this process. Ecologists, such as Odum (See above, p. 22), have sought to put everything together in terms of levels of organization. But the progress in our understanding of organization and its significance has overtaken our ability to deal with the moral problems it poses. Appreciation of the organizational dimension is no substitute for the investigation of cause and effect. Although the focus on organization, microcosmic or macrocosmic, facilitates dialogue across professional boundaries and interrelation of professional fields, it does not necessarily help when we need to modify a particular situation, and it does not automatically provide a basis for action. In order to decide how to proceed towards the solution of a practical (as distinct from a theoretical) problem, we are obliged (if not for moral reasons, then for the political reasons which in the end upstage moral considerations) to go into cause and effect, responsibility and interest, of groups and of individuals. The admission of the human factor into questions of ecology and development logically forces these apparently nonscientific, non-objective factors on our attention.

In any particular case of ecological degradation a primary cause or causes might be sought in national policy or in the international economic and political order. Secondary causes derive from related local changes, such as the spread of new technologies. The direct cause in a particular location might be overgrazing or opportunistic dry farming. The symptom which will be picked up by a direct monitoring system is an increase in soil erosion or decline in primary productivity. The significant economic effect will be loss of production. Finally, the human effects will be evident in cultural stress and social change.

It is important to note that the socio-centric approach provides a framework for comprehending the whole length of this chain of causation. A socio-centric approach to ecological change must integrate not only all these levels of cause and effect, but all the relevant disciplinary sets of data. But integration alone is not sufficient. integration also tends to give priority to one or more factors over others, and therefore implicitly begins to explain. This explanatory function must be made explicit in the form of theory. The theory must take account of the centrality of human activity. Since the dynamics of human activity are complex and vary according to experience, age, sex, and other criteria for the division of labour, and between closely and distantly inter-related social groups of which more than one is likely to be implicated in any natural process, the theory must discriminate between different relevant social situations and interrelate them.

There can be no absolute criterion for determining among the different socio-centric explanations that would fit the interests of the various social groups. Deciding among them can only be a question of political process and public policy. A socio-centric theory of ecological change, therefore, must be designed to inform public policy.

There is more to be learned from the literature of anthropology about the organization of people in relation to technology and resources. The correlation of social structure and production technology does not mean that any given social structure can only accommodate one particular technology. A little thought will produce examples to demonstrate that "human communities typically rearrange themselves to accomplish various tasks" (Gearing 1958, p. 1149). The concept "structural pose" was formulated to facilitate explanation of these rearrangements in a study of American Indians:

The notion of structural pose. . . draws attention to the well-established fact that the social structure of a human community is not a single set of roles and organized groups, but is rather a series of several sets of roles and groups which appear and disappear according to the tasks at hand. The notion of structural pose elevates that known fact to a position of central importance in structural analysis. In every human community, a series of social structures come and go recurrently. A Cherokee village in 1750, faced with a community task such as holding a village council, divided that work and coordinated it by arranging all villagers into one social structure. Whenever the white flag was raised over a village council house to call the council, a young male villager assumed with little or no reflection a defined set of relations with every other villager. At the moment before, perhaps, his most engrossing relations had been with other men of his own age; now his mind's eye shifted to the old men of the village. Before, perhaps, his fellow clansmen had been dispersed and variously occupied with diverse interests; now they all came to sit together and were engrossed with him in a common task and were a corporate group among other like groups. Faced with another task, such as negotiating with an alien power, the community rearranged all villagers into still a different structure of roles and organized groups. (Gearing 1958)

In more complex societies some structural poses are achieved through formal or administrative forms of organization (See Wallace 1971). It is worth noting that since they are designed for specific production objectives, administrative forms of organization, such as those represented in the organizational charts of large firms, depend for their success on the insulation of each individual in his position on the chart from the influences of the external social structure in which his everyday life is embedded. In order to maintain this insulation and also to obviate the hindering effects of personal relationships that develop between persons who work together, it is common for management to move individuals frequently to different positions on the chart where they will carry out similar but different functions, "interfacing" with different people, and for the chart to be continually modified with the aim of maintaining and improving efficiency. This concept of insulation gives some insight into the most serious difficulties that have been experienced in attempts to develop the use of new agricultural technologies in the context of traditional social forms. Research reports on the formation of water-user associations to solve environmental problems caused by inefficient irrigation in Pakistan show how this concept might be applied (See Merrey 1982, and below, chapter 3).

There is a sense, therefore, in which any community has not one social structure, but several. Each member of a community has a repertoire of different roles which change according to his activity. As situations change, he moves from one role to another. According to the task that is being performed, the people involved each play a particular role from their repertoire. As a group, they develop a structural pose or special form of organization for each community activity. A community of transhumant pastoralists takes on one pose at a wedding, characterized by the fact that the wedding symbolises a new alliance in a series of which each one modifies the constellation of interest groups that generate the political process. The same community would take on a different structural pose at a meeting for making decisions or resolving differences about the timing of a pastoral migration, where a different type of expertise would come into play and different persons would be influential. If the same community turned from transhumant grazing to perennial irrigation, it would develop a series of new structural poses, but this time without the benefit of directly relevant expertise. The introduction of water-user associations in Pakistan should be seen as an attempt both to provide the expertise and to develop a special form of organization. The organizational problem is how to design the water-user association in such a way as to maintain a balance between cultural and ecological variables - whether or not the system is in equilibrium. The results of such a perturbation are difficult to predict. In the Sahel in the early 1970s, in combination with other factors including prolonged drought, the result was a major disaster. The social forms, which in earlier periods had periodically experienced and survived drought by dint of the flexibility in man-resource relations that they afforded, no longer worked after a decade of development combined with relatively good rainfall had encouraged reliance on newly engineered water sources with consequent increase in herd size and in population, and decrease in flexibility.

In the latter type, the populations were actually constituted on newly created resource systems and left to work out for themselves, from the assorted cultural baggage they had brought with them, not only an appropriate social structure but a suitable agricultural technology. The organization of agriculture on the basis of newly engineered perennial irrigation on a large scale in the Punjab (now Pakistan) in the 19th century serves well as an example. We should not be surprised if the result was ecologically inefficient. The structure of social relations and of man-land relations, with which the population embarked on the application of the new technology, did not facilitate the necessary types of cooperation, leadership and conservation.

These two cases are developed in detail in chapter 3 in order to demonstrate how any production technology is embedded, for good or ill, in a social structure. A change in technology is likely, therefore, to require a change in the social structure. Where a new technology is introduced from outside, the indigenous social structure does not necessarily adapt to its requirements. Further, the manner of introduction of the new technology, and the choice of individuals through whom it is communicated, may cause perturbation in the social system. Any such perturbation is likely to have repercussions on standards of resource management and human welfare.

Finally, in this regard some of the problems of bridging the gap between traditional social forms and modified or modern production systems might be alleviated if more attention were paid to the relationship between individual and group interests. What does the individual perceive as incentives or disincentives? An important first step in this direction is the recognition that individual interests may legitimately conflict with those of the continuity of the group (which is the locus of interaction between cultural norms and everyday behaviour), as for example in the type of situation characterized as a tragedy of the commons (Cf. Martin 1982b); that it is unrealistic to expect altruism; and that it is reasonable to anticipate a similar degree of villainy in all societies and therefore also to plan for it by designing administrative forms of organization that will contain it.

Attention to the need for incentives, especially in the form of real participation in significant decisions (provision for which should be built into any technological or administrative innovation) will help avoid the two extreme forms of organizational problems characterized by enforcement from above, and the too-rigid structuring of participation. These problems are responsible for most failures in planned social change. Appropriate incentives will also facilitate change in the symbolic or cultural dimension, in tune with changes in social form and population-environment relations.

Many (though not all) cases of desertification involve traditional food-producing technologies where the mode of operation of these technologies has changed in recent decades and is no longer explicable except by reference to a larger economic system that includes both the production and demand of an industrial society. Economic and political domination of traditional by industrial forms of society is often the crux of the problem of motivation on the part of the population that is immediately responsible for desertification. When people are faced with aridity in fluctuating degrees they may be expected to develop particular individual behavioural characteristics, and social and cultural adaptations, which will be a function of their total social universe. When they are faced with increased aridity or sudden worsening of production and living conditions, they may be expected to experience stress to the extent that their social and cultural system breaks down and they re-adapt "in the context of a set of imperatives imposed on them by the larger social system" (Bennett 1976, italics added).


The argument so far

We are now able to see that the problem of the human factor in applied ecology may be broken down into two problematic relationships and the variation in those relationships, specifically:

1 ) the lack of congruence between ecosystems, human use systems and other universes of study (Different types of human activity. and different types of scientific problem require treatment within different boundaries of study);

2) the relationship between individual behaviour and processes at the group or population level - whether social, cultural or intra-species;

3) the continuous change in the relationship between human activities and natural processes, and between human use systems, communication networks and ecosystems. While not unilinear, this change has displayed a general evolutionary tendency for human systems and networks to expand and become less dependent on particular ecosystems (which is the process that Bennett, 1976, has brought to our attention in the ecological transition).

The formulation of strategies to explain and manage the human factor in these conditions faces three problems.

a) The first is a moral problem: Each social group (if not in some cases each individual) has potentially different legitimate interests. Applied ecology, although it must be a factor in deciding among these interests, is not sophisticated or reliable enough to be the only factor. Information must be organized and interpreted according to a socio-centric standard or yardstick (that is, from a socially or culturally derived point of view);

b) The second is a theoretical problem: What constitutes explanation of any given process, even within a socio-centric framework?

c) The third is the contextual problem: What is the basis of the changing relationship between ecology and society that is continuously changing the ground rules for both explanation and morality?

The second of these problems is discussed further in chapter 4; the first and third can only be solved by continued compromise between differing and changing perceptions. Such compromise is the essence of any national political process, as well as everyday life on more intimate social levels. It is complicated by the fact that the ecologist's case is commonly reinforced by the central authority, which shares his assumptions, or minimally pays lip service to them. However, that authority derives from the political process and, ultimately therefore. from the various interest groups which achieve participation in the political process. The population involved in a process of desertification may or may not have a voice in the relevant political process.

In any case, to the degree to which the populations using the resources that are at risk of desertification are represented in the larger political process, they are divided into different interest groups. Any proposal to manage the threatened resources according to the scientist's values unavoidably benefits some interest groups at the expense of others. Since the final arbiter is the political process and relative power (in which the ecologist's claim to possess absolute values is an important but not a determining factor), it may not in the long term be a realistic ecological management policy to allow the terms of reference for the solution of desertification problems to be defined exclusively according to those supposedly absolute values. In the long term, the only acceptable yardstick which will change with changing conditions is public policy, which already implicitly fulfills that function.

The concept of the ecological transition helps us to place the human factor in historical context and the discrimination of different levels and types of social organization helps place it in structural context. Bearing in mind the important analytical distinction between ecosystems and human use systems and other universes of human activity, we can now think in terms of the totality, for which the term "socio-natural system" has been suggested (Bennett 1976, pp. 109-112). None of these concepts solves either the moral problem or the problem of complexity, but public policy provides an acceptable and practical handrail to guide us from one research task to another. It changes with the political process and serves as a guide to social relevance, acceptability and priority. Most importantly, it integrates our three dimensions from a socio-centric point of view and it serves as a basis for action.

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