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Drawing upon the preceding discussion, we offer a set of definitions and concepts to guide an integrative approach to understanding environmental criticality. We begin by differentiating "criticality" from other states that denote lesser degrees of environmental threat. We recognize four conditions:
- Environmental criticality refers to situations in which the extent and/ or rate of environmental degradation preclude the continuation of current human-use systems or levels of human well-being, given feasible adaptations and societal capabilities to respond.
- Environmental endangerment refers to situations in which the trajectory of environmental degradation threatens in the near term (this and the next generation) to preclude the continuation of current human-use systems or levels of human well-being, given feasible adaptations and societal capabilities to respond.
- Environmental impoverishment refers to situations in which the trajectory of environmental degradation threatens in the medium to longer term (beyond this and the next generations) to preclude the continuation of current human-use systems or levels of well-being and to narrow significantly the range of possibilities for different future uses.
- Environmental sustainability refers to situations in which nature-society relations are so structured that the environment can support the continuation of human-use systems, the level of human wellbeing, and the preservation of options for future generations over long time-periods.
Critical, endangered, impoverished, and sustainable regions are regions (as defined earlier) characterized by these situations. Indicators that facilitate the application of these definitions are:
environmental degradation: as indicated by, for example, water availability, water quality, air quality, soil fertility, biomass productivity;
wealth: as indicated by, for example, gross national product, income per capita, savings;
well-being: as indicated by, for example, longevity, mortality rates, infant mortality, nutrition, environmentally induced disease; and
economic and technological substitutability: as indicated by, for example, degree of cash-crop dependency, technological monocultures, technological innovation, specialization, and diversification of economic activity.
Henceforth, in discussing criticality or critical regions in a general sense (the three categories of non-sustainability), we will refer to impoverishment, endangerment, and criticality or to impoverished, endangered, or critical regions.
Regional dynamics and trajectories of change
Impoverished, endangered, or critical regions may reflect very different situations. In some cases, as in areas heavily dependent upon a single type of resource extraction (e.g. mining regions), a single environmental threat (resource depletion) may jeopardize sustained human occupancy. In other cases, as in the evolving Aral Sea catastrophe in Central Asia (see chapter 3), one primary human activity (the withdrawal of water for irrigation), augmented to be sure by use of fertilizers and pesticides, threatens multiple regional resources (water, fisheries, soil, vegetation, and so on). In yet other cases - South Florida comes to mind - wetland drainage, water withdrawals, urbanization, and widespread environmental pollution threaten one primary natural resource (freshwater). Finally, the most complex cases, such as that in the Basin of Mexico (chapter 7), involve diverse human activities that pose multiple threats to multiple environmental components and resources. A simple 2 x 2 matrix depicts these different examples (fig. 1.2).
Fig. 1.2 Four patterns of regional environmental threat
Similarly, general treatment of the regional dynamics of environmental endangerment is needed if regional differences are to be taken seriously and comparative analysis and theory building are to move forward. By "regional dynamics of change," we refer to the relationships that exist among the factors that together shape the changing nature of human-environment relationships and their effects within a particular region. By "trajectories of change," we refer to the trends among these relationships over time. The analysis of regional dynamics requires successive examinations of relationships from different scales and vantage points, and over differing historical periods. Thus, it has much in common with the "regional political ecology" espoused by Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) but without axiomatically elevating political economy to primacy or focusing on the individual resource manager at the outset of the empirical analysis.
Trajectories of change
Our analyses suggest that the conditions of impoverishment, endangerment, and criticality and the regional dynamics that cause them take widely different forms and arise from different circumstances in different regional contexts. No simple evolutionary pattern or set of regional dynamics holds true across all regions. In particular, the relationship between growing environmental degradation and changes in the wealth and well-being of inhabitants varies markedly from region to region. Figure 1.3 suggests some cases, although many others are possible. Case 1 represents the situation often assumed in which increasing environmental degradation causes wealth and well-being to decline - in other words, the emergence of criticality. But in case 2, a shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy allows continuing increases in wealth and (most aspects of) well-being in the face of continuing environmental degradation (although, presumably, this cannot continue indefinitely). In case 3, continued resource exploitation supports increasing accumulation of wealth, but continued deterioration of environmental quality results in growing rates of environmentally induced disease and mortality and an eventual reversal in well-being trends.
Fig. 1.3 Contrasting regional trajectories of environmental change
In fact, case 2, however counter-intuitive, appears to be a very common pattern in the regional studies that follow in this volume. The reasons are several. First, much time typically elapses before natural resources are depleted or environmental sinks are overwhelmed. Even when portions of the environment are degraded, a significant time-lag is often involved in the induction of effects (as in the 20-30 year latency period for many cancers). So environmental degradation can stretch over lengthy time-periods during which the region's population becomes wealthier, healthier, and generally better off. Then, too, when a particular environmental component is degraded or exhausted, individuals and societies shift their activities to other productive systems and environmental assets that offer equal rewards.
In these common situations of increasing human wealth and wellbeing in the face of, indeed with the assets derived from, the degradation of the regional environment, the long-term value or "natural capital" of the environment may be sequestered for the benefit of current users. Thus, the case 2 trajectories have the time-related implications of current environmental degradation for intergenerational equity. Specifically, current generations may be drawing down nature in ways that diminish the range of economic options for the future. Accordingly, trajectory analysis is useful in assessing rates of environmental change and how they may affect long-term environmental assets and future options, including those involving life-support capabilities.
It is useful to recognize different regional trajectories that relate to the definitions offered above and that contribute to a categorization of regional environmental threat. Figure 1.4 depicts these trajectories as regions move to greater or less sustainability in human-environment relations. Region A is an environmentally critical region because overall environmental degradation has reached the level at which current systems of human use and levels of human well-being cannot be sustained, given feasible adaptations (often to other environmentally based productive systems) or societal capabilities to mitigate the degradation or add to the buffering capability of nature. Region B is currently "drawing down" nature so rapidly as to threaten the ability of the regional environment to continue to support current human uses and well-being even over the near term (this and the next generation). It is, therefore, in our terminology an environmentally endangered region. Region C and region D are on similar trajectories of long-term environmental degradation, although anticipated non-linearities in the trajectory of region C will move it rapidly to criticality once a key juncture is passed after three decades. Region D, which exemplifies a region of environmental impoverishment, exports the primary impacts of current rates of environmental degradation to populations in the distant future. Finally, region E is environmentally sustainable in that current nature-society relationships can be sustained over the long term without threatening current human uses or well-being and without significantly impoverishing the base of environmental resources and options available to future generations.
Fig. 1.4 Hypothetical regional nature-society trajectories
Constructing such regional trajectories helps to illuminate the nature and rates of change in human-environment relations. But the analysis of such trajectories must centre upon the regional dynamics of change. The chapters in this volume explore in some depth these dynamics within particular regions and provide insights into the key causal variables and interrelationships that need to be included in such analyses. Here we suggest the general outlines of some key aspects of trajectory analysis and regional dynamics of change as a guide to comparative interpretation and assessment of the case-studies.
To begin, it is important to conduct a basic analysis that interrelates environmental degradation and human well-being with the key variables generally defined as the human causes of environmental change. Figure 1.5 provides an example of such a set of trajectories. The selection of key driving forces of change for analysis will vary from region to region and should reflect their relative importance to environmental change and human well-being within a particular region. The analysis itself should seek to explain not only the trajectory of each of these variables but the causal relationships among them. At minimum, this should include an interpretation of the relative importance of different human driving forces at different times as well as the relationship between environmental change and various measures of social impacts and human wellbeing.
As noted above, the degree of spatial linkage that exists between the region and various other regions as well as the global economy is a major attribute of regional context that structures the impact of external driving forces and changing regional vulnerabilities. Much evidence suggests, for example, the growing dependence of many agricultural economies on fluctuations in world market prices and shifting demand in distant markets (Turner 1989; Watts 1983; WCED 1987). In such cases, environmental degradation and emerging overall regional risk can be explained only with detailed attention to the restructuring of such economies over time and the way in which such changes interact with differential patterns of human vulnerability and well-being in the region. The case-studies that follow in this volume and especially those of the middle mountains of Nepal (chap. 4) and Sundaland in South-East Asia (chap. 10), indicate the importance of such linkages of scale.
Fig. 1.5 Trajectories of human driving forces of regional environmental change
This argument speaks to the need for significant disagregation of the dynamics of change within each region. Figure 1.6 suggests models of the types of analyses that can help to clarify internal regional changes and interactions with patterns of environmental degradation. Case A is one of increasing social and economic polarization attendant on growing environmental degradation. As analyses of global and national inequalities suggest, such polarization - which turns up in several of the regions treated in this volume - can become a major driver of environmental degradation and damage to human populations (Kates and Haarmann 1992; WCED 1987). In case B, the benefits reaped from the drawing down of regional resources are more equitably distributed. Such a "trickle-down" effect may help avoid the situation in which impoverishment of marginal groups helps to drive severe environmental degradation, but it may simultaneously create a political economy highly resistant to interventions to mitigate the trajectory of growing environmental damage. Case C provides insight into centre-periphery relationships that may structure the accumulation at the centre of capital derived from environmental or natural resource exploitation in the periphery. This pattern is apparent in some of the regional studies in this volume.
Finally, the nature of societal responses in the face of emerging trajectories of environmental change requires careful attention as an element of the regional dynamics. One key aspect of this analysis will centre upon the differential responses at various scales or managerial loci. Such assessments can characterize the types, number, and effectiveness of responses undertaken at these various levels as well as the options and constraints under which they operate. This analysis may, as political ecologists would advocate, put the environmental manager closest to the situation at "centre stage" (the "farmer first" approach) or, alternatively, begin with state policies and actions. Risk analysts would more likely begin with the structure of the hazard or the consequences of environmental change and work backwards, or upstream, to the driving forces of change (Kales, Hohenemser, and Kasperson 1985). Various analytical starting points are equally viable as long as the analysis is comprehensive enough to address the complexity of factors shaping the trajectories of change and the range of societal response that occurs.
A key consideration will be the comparison between trajectories of growing environmental damage and changing societal capability to intervene to mitigate the damage and to alter the basic regional trend to environmental criticality. Figure 1.7 depicts a situation in which growing environmental degradation eventually surpasses society's ability to substitute productive systems or to intervene to control or mitigate the damage. At that point, environmental damage exceeds the societal capability to respond, the situation has become critical, and international rescue efforts may be necessary to avert an environmental disaster. Such a situation now exists in the Aral Sea region, as chapter 3 makes clear. Since time is a key ingredient in the mobilization of society's latent response resources, the rates of environmental change and the rates at which resources can be mobilized are important aspects of trajectories of regional change.
Fig. 1.6 Three cases of regional social processes causing or interacting with environmental degradation
The tendency for societies to lag seriously behind emerging environmental endangerment is discussed at length by Meadows and associates (1972, 1992) in their treatment of "overshoot" and "collapse." The importance of neglect and lag times in societal response deserves detailed attention in analyses of regional dynamics of change. The regional trajectory to environmental criticality will not occur without warning, of course. As environmental degradation proceeds, various events and indicators of change will prefigure the movement to greater damage and greater future risk (fig. 1.8). Such events and indicators will constitute a stream of "signals" that may alert society and various managers to impending damage. How such warning systems work, how they connect to management systems, and how and why appropriate responses do or do not occur are questions fundamental to understanding trajectories of regional change and diagnosing the outcomes that emerge along the trajectories.
Fig. 1.7 Regional environmental degradation surpassing societal capacity to ret spend
This discussion of regional trajectories and dynamics of change, as noted above, seeks only to set the broad framework of analysis used in the various regional case-studies that follow. Chapter 11 returns to these issues in assessing the generic findings that emerge from the various regional assessments.
Fig. 1.8 Emerging criticality and societal response
Case-study selection and protocol
Any empirical investigation of environmentally threatened regions is subject to the question: Why these particular regions and not others? We made our choices not on an ad hoc basis but according to a set of selection criteria:
1. The region must have been identified in the literature as one experiencing environmental crisis. The number of candidates is large. Many areas around the world have been identified by someone or some organization as experiencing or nearing the linked decline in environmental condition and socio-economic well-being captured in our definition of criticality. We have not assumed, though, that a priori any region so identified in fact meets our definition.
2. The set of regions selected should represent a reasonable range of environmental and political-economic conditions. Recognizing that environmental impoverishment, endangerment, and criticality may occur worldwide, in all sorts of physical and human settings, we sought to capture this range rather than foster the impression that these situations are limited to certain circumstances, such as might arise in third world countries. To assist our selection, we drew on a simple matrix of major life zones (cf. Holdridge 1964), economic structure (capitalist dominated, non-capitalist dominated), political structure (complex democracies, social democracies, centrally planned states), affluence (advanced industrial, industrial agrarian), and population density (frontiers to megalopolises). We attempted, with only nine case-studies, to cover a substantial measure of this range (but not all combinations, obviously).
3. The regions chosen should be ones in which ongoing research could provide a base from which the case-studies could draw. Although research has been carried out in most candidate regions, we favoured regions in which individuals or teams of researchers were already engaged in the kind of work that would facilitate our study.
These guidelines led us to select the following regional candidates:
Amazonia - a region of frontier agricultural and pasture development in a third world country that has experienced the loss of old-growth tropical rain forest, soil degradation, and other related environmental change, with possible links to global climate change and associated international concern.
Eastern Sundaland - another tropical frontier region in the third world, but marked as well by international logging in an old-growth forest zone with outcomes similar to those noted for Amazonia.
Ukambani - a semi-arid region of eastern Kenya where agro-pastoralists in dry forest and savanna lands have experienced colonization, widespread displacement and resettlement, male out-migration, and a transition to sedentary, permanent agriculture accompanied by deforestation, soil and water degradation, recurring droughts, and continuing state intervention.
Nepal middle mountains - a high-altitude, high-energy region in the third world long containing substantial populations of smallholders who are currently shifting to commercial production under conditions market development and rapid population growth, leading to major deforestation and soil loss.
Ordos Plateau of China - an arid region of Inner Mongolia, targeted for commercial development in a centrally planned economy and invaded by large numbers of smallholder farmers, leading to massive soil erosion and sandification.
Aral Sea basin - another arid region of a former centrally planned economy of the Central Asian republics in which one of the largest state-ordained irrigation schemes in the world, along with rapid population growth, has severely damaged the sea and the land around it, with evident impacts on human well-being.
Llano Estacado - a semi-arid region of the Southern High Plains of the United States where large-scale irrigated agriculture by wealthy farmers has drawn down the aquifer, increased soil erosion, and moved the region inexorably to higher future risk.
Basin of Mexico - one of the largest concentrations of people and of industrialization on earth, located within a geologically closed basin, with rapidly increasing contamination of water and air, stress on water supply, and dependence on surrounding regions.
North Sea - in the mid-high latitudes, a common-pool resource, surrounded by one of the longest-industrialized and wealthiest areas in the world, which has become a sink for a mass-producing and consuming society.
Each study was undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of researchers following a common protocol developed through the cooperation of the Clark University study group and the case team leaders. The protocol provides guidelines for defining the region, the time-scale of analysis, the major questions and topics to be addressed, the means of organizing each study, and the common forms of documentation. Each study undertook an analysis of regional dynamics of change, involving assessment of human driving forces, trends and patterns of environmental change, human vulnerabilities, impacts on human well-being, and societal responses. Particular attention was given to the trajectories over time of each of these components of the regional dynamics of change. Within each of these categories of analysis, specific data needs were established with the aim of providing as much comparability as possible among the various case-studies. This aim proved difficult, in part because so many of these data required new or reformulated information that could not be generated within the constraints of the study and available funds. Even so, the various studies share a common focus and range of information that provide insights into emerging environmental threats. We return to comparisons and major findings in chapter 11.
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