Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

1. Critical environmental regions: concepts, distinctions, and issues

Previous studies
Geocentric and anthropocentric approaches
Key concepts and issues
Regions and the regional approach
Regional dynamics and trajectories of change
Case-study selection and protocol

Roger E. Kasperson, Jeanne X. Kasperson, B. L. Turner II, Kirstin Dow, and William B. Meyer

The causes and consequences of human-induced environmental change are not evenly distributed over the earth. They converge in certain regions and places where their impacts may threaten the long-term or even the short-term sustainability of human-environmental relationships. Designating such areas "critical environmental situations," Russian geographers have developed "red data maps" showing their locations (Masher and Sdasyuk 1991). Recognition of such situations has reached the public through the likes of the 1989 National Geographic Society map of "environmentally endangered areas" (NGS 1989). Yet, despite the currency of these notions, no fully developed conceptualizations now exist of environmental criticality or of the criteria by which environmentally threatened regions can be identified, although a 1991 meeting at McGill University suggested some useful approaches (Meredith, Marley, and Smith 1991). Determination of what constitutes a state of criticality has been largely subjective and judgemental, with no searching exploration of the associated conceptual and methodological issues.

In this first chapter, we examine in detail the concepts of environmental criticality and endangerment and provide more formal definitions. An examination of the relevant recent literature identifies differences between what we term geocentric and anthropocentric approaches to the study of criticality. We next investigate and elaborate concepts fundamental to the notions of endangerment and criticality, place them within the context of nature-society relations, and propose an integrative approach that structures the analyses that follow in this volume. Finally, we explore at greater length the regional dynamics of change that determines trajectories toward various levels of endangerment and criticality, suggesting potentially useful approaches for analysing such dynamics.

Previous studies

Human activities have always changed the physical environment, of course, but the scale and rate of impact have grown enormously during the past century. Human activities range from diverting rivers, clearing forests, and depleting soils to magnifying the natural chemical flows of the biosphere and introducing new synthetic substances. Such changes have caused widespread alarm as they threaten to damage valued environments, deplete essential resources, or reduce the productivity of agriculture and other human activities. The perception of severe problems of these sorts may prompt the judgement that a state of environmental criticality has been reached and the human use of the environment put in jeopardy. As we use the term, "criticality" denotes a state of both environmental degradation and associated socio-economic deterioration, however measured or identified. "Critical region" denotes an area that has reached such a state of interactive degradation. Such meanings are broadly consistent with various recent studies, ranging from global to local assessments (e.g. Turner et al. 1990a, 1990b).

Global approaches

Criticality and related terms, though often without a clear or carefully reasoned definition, have been used at a variety of spatial scales. Some assessments view criticality as reflecting a scope of impact sufficiently wide to merit global concern. Man's Impact on the Global Environment: Report of the Study of Critical Environmental Problems (SCEP 1970) focused on those environmental problems "whose cumulative effects on ecological systems are so large and prevalent that they have worldwide significance" (SCEP 1970, 5). The study concludes that individual problems of pollution, such as the persistence and spread of DDT, oil spills in the oceans, and atmospheric pollution, and change occurring across places comprise global changes that present new problems in research, monitoring, and response.

General models have been developed to forecast environmental criticality on a global level by assessing the interaction of multiple elements in human systems, such as population, economic growth, pollution, and resource depletion. Some modellers conclude that technology and socio-economic restructuring will ward off critical situations; others foresee doomsday outcomes. The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972) and its successor, Beyond the Limits (Meadows, Meadows, and Randers 1992), report on ambitious computer-modelling attempts to simulate the reaction of the global system when withdrawal exceeds carrying capacity. The model simulated the reactions among five factors - population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production, and pollution - and associated trends that the modellers believed determine and ultimately limit growth on this planet. Criticality, in this context of limiting growth, occurs when either basic human needs (such as food and energy) exceed available supply or environmental deterioration overwhelms existing environmental sinks and pollution inhibits continued human use. Such approaches reflect what are often referred to as Malthusian, neo-Malthusian, or Cassandra views of environmental crisis (e.g. Ehrlich and Holdren 1988).

The Global 2000 Report (CEQ 1980) draws on the databases and models of US federal government agencies and derives its predictions from trend extrapolation, assuming no major changes in public policy, institutions, or rates of technological change, and no wars or other disruptions. Its pessimistic conclusions, which align it with the neo-Malthusian school, are challenged by The Resourceful Earth (Simon and Kahn 1984) on the grounds of inaccurate extrapolation, inadequate data sets, and other shortcomings. The Resourceful Earth is unabashedly optimistic in seeing improvement rather than deterioration of environmental quality. It maintains that, although serious local and temporary large-scale problems may arise, "the nature of the world's physical conditions and the resilience in a well-functioning economic and social system enable us to overcome such problems" (Simon and Kahn 1984, 3). Finally, The Global Possible notes that, although "disturbing visions of the human condition early in the next century are not difficult to imagine from the present situation" (Repetto 1985, 7), known technologies and regulatory strategies are capable of improving the outlook. This perspective rests heavily on the capacity to detect change and to mobilize human response. The author identifies many technologies that could improve resource-use efficiency if widely used and if the network for diffusion of these technologies were in place. Similar views of environmental change are often classified as optimist, technological fix, or Pollyanna perspective.

Regional approaches

Whatever the validity of their specific findings, global-level approaches are valuable in raising many key issues around the conceptualization of environmental criticality. Other approaches have focused on the identification of criticality at the regional scale, at which, presumably, uncertainties are smaller than those at the global scale (Turner et al. 1990b). But the linkages among regions in an open global system introduce a different set of complications.

The red data maps developed by Soviet geographers indicate critical areas where "normal" human activities are threatened or deemed no longer possible, but they do not reflect a systematic definition and assessment (Kochurov 1991; Mather and Sdasyuk 1991). Similarly, the US Water Resources Council's (1978) assessment of national water resources developed a "water-supply adequacy analysis model" based on the concept of a balance between use and supply to identify "critical" water problems. Some of these problems are attributable to poor distribution, use conflicts and competition, or physical scarcity. Here "criticality" suggests that existing and long-term water-based uses are threatened. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has identified "critical zones" and "critical countries" based upon the capacity of the land resources to support, or carry, current and projected populations (FAO 1984). Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) have sought to develop, for regions experiencing severe land degradation, a multidimensional analysis focused on human-induced land transformations. Other research on such diverse topics as photochemical smog, acid precipitation, desertification, and famine has also sought to identify "endangered" or "problem" regions.

Local approaches

Those regional approaches that focus on a specific locale become local approaches as well. The local scale, however, is also the arena of a different approach, in which "criticality" and "critical areas" are used to designate areas of critical importance or value, rather than areas in critical condition. For example, the Conservation Foundation (1984, 172) defines ecologically critical areas as "special ecosystems that serve unique functions and are small in area or are unusually fragile relative to others." Accordingly, the Foundation identifies a broad spectrum of wetlands as "critical" areas, based on their high level of biological productivity, their importance to a wide variety of wildlife, and their role in various physical processes. Similarly, the Endangered Species Act (1973) in the United States requires the development of a list of critical habitats that are necessary for the normal needs and survival of endangered or threatened species. Such areas and habitats are termed critical because their loss would be irreparable, they are particularly vulnerable to human-induced changes, and their degradation or loss may have wider implications, including loss of biodiversity and increased ecosystem instability. The US Bureau of Land Management's Areas of Critical Environmental Concern programme assesses those areas in need of "special management attention... to protect and prevent irreparable damage to their important historic, cultural, or scenic values, fish and wildlife resources, or other natural systems or processes" (Campbell and Wald 1989; FLPMA 1976). Such a definition of criticality need not be restricted to the local scale, of course; it might well serve to identify Amazonia as a globally critical zone because of its importance to the rest of the world as a reservoir of carbon and genetic diversity. In any case, however, referring as it does to the importance of an area rather than the degree to which it is currently threatened, it is not criticality in the sense in which we shall be using the term in this volume.

Regardless of the scale employed, a literature dealing explicitly or implicitly with criticality and endangerment exists. This work has developed in an ad hoc fashion, with no discernible movement toward a full-fledged conception of environmental endangerment or criticality. A more precise and systematic approach is needed to move beyond individual treatments and undertake comparative analyses.

Geocentric and anthropocentric approaches

Conceptualizing "critical" environmental areas is a challenging task because of the wide range of perspectives, many of them conflicting, from which the environmental threat or regional outcomes can be viewed. To simplify, we identify two polar positions - the geocentric and the anthropocentric - that appear to undergird some assessments of criticality or endangerment. These positions are similar to the extreme forms of what O'Riordan (1976) defines as "ecocentrism" and "technocentrism. "

The geocentric perspective defines criticality in terms of changes in physical attributes or ecological dimensions. Criticality is reached when human-induced perturbations have so altered the biophysical system that a different system, substantially less diverse and more ecologically "degraded," results. Examples include the creation of a new vegetation complex with fewer species or less biomass, or the conversion of wetlands, involving a loss of water and a transformation of the surface biomass-nutrient-fauna complex. The Soviet studies of "red data situations" have taken this geocentric approach, emphasizing the alteration of multiple environmental resource components and projecting such biophysical change as detrimental to long-term human uses of the environment (Kochurov 1991; Mather and Sdasyuk 1991).

The use of a purely geocentric definition would require the designation of most urban-industrial complexes and most major farming regions as critical or endangered environmental areas because of the profound transformations in a variety of environmental components (species loss, land-cover replacement, changes in soil and water composition). Such an approach draws out important information on the extent of ecological change, but it is not necessarily directly relevant to the prospects for continued human occupancy or human wellbeing, or to the grounds on which managerial intervention is likely to be undertaken.

If the geocentric perspective focuses on the physical environment to the exclusion of its human inhabitants, the anthropocentric perspective does the opposite. In perhaps the extreme exposition of this view (Simon and Kahn 1984), environmental constraints on human activity are minimized or even assumed away, and technological or social change is seen as potentially sufficient to deal with natural or human-induced environmental threats. Environmental losses or catastrophes are blamed principally on social structures that block the innovations and adaptations that could have prevented them. Views that regard disasters as essentially social phenomena and employ primarily social measures also to some degree reflect this orientation (Hewitt 1983; Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner 1983). Valuable in emphasizing the human dimensions of environmental degradation, this anthropocentric view typically underestimates or oversimplifies the varied ways in which the environment supports and sustains human life and wellbeing.

The valuable features of each approach and the contradictions between them suggest the need for an integrative, holistic approach to conceptualizing environmental threats. A judgement of criticality, in these perspectives, is typically based on the changes in either the physical or the human conditions of the zone, rather than on the details of their interaction. Experience suggests, however, that addressing rates and types of change in nature-society relations is essential to understanding environmental transformations, as is attention to both the fragility of the natural system and the societal ability to respond to environmental threats. A purely geocentric perspective can end up designating as "endangered" or "critical" a region that successfully maintains a large population and high standards of living and is likely to do so far into the future. This is a reality that will be repeatedly demonstrated in the chapters that follow in this volume. Correspondingly, a narrow anthropocentric perspective can easily offer unrealistic assessments based on assumptions about human ability to adapt to any environmental problem or to overcome any physical limits. Neither is adequate for the balanced approach to critical environmental situations needed to guide thoughtful analysis or judicious public policy.

Closely related to the concept of criticality is the notion of environmental degradation, and here again the geocentric and anthropocentric perspectives offer conflicting views. A geocentric definition of environmental degradation might equate such degradation with any human-induced change from the "natural" state; an anthropocentric one might see it as being at most an epiphenomenon of social maladjustment or conflate it with any form of social or economic decline. More useful is an interactive definition paralleling those offered by Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) and Turner and Benjamin (1993) for land degradation: environmental degradation is a decrease in the capacity of the environment as managed to meet its user demands. In a broad sense, of course, this definition, like our definition of criticality below, attaches central importance to the human significance of environmental change. It differs from the anthropocentric perspective discussed above, however, in recognizing the central place of the environment in gauging the costs, impacts, and limits of the societal responses.

A similarly integrative perspective on criticality is required. It must recognize the essential role of the environment in sustaining human life but recognize at the same time that not all elements of the environment are essential or equally important. It must also appreciate the essential role of human management and response. It should explicitly acknowledge continuing human adjustments and adaptations to environmental change, look beyond resource use to the broader realm of environmental interactions, take a long-term perspective, and place regions in their global context. It is to the construction of such an approach that we now turn, beginning with the key concepts upon which it must rest.

Contents - Previous - Next