Each day the sunrises and we begin our daily grind, we inevitably will be in touch with the ecology that surround us. When we run the water to brush our teeth and take our showers, when we get in our vehicles and drive to work, when we come home and check our email on our computers, when we call our friends on our cell phones, and when we dispose of our trash throughout our day.
Ecology is the study of our earth – it’s relationships with organisms and their environment, and how those relationships affect the planet. There is a lot we can do as a species to help our environment sustain itself. And a great way to begin is to get educated.
The term cultural ecology was coined by J.Stewart in his 1955 book, The Theory of Culture Change. It is the branch of ecology that involves the study of the interaction of human societies with one another and with the natural environment.
This may be carried out diachronically (examining entities that existed in different epochs), or synchronically (examining a present system and its components). Cultural ecology was one of the central tenets and driving factors in the development of processual archaeology in the 1960s, as archaeologists understood cultural change through the framework of environmental adaptation.
Let’s Get Specific
Cultural ecological studies tend to focus on specific cultures and frequently on specific facets of culture (e.g. production systems) in specific environments.
Although this ethnographic focus has led, particularly in previous decades, to an emphasis on ‘homeostatic’ settings (where human-environment interactions are more or less balanced), more recent studies have begun to pay greater attention to communities and settings where environmental degradation and negative environmental outcomes occur, particularly in developing countries.
Cultural Ecology / Adding Materialism in the Mix
Ecology blends environmental sciences with human culture. As such, culture, although created by human beings, necessarily includes dimensions of the material or objective and symbolic or subjective.
The material dimension of culture consists of a set of goods, utensils, practices and institutions created to face natural or objective physical circumstances. This material dimension of culture is made up of information technology, the market and political organization, that is, those institutions that allow human beings to satisfy their needs and find fulfilment.
Spiritual vs Symbolic
The symbolic dimension encompasses both the spiritual and the symbolic parts. It consists of the norms that rule each social group, that is, ideas, interpretations, beliefs, traditions and even aspirations. Both material and symbolic aspects allow us to understand that heritage is not only a set of monuments or natural reserves. Heritage also refers to spiritual legacy, beliefs and traditions.
Cultural ecology is constituted by the set of both material and symbolic aspects. We can consider physical and social facts and their interpretation. Any dysfunction in any aspect affects the others.
For example, we can see how damage in the ozone creates an environmental hazard that endangers life on earth. However, the changes brought about by environmental degradation will also create negative effects, or pressures, in social or political spheres.
A final general characteristic of cultural ecology approach is that it tends to focus on rural settings and strives hard to inspire urban dwellers to develop a more acceptable sustainable cultural relationship with the environment that supports them.
Despite the urban themes introduced by related approaches such as human ecology, the urban environment has yet to receive significant attention by cultural ecologists.
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