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Now updated and expanded, People and Nature is a lively, accessible introduction to environmental anthropology that focuses on the interactions between people, culture, and nature around the world. * Written by a respected scholar in environmental anthropology with a multi-disciplinary focus that also draws from geography, ecology, and environmental studies * Addresses new issues of importance, including climate change, population change, the rise of the slow food and farm-to-table movements, and consumer-driven shifts in sustainability * Explains key theoretical issues in the field, as well as the most important research, at a level appropriate for readers coming to the topic for the first time * Discusses the challenges in ensuring a livable future for generations to come and explores solutions for correcting the damage already done to the environment * Offers a powerful, hopeful future vision for improved relations between humans and nature that embraces the idea of community needs rather than consumption wants, and the importance of building trust as a foundation for a sustainable future

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Primers in Anthropology

Each volume in this series offers a lively take on a traditional area of anthropological study. Written explicitly for nonspecialists by top scholars, these concise books provide theoretically sophisticated yet accessible and engaging introductions. They will be invaluable to students and all those who seek pithy overviews on central topics.


People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations, Second Edition

Emilio F. Moran

Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, Second Edition

Laura M. Ahearn

People and Nature

An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations

Second Edition

Emilio F. Moran









This second edition first published 2017© 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Edition history: Blackwell Publishing Ltd (1e, 2006)

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Library of Congress Cataloging‐in‐Publication Data

Names: Moran, Emilio F., author.Title: People and nature : an introduction to human ecological relations / Emilio F. Moran.Description: Second edition. | Chichester, West Sussex, UK : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., [2017] | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2016016091| ISBN 9781118877470 (pbk.) | ISBN 9781118877319 (epdf) | ISBN 9781118877418 (epub)Subjects: LCSH: Nature–Effect of human beings on. | Human beings–Effect of environment on. | Environmental degradation. | Environmental policy.Classification: LCC GF75 .M67 2017 | DDC 304.2–dc23LC record available at

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Cover image: Getty/jakkreethampitakkull




This book is dedicated toMARIA CLAUDIA,

with love and affection

Preface to the Second Edition

My goal in this book, in its first edition and in this new second edition, is to introduce the reader to the evidence, both historical and contemporary, for how the reciprocal interactions between people and nature have developed, the urgency for action now to prevent truly disastrous consequences, and to make the reader reflect as to how we might go about doing so. While the book does not follow the usual organization for an introduction to human ecology, cultural ecology, or ecological anthropology text, it does cover much of this material in what I hope is a more engaging organization. In this second edition I have added a new chapter on Population and Environment that provides an up‐to‐date discussion of the challenge to sustainability coming from our growing population. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the role of population, and population growth, that needs demystification and I hope this chapter begins to do that. In this book, all chapters have been substantially updated, and some topics have received expanded treatment such as sustainability, positive responses to the environmental crisis, more about climate change and changes in the mindset of some corporations that recognize the urgency of responding to climate change. I give priority to recognizing that this subject is not just of academic interest, but has to do with our very existence on this planet as biological and social entities. That having been said, the solutions must come from people as cultural and historical entities, and the solutions that people come up with will vary across the planet as a result of this rich human and biological diversity. There are no truly global solutions, no panaceas, to contemporary global environmental problems but, rather, a diversity of pathways to achieve sustainability.

Because the book is written to engage the reader from the outset, I hope it is of interest to the lay reader who wishes to be up to date on the evidence for our current crisis, and who is looking for possible ways to think and to act about this urgent problem. One of the important messages in the book is that changing business‐as‐usual (which has gotten us in this current environmental crisis) begins with individuals making choices to change their priorities. This means changing consumption behavior (i.e., to give priority to meeting human needs not our infinite wants); changing behavioral patterns (e.g., turning off the television, walking instead of driving); and sending a message to government and industry that we want a very different set of goods and services delivered to us consumers, products more attuned with the value of our natural world – of which we are an integral part.

I have tried to minimize the use of jargon, although in the interest of accuracy I have sometimes left technical terms in the text but tried to provide a clear sense of the meaning. Throughout the book I use the term “we,” in many cases referring to those of us who live in urban‐industrial societies of the West and North. Sometimes it is used to refer to us as members of the human species. I trust the difference will be clear in the context in which it is used. Because of the language in which this is written originally (i.e., English), and its distributor (i.e., WileyBlackwell), the text is written with a Euro‐American audience in mind primarily. There is a Portuguese language edition, Nos e a Natureza, published in São Paulo by Editora SENAC, 2008. The Portuguese edition seems to have communicated just as effectively as the English edition. I do not see why it might not communicate clearly to readers in other languages, but there would surely be some changes I would make if it were, for example, translated into Japanese or Chinese. For example, the discussion in Chapter 2 and thereafter with regards to the Western dichotomy between people and nature, or nature and society, addresses a particular problem in Western philosophy, which many other societies would find peculiar and interesting but less central to how they might go about addressing the current environmental crisis. I welcome readers to write to me with thoughts on how that discussion might be different in an Asian cultural and historical context.

This book owes a debt of gratitude to many, many people. If I were to name each and every one I am grateful to I am afraid this section would run for many pages. My thoughts have been influenced by many professors over the years, many colleagues who have read and commented on my work, many students whose ideas have inspired me and make me happier each year that I chose the academic path that I did. I have been particularly influenced by colleagues in the global environmental change community with whom I have worked over the past two decades, whether in scientific steering committees such as the Land Use and Land Cover Change Program and the Large Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia, or in the National Research Council’s Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change. Service on these committees brought me in close contact with some of the finest scholars in the world on these issues of the environment, and they have inspired and encouraged me to write a book that is not just academic but passionately engaged. I want to thank the many friends who provided encouragement, and family members who were not only patient with me, but gave me the love and sense of community that I see as fundamental to our future as a species on this planet.


In addition to the broad thanks I extended above, I want to thank my Wiley‐Blackwell editors, Mark Graney and Ben Thatcher, who were supportive of this project and who provided just the right amount of push to ensure that this second edition made its way into print in a timely manner. The input provided by Mark from a survey of users of the first edition was very helpful in making the revisions, as was the input of Professor Lorraine Aragon, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She had her students provide very detailed and useful comments and suggestions to make the book more compelling. Many of the video and supplementary materials come from their suggestions. My graduate research assistants Cristina Gauthier and Thania Cristina dos Santos, at Michigan State University, did a wonderful job of going after images, updating figures and tables, and obtaining the necessary permissions. I want to thank Indiana University, which over many years supported my scholarly endeavors, and my colleagues in anthropology, geography, political science, sociology, history, and environmental sciences who were valuable sounding boards for many of the ideas in the first edition. I want to thank in this second edition my new colleagues at Michigan State University for providing me with a warm welcome to my new academic home, for the excellent research facilities, and continued stimulation that makes this second edition possible, and I hope, even better than the first.

I welcome the thoughts from each of you, readers. Every book, and every idea, is a work in progress. I welcome you to send me your thoughts on how we might better meet the challenge that we all face as members of the human species on this beautiful planet.

Emilio F. MoranEast Lansing, Michigan

1Human Agency and the State of the Earth


Each year, a well‐known non‐governmental organization publishes a State‐of‐the‐Earth report. The story told in this report has not changed much in the past 30 years: the Earth continues to be treated with little thought for the future. More and more species are going extinct. Wetlands are disappearing, endangering the migration routes of birds. Unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide threaten our climate system, coral reefs, and the Antarctic ice sheets. Our closest ape relatives are finding less and less of their habitat left standing to ensure their survival. The story goes on, giving cause for considerable alarm. Even with the rise of a discourse about sustainability in recent years (e.g. Christen and Schmidt 2012; National Research Council 2014), there is little evidence that governments are succeeding in implementing concrete strategic policies which ensure a sustainable Earth system as a practical objective. The Kyoto Protocol and subsequent targets fail to be reached time after time. Without effective action to ensure the sustainability of the world’s ecological systems, our days on this planet may be counted. A recent article in the New York Times, by an astrobiologist, thoughtfully pointed out that there have probably been other planets where populations may have failed to act in time and became uninhabitable. Are we on our way to that fate? Or will we act to ensure that the state of the Earth will be more promising than it looks now?

We have in the past 60 years, changed nearly every aspect of our relationship with nature. Yes, the Industrial Revolution began some 300 years ago and we have been gradually increasing our impacts on the Earth over that period (Turner et al. 1990). In the past 10,000 years, in various times and places, we have had impacts that were considerable at local scale (Redman 1999; Redman et al. 2004). But never before has our impact been at planetary scale, and that is what we are having trouble understanding. As a species we think and act locally. That has been our hallmark and the reason for our success spreading over the face of the Earth – except that we have for the first time in human evolution begun to have a cumulative impact that is not just local but global (Wilbanks and Kates 1999).

Our impact in the past 60 years has no analogue. We have no equivalent experience in our entire history or prehistory as a species, for what we are currently doing to the Earth. Throughout this book I use the term “we” most often in referring to our species. However, in terms of current impact, this “we” does not apply evenly across all members of the human family. Many ethnic populations throughout the world have a much lighter impact on the planet than members of urban–industrial societies, and have very different conceptualizations of how to treat nature (Descola 1994; Descola and Palsson 1996; Rappaport 1968). I trust readers will be able to distinguish what I mean throughout the book.

The burden on the planet today is coming from urban–industrial societies and this “we” has to step forward now and take responsibility for solving the problem it has created. We must lead by example and we can see examples all over the world of actions contrarian to the choices that got us into this crisis. While still only incipient, there is strong evidence of local but globally connected feedback: a growing movement to eat not fast food but slow food (local food grown organically with care for agro‐ecosystem integrity); a growing recycling movement; rapidly developing solar power installation (in homes and corporations) growing fast enough to worry the utility companies; and a host of other sustainability efforts that are beginning to make a difference at local scale and perhaps in due time at global scale. For example, the local food movement accounts for about 5 percent of current food supply. An increasing number of farmers are learning no‐till methods, even in the highly mechanized US farming context (Goode 2015), which already account for 35 percent of cropland in the United States. For some crops, no‐tillage acreage has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. For soybeans, it rose to 30 million acres in 2012 from 16.5 million acres in 1996. The planting of cover crops – legumes and other species rotated with cash crops to blanket the soil year round and act as a green manure – has also risen in acreage about 30 percent a year according to surveys (Goode 2015). These practices increase organic matter in the soil, provide nitrogen and other nutrients, and increase yields – especially by adding to soil moisture retention. “Each one percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre” said Claire O’Connor (Goode 2015). This is particularly important in drought‐prone areas and regions facing the specter of future water deficits from extreme climate events. This is the sort of paradigm shift we are beginning to see across any number of domains, and which shows that conservation and a healthier environment can go hand in hand with increased profitability.

While governments bicker over how they might meet the challenge of climate change, industry and corporations are beginning to lead. Joe Kaeser, the Chief Executive Officer of Siemens, a global manufacturing company of considerable influence, has gone on record to cut its global carbon footprint in half by 2020 and to be carbon neutral by 2030 (Kaeser 2015). To do this they plan to invest more than $110 million to improve efficiency in their facilities worldwide. They will increase use of solar and gas with smart grid and energy storage solutions and they will buy clean power. They expect these changes will allow them to recover their $110 million investment in just five years and to produce $20 million in savings thereafter. These are the sorts of decisive actions that if followed by other large industries could have cumulative global results, and break the political gridlock that prevents even more pervasive policy‐driven solutions. It shows that the crisis is solvable if only every one acted to protect our planet.

These positive developments, encouraging as they may be that we can turn things around, should not lead to complacency. The evidence tells us of unabated exponential increase in carbon dioxide, exponential rates of ozone depletion and nitrous oxide concentrations in the atmosphere, rapid and continuing losses of tropical rainforests, increases in the frequency of natural disasters, and in the rate of species extinctions (see Figure 1.3 later in this chapter). The same can be said for fertilizer consumption, damming of rivers, water use, paper consumption, the number of people living in cities, and the continuing increase in the number of motor vehicles. There has also been a steady increase in the last 60 years in the incidence of armed conflict worldwide (Kates and Parris 2003: 8062). In 1992, one‐third of the world’s countries were involved in such conflicts, and in that year 40 million refugees and displaced persons were affected by armed conflicts (ibid.). These figures do not include the growing globalization of both terror and crime beyond state borders. Some have described this growing conflict in terms of “the coming anarchy” and as a “clash of civilizations” (ibid.). This growing terror has only increased further in the decade since the first edition of this book appeared. Disparities in income and access to resources have an important influence on these conflicts, since the lives of so many have been impoverished by loss of land, displacement, and declining economic opportunity.

The exponential increase in all these measurable phenomena is tied most fundamentally to two factors: the increase in the human population and our consumption habits (Curran and de Sherbinin 2004). Indeed, one must think of these two factors in tandem. One Euro‐American citizen consumes 32 times the resources than one average citizen from Malawi, Guatemala, or another less‐developed country does (Diamond 2008; Redclift 1996; Wernick 1997). While we worry about obesity in many developed countries, other nations worry about inadequate food security or access to clean water. Dependence on fossil fuels is but a reflection of these differences (see Figure 1.1). While birth rates have steadily declined to replacement level or even below in developed countries, these populations continue to impact the Earth’s resources at least as much as the larger populations in developing countries. Both “the North” (i.e., developed countries) and “the South” (i.e., developing countries) have a huge impact on nature, the former through consumption, and the latter through population increases. If we want to leave an Earth worth living in to our children, both the North and South will need to change how they go about their business (Rosales 2008). Yet, changing business‐as‐usual, i.e., our “culture,” world‐view, and values, is easier said than done.

Figure 1.1 Highway gridlock, Kansas City traffic.

Source:, used under CC BY ND 2.0‐nd/2.0/.

Whether in the North or South, specific societies have deeply held cultural and historical traditions that have both positive and negative elements that facilitate and hinder our capacity to respond to the current crisis in the Earth system. Looking to our own societies in North America and Europe, we can point positively to democratic institutions that provide effective mechanisms for citizens to respond to information provided to them whether about the effectiveness of schools in educating children, political priorities, or the state of the local environment. Yet, if democratic institutions are among the best mechanisms available to societies to respond to information, how do we explain the lack of responsiveness in the United States to the growing evidence for a global environmental crisis? Battig and Bernauer (2009), based on a cross‐sectional analysis of 185 countries, find that democracies have not yet been able to overcome the free‐rider problem consistently. Side by side with democratic institutions, the United States is characterized by a culture of individualism (Bellah et al. 1986), and a greater value is given to capital accumulation as a measure of a person’s worth than in almost any other society. This pair of cultural values tends to sway a great portion of the citizenry against environmental regulations (or any government regulations) – seeing them as costly and thus likely to increase taxes on individuals, and to raise the cost of environmental goods and services. Even the promotion of public transportation as a response to reducing fossil fuel emissions is opposed by many in the United States on the grounds that it limits personal freedom to go about as one pleases, despite the costs to the country (in terms of dependence on foreign oil supplies), and the globe (in terms of emission of Earth‐warming gases). So, while the great majority of Americans see themselves as “environmentalists” (Kempton et al. 1995), many do not make a connection between this identity and the need to restrain their use of the personal car, as the latter infringes on their individual freedom. Response to climate change evidence is mediated by factors such as education, gender, and where one lives, which further impact perceptions and can differ from local to global scales (Brody et al. 2008; Crona et al. 2013).

In all societies one sees conflicting cultural values as well as partisan lobbies to benefit a segment of society without regard for the benefit accruing to, or costs incurred by, others or to the condition of the environment. Europe has similar traditions to the United States in a number of regards (democratic institutions, capitalism) but it does not value individualism above the common good (there are significant differences even within Europe on the degree of value given to the common good but in none of them does it reach US levels). This has made it possible for Europe to more quickly accept reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 1992 levels, than for the United States and thus to support the Kyoto Protocol on the emission of greenhouse gases. In the Netherlands, an already conscientious country when it comes to environmental issues, civil society took the government to court in 2015 and won its case arguing that the government had been too slow to implement policies to address global environmental change! Europe’s position has continued in subsequent environmental summits and has resulted in a profound rift between the more advanced nations of Western Europe and the United States over the willingness of the former to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions, and the unwillingness of the latter to do so. In Europe, planning for adaptation and mitigation of climate change is routine and is addressed broadly at national scale as well as in specific cities (Reckien et al. 2014). The use, and misuse, of the Earth’s resources is at the very center of international negotiations, the global political economy, and the fate of nations.

Each country will have a slightly different twist to its story: a product of the historically contingent nature of human affairs. Other countries may lack, for example, the democratic institutions’ capacity to mobilize the populace in its own interest, but they may have rulers who respond quickly to evidence for environmental crisis: witness the rapid reforestation of China in the past 30 years, following decades of rapid deforestation (Fang et al. 2001). The pace of the reforestation has been without equal in the world, despite the many economic constraints faced by China and its vast population. The crop‐to‐green program has been increasing forested areas and in areas with the right growing conditions the use of bamboo forests has been promoted to farmers because of its fast growth rate, ability to capture carbon dioxide, and then its many uses (which avoid the re‐emission of carbon and provides economic incentives to farmers making it economically attractive). In recent years concern has grown that this greening of China has been accomplished at the expense of deforestation in places like Brazil which have become suppliers of soybeans to China thereby freeing parts of China from having to grow all the food it consumes (Liu et al. 2013; Qi et al. 2008). It is not being suggested here that authoritarian regimes are a solution to environmental problems but, rather, that each nation faces different sets of challenges, based upon their political, economic and cultural situation. In short, there is no single solution to the current global environmental crisis. Human agents in specific places will need to work within the constraints and opportunities provided by their physical, social, economic, and cultural setting. This is why in solving environmental problems we must see human agents not just as “the problem” but also as the source of the solutions (Agrawal 2005: 181). There are no ready‐made solutions for all nations but only a challenge to be faced by nations in addressing problems that cut across national boundaries and that affect people at a variety of scales from local to regional to national to global (Westlund 2013).

People concerned with the current environmental crisis, whether environmentalists or not, face a fundamental divergence in values, even if they agree on objectives. This divergence has been characterized in a variety of ways: as a divergence between a biocentric view of nature and one that is anthropocentric; or as a “deep” vis‐à‐vis a “shallow” ecology; and as the rift between Moralists and Aggregators (Norton 1991). Moralists, deep ecologists, and biocentrists view nature and its creatures as having as many rights as humans do (e.g., John Muir, one of the founders and first President of the Sierra Club), whereas Aggregators, shallow ecologists, and anthropocentrists tend to give humans a higher place and seek to balance the goals of conservation and development (e.g., Gifford Pinchot, who brought scientific forestry from Europe to the United States and created the field we now know as “conservation” with the support of Teddy Roosevelt). John Muir, who traveled with Gifford Pinchot in 1896 to the Grand Canyon, comments in his writings that he stopped Pinchot from killing a tarantula they came across “because it has as much right there as we did” (quoted in Norton 1991: 17). Pinchot, on the other hand, equated happiness in utilitarian terms and thus saw no conflict between timber production and grazing as legitimate and even desirable uses of national forests. By contrast, Muir fought him when these economic uses came at the expense of aesthetic considerations and other less obvious goals such as watershed protection. Muir represented a scientific tradition associated with older naturalists who combined aesthetic, moral, and scientific ideas – what Norton (1991: 34) calls an “ecstatic science.” His legacy provided preservationists with a deep respect for holistic explanations, and a longing for a science that did not banish values and awe from the process of observing and protecting nature. He differed from Pinchot largely in wanting to see the aesthetic goals as important as those of economics. Pinchot, by contrast, thought that forestry science should be value‐free, a notion that Muir scoffed at. Despite their differences, they co‐created the environmentalist movement in the United States and they laid the ground for debates that still rage today, between using nature for human ends, and valuing nature for itself.

These polarized views found a degree of synthesis in Aldo Leopold’s 1948 classic, A Sand County Almanac. Leopold accepted and elaborated on Muir’s views of ecstatic science, rejected the value‐free scientific model of Pinchot, and pointed to an organic synthesis based upon a cultural conception of the good life. Thus, the resource manager’s role was that of helping the public develop an ecological conscience – a conscience that had to grow from one’s own history as a nation deeply entwined with nature. His views swung between an anthropocentric and a biocentric focus, because both are needed, and environmentalists on the whole since then manifest different degrees of this organic synthesis. The debate will never be fully resolved because human choices are always contingent, and people will make use of resources. The question is how they restrain such resource use, when, where, and for what purpose.

The nature–culture dichotomy has been central to Western thinking since time immemorial. It allowed some progress to be made in developing both materialist and symbolic approaches to human– environment interactions – but it also impeded progress by keeping these two valid perspectives apart, rather than seeking a synthesis as Leopold sought to do (Descola and Palsson 1996). Evidence has accumulated that the dualist paradigm is inadequate in treating the organic relations between people and nature. Many societies that have been studied by anthropologists and geographers, have lacked this kind of dualistic thinking, and provide an empirical foundation for challenging this kind of thinking. The Achuar of the Upper Amazon, for example, consider most plants and animals as persons, living in societies of their own, entering into relations with humans according to strict rules of social behavior. Game animals are treated as affines by men, while cultivated plants are treated as kin by women (Descola 1994). The nature–culture dichotomy is inadequate in making sense out of non‐Western realities, and even of Western ones. In short, to understand both humanity and the rest of the natural world, we need new ways to think about the interactions taking place. A monistic or biocultural approach to these interactions would take us part of the way there. People are part of the environment and, likewise, the environment is part of the person (Descola and Palsson 1996: 18). But since the dichotomy is deeply ingrained in Western philosophy and practice, we face a constant linguistic challenge to formulate the place of people in nature free of this in‐grained mental dichotomy.

This Western philosophical fault line between nature and humanity stands in the way of resolving our environmental crises. Tim Ingold, in his book The Perception of the Environment (2000), offered a synthesis derived from developmental biology, ecological psychology, and relational approaches in anthropology. His approach begins by thinking about people as organisms‐in‐their‐environment, rather than apart from it. Crucial to this way of thinking is the consideration of exactly how people‐as‐organisms act towards the nature within which they find themselves. Materialist‐thinking analysts tend to oversimplify this process by suggesting that individual organisms or agents respond largely to the material conditions of life, while more cultural or non‐materialist analysts tend to suggest that agents act according to memory, symbolism, social relations, and other factors (e.g., Rival 1998). It is in this domain, in particular, that one needs to move away from these dichotomies and push towards a synthesis wherein the agent, or organism, acts in a holistic fashion that does justice to the nuanced way in which we all make decisions in whatever context we find ourselves.

Thinking less dichotomously will allow us to think more like other societies. The Cartesian dichotomy between humans and nature is a peculiar notion in Western society that is not widely shared cross‐culturally. Most peoples in the world do not externalize nature in this manner. Rather, they see humans as very much a part of nature. In its more extreme forms it takes the form of ideologies where we are reincarnated in forms other than human (i.e., plant, animal), and vice versa. Mythologies across the globe have always pointed to the close connection in both origin and continuity between animals in nature and us; between the plants in the landscape and our spiritual and material lives (Pretty 2002: 13). Australian Aborigines’ Dreamtime embodies these beliefs, for example, in how the land came to be, how closely they are still connected to these ancestors, and why the land must be respected – that it belongs to no one, but that it belongs to everyone.

One of the challenges before us in contemporary society is how to re‐conceptualize the interactions between people and nature. One step forward is to think organically, as organisms‐in‐nature, bringing our own versions of meaning to it in accordance with our histories. Dichotomous thinking led us to think of people as apart from nature, and charged with controlling nature for human purposes – and, crucially, as distinct from the inherent dynamics of the Earth system itself. It is from this error that a lot of our post World War II spiral towards destruction comes. Treating the whole of nature as we treat industrial products, as if it was inanimate, as if what we did to it did not matter to us. It does matter, and profoundly so. What happens to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land upon which we depend for our food matters. If we take care of it, it will nurture us – and if we damage its capacity to provide us with sustainable goods and services, and the comfort of aesthetic beauty, we will put ourselves at risk. We cannot do this alone, but it must be a partnership of trust in human communities bound by covenants that favor life over material accumulation, that favor dignity for members of the community and the pleasures of taking care of each other, and nature, as the highest good. We need to re‐conceptualize our relations with each other, and with nature – and to think of human agents as organic parts of nature.

Can One Conceive of Ecosystems Without Human Agents?

It is a lovely fantasy to think of ecological systems in the absence of human agents – a fantasy used frequently in the past in ecology when speaking of natural systems in the absence of humans (e.g., Ricklefs 2001), and indeed there was a time many millions of years ago when that was a reality. Yet, it is also true that for several hundred thousands of years, human agents have been having a steady impact on the structure, function, areal extent, and species composition of the Earth’s ecosystems (Cronon 1996; Ricklefs 2001). This has two important consequences to how we begin to develop solutions and strategies for a sustainable planet: one, there was a time when we were not running the Earth down; and two, the crisis is relatively recent and reversible if we act with consistency and alacrity.

Ecologists in the past had a tendency to blame human agents for our current crisis, and indeed there is some merit in this view, as we will see throughout this book (Ricklefs 2001). However, doing so does not begin to move us towards solutions. Ricklefs notes that Cronon in his 1996 book, Uncommon Ground, challenges the ecologists’ view of pristine nature, of nature as tending towards a self‐restoring equilibrium when left alone, and that in the absence of human interference nature exists in a pristine state. Natural processes “disturb” ecosystems just as much as humans can, as one can observe in events such as hurricanes, droughts, and volcanic eruptions. Recovery from these natural extreme events can occur, just as it can when the disturbance is anthropogenic. Ricklefs (2001) agrees that recent ecological studies show major variations in nature and with and without human “interference” nature experiences cyclical disturbance. Human presence adds a further element of change into the processes of nature. Fortunately, we know one thing: human agents are eminently self‐interested and capable of amazing self‐organization when properly motivated and led. So, if we are so capable of looking after ourselves, and to organize to achieve our goals, why are we in the current crisis? I think the answer lies in our evolutionary tendency to think primarily in terms of our local territories or immediate environment, even though our contemporary capacity to use resources from distant places has grown enormously (Bates 2001; Bodley 1996). We still have not been able to internalize the consequences of our contemporary consumption of environmental resources from throughout the world, and have not developed effective, believable ways, to have the information and feedback on what the impact of our consumption has been in those distant places. In other words, economic globalization since World War II has been very effective at using global resources, but not in giving consumers the information they need to make a decision on whether they want to have that kind of impact. That has not always been the case in how we use resources.

In the past, human agents went out from their communities to gather needed resources to sustain their population at a very local level. We must recall that for most of our experience as a species, we were hunter‐gatherers (Bicchieri 1972; Lee and DeVore 1968, 1976). The range of a given hunter‐gatherer band was fairly limited, and when they overused resources they were forced to move considerable distances until they could find another familiar territory, not occupied by others, to sustain them. As hunter‐gatherer populations increased, they found themselves running into other bands, and experiencing conflict with them. In short, it was preferable in many cases to limit the group’s consumption to sustainable levels, rather than face a very uncertain access to distant and possibly dangerous territories.

Even with the advances in control made possible by domestication of plants and animals, human agents could easily understand how the local land and water were affected by their agricultural management. What was happening in China’s fertile valleys was of no interest to those living in Europe, or those living in Africa. It mattered only to parts of China dependent on production from those fertile river valleys. Products came from relatively close distances and anyone could assess whether they were putting themselves at risk through given practices or levels of consumption. There were, without any doubt, many cases of poor judgment in human history, but in those cases populations paid a dear price and had to move or take some other radical path to survive – and these processes took centuries rather than decades (Diamond 2005; Redman 1999).

Those familiar ways to adjust our behavior to existing resources are completely changed now for much of the human populations of the Earth. Today, whether in China, Germany, Argentina, or the United States, human agents can obtain coffee from Brazil, Sumatra, or Kenya, bananas from Honduras, Philippines, or Gabon, fish from oceans on the other side of the world, and powdered milk from places unspecified on the label of the cans. The human consumer has no way to know how much forest was cut to grow that coffee, how many people were displaced to make room for those banana plantations, what fish stock was depleted, or how much methane was emitted by that hog farm. In short, we have a complete disconnect today between what goods we use on the Earth and the consequences of that use on people and nature. In short, we lack information on the consequences of our consumption.

If we are to begin to move towards a sustainable Earth system, we must start to have awareness of what we do – no matter where it might occur – and to reflect on whether that is an impact we want to have. Just as consumer movements have, after much effort, succeeded in having many products labeled by corporations as to their nutritional and caloric content, we need to consider requiring that products indicate where they come from, and to post in public sites on the internet, environmental impact statements that give consumers an idea of what the cost to socio‐ecological systems is of that form of resource use in that place. Is this naïve? It certainly would be difficult, and companies promoting use of their products would oppose this form of exposure to consumer evaluation. Consumers driven only by lower prices would certainly not take the trouble to read an “impact label.” But let’s consider the options. The most common one has been to think of prices as the best regulator of consumer choice. In this case, however, prices are insidious in their consequence – as the products with the least concern for environmental impacts are likely to be cheaper and thus more attractive to the consumer resulting in an ever‐increasing spiral of products with higher environmental impact. As we will see later in this book, it is the human agents individually, and through their institutions, which must demand that consumer products be responsibly produced and consumed, using their ability to choose to consume a given item or not as a tool in changing business‐as‐usual. In Chapter 9, I go into considerable detail on strategies to begin to change business‐as‐usual and to regain control over how we can interact with nature in ways that are more biocentric.

The question at present is whether consumers have choices given to them between items with different environmental impact (Zepeda et al. 2013). The greatest difficulty comes from the propensity of policymakers in many places to respond more to the lobby of powerful companies, than to the demands of citizens. Companies currently make efforts to show the public and shareholders that they are responsible corporate citizens towards the environment (Spitzeck 2009). To that end they produce visually attractive brochures showing their contributions to environmental conservation. At the same time, they engage in lobbying activities that prevent enactment of legislation that regulates their emissions into the environment. It is difficult for the average citizen to be cognizant of these two faces of a given company and to be able to decide whether to consume products from a given company on the grounds of their environmental position or products. The internet is providing new ways to find out information previously hidden from consumers and social media can be an enormous force for a more informed citizenry on environmental issues.

Human Agency: Individuals Making a Difference

There is a very fine line between endowing individuals with agency, or the ability to take decisions and actions, and ignoring them altogether. In ecology, we have tended to do the latter. Reading almost any major text or popular book (e.g., E. Odum, Ricklefs, Miller, to name just a few of the most popular ones), we read about how people disturb natural ecosystems, degrade a landscape, or pollute rivers. Just as the socialist literature treated the workers as a lumpenproletariat (i.e., as an aggregate proletarian mass), so does ecological analysis sometimes treat people as homogenously the cause of environmental problems without recognizing the diverse ways that people in fact act towards their physical environment. Not all people in developed society behave destructively towards the environment, nor are all people in developing countries noble in how they treat nature. But in giving individuals the attention they deserve, and in trying to understand their actions, we can also fail to see the complex and diverse patterns in their actions. After all, human agency takes place within an environmental and social matrix, and individuals are members of social groups with distinct shared economic, social, cultural, and political interests. Recent studies point to cases where efforts to emphasize participation by less privileged elements of society, such as the poor or indigenous populations, can result in new forms of coercion (Neumann 1997) and new types of colonialism (Boanada Fuchs 2015). Thus, in ensuring that we give individual human agents their due, we must balance this attention with a concern for how agents gain or lose autonomy in the process of sustainable development. Practice theory, which examines the interaction between agents and social structures, can be particularly relevant (Bingen 2012).

It is all too appropriate to consider how human agency can make a difference, and how social movements can make an even greater difference. Individuals, as members of given societies, do not represent the entire society but some segment of it characterized by a given social and economic origin, acquired education and wealth, and political linkages to segments of society. As such, when individuals act, they commonly represent the interests of those parts of the social fabric within which they are embedded – although on occasion they rise above those origins and represent the interests of those less fortunate than they socially, economically, or politically. Time and again we see evidence of how an individual through his or her actions can change how we think about the world, and what we might do. Think of Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring (1962), and how it launched the modern environmental movement. She, herself, may not have had the right characteristics to lead the environmental movement, but she laid the foundations for public concern and outrage over what was happening to our streams and water. Others, more capable at public mobilization, followed and took action that over the next several decades provided protection of species, of air and water, and of landscapes under threat.

In short, human agency does make a difference whether expressed as ideas in books and articles, in speeches, or in action. Until 1985, there were hardly any stories in any major magazine or newspaper about Amazonian deforestation – even though there had been a growing discussion of it in scientific journals, and research attesting to the rapid rates of forest destruction. The appearance of an interview with Tom Lovejoy in the New York Times, Science Times section, in 1985, mobilized overnight the considerable resources of the press and other media and over the next decade there was an exponential growth in the number of stories in major newspapers and magazines that resulted not only in stories but also in considerable international pressure on Brazil to stop the subsidies to cattle ranchers which were fueling the high rates of deforestation – and resulted in a temporary but notable decline in both subsidies and rates of deforestation. It also resulted in funding being provided for research to monitor and understand the impact of deforestation on biodiversity, biogeochemistry, hydrology, land use and land cover, and socio‐economic impacts (e.g., Gutman et al. 2004; Keller et al. 2009, Moran and Ostrom 2005; Steffen et al. 2003).

Lay people’s views of climate change, just as an example, can differ from scientific evidence. Ethnographic research by anthropologist Willett Kempton (1991) showed that most informants had heard of the greenhouse effect but that they conceptualized climate change very differently from scientists because they interpreted it in terms of stratospheric ozone depletion, plant photosynthesis, tropospheric pollution, and personal experience with temperature variation. Concern with species extinction was high but unspecific. Few informants in the study recognized the connection between energy consumption and global warming, and they did not view their fuel consumption as subject to much change. These views are further explored in Kempton et al. (1995).