Ecology and Human Motives and Methods

by Stacy Clifford

            Ecological behavior could be defined in one sense as a way of interacting with the environment which preserves the environment’s ability to support life in the long term.  It may sound like a noble ideal to us, but throughout history most people have had little time to pursue ideals simply because they are noble.  They need good reasons to behave a certain way, which usually means that behaving that way will enhance their ability to survive.  Certain factors such as resource availability, social pressures, and technology are sufficient to press most individuals into a need to conserve the resources they have at hand.  From there, it becomes a matter of what is the best way of doing so for each person or community.

            Humans tend to credit themselves with uniqueness as often and in as many ways as they can in order to differentiate themselves from other animals.  We often seem to imagine that we are the only animals that can change our environment in a short period of time in such a way that the effects are more or less permanent.  While this is not entirely true (elephants are often prodigious landscapers, as are beavers, ants, and Dutch elm disease), we do seem to be the only ones who can radically alter the methods we use within the lifetime of a single individual to achieve a specific, pre-planned goal.  This ability to change our behavior allows us to quickly or even simultaneously try different ways of living in our environment that in most other cases would require gradual change over generations and probably result in the branching off of new species for each different behavior.  For instance, leaf-cutter ants farm fungus, other ants ranch aphids, and army ants are nomadic hunters.  Humans have tried all three lifestyles with great success.  Because we are not ants, however, we must do things on a bit larger scale, meaning the environment must be altered to a greater degree to maintain the same lifestyle.  Our ability to make complex tools to aid us in doing things our body was not built for (i.e. plowing) amplifies this effect further, even beyond the ability of giants such as elephants to denude large sections of forest for a few weeks worth of food.  We can not only tear down all the trees, but we can dig up the stumps, burn off the ground cover, and let all the good soil get washed down the river.  Our ability to change our behavior individually, however, allows us to decide whether we should destroy indiscriminately, selectively, or not at all, or to change the system in a way that makes it easier to get what we need to live without completely destroying anything.  Each individual therefore has a choice: to strip the resources in an area and move on to a new source, or to stay and manage the resources of that area.

            Which choice is made usually depends on the initial conditions of the environment.  In an environment rich in resources, people often see little need to moderate their consumption or to try and put something back in return, presuming that there is plenty to go around and there is no danger of running out in the foreseeable future.  In an area less well endowed, there is a greater urgency to stretch what is available to make it last, and perhaps even to recycle resources where possible.

            The social habits of a people, particularly their mobility, can play a very important part in how they choose to treat the land.  In those people with a strong territorial instinct who intend to stake out a place of their own and stay there, strong consideration is usually made of ways to make the resources of the area last throughout the person’s lifetime.  In nearly all societies, children inherit their parents’ belongings, including land, so that it is desirable to make the resources of the land last many lifetimes to ensure the survival of the genetic line.  Nomadic peoples, on the other hand, while practicing great economy of portable resources, experience much less pressure to make the resources of a particular area last a long time, because they likely will not return for a long enough period of time that the land has a chance to recover.  They can simply use an area until its resources run out, and then move on to someplace else fresh and untouched.  Semi-nomadic peoples who roam large but well-defined territories, returning periodically to certain areas such as seasonal grazing pastures, are caught in the middle.  While they can exploit the land to a greater degree than someone who must use it year-round, they cannot afford to strip it to such an extent that it will take many years to recover.

            Socioeconomic status comes in to play as well.  Poor people have to conserve what resources they have, and usually have few if any opportunities to gain more in the struggle just to stay alive.  They cannot simply buy another piece of land and start over, and the frontier in much of the Old World disappeared long ago.

            Technology also plays a role in the decision to consume or conserve.  Higher levels of technology generally imply the ability to perform a task using less input to achieve an equal or greater output.  This can be a double-edged sword: it can either decrease the amount of a resource needed to maintain a certain quality of life, thus increasing its usable lifespan at a constant rate of use, or increase the rate at which it is consumed by making it more readily available and therefore decreasing its usable lifespan.  The second effect can be offset if the technology also increases the usable supply, but from the human perspective, greater supply or availability generally seem to constitute greater license to waste.  When people are required to work for something, they tend to care about it a great deal more than something which is easily acquired.  Work imparts value.  If someone is equipped with the technology to do something easily that is very difficult without it, then there is much less concern over having to do it a second time if it is destroyed.  With tractors and combines, a few people can farm far more acreage faster than the same number of people without them.  If the main object is survival rather than profit, then the extra acreage serves as a buffer against years with bad crops, since more is produced in total.  Smaller plots worked by hand have to be more carefully tended to prevent a bad crop from occurring, which could mean starvation in extreme cases.

            So what kind of person is most likely to exhibit ecological behavior?  A poor person in an immobile, expanding society with limited access to technology on land with limited resources.  This type of person has constituted the dominant fraction of the world’s population throughout the history of civilization, and most of them have been involved in agriculture.  People without technologies which artificially enhance natural productivity such as fertilizers, livestock injections, and genetic engineering must turn to technique instead.  The logical course of action to satisfy these motivations is then to use techniques which prolong the ability of the land to produce what they need.  The most immediate way to discover some such techniques is to look to nature to find out what prevents a few generations of organisms in an area from depleting the area’s resources and making it unlivable thereafter.  What types of plants grow in certain types of soil, and which plants grow well together and which ones don’t?  Where do grazing animals go during each season to find the best feeding grounds?  Do different plants grow in the same area during different seasons?  Answering these types of questions is the first step in planning how to utilize an area.  Then it becomes a matter of experimentation to find out what the best crop densities are, exactly when and what to plant and how deep, what to keep separate and what not, the best way to rotate crops and animals and so forth and so on.  Artificial processes such as irrigation and landscaping in the form of terraces, planting windbreaks, et cetera can then be brought in to improve productivity, although sometimes these need to be done first in order to enable productivity.

            Sometimes, however, using natural methods to support the community is not enough.  Sometimes people must not only change their behavior toward the land in order to survive, but toward each other as well.  Population can have a heavy impact on the way resources are used.  Assuming a community has a fixed amount of land and limited importation of essential products, an expanding population should eventually require more to survive than it is possible for the land to produce.  This demands one or both of two solutions: either manage the resource better to increase its productivity, or manage the population to decrease demand.  Because reproduction and a sense of community are such basic needs by all people, population control tends to be looked upon only as a last resort for when all other strategies have been deployed.  Since involuntary population control by a society (not including natural forces) is usually referred to as murder or some other kind of crime, population control therefore is a very personal decision that must be made by each individual in the community.  The choices one has are usually to either leave the community or to limit the number of children he or she produces to reduce the growth rate of the community.  And while the community as a whole cannot simply go out and eliminate people or forcibly eject them without a great deal of discord, it can exert intense pressure on the individual to bend to its will.  That individual must either find new ways to expand the resources of the community or modify his behavior to limit the community itself.

            Although the factors described above may point toward some types of people being more likely to behave in an ecologically responsible manner, this behavior is by no means exclusive to any particular socioeconomic or cultural group.  Ancient Greek writings on agriculture came from such different sources as Hesiod, who grew up on a small family farm, and Xenophon, an Athenian aristocrat who lived on a country estate, both of whom expressed similar concerns and ideals.  Cato, a Roman, shared Hesiod’s modest background and Xenophon’s interest in the economic aspects of agriculture.  Biblical authors, Islamic, medieval, and colonial American writers, while espousing different methods for various tasks, all seem to refer to the same basic core values that the common farmer should keep in mind, based on a relatively common set of motivations.  While the methods must vary according to the conditions they are developed to deal with, it appears that the people doing the work all have a lot in common.

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