Human Ecology: Following Nature's Lead

Human Ecology: Following Nature's Lead

by Frederick R Steiner

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In Human Ecology, noted landscape planner Frederick Steiner presents a historical and analytical examination of how humans interact with each other as well as with other organisms and their surroundings.


In Human Ecology, noted landscape planner Frederick Steiner presents a historical and analytical examination of how humans interact with each other as well as with other organisms and their surroundings.

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Human Ecology

Following Nature's Lead

By Frederick Steiner


Copyright © 2002 Frederick Steiner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-377-5



The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. —RALPH WALDO EMERSON

FLYING INTO MEXICO CITY, I SEE AN ECOSYSTEM, AN URBAN SYSTEM sprawled below the yellowed cloud layer. Green boulevards radiate unevenly like broken spokes of a wheel. Canals follow some of these green swathes, commuter rail lines others. Mountains formed by volcanoes ring the city, a city built from volcanic rock—red, gray, black. The remnants of what was once a much larger lake form odd-shaped geometries, hemmed in by dikes, bled dry by ditches. A cluster of skyscrapers marks the heart of the metropolis. As the AeroMexico jet lowers, houses and businesses, painted with bright primary colors, come into focus. Human systems ramble to all horizons. Natural systems expand as far as the eye can see.

It is tempting to think that all principles from ecology apply to humans, but people differ significantly from plants and other animals. Plants are more fixed to place, for example, than either people or most other animals. Humans possess culture, which perhaps only a few other species of animals have, and even then in rather rudimentary forms. As the Rutgers University cultural anthropologist Yehudi Cohen explained:

Culture is man's most important instrument of adaptation. A culture is made of energy systems, the objective and specific artifacts, the organizations of social and political relations, the modes of thought, the ideologies, and the range of customary behaviors that are transmitted from one generation to another by a social group and that enable it to maintain life in a particular habitat. Although a capacity for culture is not the exclusive property of Homo sapiens, only human culture evolves. Correlatively, as far as we know, man is the only animal capable of self-consciousness with respect to his cultures—the only animal able to blush, laugh at himself, and think of himself as a culture-bearer in third-person terms.

Roy Rappaport, also an anthropologist, defines culture as "the category of phenomena distinguished from others by its contingency upon symbols. A culture consists of the cultural phenomena distinguishing a particular group or category of people from others." In biological terms, culture involves the act of cultivation as well as what is yielded from such cultivation. Culture is what we create and pass on to others. Cultural creations surround our being and accumulate through our being.

Culture provides mechanisms to help us organize the complexity that surrounds us. We inhabit a world with an explicit spatial dimension. It is a world we seek to order, predict, and even dominate. Ordering is an ongoing human enterprise in all environments. We seek to order things as an attempt to make some sense of our surroundings, our interactions with those surroundings, and our interactions with each other.

Hierarchy provides a theoretical organization to order these relationships at various scale levels. Across those scales, eight concepts assist us in understanding human settlement in terms of variability, time, and complexity. These concepts, suggested mostly by Gerald Young and followed by others, include systems thinking; language, culture, and technology; structure, function, and change; edges, boundaries, and ecotones; interaction, integration, and institution; diversity; adaptation; and holism.

Each of these eight concepts can be best understood by considering settlements hierarchically, that is, from a more immediate scale to the global. The specific scales of habitat, community, landscape, region, nation-state, and the planet are addressed in the following chapters. Each of the eight concepts takes on different forms, depending on the scale. For example, the boundary of one's habitat, one's home and workplace, differs from the boundary of a nation-state.

The concepts also relate with each other in various ways, again with additional differences depending on the scale. The boundary of a nation-state will probably be linked to language. Most often, little language diversity exists at the level of the habitat or even a community. More diversity is likely at the regional level and is frequently found in nation-states. Before moving through the scale hierarchies, it is important to understand each of the eight concepts associated with human settlement.


A system is a complex whole, a set of connected things or parts. Botkin and Keller define a system "as any part of the universe that can be isolated for purposes of observation and study." Systems are organized and arranged through networks. For a system to exist, there must be ordered, connecting channels of communication, the essence of the interaction process. Human societies add up to more than the sum of their parts; that is, interactions among elements create something larger. Ecosystems can be described as interacting wholes.

In 1866, the German scientist Ernst Haeckel invented the term oekolo-gie, which has come to be ecology. The study of interacting systems provides a central pillar of ecology. The ecosystem then is an organized set of connected relationships. In an ecosystem, habitat, plants, and animals are "all considered as one interacting unit, the materials and energies of one passing in and out of the others." In human ecosystems, we create many of the interactions.

General systems theory attempts to link the parts to the whole, to be holistic rather than reductive. In general systems theory, control is maintained through the feedback received by what is dubbed the "control mechanism." The control works like a homeostat, and the result is a regulatory action that keeps the system in a dynamic equilibrium. Members of the community monitor their environment in this manner and adapt to changes, in much the same way James Lovelock asserts biological processes regulate the conditions for life on our planet.

Following Julian Steward, the assumption can be made that the institutions associated directly with resource exploitation are the "core" of the social system. Steward and Clifford Geertz described the "cultural core" as "that series of economic, political, and religious social relationships most closely connected with the exploitation of a relevant environment," and a "relevant environment" as "those natural factors the users deem relevant to their survival." The institutions at the cultural core of most traditional rural communities include the extractive industries' institutions, such as agribusiness and mining, which are developed to free energy and material for societal use. In urban regions, information is increasingly the key resource being exploited. Arizona State University president and science policy guru Michael Crow observes that urban regions in the future will be either "knowledge importers" or "knowledge exporters." Innovation and creativity are necessary for city-regions to maintain or advance their competitive edge in the global economy. As a result, those institutions involved in information collection and transformation form the core of many urban cultures.

The local political economy—agribusiness, banking, real estate, and government—can be viewed as a set of interactive institutional structures adapted directly to the local natural environment. These political economic institutions contain an ecological adaptive-control mechanism. Control over the ecological system is located in the community power structure. Sometimes local power structures appear evident with control in the hands of the few. In other cases, the parties in control are less clear, and power is spread more diffusely. Whether centralized or more diffuse, the most successful power structures adjust to change through time.

For instance, Via Tiburtina between Rome and Tivoli is well traveled. Emperors and popes have trekked to the higher elevations of Tivoli to seek refuge from the summer heat that engulfs Rome. Along the way, the traveler passes through a strong sulfur smell. The smell originates from hot springs charged with sulfuretted hydrogen said to be beneficial for skin, throat, and urinary infections. Called "Aquoe Albuloe" in Roman times, the hot springs have been controlled by many parties over the past two thousand years. Throughout that time, the economy of the local town, Bagni di Tivoli, has been sustained.

Further along, Via Tiburtina passes through an area of travertine quarries. The lapis tiburtinus stone hardens after cutting. For generations, Italian architects and master builders have used this stone to construct both ancient and modern buildings, for example, the Colosseum and St. Peter's Church in Rome. Like the hot springs, control of the quarries has shifted through the centuries.

During the Roman Empire, the travertine quarries opened only when a monumental building was to be constructed. The travertine was then used primarily for structure—that is, the bones of the building, not its skin. Noble families probably owned the mines, but the government controlled the mining.

After the fall of the empire in 476, the quarries were rarely worked until about the seventeenth century. During that long period, the travertine was mined from existing Roman structures and reused. When the mines reopened, noble families continued to own the land, but entrepreneurs operated the mines. A mastro acted as a sort of purchasing agent between an artist or an architect who needed the stone and the mine owner or operator. Since the seventeenth century, the travertine has been used for the skin of the building.

With the formation of the Italian nation-state in the late nineteenth century and the elevation of nearby Rome as its capital, the travertine quarries experienced a boom. A shortage of skilled labor in Rome spurred workers to emigrate from San Marino and Carrara to the privately owned quarries. From the Fascist era on, the extraction of the travertine has been regulated by a variety of national and regional laws. Since the 1970s, travertine has been marketed worldwide.

As with the ancient Aquoe Albuloe, the travertine quarries sustain a local economy. Local and regional elites have kept stone flowing from the quarries and visitors submerging themselves in the hot springs.

In general systems theory terms, the local political economy, governed by the local elite, is an adaptive-control feedback mechanism. Their decisions over land use and resource allocation affect the supply of natural resources. Changes in natural resources inform the elite's decisions, thus closing the feedback loop. The elite exercise power through local control over exchanges of information, personnel, goods and services, and money that are linked with the rest of the relevant national and international capital, commodity, and extraction systems. A region's political economy is neither completely independent from nor completely dominated by exogenous forces or resources. As a result, local and regional elite must maintain linkages with higher-level power brokers to maintain control.

There is an accelerating evolution of ecosystem approaches that employ both human and natural environments. Like many others, the political scientist William Ophuls recognized the massive world degradation by industrial economies: "The radically different conditions prevailing today virtually force us to be ecological theorists, grounding our analysis on the basic problems of survival on a finite and destroyable planet with limited resources." Accordingly, ecosystems should be understood in the larger systems theory context.

As the ecologist Frank Golley clarifies, a system is "an object that is made up of subsystems or components which interact in such a way that they have, collectively, a recognizable wholeness." "An object," according to Golley, "is defined as a separate entity with visible boundaries" but the system boundaries "are fuzzy." The ecosystem, Eugene Odum noted, is "an interactive system composed of biotic communities and their abiotic environment interacting with each other. A lake could be regarded as an ecosystem; so could a marshland; and so could the earth. To understand nature in terms of ecosystems was to see its diverse 'parts' as interconnected and independent." I regard habitat, community, landscape, region, nation-state, and planet as ecosystems.

Systems thinking also appeals to management and planning theorists. For example, the Southern California University planning theorist Niraj Verma concludes that systems reasoning "is teleological; it promotes integration and denies the quest for rigor when that rigor is achieved by partitioning our terrain. The defining characteristic of this tradition is its recognition of the epistemological necessity of comprehensiveness." Human ecology helps to bridge the systems' views from natural sciences with those of planning and management theorists. Both ecology and planning address interrelated systems. Human ecology extends how relationships occur in nature to human systems, such as those concerned with managing and planning human affairs.


Language, culture, and technology comprise the second set of concepts for understanding the variability and complexity of human settlement. These three "integrative traits" help distinguish human ecology from the more traditional ecology that focuses on plants and animals. These characteristics "include the development and use of language and signs, the presence of culture, and the creation of technology."

Language represents a universal property of humans, but one that also divides us. We communicate with symbols and through our body motions as well as our voices. Culture is, according to Golley, "a collective sense of a social whole." A fundamental element of culture is education, that is, how one generation passes knowledge to the next. Learning and feedback between the human and natural elements represent key attributes of urban ecosystems. Other species construct habitats—bird nests, bee hives, and beaver dams, for example—but only "humans have produced a technology that has permitted them to create a new kind of environment and reshape humanness itself."

Bodies of words combine to form languages, as do agreed upon systems for their use. Conventions exist for verbal use as well as for the formalized application of symbols, signs, and gestures. Initially, at least, languages derive from common geographical areas. Words, their symbols, and the rules for their use define communities and nations—they define common cultures. The use of words may differ within a nation and become a dialect or a regional vernacular.

Languages can transcend nationalities; for example, scientific communities have their own bodies of words, their own jargons, as do communities of artists. Many scientists still use Latin, or terms derived from Latin, for certain forms of communication, such as for the taxonomy of flora and fauna. Scientists also rely on equations that transmit messages beyond words. Paintings and photographs possess certain vocabularies for artists that can often communicate to the broader public as well as across nations. Music relies on formalized systems—scores—for communication. While the arts and sciences can transcend cultures, they are also grounded in culture.

We employ technology to transform matter into useful stuff. The most basic transformations involve energy and information. Coal is a lump of rock, which, when burned, can heat our homes. In the process, wastes are created that must be disposed of. Thus, the environment is both a source and a sink for technological transformation. Information—that coal can be burned to heat homes and that its combustion can create pollutants—is necessary for the process.

Technologies consistently alter our relationships with the planet and with each other as well as how we settle places. When people relied on their feet and horses to travel, cities took on certain characteristics. For example, buildings clustered together and distances to the market and to places of worship were short. These elements evolved different forms as people needed to defend themselves. For example, homes could not be higher than city walls, and roads needed to pass through city gates. Technological changes in warfare, from the cannon and rifle through airplanes and guided missiles, have influenced the shape and form of cities. Defensive walls defined the city through much of history, but such defenses were rendered obsolete not only by artillery that could break down armaments or lob shells over defensive shields, but also by jets and missiles, which strike from the skies. As the walls came down, city limits changed.

Currently, roads and transit shape human settlements. Some cities, like Seoul and Phoenix, are largely creations of the automobile culture. Other cities evolved more hybrid forms. Rome inside the Aurelian Wall is a different place than the periphery where most modern Romans live. Inside the wall, amid the ruins of the ancient city, Rome is a medieval maze punctuated by Renaissance streets and Baroque churches. Outside the wall, Italian suburbia sprawls, only more vertical than its horizontal American cousins. Across the Atlantic from Rome, in Mexico, Guadalajara's center retains the influence of its Spanish colonizers, but the city expands out into its lush green surroundings with ever wider streets.


Excerpted from Human Ecology by Frederick Steiner. Copyright © 2002 Frederick Steiner. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frederick Steiner is dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, Austin. His books include The Living Landscape, 2nd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2001) and, with Ian McHarg,To HealThe Earth(Island Press, 1998).

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