Archive for March, 2010

Models of culture with ecology

Friday, March 26th, 2010


 People and environment

Our attitude towards nature starts with our ego. How do we treat ourselves? Do we experience our reality in a physically and spiritually harmonious way? Can we still identify with our surroundings or even ourselves? In the process of alienation from nature we became increasingly aware of having lost our original relationship with nature long ago. This loss is not limited to an environmental-ecological dimension. It is a comprehensive social, biological and intellectual relational loss … [coinciding with] the feeling of a comprehensive loss of individual nature within a self-made environment which feels increasingly foreign. (Heike Strelow, in the catalogue for Natural Reality, 1999, p. 45).  

‘Culture’ and ‘The Environment’ have a long and complex relationship. Conceptually, culture is often set up in opposition to nature as a civilising influence that tames the wild. Cultural objects and artefacts explore and revere the beauty and mysterious majesty of landscape and seasons.  Cultural media, in the forms of poetry, paintings, architecture and song, are used to explore and respond to the natural environment. Culture frames how we understand nature and mediates our interactions with the environment. Therefore, people do not really react to ecology according to abstract concepts and scientific data, but to traditions, experience and shared values. For example, most Germans understand weather extremes as evidence of catastrophe and impending, self-inflicted ecological disaster. Most Americans also know these extremes but are willing to chance them as existential risks. In terms of importance, 43% of Americans think the issue is not too important, or not important all, with 38% saying it is somewhat important. But these different attitudes of Germans and Americans have little to do with superior morality or rationality between nations, but with deeply held—but very different—cultural values and orientations.

 ‘Culture’ was defined by UNESCO in 1982 as being ‘the way we live together’.  It includes every ingredient that makes up society, including the arts, sciences, heritage, sport, education, local governance and faith traditions. Literally, in this context, culture may be an important site of global inaction or transformation. Indeed, the ‘Outcomes’ statement of the 2009 Copenhagen Culture/Future conference saw those working in the cultural sector as ‘catalysts’, seeking to introduce ideas and values for societal change by: 

 ’sensing, translating, interpreting and narrating messages; creating and interpreting spaces and infrastructure for open dialogue, reflection, enjoyment and life; invite counter-narratives and imaginaries and by bridging between the local and the global, and between intimacy and outlook’.    

Thus, in relation to behavioural change required to cope with global warming, novel cultural ideas and values should be directed towards a new level of well-being that still makes us satisfied human beings.  From this point of view, culture as a noun is a collective defined by set of attitudes beliefs mores, customs values and practices common to or shared through a group.  It is how collectively the group differentiates itself from other groups and in particular how it values natural resources that maintain its chosen, or imposed, lifestyle. Culture is also expressed as an adjective.  In this context it defines activities and products associated with creative people who use intellectual moral and artistic skills to solve problems that beset their well-being. Cultural ecology can therefore be understood as ‘accountability’ aimed at balancing the use of cultural capital with availability of natural capital.  It is a broad interdisciplinary aspect of applied ecology in the sense of humanity ‘being accountable’  for conserving Earth’s resources, with a liability to be called on to render an account; and the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected.  As a subject, cultural ecology imparts accountableness for maintaining natural capital to support the flows of human, social, manufactured and financial capitals (Fig 1). 

 Fig 1 Economic model of natural economy

Fig 1

 Every society has a culturally unique way of thinking about the world that unites people in their behaviours and attitudes. Widely held cultural values are powerful tools for conserving the environment.  Any study of native peoples demonstrates how ‘cultural wisdom’ from time immemorial has been used to protect the local environment for the welbeing of those who depend upon it for material and spiritual goods. Such ecological commitment is affected by cultural elements including beliefs, religion and taboos which are the result of social evolution.  The cultural dimension of adapting to environmental issues has always been a strong pillar of the environmental management debate for sustainable development.  Robert Palmer of the Council of Europe says that when examining climate change through a ‘cultural lens’, rather than through separate environmental, economic, social or political lenses, the following broader questions come to mind. 

  • How do values, including non-material values, affect decisions and actions about climate change?
  • What role does culture play in strategies for adapting to climate change, and in overcoming barriers to change?
  • How might climate change impact on aspects of cultural rights within the debate of the impact of climate change on broader human rights issues?
  • What do the irreversible losses of cultural and natural heritage caused by climate change mean to societies?
  • How does the impact of climate change on the culture of a society differ from other impacts and changes (technological, demographic, social)?
  • What can cultural practitioners, such as artists, designers and architects, contribute to the search for creative solutions to the negative impacts of climate change?
  • Can art offer a way of communicating more powerfully the effects of climate change, and is the role of art and artists wider than communication?
  • What might alliances between scientists, political leaders, economists and artists achieve that none of these groups would be able to achieve individually?
  • What are the opportunities for working across the boundaries of culture, education, identity and geography to create alliances and collaborations?

 These questions define the issues of environmentalism. 


Cultural ecology therefore carries the primary interdiciplinary components of sustainability.  It is formally defined as a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration necessary to achieve social well-being as a shared value.  That is to say, assumptions about nature have worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to environmental problems.  In this highly practical sense, cultural ecology is defined as environmental knowledge embedded in language, values, customs, and material objects that is passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society.   The other ancillary component of sustainability is social structure. Social structure is defined as the complex of practices within society associated with, status, roles, social groups and institutions.  Social structure emerges from cultural assumptions. A culture of sustainability therefore requires education to change values, customs and material objects with the aim of equilibrating demand on the environment with its ecological productivity.  From this point of view cultural ecology describes a management planning system that applies cultural values to control the outcomes of drivers for environmental change and ecosystem manipulation.  The main social drivers of environmental change are that the world population will rise to nine billion by the mid 21st century and carbon emissions will produce rising sea levels and increased air temperatures.  These social drivers will cause desertification and coastal erosion and so reduce the usable land  mass as the population is increasing, with global implications for maintenance of food production and availability of fresh water.  These changes are the new social imperatives for future cultural adaptations. 

Scientific consensus on global warming, together with the precautionary principle and fear of abrupt climate change, is leading to increased effort to develop new technologies and manage others in an attempt to mitigate global warming. Unfortunately most means of mitigation appear effective only for preventing further warming, not at reversing existing warming.  These include reducing demand for emissions-intensive goods and services, increasing efficiency gains, increasing use and development of low-carbon technologies, and reducing non-fossil fuel emissions.

 In terms of adopting the necessary new behaviour patterns mitigation is distinguished from adaptation.  The latter involves acting to minimize the effects of global warming.  Most often, mitigations involve reductions in the concentration of greenhouse gases, either by reducing their sources or by increasing their sinks.  With regards both mitigation and adaptation, cultural ecology, as a system, defines a feedback cycle by which the spheres of causation of climate change may be controlled by actions to offset catastrophic change (Fig 2). 

Fig 2 Elements of cultural ecology as a knowledge system for understanding mitigation of climate change within a sustainable and equitable development framework.


There is a growing consensus that any definition of sustainable development needs to centre on inter-relationships between environmental, economic and social factors. For example, it is argued that we cannot hope to separate our understanding of the environment from our social and economic interactions with it.  We need to abolish the artificial distinction between the environment on the one hand and economy/ society/community on the other. This ‘people-environment’ or ‘human-environment’ inter-relationship is frequently recognised as the crux of the subject.  However, in the framework of this interrelationship and particularly in relation to teaching and learning about sustainability, some geography educationalists have argued for greater consideration of social and political perspectives.   

To forge a notion of society that is useful for teaching sustainability, the world should be looked upon as a hybrid between the realm of culture, with its systems of meaning and communication, and the realm of the natural world defined by the science of ecology.  Based on such a notion of society, cultural ecology can be modelled as shown in Fig. 3, comprising a ‘‘natural’’ or ‘‘biophysical’’ sphere of causation governed by natural laws, and a ‘‘cultural’’ or ‘‘symbolic’’ sphere of economic causation maintained by symbolic communication. These two spheres overlap, constituting the ‘‘biophysical structures of society’’,  comprising a certain human population with its physical infrastructure, such as buildings, machines, artefacts in use, and animal livestock’’.  This model describes cultural ecology as a recurrent self-referential communication network linking all material components of society through substance and energy flows.   According to this concept, sustainability refers to the interaction process between nature and culture, which can only proceed indirectly, via the biophysical structures of society. This framework of material and energy flow accounting ( MEFA) is a tool to empirically analyse important aspects of this interaction process in a way that can link socioeconomic dynamics (e.g. monetary flows, lifestyles or time allocation) to biophysical socio-economic stocks and flows and these, in turn, to ecosystem processes.  

Fig 3 Framework of material and energy-flow accounting

Fig 3

Value models

 Human beings are innately spiritual creatures capable of, and drawn to, abstract thought. Spirituality, whether or not we belong to a religion, connotes for each of us a diverse, broad, and deep range of values beliefs and relationships that define our underlying sense of identity to ourselves, with others, with life, with the earth, with the universe, and with higher system of materials and energy.  The big questions are  ‘How do we define and embrace the ethical and spiritual dimensions of sustainability challenges?’ How can nature be valued for its intrinsic worth and given representation in decision-making processes? How can empathic values be embodied in evidence-based decision-making within complex social-ecological systems? Ecological wisdom encapsulates the diverse teachings and philosophies represented in numerous environmental movements. Central tenets include a recognised need to reduce the negative impact of human civilization on the natural environment, the biosphere, and the planet, and to find new, alternate ways to cohabitate harmoniously with earth’s other life forms. The principles endorsed go deeper than a mere superficial change in policy, suggesting a qualitative shift in ethical norms and prevalent paradigms.  But the precise character of views advocated range considerably over a spectrum of beliefs that include ecological utilitarianism on one side and ‘Deep Ecology’ on the other.  This range reflects different degrees of innate value ascribed to humanity and other parts and levels of the larger biosphere. 

There can be no doubt that the root causes of unsustainable development are prevailing values, and social (economic, political, cultural) arrangements. Modern beliefs and institutions mean that sustainability as social policy is generally so pervaded by instrumental rationality that it overlooks the above problems.  In particular, it precludes recognition of the diversity and complexity of meanings and values placed on nature and fails to question an attitude of mind that sanctions the continued exploitation and oppression of human and non-human nature. Rather than viewing sustainability as policy designed to achieve a certain state of affairs it should be considered as a frame of mind that involves respect for human and non-human nature seeking their own fulfilment through a process of co-evolution. People can encourage this with appropriate technology, such as tools, institutions and ideas, including institutions of governance and traditional knowledge.  They can also interact with spiritual or religious understandings to turn moral and ethical beliefs and practices into new cultural codes of conduct (Fig 4).  

Fig 4 Beliefs and knowledge applied to new codes of conduct. 


Human values are a set of emotional rules people follow to help make the right decisions in life (Fig 5). When values are used in a professional setting, they are called ethics.  Values are used in every-day decision making at work and at home. Good values instill a sense of integrity, honesty, and diligence in people.  Values are an integral part of every culture. Along with beliefs and worldview assumptions, they generate behaviour. Being part of a culture that shares a common core set of values creates expectations and predictability without which a culture would disintegrate and its members would lose their personal identity and sense of worth. Values tell people what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, appropriate…etc. They answer the question of why people do what they do. Values help people solve common human problems for survival. Over time, they become the roots of traditions that groups of people find important in their day-to-day lives. Values can be positive or negative; some are destructive. To understand people of other cultures, we must come to understand the shared values, beliefs and assumptions that motivate their behaviour. The values identify those objects, conditions or characteristics that members of the society consider important; that is, valuable. In the United States, for example, values might include material comfort, wealth, competition, individualism or religiosity . The values of a society can often be identified by noting which people receive honour or respect.  

There is a difference between values clarification and cognitive moral education. Values clarification helps people clarify what their lives are for and what is worth working for. Students are encouraged to define their own values and understand others’ values.” Cognitive moral education is based on the belief that students should learn to value things like democracy and justice as their moral reasoning develops.”

 Values are related to the norms of a culture, but they are more general and abstract than norms. Norms are rules for behaviour in specific situations, while values identify what should be judged as good or evil. Flying the national flag on a holiday is a norm, but it reflects the value of patriotism. Wearing dark clothing and appearing solemn are normative behaviours at a funeral. They reflect the values of respect and support of friends and family. Different cultures reflect different values but members take part in a culture even if each member’s personal values do not entirely agree with some of the normative values sanctioned in the culture. This reflects an individual’s ability to synthesize and extract aspects valuable to them from the multiple subcultures they belong to.  Behaviour change to cope with sustainability, particularly in relation to its emphasis on treading gently on Earth and sharing limited resources with others requires education to maximise cultural values associated with ecological conservation and minimising values governing self-enhancement. 

Fig 5 Cultural values 


Managing resources 

” To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, states should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption…”  Principle 8, The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992

  In May 1997 the’Think Sangha’ Buddhist group met in the Hongen-ji Temple  Hakone, Japan, to discuss consumption and consumerism in the context of managing resources to improve livelihoods.  It defined consumerism as the dominant culture of a modernising invasive industrialism which stimulates, yet can never satisfy, the urge for a strong positive sense of self to overlay the angst and negative sense of lack in the human condition. As a result, goods, services, and experiences are consumed beyond any reasonable need. This undermines ecosystems, the quality of life and is particularly destructive to traditional cultures and communities and thwarts the possibility of spiritual liberation.   

The meeting also considered the key area of consumerism, which concerns its essential dynamic or the system by which it works. This is commodification, which understood more deeply is a process of alienation and disconnection from the traditional process of making and selling goods. The idea behind commodification is to intervene between humans and any aspect of our reality (like our work, products, needs, words, image, environment, etc.) in order to create a commercial product of that reality to be sold for profit. This is the way capitalism makes money. It does not so much create new services or products. Rather it seeks to enter all the possible connection points in an economic transaction in order to distort value into price for the sake of making a speculative (non- productive) profit. As a powerful social force, consumerism has transformed citizens into shoppers. Where Western shopping habits have been adopted by rapidly developing countries like Malaysia, they have spawned the concept of ‘cultural imperialism’, a state of beingness in which the culture of economically dominant Western countries has advanced to a stage of colonisation of the less powerful cultures.  The basic ‘weapon’ is investment power that mimics the invasive style of colonisation. Cultural imperialism is a more powerful consequence of colonisation than say, forced occupation, because it utilises a clever and systematic form of subjugation. Cultural imperialism works more effectively, subtly, and silently when it creates a sense of euphoria, elation, and excitement in the mind, body, and consciousness of those imprisoned by the desire ‘to shop till they drop’. These are the soothing effects of malls wherever they are. The mall provides the haven for this form of sophisticated imperialism, never more so than in the hot tropics where the air- conditioned shopping experience comes with inbuilt respite from a harsh climate. 

Fundamentally, shopping for mass-produced goods works through giving people “what they want,” as an integrated follow up to mass-advertising, which has told them what it is that they want. It treats choice as fundamentally a private matter, but by teasing out all the idiosyncratic “wants” that we all harbour as private consumers and creatures of personal desire, the outcomes are often irrational and unintended. More importantly the results rapidly produce a society we might not choose through careful deliberation. Such spur of the moment private choices, though technically “free,” are quite literally dysfunctional with respect to our rational values and norms.  This applies forcibly to the impact of Western lifestyles on relatively small isolated communities, known as the Ladakh effect.  Development pressures on this formerly self-sufficient culture in the region of eastern Kashmir have been systematically breaking down traditional social and economic structures, while visions of a seemingly superior Western lifestyle are stripping away the self- esteem of young Ladakhis, who now routinely compare themselves with a glamorised media version of the Western, urban consumer. As a result, people who were once proud to be Ladakhi now think of themselves as impoverished, primitive and inferior.  

By far the largest reason that consumerism re-structures society in random ways it that it supports unplanned consumption that undermines the environmental resource base. It exacerbates social inequalities, and fuels the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment system by introducing positive feedback. The more we want, the more the market provides. If the unplanned trends continue without change – not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and ecologically sound production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs – the world will drift further away from the adoption of Principle 8 of the Rio Environment Summit. As the 1998 UN survey on human development made clear, the real issue is not consumption itself but the way it restructures the global social pattern based on wealth. Inequalities in consumption are stark.

Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest- income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures – the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%.  More specifically, the richest fifth of the world’s population:* consumes 45% of all meat and fish; the poorest fifth 5%; * consumes 58% of total energy; the poorest fifth less than 4%; * have 74% of all telephone lines; the poorest fifth 1.5%; * consumes 84% of all paper; the poorest fifth 1.1%; * owns 87% of the world’s vehicles; the poorest fifth less than 1%  

Runaway growth in consumption by the richest fifth of humanity is putting strains on the environment never before seen, and the above inequalities have not changed significantly into the 21st century. What can be done about the resulting challenge of inequality to global security, stability, shared prosperity, and most fundamentally to global social justice?  With regards managing consumerism to reduce social inequalities, because global markets work better for the already rich (be it with education or for countries with stable and sound institutions), we need something closer to a global social management contract to produce a global polity and address unequal endowments. Because global markets are imperfect, we need global regulatory arrangements and rules to manage the global environment, help emerging markets cope with global financial risks and find ways to discourage corruption and other anti-competitive processes.  Also, because global rules tend to reflect the interests of the rich, we need to strengthen the disciplines that multilateralism brings, and be more creative about increasing the representation of poor countries and poor people in global fora – the IMF, the World Bank, the UN Security Council, the Basel Committee on Banking Regulation, the G-8, and so on. But even if all of this could be achieved and there were equal shares for all, there are simply not enough planetary resources for the lifestyles of the rich Western nations to be made universal.  Comparative calculations of carbon footprints indicate that between three to nine Earths would be required to provide the resources needed at the present rate of overall consumption.  To have a global uptake of the Western lifestyle would require basic production systems to reduce their environmental impact by a factor of 10, when already the international community seems unable to reduce carbon emissions to half the present levels by mid century.  It was calculated decades ago that if total world production could be distributed evenly throughout the world population, each would have the livelihood of a European peasant in the 18th century. 

Nevertheless, managing consumerism to reduce social inequalities has to be based on environmental management in its widest ecological context.  The global industrial system of mass-production by which we currently manage resources to improve livelihoods has to be shifted bit by bit to match its inputs and outputs to planetary and local carrying capacity. This means the goal is to move from the linear open-ended production systems, which have characterised industrial development over the past two centuries, to operate in closed loop production systems of ecology by which resources can be managed for environmental sustainability.  This management model of cultural ecology requires maintaining the finite resources of our planet by managing them to improved livelihoods whilst managing consumerism to reduce social inequalities (Fig 6). The global strategies for this cultural transformation for managing ecological resources in a world free of conflict were agreed by world leaders at Rio de Janiero in 1992 and confirmed in the Earth Charter in 2000.  These documents present the agreed common vision of humanity for a sustainable future. However, they have not been expressed as an integrated set of operational plans agreed between nations. 

The failure of the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009 revealed how far away the world is from a rapid agreement on reducing carbon emissions.  Very few nations were prepared to act in the common interest on the basis of knowing the issues.  Most were also aware of the issues but committed to act in self-interest despite knowing the harm they will cause. 

Fig 6 Management model of cultural ecology   

Fig 6

Educating for a new culture It is self evident that culture and ecology are inextricably linked and that education for behaviour change is the key for humanity to adapt to an overcrowded planet. Because education is a key instrument for cultural change, future decision-and-policymakers at least, must be provided with integrated, multidisciplinary education, training and research. But bridges are needed between disciplines at all levels of education to reinvigorate ingrained working methods and mind sets to enable future decision makers, families and individuals resolve the complexities of responding to change within an integrated, long-term planetary perspective. The long term consequences of political, industrial and biological management and theeconomic  development of the environment can only be understood within a knowledge system that integrates, ecology, economics, the social sciences and technology. It should connect government and business with families and individuals. As a pedagogic subject it should be structured in order to: 

  • recognise that the multi-disciplinary nature of economic development has a long-term perspective
  • improve the effective balance between conserving and using resources
  • emphasise informed public participation in decision-making
  • promote the equitable sharing of resources and reduce the risk for conflicts
  • foster respect for cultural, social and biological diversity

 These are the six educational imperatives recognised by the UNESCO-Cousteau Ecotechnie Programme (UCEP) as keystones in the promotion of global educationfor environment and sustainable development.  Cultural ecology provides the necessary ideational scaffold to carry this new educational movement, yet the West continues to promote a compartmented educational system that was designed to produce specialists to run their Empires. This was the way subject-based education was constructed as a validating privilege that it is the West’s to grant.