Cultural ecology

It is commonplace to say that we live in the ‘age of ecology’. This is an interdisciplinary, cultural concept which recognises the global impact of a scramble for scarce natural resources and the world wide environmental damage of industrialisation.  Cultural ecology is the social organisation of the environment for stability.  This socio-environmental stability is maintained by the application of conservation management systems to the production of human goods and services to maintain them in a favourable condition.  

A steady state economy is an economy with stable or mildly fluctuating size. The term typically refers to a national economy, but it can also be applied to a local, regional, or global economy. An economy can reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth. To be sustainable, a steady state economy may not exceed ecological limits. Herman Daly, one of the founders of the field of ecological economics and a leading critic of neoclassical growth theory, defines a steady state economy as:

An economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance ‘throughput’, that is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy from the first stage of production to the last stage of consumption.
Daly, Herman. 1991. Steady-State Economics, 2nd edition. Island Press, Washington, DC. p.17.

A steady state economy, therefore, aims for stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials. Birth rates equal death rates, and production rates equal depreciation rates.

The term, cultural ecology involves flows of materials and ideas between people, environment and place, where place is defined as:

- a biophysical ecosystem consisting of habitats and species;
- a human resource managed scientifically for food, protection, wealth, recreation and knowledge;
- a personal notional experience communicated in words, music and pictures,which a large number of people, religious or not, would describe as spiritual.

'Nature', 'goods' and 'notions' are connected on cosmic and human time scales and are the values by which cultures live and develop.  It is becoming increasingly obvious that educationalists should be establishing curricula for building learning communities and social structures which support the changes that must occur in our daily lives to live more sustainably on Earth.  

The essence of a curriculum, compared with a knowledge framework, is that the former is the course of actions and experiences through which people become the individuals they should be to play a role in the creation of solidarity in society.  Since the dawn of ‘human time’, this behavioural solidarity has resided in the organisations established to manage the utilisation of natural resources. Management, as a specific pattern of human activities, emerges in the archaic use of the word economy to define the ordering of household affairs; (via Latin from Greek oikonomia; domestic management, from oikos house + -nomia, from nemein to manage). Managerial behaviour, involves the setting of targets and the marshalling of inputs necessary to overcome limiting environmental factors. It is central to activities that turn environmental resources into food, goods and services. Ecology comes from the same etymological root. As a human scientific endeavour it has prompted new institutions and organisations in society by which ecological thinking can be applied to manage ecosystems as human goods and provide environmental services. Human social organisation up to the present has been driven by a curriculum supporting an open economy.  That is to say, nature is organised for production (the natural economy), by being harnessed to the organisation of people for production (the political economy), which are aimed at generating year on year increases in wealth.   For education to achieve Orr’s aims, a new curriculum has to demonstrate how people and nature can equilibrate in a steady state economy.  This dynamic equilibrium between production and politics ensures that any increases in wealth are generated from renewable resources.  The essence of a conservation management curriculum is to show how the organisation of nature for production and the organisation of people for production can be intertwined in a steady state economy for living sustainably.

Tension within society comes, on the one hand, from the managerial applications of science for the commodification and industrialisation of nature, and on the other, from the cultural applications of ecology for the preservation of intrinsic value in the living world. These two rival views of the relationship between humans and nature define the area of a conservation management curriculum. In this respect, applied ecology is a powerful feedback from science to force cultural changes in the use of habitats and species.  Applied ecology provides the management tools to serve the behaviours of a new steady state economy.

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