Explaining Human Actions and Environmental Changes

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The Anthropology of War: Polemics and Confusion. This book represents decades of candid reflection on human-environment relations. It is a welcome challenge to the 'interpretation' focus that dominates currently, evident in fashionable political ecology. Pete Vayda—who needs no introduction to those familiar with the field—has consistently argued for empirically grounded 'explanation' asking 'why-questions,' as he puts it supported by rigorous appraisal of available evidence.

He refines his argument here, in an approach he now calls 'causal explanation,' and explores its methodological implications. I warmly recommend the book to all those with an interest in human ecology as a thought-provoking read. Unlike most books that span such a diverse set of topics, however, the purpose here is not to present a grand theory—just the reverse.

Vayda, who has been a pioneer in the development of environmental anthropology and human ecology over the past half-century, eschews grand theories, theoretical fads, and bandwagons, arguing instead that we re-direct anthropological inquiry away from abstract explanation and toward concrete causes of events. Vayda asks, what should we study, how should we study it, and what claims can we make after we have done so? Both those who agree and those who disagree with Vayda's answers to these questions will welcome his call for greater self-interrogation regarding anthropological theory and method.

Dove, professor of social ecology, Yale University This collection gives us insights into the hallmarks of Vayda's distinguished career: a fidelity to the details where human actions and environmental changes take place; an attention to the logic of the case informed by decades of advancements in the philosophy of science; and rigorous attention to the back-and-forth of explanation and methodology.


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Pete Vayda is social science's answer to Sherlock Holmes. His culprit is causation.


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  4. Vayda's pragmatic and contextual approach to explanation, applied to real issues in social research, seems to me precisely the right way to approach these issues, and the end product is a very interesting and helpful book. Kincaid, professor of philosophy, University of Alabama at Birmingham Vayda's significant critique …clears the way for the proposal of an explicitly event-based causal approach for understanding environmental changes.

    Ecosystem Change

    This important book should be required reading not only for human ecologists and ecological anthropologists, but also for all other social scientists concerned with environmental change. It will make for an exceptional and stimulating reading for students in graduate and advanced undergraduate courses addressing environmental issues and provide an excellent springboard for new research and understanding. Whether writing alone or in collaboration, he never fails to challenge the reader intellectually.

    This volume brings together some of his most provocative writings, all directed to explaining human behavior or environmental change. As reflected in these essays, his thinking has changed over the years but remains empirically grounded, extremely creative, and always important.

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    The different scenarios are based on either increased globalization or increased regionalization , and an either reactive or proactive way of addressing ecosystem problems. However, the relative importance of different drivers will change. Climate change and high nutrient levels in water will become increasing problems, whereas population growth will become relatively less important. Moreover, habitat loss will lead to a significant loss of biodiversity by In many cases, however, human uses of ecosystems will increase substantially. This will deteriorate ecosystems, particularly if they are used unsustainably.

    Overall, human health is expected to improve in the future in most scenarios. Only the scenario which combines regionalization with reactive ecosystem management might lead to a negative spiral of poverty , declining health, and degraded ecosystems in developing countries.

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    However, both proactive and reactive approaches have costs and benefits. The importance of ecosystem services for human well-being around the world was investigated at local, national, and regional levels. Overall, the global and sub-global assessments gave similar results on the present state of ecosystems. However, local conditions were sometimes better or worse than expected from the global assessment, for instance for water resources or biodiversity. The assessments identified an imbalance in the distribution of the benefits and costs of ecosystem change , since these are often displaced or postponed.

    Some ecosystem problems have been reduced by innovative local responses. Therefore, institutions are needed at multiple levels to strengthen the adaptive capacity and effectiveness of sub-national and local responses. In general, people manage ecosystems in such ways that short-term benefits are increased, while long-term costs go unnoticed or are ignored. This can transfer the costs of current changes to future generations. Different drivers of ecosystem change take more or less time to react to changes.

    For example, some species might become extinct quickly when they lose their habitat , but for others, like trees, it can take centuries. This delay provides opportunities for restoring habitats and rescuing species. Other changes are more difficult to predict, because they are gradual only until they reach a certain threshold , at which large changes occur suddenly. Examples of abrupt changes include the start of epidemics, the collapse of a fish population , and bursts of algae growth. Loss of biodiversity , for instance, makes it more difficult for ecosystems to recover from damage.

    Once an ecosystem has undergone an abrupt change, recovery to the original state is slow, costly, and sometimes even impossible. Changes in policy can decrease many of the negative consequences of growing pressures on ecosystems. However, the actions needed for this are much larger than those currently taken. Most ecosystem services have already suffered, but the damage would have been even greater without the conservation actions taken so far.

    Examples of actions include: increasing international coordination, developing and diffusing technology, and improving the use of information. Reducing some important uncertainties about ecosystems and their services could significantly improve the ability of assessments to provide the information needed by policy-makers. Better theories and models are needed to understand the links between ecosystem change and impacts on human well-being and to assess the economic consequences of ecosystem change.

    Moreover, not enough is known about the importance placed by different cultures on cultural services , how this changes over time, and how it influences trade-offs and decisions. Four main findings on the links between ecosystems and human well-being : More This has been due largely to rapidly growing demands for food, freshwater , timber, fiber, and fuel. The result has been a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.

    These costs include the degradation of many ecosystem services , increased risks of abrupt changes, and increased poverty for some groups of people.

    What is the impact of human activity on climate change?

    These problems, unless addressed, will substantially reduce the benefits that future generations get from ecosystems. It is a barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. This challenge can be partially met in the future under scenarios involving significant changes to policies, institutions, and practices. However, these required actions will have to be substantial when compared to the actions currently taken. This summary is free and ad-free, as is all of our content. You can help us remain free and independant as well as to develop new ways to communicate science by becoming a Patron!

    What actions could be taken to limit harmful consequences of ecosystem degradation? How have ecosystems changed? Land cover change. See also GreenFacts' digest on Biodiversity.

    Scientific Facts on Ecosystem Change

    How have ecosystem services and their uses changed? Human interventions have led to changes in the regulation of climate, disease, and other ecosystem processes. The use of ecosystems for recreation, spiritual enrichment, and other cultural purposes is growing. However, the capacity of ecosystems to provide these services has declined significantly. Global fish catch. How have ecosystem changes affected human well-being and poverty alleviation?