Book Review: Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development

In International Review for Environmental Strategies (IRES) Volume 3 Number 1(Summer 2002)
Peer-reviewed Article

Book Review "Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development" by Gerald G. Marten, Professor, School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan.
Publisher information: London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2001.
ISBN: 1-85383-714-8, 256 pp., 14.95 GBP (pbk).

Reviewer: Hisato Okamoto, Director, Frontier of Socio-Science Studies, Kyushu International University, Japan.

This book introduces in a logical flow the concepts involved for understanding the sustainability of human society and ecosystems on the earth. The basic premise is described in terms of the interactions between human social systems and ecosystems. The author clearly defines each concept, using numerous illustrations and examples, and effectively employs this method throughout the book.

The first three chapters explain the principles related to the tensions that exist between human social systems and ecosystems, population dynamics in terms of the effects of positive and negative feedback, and the growth of the human population.

In the fourth chapter, human social systems and ecosystems are considered as complex, adaptive systems. The notion of emergent properties is developed as a means to understand the complex and often confusing interactions between human social systems and ecosystems; the self-organization of both is described as an emergent property. This leads to a discussion of complex-system cycles and the notion of stability within these cycles.

The author then considers the dynamics of ecosystems, and makes comparisons between natural, agricultural, and urban ecosystems. The effects of human interactions with existing ecosystems are outlined with specific examples of ecological succession. The relative stability of ecosystems is discussed in terms of negative and positive feedback. The potential problems of human-induced succession, such as the desertification of grasslands and the effects of commercial fishing, are discussed. The notion of well-managed succession is introduced with examples.

Here the author begins to consider the detail and complexity of the co-evolution and co-adaptation of human social systems and ecosystems. These notions are described as emergent properties of the interacting systems.

Finally, the large number of concepts introduced are utilised to examine whether interactions between human social systems and ecosystems can be sustainable.

This book is a good compilation that arranges a very broadly-based, multidisciplinary subject into a coherent set of concepts. But if there is a weakness in its treatment of the subject, it is a lack of detailed consideration of economics, which is a key area relating to human social systems. Much of the unsustainable behavior displayed by human society is due to the belief that unfettered and limitless economic growth is possible. Although this topic is referred to in the book, it is not developed with as much detail as other aspects of the subject.

As a first impression, the title of the book, Human Ecology, gives an expectation that it treats human social systems as ecosystems. Modern technology has progressed in specialization and diversification, and made human society a super-complex system so that the overall effects of our actions are not understood. The exponential advances of scientific knowledge and technology that have occurred have led to a consequent exponential growth of population, consumption of resources, and production of pollution. Usually, in the field of natural science, such exponential change leads to catastrophic phenomena.

By regarding all aspects of human society, including economics, in terms of the "ecology and the animal behavior of the homo [sapiens] family," chaotic human society can be observed objectively from a macro perspective. The author makes a drastic suggestion regarding economic activities, such as reinterpreting the resource limits described in Keynesian economic theory to be the Earth's limits, shifting from a "flow-based economy" (where assets, known as infrastructure, have shorter life cycles than in a "stock-based economy," where assets are stocked and have long life cycles), and evolving from giving priority to resource circulation based on the demands of human society to one based on ecological criteria (e.g., promoting houses and buildings that have longer life cycles).

Although the "human ecology" in the title may mislead some, this book is an excellent text in terms of its careful definition of concepts and the structured manner in which the subject is developed. For students and general readers new to the subject, it will provide a good start to understanding the complex interactions between human social systems and ecosystems. Also, it will prove useful as a reference for the definition of concepts, as well as a refresher for those involved in particular aspects of this broad field.

Full text is available on EBSCOhost database:

Hisato Okamoto