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Hegelian Ecology

For another installment of "interesting things I learned from my coursework," we turn to the issue of indigenous resource management, where I recently encountered an interesting dialectical synthesis of past scientific views.

Going back to the early days of scientific research on environmental management, the prevailing opinion was that indigenous people were rapacious. Being uncivilized, they lacked the scientific know-how to properly conserve their resources, and took too short-term a view. It was thus necessary for people like colonial foresters to save the natives from their own prodigality.

The rise of cultural ecology saw a shift in the other direction, as it was discovered that indigenous people had sophisticated environmental management systems that functioned much better than anything that the colonial or capitalist world could invent and impose. This research gave scientific credibility to the "noble savage" view, which argued that indigenous people lived in respectful harmony with the earth.

The growing consensus around praise for indigenous environmentalism led, inevitably, to contrarian research showing all was not quite so rosy. One example that really stuck with me was Shepard Krech's book The Ecological Indian, in which he argued that Native Americans did not have such sophisticated environmental knowledge that allowed them to adjust their resource use to sustainable levels -- indeed, many of them believed anti-environmental things such as that the bison herds were inexhausible. It was only their low level of technology and population, and hence their limited ability to act on their cornucopian views, that saved the American environment (at least before the introduction of guns and horses, which led to rapid environmental damage before the hunters worked out what their mistake was).

I've recently come across some interesting work by the resilience community (notably Fikret Berkes) that suggests that indigenous people often share the cornucopian view described by Krech, but that it's a good thing. In the context of the larger indigenous management system, cornucopian views encourage periodic intensive resource use -- pulses of high exploitation separated by "fallow" periods. And as it turns out, in many ecosystems this sort of pulsed resource use gives a higher and more sustainable yield than constant low-level extraction. Rather than counting on the stability of the ecosystem, pulsed strategies create small disturbances that lead to renewal. Thus native claims that hunting could increase the size of animal populations were, in a sense, right.


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