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Environmental Anthropology

Environmental Anthropology


Environmental anthropology is a study that focuses on the relationships between human beings and the environment. It concentrates on the complex relationships that exist between people and their surrounding environment. Human populace has a continuous contact with and impact on the climate, land, animal and plant species within their environs and these aspects of their environment have mutual effects on human beings. According to Salzam and Attwood (2012), environmental anthropology examines the manner in which a people relate with the environment and the consequent ways through which these relationships shape the political, social and economic life of the population. Generally, environmental anthropology tries to offer a worldly elucidation of human culture and society as outcomes of adaptation to certain environmental conditions.

Foundations of environmental anthropology

Environmental anthropology enters the anthropology field as an applied aspect built upon the basic approaches within modern day ecological anthropology. Brosius (1999) notes that environmental anthropology focuses upon the way culture enhances relations amid humans and their inhabited ecosystem. The environmental anthropology was laid by an American Julian Steward in the mid 20th century. Stewart highlighted the vibrant two way nature of the relationship between culture and environment and the significance of the notion of adaptation in understanding this relationship. Stewart differentiated biological ecology and cultural ecology on the basis that cultural ecology was concerned with adaptation of culture as a scheme subsisting outside of individual human beings. On the other hand, in the new ecology of 1960s, culture was viewed as a way in which human populations adapt to the environment (Brosius, 1999).

Environmental anthropology theories and case studies

Evolution theory

Evolution theory was founded by Charles Darwin. In his book origin of species, Darwin provided an artificial evolution theory based on the notion of descent through modification. In every generation, more creatures are produced and all of them cannot survive as a result of inadequate resources. Therefore, competition for resources emerged between individuals. Individuals who possess favorable variations or characteristics stay alive and reproduce. The environmental context is the determinant of whether a characteristic is beneficial or not. Thomas Malthus greatly influenced formulations of Charles Darwin. Mathus initiated demographic studies, with the argument that human populaces naturally apt to exceed their food supply (Seymour-Smith, 1998). Through his book Essay on principles of population, Malthus Thomas had a great influence on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Malthus argument was that populaces have an exponential growth whilst resources only have a geometrical growth. Ultimately, populaces diminish the available resources to a level that forces them to compete in order to survive. This presumes that a struggle for survival ensues and only particular number of organism will subsist. The ideas of Malthus assisted to shape the ecological foundation for the natural selection theory by Darwin (Barfield, 2010).

Cultural Ecology Theory

Cultural ecology theory was founded by Julian Steward, who studied the adaptive responses to identical environments that led to emergence of cross-cultural similarities. Cultural ecology deals with how human beings adapt to physical and social environments. Human adaptations are the cultural and biological processes that enhance a populace to exist and reproduce in a particular environment. Steward’s cultural ecology theory centered on a culture core and considers the function that the physical environment lays in cultural change. Environmental anthropology intrinsically opposes the idea that thoughts drive human existence and activities. This certain filed demonstrates a move towards the investigation of the environment’s material conditions, which have the possibility of influencing ideas (Steward, 1995).

Steward examined the Shoshone of Great Basin in 1930s and discovered that they were hunters and gatherers who greatly depended on pinon nut tree. He revealed that there were lower populace densities within regions where the tree was sparingly distributed, therefore showing the relationship amid population density and resource base. In addition, he had interest in expressing this correlation in on basis of the availability and management of water. The theories of Stewart are currently seen as examples of multilinear and specific evolution, whereby cross s cultural regularities occur due to existence of identical environment (Stewart, 1938). Stewart coined the term cultural core, which means the societal features that have a close correlation with economic arrangements and subsistence activities. In addition, core entails the social, political and religious patterns that are in relationship with or connected to such arrangements (Steward, 1995).

Materialist theory

The materialist approach of general evolution was popularized by White Leslie, between 1900 and 1975. White held the belief that cultural evolution rises in the same way energy utilization per capita rises. Since the start of hominid line, people have steadily amplified their exploitation of energy from their environments, which leads to cultural evolution. White Leslie explained a universal evolution process, whereby every culture evolve along a particular course and course that may be understood through measuring energy expenditure per capita (Barfield, 2010). Harris Marvin further explored relevance of cultural materialism, particularly to the taboo of Hindu against consuming beef. He illustrates that this taboo is sensible in regards to local environment, since cattle are significant in numerous ways. Therefore, this religious taboo is logical in a materialist sense, since it guarantees preservation of resources offered by cattle ((Milton, 1997).

Cattle offer milk, labor and dung and Harris thoroughly explores these instances. Harris (1996) point out that dung is utilized as fertilizer and a source of energy, and approximately forty six of dairy products in India are obtained from cow’ milk. Further, Harris argues that the key positive influence of bovine cattle in India is the way in which they contribute to grain crops production, from which approximately eighty percent of human calorie ration is obtained. Cattles are a very crucial scheme of traction for the farmers. Additionally, numerous cattle die every year and this offers the environment with a considerable quantity of protein (Harris, 1966).

Marvin Harris completed his fieldwork in Brazil and Africa and was renowned for his contributions in cultural materialism. Marvin’s cultural materialism centers on the thought that economic and technological features of a particular society plays a basic role in forming its distinct characteristics. Marvin assigned priority to research on infrastructural concepts over superstructure and structure functions (Barfield, 2010). The infrastructure is comprises of demography mating patterns and production mode. Structure is the political and domestic economy, whilst superstructure comprises of aesthetic and recreational services and products. The purpose of Harris was to illustrate the adaptive, materialist rationality of every cultural feature through relate it to specific environment (Milton, 1997).

Structural functionalism

Structural functionalism and ecology was brought together by Rappaport Roy. He viewed culture as an ecological function and energy expenditure and carrying capacity is core to his studied which he undertook in New Guinea. In his study, Rappaport investigated New Guinea’s Tsembaga Maring. The real stud group comprises of around two hundred people living in two comparatively isolated valleys, with the Tsembaga Maring practicing animal husbandry with pigs as the major resource. Rappaport established that pigs and humans consume the similar foods within this ecosystem and thus the Tsembaga must produce in excess so as to sustain their pig populaces (Rappaport, 1998).

Pigs are butchered at the end of a war and fro bride price. And thus pigs should be kept at precisely the appropriate numbers. This is achieved via a way cycle, pig slaughter for the ritual functions and regrowth of pig populaces. Rappaport (1998) demonstrated that indigenous belies in sacrifice of pigs for ancestors acted as a cognized model that generated operational transformations in physical factors, like the spatial spread and size of animal and human populaces. Therefore, religion, as well as Kaiko rite action is cybernetic factors which function as a measure to help in maintenance of equilibrium in the environment. The Kaiko as a rite of Tsembaga trough which they butcher pigs and take part in feasting can be easily understood as a ritual pig slaughter (Rappaport, 1998).

How applied anthropology can engage with environmental anthropology

Environmental anthropology is especially relevant to modern day concerns with the situation of the universal environment. Anthropological knowhow has the capability of informing and instructing people on the way of constructing sustainable schemes of livelihood. Anthropology, particularly when it focuses on the environment, also displays the significance of conserving cultural diversity. Both biological diversity and cultural diversity are important in that biological diversity is essential for adaptation of survival of all plant and animal species and cultural diversity might serve an identical function for human spices since it is obviously one of the most significant schemes of adaptation (Brosius, 1999).

According to Biersack (2002) anthropology is a field that deals with human condition and the way it relates to the natural world, or the capability of human beings to influence their surroundings. This is visible via human relations with one another and their relations with the environment in an individual are certain region and the manner in which they can be used. Humans all over the place have altered their environment and taking it back to its original condition would be a difficult and long process. Environmental anthropology can be used in addressing environmental problems since it has its roots in activism (Biersack, 2002).

Environmental anthropology is in particular efficient in connecting to and attaining comprehension of cultural diversity within community settings, and intercultural conflict, therefore lending itself to the applied attempts that entail collaboration amid different intercultural groupings for the mutual good. This implies that a problem between two different cultural groups can be solved via an environmental anthropology discourse and even though the two groupings might not speak a similar language, they may both set off to prompt revolution (Biersack, 2002).

Necessity can possibly repress conflict amid two different cultural groups if they are supposed to work jointly to battle environmental prejudice. Applied anthropology uses these comprehensions to work with individuals on the local level and also attempts to satisfy the shareholders who are working to get a solution for dilemmas connected with social welfare, health, education, environmental protection and development (Brosius, 1999). Environmental anthropologists utilize a number of orientations and techniques to better address the variance in diverse problems. They include observation techniques systematic data collection methods and qualitative and survey interviews to access core values or cultural consensus areas and to identify and interpret societal networks. They also use a range of participatory environmental, social and cultural assessment methods intended to enhance intercultural understanding of demographic composition and social, political and cultural dynamics (Brosius, 1999).


Environmental anthropology is an important sub- field of anthropology that examines the relationships between human beings and the environment. It helps people to understand how their activities or behaviors shape the environment and the subsequent ways through which the environment shapes the economic, social and political life of populations. Through understanding how the environment influences livelihoods, people can be able to construct sustainable systems of livelihoods and also preserve cultural diversity.


Steward, H. 1938, The Great Basin Shoshonean Indians: An Example of a Family Level of Sociocultural Integration, Environmental Anthropology: A Historical Read, 168–180.

Brosius, P. 1999 «Analyses and Interventions; Anthropological Engagements with Environmentalism», Current Anthropology, 40, 277–309.

Steward, J. 1955, Theory of Cultural Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Biersack, A. 2002, «Introduction: From the «New Ecology» to the New Ecologies», American Anthropologist, 101, 5-18.

Salzman, C. & Attwood, D, 2012. «Ecological Anthropology,” In Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer, eds., Routledge, London.

Seymour-Smith, C. 1998. Dictionary of Anthropology, G. K. Hall and Company, Boston.

Rappaport, R. 1998, Pigs
for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut:

Harris, M. 1966, The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle, Current Anthropology 7, 51-66

Barfield, T. 2010, The Dictionary of Anthropology, Blackwell, Oxford.

Milton, K. 1997, Ecologies: Anthropology, Culture and the Environment, International Social Sciences Journal, 49, 477-495.