Systemic Solutions from Human Ecology

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Before “social-ecological systems” and “sustainability science,” there was human ecology analyzing human–environmental interactions and seeking sustainable solutions to problems at that interface. Had intellectual history unfolded a bit differently, every college and university might have a department of Human Ecology and self-identified human ecologists might be garnering national and international acclaim. But the term is sufficiently vague that it became a grab-bag of all kinds of studies, ranging from home economics to nutrition to urban planning. Yet it remains as the label of choice for an eclectic international group who believes that interdisciplinary approaches spanning humanities as well as social and environmental sciences and incorporating other forms of knowledge (indigenous, traditional, etc.) are essential to coping with the Anthropocene.


Understanding Human Ecology: A Systems Approach to Sustainability represents some of the best current thinking of human ecologists and is an outstanding contribution to the field. It incorporates an excellent introduction to systems analysis and the tools it provides to understanding perverse human behavior in the face of wicked problems. It also brings in some of the common flaws in human reasoning and the tension between behavior that benefits the individual, the collective, and ecosystem functions to demonstrate how we have arrived at a point where we commonly face “six impossible decisions” before we begin the day: acting in ways that we know are augmenting environmental and social degradation because alternatives are not readily available.


The book might be called a conceptual approach to solutions, with very practical applications. In that sense, the whole thing is about “solutions” because it introduces the tools and then a conceptual framework for systems analysis of problems with social and ecological repercussions. It begins with a short history of the development of human ecology, then presents a case study of conflicts over land, water, and energy in the Snowy Mountains in southern Australia to introduce themes of complexity, impacts of humans on resource flows, changing expectations with new waves of settlers, and conflicts over regulatory “solutions.”  The second part of the book, “Building Shared Understanding,” has clear explanations of common thought patterns, components and behavior of systems, and the importance of consumption rates and distribution. Mathematical formulas and graphs are used appropriately to augment these explanations. The section concludes with a “cultural adaptation template” for mapping the relationships among human health and well-being, ecosystem quality, cultural paradigms (common assumptions and thought processes), and “state of community,” or the social practices and institutions that drive changes in other parts of the system. Key processes that serve as intervention points in the system, such as planning, learning, and collective activities, and important feedback loops are shown. This template builds on the work of Stephen Boyden, whose relevant work the authors describe.


The final section, “Living in the Anthropocene,” uses the cultural adaptation template to depict major transitions in human society. The chapters within this section focus on how societies obtain food and some of the impacts of different patterns such as the adoption of settled agriculture, increasing urbanization, and reliance on imports. These chapters emphasize the importance of overriding paradigms such as ownership and control of the environment, the possibility of limitless growth, and movement toward stewardship of a “full Earth.”


I used this book as the primary text (along with Donella Meadows’s fine primer on systems thinking) for an undergraduate class on Systems Analysis in a college that offers degrees in human ecology. Student reactions were very positive: they appreciated the readability and examples from different parts of the world that Dyball and Newell include. As a systems ecologist by training, I found the template that Dyball and Newell developed to be elegant and flexible enough to encompass a wide range of issues. They add the crucial elements of cultural beliefs and attitudes and the feedback between these and social practices. Unless we understand and deal with these, we have little hope of intervening in human-generated processes that are destroying communities, public health, and the planet. All in all, this book is one of the clearest introductions to complexity and systems analysis that I have encountered in years of teaching these subjects. I recommend it highly as a textbook and for informative reading about the human ecological approach to problem solving.