Tag Archives: Human Ecology

Food Prices Continue to Rise

Newly released data by FAO show that food prices continued to rise, up 3.4% from the last month of 2010. This is yet another record high. Here is a plot based on the FAO data (click to enlarge):


An article in today’s New York Times attributes much of the rise in price to uncertainty over coming harvests. It also notes the four main factors that contribute to increased price: weather, higher demand (from larger population size and greater demand for meat and dairy), smaller yields, and the diversion of food crops to biofuels.

Worrying Trends

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization‘s food price index is at an all-time high, meaning that the food security of millions of people is in jeopardy. In the plot below (click to enlarge), we can see that the FPI currently just exceeds its previous high in June of 2008, when riots over food shortages were widespread. This is something to keep an eye on for the new year.


On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits

There has been quite a brouhaha percolating through some Anthropology circles following the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Associate in New Orleans last month.  It seems that the AAA executive board, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to excise the term “science” from the Association’s long-range planning document. You can sample some of the reaction to this re-write in blog posts from anthropologi.info, Neuroanthropology, Evolution on the Beach,  AAPA BANDITInside HigherEd, and Fetishes I Don’t Get at Psychology Today. There is also a letter from AAA president, Virginia Dominguez here and you can find the full text of the planning document here. The primary concern has centered on the first paragraph of this document.  Here is that paragraph as it stood before the November meeting:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.

The new wording is as follows:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.  The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

So, anthropology is no longer a science, though there are lots of rather particularistic approaches through which one can pursue anthropology that may or may not be scientific.  Apparently, the executive board has a newfound passion for public communication as well.  I guess we don’t really need an organization that promotes scholarly understanding or the production of new knowledge.  Just look where that’s gotten us!

The new wording has greatly concerned a number of parties, including the Society for Anthropological Sciences.  I am a member of this section and have never seen so much traffic on the society’s listserv.

I will admit to being somewhat dismayed by the Society’s response.  While I am not quite as tweaked by this as many, I nonetheless wrote a longish call for specific action — one that involved good old-fashioned political organizing and attempting to forge alliances both with other sections within AAA and across other scholarly societies with an interest in anthropology (e.g., AAPA, HBA, SAA, HBES).  My call was greeted with a deafening (virtual) silence and I am left to guess why.  Perhaps the membership is suspicious of the imperialist ambitions of a biological anthropologist with the taint of evolution on him?  Perhaps they’ve heard and tried it all before and were simply convinced it would not work?  Perhaps they actually like being an embattled minority and don’t really want to take action to jeopardize that status?

To what extent is the scandal a tempest in a teapot?  I honestly don’t know.  The word “science” has been taken out of the first paragraph but there is nothing inherently anti-scientific about the statement.  After all, “advancing public understanding” can be done through “archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” Any number of these can be done through a scientific approach to understanding.

The thing that I find completely bizarre about the new wording is the exclusive focus on public understanding.  Public understanding? Really? Judging from my recent search committee and scientific review panel experience, I can only be left with the conclusion that the public must have an insatiable hunger for phenomenology.  This explains why I can never find any Husserl at Barnes and Noble — he must just be flying off the shelves!  You’d think if the goal of our flagship professional organization is really promoting public understanding, that more anthropologists would write in a manner that was generally understandable to, you know, the public.  In his distinguished lecture, the eminent archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff chastised anthropologists for their unwillingness to engage with the general public.  I could not agree with this perspective more, especially if “engaging with the public” entails engaging with colleagues from cognate disciplines, another thing that I think we do a miserable job of, in general.

I was a bit disappointed to read Alex Golub’s write-up of this issue on the Savage Minds blog.  I’m usually a big fan of both this blog and Alex’s posts more generally. However, in this case I think that Alex engages in the kind of ahistorical, totalizing stereotyping of scientific anthropologists that normally gives anthropologists the willies.  Advocates of science are characterized as close-minded automata, utterly lacking any appreciation for ambiguity, historicity, politics, or contested meaning.  For example, he writes

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on.

Très nuanced, eh?

The statements made by many scientific anthropologists, particularly those of the generation to enter the profession in the 1960s and 1970s, need to be understood in the historical and political context of the speakers.  I think that it is simply disingenuous to claim that scientific approaches to anthropological knowledge have not become increasingly marginalized within the mainstream of anthropology over the last several decades.  One need only look at what has become to the departments that were home to the vaunted physical anthropology programs of the past to find evidence of this trend. Consider, for example, the University of Chicago, the University of California Berkeley or Columbia University.  And this is just biological anthropology; it does not account for the loss of scientific social and cultural anthropologists (think Gene Hammel or Roy D’Andrade) in elite, Ph.D.-granting programs. The reasons for the marginalization of scientific approaches to anthropology are complex and do not fit neatly into the simplistic narrative of “objective, scientific anthropology … under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth.” No doubt, part of the problem is simply the compartmentalization of knowledge.  As scholars become increasingly specialized, it becomes more and more difficult to be both scientist and humanist.  Increasingly, hiring decisions are zero-sum games. The gain of a scientist represents the loss of a humanist and vice-versa. Gone is Eric Wolf’s conception of Anthropology as “both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanist of the sciences.”

The key is that the declining importance of science in the elite anthropology departments has led to a feeling of embattlement — that is almost certainly counter-productive most of the time — among the remaining scientific anthropologists. Another consequence is that the decline of the place of science within anthropological discourse selects for personalities who thrive on embattlement, so that the reproduction of the field is relatively enriched with young scholars who see no point to professional or intellectual engagement. And so it gets more and more difficult to integrate.  This is the lens through which I view much of the public complaining about the recent actions of the AAA executive board. However, as my colleague Rebecca Bird noted, those of us who still see a place for science in anthropology need to move beyond reactionary statements.  We need to be proactive and positive.

The academy is changing. This can be seen in the increasing number of cross-cutting requests-for-proposals from funding agencies such as NSF (e.g., HSD, EID, CHNS) or NIH and the wholesale re-organization of many research universities (ASU is only the most extreme case; the ascendency of interdisciplinary centers such as the Woods Institute for the Environment or the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford is a more common manifestation of this trend; the Columbia Earth Institute also comes to mind).  In an academy that increasingly values transdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge, I think that anthropologists have an enormous comparative advantage — if we could just get over ourselves.  As I wrote in my 2009 Anthropology News piece:

Four-field anthropology is a biosocial discipline that integrates information from all levels of biological and social organization. To understand human behavior, the four-field anthropologist considers genetics and physiology; the history of the human lineage; historical, cultural and social processes; the dynamics of face-to-face interactions; and global political economy. Each of these individual areas is studied by other disciplines, but no other field provides the grounding in all, along with the specific mandate to understand the scope of human diversity. The anthropologist stands in a unique position to serve as the fulcrum upon which the quality of an interdisciplinary research team balances. Revitalizing the four-subfield approach to anthropological training could move anthropology from the margins of the interdisciplinary, research-based academy of the near future to the core.

I have no interest in disparaging forms of knowledge or excluding particular types of scholars from any social movement, but I think that scientific anthropologists have a particularly important role to play in such a revitalization, if for no other reason than they (presumably) care about more of these levels of organization.  Maybe such scholars could even communicate the subtlety and richness of ethnographic experience that our more humanistic colleagues so value if we could just get beyond the name-calling.

I may be dismissed as being naively optimistic by the old guard of scientific anthropologists (hypothesis 2, above), but I think that I have good reasons to be optimistic about the future of anthropology, despite the many challenges. This optimism stems from the work of individual anthropologists.  I’ll do a quick shout-out to a number of people who I think are doing particularly good work, integrating different anthropological perspectives, and communicating with a broader audience.  This is a very personal and idiosyncratic list — these scholars are people I’ve encountered recently or whose work has been brought to my attention of late. They tend to be focused on questions of health and human-environment interactions, naturally, since these are the issues that organize my research.

If you want to feel good about the future of a scientific anthropology that is simultaneously integrated into contemporary anthropology and communicates with a broader scientific and policy audience (and is generally great and transformative — that key NSF buzz word), check out the work of:

  • Craig Hadley at Emory on food security and psychological well-being
  • Amber Wutich at ASU on vulnerability, water security, and common-pool resources
  • Lance Gravlee at UF on the embodiment of racial discrimination and its manifestations in health
  • Brooke Scelza at UCLA on parental investment and childhood outcomes
  • Dan Hrushka at ASU on how cultural beliefs, norms and values interact with economic constraints to produce health outcomes
  • Crickette Sanz at Washington University on multi-ape ecology of the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo
  • Herman Pontzer at CUNY on measuring daily energy expenditures in hunter-gatherers
  • Rebecca and Douglas Bird on subsistence and signaling among Martu foragers

This list could go on. I won’t even mention the amazing anthropology post-docs, Siobhan MattisonSean Downey, and Brian Wood, with whom I have been so lucky to interact this academic year.

I have plenty more to say on this — particularly how the portrayal of politics and political agendas enters the discourse — but I have final exams to grade!

Nice Piece on Burning in the Stanford Report

As part of a series of articles on interdisciplinary environmental research at Stanford, the Stanford Report has just published a nice piece on the research on Aboriginal burning in Western Australia led by Rebecca and Doug Bird. This work is supported by a grant from the Woods Institute Environmental Venture Project fund as well as a major grant from the National Science Foundation.  We have a fairly recent paper in PNAS that describes some of the major findings, which I have written about previously here.

We’ve got some exciting things in the works as a follow-up to this paper thanks to the EVP funding. These include agent-based models of foraging and its effects on landscape development and new statistical methods for characterizing the scale and pattern of burning-induced landscape mosaics.  We’re also hoping to move into some comparative work across foraging populations and to expand upon the ecological interactions between human foragers and plant species upon which they depend.

Some Thoughts on the Fires Down Under

I recently received some comments on my post describing our PNAS paper from the end of 2008 in which we demonstrated that aboriginal burning increases grassland biodiversity.  The comments were very angry — and a little incoherent.  Clearly, emotions were (and are) running high in Aus following the the tragic bushfires in Victoria that have killed at least 181 people. An interesting, though rather vague, editorial appears in today’s The Australian in which foreign editor Greg Sheridan argues it’s time to get serious about preventing future tragedies of this kind.  He rightly notes that all the hysteria over global warming is of little practical consequence for managing wildfires. Global warming is, in my opinion, a reality and the best evidence we have suggests it is driven by human action.  Nonetheless, we can not attribute any one event, however dramatic, to global climate change.  Furthermore, blaming the fires on global warming does nothing to mitigate the effects of future fires (which are inevitable both in Aus and here in the American West). If anything, I fear that the linking of these fires to global warming disempowers people for action because they feel like they have no control over forces so much larger than themselves.

One of the comments on Sheridan’s editorial really struck me (and I thank Brian Codding for bringing this to my attention).  “Steve from Hobart” wrote quite eloquently on the topic (I have attempted to edit some of the characters that didn’t translate from Steve’s word processor to The Australian):

The call for controlled burning has long been sounded in this country without being seriously implemented by State and Commonwealth governments of either political persuasion. The Royal Commission after the 1939 fires clearly indicated that such land management practices should be diligently implemented — long before there were any “greenies”. Similar calls came after 1967 in Tasmania, 1983 in SA and Victoria, and more recently in NSW and certainly in Canberra. Conclusion: the inaction on implementation of a systematic, cyclical prescribed burning regime is not new, so be careful about laying the blame on any particular group. Issue 2.: controlled burns a threat to biodiversity??? Perhaps it might be if such burns are only carried out when the fuel load reaches ridiculous proportions, and/or it’s allowed to cover very large areas. Controlled burning is something that the ecology and biodiversity of this country thrives on, and it would appear that it has actually evolved to take advantage of a cyclical fire regime. Ask the indigenous people, they practised it for millennia. We need to make a serious effort to revisit that strategy, and not just on the urban fringe. We need to do the ecology and biodiversity of our magnificent and unique country a favour, and try to develop a modern-day fire-stick farming regime for our forests. Regular patchwork burning of smaller areas, repeated on a regular cyclical basis. And, in so doing, we’ll protect human life and property.

Well said, Steve!

Here, I will copy what I wrote in response to the heckling I received regarding my previous post because the points are, I think, worth emphasizing. I was responding to extreme skepticism that ecology had anything to do with fire control and that human agency has anything to do with ecology. Again, I will edit slightly.

The tragic fires currently devastating large tracts of Victoria actually highlight the need for carefully done fire ecology. The recent events in Australia dramatically underscore this as do the enormous wildfires that have beset us here in California and the American West more generally over the past decade. So far, we have not experienced the degree of human tragedy that you are seeing in Victoria, but I fear it is just a matter of time.

Following the classic definition by Andrewartha and Birch, ecology is the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of life. If human burning affects either the distribution or abundance of plant or animal species — which it certainly does — then it is the proper subject for ecological analysis. Furthermore, ignoring human agency in such a case would yield a trivial and incomplete ecology.

In our paper on the fire-stick farming hypothesis, we actually make no claims of relevance to contemporary problems. We are trying to understand the dynamics of this particular system. That said, I nonetheless think there are findings of policy relevance embodied in this work. Fire needs fuel and the fuel for wildfires is the vegetation in “wild” areas. As you note, there are no parts of the world untouched by human influence either directly or indirectly. By setting many, small, low-intensity fires through their subsistence hunting, the Martu alter the landscape and make it less flammable. In effect, the successional mosaic that arises from this practice creates a landscape of firebreaks. This is precisely what back-country fire-control teams do in battling wildfires. The Martu just do it preemptively.

How to manage highly flammable landscapes in more densely settled areas like coastal Australia and the American West is an enormous problem and I don’t claim to have the answers. However, ideas informed by landscape ecology are clearly part of the solution. Engineering human-dominated landscapes with greater structural heterogeneity seems essential for dealing with this emerging chronic problem of arid temperate and sub-tropical climates.

Doug Bird, Rebecca Bliege Bird and I are working on longer essay that addresses these vital problems of contemporary human ecology.  I will, no doubt, write about that again here soon.

The Requirements for an Ecological Anthropology Curriculum

A question was posted today on the ecological anthropology listserv: What are the basic requirements for an ecological anthropology graduate program? I don’t claim to be qualified to say what these are for the field as a whole, but I am qualified to say what we have decided on in setting up our new ecological and environmental anthropology Ph.D. program at Stanford. Here I include an edited version of the reply I sent to the thread.

At the risk of essentializing, there are, broadly speaking, two general classes of ecological anthropologists: (1) those who use human relationships with the environment as a lens through which to study problems in cultural anthropology (e.g., agency, social structure, the construction of meaning, etc.), and (2) ecologists who study humans as their primary organism. The majority of practitioners currently falling under the latter category are probably human behavioral ecologists, though I can think of some notable exceptions to this. This is the approach our program emphasizes.

In addition to departmental requirements, EE students are required to take the following:

  • Evolutionary Theory
  • Research Methods in Ecological Anthropology
  • Data Analysis in the Anthropological Sciences

All students need to know how to integrate theory, method, and application, but the specific nature of the courses in which they learn that doesn’t matter that much. Therefore, we require three courses from a list of theory-driven graduate classes, including (but not limited to):

  • Advanced Ecological Anthropology
  • Human Behavioral Ecology
  • Conservation and Evolutionary Ecology
  • Demography and Life History Theory
  • Environmental Change and Emerging Infectious Disease

Required classes deal with what you know, but equally important is how you know. We expect our students to engage in research from the outset of their graduate studies. Students attend weekly lab meetings. These can be within the Anthropology department (e.g., Rebecca Bird and I run a joint meeting or we have a joint spatial interest meeting this quarter) or in other departments (e.g., Biology, Woods Institute).  Students also attend a colloquium (comprised of visiting speakers) one quarter out of the year.

We’re big on methods, but we don’t legislate what methods students learn (other than research design and statistics).  Most students are interested in remote sensing and GIS, but we also have students working on social network analysis, demographic methods,  and advanced statistical methodology.

So, that’s our idea for a graduate program.  We will have  a proper web page describing the program in detail some time in the future.