Humans, Environments, and the Anthropocene

Humans, Environments, and the Anthropocene

update: 8/24/2019


Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language. It is relatively easy to distinguish three areas of meaning:

(i) the essential quantity and character of something;

(ii) the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both;

(iii) the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings.

Source: Raymond Williams, “Nature” (from Keywords, 1983)

POW: Nature is complicated

Nature vs Environment?

Nature is often informally used to mean the non-human world

Environment is often informally used when we mix in human relationships to the non-human world

In theory, we can think about humans as separate from the non-human world:

Humans throughout history have always elevated themselves (ourselves) above non-human nature

  • Religion, philosophy, and the sciences have played a significant role in this distinction

It is often useful to break things down and look at them in relative isolation

  • the natural sciences typically remove social and cultural factors
  • the social sciences typically remove natural factors

But there has also long been a recognition that separating humans from non-human nature has its limits

Understanding the big picture – particularly with environmental issues – requires joining the natural, cultural and social

Nature and Humans: the Anthropocene

Anthropocene: (an·thruh·puh·seen) “an informal term used to mark when human actions begin to have a global impact on Earth’s environment” (Companion to Environmental Studies, p. 144)

International Geological Congress, Anthropocene Working Group: moving towards adoption of this period as part of the Geological Time Scale. Adoption expected in 2021 (source)

Above: Geological Time Scale with proposed Anthropocene (source)

Blurs the boundary between humans and nature: we are a global, geological-scale force

RHM textbook, Environment & Society: Oostvaardersplassen “Wilderness,” Netherlands

Rewilding: “A practice of conservation where ecological functions and evolutionary processes, which are thought to have existed in past ecosystems or before human influence, are deliberately restored or created; rewilding often requires the reintroduction or restoration of large predators to ecosystems” (p. 3)

  • But: which animals are reintroduced, or not?
  • Is it fair to exclude people (with their long history far back into prehistory) in the wilderness area?
  • Is it a good idea to use Nazi-bred Heck Cattle (given that other older cattle species are extinct)?
  • Is the cost worth it, given other (social) needs?

Natural or Social? “The area is simultaneously neither and both, with animals, plants and waterways springing from human interventions, creating altogether new habitats and environments.”

Decisions about what to do (and what not to do) requires understanding how to live within nature:

  • this means integrating  nature and humans

RHM textbook, Environment & Society:

  • First half: perspectives: “dominant ways of thinking about environment-society relations”
    • there are many more… you will encounter in courses and elsewhere
    • shape how people think about and impact the environment
  • Second half: perspectives “applied to familiar objects of the world around us.”
    • not problems and crises: important
    • “An opportunity to break away from the environment as an undifferentiated generic problem, one universally characterized by a state of immediate and unique crisis.”
    • the problem with apocalyptic catastrophism & environment
      • apocalyptic: “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.”
      • catastrophism: “involving or causing sudden great damage or suffering.”

A generalized process: book, class, class project

  • Understand the natural and the social together focused on varying  environmental perspectives
  • Understand common objects embedded in natural and social contexts
  • Understand how environmental problems (at a range of scales) arise from this complex context
  • Define solutions to these problems


This relationship is complicated: nature shapes humans (culture, society) and culture and society shape nature

Human Environmental Cycle

How to make sense out of this relationship is at the core of understanding the environment – and nature – and humans

Next up:

  • Basics about the natural environment (with humans left out, for the moment)
  • Then some key ways to approach  Human & Environmental Interactions

Natural Environment

1. Classifying the Natural World: Environmental Spheres, Ecosystems, and Biomes

  • What is classification?



What about: Things To Sit On: chairs, horses, fences, your butt…

Or, things that fly: airplanes, birds, frisbees, shit (after hitting fan)…

Two baseball umpires, one from the American League, the other from the National, were questioned as to the objective existence of balls and strikes—in other words, how and when did a baseball passing over home plate become either a ball or a strike?

“That’s simple,” the National League umpire replied. “I call it for what it is. If it’s in the strike zone, it’s a strike; outside that, it’s a ball.”

The American League umpire had a different view. He said, “It ain’t nothing until I call it.” (source)

POW: There is always a different way to classify the same stuff

1a. Environmental Spheres and the Earth System

  • Classification based on differences in matter
  • Biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) things and conditions:

Lithosphere: Greek (litho) = stone

  • courses in Physical Geography and Geology

Atmosphere: Greek (atmo) = air

  • courses in weather and climate (Physical Geography)

Hydrosphere: Greek (hydro) = water

  • course in hydrology (Geology)

Biosphere: Greek (bio) = life

  • courses in Botany and Zoology (Biology)

But: the four spheres are not discrete and separate but intermingled

1b. Ecosystems and Biomes

  • Courses in ecology (Botany and Zoology)
  • Classification based on interactions

Ecosystem: a group of environmental characteristics which define a particular area; the totality of interactions among organisms and the environment in the area of consideration; elements from all the earthly spheres

Many ways to classify ecosystems

  • classify according to the amount of organic matter – biomass – produced per year

  • classify according to the relationship between climate (atmosphere) and the biosphere

Biomes: large areas of the earth can be categorized as relatively distinctive, with particular climate, animals, plants: a large, recognizable assemblage of plants and animals in functional interaction with its environment

Major World Biomes

Allee (1949) biome-types

  • Tundra
  • Taiga (coniferous forest)
  • Deciduous forest
  • Grasslands
  • Desert
  • High plateaus
  • Tropical forest
  • Minor terrestrial biomes

But… many different ways to classify biomes… Kendeigh (1961), Whittaker (1962, 1970, 1975) … and so on: Wikipedia Biomes

2. Natural Cycles

  •  physical changes (through time and over geographic space) in matter

Natural cycles are cycles of matter in the natural world: where molecules are formed and re-formed by chemical and biological reactions, manifested as physical changes in the matter

2a. The Hydrologic Cycle

2b. The Carbon Cycle

  • respiration of animals: carbon moves from litho/biosphere to atmosphere
  • photosynthesis: green plants convert atmospheric carbon to complex sugar compounds
  • amount of time carbon remains at a particular place in the cycle varies

Lots of other environmental cycles: Google

Important: can’t change one part of a system without having some effect on another part of the same system, and other cycles and systems

One of the reasons we don’t have a sense of the effects of our modification of these natural systems is that they are often out of sync with our particular time and location

3. Time and Space and Environmental Change

3a. Time and Environmental Change

Geologic Time and Important Events



  • Time scale chosen to study natural systems effects understanding

Dynamic equilibrium: input and output of matter in natural systems is balanced, but there are shorter term fluctuations

Source: Middleton, The Global Casino (2003), Fig. 1.9: Time scale and Oxford England Temperatures
  • different time-scales of analysis: different conclusions

Feedback in a natural system

  • negative feedback: maintains dynamic equilibrium
  • ex) circulation of oceans and atmosphere redistributes energy (heat)
  • positive feedback: drives changes away from the original equilibrium state
  • ex) increases in greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere drives up average temperatures over time

Thresholds: a change in a system may not occur until a threshold is reached: a breaking or tipping point after which the system shifts to a different state


  • certain places (ecosystems, biomes) more sensitive to thresholds and feedback: where (geography) matters

3b. Space / Geography and Environmental Change

Spatial location and scale also affects our understanding of environmental change:

  • Areas of the US crossed by more than one nuclear cloud from aboveground detonations: (source)
  • Costs and benefits, impact of climate change (US): (source)

Projected impact of climate change on agricultural yields by the 2080s, compared to 2003 levels (source)


Environmental issues we will discuss this semester have arisen as a consequence of human activity interacting with environmental systems

  • have basic understanding of how natural systems work
  • where (descriptive: classification) and why (analysis, explanation)
  • vital to consider effects on other time and spatial scales

Back to the Anthropocene

The concept has certainly had an impact beyond Geology:

The Anthropocene is about the consequences of the production and reproduction of the means of existence of social life on a planetary scale.

It seems likely that the Anthropocene as a kind of periodization more or less corresponds to the rise of capitalism.

Means for enduring the Anthropocene are not going to be exclusively cultural or political, let alone theological. They will also have to be scientific and technical.

And in the present, it is time to work transversally, in mixed teams, with the objective of producing forms of knowledge and action that are problem-centered rather than tradition and discipline centered.

Source: Critical Theory After the Anthropocene, McKenzie Wark ( August 9, 2014)


Next: ways to think about the relationship between humans and the natural environment

Human & Environmental Interactions

Human Environmental Cycle

1. Human Environmental Relations: Introduction

Three different ways to think about the relationship between humans and the environment

1a. Environmental Determinism: “Environmental conditions, particularly climate, were the dominant causal factors in determining the various types of societies and levels of development that occurred in certain areas.”

  • the environment predisposes cultures (societies, people) to develop in a certain manner
  • the environment overpowers and shapes culture
  • criticized and largely debunked by the middle of the 20th century

based in part on Greek ideas that temperate (Mediterranean) climates produce great societies

Above: Greek World Climate Zones (ca. 100 BC) (source)

Above: Climatic Energy and Civilization (ca. 1920) (source)

Environmental determinism was used to formally support imperialism and racism (which most people no longer think are good)

  • “There is a direct connection between rich soils, generous rainfall, favorable temperature, and a cultured people.” W. J. Sutherland (1914)
  • “The higher the civilization, the higher the latitude.” C. E. Cooper (1948)

At best, simplistic and ego (cultural)-centric: a theory built backward: Our culture is the greatest civilization, thus our environment must be the root cause.

Many examples of major environmental modifications by humans in all cultures just about everywhere

Above: Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao, Philippines (source)

Above: John Smith’s Map of New England, 1616 (source)

William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (2003)

Far from a “howling wilderness” the landscape of New England, when the first Europeans encountered them, was highly manipulated, with controlled burning and selective manipulation of plants and animals to create an ecology that benefitted Native Americans

Above: Richness of Domesticated Species, Amazon River Basin

“Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition”
March 2017, Science 355 (6328): 925-931

To reiterate: environmental determinism is an inadequate way to understand the relationship between humans and the environment.

1b. Human/Cultural Determinism: culture overpowers and shapes the environment

George Perkins Marsh: Man and Nature (1864)

In Man and Nature, first published in 1864, polymath scholar and diplomat George Perkins Marsh challenged the general belief that human impact on nature was generally benign or negligible and charged that ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean had brought about their own collapse by their abuse of the environment. By deforesting their hillsides and eroding their soils, they had destroyed the natural fertility that sustained their well-being. Marsh offered his compatriots in the United States a stern warning that the young American republic might repeat these errors of the ancient world if it failed to end its own destructive waste of natural resources. Marsh’s ominous warnings inspired conservation and reform. In linking culture with nature, science with history, Man and Nature was the most influential text of its time next to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published just five years earlier.

Concepts of global warming, urban heat islands, greenhouse effect,  mismanagement of natural resources, land degradation

(source: The 1847 lecture that predicted human-induced climate change)

The “we are wrecking everything in the environment” perspective

Above: Plastic and trash in Bhopal, India (source)

Above: e-Waste in Ghana (source)

Above: Greenhouse Effect (normal, human-induced) (source)

Above: “Screaming Heat Skull of Death” (source)

But: the environment does have a big impact on humans, culture and society
Foods of the world: closely related to what grows in particular areas
Above: Dominant Staple Food Crops of the World (source)

Above: Map of Common Foods (source)

But also…

Ale: Fermented from malt with hops
Beer: Brewed and fermented from malted cereal grain (e.g., barley), flavored with hops
Bourbon: Whiskey distilled from a mash of not less than 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years
Brandy: Distilled from wine or fermented fruit juice
Cognac: Brandy distilled from white wine from a specific region of France
Gin: Distilled or redistilled neutral grain spirits from a variety of sources, flavored with juniper berries and other aromatics
Rum: Distilled from a sugarcane product such as molasses or sugarcane juice
Sake: Produced by a brewing process using rice
Scotch: Whiskey distilled in Scotland typically from malted barley
Tequila: A Mexican liquor distilled from blue agave
Vodka: Distilled from a mash of potatoes, rye, or wheat
Whiskey: Distilled from a mash of grain such as rye, corn, or barley
Wine: Fermented juice of fresh grapes and/or other fruit (e.g., blackberry wine)



To reiterate: human/cultural determinism is an inadequate way to understand the relationship between humans and the environment.

1c. Human Environmental Interaction

Human Environmental Cycle

Important role of human agency: cycle of interaction

The relationship between humans and the environment is a complex, two-way relationship – we can shape the environment and it can shape us.

POW: stuff is complicated – but in an interesting way…

Examples: climate, vegetation, landforms

  • how cultures and humans shape the natural environment
  • how the natural environment shapes cultural phenomena


Above: Koppen World Climate Regions (McKnight fig. 8.5)

Climate shapes where people live: tend to avoid areas where it is too hot, cold, wet, and dry

Above: World Population Distribution (more red dots, higher population density)
Climate heavily influences agriculture and shapes distinctive food practices

Above: World Agricultural Regions

…but people have learned to adapt to and even modify microclimates: on purpose, inside:



…And on the entire earth: Climate Geoengineering


Above: Plant Communities or Biomes (McKnight fig. 11.10)
Vegetation shapes what people think about land: “The Great American Desert”
European settlers saw some of the richest lands in North America as desert-like and unproductive. because it did not have many trees. Trees were associated with the best agricultural lands in Europe. Alas, not in North America.

Above: S.H. Long, Map of Arkansas and other Territories of the United States (1822)

Above: Center pivot irrigation in Finney County, Kansas

Vegetation shapes Fences (a cultural practice)


Humans change vegetation: Zink smelting and Vegetation (or, lack of vegetation) (where?)

Above Palmerton, PA (with plant test plots)


Landforms shape Guns (cultural phenomena): Kentucky Long Rifle vs Colt Six Shooter

Above: Kentucky Rifle (top) vs. Colt Six Shooter (bottom)

Humans shape (and reshape) landforms: Kissimmee River, Florida

Above: Kissimmee River Restoration (image source)

Above: Shamokin, Pennsylvania (ca. 1995)

Nature >> Environment >> The Anthropocene >> Human/Environment Interaction >> Everything?

What is the study of Human/Environment Interaction?

Environmental Geography: historically, Geographers were among the first scholars to explicitly note and study human/environmental relationships

Many approaches emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries:

Above: Middleton, Global Casino (2003) table 2.4: 20th century Western Environmental Thought

Political Ecology: “the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues and changes. Political ecology differs from apolitical ecological studies by politicizing environmental issues and phenomena.” (source)

Environment and Society: A more generic term than political ecology, broader maybe, but following the tradition of environmental geography and political ecology.

  • Ways of thinking: Approaches and Perspectives to Environment & Society
  • Problem or object-based (“follow the thing”) approach


Few More Concepts and Definitions

Human Environmental Cycle

Resources: anything in the natural world that is useful to humans; a cultural appraisal of the natural world, as different cultures (and the same cultures at different times) assume certain things to be resources and others not

Resources in the Natural Environment

  • continuous resources
  • renewable resources
  • non-renewable resources

Resources in the Human Environment

  • extrinsic resources

Environmental problems can be seen as the result of a mismatch between extrinsic resources and natural resources; they stem from people deliberately or inadvertently misusing or abusing the natural environment.

Driving and Mitigating Forces

Above: Middleton Global Casino, fig 2.1: Human Forces of Environmental Change

Example: Population (we will come back to population in more detail)

  • Driving force: more people, more natural resources required
  • Mitigating force: limit the number of people to limit required natural resources

Example: Technology

  • Driving force: the desire for mobility and the development of the internal combustion (carbon-based fuel) engine
  • Mitigating force: electric vehicles, public transportation, stay at home

Human-Induced Imbalances

  • Imbalances created and maintained by economics, culture, and society
  • Imbalances – economic and political – are important driving forces behind environmental change

Example: unequal distribution of wealth produces more CO2:  

2016 Oxfam Study: the greatest polluters of all were the most affluent 10% of US households: each emitted, on average, 50 tonnes of CO2 per household member per year. Canada’s top 10% were the next most polluting, followed by the British, Russian and South African elites.

In more equitable affluent countries such as South Korea, Japan, France, Italy and Germany, the rich don’t just pollute less; the average pollution is lower too, because the bottom half of these populations pollute less than the bottom half in the US, Canada or Britain, despite being better off.

In short, people in more equal rich countries consume less, produce less waste and emit less carbon, on average. Indeed, almost everything associated with the environment improves when economic equality is greater. (source)

Example: Unequal distribution of wealth produces more waste (source):


Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations. (Source: US EPA)

Closely tied to economic development:

Above: Middleton, Global Casino, fig 3.3: Development and Environment
  • cycle A: typical of global economy in historical times
  • cycle B: when cycle A crosses an environmental threshold
  • cycle C: sustainable development

Sustainable Development

A compromise between economic development, the creation of wealth, and the exploitation of natural resources on one hand, and stewardship and conservation of natural resources and the natural environment on the other

Origins in a Report: World Conservation Strategy (1980): All economic development programs should

  • maintain ecological processes
  • promote sustainable use of resources
  • maintain genetic diversity

Developed further by the Brundtland Commission: United Nations, 1983

  • Sustainable development: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987)

Sustainable development draws together environmental, social, and economic concerns: basic guiding principles:

  • continued support of human life
  • maintenance of environmental quality and long-term stock of biological resources
  • right of future generations to resources of equal worth to those used today

Key issue in sustainable development: relative roles of

  • economic growth: quantitative expansion of economies
  • development: qualitative improvement of society

We can improve human lives and society (development) with very slow or no economic growth by being more efficient and careful with our use of resources


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