Committee on Public Policy

Public Policy Issue Briefs - Interdisciplinary Approach to the Environment

An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Environment

Humans have adapted to nearly every environment on the planet. Humans, too, have affected and been affected by the environment. In bringing together the physical, biological and social dimensions of human interactions with the environment in the present and the past, anthropology contributes a comprehensive understanding of the environment as a human landscape.

Anthropologists have addressed many of the cultural factors contributing to global environmental change. Archaeologists have revealed how humans have interacted with the environment over thousands of years. Biological anthropologists have addressed the physical adaptations of humans to the environment, including genetic, physiological and behavioral adaptations. Cultural anthropologists have addressed the present-day relationships of humans to the environment. These include the social institutions, cultural differences, and local knowledge associated with the environment. Linguistic anthropologists have addressed how language reflects human interactions with the environment and the importance of environment to culture.

With a holistic, ecological perspective and interdisciplinary nature, anthropology contributes an increased understanding of the human interconnection with all aspects of the environment. For instance, maintaining biodiversity depends on understanding the ecosystems of which individual plant and animal species are a part. It is increasingly recognized that anthropology can provide important information about the human role in ecosystem history, in both the present and distant past.

Archaeologists, working in conjunction with paleoecologists, have demonstrated that humans have been major shapers in ecosystem history for thousands of years. For example, archaeological research in many parts of the world has demonstrated that for thousands of years humans not only have been an active part of ecosystems but have influenced the way that these ecosystems have developed. Hence, it may well be illusory to assume that ecosystems existed in a "pristine" state little influenced by humans until the onset of urban civilizations or the spread of European colonialism.

Cultural anthropologists have studied the interaction of present-day humans with their environment. In the developing world, in particular, anthropological studies are often among the most useful in understanding the complex interplay of cultural, economic, demographic, and environmental factors that are leading to a decline in biodiversity. Anthropologists also have documented many cultural practices that work to sustain and promote biodiversity. In addition, anthropologists have contributed to a better understanding of cultural knowledge and social memory, sustainability, ethnomedicine, resource management, population dynamics, and the relation of language, religious belief or worldview to the environment.

Various federal agencies of the U.S. government support environmental research. Cross-agency initiatives like global environmental change, defined as interdisciplinary in nature, have involved successfully anthropologists in studying the human dimensions of the environment. A new initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE), integrates research on the human dimensions of the environment with studies on the complexity of environmental systems and the interconnections among living organisms and the environment. An interdisciplinary effort, it focuses on three major research areas: biodiversity and ecosystems dynamics, environment and human dimension, and global environmental change.

NSF anticipates expanding its support of environmental research, education and scientific assessment significantly in the future. In July 1999 the National Science Board adopted a report urging NSF to expand its environmental activities significantly and to increase its funding in this area by $1 billion over the next five years. Currently, NSF spends approximately $600 million on environmental activities. Embracing the charge, NSF is seeking the funds to amplify its environmental efforts. Strengthening disciplinary and interdisciplinary research as well as long-term research on the environment is one of the major recommendations specified in the report.

The goals of the Committee on Public Policy are threefold: (1) to identify anthropologists who are taking an interdisciplinary approach to research on the environment; (2) to determine the state of knowledge and to identify gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed; and (3) to assist policy makers and those engaged in related research in understanding the human dimensions of the environment.

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