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  • Human Ecology: How Nature and Culture Shape Our World by Frederick Steiner
  • Sara Jacobs (bio)
Human Ecology: How Nature and Culture Shape Our World Frederick Steiner, Washington D.C.: Island Press. $30.00 Paperback. ISBN 978-1-61091-738-4. 256 pages.

The paperback reprint of Human Ecology: How Nature and Culture Shape Our World, by Frederick Steiner, comes on the heels of Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato Si, which calls for an ecology of daily life that looks to “the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language, and ways of acting” (xvi). Human Ecology responds to this, drawing on anthropology, landscape ecology, philosophy, and experiences of place in a part manifesto, part guidebook for developing more sustainable approaches to human settlement. First published in 2002, the new preface cites an increasingly urban world and advances in urban ecology as additional reasons for the timing of the reprint. Human ecology is introduced as both a theory and a practice for landscape designers, ecologists, and planners through basic ecological vocabulary such as borders, edges, adaptation, and diversity.

Over eight chapters, ecological principles are applied to varying scales of human settlement, from community to the planet. In the introduction, a general definition of human ecology as, “an attempt to understand the interrelationships between the human species and its environment” (2) provides a starting point for positioning human ecology within a longer history in which ecology and ecosystem sciences have been disconnected from the humanities. Human Ecology picks up here, arguing that as a consequence, ecology has been disconnected from most work on human relationships and settlements, while an emphasis on interaction and reciprocal relationships within ecology has made it a “subversive” subject that endangers long-held assumptions within the social sciences. Beginning in chapter two, “Habitat,” the book begins moving out in scale, with each subsequent chapter focusing on progressively larger spaces of community, landscape, ecological region, nation-state, and global planet.

The middle chapters of “Community,” “Landscape,” and “Ecological Region” are highlights, filled with planning and design examples that illustrate the importance of systems thinking within human life. Steiner’s expertise is clear in these sections, with portions of chapters four and five, “Landscape” and “Ecology Region,” devoted to stories of lessons learned through practice and travel. In particular, Steiner points to watersheds and the regional planning projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Columbia Basin Irrigation, and the Zuiderzee in the Netherlands as successful examples of applying ecological boundaries, rather than political or cultural boundaries, to human communities (111–115). In chapters three and six, “Community” and “Nation-State,” the same types of anecdotes of place are used, but with less success. This is most problematic when Steiner points to language, race, and religion as synonymous with national identity (131). The same ecological language, when applied generally to specific cultures and communities within nation-states, feels out of touch with the nuanced diversity found throughout human communities and undermines how ecological diversity can be extended to human diversity within and across national boundaries. Scale is returned to in the final chapter, “Following Nature’s Lead,” in a conclusion that shifts from a focus on ecological boundaries to a focus on diversity and complexity found within the ecotones of human cultures and communities.

The importance of Human Ecology is its challenge to the claim that people are not participants in a global ecosystem. Yet, as questions central to ecological restoration, such as sustainability, fossil fuel dependency, and climate change, have also become central political questions, opportunities to address how ecology is or is not still a subversive subject are repeatedly missed. The inclusion of “human” in “human ecology” remains largely unexamined except for briefly in the introduction to note that, “‘human’ with ‘ecology’ helps reinforce the reality of our place in environments” (2). This inclusion of humans within the environment seems to contradict itself later, however, when Steiner argues that humans are “a different animal,” distinct from natural ecosystems because language, culture, and technology “help distinguish human ecology from the more traditional ecology that focuses on plants and animals” (21, 24). Similarly, the impact of what it means to now be an urban...


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pp. 79-80
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