Culture & Environment

Anthropology 361; Env. Studies 361; International Studies 361


This course explores relationships between human culture and the environment, with the unifying theme of relationships among population, food production, and politics. We will discuss social, ecological, and political aspects of production systems from foraging to shifting cultivation to intensive cultivation, including questions of sustainability and how these systems are altered by state and industrial intervention. We will examine indigenous or "traditional" adaptations, with case studies drawn from West and East Africa, Brazilian Amazon, China, India, New Guinea, and the Philippines. We will explore ecological and political aspects of industrialized food production and the ecology and "ethical" food movements. Along the way we will pose questions such as:
  • Does environment determine (or even shape) culture? Do cultures "evolve" as they switch from foraging to simple agriculture to intensive agriculture?
  • In what ways are cultural uses of the environment controlled by population density? Is rising population density the primary cause of environmental destruction?
  • Was Malthus right that population inherently tends to outstrip food production? Was he right that this is the prime cause of poverty? If not, why does this theory continue to be so influential? What practical effects have the theory had? In what ways is it a political theory as opposed to an ecological one?
  • Are there sustainable intensive small farms in the world? If so, what makes them work?
  • What was the "Great Leap Forward," and how did it starve 30 million people? What does this episode tell us about smallholder agriculture?
  • What was the "Green Revolution"? If its chief architect won a Nobel Peace Prize, why is violence attributed to it? Has it helped or hurt agricultural sustainability?
  • How and why has food production become industrialized in this country? What roles have been played by science and capital? Who are the winners and losers in this fundamental change in food production?
  • What are genetically modified crops? What are the objections to them? Are they critical to the fight against world hunger? What are the larger issues?
  • What is "slash & burn" farming, and why do so many farmers practice it? Is it really the cause of rainforest destruction?
  • Is conflict over resources the exception or the rule among indigenous peoples? Has European expansion done more to suppress or cause indigenous conflict?
  • Can religious rituals act as regulators of humans and their key resources?
  • What is "Green Capitalism" and can it be used to mitigate human-environmental interactions?