Society & the Natural Environment
According to Gerhard Lenski's ecological-evolutionary theory of societal development, the main evolutionary sequence for most societies is to progress from preindustrial (e.g., hunting and gathering, horticultural, and agrarian) societies to become industrial societies. The advancement from one stage to the next is dependent on both the natural environment in which the society develops and the technology that the society develops in order to overcome the limitations set by the environment. At each of these levels, a society has a different economic base and social organization. Although technology may seem at first glance to overcome the limitations of environmental factors, many observers today are coming to the realization that if indiscriminately applied, technology -- particularly in industrial and postindustrial societies -- can harm the environment and require society to further change in order to protect the very environment that its ancestors were so proud to conquer.
When given half a chance, I enjoy working in my garden. This is a long habit since my childhood, and was instilled in me by a mother who was raised on a farm and a father who decided to tackle the challenge of growing roses. I have gardened in many of the agricultural zones in the United States, and have learned through experience that I cannot grow everything that one sees attractively displayed in a nursery catalog. For example, a particular variety of blue poppy has always caught my eye, but it can only reliably be grown in the Pacific Northwest and is a reliable failure here in the South. Likewise, as amusing as it might be to grow pineapples in my backyard, I know that they will never grow here, and that if I want them I can either move to Hawaii or buy my pineapples from the grocery store. Similarly, if I want to ski, I need to travel to the mountains, or if I want to swim in anything but a chlorinated, human-made hole in the ground, I need to travel in the opposite direction and go to the ocean. In short, no matter what my skills or inclinations, the natural, physical environment places limits on what I can and cannot do. Humans, of course, have come up with various ways around this limitation ranging from greenhouses with controlled environments (in which to grow blue poppies or pineapples) and swimming pools as well as a host of other artifacts that allow humans control over their environment.
Historically, not every society has been advanced enough to have such things, however. Early societies, for example, needed to live in temperate climates or find ways to shelter themselves from the elements. They also needed to live in areas where they would be able to find food (e.g., by hunting or gathering) or -- later in sociocultural evolution -- to grow it. Early societies in particular were subject to the limits placed on them by the natural or physical environment including temperature, air pressure, noise, vibration, atmosphere, and the availability of sustenance.
Gerhard Lenski developed the ecological-evolutionary theory of human societies to not only describe but to predict the evolutionary patterns of social development along a number of independent variables. This theory looks at the influence and limitations placed on societal development by the natural environment and how humans respond by developing tools and other technology to overcome these limitations. The ecological-evolutionary theory examines the influence both of the society's natural environment and its technological attainment on its development patterns. Basic to this theory is a main sequence of sociocultural evolution in which societies progress from aprimordial type based on hunting and gathering through simple horticultural societies that grow food using simple tools such as digging sticks and hoes, through advanced horticultural societies that are also able to perform metallurgy of copper and bronze. Typically, horticultural societies then evolve to become simple agrarian societies that develop after the technological advance of the plow. Advanced horticultural societies add to these technological achievements the use of iron metallurgy. From agrarian societies, the natural progression is next to industrialization. Industrialized societies are characterized by the use of machines that are powered by inanimate forms of energy (e.g., wind, electricity).
However, not every environment lends itself easily or at all to cultivation using the plow. Therefore, in addition to the evolutionary dimension, Lenski also adds an ecological dimension. This dimension helps account for the fact that not all environments are conducive to all types of society. For example, it is unlikely that one will ever set up a sustainable farm in the natural environment of Antarctica. Similarly, societies finding themselves in arid, desert conditions are also more likely to turn to herding rather than to farming. Lenski's ecological dimension includes three subsistence strategies: herding societies that arise in arid environments in which farming is not feasible, fishing societies that have easy access to suitable bodies of water, and maritime societies located next to large bodies of water that subsist through trading with others. Figure 1 shows the general progress of societies by type of environment and technological achievement level.
The type of environment in which a society develops influences more than its path to industrialization (or inability to industrialize). As shown in Table 1, the different general types of societies also differ both in economic base and social organization that result from the dual influences of technological level and type of environment. In particular, societies at different levels of development tend to differ in the ways in which they are organized and the complexity with which they defy their labor. For example, in foraging societies that tend to survive at the subsistence level (e.g., hunting and gathering societies), males and females alike tend to both gather food and hunt for it. At this level of societal development, it is important that everyone be involved in the hunting and gathering since such societies tend to be unable to accumulate little (e.g., because of food spoilage). However, as a society begins to develop past the foraging stage and become pastoral in nature, both the economic base and the social organization of the society become more complex. At this level of societal development, individuals within the society can begin to accumulate more wealth (e.g., the acquisition of larger herds). The social organization of the society typically becomes more complex due to the requirement for greater division of labor resulting from a greater number of tasks that need to be performed. No longer does the society merely need to go out and hunt game and collect nuts and berries, but it also needs to herd the flocks, tend the livestock, and maintain the various items and artifacts that it begins to accumulate.
Type of Society Economic Base Social Organization Examples Foraging Societies Economic sustenance dependent on hunting and foraging Gender...
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