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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Sustainability, Human Ecology, and the Collapse of Complex Societies: Economic Anthropology and a 21st Century Adaptation by Niccolo Caldararo (Mellen Studies in Anthropology Vol. 15: Edwin Mellen Press) This book is designed as an introduction to both economic anthropology and to the use of culture history as an aid in the study of the evolution of human institutions. As an introduction, it is written in a general tone without much in the way of spe­cialist terms. The sections are divided into themes, the first being a general outline of the history of economics and how human societies have been seen to adapt to different environments over the past 5 million years. In essence, as Evans-Pritchard (1965) has said about the theories of religion, the history of economic theory also reflects the character and themes of the times in which the theories were cre­ated. Caldararo provides a basic review of theories of human social evolution, both unilinear and multilinear in scope as well as a historical framework for their appearance. A unilinear view perceives history taking place in a straight line, one simple stage of society developing into a more complex one and so on, from hunters and gatherers through to today's global culture. A multilinear view is more complex. It conceives of all forms of human institutions as being developed forms with rich histories. Some societies developed in some locations in time into more complex ones, oth­ers did not and some collapsed leaving no progeny. There are many different schemes which have been constructed using both these views and they differ one from the other in their components. Neither of these reviews was meant to be exhaustive surveys of the literature, rather it is hoped they will provide a picture of the development of ideas and approaches to the subjects.

A second section provides an in depth study of human exploitation of forests and the use of fire. The main significance of fire here is the fact that fire has been a major tool in human land clearance in the transition from food collection to food production in the Neolithic. Even before this transition, humans used fire to shape the distribution of plants and animals in the environment. A sub-theme will be how forest fires have evolved. Caldararo’s argument here is that forest fires as we know them did not exist before the appearance of humans.

In this second section Caldararo treats the phenomenon of forest fires as a general instance of human exploitation of environments. Forest fires can be seen as an analogy of the human condition where cultures act as filters for perception and create conceptual landscapes upon which humans act. It seems to me that studying forest fires is quite instructive to a general understanding of the human dilemma. In this exam­ple, humans have changed the natural world in the process of exploiting resources and by doing so have created an implacable enemy. By introducing the systematic use of fire to extract resources from forests and other wild lands (e.g., increase game, create farmland), by introducing exotic plants or producing fire-adapted flora, and by depleting those animals which lived on the wild biomass, we have produced a landscape adapted to wild fire which never existed before.

This process of human produced events, "anthropogenic events" is the term often used, has converged into a self-perpetuating cycle where wild fire has become a chronic seasonal event, with periodic fires of tremendous damage which are extended and complicated by the growth of suburbs of cities into formerly rural and wild areas. In like manner we have fashioned religious precepts and ideologies upon which our economic lives are founded and have set a course by which the daily lives of billions of people are guided. People are formed within these pre­cepts and ideologies and their numbers must ever rise to support the economic sys­tem in which we live. Yet the nature of this course is to inexorably change the foundations on which this course is run, with new commodities, services and espe­cially experiences – real or imagined – and thus require an unmitigated and con­stant transformation of lives like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. The Red Queen makes the observation to Alice that, "...in this place it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." In biology, L. van Valen (1973) proposed a similar idea as a principle in evolution regarding the effects of coevolutionary selection. In this view, every improvement in one species will provide it with a selective advantage, and variation will normally lead continu­ously to increases in fitness in one species or another. Thus to be competitive, each species must be in constant variation to improve fitness relative to other changes in fitness of its competitors. We know, however, from the fossil record that there are long periods of stasis as well as periods of rapid and gradual change. Thus all evolutionary history has not been ruled by the Red Queen. Of course, in Caldararo’s example people have created the conditions of "running in place" maintained by precept and ideology. Occasionally all controls fail and a massive forest fire results defying all human technology and destroying forest and human industry. In a similar vein, human societies must adjust the relationships of all components of their institutions to avoid the trump of entropy, the collapse of the economy, and with it, the possible loss of the current form of civilized life. Our social life has developed from that of the sparsely populated hunter and gatherer who is constantly mobile, to the densely populated and sedentary urban dweller. We have become both domesticated animals and herding animals at the same time. Caldararo discusses this in more detail in a later section.

Even the course of this complexity and domestication is uncertain. Our knowledge of the evolution of complex societies among other animals, for example the insects, shows us that complexity is reversible. Research with various solitary insects has found that reversals from complexity back to solitary behavior have occurred at least twelve times. The ants, termites and corbiculate bees that are highly social with complex behavior are from the Cretaceous period and their closely related solitary taxa have long been extinct. Varying degrees of complex social behavior are found in wasps and Halictid bees and allow for com­parative study.

The third section of this book is on sustainability and examines this concept from an anthropological perspective, using Japan as a case study. Ethnohistorical docu­ments are the basis but the work addresses both ancient Japan and contemporary Japan through an economic analysis and population history. A basic question here is the nature of the distribution of resources in societies. It has long been held that Pareto's Law (1897) affected all human economies. This law argues that 20% of the population will own 80% of the wealth. However, recent analysis of wealth and income data using the Lorenz curve to factor the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of income inequality, show that the communist experiments produced societ­ies with markedly different distributions than predicted by Pareto's Law. But even an analysis of a broad group of countries shows a great deal of variation.

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