Human Ecology – Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development

Author: Gerald G. Marten
Publisher: Earthscan Publications
Publication Date: November 2001, 256 pp.
Paperback ISBN: 1853837148
Hardback SBN: 185383713X

Information for purchasing this book:
United States/Canada – Stylus Publishing
Elsewhere – Earthscan Publications
Japanese version – Amazon Japan


Ecologically sustainable development has become a universal concern. It is a challenge that merits the attention and action of us all. Efforts to promote sustainable development are proceeding on a variety of fronts, but it is still far from a reality.

A crucial ingredient for sustainable development is a well-informed public. All actions that impact the environment come ultimately from individuals. It is public opinion that stimulates governments, corporations and other sectors of society to appropriate action. Even political leaders who are strongly committed to sustainable development cannot impose it upon people who do not understand or appreciate its importance. Conversely, even the most reluctant of political leaders cannot fail to pursue sustainability when their people demand it.

Most people are concerned about the environment but feel overwhelmed by the complexity and scale of the problems. Given the diversity of competing perspectives and interests, it is often difficult to know what information to trust. The numerous forces, both social and ecological, that stand in the way of sustainable development have so much momentum that changing the present course of environmental deterioration seems unlikely without major changes in people’s attitudes and behavior. The imperative of sustainable development is forcing us to think in new ways, but the way to an ecologically sustainable future is not at all clear.

Ecologically sustainable development may only be possible once we have grasped the fundamental interdependence of human society and the natural environment. Human ecology, as the science of human – environment interaction, provides a whole-system perspective that bridges the gap between the natural and social sciences. It is a broad perspective that can help to clarify environmental issues and suggest how to deal with them. While human ecology has proved its worth as an interdisciplinary approach to solving environmental problems, it has not yet attained a clear identity with an established body of theory. The time has come for human ecology to become a major scientific discipline in its own right. The stake that we all have in an ecologically healthy future is far too great to settle for less.

Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development is a valuable step towards making human ecology a scientific discipline which everyone can and should understand as a guide to their own actions. Dr Marten presents a coherent set of concepts about how ecosystems function and how human social systems interact with ecosystems. This will help readers to make sense of the complexity of human – environment interactions, enabling them to make connections not previously noticed in many areas of their lives. The examples that Dr Marten uses to illustrate the concepts are drawn from actual situations that cover a wide range of topics and take us to diverse parts of the world. They allow us to see how to make the jump from theory to practice.

For example, once aware of ‘complex adaptive systems’, readers will begin to notice ordered patterns in the changes occurring all around them. Once aware of ‘landscape mosaics’, readers will pay more attention to the implications of changes in their landscape for the future quality of their lives. The ‘switch’ character of ecosystem function clarifies how inappropriate use of environmental resources can lead to irreversible degradation. The concept of ‘coadaptation’ between social systems and ecosystems helps to explain why modern society has environmental problems, while pointing to fundamental changes necessary to deal with the problems.

Dr Marten provides us with the conceptual tools to understand and evaluate the complexities we face, so that we are better equipped to choose actions with positive outcomes in both the short and long term. The ultimate pay-offs can be realized when the ecological and systems concepts in this book are applied to sustainable development. The book explains how the existing economic system and other contemporary social institutions promote unsustainable human-environment interaction and describes social institutions that can contribute to ecologically sustainable interaction. It provides examples of successful actions by government, the private sector and civil society to develop healthier relationships with the environment.

The scope and clarity of this book make it accessible and informative to a wide readership. Its messages should be an essential component of the education for all students from secondary school to university. The book will be equally meaningful to anyone concerned with the environment who desires a fundamental understanding of the forces shaping the future of his children and grandchildren and all who care about the millions of people whose lives have been destroyed or undermined by environmental deterioration. In short, this is a book that provides a clear and comprehensible account of concepts that can be applied in our individual and collective lives to pursue the promising and secure future to which we all aspire.

Maurice Strong

Chairman, Earth Council
Secretary General, Rio Earth Summit (1992)
Former Deputy Secretary General, United Nations.


Back to Top

Back to Human Ecology – Table of Contents