HUMAN DIMENSIONS OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS
Humans have always played a large role in forming and modifying the environment. Environmental degradation,
in turn, usually carries a high human cost. In this regard, historical ecology is emerging as a field of study that can
provide lessons applicable to current problems (DieffenbacherKrall 1996, Hammett 1992). Historical evidence
records past human choices and responses in which the effects of environmental change can be understood.
While unfamiliarity with environmental patterns and processes can lead to disastrous choices and actions, local
knowledge about the environment, culture, and history can serve both as a practical basis for regionally appropriate
solutions and as a means of increasing familiarity with and support for eventual policies (Crumley 1993).
Studies of the biosphere and society also reach to the future to address such topics as system dynamics; growth,
regulation, and sustainable consumption; and participatory processes in the management of natural resources. For
example, to better understand the human dimensions of deforestation and reforestation, an interdisciplinary team
of demographers, geographers, earth scientists, ecologists, anthropologists, and political scientists has combined
theories of human decision-making about land cover conditions with detailed analyses of field sites. In a careful
empirical design focusing on three major types of forest ownership, the researchers can identify the differential
impact of social processes on sites. Preliminary findings include the identification of key variables associated with
rates of forest regrowth and more extensive understanding of the relationship between forest conditions and
property rights systems (Sohn, Moran, and Gurri 1999).
All societies face decisions about the relationship between environmental protection and economic development
and all societies differ in the cultural, historical, and political context in which those decisions must occur.
Attempts to generalize across systems have been illuminating but inconclusive, in part because study designs
often have focused on comparisons across similar systems or because underlying theory was poorly addressed. To
complement and energize interdisciplinary empirical studies of society and biosphere, investigators must develop
a strong theoretical framework for such research (Ostrom et al. 1999, Low et al. 1999).