Ecology and Environmental Justice: Understanding Disturbance Using Ecological Theory

  • Steward T. A. PickettEmail author
  • Christopher G. Boone
  • Mary L. Cadenasso
Part of the Human-Environment Interactions book series (HUEN, volume 3)


The different cultures of social equity and ecological science can be bridged by an enhanced understanding of the occurrence of environmental hazards and benefits. Knowledge about ecological disturbance improves understanding of how socio-ecological systems respond to the events that disrupt the structure of systems and the flows of resources within them. It is important to recognize that not all instances of a kind of event, such as fire or flood, will be equally disruptive. In part this is because there are many ecological modifiers, such as biological structure of an ecosystem, topography, and the specific weather and other conditions in place before and during an event, that affect individual events. Furthermore, the human, institutional, and infrastructural capitals available in different locations operate along with biophysical factors that modify disturbance and the response to it. Biophysical response to disturbance is motivated by successional capacity, the resource base of the site, and the neighboring landscape context. Environmental injustices are remarkably persistent due to biophysical patterns of these modifying factors in space. Ecological theory embodies the understanding of disturbance patterns through time and space, lays out the assumptions about the structure of affected systems, and extends the knowledge base beyond the memory of people who must plan for and react to environmental disturbances and stresses.


Disturbance Successional capacity Topography Equity Ecological modifiers 



We thank Charlie Nilon and George Middendorf for providing the stimulus for this chapter. This is a product of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, LTER, with support from NSF DEB 0423476, BCS-BE 508054, and SBE-HSD 0624159.


  1. Barry, J. M. (1997). Rising tide: The great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  2. Basnet, K. (1993). Recovery of tropical rain forest after hurricane damage. Vegetatio, 109, 1–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Benford, R. (2005). The half-life of the environmental justice frame: innovation, diffusion, and stagnation. In D. N. Pellow & R. J. Brulle (Eds.), Power, justice, and the environment: A critical appraisal of the environmental justice movement(pp. 37–53). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Google Scholar
  4. Boone, C. G. (2002). An assessment and explanation of environmental inequity in Baltimore. Urban Geography, 23, 581–595.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boone, C. G., Buckley, G. L., Grove, J. M., & Sister, C. (2009). Parks and People: An Environmental Justice Inquiry in Baltimore, Maryland. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 99(4), 767–787.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boose, E. R., Foster, D. R., & Fluet, M. (1994). Hurricane impacts to tropical and temperate forest landscapes. Ecological Monographs, 64, 369–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bormann, F. H., & Likens, G. E. (1979). Catastrophic disturbance and the steady-state in northern hardwood forests. American Scientist, 67, 660–669.Google Scholar
  8. Buckley GL (2010) America’s conservation impulse: a century of saving trees in the Old Line State. The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  9. Bullard, R. D. (1990). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class and environmental quality. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bullard, R. D. (2005). The quest for environmental justice: Human rights and the politics of pollution. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.Google Scholar
  11. Cadenasso, M. L., Pickett, S. T. A., Weathers, K. C., & Jones, C. G. (2003). A framework for a theory of ecological boundaries. BioScience, 53, 750–758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chapin, F. S., Rupp, T. S., Starfield, A. M., DeWilde, L. O., Zaveleta, E. S., Fresco, N., Henkelman, J., & McGuire, A. D. (2003). Planning for resilience: Modeling change in human-fire interactions in the Alaskan boreal forest. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment, 1, 255–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chesson, P. L., & Case, T. J. (1986). Overview: nonequilibrium community theories: chance, variability, history, and coexistence. In J. Diamond & T. J. Case (Eds.), Community ecology(pp. 229–239). New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  14. Christensen, N. L., Agee, J. K., Brussard, P. F., Hughes, J., Knight, D. H., Minshall, G. W., Peek, J. M., Pyne, S. J., Swanson, F. J., Thomas, J. W., Wells, S., Williams, S. E., & Wright, H. A. (1989). Interpreting the Yellowstone fires of 1988. BioScience, 39, 678–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Clark, J. S. (1991). Disturbance and tree life history on the shifting mosaic landscape. Journal of Ecology, 72, 1102–1118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Collins, B. S., & Pickett, S. T. A. (1988). Demographic responses of herb layer species to experimental canopy gaps in a northern hardwoods forest. Journal of Ecology, 76, 437–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Colten, C. E. (2005). An unnatural metropolis: Wrestling New Orleans from nature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Connell, J. H., & Keough, M. J. (1985). Disturbance and patch dynamics of subtidal marine animals on hard substrata. In S. T. A. Pickett & P. S. White (Eds.), The ecology of natural disturbance and patch dynamics(pp. 125–151). Orlando: Academic.Google Scholar
  19. Costanza, R. (1996). Ecological economics: Reintegrating the study of humans and nature. Ecological Applications, 6, 978–990.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cutter, S. L. (2006). Hazards, vulnerability and environmental justice. Sterling: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  21. Dale, V. H., Lugo, A. E., MacMahon, J. A., & Pickett, S. T. A. (1999). Ecosystem management in the context of large, infrequent disturbances. Ecosystems, 1, 546–557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Dow, K. (2000). Social dimensions of gradients in urban ecosystems. Urban Ecosystems, 4, 255–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Downey, L. (2006). Environmental inequality in metropolitan America in 2000. Sociological spectrum, 26, 21–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Elfring, C. (1989). Yellowstone: Fire storm over fire management. BioScience, 39, 667–672.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Foster, D. R. (1988). Species and stand response to catastrophic wind in central New England. Journal of Ecology, 76, 135–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Frelich, L. E., Calcote, R. R., Davis, M. B., & Pastor, J. (1993). Patch formation and maintenance in an old-growth hemlock-hardwood forest. Ecology, 74, 513–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gilliland, J. (2002). The creative destruction of Montreal: Street widenings and urban (re)development in the nineteenth century. Urban History Review, 31(1), 37–51.Google Scholar
  28. Glenn-Lewin, D. C., & van der Maarel, E. (1992). Patterns and processes of vegetation dynamics. In D. C. Glenn-Lewin, R. K. Peet, & T. T. Veblen (Eds.), Plant succession: Theory and prediction(pp. 11–59). New York: Chapman & Hall.Google Scholar
  29. Gordon, H. D., & Harley, K. I. (2005). Environmental justice and the legal system. In D. N. Pellow & R. J. Brulle (Eds.), Power, justice, and the environment: A critical appraisal of the environmental justice movement(pp. 153–170). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Google Scholar
  30. Gutman, M., Parton, W. J., Cunfer, G., & Burke, I. C. (2005). Population and environment in the U.S. Great Plains. National Research Council. In M. Gutman and P. Stern, (Eds.), Population, land use, and environment(pp. 84–105). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hadley, K. S. (1994). The role of disturbance, topography, and forest structure in the development of a montane forest landscape. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 121, 47–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hinman, S. E. (2002). Urbanization and public health: A study of the spatial distribution of infant mortality in Baltimore, Maryland, 1880. MA thesis, Ohio University, Athens, OH.Google Scholar
  33. Hooke, R. L. (2000). On the history of humans as geomorphic agents. Geology, 28, 843–846.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Huston, M. A. (1994). Biological diversity: The coexistence of species on changing landscapes. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Jakob, M. (2000). The impacts of logging on landslide activity at Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. Catena, 38, 279–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jax, K., Jones, C., & Pickett, S. T. A. (1998). The self-identity of ecological units. Oikos, 82, 253–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Johnson, E. A., & Miyanishi, K. (2007). Plant disturbance ecology: The process and the response. Burlington: Academic.Google Scholar
  38. Klinenberg, E. (2002). Heat wave: A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  39. Luken, J. O. (1990). Directing ecological succession. New York: Chapman & Hall.Google Scholar
  40. MacMahon, J. A. (1981). Successional processes: comparisons among biomes with special reference to probable role of and influences on animals. In D. C. West, H. H. Shugart, & D. B. Botkin (Eds.), Forest succession: Concepts and applications(pp. 277–304). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  41. MacMahon, J. A. (1998). Empirical and theoretical ecology as a basis for restoration: an ecological success story. In M. L. Pace & P. M. Groffman (Eds.), Successes, limitations, and frontiers in ecosystem science(pp. 220–246). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. McGranahan, G., & Satterthwaite, D. (2002). Environmental health or ecological sustainability? Reconciling the brown and green agendas in urban development. In R. Zetter & R. White (Eds.), Planning in cities: Sustainability and growth in the developing world(pp. 43–57). London: Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG).Google Scholar
  43. McGrath, B. P., Cadenasso, M. L., Grove, J. M., Marshall, V., Pickett, S. T. A., & Towers, J. (2007). Designing urban patch dynamics. New York: Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.Google Scholar
  44. Melosi, M. V. (2000). The sanitary city: Urban infrastructure in America from colonial times to the present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Mohai, P., & Saha, R. (2007). Racial inequality in the distribution of hazardous waste: A national-level reassessment. Social problems, 54(3), 343–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Morello-Frosch, R., Zuk, M., Jerrett, M., Shamasunder, B., & Kyle, A. D. (2011). Understanding the cumulative impacts of inequalities in environmental health: implications for policy. Health affairs, 30, 879–877.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Myster, R. W., & Fernández, D. S. (1995). Spatial gradients and patch structure on two Puerto Rican landslides. Biotropica, 27, 149–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Olson, S. H. (1997). Baltimore: The building of an American city. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Orser, W. E. (1994). Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village story. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  50. Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Palmer, M., Bernhardt, E., Chornesky, E., Collins, S., Dobson, A., Duke, C., Gold, B., Jacobson, R., Kingsland, S., Kranz, R., Mappin, M., Martinez, M. L., Micheli, F., Morse, J., Pace, M., Pascual, M., Palumbi, S., Reichman, O. J., Simons, A., Townsend, A., & Turner, M. (2004). Ecology for a crowded planet. Science, 304, 1251–1252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Pellow, D. N. (2000). Environmental inequality formation: Toward a theory of environmental justice. American Behavioral Scientist, 43, 581–601.Google Scholar
  54. Pellow, D. N. (2007). Resisting global toxics: Transnational movements for environmental justice. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Google Scholar
  55. Pellow, D. N., & Brulle, R. J. (2005a). Power, justice, and the environment: A critical appraisal of the environmental justice movement. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Google Scholar
  56. Pellow, D. N., & Brulle, R. J. (2005b). Power, justice, and the environment: Toward critical environmental justice studies. In D. N. Pellow & R. J. Brulle (Eds.), Power, justice, and the environment: A critical appraisal of the environmental justice movement(pp. 1–19). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Google Scholar
  57. Peña, D. G. (2005). Autonomy, equity, and environmental justice. In D. N. Pellow & R. J. Brulle (Eds.), Power, justice, and the environment: A critical appraisal of the environmental justice movement(pp. 131–151). Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Google Scholar
  58. Peters, D. P. C., Lugo, A. E., Chapin, F. S., III, Pickett, S. T. A., Duniway, M., Rocha A. V., Swanson, F. J., Laney, C., & Jones, J. (2011). Cross-system comparisons elucidate disturbance complexities and generalities. Ecosphere, 2, article81.Google Scholar
  59. Pickett, S. T. A., & Cadenasso, M. L. (2005). Vegetation succession. In E. van der Maarel (Ed.), Vegetation ecology(pp. 172–198). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  60. Pickett, S. T. A., & Cadenasso, M. L. (2009). Altered resources, disturbance, and heterogeneity: A framework for comparing urban and non-urban soils. Urban Ecosystems, 12, 23–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pickett, S. T. A., & White, P. S. (1985). Patch dynamics: a synthesis. In S. T. A. Pickett & P. S. White (Eds.), The ecology of natural disturbance and patch dynamics(pp. 371–384). Orlando: Academic.Google Scholar
  62. Pickett, S. T. A., Collins, S. L., & Armesto, J. J. (1987). Models, mechanisms and pathways of succession. Botanical Review, 53, 335–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Pickett, S. T. A., Wu, J., & Cadenasso, M. L. (1999). Patch dynamics and the ecology of disturbed ground: a framework for synthesis. In L. R. Walker (Ed.), Ecosystems of the world: Ecosystems of disturbed ground(pp. 707–722). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.Google Scholar
  64. Pickett, S. T. A., Cadenasso, M. L., & Jones, C. G. (2000). Generation of heterogeneity by organisms: creation, maintenance, and transformation. In M. L. Hutchings, E. A. John, & A. J. A. Stewart (Eds.), Ecological consequences of habitat heterogeneity(pp. 33–52). New York: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  65. Pickett, S. T. A., Kolasa, J., & Jones, C. G. (2007). Ecological understanding: The nature of theory and the theory of nature(2nd ed.). San Diego: Academic.Google Scholar
  66. Pickett, S. T. A., Buckley, G. L., Kaushal, S. S., & Williams, Y. (2011). Social-ecological science in the humane metropolis. Urban Ecosystems, 14, 319–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Platt, R. H. (1999). Disasters and democracy: The politics of extreme natural events. Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  68. Power, G. (1983). Apartheid Baltimore style: The residential segregation ordinances of 1910–1913. Marlyland Law Review, 42, 289–328.Google Scholar
  69. Pulliam, H. R., & Johnson, B. R. (2001). Ecology’s new paradigm: What does it offer designers and planners? In B. R. Johnson & K. Hill (Eds.), Ecology and design: Frameworks for learning(pp. 51–84). Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  70. Pyne, S. J. (2001). Fire: A brief history. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  71. Reice, S. R. (2001). The silver lining: The benefits of natural disasters. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  72. Schlosberg, D. (2007). Defining environmental justice: Theories, movements, and nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Shrader-Frechette, K. S. (2002). Environmental justice: Creating equality, reclaiming democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Smith, C. (1992). How news media cover disasters: The case of Yellowstone. In P. S. Cook (Ed.), The future of news: Television, newspapers, wire services, newsmagazines(pp. 223–240). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Sze, J., & London, J. K. (2008). Environmental justice at the crossroads. Sociology Compass, 2(4), 1331–1354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Tilman, D., & Pacala, S. W. (1993). The maintenance of species richness in plant communities. In R. E. Ricklefs & D. Schluter (Eds.), Species diversity in ecological communities: Historical and geographic perspectives(pp. 13–25). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  77. Turner, M. G., Wu, Y., Wallace, L. L., & Romme, W. H. (1994). Simulating winter interactions among ungulates, vegetation, and fire in northern Yellowstone Park. Ecological Applications, 4, 472–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. United Nations Population Fund. (2007). State of world population 2007: Unleashing the potential of urban growth. New York: United Nations Population Fund.Google Scholar
  79. Vandermeer, J., Boucher, D., Perfecto, I., & Graznow De La Cerda, I. (1996). A theory of disturbance and species diversity: Evidence from Nicaragua after Hurricane Joan. Biotropica, 28, 600–613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. vanHulst, R. (1992). From population dynamics to community dynamics: Modeling succession as a species replacement process. In D. C. Glenn-Lewin, R. K. Peet, & T. T. Veblen (Eds.), Plant succession: Theory and prediction(pp. 188–214). New York: Chapman & Hall.Google Scholar
  81. Walker, L. R. (1999). Ecosystems of disturbed ground. New York: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  82. Walker, L. R., & del Moral, R. (2003). Primary succession and ecosystem rehabilitation. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Walker, L. R., Brokaw, N. V., Lodge, D. J., & Waide, R. B. (1991). Ecosystem, plant, and animal responses to hurricanes in the Caribbean. New Orleans: Association for Tropical Biology.Google Scholar
  84. White, P. S., & Jentsch, A. (2001). The search for generality in studies of disturbance and ecosystem dynamics. Progress in Botany, 62, 399–449.Google Scholar
  85. Wu, J., & Gao, W. (1995). Spatial patterns of species richness: A hierarchical perspective. Chinese Biodiversity (English Edition), 3, 12–21.Google Scholar
  86. Zimmerman, G. T., & Neuenschwander, L. F. (1984). Livestock grazing influences on community structure, fire intensity, and fire frequency within the Douglas-fir/Ninebark habitat type. Journal of Range Management, 37, 104–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steward T. A. Pickett
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christopher G. Boone
    • 2
  • Mary L. Cadenasso
    • 3
  1. 1.Cary Institute of Ecosystem StudiesMillbrookUSA
  2. 2.School of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  3. 3.Department of Plant SciencesUniversity of California-DavisDavisUSA

Personalised recommendations