The Transformation of Society-Nature Relationship
  • Günther Baechler
Part of the Social Indicators Research Series book series (SINS, volume 2)


Armed conflicts, low human development, and degradation of the environment belong to the most severe problems human beings are confronted with at the end of 20th century. Not surprisingly, many analysts suggest those phenomena being closely intertwined. The Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva calls this threefold syndrome maldevelopment, which means »the violation of the integrity of organic, interconnected and interdependent systems, that sets in motion a process of exploitation, inequality, injustice and violence« (Shiva 1994:275). In the early 1990s both war and endemic violent conflicts have indeed been more widespread than during any other decade since World War II, almost all of them were located either in the South or in the East (see: app. 5). What at first glance is striking: the arena of present regional conflicts consists of widespread poverty and misery in politically stressed countries, in sometimes highly militarized but nevertheless weak states with poor performance, and in fragmented societies with endemic competition between ethnic or religious groups. Only recently it has been acknowledged in scholarly literature that natural resource scarcity and environmental degradation may also be reasons for intergroup violence and anti-regime struggles (see: 2). Resource competition is not only seen as related to development projects but more and more to poverty-related issues, such as overuse of scarce land resources, high population growth, and lack of technical competence or financial means in order to deal with resource degradation.


Human Development Index Green Water Natural Capital Blue Water Violent Conflict 
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  1. 1.
    The term transformation is used in a number of different contexts. To transform originally meant quite simply to change one form into another form (to remodel, to transpose), e.g.,a circle into an oval or one organism into another organism. To take another example, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly may be understood as a transformation in exactly the same way as transformation in the aggregate condition of water when it becomes steam or ice. In social sciences the idea of transformation is also used and applied specifically in conflict research with reference to »transformation of conflicts«. In revolution and democracy research it is »transformation of society« which is being studied. Polanyi comes very close to the human-ecological transformation concept. He states with regard to creation of the industrial system that large-scale transformation consists in the fact that societies which were previously feudal and agrarian were completely transformed. This transformation was caused by the development of both the market economy and the nation-state. As a consequence, it created a subsystem within itself, i.e.,the industrial system. Since this was basically an expansionist system it began to dominate or to colonize its societal and natural environment (Polanyi 1995:87–101, 243–260). Concerning the term domination see further down.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    At the 1987 symposium The Earth as Transformed by Human Action at Clark University, Worcester, for the first time a large-scale interdisciplinary attempt was made in order to create an inventory of transformation and to comprehend the theoretical significance of the term. This was done with the support of a number of scientific institutions (notably IIASA and the Academy of Sciences of the USSR).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The concept of domination stems from the critical theory of the early Frankfurt school (Leiss 1972 ). Even though Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse did not directly influence the ecological debate of the last two decades or so, the concept itself is at the core of modern approaches, such as deep ecology, social ecology, ecofeminism, environmental justice (environmental racism), and postmodern science (Gaia) (Merchant 1994 ).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In an earlier contribution (1992) I used the term »human-ecological transformation» almost identically. However, »transformation of society-nature relationship» is closer to the sociopolitical focus of this study, whereas »human ecological transformation» describes more the overall historical background.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In everyday language the word ecology has a double meaning. On the one hand, since Haeckel (1866) it has meant the science (logos) of the »economy of nature». On the other hand, ecology also refers to the object being examined, i.e.,complex events in the biosphere (plants and animal ecology). The transition from plant and animal ecology to human ecology took place in the 1920s and 1930s. Human ecology was first used by the Chicago geographer H.H. Barrow in a speech in 1922. At first it was applied by Paul Ehrlich mainly in epidemiology, social medicine, ethnology, and anthropology, and then in graphical and geographical population ecology (Huber 1989:58). The social science side of ecology then took a diversion through economics. K. William Kapp, working together with Barry Commoner and Kenneth Boulding, used the expression »political economics of the environment». In introducing »natural resources and environment» as a production factor, it was stated that »economic and production methods used so far are responsible for increasing and even irreversible damage to the natural and human-social environment, whose costs will have to be paid by the community or by future generations« (Huber 1989:60).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The former International Organization for Human Ecology in Vienna used to define its subject in the following comprehensive terms: »Consideration of human life in all its physical, chemical, biotic, spiritual, social and cultural manifestations from an ecological point of view; this includes consideration of the interactions between a human being or a number of human beings and the world surrounding him or them» (I.O.H.E. 1981. In Glaeser 1989:32).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Adopted and modified from Lane/Ersson (1994:82–83).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Günther Baechler
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for Conflict ResolutionSwiss Peace FoundationBerneSwitzerland

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