Human Adaptability

Cultural Ecology 2023

This was the homepage for a course in Cultural Ecology. The theme was human adaptability, with special attention to Indigenous science, environmental justice, and a multispecies approach. There were three required books:

For 2024, see the course on Anthropological Optimism. Here is the YouTube lecture playlist for 2023:

Instead of waging wars for oil, we should study what sorts of communities thrived in the Pliocene, the last time the temperature was three degrees Fahrenheit higher; we should find what sorts of plants build topsoil at higher altitudes and prepare to plant them as glaciers recede.
–Dorion Sagan, The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

Human Adaptability

People in Ecosystems

  • Chapter 1, “People in Ecosystems”

Historical Ecology

  • Chapter 2, “Theories of Human-Habitat Interaction” and chapter 3, “Fundamental Concepts and Methods”

What now?

  • Chapter 4, “Environmental Change and Spatial Analysis”


  • Chapter 5, “Human Adaptability to Arctic Zones”


  • Chapter 6, “Human Adaptability to High Altitudes”


  • Chapter 7, “Human Adaptability to Arid Lands”


  • Chapter 8, “Human Adaptability to Grasslands”


  • Chapter 9, “Human Adaptability to the Humid Tropics”


  • Chapter 10, “Urban Ecology and Urban Sustainability”

New Directions

  • Chapter 11, “New Directions in Human Adaptability Research”

Indigenous Science


  • Introduction (1-15)


  • Chapter 1, “Indigenous Teaching” and chapter 2, “Ecocolonialism of Indigenous Landscapes”


  • Chapter 3, “Birth of Western Conservation” and chapter 4, “Indigenous Science”


  • Chapter 5, “Ecowars” and chapter 6, “Tierra Madre”


  • Chapter 7, “Ancestral Foods” and chapter 8, “Indigenizing Conservation”

Multispecies Justice

Spectral Justice

  • “Spectral Justice”

Amazon Rights

  • “Rights of the Amazon in Cosmopolitical Worlds”

Gardens & Pests

  • “We Are Not Pests” and “Prison Gardens and Growing Abolition”


  • “Justice at the Ends of the Worlds” and “from the micronesian kingfisher”


  • “Rodent Trapping and the Just Possible” and “Inscribing the Interspecies Gap”


  • “Nuclear Waste and Relational Accountability in Indian Country”


  • “Multispecies Mediations in a Post-Extractive Zone”


  • “Closing. Th S xth M ss Ext nci n” and “Afterword. Fugitive Jurisdictions”

Transcript: Human Adaptability

Welcome to Cultural Ecology! I put this quote up as a introduction to my thinking as I’ve reframed this class. I haven’t taught this class in a while, and this version is quite different than the way I used to teach it. I once taught a book with this author in it, _The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet_, which I contemplated assigning to this class. It’s an interesting collection of essays, but I decided to move on to some other materials. At the end of this book, Dorian Sagan whose name may be familiar with some very famous parentages from the sciences, and I might be pronouncing the name wrong:

“Instead of waging wars for oil, we should study what sorts of communities thrived in the Pliocene, the last time the temperature was three degrees Fahrenheit higher; we should find what sorts of plants build topsoil at higher altitudes and prepare to plant them as glaciers recede.”

He’s not arguing that we should be excited about three degrees Fahrenheit higher. It’s not good. We should be worried, but not panicked. We certainly should have a lot of worries, but it may not be the best thing to be always worried. What are we going to do except try and do good things in the world?

The reason I wanted to start this class this way is to think about your own life. Probably you are not personally waging a war for oil. One time I tried to campaign for politicians who did not want to wage wars for oil, but it didn’t work out that way, since we like to wage wars for oil and it’s hard to stop them. It’s very difficult for individuals to just say, “oh I’m not going to wage a war for oil.” We can try not to go there and fight it, but it’s hard to stop them if they’re going to do it.

We can at least in our own lives think about what we can do instead. For me in this class, it was instead of teaching things that are more philosophically oriented. This class at one point just got heady, it went way up into the heady world of headiness and got very complicated. (For example, see the 2017 class on how do we know a hunter or gatherer? as part of the 2017 Cultural Ecology course)

What we need to do is something, I don’t know if I want to say it’s more practical, but simply that we don’t have time. The issues are more urgent than they were maybe 5-10-20 years ago. We need to think about them *now*. I’m not trying to say that we won’t do some philosophy and big picture stuff, I’m all about big picture things, but I want to think about the ways in which we can take this stuff and do something with it, maybe not literally getting plants that we could plant up when the glaciers recede, but something in that frame of mind.

So, I’ve changed up all the books. I got out of the philosophical mode and got more down to earth. The first book we’ll read is a textbook by Emilio Moran. It’s the fourth edition of _Human Adaptability: An Introduction to Ecological Anthropology_.

We will follow that up by reading _Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science_, which I believe is important to juxtapose to our textbook. If Emilio Moran is all about the science, I think we need to understand Indigenous science and how the voices and knowledge of people who have been in these landscapes can help us understand those glaciers.

Then, we’ll end with _The Promise of Multispecies Justice_, which is an edited volume. That will give us different perspectives. That will probably be the most philosophical, perhaps the most difficult to read. Some people who have seen this book ask me what this is about and I’m not quite sure what it’s about, but what I think it’s about, I’m imagining in my head that it’s about, which is: why should we always prioritize human beings in any landscape? Are we always the most important creatures of every place we’re in? That’s part of it. I like human beings. If you’re studying sociology and anthropology, you can’t be that down on human beings. If you’re that down on human beings you have to study something else like biology. . . .

Even if we granted human beings have an importance, which they do, we do, humans are important, people will get all excited about invasive species. So, should we really kill all the foxes because they’re killing the penguins? This is what they were trying to do, according to my daughter, in Australia. They had a big anti-fox campaign, because the foxes were eating the little penguins. It sounds bad, but I don’t know, I mean do we really not like foxes that much? Who’s to decide? Or goats, like on the Galapagos Islands. Should we really be gunning down the goats with helicopters just because they’re eating the turtle eggs? I think turtles are more important than goats, but who decides? I’m not sure if this book is going to answer any of my questions, and I’m not even sure what the book is about, but here we go: multispecies justice.

Because if you think about more than humans, then you get into some thorny issues. That’s very practical: goats versus tortoises.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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