Cultural evolution of ecological prudence

Gadgil, Madhav (1985) Cultural evolution of ecological prudence Landscape and Planning, 12 (3). pp. 285-299. ISSN 0304-3924

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Animals often behave in a profligate fashion and decimate the populations of plants and animals they depend upon. They may, however, evolve prudent behaviour under special conditions, namely when such prudence greatly enhances the success of populations that are not too prone to invasions by profligate individuals. Cultural evolution in human societies can also lead to the adoption of prudent practices under similar conditions. These are more likely to be realized in stable environments in which the human populations tend to grow close to the carrying capacity, when the human groups are closed, and when the technology is stagnant. These conditions probably prevailed in the hunter-gatherer societies of the tropics and subtropics, and led to the adoption of a number of socially imposed restraints on the use of plant and animal resources. Such practices were rationalized in the form of Nature-worship. The Indian caste society became so organized as to fulfill these conditions, and gave rise to two religions, Buddhism and Jainism, which emphasize compassion towards all forms of life. The pastoral nomads of the middle east, on the other hand, lived in an environment which militated against prudence, and these societies gave rise to religions like Christianity, which declared war on nature. As the ruling elite and state have grown in power, they have tried to wrest control of natural resources from the local communities. This has sometimes resulted in conservation and prudent use under guidance from the state, but has often led to conflicts with local populations to the detriment of prudent behaviour. Modern technological progress has also often removed the need for conservation, as when availability of coal permitted the deforestation of England. While modern scientific understanding has led to a better appreciation of the need for prudence, the prevailing social and economic conditions often militate against any implementation of the understanding, as is seen from the history of whaling. However, the imperative for survival of the poor from the Third-World countries may finally bring about conditions in which ecological prudence may once again come to dominate human cultures as it might once have done with stable societies of hunter-gatherers.

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Source:Copyright of this article belongs to Elsevier Science.
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