Human Culture and the Environment: An Interactional Analysis

John Pottage

In the mid 1970's and early 1980's, the field of clinical psychology underwent a revolution with the emergence of family therapy. Therapists initially understood disorders as being the result of a linear chain of causality. For instance, one theory of schizophrenia held that the disorder resulted from exposure to a certain pattern of behavior on the part of the patient's mother. Mothers of schizophrenics were often found to be particularly cold, unresponsive, dominant, and conflict-inducing towards their children. Researchers argued that such "schizophrenogenic" behavior was the direct cause of the disorder. Successful treatment, then, required the patient and mother to examine their relationship and seek out better, more positive methods of interaction.

Family therapists, however, then began to realize that the etiology of the disorder was far more complex than simply the mother inducing the disorder within the child. The schizophrenic and the mother were enmeshed within a complex system of interactions both within, as well as outside, the family. Thus, the schizophrenic was affected by both his mother and father, the schizophrenic himself had an impact on his parents, the father and mother affected each other through their marital relationship, and social and cultural norms had an overall impact on all members of the family. Family systems researchers realized that these various relationships were constantly changing, and that each one had a significant effect on the others. Problems within the family were now understood in terms of circular causality rather than linear. For instance, it might very well be true that the schizophrenic's mother is cold, conflict-inducing, and unresponsive towards him. It is also true, however, that the schizophrenic manifests very bizarre behavior, such as hearing voices, acting on paranoid impulses, hallucinating, and displaying inappropriate (or flat) emotional responses. These behaviors would certainly affect the mother, as she would be stressed and deeply concerned for her child's well being. The mother might also be affected by a strained marital relationship with her husband, which itself might be negatively impacted by the child's schizophrenic behavior. Finally, the family might be negatively affected by the society in which they live, as their neighbors or colleagues might view them as outcasts and purposely isolate them because of their child's inappropriate behavior. Ultimately, this series of negative interactions may result in a feedback loop, in which maladaptive behavior is amplified and the child's schizophrenic behavior worsens. Thus, researchers have come to understand that it is necessary to study the entire series of interactions within the family in order to fully grasp its overall functioning and health (for a complete discussion of family systems theory, see Bateson, 1972; Bronfenbrenner, 1977; and Whitaker & Napier, 1988, listed below).

I would like to argue that the relationship between human culture, the environment, and technology is strikingly similar to the family dynamics articulated by family systems researchers. As a hypothetical example of these interactional processes, one could imagine an early human society that lives in an extremely cold climate. In order to stay warm, they invent a new technology consisting of fur coats made from bears. Unfortunately, cultural demand for the coats leads to overhunting and total depletion of bears from the environment. Economic forces within the culture dictate that the sharply reduced supply leads to the heightened value of each individual bear coat. Members of the society who own the coats therefore experience a heightened sense of prestige and power within the culture. The culture also begins to trade with neighboring societies in order to obtain more coats, resulting in dynamic cultural change as the two cultures interact with one another and incorporate each other's customs. Furthermore, new technologies are developed for obtaining bear coats. The humans discover that burning an entire forest allows them to find hibernating bears. This deforestation, however, dramatically alters the area's climate. The worsening climate leads to increased misery within the culture, as well as an increased demand for more coats. This type of analysis can continue on interminably, as the relationship between human culture and the environment, mediated by technological forces, is one of enmeshment as well as circular causality: each variable continually affects the other in inextricable ways.

Though the above example is merely hypothetical and used as an illustration of the concept of circular causality within the domain of the natural environment, there are several examples of these interactions throughout the history of human cultural evolution. One example is the development of Greek cities and architecture. From the outset, both environmental and cultural forces shaped the process of city development. In order for a city to survive, it needs environmental support: easy access to water, raw materials for the construction of buildings, and food produced by agriculture are all necessities for city dwellers. Culture also heavily influences the rise of cities: the city needs to be located in an easily defended spot to prevent invasion by neighboring cultures; the founding culture needs to have developed agriculture, so that the entire population can be fed while certain members perform non-food-producing tasks, such as government and trade; and the culture needs to have established trade routes, so that the city may obtain other materials to which it may not have access (city necessities taken from class discussion on February 18 & 20, 2003).

While both culture and environment were instrumental in shaping the initial foundation of Greek cities, the relationship between the two evolved over time as the cities invented new technologies. One such technology was the development of various public and private buildings, such as stadiums, gymnasiums, theaters, and temples. Construction of these buildings was directly dependent on the raw materials of the environment. For instance, the very first Greek temples were constructed of "mud-brick walls, with wooden columns and beams, and thatched roofs" (Chant, p. 67). With the growth of the cities, both in size and population, many new temples were built. Consequently, the heavy use of wood began to exert a negative influence on the environment as it was slowly depleted. So, the Greeks began to build temples made of stone, limestone, marble, and mortar (Chant, p. 66-7). They obtained these materials either from the local environment itself, or through trade with other cultures. This shift in materials stimulated aesthetic changes in the architecture of the temples, as they grew significantly in size. New materials could also be used for the different statues that were enshrined within the temples, stimulating changes in artistic style and design. Thus, the emergence of Greek cities, itself influenced by culture, technology, and the environment, served as a stimulus for altering the circular relationships among these three variables.

A similar example of this interaction is found in the development and use of water supply technology by desert cultures. Life in an arid climate, such as the Middle East, demands that a premium be placed on the discovery of new water sources, as well as its conduction to the city. As a result, water procuring and transportation technologies were developed in abundance, such as shadufs, wells, aqueducts, dams, canals, and qanaats (see Drower, 1958 for a description of these devices). These technological developments had both cultural and environmental ramifications: the survival of the culture was now dependent on the success of these technologies at producing water; and the environment was faced with a serious threat, as land was carved up for canals, tunnels were drilled into the earth for aqueducts, and natural springs were nearly emptied of water from constant extraction. The impact of either a technological failure, or a catastrophic, negative environmental change, would be felt severely by the desert culture through death, or migration to a new region. Given the dependence on these technologies, desert cultures were vulnerable to attack from other societies in unique ways that were not applicable to non-desert cultures, such as the Greeks. One method of using the environment for cultural purposes was to cut off a city's water supply. The Assyrian king Ashur-bani-pal used this tactic during his desert campaign against the Arabs. He described his seizure of the local wells: "in every place where there were springs or wells of water, I set guards over them, depriving them of the water to keep them [the Arabs] alive. I made drink costly to their mouths; through thirst and deprivation they perished" (Drower, 527). The opposite strategy could also be used. Sennacherib of Assyria destroyed Babylon by creating a flood with the construction of numerous canals (Chant, 554). This particular attack would have disastrous cultural and environmental consequences: the entire foundations of the city were destroyed (a cultural disaster), and "the reeds and cane-brakes throve mightily in the [midst of the city]...the birds of heaven and the fish of the sea in countless numbers were found in it" (an environmental disaster) (Chant, 554). Ultimately, Sennacherib's son, Esarhaddon, would repair the damage, a process that also involved numerous environmental and cultural shifts: "I mobilized all the artisans of Babylonia...Trees and reeds of the brakes they cut down with axes, they pulled up by the roots. The waters of the Euphrates I dammed, from [the city's] midst I shut them off, and into their former channels I directed them" (Chant, 554). The cultural developments in early Middle Eastern societies, particularly water supply technology and warfare tactics, were influenced by their environment. The circular cycle of causality remains in tact, however, as these technological and cultural shifts themselves exert influence on the very environment that fostered their existence.

Finally, Chinese gunpowder reflects the interconnected relationship between culture, technology, and the environment. Though the exact date of its discovery is not known, gunpowder was first isolated and discovered by Chinese alchemists (Teresi, 355). Clearly, the environment played a role in this discovery, as it provided these early technologists with the raw materials necessary for the creation of the substance. Chinese culture, however, also exerted influence over the development of the new technology. One theory of the origin of gunpowder holds that the alchemists were searching for a "drug of deathlessness," as they mixed "everything off the shelves in all kinds of permutations and combinations to see what would happen, whether perchance an elixir of life would be formed" (Teresi, 356). This search for the "fountain of youth" can be seen as dictated by the particular circumstances of Chinese culture at the time. Chinese culture also influenced their methodology and interests, as "the Chinese were fascinated and preoccupied with preparations of perfumes, gases, airborne poisons, noxious bombs, explosions, and flaming eruptions" (Teresi, 356). The Chinese were later able to trade gunpowder to Western cultures, and instigate a new destructive chain of cultural and environmental shifts. These cultures used the gunpowder to bring about many negative cultural and environment changes: wars (which brought about widespread cultural change) and hunting (which depleted environments of animals worldwide on a much faster time scale). Gunpowder, a substance that was created by a specific combination of cultural and environmental influences, ultimately served as an agent of destruction in both domains.

Much like family interactions are enmeshed within a complex, circular arrangement, technology, culture, and the environment are inextricably linked together through continual interactions. The rise of Greek cities, Middle Eastern water supply technologies and warfare tactics, and Chinese gunpowder are all historical examples of these complicated interactional processes. Ultimately, the history of these intricate relationships reveals that implementation of positive change in any of the domains of technology, the environment, or human culture requires a full understanding of all three variables and their dynamic interactions.

Work Cited

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 203-227.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Lewinian space and ecological substance. Journal of Social Issues, 33 (4), 199-212.

Chant, C. (1999). Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology, Chapter 2: Greece. Routledge Press, 48-80.

Drower, M. S. (1958). A History of Technology, from Early Times to the Fall of Ancient Empires, Chapter 19: Water supply, irrigation, and agriculture. Edited by Singer, Holmyard, and Hall. Oxford Clarendon Press, 520-557.

Teresi, D. (2002). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science, Chapter 8: Machines as a Measure of Man. Simon & Schuster, 325-367.

Whitaker, C. & Napier, A. Y. (1988). The Family Crucible, Chapter 1: The Concept of the System. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 45-59.


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last updated 2/21/03