07 December 2011

Human Ecosystem Framework

Definition: The human ecosystem framework is a conceptual tool to suggest the diversity of human features, social conditions, and institutional arrangements that are a part of human ecosystems.  In addition, the human ecosystem framework specifies key biological and physical aspects of these systems (Figure 1). 

Examples: The human ecosystem framework is particularly useful to biological and physical scientists because it highlights the crucial role of institutions in ecosystems that are inhabited and contain designed and engineered features.  Biological scientists often default to the assumption that the density, or number per unit area, of organisms – including humans – is the crucial factor to understand in assessing the role of organisms in ecosystems.  However, social organisms such as beaver, ants, and humans have additional levels of structural complexity that determine how they interact with the rest of the ecosystems of which they are a part.  Institutions are organizational arrangements and norms that determine structure human interactions (Ostrom 1990).  Institutions include households, community groups, religious congregations, companies, government agencies, commercial and economics sectors, and the like.  Intuitions can be long lasting or temporary.  The focus on institutions recognizes that humans rarely act alone, that individual people can be part of a number of different institutions, and that collective action is a significant lever in environmental outcomes.

Figure 1.  A version of the human ecosystem framework, originally proposed by Machlis et al. 1997, and modified to increase the level of biophysical detail and incorporate spatial heterogeneity which is a key feature of urban ecosystems.

Why important:  The human ecosystem framework is a tool to help shape the specific models of particular human ecosystems.  No single model would necessarily include all the components listed in the human framework.  The framework provides researchers with a way to ensure that they do not inadvertently neglect important features in their explanations and studies of cities, suburbs, and exurbs.  The interactions among the human and social components, among the physical components and between these two major sub-systems of the human ecosystem yields enormous complexity.  The framework suggests the raw materials for models of interactions, change, and structure of human ecosystems.

For more information:
Machlis, G. E., J. E. Force, and W. R. Burch. 1997. The human ecosystem. 1. The human ecosystem as an organizing concept in ecosystem management. Society & Natural Resources 10:347-367.
Force, J. E. and G. E. Machlis. 1997. The human ecosystem. 2. Social indicators in ecosystem management. Society & Natural Resources 10:369-382.
Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, New York.

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