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In this chapter, Lin and Fyles retrace the thinking of Aldo Leopold on conceiving humans as plain members and citizens of the biotic community, perceiving the intrinsic character of the land as “land health,” and considering how these two ideas led to his famous “land ethic.” Leopold’s land ethic urges people to expand their relationship with land beyond economics to include “integrity, stability, and beauty.” The authors then apply his thinking to the context of ecosystem and ecosystem health by considering humans as part of ecosystems, and the resulting implications for ecosystem health. With this thinking, the authors return to Leopold by studying one of his essays in A Sand County Almanac (1949). In “A Mighty Fortress,” Leopold mentioned how his woodlot, having been visited by various tree diseases, became a rich habitat for wildlife. This essay underscores the multiplicity of perspectives in an ecosystem and its complex nature, which in turn challenges humans to learn the richness and meaning of the concept of health. Put another way, and echoing the view of the previous chapter, health cannot be adequately portrayed by using only medical science. The authors conclude with a call for supplementing the scientific, rational mode of perceiving reality and human action with thinking from the arts and the humanities.
In this chapter, the authors discuss the notion of health as applied to humans and to ecosystems, and they explain how in both domains the state of health cannot be adequately defined or assessed using scientific terms and measures. They show that the notion of human health is elusive and the various definitions that have been attempted have serious shortcomings. Importantly, the myriad attributes and domains that make up the concept of human health cannot be measured uniquely in any individual, and there is no consensus as to how to uniquely define human health. Health goes beyond the internal signs reflected by physiological and pathological parameters measured by physicians, and even goes beyond the exteriorized signs of disability; and can even include the concept of “well-being,” and how a person “feels” about their health. Moreover, health is an evolving process, and individuals change in different ways through time. In short, human health in its entirety cannot be measured in a specific individual. The authors thus conclude that defining ecosystem health by appealing to the analogy of human health is incorrect— and certainly incorrect when considering only physicians as diagnosticians and healers. Ecologists acting as physicians to diagnose and correct pathology are of course correct and essential. Ecologists have developed myriad indices to measure various attributes of ecosystems. In parallel with humans, it is unlikely that a finite set of indicators can be developed or measured to be able to claim that an ecosystem is “healthy.” More importantly, assessments of ecosystem function and states do not require a clear definition of ecosystem health. In particular, complex indices that combine elementary ones to measure ecosystem health cannot measure all of the dimensions in complex ecosystems, and the use of complex indicators must be benchmarked; claiming that an ecosystem is healthy based on these types of indices can be fraught with error. The authors conclude that using these indicators in ecological economics— especially in terms of monitoring the effects of human activities on ecosystems and species at the local, regional, and global levels— requires a judicious choice of objectives as to which indicators are to be measured for the purposes of remediation and for making statements of policy.