Understanding Human Ecology: A systems approach to sustainability (Paperback) book cover

Understanding Human Ecology

A systems approach to sustainability

By Robert Dyball, Barry Newell

© 2015 – Routledge

214 pages | 80 B/W Illus.

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Paperback: 9781849713832
pub: 2014-11-11
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About the Book

We are facing hugely complex challenges – from climate change to world poverty, our problems are part of an inter-related web of social and natural systems. Human Ecology provides an approach to address these complex challenges, a way to understand them holistically and to start to manage them more effectively.

This textbook, which has been road-tested and refined through over a decade of teaching and workshops, offers a coherent conceptual framework for Human Ecology – a clear approach for understanding the many systems we are part of and how we frame and understand the problems we face. By giving rigorous definitions it guides readers out of the current ‘conceptual swamp’ that hinders communication and collaboration – with a particular focus on terms such as "sustainability" and "cultural adaptation", that need generally agreed definitions before they can support clear communication. It also clarifies the role of Human Ecology, and similar disciplines, by bringing ethical and justice considerations into the assessment of different interventions to promote sustainability.

Blending natural, social and cognitive sciences with dynamical systems theory, the authors offer systems approaches that are accessible to all, from the undergraduate student in environmental studies to policy-makers and practitioners across government, business and community.


"Human ecology is a critical transdisciplinary approach to creating a better, more sustainable world. We cannot achieve this goal without integrating the study and management of human societies and the rest of nature as tightly interconnected dynamic systems. This valuable book points the way." –Robert Costanza Professor and Chair in Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, Australia and Editor in Chief, Solutions

"A central challenge for enhancing human wellbeing is to establish a sustainable society in harmony with nature across all regions of the world. Integrating rigorous research, education, and policy-making to meet this challenge is urgently needed. Understanding Human Ecology provides an insightful guide to how this might be achieved." –Kazuhiko Takeuchi, Senior Vice-Rector, United Nations University, Japan

"It is time to move beyond the simplistic approaches of cause-effect logic and the triple bottom line that typify many attempts to meet the sustainability challenge. This timely textbook brings the powerful approach of systems thinking to the most pressing, seemingly intractable problems that face humanity in the 21st century."–Will Steffen, Senior Fellow, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden

"Understanding Human Ecology by Dyball and Newell provides a novel and transdisciplinary framework for understanding sustainability. This "must-read" book explains why people have historically made such a mess of the environment and provides a convincing case of why we must and can switch from a paradigm of limitless growth to one of ethical living, content with sufficiency."Terry Chapin, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA, and Past President Ecological Society of America

"We live in an era of rapid environmental change. If this change is to benefit people in both developed and developing countries, then it needs to be guided by collaborative interdisciplinary research into sustainable development. The approach to human ecology developed in this book should help us to meet the challenge of steering humanity towards a just and sustainable future."Yonglong Lu, Professor and Co-Director, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

"This important book helps to elucidate the interplay between planetary change and human health, with profound implications for our understanding of the dynamics of global epidemics of obesity and non-communicable diseases." –Anthony Capon, Director, United Nations University International Institute for Global Health

"All in all, this book is one of the clearest introductions to complexity and systems analysis that I have encountered in years of teaching these subjects. I recommend it highly as a textbook and for informative reading about the human ecological approach to problem solving."Solutions, Molly Anderson

"Understanding Human Ecology is a particularly valuable contribution toward the practice and scholarship of building sustainable food systems. It exceeded my expectations in balancing theoretical and practical without idyllically ignoring the complexity of human behavior and motivations that smudge the edges of the pathways that lead us toward "living well in the Anthropocene.""Human Ecology Review, Liesel Carlsson, Acadia University, Canada

"Overall, the authors present a useful synthesis of thinking by human ecologists and others in the last 40–50 years about human–ecosystem–biosphere relationships that are fundamental for the health and quality of life of humans and other species…This book enables the reader to understand how different ways of thinking about everyday situations can promote the “common good” and benefit from a more equitable and sustainable livelihood." - Housing, Theory and Society Journal, Roderick J. Lawrence, University of Geneva, Switzerland, Housing, Theory and Society

Table of Contents

Prologue: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast Part 1: The Challenge 1. Human Ecology: An Evolving Discipline 2 . Water Conflicts in the Snowy Mountains Part 2: Thinking Together 3. Thinking Together 5. System Dynamics I - Stocks and Flows 5. System Dynamics II - Feedback 6. Systems and Sustainability 7. Towards a Shared Theoretical Framework Part 3: Living in the Anthropocene 8. Paradigms: Ideas that Change the World 9. Living Well in the Anthropocene 10. Consumers and Global Food Systems 11. Stewards of a Full Earth

About the Authors

Robert Dyball convenes the 40-year-old Human Ecology Program at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University (ANU), Australia. He is President of the Society for Human Ecology (SHE) and the Past Chair of the Human Ecology Section of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), USA.

Barry Newell is Adjunct Associate Professor in the Research School of Engineering and Visiting Fellow in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University (ANU), Australia. He is a physicist with a focus on the dynamics of complex social-ecological systems.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
NATURE / Ecology