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Walters and Vayda: Event Ecology and Examining Complexity

by on August 29, 2011

Walters and Vayda’s concept of “event ecology” illustrates the importance of being open to complexity when asking why environmental changes have taken place. By rejecting traditional frameworks of using generalized models and theories to validate preconceived ideas of what caused certain snapshots of environmental change, Walters and Vayda present a lens that they believe can be applied to a variety of disciplines.

The “event ecology” concept stresses a method that approaches the questions of environmental change by focusing on studying the causal factors contributing to change and how they are interrelated. The article uses the phrase “pragmatics of explanation” in discussing how, in the midst of multiple, coinciding causal chains, it is necessary for the researcher to decide and articulate exactly what he/she is going to focus on. While this depends on the researcher’s individual curiosities in the matter, there are also restrictions related to the availabilities of resources such as time, tools and funding, as well as the intended audience of the research.

Walters and Vayda illustrate how policymakers could often be a key audience of this kind of research. Through identifying problems in the environment, as well as how various actors deal with those problems, Walters and Vayda emphasize the feasibility of this model being aligned with call for a “‘responsible’ engagement by social scientists with the real world and real-world problem-solving” (Walters and Vayda, 2009). This means that the research would shift to an active, applied role in helping to prevent future and combat present environmental changes.

The emphasis on constructing a causal chain of events leading up to environmental change brings to my mind a question of who is doing the causal analysis and what biases or motives do they carry with them? For example, I wonder how the “causal historical analysis” would change depending on the researcher’s heritage, political ideology and research goals. One example of a conflicting topic is the controversy of implementing conservation efforts in biologically diverse areas where local indigenous people depend on the land use to survive and thrive, not only culturally but often physically as well, in terms of food supply and production of goods for the market. How a researcher affiliates within this particular situation would greatly determine the choices he/she would make regarding the diagnosis of causal effects and intervention suggestions.

Because these topics are becoming increasingly political, I would like to simply ask what is the value of creating a “causal historical analysis” of a particular environmental change? What ethics are involved when engaging that research politically? Should the realms of science and policy be separated? And how does that answer change when you are talking about the larger scientific field of ecology versus human ecology? When Walters and Vayda insist that they are providing a methodological framework that can be applied to varied disciplines, what other discussions from class do you see this nicely coinciding with?


  1. The benefits of “causal historical analysis” provide a well-rounded and more flexible approach to understanding human-environment interaction and the events that are caused by human modifications. It also encompasses humans in the ecological framework of environmental change and helps to understand how and why those changes have occurred (Walters 536). It is a historical record of causal events that relate and explain environmental changes over the course of history and provide us with the knowledge to better understand nature (Walters 537). Linking past causal events allows us to see change through time and space of environments, humans, plants, and other species.

  2. Frederick Reisen permalink

    The concern I have surrounding the creation of a “causal historical analysis” in regards to environmental change is how it could be used to aid in an effort to reverse different types of environmental damage. Whether or not it is the specific goal of the “casual historical analysis” to directly aid in remediation efforts I tend to wonder how worth while of an endeavor it is. There are so many environmental issues that need people schooled in both political and environmental ecology that instead of looking back on what we have done maybe we need to be looking forward examining healthy ecosystems to begin exploring ways to successfully model the ultimate efficiency of an ecosystem unharmed by human impact. I am aware of the importance of understanding what has led to a given problem but I do not believe simply trying to reverse causal actions is a way fix a problem. As the article and its predecessors have asserted the earth is a dynamic place and the scientific knowledge we do have and the knowledge we can obtain through simple observation is tremendous. Instead of being static in our approach by looking back on what has occurred why not be dynamic with earth and continuously look for new ways to model our behavior. To lose the academic jargon for a moment, why care about the past when we must worry about the future? As humans most of us who care understand what we have done and how we have harmed the environment. Not to be an alarmist but if the History and Discovery channel shows are right time is running out. I feel reflecting back on our actions as futile in the movement towards a new direction.

  3. Megan Powell permalink

    Although I think that Frederick had a valid point about be having an attitude of pro-activity when it comes to making changes in the now for a better future tomorrow compared to the approach of reflecting on the past and the ways in which an environmental issue came about, I do believe that a “causal historical analysis” of any given environmental issue could and most likely would provide invaluable insight that would actually better enable us to make changes for our future. Also, I believe that this the “causal” approach is one that can be applied to social, economic, and international relations issues as well in that if we truly study the past we are sometimes able to see what mistakes led to certain wars, economic crises, and other global events that had great affects on humankind as well as the earth. Overall, I think in order to properly equip ourselves to make changes for a better future we must first understand what led us to the crisis in the first place.
    After all, as it has been said before;
    “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
    (Edmund Burke, known as the philosophical founder of modern political conservatism)

    • Megan,
      I agree with your opinion about how “causal historical analysis” is beneficial, especially when considering the creation of a better future. Many anthropologists, as Ellen and Fukui pointed out, agree that humans are a part of a larger natural system that has been conceptualized through culture. Culture interacts with nature through cultural constructs regarding management and the development of political programs. If this is true, then just as societies look at past effective or ineffective management or political programs in relation to their environment, they should also take into account environmental issues. Some environmental issues can solely be attributed to a natural phenomenon, such as floods, and some can be contributed to human involvement, such as the greenhouse effect. By accounting for both of these scenarios two substantial outcomes can be deduced, in turn positively attributing to future actions. The first one being, if past natural phenomena are examined, trends in frequency or geographic occurrence can be deduced, possibly minimizing the extent of future damage. The second scenario can be beneficial, because if individuals can understand how the human influence on nature attributed to a negative environmental outcome, behaviors can be altered, also minimizing future damage.

  4. i also am having a difficult time understanding why so many people are focused on past events in the history of ecology rather than actually going out there and doing something about it. However, in several class discussions, we have come to realize that the assumption that humans have such a huge impact on the degradation of our planet is also skewing our perceptions of the future. when we look back thousands and millions of years, we can see that there were times where the environment had more of an impact on humans than we did on the environment. By seeing our environment now in the present day in this perspective, we also have to look at how much the environment is changing through natural causes as well. Taking a holistic approach to this concept and looking at both historical and present day solutions for our environment will end up saving time and effort for the future. Another interesting point brought up in class this week was how so many Americans, scientists, and especially the media dwell on all of the negative impacts we have made on the environment instead of the positives. People need to be educated just as much about what has all ready been done and what is in progress for helping the environment so that theycan become more involved instead of fearing for their lives.

  5. 242colleencarey permalink

    I must say that I appreciate and like the idea of “event ecology.” The process of looking at effects and then discovering there causes really makes sense to me. I also enjoy the fact that they are looking to move away from using the generalized methodologies when doing anthropological studies. What I question in this article is the part when they talk about being able to study what you want to focus on. To understand the big picture of things there are always going to be areas that one does not want to focus on, but must study anyway. So, I don’t agree with that part of “event ecology.” Looking at the historical cause of things was another area I agreed on in this article. I believe that the analyzing the historical side of the environment, including people, can reveal many answers to the causes they are questioning.

  6. In Walters and Vayda’s article, explains event ecology, referring to, “placing the center of the research inquiry the answering of “why” questions about specific environmental changes of interest, instead of evaluating casual theories, models, or factors that are thought in advance to influence such changes”(1). This type of ecology is beneficial because it focuses on concrete events, striving to affect change rather then apply general theories.
    I agree with this proposal, in which event ecology would be used to incorporate various realms of higher academic thinking. While these realms can continue to create models and policies as separate academic entities, when focusing on actual concrete events contributing to environmental change, diverse methods should be embraced. In reality, no situation is one sided. Everything has various influencing factors in which directly contribute to the outcome. By using only one approach when examining a situation, only a tiny piece of the puzzle is connected while the rest of the pieces remain unattached. By acknowledging all apparent contributing factors, the situation can better be resolved.

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