Relationship between Cultural Change and the Environment
The association between culture and human technologies is central to the issue of today’s worldwide environmental degradation. This relationship is often viewed as quite simple: as a culture develops, needs arise and are met by new technologies. The culture is then transformed by the effects the technologies have on the people’s way of life. It seems logical that new technology would only be developed as a result of incentive or passion inspired by the needs of a culture. Yet it is not always the case that a culture influences human technologies; technological evolutions are also powerful factors in the shaping of cultures.
Culture is often though of as the development, improvement, or refinement of the intellect, emotions, interests, etc that results in the improvement of a society. It is the ideas, skills, customs, and arts unique to a certain group (Compton’s Interactive). Technology is both the application of scientific knowledge to endeavors of human life, and the change and manipulation of the human environment. Renowned American anthropologist Leslie White viewed culture as an inevitable natural process that develops from mankind's increasing ability to harness energy and use it effectively (AP Environmental Science, 2004, class discussion). This perspective suggests that social and psychological makeup of a culture is determined by its technology, and not the other way around. The correlation between technology and culture is clearly not a one-way street – it is a dynamic, interrelated, cyclic relationship.
In his book Human Natures: Genes, Culture and the Human Prospect, Paul Ehrlich supports the concept that the development of culture and the advancement of technology, though they affect each other, do not necessarily occur in tandem. In defining culture, Ehrlich focuses on the influence on and by the environment in shaping the practices and lifestyles of a people. He argues that the environment can determine the type of culture that develops, and conversely, that the type of culture that exists may affect how the people of that culture interact with their environment (Ehrlich, 2000).
Ehrlich formulates a similar analysis for culture’s interaction with technology. A culture can control what technologies do and do not enter its realm based upon its unique beliefs, customs, and needs. But because the development of technology is highly dependant on the resources available to a group of people, a culture may also be restricted or shaped by the kind of technology it is able to acquire.
In his interview on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation Science Friday,” Ehrlich focuses his analysis of the relationship between culture and technology on modern day environmental issues. He asserts that in the United States, the progress of technology is surpassing that of culture and that because of this people are incapable of handling the technologies wisely. While...