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The complex life: human land uses in mountain ecosystems

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Orthodox approaches to the dynamics of ecosystems and socio-cultural systems assume a one-way transition from an initial to a final state. Recent critiques, however, suggest more than two possible states, each a stage in a never-ending sequence of transitions. In the orthodox view, ecosystems and socio-cultural systems are simple (predictable, equilibrium-seeking, linear); in the critical view, they are complex (unpredictable, far from equilibrium, non-linear).The aim of this paper is to test these two hypotheses by examining the responses of the human inhabitants of mountain regions to the changing environments in which they live. The conceptual framework is based in Cultural Theory, which posits a complex plurality of states, defined in terms of four `myths of nature', each embodying a different set of assumptions about stability and change in nature. They can be described as Nature Benign (cf. individualism, neo-classical economics); Nature Ephemeral (cf. egalitarianism, the precautionary principle, Georgescu-Roegen's entropy principle, Schumacher's dictum `small is beautiful'); Nature Perverse/Tolerant (cf. hierarchies, statutory regulation, sustainable development); and Nature Capricious (cf. fatalism: `why bother?').This conceptual framework is applied to `typical' Himalayan villages, the institutional systems in a `typical' Swiss Alpine village, and the past seven centuries in the Swiss community of Davos. It is concluded that a simple model of unidirectional change does not explain the variety of institutional responses to either the biophysical or the socio-economic surprises which such mountain communities experience; a requisite variety of diverse institutional responses to surprise is always necessary.
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Keywords: Alps; Cultural Theory; Himalaya; complexity; forests; institutions

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Environmental Change Unit, University of Oxford, 1a Mansfield Road, Oxford OX1 3TB, U.K. 2: Norwegian Research Centre in Organisation and Management, Rosenbergsgata 39, 5015 Bergen, Norway and The Musgrave Institute, 52 Northolme Road, London N5 2UX, U.K.

Publication date: January 1, 1997

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