Human Environment System: An Interdisciplinary Approach in the Social Sciences

The Human-Environment Systems (HES) in the social sciences is an interdisciplinary approach in the social sciences. It bridges the gap between, and integrate knowledge from, the social and the natural sciences within one framework in the study of environmental and social issues.

Human-environment system (HES) refers to “the interaction of human systems with corresponding environmental or technological systems” Scholz & Binder, (n.d. 791). The HES approach conceptualizes mutual dependence between human and environmental systems. Scholz and Binder (n.d., 791) describe this mutual dependence as two different systems that exist in essential dependencies and reciprocal endorsement.” The use of the term human systems or”social systems ranging from society to individuals” (Apostle 1952 in Scholz and Binder n.d.) can be traced as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks, while the use of the term environmental systems began late in the early nineteenth Century (Scholz and Binder n.d. 791).

Human Environment Approach
Human Environment Approach

Human-environment interactions existed since time immemorial, but the scope and intensity of these interactions have increased significantly since the Industrial Revolution. Whereas most of the early human-environment interactions have taken place at a local/national scale, contemporary interactions between human and natural systems have not only reached regional, subregional, continental, and global scales but have also become special concerns (Liu J et al., 2007).

The human-environment system, also referred to as the “coupled human-environment system” or the “coupled human and natural system” or CHANS “acknowledges the fact that humans, as users, actors, and managers are not external, but integral elements of the human-environment system” (Schrter D. et. al. 2004, 11). As integral parts of the human-environment system—as users, actors, and managers—they become duty bearers themselves who must share the responsibility for the sustainability of the human-environment system.

The science of CHANS builds on but moves beyond previous work such as human ecology, ecological anthropology, and environmental geography (Liu. et. al., 2007). The following are three central features of HES or CHANS.

First, CHANS research focuses on the patterns and processes that link human and natural systems. Second, CHANS research, such as integrated assessment of climate change, emphasizes reciprocal interactions and feedbacks—both the effects of humans on the environment and the effects of the environment on humans. Third, understanding within-scale and cross-scale interactions between human and natural components (e.g., how large-scale phenomena emerge from local interactions of multiple agents and in turn influence local systems) is a major challenge for the science of CHANS. Although each of these three aspects has been addressed in some studies on human-environment interactions, the science of CHANS promotes the integration of all these aspects (Liu J et al., 2007, 639).

Liu, J. et al. (2007) made a clear articulation of the reason why an integration of the three aspects is necessary. They argued that “such integration is needed to tackle the increased complexity and to help prevent the dreadful consequences that may occur due to the fundamentally new and rapid changes, because the magnitude, extent, and rate of changes in human-natural couplings have been unprecedented in the past several decades, and the accelerating human impacts on natural systems may lead to degradation and collapse of natural systems which in turn compromise the adaptive capacity of human systems.”

To understand and appreciate the human-environment system (HES) approach in the social sciences, the following discussion outlines three areas or fields of inquiry where the HES approach is relevant and necessary both as an analytical tool and framework.

One is the study of the human causes of environmental change—not only proximate causes, such as burning coal, releasing heavy metals into rivers, and clearing forests, that immediately change a part of the environment—but especially indirect causes or driving forces, such as population growth, economic development, technological change, and alterations in social institutions and human values, that must be understood to forecast trends in environmentally destructive human activity and, if necessary, to change those trends.

A second field of inquiry concerns the effects of environmental change on things people value—both proximate effects, such as on growing seasons and rainfall in agricultural areas, soil fertility, endangered species, and so on, and indirect effects, such as on population migrations, international conflict, agricultural markets, and government policies.

The third field is the study of the feedbacks between humanity and the environment—the ways individuals, organizations, and governments act on the basis of experienced or anticipated environmental change to manage human activity and preserve environmental values. These feedbacks provide the greatest challenge for scientists and policy-makers, partly because there are so many ways people can intervene in the system (Stern 1993, 1897). 

To date, significant studies on the many problems of human-environment interaction have been undertaken. For example, “in understanding how people perceive and judge environmental risks; how societies create institutions for managing common-property resources, such as fisheries, grasslands, and the atmosphere; what brought about anthropogenic environmental changes in the past; the dynamics of public concern about the environment; and the economic forces affecting natural resource availability” (Stern 1993, 1898).

However, the field of inquiry of human-environment interaction has achieved modest progress only. Stern (1993, 1898) identified both scientific and institutional reasons that explain such modest outcome.

It has all the scientific problems of other interdisciplinary fields, but more intensely because it involves all the disciplines of environmental science and those of social science as well. It is difficult in such a field to do high-quality interdisciplinary work, integrate separate disciplinary projects, and set productive research agendas, and some are tempted to proceed without the requisite background knowledge.

There are also significant institutional barriers in academia and government. Universities are reluctant to give institutional support to interdisciplinary fields that do not yet have widespread recognition or a proven ability to attract resources . . . the field does not have a unifying society or journal, university departments, or the other conventional signs of a cohesive intellectual community.

In government, “there is an almost complete mismatch between the roster of federal agencies that support research on environmental change and the roster of federal agencies with strong capabilities.”

So what can be done? Adopting the National Research Council report’s recommendations for global change research, (Stern 1993, 1899) proposed that there should be: (1) increased institutional and financial support for research, post-graduate and -doctoral fellowships, as well as interdisciplinary research centers to enhance interdisciplinary training; (2) improved systems for acquisition and management of data related to human-environment interactions; and (3) environmental research activities of disciplinary associations in social science.