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Resourceful People and People’s Resource: Teaching the Cultural Ecology of South Asia

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It has been our experience that when most students in the United States think of India or Pakistan, they picture baked and cracked soil, drought, and starving people. When they picture Bangladesh, they most likely think of inundated fields, deadly storms, and drowning farmers. Indeed, these persistent images of nature running wild over helpless people are perhaps the strongest and most pernicious tropes in the North American view of South Asia.


1. The field borrows heavily from traditional ecological categories of analysis. For cultural ecologists, energy transfer, adaptability of organisms, and resource constraints are all important explanatory tools for understanding agriculture, migration, diet, and many other cultural features.

2. There is a debate as to the scientific application of the concept of adaptation, and it is by no means the only tool available to someone examining human systems. Critics argue that adaptation is tautological and insufficiently analytical. Even so, the concept of adaptation is a powerful heuristic and pedagogical counter-image to that of people at the mercy of nature.

3. Definitions from Smith, D. M. “Risk.” The Dictionary of Human Geography. Eds. D. Gregory, R. J. Johnston, and D. M. Smith. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1994, p. 536. Risk and uncertainty share an exhaustive literature of their own in geography, outside of cultural ecology.


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