Human Dimensions

by Grant A. Mincy


As natural resource management (NRM) has evolved over the years, traditional views of the environment and human relationships between nature and sense of place have too evolved. Today, NRM is characterized by certain “wicked” problems making it difficult to place responsibility of certain issues within one dimension of institutional or private decision-making (Hunter, 2007). This complexity of resource problems often fall outside the realm of traditional policy making. As societies ethical considerations of the environment continually grow (even though slowly), so too are the considerations of government.

Human dimensions are growing ever more important to the resource management process as power redistribution from resource agencies to the communities they serve is a growing trend. Human dimension considerations also provide a forum for honest communication among professionals, stakeholders and community members who will be affected by management policies (Decker et al, 1997). These approaches work to promote collaboration between agencies and people, thus promoting democratic decision-making. Engaging the citizenry while calling for public discourse and reasoned debate brings consensus and legitimacy to management decisions (Ostermier, 2010). The public process also has the power to either expose or avoid agency capture, insuring the people’s needs are being reflected, not the interests of our institutions or industry (Ostermier, 2010).

Over the years, there has been a shift in the western world, moving away from anthropocentric utilitarian ideals of the environment, towards a more sustainable ethic. Utility still plays a major role in society, but the recent shift to the ecosystem services approach of resource management reflects an emerging intrinsic value perspective. As western values change, society is beginning to relate more to their natural settings. At the individual level, the emerging human-nature linkage is helping move the social conscience towards sustainability.

LandscapeTraditionally, western civilization viewed natural resources as a means of maximizing utility for mankind (Wilson 2010). This anthropocentric outlook on resources was expanded throughout early history by imperialism and state-capitalism. As western nations, notably the United States, gained power in the world they continually waged campaigns to acquire more land and resources (Zinn 2003). Early US history (from events such as the trail of tears, the war of 1812, manifest destiny and others) reflect the conquering of land from indigenous people or weaker nation states to obtain large tracts of land and new resources (Zinn 2003). As time progressed and the industrial revolution occurred, monopoly capitalism viewed land as a commodity (Wilson 2010). As the natural world suffered from this actually existing capitalism, so too did working people. State-Capitalism during the industrial revolution upheld and expanded the money, land, tariff and patent monopolies.

This system, though, developed a growing social consciousness of the divide between the many poor, and the few wealthy. As a result, society developed an idea of anthropocentrism for all people, and equal utility of the natural world – utility of the natural world for the greatest number of people, for the greatest good (Wilson 2010). Ideas began to emerge in the early 20th century that all human beings deserved moral consideration. Political movements occurred and ideas on human rights began to emerge (Wilson 2010). As thoughts on human rights evolved so did domestic and international policy. This ethical shift demanded that duty and utilitarianism be applied to all living human beings (Wilson 2010). The idea of utility for all then began considering future generations, thus was born (thankfully) inter-generational ethics. The thought of preserving the natural world, and saving resources for future generations sparked a political and environmental movement throughout the western world (Wilson 2010).

leopold13The 20th century also saw the emergence of non-anthropocentric views of the natural world (Wilson 2010). These new ideas extend moral standing to organisms other than human beings. A humane movement has evolved, extending the right not to suffer to all living animals (Wilson, 2010). Along with this, re-emerging views about the intrinsic value of the entire biosphere and ecosystems became again part of the public conscience. These emerging ideas led to thoughts on bio-centrism (theory stating all life has intrinsic value, Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation”) and eco-centrism (theory stating that all living and non-living components of ecosystems have intrinsic values, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”), (Wilson 2010). The environmental movement throughout the 20th century and on into the 21st century has reached great heights and is discussed regularly in social, economic and political arenas.

The environmental movement today remains deeply political as western values continue to evolve. Climate change, environmental justice, sustainability and other issues dominate the public spotlight. This growing social conscience has influenced western governments to work for a more environmentally sustainable world. Though the government process has reacted slowly, peoples movements have accomplished great victories. This social environmental movement has spanned centuries. That says a lot about how most people regard the natural world. In increasing urban development, perhaps we long to be close to wild places because throughout our evolutionary history the natural world has always been home. The human-nature linkage may explain the social forces that have for centuries moved towards preserving and restoring the environment.

The growing concern for natural world may be further understood by examining sense of place and place attachments. Being connected to land, or any part of nature can be very powerful. Perhaps Wendell Berry described it best in his story, “Mat Feltners World” about an aging farmer and his land. Berry writes:

As we watch Mat lean against the tree, we sense how like the tree he has become. They are kindred spirits, the two of them, equal enough in age and coming, finally, to the same spot. By the life he has led, standing erect in the light, Mat too, has stood “outside the woods.” Just as the walnut has relinquished its nuts, so Mat has given freely of himself, nourishing the land and giving rise to new life. Like the tree, Mat has sunk deep and lasting roots.

The statement, “Mat has sunk deep and lasting roots,” speaks volumes about the attachment people have to a place. Sense of place can resemble a host of things such as: memories with family and friends, coming of age, solace, comfort, etc. The concept of a human being having lasting roots and an area of land representing those roots, shows deep human bonds and connections to the Earth. In many cases, respect for the land one lives on adds to the importance of place attachments. Often times people equate their land with their legacy. In some cases, people live on land that has been owned by their families for generations, tying the people to their land through a unique historical and cultural tradition. Furthermore, economic benefits, pride and a moral or spiritual relationship with land is experienced by many people (Wagner, 2002).

The importance of place and the attachments people share with them directly affects NRM. Sense of place re-enforces the need of NRM to continue the transformation from anthropocentrism to a sustainable ethic. Respect of the land is a demand of place attachment, furthermore, sustainable land use practices along with community involvement in the land use process is of growing importance (Freyfogle, 1998). Land use utilizes both the public and private realms of our institutions, when this is realized, new visions of our landscapes will evolve to benefit individuals, communities and the natural world. NRM with respect for land and the people attached to it, will maximize benefits to the environment, and to people (Freyfogle, 1998).

In an ever-changing world, the human dimensions of NRM are growing increasingly important to policy, conflict resolution and the achievement of a more just and sustainable world.



Cheng, S Atony et al. “Place” as an Integrating Concept in Natural Resource Politics. Propositions for a Social Science Research Agenda. Taylor and Francis. Society and Natural Resources. 16:87 -104. 2003.

Churchill et al. Angler Conflicts in Fisheries Management. Fisheries, Vol. 27, No.2. 2002.

Decker, Daniel J and Lisa C. Chase. Human Dimension Approaches to Citizen Input: Keys for

Successful Policy. Deer as Public Goods and Public Nuisance: Issues and Policy Options in Maryland, ed. Bruce L. Gardner, pp. 95-106. College Park, MD: Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Policy, October 27, 1997.

Freyfogle, Eric T. Bounded People, Boundless Land. Stewardship Across Boundaries. ed. Richard Night and Peter Landues. Island Press, 1998.

Hunter, Boyd. Conspicuous Compassion and Wicked Problems. Australian National University Electronic Press. Agenda, Vol. 14, No. 3. 2007.

Morford et al. Culture, Worldviews, Communication Styles and Conflict. Forrex vol. 3 no. 1. 2003.

Nelson, David H. Citizen Task Forces on Deer Management: A Case Study. Department of Environmental Conservation. New York, 1992.

Ostermier, David. Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management. FWF 412 Lecture Notes. 2010.

Roszak, Theodore. The Voices of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. Phanes Press Inc. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1992.

Smith, Daniel B. Is There and Ecological Unconsciousness? New York Times. New York, 2010.

Soule, Michael E. What Is Conservation Biology? American Institute of Biological Sciences. 1985

Wagner, Melinda B. Space and Place, Land and Legacy. Culture, Environment and Conservation in the Appalachian South. Ed Benita Howell, 2002. University of Ih Press.

Wilson, Chad. Evolution of Western Values Toward the Environment. FWF 412 Lecture Notes. 2010.

Zinn, Howard. A Peoples History of the United States. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. 2003.