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Historical Ecology is one of the ascendant views in ecological and environmental anthropology. It originates in the intellectual transformation of history and ecology during the last 50 years, and seeped into anthropology in the last 10 to 15 years. Historical Ecology is increasingly recognized as one of the key approaches in the discipline helping to advance our understanding of what it means to be human.
There are numerous definitions of historical ecology, but the anthropological challenge is to place human decision-making, and the consciousness that drives it, at the center of our analyses of the human-environmental relationship (Crumley 1994, Whitehead 1998, Whitney 1994). What this challenge entails is clear from a caricature of how the natural and social sciences view this relationship. In the natural sciences, humans are drivers of environmental change and there is little or no insight into the rationality behind any given transformation. In the social sciences, cognition and the resulting choices made by humans link them to their environment in a dialectical process of transformation. Humans as drivers of environmental change are nothing more than a problem to be disposed of; humans as coproducers with environment of the transformation offer the potential for altering the final outcome.
As is so often the case with emerging approaches there is debate as to whether historical ecology is a unified theoretical position or merely a research tool (Balée 1998, Whitehead 1998). However, it can be productive to consider a different question emerging from our responsibility to manage Earth (Vitousek, Mooney, and Lubchenco 1997): How can anthropology participate in the collaborations needed to understand the neglected-to-engineered gradient of current environmental systems? Toward answering this question I first review the points of origin for historical ecology then examine how the essential properties of time can help center the practice of historical ecology on a problem and a place. The objective is to move historical ecology closer to addressing how past ecologies produce present ones in order to consider the future(s) we might pursue rather than simply let happen.