Date of this Version
Ecology and Society 22(2):46
The philosopher John Passmore distinguished between (1) “problems in ecology,” or what we might call problems in scientific understanding of ecological change, and (2) “ecological problems,” or what we might call problems faced by societies due to ecological change. The spread of eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and conversion of the central and southern Great Plains of North America to juniper woodland might be categorized as a problem in ecology, an ecological problem, or both. Here, we integrate and apply two interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving—social-ecological systems thinking and ecocriticism—to understand the role of human culture in recognizing, driving, and responding to cedar’s changing geographic distribution. We interpret the spread of cedar as a process of culturally induced range infilling due to the ongoing social-ecological impacts of colonization, analyze poetic literary texts to clarify the concepts that have so far informed different cultural values related to cedar, and explore the usefulness of diverse interdisciplinary collaborations and knowledge for addressing social-ecological challenges like cedar spread in the midst of rapidly unfolding global change. Our examination suggests that it is not only possible, but preferable, to address cedar spread as both a scientific and a social problem. Great Plains landscapes are teetering between grassland and woodland, and contemporary human societies both influence and choose how to cope with transitions between these ecological states. We echo previous studies in suggesting that human cultural values about stability and disturbance, especially cultural concepts of fire, will be primary driving factors in determining future trajectories of change on the Great Plains. Although invasion-based descriptors of cedar spread may be useful in ecological research and management, language based on the value of restraint could provide a common vocabulary for effective cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary communication about the relationship between culture and cedar, as well as an ethical framework for cross-cultural communication, decision-making, and management.