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Sign Systems Studies

Volume 29, Issue 1, 2001

Alf Hornborg
Pages 121-151

Vital signs
An ecosemiotic perspective on the human ecology of Amazonia

Ecosemiotics represents a theoretical approach to human ecology that can be applied across several disciplines. lts primary justification lies in the ambition to transcend "Cartesian", conceptual dichotomies such as culture/nature. society/nature, mental/material. etc. It argues that ecosystems are constituted no less by flows of signs than by flows of matter and energy. This paper discusses the roles of different kinds of hmnan sign systems in the ecology of Amazonia, ranging from the phenomenology of unconscious sensations. through linguistic signs such as metaphors and ethnobiological taxonomies, to money and the political economy of environmental destruction. Human-environmental relations mediated by direct, sensory and (oral) linguistic communication have tended to enhance biological diversity, suggesting modes of calibrating the long-term co-evolution of human and non-human populations. Economic sign systems, on the other hand, have rapidly and drastically transfonned human-environmental relations in Amazonia to the point where the entire rainforest ecosystem is illlder threat. In detaching themselves from the direct, "face-to-face" communication between humans and their natural environments, flows of money and commodities - and the decontextualized knowledge systems that they engender - have no means of staying geared to the long-term negotiation of local, ecological co-existence. It is argued that the ongoing deterioration of the biosphere can be viewed as a problem of communication, deserving semiotic analysis.

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