What is ecology?

Ecology, the word, has so many uses and associations at this point in time… so we don’t really know its specific meaning except by inferring it from context. Even as an academic discipline, it is now so broad that we are not exactly sure what the boundaries of the discipline might be. From industrial ecology to human ecology to statistical ecology, the span of its disciplinary reach is a bit daunting. What do you associate with the word ecology? What do you think the academic discipline of ecology might cover? What definition of ecology do you prefer? Think on it and then try to answer these questions.


6 Responses to “What is ecology?”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    I associate everything I can see with ecology, especially after reading the online definitions that encompass even more than I ever imagined. Ecology is not just the grass and the sky and the rivers, but also the rocks and the minerals and the sand and how all of these elements and so many others interact and affect each other, both locally and globally.

    The academic discipline of ecology must cover all of the characteristics and interactions of living things with their environment, but that really is about everything in the world that we know, because everything affects everything else. It would seem from the diagram on the Encyclopedia of the Earth definition page that ecology is immediately terrestrial, of the Earth, down to complete organisms, but not as far as the composition of the organism themselves, and the interactions between everything on the Earth as well, including the weather and sunshine as factors.

    I prefer a definition of ecology that is extremely holistic and encompassing, because I agree wholeheartedly that fragmentation is dangerous when it comes to living beings. I think of the Gaia Theory often since reading the bestseller that came out some time during the early 90’s of the same name. Our living environment is so interdependent that to try to think of it in a fragmented way is truly missing the big picture.

    It is striking to me to notice how hard ecology is to define as a field of study when classification of areas of study are what science in the academic realm is supposed to be all about. Normally the definition, in one or two sentences, of an area of study is the EASY part. I appreciate that ecology is not easily defined.

    I also find it interesting, and a bit connected to Gaia, that I was just working on a focus for some spirituality work I am doing and the language I used for that, specifically:” We are holistic beings, these divisions by classification are all constructs we have adopted since the Greeks, they tell nothing separately of the compilation of who and what we are,” also brings up something of the complication with settling on a pat definition of ecology.

  2. Matthew Burke says:

    I agree with Charles Hall when he writes, “most professional ecologists are not terribly unhappy when ecology is used in the normative sense, preferring the wider public awareness of environmental issues today compared to the widespread ignorance of three decades ago.” About 10 years ago, while taking a course in environmental education, I came to understand that, for the purposes of the course, the term “environment” simply meant one’s surroundings, whether urban, rural, or non-human (or at least less directly modified by humans). The purpose, I believe, for taking this approach, was to strive for a more inclusive content. So many people are so far from any environment we might recognize as “natural”, physically and experientially, that too great an emphasis on natural systems would be neither relevant nor practical. But I felt this was a dramatic departure from the original intent of the field. Hadn’t environmental education, as well as environmental awareness, and even the term “environment”, come out of a clear concern for humanity’s negative impact on the “natural” or non-human world? Isn’t some essential value lost when we define the environment as simply “all that exists around us”?

    A few years later, The Economist magazine asked that entries to an annual essay contest respond to the question, “Do we need nature?”. I submitted an essay, with not much fanfare, taking the basic position that the question itself was flawed. As expressed in a previous blog entry, we humans are absolutely part of the natural world. I went on to propose that much of the problem of environmental degradation can be traced to the belief that we are somehow separate and independent of the natural environment.

    With these two points in mind, that we are responding to environmental degradation, and that we are part of nature, I believe ecology cannot and should not be a wholly descriptive science. I feel the belief, whether deep or shallow, that ecosystems are worth conserving and functionally restoring, that living things and their habitats have value, is essential to a complete understanding of the science of ecology. In short, I belive it’s necessary to care.

    I appreciate the wikipedia article for the emphasis placed on holism. A holistic approach to scientific inquiry is certainly a defining characteristic of ecology as a discipline. The Cary Insistitue states equally, “The hallmark of ecology is its encompassing and synthetic view of nature, not a fragmented view.” As noted earlier, while many subfields are developed, an ecological approach has the responsibility to always consider the larger whole, even while narrowing in on the relationships between specialized parts.

    For myself, I realize I’ve often used the term ecology, when my more accurate meaning is simply ecosystem, the living and non-living in a given location or conceptual relationship. For example, when considering agroecology, I would find it helpful to think of this as the study of agricultural ecosystems. Perhaps it would be useful to consider many of our common uses of the term “ecological”, instead as “ecosystem”. For example, it might be useful to think of ecological design as “ecosystem design”, the holistic design of ecosystems or systems that mimic ecosystems. With this approach, the ecologist is one who studies ecosystems, as stated in the wiki article.

    The Cary Institute definition seemed to me the most accurate and comtemporary for those working within an ecological discipline. But in the end, the more recent definitions seemed essentially a more sophisticated rehashing of Heackel’s 1866 definition, “the comprehensive science of the relationship of the organism to the environment.” I’m attracted to this definition as an effective and simple shorthand for understanding ecology.

  3. Matt Sayre says:

    Ecology is the study of interconnectedness. After reading the materials provided and thinking through the various ways one might interpret and apply “ecology” this is the simple definition that I come to. The Wikipedia’s section on ecology explains that “each living organism has an ongoing and continual relationship with every other element that makes up its environment”. As Hall writes “environment” usually refers to the “natural” vs. “human-made” world. This division seems so strange to me and always has. A beaver can chew down trees to build a dam and stop water flow in a creek and this perfectly “natural”, but a person cutting down trees to build a shelter is somehow not part of this same environment. Ecology says, we’re all part of the same system and even the most basic elements of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen and the three chemical reactions of multiplication, variation, and heredity need to be considered as part of the system wherein alteration of any one of these basic elements or chemical reactions alters the whole interconnected system. Study of ecology has led some to conclude that the system itself is continually advancing toward a state of balance through recycling of elements, self-regulation, and feedback loops, but it seems to me that (like some perspectives of the current state of the human economy) each actor within the system is seeking to maximize its self-interest. However, without a complete understanding of the impacts of every action it is impossible to maximize one’s self-interest, which leads to imbalances that ultimately negatively impact what might have been perceived as the most “successful” actor either biotic or abiotic.

    Hall notes “four basic reasons given to study and as to why we might want to understand ecology: first, since all of us live to some degree in a natural or at least partly natural ecosystem, then considerable pleasure can be derived by studying the environment around us… Second, human economies are in large part based on the exploitation and management of nature… Third, human societies can often be understood very clearly from an ecological perspectives as we study, for example, the population dynamics (demography) of our own species, the food and fossil energy flowing through our society. Fourth, humans appear to be changing aspects of the global environment in many ways. Ecology can be very useful to help us understand what these changes are, what the implications might be for various ecosystems, and how we might intervene in either human economies or in nature to try to mitigate or otherwise alter these changes.” The study of ecology as a discipline should be built around these reasons, but in an integrated way. It concerns me that many sub-disciplines of ecology are being established but this may be OK if each of these foci are linked together intentionally. Reductionist analysis that might occur in these sub-disciplines is necessary to understand the depth of complexity in each of these areas, but synthesis of this analyis into a comprehensive understanding of the interconnected whole to make more informed decisions and create better solutions should be the desired goal. So, I would say my thoughts align most closely with Hall’s.

  4. Michelle Audas says:

    In the past, I have associated the term ecology mostly with nature’s systems and my understanding of biodiversity. Neither academically or professionally have I had much cause to consider it further until now. In the past, I would have understood it to be interchangeable with “environmental” which I now see to be a limiting utilzation.

    At this point, in consideraton of the offered definitions of ecology, I primarily associate the word with with the inter-relationship of natural systems and the natural world, with an emphasis on the inter-relationships and connections. I am now inclined to consider ecology as the study of the composition and functioning of natural networks, and how they support each other.

    I anticpate the academic study to be extremely broad and open, given its objective of finding and understanding the connections in the natural world, and the complexities of the man-made world that has changed these relationships. I think it is “evolutionary” in the sense that rapid change is occuring in the natural world, and the dynamics of these changes can be examined from an ecological perspective.

    U anticipate the study of ecology to facilitate the examination of historical, current and changing states, providing a foundation for understanding and learning from the changes as they happen. The EoE definition of ecology has the most influence on my interpretation of ecology at this point, and I see it as the definition I prefer.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Coming from a strong economic and policy oriented perspective, I associate the work ecology often times with the impacts of human activities on the natural environment. More specifically how these activities negatively impact the equilibrium of various ecosystems from micro to macro levels. When I use the term “ecological”, I usually mean how ecosystems are or will become balanced given certain human behaviors and/or responses to social needs and desires.

    I have learned through life that everything is interconnected in some way or another. This view of life and the universe is the foundation of many philosophical traditions. I believe the field of ecology is a philosophical foundation and fundamental to the holistic understanding of all the various scientific and social sciences that explore how the universe operates from the microscopic to the cosmic. As Charles Hall wrote in his definition of ecology, it is “a way of looking at the world which emphasizes the assessment and understanding of how the pieces fit together, how each influences and is influenced by the other pieces and how the whole operates in ways not really predictable from the pieces.” And “allows us some sense of truly understanding the great complexity of nature, including as it is impacted by human activity”(www.eoearth.org). I feel this is my preferred view and general definition of ecology.

    (from Ian)

  6. Monika Derrien says:

    My primary associations with the word “ecology” have to do with webs of interconnection, primarily in the natural, not-man-made world. But ecology has applications in artificially constructed environments, as well. The majority of people, as well as many other organisms, interact in and with constructed environments, to some degree. So while ecology immediately brings to mind natural, largely human-free systems, I realize that most ecology, deliberate or not, has a human hand affecting it somewhere within the web.

    My first year of undergraduate study was in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. There, I took classes in Nutrition, Human-Environment Relations, Sociology, and Adolescent Development. I was studying “human ecology,” but I never had a concrete definition in my head of what that actually meant. I had a vague notion of interactions between people and the environments around them, but the applications of it seemed infinitely disparate, and I did not have a formalized definition of what it was I was trying to study. I think because I never felt a cohesion in what I was studying, or its application as a whole, I ended up studying a better defined subject area.

    The academic discipline of ecology is very broad, and easily expands to study and explain new sets of interactions between previously unlinked or unstudied relationships. I think that a functional definition of ecology allows some wiggle room, so that emergent relationships can be studied. If ecology were to be defined as X, Y, and Z interactions, the field would eventually exhaust its practical matter to study. On the other hand, the appeal of definite parameters is clear – in order to study something, you need to be able understand the place of your specialization within the whole, to allow cooperation and synthesis with others’ work. How big can the web of ecology be, while still maintaining its character, utility, and function?

    In defining ecology, it is also useful to define what isn’t ecology. The definitions we’ve looked at on the Encyclopedia of the Earth, Wikipedia, and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies all emphasize interactions within and with the environment. But what could be considered “not an interaction?” What occurs outside an “environment?” It seems to me that just about anything that occurs in the “real world,” and not in some artificially constructed vacuum, could be described as some sort of interaction between biotic and/or abiotic components. I think to improve my understanding of what ecology is, I need to better understand what ecology is not, and why.

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