The Ecology of Ecology

Knowledge is boundless, infinitely deep and infinitely broad, and for a discipline like ecology infinitely connected. Each of these connections is a possible new subdiscipline. Think about and describe a new ecological subdiscipline that you might think society might need now… or soon.

Also, try to express your own understanding of the breadth of ecology as a discipline? Is there a “center?” You will probably need to have some sense of how ecology is organized and what it covers by the time you complete this course of study. What is your current state of understanding based on your past experiences?


6 Responses to “The Ecology of Ecology”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    I can not help continually referring back to the oil spill as a reference, so new ecological subdisciplines that relate to disaster remediation and environmental renewal would be very important, if these fields do not already exist. I have this image of the giant tree being in the film Princess Mononoke whose every step sprouts and propagates new life. Janine Benyus was very much bringing up that image in her TED presentation, so this same mimicry technology could be focused specifically on rebuilding a destroyed ecosystem and that specialization would create this new field of study.

    There also needs to be a specialized field for the study of genetically altered species as they are released on the natural world. This is more than invasive species transplanted from a different natural environment; this is completely non natural species being introduced into the natural environment. In the film Food Inc. Monsanto won a court case pertaining to their corn seed infiltrating a neighboring farmer’s field and altering the corn the farmer was planting through cross pollination and perhaps inadvertent seed spillage during transportation in such a way that the farmer’s non Monsanto corn was overtaken and altered to become the Monsanto corn and the seeds from those plants were indistinguishable from the original Monsanto seeds to the extent that the entire saved seed stock of the neighboring farmer had to be destroyed to avoid “stealing Monsanto property.” There definitely have to be non interested parties truly delving into the study of the holistic impact of genetically altered organisms.

    I go back to the Encyclopedia of the Earth definition of ecology for the image of the breadth of ecology: it encompasses everything of the Earth and everything that affects everything of the Earth down to the level of the organism, but no further into the organism itself, including interaction and interdependencies. That being said the Earth seems to be the center of the breadth of this discipline, even though Earth science is not really ecology. Ecological principles could be used to describe other planets, but the lens would always be in comparison to the life we have here on Earth. The center of ecology is also very dependent on the field of ecology and the portion of it being studied, so the center shifts according to observation.

    I understand a lot about environmental interactions in plants, invasive species and remediation, because of my Master Gardener credential. I know a bit about animals from a history related to agriculture. My grandfather was a forester, so I understand something of the forest. My father was a land developer, so I have seen environmental catastrophe up close and personal. I took the usual courses throughout school to gain knowledge about life science and Earth science. I know a bit, but there is much more to learn.

  2. Matthew Burke says:

    Arriving late on the scene, I have the benefit of considering the thoughtful insights from your earlier comments. I appreciate Matt’s suggestions that ecology might be itself a center for all other disciplines. As an organizing concept, it offers a perspective that is both specific and integrated, potentially reconnecting to some extent the formal categories of our collective understanding of our world and our role within it. Ecology, as a study of relationships and interactions between living and non-living, can take a unique position as a unifying core for a developing worldview.

    The concept of ecosystem services, when linked to applied ecology, could then offer a measure for our interaction with an ecosystem. As stated earlier, I believe there is an inherent value, even if unstated, within the field of ecology and ecosystem studies. When we say something is “ecological”, we often mean it either mimics the process or function of an ecosystem, or it attempts to support, protect, or benefit an ecosystem. I don’t know of any subdiscipline using the term ecology that openly tries to degrade or destroy ecosystems. Although, were we to place ecology in the center of all disciplines, we might then have an opportunity to describe any discipline or human activity as one that either increases, sustains, or degrades natural capital.

    I’m especially drawn to applied ecology, and agroecology, as a way to better organize and improve our land management. Our goal, then, is to improve or support ecosystem services, through soil building, for example. I feel there is an exciting field of applied ecology that is emerging, that could employ low-cost, low-energy management methods to build natural capital. This clearly has a link to ecological restoration, but would perhaps put greater emphasis on the working landscape, and the role of the human “manager” over time.

    A subdiscipline might benefit from exploring the methods of land management used by pre-Columbian indigenous populations in the northeast, or by contemporary “developing” societies. What’s to be learned from these methods? What could be employed now, or combined with new methods, goals, or understandings? How can we build natural capital, and reverse degradation, using readily available techniques and technologies?

    Building on Matt’s comments on education, perhaps this type of applied ecology could be the foundation for a new approach to basic pre-college vocational education, that would be integrated with many existing curricula; an ecological “shop” or home economics program wherein ecological understandings are learned through the application of good ecosystem management.

  3. Matt Sayre says:

    As someone who works in education and educational program design and development, my thinking went quickly to the idea for a focus on the ecology of education or educational ecology, but let me start by stating that I do not favor creating more and more sub-disciplines. I feel strongly that we need more integration and less disintegration and segregation within education. The ongoing challenge is that people need to focus their work to understand completely one area and it seems have not yet been able to effectively focus on the whole and come to understand it completely. So, I propose that as sub-disciplines emerge out of necessity that a each sub-discipline commit to allocate 50% of the time and resources available to analyze aspects of the sub-discipline, to studying and explaining the sub-discipline as just one part of the whole.

    That being said, I’m interested in the ecology of education and I was only able to find one pretty-average blog focused on this topic and not a significant academic focus on this area. I’m interested in this not just because I’m an educator, but more because I’m a dad of two kids who aren’t too far from being in the formal K-12 system and also because I can’t stand to see waste. I wonder if studying the ecology of education would reveal that out system of education is actually stifling productivity. Could our system be more productive without forcing our offspring through a program that actually serves to reinforce the social and economic structure that governs us all? Ecological Economics offers a new way forward toward a sustainable and desirable future but the forces preventing change are so strong that the potential influence of ecological economics is dampened. Study of the ecology of education would point to the institutional forces within our educational system that must be overcome to make real progress toward sustainability. In addition, we would see where students and teachers are wasting their time through an ecological analysis of the system.

    The Jane Benyus video effectively promoted the exciting potential of biomimicry, which I see as a sub-discipline of Ecological Design, which could be seen as a sub-discipline of Ecology. The problem is that the study of “ecological design” means different things to different people. Jhon Todd sees ecological design as holistic while many people have narrowed its definition to associate more directly with architecture. Again, it seems to me that a renewed emphasis should be placed on the “design” part of these sub-disciplines and teaching and research should be more integrated so people can more completely learn about all the possibilities of design and all “good” design should be done within the context that whatever is being designed is just one part of a much larger whole.

    Ecological Economics is focused on promoting and developing systems that enhance every human’s wellbeing through sustainable use and enhancement of Natural, Social, Human, and Built capital. Could this be a center for the study of ecology? If the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment concludes that current and future generations depend on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a decent, healthy, and secure life and that the loss of services derived from ecosystems is the most significant barrier today to achieving globally sustainable human wellbeing, then shouldn’t our collective efforts be focused to reverse this loss? If so, then it seems to me that maybe the center of Ecology should be the center of all disciplines and all disciplines should be focused now to address this global priority.

  4. Ian Raphael says:


    It looks like we came up with similar ideas about where we like to see thing go.


  5. Ian Raphael says:

    My current state of understanding ecology as a discipline is relatively limited. I have a general understanding which could be argued is more than the average citizen. My knowledge is based on experiences in nature and through personal educational inquiries and interests. I have no formal training in ecology beyond basic science courses in high school and one recent oceanography class at Penn. I am however studying ecological economics with specific interests in agriculture and energy resources.

    I feel ecology is a broad moniker for a plethora of disciplines that center on the understanding of our natural universe. I believe that if there was a central tenet within all these subdisiplines , it would be the systems perspective on any given area of study.

    I found Janin Benyus’ presentation on biomimicry thoroughly engaging and in many ways represents the future in which we will be forced to embrace as we come to terms with our inefficient and destructive economic systems. Bob Costanza’s argument also helps bridge the gap between natural systems and our social/economic systems. By understanding the true cost of production for goods and services by factoring ecological impact, we can at least help drive awareness and allow for change to happen gradually within our current economic framework. This gradualism, in my opinion, is more conducive to spur true change in the long run than saying we need to blow the whole system up and start over again.

    Staying in line with Biomimicry and Ecological Economics, I believe there is much more to study and learn about how humans interact and utilize the natural environment. There may be types of ecology that are already addressing this but where I see another subdiscpline forming is within the context of human behavior and decision making. I know there have been tons of research / marketing on what makes humans like what they like. There is also a dichotomy in whether human needs and desires drive the market or vica versa. I am very interested in exploring this more to discover why humans consume so much, why in the developed nations for the most part there has been a disconnect between nature and human existence as if we live outside or transcend the nature world. These questions have obviously been contemplated philosophically and/or in a psychological sense to help bring understanding to the human condition. However there may be room for further cross disciplinary discourse with these fields as they pertain to the human condition and ecological issues.


  6. Monika Derrien says:

    I used my imagination and brainstormed a list of ecological subdisciplines that I hadn’t heard of, areas of study I thought society might need. Then, I googled each of these disciplines, only to find that each one already existed, at least according to some university or research institution! The discipline I thought of that excited me most is under the broad scope of human ecology. I think society needs a greater focus on the intersection of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and ecology (socioanthropsychoecology?). I think it is imperative to study how people’s environments and conditions (physical, social, economic, etc.) affect their perceived interconnection with the larger, natural environment. The way people see themselves as part of (or not part of) a greater ecosystem greatly affects how they consume, dispose, and interact with the rest of the non-human world. What relationship do people have with the ecology of their own environments? Where do they see their role? In urban societies, especially, people don’t see their trash, they don’t see their sewage, they don’t see their food being grown. Many hardly ever see a non-human designed outdoor area. Does this blindness (convenient as it may be) create irresponsibility? How can we gauge the relationship and the effect? How can we change the systems we’ve created so that individuals know and care about their inputs and outputs? I think education is part of the answer, but if the system and the environment is breeding a particular kind of unsustainable relationship, education alone cannot reverse the trend. I think this “new” field will require a lot of field work – talking with people, families, groups, who live in different areas with different socioeconomic statuses. As Jane Benyus describes in her talk on nature’s designs (, humans need to figure out how to live and protect concurrently, out of design. But first, everyday people need to identify which current human designs are failing, why, and how they can be part of the solution.

    The way I understand the breadth of ecology is that it encompasses all interactions that occur between biotic or abiotic components. So, for example, the interactions within a particular species’ body, or within a cell, or the mating rituals of a particular species, is a study for biology. But as soon as these interactions (perhaps you could call them “personal” interactions) are studied in their larger context, it becomes matter for ecology to consider. This larger context can mean immediately larger (a pond, a patch of dirt), infinitely larger (an entire continent, or the entire world), or anywhere in between (a forest, an alpine region). The interactions can be between any combination of organisms and non-living matter. I would imagine that most ecology is environmentally all encompassing – that is, it will study all of the interactions in a particular, identified environment, rather than just isolating individual pieces of it. Of course, systems must be broken apart to some degree in order to study them systematically, but I think the goal of ecology is to put those pieces together to understand whole systems. A map of all the efforts of ecology would definitely have to be three-dimensional in order to show all the overlaps, and I doubt there would be any distinguishable center.

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