Background (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
In the 1860’s, Ernst Haeckel, a German scientist, coined the word “ecology” based on the Greek word oikos, which means “house.” The terminology is apt, because ecology focuses on the complex environmental conditions that form organisms’ habitats. Historically, ecology was rooted in natural history, which in the 1800’s sought to describe the diversity of life and evolutionary adaptations to the environment. In modern usage, ecology includes the study of the interactions among organisms—such as humans, animals, insects, microbes, and plants—and their physical or abiotic environment. The abiotic environment concerns factors such as climate (air and temperature), hydrology (water), geological substrate (soil), light, and natural disasters that affect the environment. The abiotic factors are essential for sustaining the life of organisms.
Ecology also involves the study of biotic environmental components that influence habitats and the distribution and abundance of species of organisms in geographic space and time. The interaction between living organisms and the nonliving environment in a self-contained area is known as an ecosystem. Ecologists study processes such as how energy and matter move though interrelated ecosystems like ponds, forest glades, or rocks with moss growing on them. Maintaining an ecosystem requires the proper balance of air, water, soil, sunlight, minerals, and nutrients.
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Ecological Levels (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Modern ecology is interdisciplinary and is based on multiple classifications. Descriptive unit classifications based on the study of organisms and processes start with the simplest and build to the most complex, from individuals to populations, species, communities, ecosystems, and biomes.
•Physiological ecology, the simplest classification, concerns the interaction of individual organisms with their life-sustaining abiotic environment and the impact of biotic components on their habitats.
•Population ecology is the study of the interaction of individuals of different species (whether bacterium, plant, or animal) that occupy the same location and are genetically different from other such groups.
•Community ecologists analyze the interaction of interdependent species populations living within a given habitat or area, known as an ecological community.
•Ecosystem ecology includes the nonliving environment and concerns decomposition of living organisms and intake of inorganic materials into living organisms. In other words, ecosystem ecologists study the flow of energy and the cycling of nutrients through the abiotic and biotic environments of interacting ecological communities.
•The interaction of multiple ecosystems with one another is known as a biome. Some familiar biomes include coniferous forests, rain forests, tundra regions, deserts, coral reefs, and oceans.
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Ecological Subfields (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
The terminology used for other ecological classifications emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of ecology. Paleoecology, for example, involves archaeology in the study of ancient remains and fossils in order to analyze the interrelationships of historic organisms and reconstruct ancient ecosystems. Using evolutionary theory, behavioral ecologists consider the roles of behavior in enabling organisms to adapt to new and changed environments. In systems ecology, scientists use systems theory to manage energy flows and biogeochemical cycles in ecosystems. With some basis in anthropology, political ecologists seek equilibrium in political, economic, and social decision making that impacts the environment. Landscape ecologists conduct spatial analyses and examine processes and interrelationships of ecosystems over large, regional geographic areas. Global ecology is the study of interrelationships between organisms and their environment on a global scale.
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Genetic Ecology (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Two emerging specialty subfields of ecology are genetic and evolutionary ecology. In genetic ecology, scientists study genetic variations in species that lead to the evolution of new species or to the adaptation of existing species to new or changed environments. These new or changed environments may be the result of many factors, including abiotic changes, such as an increase or decrease in temperature; increased predation of a species, including overhunting or overfishing; or an unsustainable increase in population. When the environment changes or ecosystems are disturbed, species must adapt or face extinction. Genetic ecology considers genetic factors that allow some species to adapt to and survive environmental changes more easily. In some recent studies of plant species scientists used genetic ecology to analyze how quickly specific plants migrate and adapt to new habitats in response to climate change. Although earlier predictions indicated that plant migration would keep up with environmental change, recent studies indicate that migration will be slower than originally believed. Genetic ecology is also an important tool in studying animal species as well as managing wild and captive animal populations and improving population health.
Genetic ecologists are involved in genetic engineering in order to assess the relationship between genetics of a species and the ecosystem that supports the survival of that species. One...
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Evolutionary Ecology (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Evolutionary ecology brings together ecology, biology, and evolution. Evolutionary ecologists look at the evolutionary history, developmental processes, and behavioral adaptations and interactions of organisms from all over the world for the purpose of studying biodiversity. This type of study operates mainly at the levels of population, species, and communities and utilizes many subsets of ecology. Scientists employ paleoecology to establish historic patterns of biodiversity; genetic ecology, especially DNA techniques, to study variation and to make genealogical connections among organisms; telemetry and satellites to study patterns in distribution of various species; and computer simulations and field experimentation to test out hypotheses. Both genetic and evolutionary ecology are important for the conservation of biodiversity and for developing applications to solve biological problems.
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Applied Ecology (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Ecology also involves many aspects of applied science in which the results of scientific study are applied to real-life situations, from natural resource management to urban planning. Biotic natural resources have been managed at the individual and population levels since the agricultural revolution occurred eight thousand to ten thousand years ago. Until the 1960’s, forestry, fish, and wildlife management techniques were aimed at increasing the productivity of single species—usually game species, such as quail and trout, or commercial tree species, such as loblolly pine. As community ecology and ecosystem ecology matured, and as popular concern for the loss of species arose in the 1960’s, natural resource management agencies began to look at the effects of single-species management techniques on the entire community. Range management has always taken the community ecology perspective in managing native grass and shrub communities for livestock forage production. However, range conservationists also manage forage production for wildlife as well as for livestock. Conservation biology applies the understanding of all ecological levels in the attempt to prevent species extinction, to maintain species genetic diversity, and to restore self-sustaining populations of rare species or entire communities.
Population ecology remains the core of these applied ecological disciplines. Population ecology mainly deals with mortality...
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Issues in Ecology (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Among the applications of ecological studies are some of the following:
•climate change; and global warming;
•loss of species populations and concomitant loss of biodiversity, including threatened species and endangered species (such as the collapse of bee colonies important for pollination) and the introduction of exotic invasive species into unnatural habitats;
•changes in global ocean currents and their effect on terrestrial biomes such as forests and deserts;
•human activities, including the release of pollutants and their impact on the food chain and animal species, and global resource consumption levels and their impact on ecosystems, land conversion and habitat loss, infrastructure development, and overexploitation;
•blockage of solar energy and holes in the ozone layer; and
•the potential impact of space debris on the global environment.
Internationally, environmental scientists and others are entering into treaties, conducting serious discussions at global conferences, and collaborating on solutions to resolve these and many other issues—including the availability of food and other resources—that may affect future survival. Making humans aware of the many ecological concerns and gaining their support in protecting, conserving, and preserving the environment and global resources for future generations, thus enhancing the health of the Earth, may be the most...
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Further Reading (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Bertorelle, Giorgio, et al. Population Genetics for Animal Conservation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Cain, Michael L., William D. Bowman, and Sally D. Hacker. Ecology. Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates, 2008.
Morin, Peter Jay. Community Ecology. 2d ed. Oxford, Oxfordshire, England: Blackwell, 2008.
Sherratt, Thomas N., and David M. Wilkinson. Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. New York: Picador, 2008.
Cell Press. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. http://www.trends.com/tree/default.htm
Ecology Global Network. http://ecology.com/index.php
The Global Education Project. http://www.theglobaleducationproject.org/earth/global-ecology.php
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Ecology (Encyclopedia of Science)
Ecology is the study of the relationships of organisms with their living and nonliving environment. No organism exists entirely independently of other living and nonliving things around it. A cactus in the middle of the desert, for example, draws nourishment from the air and from the ground. It depends on sunlight for energy needed to grow. The cactus may be home to birds, lizards, and microscopic animals. Even relationships that seem to be stark and simple as that of the cactus with its surroundings involve complex ties that form the subject matter of ecology.
Ecological relationships are always reciprocal (shared) relationships. In the example of the cactus, elements of the physical environment, such as air and water, have an impact on the cactus. But, at the same time, the cactus affects its physical surroundings. For example, it releases water vapor and oxygen into the air, changing the composition of the surrounding atmosphere.
Living relationships are also reciprocal relationships. The cactus may provide food, shelter, and shade for animals that live in or near it. But animals also contribute to the life of the cactus, by distributing its seeds, for example.
The subject matter of ecology
Although mostly a biological subject, ecology also draws upon other sciences, including chemistry, physics, geology, earth...
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Ecology (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
The term ecology is, etymologically, the logic of living creatures in their homes, a word suggestively related to ecumenical, with common roots in the Greek oikos, the inhabited world. Named in 1866 by German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834919), ecology is a biological science like molecular biology or evolutionary theory, though often thought to be less mature. Ecosystems are complicated; experiments are difficult on these open systems, often large, that resist analysis. Ecology has nevertheless been thrust into the public arena, with the advent of the ecological crisis. Ecology has also become increasingly global, and still more complex, as when planetary carbon dioxide cycles affect climate change.
Ethics, policy, theology, and ecology
Ecology mixes with ethics, an ecological (or environmental) ethics urging that humans ought to find a lifestyle more respectful of, or harmonious with, nature. Ethics, which seeks a satisfactory fit for humans in their communities, has traditionally dwelt on justice, fairness, love, rights, or peace, settling disputes of right and wrong that arise among humans. Ethics now also concerns the troubled planet, its fauna, flora, species, and ecosystems.
American forester Aldo Leopold urged a new commandment in "The Land Ethic," a chapter in his 1968 book A Sand County Almanac: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (pp. 22425). Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the focus of environmental policy, often referred to as ecosystem management, has been a sustainable economy based on a sustainable biosphere.
Theologians have argued that religion needs to pay more attention to ecology, and perhaps also vice versa. Partly this is in response to allegations that Christians view humans as having God-given dominion over nature; they dominate nature and are responsible for the ecological crisis. An ecological theology may hope to find norms directly in ecological science, but often an ecological perspective rather freely borrows and adapts various goods thought to be found in ecology into human social affairs, such as wholeness, interrelatedness, balance, harmony, efficiency, embodiment, dynamism, naturalness, and sustainability.
Leading concepts in ecological science
Leading concepts in ecology involve ecosystems, succession of communities rejuvenated by disturbances, energy flow, niches and habitats, food chains and webs, carrying capacity, populations and survival rates, diversity, and stability. A main claim is that every organism is what it is where it is because its place is essential to its being; the "skinout" environment is as vital as the "skin-in" metabolisms. Early ecologists favored ideas such as homeostasis and equilibrium. Contemporary ecologists emphasize a greater role for contingency or even chaos. Others emphasize self-organizing systems (autopoiesis), also an ancient idea: "The earth produces of itself [Greek: automatically]" (Luke 4:28). Some find that natural selection on the edge of chaos offers the greatest possibility for self-organization and survival in changing environments, often also passing over to self-transformation.
The stability of ecosystems is dynamic, not a frozen sameness, and may differ with particular systems and depend on the level of analysis. There are perennial processesind, rain, soil, photosynthesis, competition, predation, symbiosis, trophic pyramids or food chains, and networks. Ecosystems may wander or be stable within bounds. When unusual disturbances come, ecosystems can be displaced beyond recovery of their former patterns. Then they settle into new equilibria. Ecosystems are always on historical trajectory, a dynamism of chaos and order entwined.
Michael E. Soulé and Gary Lease have demonstrated in their 1995 book, Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction, that ecology as a science has not proven immune from postmodernist and deconstructionist claims that science in all its formsstrophysics to ecologys a cultural construct of the Enlightenment West. Science is pragmatic and enables scientific cultures to get what they want out of nature; science is not descriptive of what nature is really like, apart from humans and their biases and preferences. According to this view, humans should make no pretensions to know what nature is like without them, but can choose what it is like to interact with nature, living harmoniously with it, which will result in a higher quality life. This fits well with a bioregional perspective. Environmental ethics is as much applied geography as it is pure ecology.
Some interpreters, such as Mark Sagoff, conclude that human environmental policy cannot be drawn from nature. Ecology, a piecemeal science in their estimation, can, at best, offer generalizations of regional or local scope, and supply various tools (such as eutrophication of lakes, keystone species, nutrient recycling, niches, succession) for whatever the particular circumstances at hand. Humans ought to step in with our management objectives and reshape the ecosystems we inhabit consonant with our cultural goals.
Other interpreters, such as David Pimentel, Laura Westra, and Reed Noss, argue that human life does and ought to include nature and culture entwined, humans as part of, rather than apart from, their ecosystems. Ecosystems are dependable life support systems. There is a kind of order that arises spontaneously and systematically when many self-actualizing units interactively pursue their own programs, each doing its own thing and forced into informed co-action with other units.
In culture, the logic of language or the integrated connections of the market are examples of such co-action. We legitimately respect cultural heritages, such as Judaism or Christianity, or democracy or science, none of which are centrally controlled processes, all of which mix elements of integrity and dependability with dynamic change, even surprise and unpredictability. We might wish for "integrity, stability, and beauty" in democracy or science, without denying the elements of pluralism, dynamism, contingency, and historical development.
Ecosystems, though likewise complex, open, and decentralized, are orderly and predictable enough to make ecological science possiblend also to make possible an ethics respecting these dynamic, creative, vital processes. The fauna and flora originally in place, independently of humans, will with high probability be species naturally selected for their adaptive fits, as evolutionary and ecological theory both teach. Misfits go extinct and unstable ecosystems collapse and are replaced by more stable or resilient ones (perhaps rejuvenated by chaos or upset by catastrophe).
This ecosystemic nature, once flourishing independently and for millennia continuing along with humans, has in the last one hundred years come under increasing jeopardyariously described as a threat to ecosystem health, integrity, or quality.
Since the 1990s, emphasis has been ecosystem management. This approach appeals alike to scientists, who see the need for understanding ecosystems objectively and for applied technologies, and also to humanists, who find that humans are cultural animals who rebuild their environments and who desire benefits for people. The combined ecosystem/management policy promises to operate at system-wide levels, presumably to manage for indefinite sustainability, alike of ecosystems and their outputs. Such management connects with the idea of nature as "natural resources" at the same time that it has a "respect nature" dimension. Christian ethicists note that the secular word "manage" is a stand-in for the earlier theological word "steward." Adam was placed in the garden "to till and keep it" (Gen. 2:15).
Pristine natural systems no longer exist anywhere on Earth (the insecticide DDT has been found in penguins in Antarctica). Perhaps 95 percent of a landscape will be rebuilt for culture, considering lands plowed and grazed, forests managed, rivers dammed, and so on. Still, only about 25 percent of the land, in most nations, is under permanent agriculture; a large percentage is more or less rural, still with some processes of wild nature taking place. The twenty-first century promises an escalation of development that threatens both the sustainability of landscapes supporting culture as well as their intrinsic integrity.
Scientists and ethicists alike have traditionally divided their disciplines into realms of the "is" and the "ought." No study of nature can tell humans what ought to happen. This neat division has been challenged by ecologists and their philosophical and theological interpreters. The analysis here first distinguishes between interhuman ethics and environmental ethics. The claim that nature ought sometimes to be taken as norm within environmental ethics is not to be confused with a different claim, that nature teaches us how we ought to behave toward each other. Nature as moral tutor has always been, and remains, doubtful ethics. Compassion and charity, justice and honesty, are not virtues found in wild nature. There is no way to derive any of the familiar moral maxims from nature: "One ought to keep promises." "Do to others as you would have them do to you." "Do not cause needless suffering." No natural decalogue endorses the Ten Commandments.
But, continuing the analysis, there may be goods (values) in nature with which humans ought to conform. Animals, plants, and species, integrated into ecosystems, may embody values that, though nonmoral, count morally when moral agents encounter these. To grant that morality emerges in human beings out of nonmoral nature does not settle the question whether we, who are moral, should sometimes orient our conduct in accord with value there. Theologians will add that God bade Earth bring forth its swarming kinds and found this genesis very good. Palestine was a promised land; Earth is a promising planet, but only if its ecologies globally form a biosphere.
Environmental science can inform environmental ethics in subtle ways. Scientists describe the "order," "dynamic stability," and "diversity" in these biotic "communities." They describe "interdependence," or speak of "health" or "integrity," perhaps of their "resilience" or "efficiency." Scientists describe the "adapted fit" that organisms have in their niches. They describe an ecosystem as "flourishing," as "self-organizing." Strictly interpreted, these are only descriptive terms; and yet often they are already quasi-evaluative terms, perhaps not always so but often enough that by the time the descriptions of ecosystems are in, some values are already there. In this sense, ecology is rather like medical science, with therapeutic purpose, seeking such flourishing health.
Ecology in classical religions
Is there ecological wisdom in the classical religions? Religion and science have to be carefully delineated, each in its own domain. One makes a mistake to ask about technical ecology in the Bible (such as the Lotka-Volterra equations, dealing with population size and carrying capacity). But ecology is a science at native range. Residents on landscapes live immersed in their local ecology. At the pragmatic ranges of the sower who sows, waits for the seed to grow, and reaps the harvest, the Hebrews knew their landscape. Abraham and Lot, and later Jacob and Esau, dispersed their flocks and herds because "the land could not support both of them dwelling together" (Gen. 13:2-13; 36:6-8). There were too many sheep and goats eating the sparse grasses and shrubs of their semi-arid landscape, and these nomads recognized this. They were exceeding the carrying capacity, ecologists now say.
Here academic ecologists can learn a great deal from people indigenous to a landscape for centuries. Such ecological wisdom might be as readily found with the Arunta in Australia, or with the Navajos in the American Southwest on their landscapes. This would be indigenous wisdom rather than divine revelation. Such wisdom is often supported more by mythology than by science. Such wisdom is also frequently mixed with error and misunderstanding.
Christian (and other) ethicists can with considerable plausibility make the claim that neither conservation, nor a sustainable biosphere, nor sustainable development, nor any other harmony between humans and nature can be gained until persons learn to use the earth both justly and charitably. Those twin concepts are not found either in wild nature or in any science that studies nature. They must be grounded in some ethical authority, and this has classically been religious.
One needs human ecology, humane ecology, and this requires insight more into human nature than into wild nature. True, humans cannot know the right way to act if they are ignorant of the causal outcomes in the natural systems they modifyor example, the carrying capacity of the Bethel-Ai rangeland in the hill country of Judaea. But there must be more. The Hebrews were convinced that they were given a blessing with a mandate. The land flows with milk and honey (assuming good land husbandry) if and only if there is obedience to Torah. Abraham said to Lot, "Let there be no strife between me and you, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen" (Gen. 13:8), and they partitioned the common good equitably among themselves. The Hebrews also include the fauna within their covenant. "Behold I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you" (Gen. 9:5). In modern terms, the covenant was both ecumenical and ecological.
See also ANIMAL RIGHTS; AUTOPOIESIS; CHAOS THEORY; DEEP ECOLOGY; ECOFEMINISM; ECOLOGY, ETHICS OF; ECOLOGY, RELIGIOUS AND PHILOSOPHICAL ASPECTS; ECOLOGY, SCIENCE OF; ECOTHEOLOGY; FEMINISM AND SCIENCE; FEMINIST COSMOLOGY; FEMINIST THEOLOGY; GAIA HYPOTHESIS; WOMANIST THEOLOGY
Golley, Frank. A Primer for Ecological Literacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.
Gumbine, R. Edward. "What is Ecosystem Management?" Conservation Biology 8 (1994): 27-38.
Leopold, Aldo. "The Land Ethic." In A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Northcott, Michael S. The Environment and Christian Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Pimentel, David; Westra, Laura; and Noss, Reed F., eds. Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation, and Health. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000.
Rolston, Holmes, III. "The Bible and Ecology." Interpretation: Journal of Bible and Theology 50 (1996): 166.
Sagoff, Mark. "Ethics, Ecology, and the Environment: Integrating Science and Law." Tennessee Law Review 56 (1988): 77-229.
Soulé, Michael E., and Lease, Gary, eds. Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1995.
HOLMES ROLSTON, III