It’s been over three years since I wrote my first post here. This column started as a creative outlet for my writer’s soul, as I tackled the confines of academic science writing.
I also saw it as a way to champion my new career. When I wrote my first post, I had encountered many people, including family and friends, who were genuinely puzzled over what I actually ‘do’.
I remember my stint in the unemployment queue during the fiscal fiasco. “I’m an ecologist”, I said to the government careers adviser.
She looked at me blankly and replied “Sorry, a what? How do you spell that?”
Invention of the word ‘ecology’ is credited to the German scientist Haeckel in the 1860s, and as a science it didn’t really become widely-accepted in the scholarly realm until the mid-20th century (sadly it’s still considered a ‘minor’ science in some circles).
The concept of ecology was hip in the 1960s and ’70s, especially amongst the activist crowd who drew attention to burgeoning issues like pollution, pesticides and global warming. Indeed, some online etymological dictionaries incorrectly define ‘ecology’ as a product of this era.
Adding to the confusion, Ecology is now associated with many non-scientific causes, philosophies, and disciplines. The word itself has been overused for decades as a defining term for organisations that could be considered a little on the ‘radical’ side, as well as in a lot of completely irrelevant industries and marketing campaigns.
So it follows that quite a lot of people, in many walks of life, don’t think that Ecology is a bona fide Science. Instead, they think it’s just another word for ‘environmental’, or a whole lot of hippy/pagan tree-hugging nonsense they don’t need to pay any attention to.
(By the way, there is absolutely nothing depraved about wanting to hug trees…if you are quite the upstanding, conventional type, but find yourself eyeing off the inviting warmth of an expansive tree girth, give in to the urge!)
Ecology is simply understanding how the Earth, and everything living on it (including us), functions…as a whole, interactive system. It is not Biology, which mostly looks at how one organism works as an isolated system, and it is not Environmental Science, which mostly considers the physical environment (geology, climate, weather, water chemistry etc.) – in fact, Ecology links these two bodies of knowledge, along with many, many others. It is a true ‘interdisciplinary’ field!
Even more importantly, Ecology was recognised and appreciated long before it became a science. Aristotle, Hippocrates, Francis of Assisi, Lamarck, Darwin, Thoreau…they were all ecologists. Native Americans, pagan Celts, Vedic Indians, Islamic mystics, Australian aboriginals, even Neanderthals…they were all ecologists.
You certainly don’t have to be a scientist to understand and appreciate Ecology; just like you don’t have to be a doctor to know when you’ve got the flu. It’s as simple as looking outside the window.
Your garden bursting into bloom because it’s spring; bees foraging among the flowers, pollinating in return for food; fish dying in the local creek because someone tipped methylfluorobadstuff down the stormwater drain; the flock of geese passing overhead, on their way to the other side of the world for winter; your dog hiding under the house because there’s a storm rolling in…this is Ecology.
When you feel happy, relaxed or intuitive because you’re deep inside a forest instead of in front of a computer screen…this is Ecology.
We have more ‘knowledge’ at our fingertips today than at any other time in recorded history, yet how many of us really know the Earth and how she truly works, more than our ancestors did? We recognise every creak, groan, hidden corner and light switch in our own houses…so why don’t we understand our real home the same way?
Most pre-industrial cultures respected every atom of Nature (when they weren’t preoccupied with conquering their known world). Some modern non-western cultures still put Nature first. These people knew the meaning of every sunrise and sunset, every cloud and every tide, every leaf fall, every insect buzz and bird call. These people lived within Nature – they couldn’t afford not to understand her. Nowadays, many of us live within Manufacture and have lost touch with both our own history and the natural rhythms around us.
Still, it’s never too late to get that rhythm back! ‘Ecology’ is not a dirty word – it’s the key to our future.
© Manu Saunders 2012
An informative, enjoyable read there, Manu � and here�s hoping 2013 brings more ecological enlightenment both in Oz and elsewhere. Confess I prefer it rendered as ecology (lower case), though, but still accorded upper case respect. 🙂
Thank you! Here’s to the new year! 🙂
Well said. When I did an MSc in Ecology, most people thought that I was just a bit keen on recycling newspapers. 20 years later, an Ecology Prof turned me onto doing stats in R… ecologists are some of the best scientists I know.
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Thank you! I sympathise on the newspapers point – I’m pretty sure I know a few people that think I do the same.
PS the Ecology Prof who introduced me to R also has the dubious honour of being the person who suggested I write a science blog, so here I am. He’s one of the brains behind http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/ Indeed, Ecology is not a dirty word.
When you feel happy, relaxed or intuitive because you’re deep inside a forest instead of in front of a computer screen…*this* is Ecology.
Yes. Thank you.
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No worries! 🙂 I’m glad that others appreciate how true Nature is!
Me too 🙂
I really enjoyed this and couldn’t agree more! I do find it interesting (and slightly sad) that so few people know what ecology actually is. Everyone knows what physics, or chemistry or geology or almost any other science is, but tell someone your an ecologist and people tend to have no idea.
Thanks Sam! It is interesting that ecology seems to be so misunderstood – even some ecologists argue about what it is! 🙂 Maybe it’s something to do with the way we label things in the media and through education systems…it would be interesting to see how long the effects of all these ‘labels’ last in society.