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What Is Ecology?

September 29th, 2009

ecology-logo-symbol.jpgEcology is a word we hear a lot today. Sometimes it is used to mean ‘environmentally friendly’, sometimes to refer to a holistic philosophy. We often hear the term ‘ecological crisis’, to describe the ripple of effects accompanying damage to one part of our planet and its natural functioning. Ecology can of course refer to all these things, but is a more complicated concept.

The subjects of ecological study

Ecology is a multi-disciplinary science and ecologists study many diverse phenomena. At the heart of ecology is the principle that organisms and their environments cannot be studied in isolation. That means that any aspect of the environment can be the subject of ecological research, from the effects of sunlight to the chemistry of soil, to animal — including human — behaviour.

Ecology includes all aspects of biology, the study of life on earth. That could be research into genetics or animal geography. It can deal with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or how a particular species functions in a particular ecosystem. Ecologists explore communities of organisms and individual species of animals. The scope is wide and deep. It can even refer to human culture. For example, political ecology considers the ways in which human activities — our political and economic systems — impact on the ecosystems that we inhabit.

The ecosystem and its inhabitants

A key idea in ecology is that of the ecosystem. An ecosystem consists of all the organisms and creatures in a biotope, or particular environment type, that in turn is made up of biotic and abiotic (non-living) components. Related to the ecosystem is the notion of the biome, but this unit is defined by the makeup of its vegetation, such as tundra, desert, or savanna.

In every ecosystem there is a food chain, though it is more of a circle than a chain. At the bottom of the chain are the plants that (for the most part) are capable of photosynthesis. These are normally called autotrophs, because they generate their own energy from sunlight and by uptake of nutrients from soils. Creatures that feed on autotrophs are known as consumers. Primary consumers are the herbivores that eat plants. Secondary consumers eat the animals that eat the plants. The final link is the decomposers. These are the organisms such as bacteria that process the organic matter produced by other life forms in the food chain. As a result of their activities, nutrients return to the soil for plants to take up, and the cycle continues.

In this sense, ecology studies flows of energy throughout systems. Everything, including ourselves, belongs to one or more systems. Humans have a unique capacity to intervene in those systems and alter their functioning.

Ecological balance

Especially for those who embrace philosophical ideas about a holistic universe, the notion of ecological balance is an important one. But not all ecologists view the situation in such holistic terms. If we bring in the idea of natural evolution, the idea of ecological balance becomes more complicated. It is true that an ecosystem (or other unit) can maintain a balanced state, sometimes for very long time spans, and that there are sometimes ‘self-correcting’ mechanisms.

In this sense, ecosystems may be resilient. They may adapt to a toxin, or climate change, or the arrival of a new species. But we also know that in the past, events have occurred that have caused irreversible damage to ecosystems. We know too that ecosystems are constantly changing. Some ecologists therefore dispute the idea that there is some ‘normal’ ecological equilibrium to which ecosystems and environments naturally return.

Ecological awareness

In the past, people had little or no concept of ecological wholes, evolutionary rhythms or the ripple effects that human activity can have on the natural world. Not only is awareness of ecological principles vital in a world threatened by ecological catastrophe resulting from global warning (sic), but such principles can be the basis for our behaviour. Ecology demands more harmonious relations between people and nature, and even between nations, who are sometimes able to bury their differences in the cause of a larger and greater good.

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