Brief Early History of Human Ecology

Many overlaps between the social and biological sciences existed at the end of the nineteenth century and during the early twentieth century. Ecological concepts were prominent in both geography and sociology. Human ecology was recognized as a unique field of geography. Geographers went so far as declaring ''geography as the science of human ecology.'' Early twentieth-century geographers sought to make clear the relationships existing between natural environments and the distribution and activities of people. However, this approach unfortunately became linked with environmental determinism which suggested that our surroundings shape everything from skin color to behavior. These concepts led to rather simplistic, and even racist, notions about how environments shaped cultures, and environmental determinism was discredited in the 1920s.

Also during the 1920s, urban sociologists adapted ecological concepts to explain settlement patterns and human interactions in cities. Called the Chicago School, these sociologists adapted observation methods from anthropology to describe urban life and culture. They described Chicago as a series of concentric rings from the central business district to the commuter zone on the periphery. They also used the ecological concept of succession to describe how these zones build up one after another as a city grows. These sociologists suggested how various groups of people succeed others in the concentric zones. This small group of sociologists used ecological concepts more as metaphors than as a tool for scientific analysis. As a result, the connections between the two disciplines were not deep, in spite of promising beginnings. Meanwhile, the advances in geography were overshadowed by the environmental determinism criticisms. As a result, human ecology faded to the margins of geography and became a historical footnote in sociology for several decades.

Increasingly, the social sciences became disconnected from the physical sciences and, by extension, from the material world. The focus of the social sciences shifted from ecological models to the embrace of economic, political, and demographic approaches where the role of natural forces was more subtle. In order to bolster the validity of their science, some researchers emphasized quantitative analysis that favored data about people over the observation of the human condition. Meanwhile, ecologists, especially those in North America, concentrated on the study of natural, nonhuman environments. Some one-third of the land in the United States is in public ownership, enabling wildlife and vegetation research on vast expanses with little human interruption.

There are many ironies in this disconnection. For example, the Greek root for both ecology and economics is the same: oikos. Both disciplines involve the study of the household. Ecology is the study of the environmental house, including all its inhabitants, in which we live and in which we place our human-made structures and domesticated plants and animals. Economics is the study of the household of money. As we can track the flow of money, we can also illuminate other movements in the places where we live. But beyond their common Greek root, economics and ecology diverged with few clear connections persisting.

Beginning in the 1960s, the general public became alarmed by population growth and the consequences of pollution on water, air, and land quality. Biologists and ecologists used human ecology to emphasize how people are subject to the same environmental limitations as other animals. Also during this time, anthropologists used the term to help explain the impact of environment on culture. Ecologically oriented anthropologists adapted concepts like population regulation and energy flow to explain community organization. In general, early use of ecological concepts in human ecology depended on traditional views of nature, such as the tendency of systems to evolve toward a steady state.

This past suggests the ongoing utility of human ecology. By understanding the interactions and interrelationships between people and their environments, human ecology can help to:

• consider and plan for the long-term consequences of human actions;

• avoid disastrous surprises resulting from environmental phenomena such as floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, and tsunamis;

• generate ideas for dealing with environmental challenges and opportunities; and

• create a livable and sustainable relationship with the environment.

However, to realize this utility, it is necessary to understand changes in ecological thinking generally and how human ecology fits within this ever-changing discipline.

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