Toward a New Ecology

Since the first Earth Day in April 1970 and the rise of the modern environmental movement, social scientists have rediscovered the environment while biologists have probed social interactions. Meanwhile, several ecologists have addressed human communities, and planners and architects have attempted to provide syntheses to shape human communities. In addition to the stimulus from popular culture, as expressed in wide-ranging areas from politics to music, advances in theory through computing technologies, urban morphology (the study of how cities are structured physically), landscape studies, and ideas about complexity have contributed to this renewed interest in the environment by social scientists. From within the biological sciences, research has altered conventional views about organism-environment interactions. Increasingly, ecologists consider human influences on their environments.

This new human ecology emphasizes complexity over reductionism, focuses on changes over stable states, and expands ecological concepts beyond the study of plants and animals to include people. This view differs from the environmental determinism of the early twentieth century. The new ecology addresses the complexity of human interactions rather than how a specific physical environment shapes human anatomic variations. Because people form part of its scope, new ecology may be viewed as human ecology, or the evolution of traditional ecology to reconsider human systems.

New ecology represents a significant reorientation that has occurred in the field of biological ecology. For example, new ecology embraces disequilibria, instability, and even chaotic fluctuations in natural and human-impacted biophysical environments. Two primary changes have occurred in new ecology, differentiating it from its traditional progenitor. The first shift is from an equilibrium perspective, where local populations and ecosystems are viewed as in balance with local resources and conditions, to a disequilibrium perspective where history matters and populations and ecosystems are continually being influenced by disturbances. The second change is from considering populations and ecosystems as relatively closed or autonomous systems, independent of their surroundings, to viewing both populations and ecosystems as open that are strongly influenced by the input and output, or flux, of material and individuals across system borders.

Traditional ecology relied on the assumptions that nature could achieve balance and that ecosystems functioned as closed systems. Natural plant communities evolved through several stages, climaxing in a steady state, according to traditional theory. Since ecologists studied plants and animals in forests, deserts, and other environments relatively removed from human settlements, their interactions could be isolated for study within closed systems.

New ecology challenges both assumptions. Living systems are viewed as changing and complex rather than stable and balanced. In addition, the boundaries between communities blur. Open systems possess fluid, overlapping boundaries across several spatial scales from the local to the global.

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