The most used definition of ecological engineering employs the following formulation: ecological engineering is defined as the design of sustainable natural and artificial ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both. It requires, on the one hand, that we understand nature and ensure a sustainable development of natural resources and ecosystems and, on the other hand, that we make use (but not abuse) of natural resources to the benefit of the human society. Thus, our inevitable interactions with nature must be made under the comprehensive consideration of the sustainability and balance of nature.
H. T. Odum was among the first to define ecological engineering as the ''environmental manipulation by man using small amounts of supplementary energy to control systems in which the main energy drives are coming from natural sources.'' Odum further developed the concept of ecological engineering as follows: ecological engineering, the engineering of new ecosystems designs, is a field that uses systems that are mainly self-organizing.
Straskraba has defined ecological engineering (or eco-technology, as he called it) more broadly, as being the use of technological means for ecosystem management, based on a deep ecological understanding, in order to minimize the costs of measures and their harm to the environment. For the purposes of this report, ecological engineering and ecotechnology may be considered synonymous.
Ecological engineering is engineering, in the sense that it involves the design of man-made or natural ecosystems or parts of ecosystems. Like all engineering disciplines, it is based on basic science, in this case ecology and systems ecology. The biological species are the components applied in ecological engineering. Thus, ecological engineering represents therefore a clear application of ecosystem theory.
Ecotechnic is another often applied word but one that also encompasses the development of all types of 'soft' technology applied in society, in addition to ecotechnology or ecological engineering. These types of technology are often based on ecological principles (e.g., all types of cleaner technology), particularly if they are applied to solve an environmental problem. The use of ecological principles in the development of technology is denoted as industrial ecology.
Recently, UNEP and UNESCO have introduced two other terms relevant to this discussion:
1. Phytoremediation. The use of plants in ecological engineering (e.g., using wetlands to treat wastewater pollutants, or for removing toxic substance from contaminated soil).
2. Ecohydrology. The use of a combination of ecological and hydrological principles to obtain ecologically sound environmental management.
Both phytoremidiation and ecohydrology are subdisciplines within the discipline ecological engineering or ecotechnology, which is an often used synonym for ecological engineering.
Further, ecological engineering should not be confused with bioengineering or biotechnology. Biotechnology involves the manipulation of the genetic structure of cells to produce new organisms capable of performing certain functions. Ecotechnology does not involve manipulation at the genetic level, but rather at several steps higher in the ecological hierarchy. The manipulation takes place on an assemblage of species and/or their abiotic environment, as a self-designing system that can adapt to changes brought about by outside forces, whether controlled by humans or by natural forcing functions.
Ecological engineering is also not the same thing as environmental engineering, the latter is involved in cleaning processes to prevent pollution problems. It involves the use of settling tanks, filters, scrubbers, and man-made components that have nothing to do with the biological and ecological components applied in ecological engineering, even though the use of environmental engineering is directed to reducing man-made forcing functions on ecosystems. As mentioned above, the term ecotechnic may be considered to include a part of environmental technology, namely the part based on ecological principles such as recirculation. The tool boxes of ecological engineering and environmental engineering are completely different; where ecological engineering uses ecosystems, communities, organisms and their immediate abiotic environment, and environmental engineering uses chemical and biotechnological unit processes such as filtration, precipitation, and biological decomposition by aeration.
All applications of technologies are based on quantification. Because ecosystems are very complex systems, the quantification of their reactions to impacts or manipulations is also complex. Fortunately, ecological modeling represents a well-developed tool to survey ecosystems, their reactions, and the linkage of their components. Ecological modeling is able to synthesize our knowledge about an ecosystem, making it possible to quantify, to a certain degree, any changes in ecosystems resulting from the use of both environmental engineering and ecological engineering. Ecological engineering may also be used directly to design constructed ecosystems. Consequently, ecological modeling and ecological engineering are two closely cooperating fields. Research in ecological engineering was originally addressed in the Journal of Ecological Modelling, which was initially named Ecological Modelling — International Journal on Ecological Modelling and Engineering and Systems Ecology to emphasize the close relationship between the three fields of ecological modeling, ecological engineering, and systems ecology. Ecological Engineering was launched as an independent journal in 1992, with the name of Ecological Modelling being changed to Ecological Modelling - An International Journal on Ecological Modelling and Systems Ecology. At the same time, the journal Ecological Engineering has successfully covered the field of ecological engineering, which has grown rapidly during the 1990s due to increasing acknowledgment of the need to use technologies other than environmental technology in efforts to solve pollution problems. This development does not imply that ecological modeling and ecological engineering are moving in different directions. On the contrary, ecological engineering has increasingly been using models to perform designs of constructed ecosystems, or to quantify the results of applying specific ecological engineering methods for comparison to alternative, applicable methods.
In addition, the relationship between ecological engineering and systems ecology is very clear. Ecological principles are used widely in practical application of ecological engineering methods. Mitsch and J0rgensen have provided 19 principles that can be used as a checklist to assess if an ecological engineering project follows ecological principles, that is, to determine if a project is ecologically sound.
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