Exploring the Origins of a Misunderstood Term
MAY 01, 2001 by DANIEL HAGER
Daniel Hager is a writer in Lansing, Michigan.
Ecology is generally considered to be a branch of biology. It does not belong there. An examination of the subject indicates a better home for it.
Ecology is defined as the study of organisms in relation to their animate and inanimate surroundings. It focuses on the connections and dependencies among organisms.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the term entered the English language in 1873 in a book by Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834-1919), Natural History of Creation, which was a translation of a work he published in Germany in the late 1860s. Haeckel was a German biologist partial to Charles Darwin’s ideas and helped popularize the theory of evolution in Germany.
Absent any modifier, ecology is limited to the world of nature. Biologists invented other words incorporating the “eco” root to describe natural phenomena, such as ecotype, ecophene, ecospecies, and ecosystem. Since the 1960s, ecology has become a vogue word and its root is used loosely as a synonym for the natural world, as in combining terms like “ecoactivist” or “ecodisaster.”
The 1960s also modified and narrowed the English words derived from the Old French for “in” and “circuit”—en viron. The verb “environ” means to form a ring around, to encircle, or to surround. The noun “environment” historically referred to that which environs—that is, surroundings. For a time its most prominent use was in psychology and sociology, where environmentalism was defined as a theory that environment was a primary influence on human development and heredity was of secondary importance. But since the 1960s, environmentalism has connoted a viewpoint on how to regard not surroundings in general but only what is considered “nature.” An environmentalist in contemporary usage is a particularist focused on nature as an entity under duress by the activity of humans.
The position postulates a cleavage between nature and humans, as if people were not a part of the natural world. Human impacts are therefore intrusive and destructive and must be tightly regulated.
However, the divorce of humans from nature is artificial and untenable. Environmentalists implicitly admit as much. An extreme view of some is that humans are inherently polluters and plunderers and, for the sake of all “natural” species, should be obliterated from the earth. That position presupposes that nature is normative. But no other species is capable of normative judgments. Hence nature is incomplete without man to serve the function of normative agent. Man becomes a necessity in nature.
Similarly, value judgments contained in such phrases as “damaging the ecology” or “destroying the ecology” also fuse man as an inextricable part of nature. From a detached scientific standpoint, ecologies in nature are neutral, merely phenomena to be studied. A change in one set of ecological relationships creates simply a different set of ecological relationships. Placing relative values on various ecologies brings the person doing so into a relationship with the relationships. The human becomes part of the ecology.
The term “ecosystem” also presupposes human involvement. The premise of ecology is that everything is ultimately connected to everything else. Thus there can exist only a single ecosystem, the solar system at the least if not the universe. A swamp is connected to precipitation patterns that alter its dimensions and characteristics, and precipitation patterns are connected to ocean currents, whose fluctuations are connected to other natural phenomena, and so on. Thus what is usually referred to as an ecosystem is actually an arbitrarily delimited subset of the one great ecosystem. On a practical level, an ecosystem may be defined as a crude human construct devised in an attempt to model a portion of the natural world. An ecosystem is a product of a human desire to deal with objective reality. As such, the essential element in any ecosystem is the human mind.
The inescapable human presence within ecology is also suggested by the term itself. Although inventors of new words can define them however they wish, Haeckel’s apparent thought process is instructive. For the root, he appropriated the Greek word for house. Ecology literally is the study of the house.
A house implies fabrication or manufacture achieved through rational intelligence. The various types of dwellings formed or built by animals for their protection take terms other than “house” in our vocabulary—den, burrow, or nest, for instance. Houses are for humans and constructed through human aptitudes. The metaphor of house for nature suggests that nature exists for the sake of humans.
The question humans ask is what to do with that house. Thus ecology leads naturally to economics.
The English word “economy” and its derivations trace their origins to the Greek words for house and manage. The initial and now-archaic meaning of economist is one who manages a household. Economy later became applied to institutions beyond the home. Management entails prudence in the use of material resources, including money, so “economical” came to be associated with savings and thrift. Economics expanded from its narrow sense of the science of managing a household to “the science relating to the production and distribution of material wealth,” as The Oxford English Dictionary defines it.
Economics studies how human activities create or impede the creation of wealth. Ecology, as a branch of economics, studies natural relationships, including the urge by many members of the human component in those relationships to manage nature into the creation of wealth.
The urge has not been universal across time and place. Mankind’s history is replete with cosmologies that stifle material progress and create poverty instead of wealth. To improve their situations, humans need the freedom.
Animists are repressed from progress by their fear-driven passivity to nature, an avoidance of tampering with it lest the spirits that inhabit natural objects unleash their fury. A variant of this primitivism is a current environmentalist mantra ascribed, spuriously, to an obscure leader of a mid-1800s band of Puget Sound Indians named Seattle: “This we know: The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.” That statement is a formula for a level of poverty and squalor under which no modern-day environmentalist would care to exist.