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Ecology is the study of environmental systems, or as it is sometimes called, the economy of nature. "Environmental" usually means relating to the natural, versus human-made world; the "systems" means that ecology is, by its very nature, not interested in just the components of nature individually but especially in how the parts interact. Ecology is technically an academic discipline, such as mathematics or physics, although in public or media use, it is often used to connote some sort of normative or evaluative issue as in something is “ecologically bad” or is or is not “good for the ecology”. More properly ecology is used only in the sense that it is an academic discipline, no more evaluative than mathematics or physics. When a normative or evaluative term is needed then it is more proper to use the term “environmental”, i.e., environmental quality or “environmentally degrading”. Most professional ecologists are not terribly unhappy when ecology is used in the normative sense, preferring the wider public awareness of environmental issues today compared to the widespread ignorance of three decades ago. 

The subject matter of ecology is normally divided onto four broad categories: physiological ecology, having to do with the response of single species to environmental conditions such as temperature or light; population ecology, usually focusing on the abundance and distribution of individual species and the factors that cause such distribution; community ecology, having to do with the number of species found at given location and their interactions; and ecosystems ecology, having to do with the structure and function of the entire suite of microbes, plants, and animals, and their abiotic environment, and how the parts interact to generate the whole. This branch of ecology often focuses on the energy and nutrient flows of ecosystems, and when this approach is combined with computer analysis and simulation we often call it systems ecology. Evolutionary ecology, which may operate at any of these levels but most commonly at the physiological or population level, is a rich and dynamic area of ecology focusing on attempting to understand how natural selection developed the structure and function of the organisms and ecosystems at any of these levels.  

Levels of organization of Ecology

Levels of organization of Ecology

Ecology is usually considered from the perspective of the specific geographic environment that is being studied a the moment: tropical rain forest, temperate grassland, arctic tundra, benthic marine, the entire biosphere, and so on. Thus you might study the population ecology of lions in an African savanna, an ecosystems study of a marine benthic environment, global nutrient budgets, and so on. The subject matter of ecology is the entire natural world, including both the living and the non living parts. Biogeography focuses on the observed distribution of plants and animals and the reasons behind it. More recently ecology has included increasingly the human-dominated world of agriculture, grazing lands for domestic animals, cities, and even industrial parks. Industrial ecology is a discipline that has recently been developed, especially in Europe, where the objective is to follow the energy and material use throughout the process of, e.g., making an automobile with the objective of attempting to improve the material and energy efficiency of manufacturing. For any of these levels or approaches there are some scientists that focus on theoretical ecology, which attempts to derive or apply theoretical or sometimes mathematical reasons and generalities for what is observed in nature, and empirical ecology, which is concerned principally with measurement. Applied ecology takes what is found from one or both of these approaches and uses it to protect or manage nature in some way. Related to this discipline is conservation biology. Plant ecology, animal ecology, and microbial ecology have obvious foci.

There are usually four basic reasons given to study and as to why we might want to understand ecology: first, since all of us live to some degree in a natural or at least partly natural ecosystem, then considerable pleasure can be derived by studying the environment around us. Just as one might learn to appreciate art better through an art history course so too might one appreciate more the nature around us with a better understanding of ecology. Second, human economies are in large part based on the exploitation and management of nature. Applied ecology is used every day in forestry, fisheries, range management, agriculture, and so on to provide us with the food and fiber we need. For example, in Argentina in many circles there is no difference between ecology and agriculture, which is essentially the ecology of crops and pastures. Third, human societies can often be understood very clearly from an ecological perspectives as we study, for example, the population dynamics (demography) of our own species, the food and fossil energy flowing through our society. Fourth, humans appear to be changing aspects of the global environment in many ways. Ecology can be very useful to help us understand what these changes are, what the implications might be for various ecosystems, and how we might intervene in either human economies or in nature to try to mitigate or otherwise alter these changes. There are many professional ecologists, who believe that these apparent changes from human activities have the potential to generate enormous harm to both natural ecosystems and human economies. Understanding, predicting and adapting to these issues could be the most important of all possible issue for humans to deal with. In this case ecology and environmentalism can be the same.

Since ecology by its very nature is an integrative discipline, science students preparing themselves professionally in the field are encouraged to take a broad suite of courses, mostly in the natural sciences and including physics, chemistry, and biology of many sorts but certainly including evolution, meteorology, hydrology, geography, and so on. Ecologists interested in human ecology are encouraged to take courses and undertake readings in agronomy, demography, human geography, sociology, economics, and so on. Since ecology is so broad there are many things that an ecologist might wish to do and to train for. Today many ecology courses are taught in biology departments, where the focus is often on population or community ecology and also individual species.

There are a number of classical areas of interest in ecology, and they revolve around questions similar to the following: how much is the photosynthesis of a hectare of land? How many animals of what types might that photosynthesis be able to support as a base for their food resources? How many species might “divide up” the land or food resources available? How do the species present change as the physical conditions change, for example as one ascends a mountain? What is the proportion of food that is passed on from each food or “trophic” level to the next? What are the mechanisms that control the populations, communities and ecosystems in some area? How are human activities impacting these natural systems?

Ecology should be more than just a set of ideas and principles that one might learn in a classroom or book but rather more a way of looking at the world which emphasizes the assessment and understanding of how the pieces fit together, how each influences and is influenced by the other pieces and how the whole operates in ways not really predictable from the pieces. When we are lucky we are able to capture these relations in conceptual, mathematical or, increasingly, computer models that allow us some sense of truly understanding the great complexity of nature, including as it is impacted by human activity. This is the goal of most ecologists.

Hall, Charles (Lead Author); Judith S. Weis (Topic Editor). 2009. "Ecology." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth January 31, 2007; Last revised December 28, 2009; Retrieved March 1, 2010].


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