polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Inclusive Ecology

by Peter Sigrist

Town of Shibam in Yemen. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the study of relations between organisms and their environments, ecology seems to address nearly everything. It is often considered a subset of biology, but since the abiotic plays such an important role, one could also make the opposite case. If ecology is a field of limitless scope, there is certainly a need for subfields. But what makes ecology unique? Should it actually be more inclusive? And why are these questions important for cities?

With roots in the notion of home, ecology centers on living things in their domestic context. Levels of domesticity are relative, and may refer to place of birth or residence at different scales. The study of habitation is ecology's defining feature. Although it is commonly, and not incorrectly, used in place of the word "ecosystem," this seems like an unnecessary blurring of its identity as a field of knowledge that sheds light on living conditions. Different environments can make us feel more or less at home, and this is where I see the importance of urban ecology. Ideally, it can help us assure that cities are comfortable extensions of the home.

Ecology "proper" is currently limited in addressing human habitation. It doesn't usually incorporate the theory or methods of fields like economics, anthropology, political science, sociology and history. Many subfields have emerged in answer to the need for more detailed study of human-environment interaction, including human ecology, cultural ecology, political ecology, environmental sociology, historical ecology, ecological anthropology, ecological economics and ecological urbanism. Yet most are not closely integrated with mainstream ecology, which focuses primarily on nonhuman nature. Many ecologists portray human environmental impact as a kind of alien intervention into the natural world, and don't attempt to understand the political, social, economic and cultural processes through which it takes place. Researching these processes can help us more effectively reduce the harmful aspects of human activity.

Mainstream ecology will remain limited until it addresses the full complexity of human habitation. Instead of neglecting human-oriented disciplines, it should integrate their applicable theories and methods. Examining the ways in which humans shape environments over time, combined with ecology's advantages in understanding the nonhuman world, can help us foster more hospitable living conditions on earth.

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