Human Ecology

Human ecology is the study of the relationship between humans and their natural and built environments. Human values, resource use and lifestyles affect the physical environment. The term first came into use in 1921 in a sociological study. Before then, Albion Small, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, along with George E. Vincent, wrote an 1895 guide to studying people in their everyday workplaces. Their research included the relationship of the material environment to the social world.

Activists and researchers have described human ecology as problematic. They point to the world food shortage, people's assault on their own health and on the health of the ecological system and the stripping of the earth's resources. Many view population growth, a high standard of living and technological errors as world crises.

Ecology activists don't blame modern society for all the earth's ecological problems. They point to problems created with the advent of agriculture and past incidences of overpopulation. They compare the decimation of the Tigris and Euphrates during early civilization to the slashing of the Amazon forest. Many believe that population sizes must be minimized and resource consumption must be limited in order to maintain the earth's life support system.

Many human ecologists view overpopulation as one of the planet's most egregious problems. They believe that more children should not be brought into the world until every human being has abundant food, adequate clothing and shelter, as well as access to education and first-rate medical care.

Furthermore, they call attention to problems of food supply and distribution. Widespread malnutrition and starvation are symptoms of poor human ecology. Attempts to produce more food will only cause the environment to deteriorate further.

The concept of an ecological footprint was developed by William Rees in 1992. The footprint refers to the impact that human society is making on the earth's ecosystems. It measures how much land and water area are used by a population to produce the resources it uses and to absorb its carbon dioxide emissions. Ecologists say that the footprint of human consumption is too high, and the resources humans use cannot be replenished by the world's ecosystems.

Ecological footprint proponents say that humanity has been in ecological overshoot with annual demand on resources since the 1970s. That means the earth takes a year and a half to regenerate the resources used within a year. The threat to the well-being of humans and the planet is great. By measuring the footprints of individuals, groups, businesses or cities, they say, individuals can take action to prevent overstripping of the earth.

The term carbon footprint is shorthand for the amount of carbon that is emitted by an activity or organization. It shows how carbon emissions compare with other elements of human demand, such as pressure on food sources and land that is razed to be developed. Reducing the carbon footprint of humanity is a step toward living within the planet's means. It addresses a variety of wrongs, such as climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, the collapse of fisheries and the extinction of species.

Not every ecologist believes that humans are destroying the earth. Some maintain that the earth has the capacity to supply large populations with basic raw materials for a long period of time. They point to resources not yet accessed, such as stores of minerals in seawater and in the earth's crust. They mention the cheap and abundant nuclear energy that has not been fully utilized.

Their detractors argue that the current world population is too large to be serviced by current technology, even without projecting into future population growth. They also point out severe human errors made in the attempt to use technology to extract resources, such as nuclear plant disasters. They also fear that the poor will be unable to afford the resources drawn through new technologies.

Cheap energy is unlikely to solve the problem of unabated use of resources. Using the technologies would likely further degrade the environment, and the high costs in accessing energies such as solar and wind power would undermine the advances made through their use. Furthermore, cheap energy would not be enough to supply all the human population's needs. Food, shelter, clothing, health care and education are also essential, and they require other raw materials.

Human Ecology: Selected full-text books and articles

Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions By John P. Holdren; Paul R. Ehrlich; Anne H. Ehrlich W. H. Freeman, 1973
Man and Nature: An Anthropological Essay in Human Ecology By Richard A. Watson; Patty Jo Watson Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969
Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment By John P. Holdren; Paul R. Ehrlich; Anne H. Ehrlich W. H. Freeman, 1977
Living with Nature: Environmental Politics as Cultural Discourse By Frank Fischer; Maarten A. Hajer Oxford University Press, 1999
To Live on Earth: Man and His Environment in Perspective By Sterling Brubaker Resources for the Future, 1972
The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History By Carolyn Merchant Columbia University Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "The Rise of Ecology, 1890-1990"
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