The world needs human ecology

Questioning and rethinking how and where we live will determine whether we go on living at all, says Ulrich Loening

October 10, 2021
Hand holding a glass globe with a reflection of a sunset
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The ultimate task of our times is to reconcile the creative with the destructive forces of human civilisation before the environment is degraded beyond repair.

Universities have taken up the idea of “sustainable development”. It has become an established academic subject, with many courses that bear that title thriving internationally. But in most cases, these courses seek ways by which our present ways of life can continue. They do not challenge or question the bases of our beliefs and practices. That task is the domain of human ecology.

Human ecology brings together the many aspects of how we interact with each other and with our environment. It has grown in sophistication over the years. The late 18th-century Enlightenment began to reveal how everything that both we and nature do is connected. And this awareness expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries, prompting a growing realisation of the need for conservation of nature.

Now we see that our ecological behaviour depends as much on our culture, attitudes and habits as on our physical needs. Therefore, human ecology necessarily includes the arts and humanities, as well as the sciences. However, with such an apparently limitless breadth of scope, the subject becomes difficult to fit into any standard university faculty structure.

There have been several human ecology MSc courses established, particularly in Europe, but almost all of these have operated unofficially, under the cover of their parent faculties or departments. An example is the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology, launched in 1972 as a non-faculty body. This offered evening lectures so that all students would be free to attend them, and they were also open to the public. Lecturers were drawn from the large university staff and also included many international visitors.

In 1989, an MSc was launched in cooperation with other faculties, on a module exchange basis. However, despite the development of a thriving community and the production – in the face of scepticism – of highly successful graduates, the centre was never formally recognised or staffed, and it was closed when I retired as director in 1996.

Hence, human ecology remains a fringe topic, on the margins of society’s interests and of little consequence in political thinking.

That is true all the more so because rethinking the basic assumptions of human civilisation quickly becomes subversive of cherished norms. For instance, a major issue is the nature of money. From its invention to replace bartering, money has given rise to an accounting system that fails to fully value natural assets. We are left with the absurd situation that to “solve” global warming, we have to put an arbitrary price on carbon emissions.

In addition, while poverty, however defined, is as old as humanity, our modern financial system has resulted in the greatest wealth disparities ever seen in history. Clearly, new economic systems are called for, but abolishing them would be inconvenient, to say the least.

There are academic reservations about the concept of human ecology, too. “Ecology” has become something of a cult word, attracting many enthusiasts with vague hopes of promoting more eco-friendly lifestyles but little competence to address the bigger, systemic issues. On the other hand, many mainstream habits and beliefs are also somewhat cultish, such as the conviction that technical solutions alone will answer our problems. The key conclusion from the science of human ecology is that all our convictions need to be rethought.

The Centre for Human Ecology lives on as an independent and mostly voluntary group. This limits its staffing and activities to the local community and visitors. Freedom of thought has been gained, but the advantages of a large university have been lost.

As we approach the COP 26 conference and as the planet approaches an environmental tipping point, now is the time for universities to re-embrace human ecology. Such thinking and teaching must combine the broad visions of the 18th century with the rigour of the separated disciplines of the 20th century. Universities excel at the latter, but find it difficult to embrace the former. Yet they must.

It matters that our most intelligent of all species itself musters the intelligence to match its activities with the workings of nature. Questioning and rethinking how and where we live will determine whether we go on living at all. If universities are serious about making an impact, what greater way could there be?

Ulrich Loening is the former director of the Centre for Human Ecology at the University of Edinburgh.

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