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Human Ecology

Human ecology is the study of the reciprocal inter-actions of humans with their environment. Key aspects of human ecology are demographics, resource use, environmental influences on health and society, and environmental impacts of human activities. All of these subjects are intimately linked, because increasing populations of humans require more resources, the exploitation and use of which cause increasing environmental damages. However, certain patterns of use and abuse of resources and environmental quality are clearly more destructive than others. An important goal of human ecology is to discover the causes of pathological interactions between humans and the environment that sustains them and all other species. Once this destructive syndrome is clearly understood, it will be possible to design better pathways towards the development of sustainable human societies.

Human demographics is the study of changes in human populations, and the factors that cause those changes to occur. The central focus of this important topic is the remarkable increase that has occurred in the size of the human population during the past several millennia, but especially during the past several centuries. The population of humans exceeded six billion in 1999; this is probably more individuals than any other species of large animal has ever been able to maintain. The growth of the human population has been made possible by technological and cultural innovations that have allowed a more efficient exploitation of environmental resources, along with advances in medicine and sanitation that have reduced death rates associated with epidemic diseases.

Humans and their societies have an absolute dependence on environmental resources to provide energy, food, and materials. Some resources, such as metals and fossil fuels, can only be mined because they are present in a finite supply that is diminished as they are used. Other resources, such as forests, hunted animals, agricultural soil capability, and clean air and water, are potentially renewable, and if sensibly used they could support sustainable economies and societies over the longer term. However, humans commonly overexploit potentially renewable natural resources, that is, they are mined as if they were nonrenewable resources. This common syndrome of resource degradation is one of the most important aspects of the environmental crisis, and it is a formidable obstacle to the achievement of a sustainable human economy.

An important activity of human ecologists is to discover the reasons for this habitual overexploitation, so that potentially renewable resources could be utilized in more sensible ways. Mostly, it appears that resource degradation is caused by the desires of individuals, corporations, and societies to gain shorter-term profits and wealth, even if this occurs at the expense of longer-term, sometimes irreversible damage caused to resources and environmental quality. The problem is complicated by the nature of ownership of certain resources, in particular common-property resources from which self-interested individuals or companies can reap short-term profit through overexploitation, while the costs of the resulting damage to the resource and environmental quality are borne by society at large.

Human ecologists are also concerned with other environmental effects of human activities, such as pollution, extinction of species, losses of natural ecosystems, and other important problems. These damages are critical because they indirectly affect the availability of resources to humans, while degrading the quality of life in various other ways. Just as important is the damage caused to other species and ecological values, which have intrinsic (or existence) value regardless of any perceived value that they may have to humans.

Human ecologists are attempting to understand the various linkages between humans and the ecosystems that sustain them. This is being done in order to understand the causes of damage caused by human activities to the environment and resources, and to find ways to mitigate or prevent this degradation before the scale and intensity of the environmental crisis becomes truly catastrophic.



Bates, D.G. Human Adaptive Strategies: Ecology, Culture, and Politics. Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

Bill Freedman

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Heterodyne to Hydrazoic acid