What is ecology? The word ecology was originally coined by the German zoologist Ernst Haekel in the 1860s. It is derived from the Greek for “oikos” which is translated as “house”. So, literally, ecology is the scientific study of our house. In practice, ecology is defined as the scientific study of the interaction of organisms with each other and with their abiotic and biotic environment. There are many variations of this above definition, but most of them convey a very similar message. Additionally, the field of ecology encompasses many sub-disciplines and sub-fields, most of which fit (albeit not always neatly) under the umbrella of this definition. Competition, predation, parasitism, and density-dependent population regulatory mechanisms all fit snugly within the scope of ecology and the people who study such processes are ecologists. I am taking the time to define exactly what ecology is because lately there has been an increasing trend to abuse the word. Ecology has unfortunately become synonymous with words such as “environment”, “ecosystem” and even “environmental management”. A common sentence often uttered from celebrities and their ilk runs along the lines of “I want to help protect the ecology”. That’s great! They want to help protect an important branch of science – maybe we can finally get paid an appropriate salary. Unfortunately that isn’t what they really mean. What they mean to say is that they would like to support the protection of a particular ecosystem or biome (e.g., tropical rain forests).
The problem with the evolution of the word ecology taking the place of other completely adequate words is two-fold. The first drawback is that this misuse leads to the further confusion of the public. I would wager that if the average American were asked to define the word “ecology” they would not include any integral words such as science, study, interaction, organism, distribution, abundance etc. in their definition. Maybe someone, such as the ESA, should in fact conduct such a poll and send out press releases to major media markets to try and bring attention to this problem. Not only would such media attention be good for ameliorating increases in this trend it would also undoubtedly be good for increasing the awareness of ecology in general.
The second problem with the misuse of the word ecology is the negative connotations that go along with the alternate meanings. The subject of the “environment” is one that is often cautiously circumnavigated at the Thanksgiving Day table – mainly because the environment, or rather the steps that should be taken to preserve the environment, is an extremely contentious topic (perhaps an entirely new post could be written on the misuse of the word environment). Ecology, however, is a science and hence objective (or as objective as science can be). Policy makers can make decisions based upon ecology, however, ecology itself does not dictate whether clear-cutting an old growth forest is good or evil. There are no values associated with ecology. I even know of a certain professor who has of late refused to introduce himself as an ecologist to avoid stereotypes and biases that immediately enter people’s minds after hearing such a title.
So join me in the fight to rectify this situation. You may be saying to yourself that this is just a matter of semantics. But you, as an educated and informed reader, have the obligation to enlighten others. Heck, despite the obvious irony, even our current president recognizes that, “Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words.” He couldn’t have said it better.