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 School of Geography and the Environment

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What is Human Ecology

Human ecology is the study of relationships between humans and nature, all intimately connected in a web of interactions. In the Human Ecology Programme, we see humans as part of ecosystems - not as actors having an effect on the environment 'out there', but each one of us as part of the environment of everyone else, and as part of the environment of every other species.

'Ecology' in principle covers all of these relationships, but so often ecology studies ecosystems without humans in them. We don't see ourselves as an unnatural component that should somehow be excluded, to avoid contaminating the study of 'natural ecosystems' - but we do see ourselves as distinctive, partly because we are the biggest influence on ecosystem change today, partly because we are in many ways different from all the other species.

So if ecology tends to leave us out, what might the study of human ecology include, apart from one extra species? Humans are conscious beings that bring meaning and value to the natural world, and have goals which they express through their relationship to that natural world. The behaviour of each individual person is influenced not just by his or her knowledge, but by his or her values, beliefs and goals. As different communities, cultures and societies develop, they build up their distinctive sets of values and goals in relation to nature, so that collaborations and conflicts among those human individuals and groups also contribute to the web of interactions that impact on our biosphere. Human ecology explores not only the influence of humans on their environment but also the influence of the environment on human behaviour, and their adaptive strategies as they come to understand those influences better.

How do these cultural, social and political interactions affect nature, informally or formally? How can 'environmental management', 'biodiversity conservation' or any other well-meaning project to save our planet, take on board the ideas and understanding of human ecology - the importance of human values and the diversity of those values? These are some of the questions that we explore through our wide range of projects.

Just as the 'environment' isn't something 'out there', separate from us, neither can we distance ourselves from those values, strategies and politics. Each of us contributes to the human ecological web, not as biological automatons, but as beings full of longings and anxieties. What are these values and emotions, and where do they come from? How do they affect the global environment and how can we know? These are some additional questions we are beginning to explore, that help us to link a social and political understanding of human ecology, with the perspectives that come from psychology, ethics and theology.

For us, human ecology is a methodology as much as an area of research. It is a way of thinking about the world, and a context in which we define our questions and ways to answer those questions, before we set out to find the answers. That means that not only is human ecology interdisciplinary (trying to integrate lessons from biology, development studies, political ecology, psychology, anthropology among others), it is also participatory, experiential and reflexive. We are part of the ecosystem we are studying: it changes when we study it, and so do we. These changes help us and our research partners to gain insights into our own values, and perhaps to change them as a result. They can help different stakeholders to understand each other, respect each other's knowledge and plan more synergistically, in ways that bring benefits to all, including the non-human world.