The ultimate task of our time is to reconcile the creative forces with the destructive forces of human civilization before the environment is irreparably degraded.
Universities have taken up the idea of “sustainable development”. It has become an established academic subject, with many courses that carry this title booming internationally. But in most cases, these classes are looking for ways in which our current lifestyles can continue. They do not question or question the foundations of our beliefs and practices. This 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 gained in sophistication over the years. The Enlightenment of the late 18th century began to reveal how everything we do and nature is connected. And this awareness widened in the 19th and 20th centuries, sparking a growing awareness of the need for nature conservation.
We now see that our ecological behavior 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 a seemingly limitless breadth, the subject becomes difficult to fit into any standard university faculty structure.
There have been several masters courses in human ecology set up, especially in Europe, but almost all of them have operated informally, under the guise of their home faculties or departments. One example is the Center for Human Ecology at the University of Edinburgh, started in 1972 as a non-teaching body. This offered evening classes so that all students were free to attend, and they were also open to the public. The speakers were drawn from large academic staff and also included many international visitors.
In 1989, an MSc was launched in cooperation with other faculties, based on an exchange of modules. However, despite developing a thriving community and producing – in the face of skepticism – highly successful graduates, the center was never officially recognized or staffed, and it was closed when I retired in as director in 1996.
Thus, human ecology remains a marginal subject, on the fringes of the interests of society and of little importance in political thought.
This is all the more true as rethinking the basic assumptions of human civilization quickly becomes subversive of cherished standards. For example, a major problem is the nature of money. From its invention to replace barter, money gave birth to an accounting system that does not fully value natural assets. We end up with the absurd situation that in order to “solve” global warming, we have to put an arbitrary price on carbon emissions.
Additionally, while poverty, however defined, is as old as humanity, our modern financial system has resulted in the greatest disparities in wealth ever seen in history. It is clear that new economic systems are needed, but abolishing them would be embarrassing to say the least.
There are also academic reservations about the concept of human ecology. “Ecology” has become a cult word, attracting many enthusiasts with vague hopes of promoting more environmentally friendly lifestyles, but few skills to solve larger systemic problems. On the other hand, many dominant beliefs and habits are also somewhat sectarian, such as the belief that only technical solutions will solve our problems. The key conclusion from the science of human ecology is that all of our beliefs need to be rethought.
The Center for Human Ecology continues to operate as an independent, predominantly volunteer group. This limits its staff and activities to the local community and visitors. Freedom of thought has been gained, but the benefits of a great university have been lost.
As we approach COP 26 and the planet nears an environmental tipping point, the time has come for universities to re-embrace human ecology. Such reflection and such teaching must combine the broad views of the eighteenth century with the rigor of the separate disciplines of the twentieth century. Universities excel in the latter area, but struggle to embrace the former. Yet they must.
It is important that our most intelligent of all species gather intelligence on its own to match its activities with how nature works. Questioning and rethinking how and where we live will determine whether we will continue to live. If universities really want to make an impact, what better way could there be?
Ulrich Loening is the former director of the Center for Human Ecology at the University of Edinburgh.