Human Ecology – Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development

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Environmental success stories from around the world with their lessons on how to turn from decline to restoration and sustainability.

Author: Gerald G. Marten
Publisher: Earthscan Publications
Publication Date: November 2001, 256 pp.
Paperback ISBN: 1853837148
Hardback SBN: 185383713X

Information for purchasing this book:
United States/Canada – Stylus Publishing
Elsewhere – Earthscan Publications
Japanese version – Amazon Japan

Back to Human Ecology – Table of Contents


adaptive development – Social system evolution by a process of problem solving that includes broad community participation with monitoring to assess the effectiveness of human actions and corrective measures to bring the actions in line with community goals.

agricultural ecosystem – See ECOSYSTEM.

Agricultural Revolution – The beginning of agriculture about 10,000 – 12,000 years ago. Domestication and care of plants and animals as sources of food and other materials for human use.

agroforestry – Agricultural ecosystems that include trees.

animism – Belief that plants, animals and some non-living parts of nature have spirits or souls.

annual – Plant that lives only one year or season

autonomous – Free of outside control.

biological community – All the living organisms (plants, animals, microorganisms) in an ecosystem.

biological control – The control of pest organisms by altering their environment or introducing natural enemies such as predators or pathogens.

biological production (also called ‘primary production’) – Total plant growth (due to photosynthesis) in an ecosystem. The quantity of plant growth determines the food supply for all other living organisms in an ecosystem.

biome – A large-scale ecosystem associated with a particular climatic region.

biophilia – An inborn emotional need of humans to have plants and animals as a part of their lives in one way or another.

brackish water – A mixture of fresh water and salt water.

canopy – The top layer of branches and leaves in a forest.

carrying capacity – The maximum population number of a particular plant or animal species that an ecosystem can support on a long-term basis.

chaparral – A biological community composed of shrubby plants adapted to dry summers and moist winters. Common in coastal Southern California.

clear-cutting – Cutting all of the trees in a forest at the same time. The opposite of SELECTIVE LOGGING.

climax community – The final stage of ecological succession.

coadaptation – Adjustment of different parts of an ecosystem to one another.

coevolution – Associated changes in two species of living organisms that have a close ecological relationship (eg, predator/prey), acting as agents of natural selection for one another.

commons – A tract of land or other resource used jointly by the members of a community.

community assembly – Self-organization of biological communities by selective addition of new species of plants or animals that arrive to an ecosystem.

complex adaptive systems – Systems with feedback loops that enable them to adjust to fluctuations in their environment in ways that promote their survival.

consumer – Animal or other living organism that feeds on plants, animals or microorganisms.

consumption – The movement of organic matter (ie, carbon chains) through a food web as animals and microorganisms eat (or otherwise ingest) plants, animals or microorganisms to obtain the material and energy that they need to sustain their lives.

controlled burning – Small fires set deliberately to reduce combustible material in a forest.

counterintuitive – Opposite or contrary to expectations. The outcomes of human actions in complex adaptive systems such as ecosystems and social systems are often counterintuitive because complex chains of effects generate ultimate consequences that are different from immediate impacts.

decomposer – A microorganism that feeds on dead plants, animals or microorganisms.

decomposition – Consumption of dead plants, animals or microorganisms by microorganisms.

denial (cognitive dissonance) – Refusal to believe information that conflicts with an existing belief system. Denial is a defence mechanism for reducing anxiety due to a conflict between reality and existing beliefs.

desertification – Transformation of other kinds of ecosystems (eg, grassland) to desert. Typically associated with loss of topsoil and consequent reduction of plant life in semi-arid regions.

diminishing returns – A benefit that beyond a certain point fails to increase in proportion to additional investments.

dispersal – The spreading of plants, animals or microorganisms from one place to another by their own movement or when carried by wind, water, animals or machines.

division of labour – Diversification of tasks or occupational roles in a society in order to improve working efficiency.

drift net – Large-mesh monofilament nylon gillnet, typically miles long, used for ocean fishing. Fish are caught when they become entangled while trying to swim through the net.

ecological competition – Use of the same resource by two different species of plant, animal or microorganism.

ecological niche – The role of a particular species in the ecosystem. Ecological niche is defined in terms of the physical conditions and resources necessary for the species’ survival and the species’ position in the ecosystem’s foodweb.

ecological succession – A systematic progression of biological communities through time, each biological community replacing another due to natural ecological processes. See also HUMAN-INDUCED SUCCESSION.

ecology – The science of relationships and interactions between living organisms and their environment.

economy of scale – Reduction in unit costs as a consequence of increase in the scale of production.

ecosystem – A system formed by the interaction of a biological community with its chemical and physical environment. An ecosystem includes everything at a particular location: plants, animals, microorganisms, air, water, soil and human-built structures. Natural ecosystems are formed entirely by natural processes. Agricultural ecosystems are created by people to provide food or other materials. Urban ecosystems are dominated by human-built structures.

ecosystem inputs – Materials, energy or information that move into an ecosystem. Human inputs are human activities to organize or structure ecosystems.

ecosystem – outputs Materials, energy or information that moves out of an ecosystem to another ecosystem or the human social system.

ecosystem services – Materials, energy or information that people obtain from ecosystems for survival (eg, food, fibres, construction materials and water) or as amenities and experiences to enrich their lives.

ecosystem state – Particular physical conditions, chemical concentrations, and numbers of each kind of plant, animal and microorganism that characterize an ecosystem at a particular place and time.

emergent property – A characteristic of a system as a whole that comes into existence from the organization of the system’s parts rather than from characteristics of any of the parts themselves.

endangered species – A species of plant or animal in danger of extinction, typically as a consequence of human activities.

energy flow – Movement of energy in the carbon chains of organic matter that passes through a food web as one organism consumes another.

environmental refugees – People who move from a region because the ecosystem is no longer able to provide for their basic needs.

estuary – The wide lower course of a river where its currents meet ocean tides. Much of the water in an estuary is a tidal mixture of fresh water and salt water.

eutrophication – Pollution of water with minerals that stimulate plant growth.

exponential population growth – Increase in population characterized by an increasingly larger population growth rate as the number of individuals in the population increases.

extended economic zone – A marine area for which a nation claims sovereignty over all resources for a distance of 320 kilometres from its shores.

fallow – Land that is left unused, without ploughing, planting or raising crops.

fisheries succession – A change in the biological community of a fisheries ecosystem in which fish species that are intensely harvested disappear and other fish species (or other kinds of animals) take their place.

food chain – A series of living organisms connected by one eating another. See also FOOD WEB.

food chain efficiency – The percentage of carbon-chain energy at one step of a food chain that is available for consumption by the next step of the food chain.

food web – A set of interconnected FOOD CHAINS which includes all the organisms in an ecosystem’s biological community.

Green Revolution – Increase in agricultural production through the introduction of high-yield crop varieties and application of modern agricultural techniques.

habitat – The type of ecosystem in which a particular kind of plant, animal or microorganism normally lives.

hierarchical organization – Organization of a system in such a way that each element of the system contains other elements within it. Biological systems have a hierarchy that extends from atoms and molecules to cells, tissues, organs, individuals, populations and biological communities. Landscape mosaics have a nested hierarchy of ecosystems extending from less than a square metre to the entire planet Earth.

high-yield varieties – Genetically improved crops produced by modern breeding methods to have a high level of production under ideal environmental conditions.

homeostasis – Negative feedback that maintains a living organism’s body function within limits essential for the body to continue functioning properly despite external stimuli that have a tendency to disrupt the function.

human ecology – The science of relationships and interactions between people and their environment.

human-induced succession – A change in an ecosystem’s biological community as a consequence of human activities. See also ECOLOGICAL SUCCESSION.

Industrial Revolution – Changes in economic and social organization that began about 300 years ago in England with replacement of hand tools by power-driven machines.

land subsidence – Sinking of the land due to processes such as organic matter decomposition and sediment compaction resulting from the weight of overlying sediments.

landscape mosaic – A repetitive patchwork of different kinds of ecosystems across a land area. See also HIERARCHICAL ORGANIZATION.

larvicide – A chemical or other agent for killing insect larvae.

leaf litter – A layer of dead plant material on the soil surface.

legume – Plants such as peas and beans with pods that split along both sides. Legumes commonly have root nodules with symbiotic bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form that plants can use.

marsh – A low-lying area, saturated with water, all or part of which is typically covered with moisture-tolerant grasses.

material cycling (also called ‘nutrient cycling’ or ‘mineral cycling’) – Circulation of chemical elements through the food web, air, soil and water in an ecosystem.

metropolitan region – A large city and its surrounding suburbs.

Minamata disease – A severe form of mercury poisoning characterized by neurological degeneration. Called Minamata because of mercury poisoning from contaminated fish in Minamata Bay, Japan.

mineral cycling – See MATERIAL CYCLING.

mineral nutrients – Inorganic substances (eg, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, cobalt, copper, boron, manganese and zinc) that plants need for their growth.

monoculture – An agricultural ecosystem with only one kind of crop.

mycorrhizae – Fungi in symbiotic association with plant roots, facilitating phosphorous uptake by the roots.

natural capital – All the natural resources on which a civilization depends to create economic prosperity. Natural capital includes water, minerals, air, soil, plants, animals and microorganisms in natural, agricultural and urban ecosystems.

natural ecosystem – See ECOSYSTEM.

negative feedback – A chain of effects through an ecosystem or social system that tends to keep particular parts of the system within certain limits.

nitrogen-fixing bacteria – Bacteria responsible for nitrogen fixation – the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a form (eg, ammonia) that plants can use.

non-renewable natural resources – Non-living resources such as petroleum, gas, coal and minerals.

nutrient cycling – See MATERIAL CYCLING.

nutrient pump – An ecological process in which trees take up mineral nutrients from soil too deep for crop roots to reach. The mineral nutrients pass into the leaves of trees, eventually falling onto the soil where they are accessible to crops.

organic farming – Farming style that uses fertilizers of plant or animal origin and natural pest control methods instead of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or growth stimulants.

overexploitation – Use of an ecosystem service in excess of what the ecosystem can sustain on a long-term basis.

overfishing – The OVEREXPLOITATION of a fishery by harvesting more fish than the fishery can yield on a sustainable basis.

overgrazing – The OVEREXPLOITATION of pasture or rangeland resources by grazing more livestock than the grasses can sustain.

overshoot – To pass beyond. In human ecology overshoot refers to (a) the increase of an animal or plant population beyond the carrying capacity of its environment or (b) the increase of industrial or other demands on an ecosystem beyond the ecosystem’s capacity to provide services satisfying the demands.

parasite – An animal that obtains its nutrition by living in close association with another kind of animal (the host) without killing it immediately. The host animal may be injured (and in some cases eventually killed) by the relationship.

pathogen – A microorganism that causes disease in another kind of organism. This normally happens when a pathogen lives in close association with a host organism to procure the habitat and nutrition it requires for survival.

perception – The way that people ‘see’ and interpret information. Perceptions are important for human ecology because they shape the way that information is used to agree on human actions.

perennial – Crop or other plant that is present throughout the year because it lives for at least several years.

phytoplankton – Microscopic plants that drift in the water of an aquatic ecosystem.

polyculture – A mixture of crop species in an agricultural ecosystem.

population – All the plants, animals or microorganisms of the same species in a particular ecosystem.

population pressure – Stress due to scarcity of food or other resources when a population is close to, or greater than, carrying capacity.

population regulation – Control of population number by negative feedback.

positive feedback – A chain of effects through an ecosystem or social system that amplifies change.

precautionary principle – A standard for human/environment interaction that emphasizes prudent action due to limited knowledge of the environment.

predator – An animal that eats other animals.

primary production – See BIOLOGICAL PRODUCTION.

redundancy – Duplication or overlap of function that exceeds what is necessary.

renewable natural resources – Resources that are continually replaced by material cycling and energy flow in an ecosystem. Most renewable resources (eg, forests, fisheries and agricultural products) are living resources, though some non-living resources (eg, water) are also renewable.

resilience – The ability to return to an original form after severe stress or disturbance.

respiration – Oxidation of carbon chains in the body of living organisms to extract energy for metabolic processes.

salinization – Accumulation of toxic concentrations of salts in the soil as a consequence of irrigation. Irrigation water evaporates from the field, leaving dissolved salts to accumulate in the soil.

salt-water intrusion – Tidal movement of ocean water inland because river flow to the ocean is interrupted.

satoyama – A traditional system of village agriculture and forest management in Japan.

selective logging – Cutting only some trees in a forest. Selective logging is a way to manage a forest on a sustainable basis. The opposite of CLEAR-CUTTING.

shifting cultivation – See SWIDDEN.

slash-and-burn agriculture – See SWIDDEN.

social institutions – An established pattern of behaviour or relationships accepted as a fundamental part of a culture.

social organization – The structure of social relations within a group, including relations among different subgroups and institutions.

social system – Everything about human society, including its organization and structure, knowledge and technology, language, culture, perceptions and values.

soil erosion – Loss of soil that is worn or carried away by wind or rain.

stability – Constancy. Resistance to change.

stability domain – A set of similar system states characterized by natural or social processes that tend to keep the system in those states.

subsistence farming – Farming whose products provide basic family needs with little surplus for marketing.

supply zone – See ZONE OF INFLUENCE.

sustainable development – Doing things in a way that does not reduce the opportunities of future generations to meet their needs. Ecologically sustainable development depends upon human – ecosystem interaction that maintains the functional integrity of ecosystems in a way that allows them to continue providing ecosystem services.

swamp – A forest ecosystem that is saturated with water.

swidden (also called ‘slash-and-burn agriculture’ or ‘shifting cultivation’) – An agricultural system characterized by rotation between crops and natural vegetation. Fields are prepared for cultivation by cutting and burning natural vegetation (eg, forest). The field typically has crops for one to three years, after which it is left to fallow, generating natural vegetation that is eventually burned to prepare the field once again for crops.

symbiosis – Mutually beneficial association between two different species of organisms.

tragedy of the commons – The OVEREXPLOITATION of a natural resource because no one in particular owns the resource, resource use is open to anyone without restriction, and the resource is large enough for the actions of single individuals to have no significant effect on the supply of the resource.

trash fish – Fish that have little commercial value.

unsustainable – Not able to be continued for a long period. Ecologically unsustainable refers to human – ecosystem interaction that damages an ecosystem or depletes a resource in a way that diminishes the supply of the resource or the capacity of the ecosystem to provide a service.

urban ecosystem – See ECOSYSTEM.

values – Emotionally respected ideals, customs and institutions of a society.

vector – An animal that transmits bacterial, viral, fungal or other disease.

watershed – A region or area that drains to a stream, river, lake or ocean. Watersheds are the main source of water for cities and irrigated agriculture.

wetland – A lowland area, such as a marsh or swamp, that is saturated with moisture.

worldview – A person’s comprehensive conception or image of the surrounding world and his relation to it. Worldviews shared generally by everyone in a society constitute the society’s worldview.

zone of influence – The area surrounding a city and affected by the city’s authority or commerce.

zooplankton – Small animals that live in the water of an aquatic ecosystem.


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