OOS 3-9
Historical self-designing systems: Previous frontiers in ecological engineering

Monday, August 10, 2015: 4:20 PM
315, Baltimore Convention Center
Robert Gardner, Independent Scholar

A type of applied ecology, ecological engineering uses organisms and ecosystem processes to achieve human goals.  Defined as “the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both,” ecological engineering works through the mechanism of self-designing systems.  As suggested by Howard Odum in the 1960s, the principle behind this mechanism is that ecosystems organize, or design, themselves through the interactions of the organisms and materials that are present.  Ecological engineering became a formal field of ecology in the 1990s with the establishment of its own scientific journals and university degree programs.  How might these ecologists serve as consultants for future construction, inform public policy decisions, and shape social values through this field?  Broad applications include ecological restoration, food production, waste treatment processes, urban construction, and landscape design.  But beyond the specific practical examples, ecological engineering also offers a new worldview or paradigm—the value of the participation of people in ecosystems through functional relationships.  In a way, this can be seen as the restoration of humans to the ecology of their local landscapes.  


Of course people have always been manipulating ecosystems and there are historical examples of the use of organisms and processes as technological systems.  A better understanding of the history of these eco-technological systems and their social contexts can increase support for ecological engineering as an approach to contemporary social and environmental problems.  Examples from the past, such as afforestation projects on the Great Plains, artificial wastewater wetlands, and green roof construction show that manufacturers, land managers, and scientists gain novel knowledge and experience by building these systems and demonstrate that people can be integrated into the environment in functional ways by using organic processes as technology.  A wider public discourse of ecological engineering and its historical antecedents can give ecology a more specific application to contemporary issues and provide a deeper foundation for the ideology of sustainability.  Rather than just trying to reduce the human impact on the environment, we can also increase the integration of ecological processes within the human-built world.  With over a century of experience mapping the ecological interconnections of environments, there is now greater opportunity than ever for ecologists, through applied science and education, to help society better incorporate those interconnections into its endeavors.