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Think Piece on Ecological Engineering Print
kg.jpgBy Dr. Ken Gnanakan
IEES board member

Ecological Engineering is a relatively new science but has made a timely entry as we confront increasing environmental degradation all over the world. With the ecosystems suffering from centuries of unrestrained exploitation we need eco-sensitive and multi-supportive solutions, and this field of studies has provided some very effective answers.
The term, "ecological engineering," was first coined by Howard Odum in 1962, and the study emerged in the sixties. Odum, with one of the most creative minds, advocated several integrated scientific studies including ecological economics. He described ecological engineering as the utilizing of natural energy sources in order to control environmental systems. Ecological engineering has evolved over the past decades bringing ecology and engineering together.  

A definition that comes from the Center for Wetlands, University of Florida, a center that Odum founded, elaborates ecological engineering as follows:

"Ecological engineering is the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both. It involves the design, construction and management of ecosystems that have value to both humans and the environment. Ecological engineering combines basic and applied science from engineering, ecology, economics, and natural sciences for the restoration and construction of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The field is increasing in breadth and depth as more opportunities to design and use ecosystems as interfaces between technology and environment are explored."

Two other pioneers and leading voices in the field, William Mitsch and Sven Erik Jorgensen, laid out some foundational thinking to take this science forward in their book “Ecological Engineering and Ecosystem Restoration” (1989). They looked at ecological engineering as designing societal services such that they benefit society and nature, and that they should be systems based, self-organized, sustainable, and integrate society with its natural environment. 

A leap forward in development was taken in 1991 at the Stensund Wastewater Aquaculture Project in Trosa, Sweden, where the 1st International Ecological Engineering Conference was held and a "critical mass" of experts met (Etnier & Guterstam 1991). At Stensund preparations started for network that was formally established in 1993 under the name of IEES in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

One important foundation on which ecological engineering works is that it fits into the basic foundations of ecology, being sensitive to the chains and cycles of our ecosystems. It is human activities that disturb these natural processes that have caused complications. Rachel Carson, writing in the sixties when the environmental movement got started, exposed the problems posed by use of DDT and its harmful effects on nature as well as human beings. The title of her controversial book “Silent Spring” implied that there would be a spring season in which no bird songs could be heard, because they had all died from pesticide.  Anything we do in our environment has wider repercussions.

Some Basic Principles

Ecological engineering calls for a paradigm shift - philosophically, scientifically, technically, design-wise, economically and ecologically.  Therefore it requests a systems thinking by switching from a human-centered towards a partnership or co-beings-oriented approach in engineering and design practices. In a way it is common sense solutions that require a sound understanding of how our environment works. In targeting at keeping our environment healthy and sustainable and to integrate human use within the capacity of natural patterns and processes of ecosystems we develop some principles of Ecological Engineering that will be guiding lights for us as we move ahead.

First, Ecological Engineering is ecologically based. Ecology is the scientific study of interactions of organisms with one another and with the natural environment. It is the study of how living things and their environment interact with one another. There is an intricate interrelationship among organisms and between organisms, and all living and non-living beings in the environment. If there are indeed such interrelationships any tampering of these interconnections can cause grave disturbances. Therefore the solutions must be based on restoring and continuous regeneration of these interconnections.

Second, Ecological Engineering incorporates and adapts engineering and technology based solutions. Ecological engineering should not be confused with some ecological solutions that want to bypass newer technologies. Modern technologies can be adapted carefully to ensure that the environment is not affected adversely. Ecological engineering is a healthy blend between ecology and technology.

Third, Ecological Engineering is based on principles of sustainable development. Sustainable development is a much used term today. "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” as the UN Brundtland Commission defined.   The definition contains within it two key concepts. First, the concept of 'needs', in particular the basic needs of the world's poor. And secondly, there is reference to limitations imposed by technology and social organization on the environment. We need to address these issues as we explore sustainability at every level.

Fourth, Ecological Engineering is mutually beneficial to humans and the environment. Critics of modern environmental development based on economic advancement attack our “human-centered” approaches that have not taken nature and its intricacies into account. Ecological engineering calls for actions that strive for mutual benefits for both the environment and humans. As threats of climate change and severe environmental degradation loom large before us, we must consider not only how we survive but how other living beings and ecosystems can be mutually sustained.

Fifth, Ecological Engineering is based on integrated systems. Integration is a word used today for bringing together otherwise fragmented parts. It is based on the theory of holism where the whole is seen to be greater than the sum of the parts. Rather than considering piece-meal solutions ecological engineering looks at the whole. The key solution for present and future ecological problems is in such integration systems approach that looks at our ecosystems as whole units.

Sixth, Ecological Engineering focuses on reuse and recovery of waste. In our increasingly consumerist society with plenty to consume, waste has become a growing problem. In many countries mounds of garbage still lie unattended and where attention is being given often environmentally destructive technologies are being employed. Such actions are compounding our ecological crisis. Ecological engineering considers waste to be a resource. In other words, if waste is treated adequately, products and infrastructure designed accordingly, biological and technical nutrients could be recovered and used beneficially for various purposes.

Seventh, Ecological Engineering is concerned for stakeholder advise and participation in the design process.
In the planning, designing, construction and maintaining technology objects, all those directly concerned (designers, builders, customers) as well as indirect actors (future users, managers, demotion contractors) and people who will  (probably|) become affected (now and in the future) should participate or should be fully taken into account.

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More articles on this website, on the development of criteria for good ecological engineering:
Student term projects:



Reference:
Etnier C. and B. Guterstam (eds), 1997. Ecological Engineering for Wastewater Treatment. 2nd Edition. Lewis Publishers. [Proceedings of the Conference at Stensund Folk College, Sweden, March 24-28, 1991]
Last Updated ( Sunday, 14 June 2009 )
 
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