“What is ecological engineering?”
by Ingo Schlupp
Mitsch, W.J. 2012. Ecological Engineering, Vol. 45, pp. 5-12.
Ecological engineering, defined as the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both, has developed over the last 30 years, and rapidly over the last 10 years. Its goals include the restoration of ecosystems that have been substantially disturbed by human activities and the development of new sustainable ecosystems that have both human and ecological values. It is especially needed as conventional energy sources diminish and amplification of nature’s ecosystem services is needed even more. There are now several universities developing academic pro- grams or departments called ecological engineering, ecological restoration, or similar terms, the number of manuscripts submitted to the journal Ecological Engineering continue to increase at an rapid rate, and the U.S. National Science Foundation now has a specific research focus area called ecological engineer- ing. There are many private firms now developing and even prospering that are now specializing in the restoration of streams, rivers, lakes, forests, grasslands, and wetlands, the rehabilitation of minelands and urban brownfields, and the creation of treatment wetlands and phytoremediation sites. It appears that the perfect synchronization of academy, publishing, research resources, and practice is beginning to develop. Yet the field still does not have a formal accreditation in engineering and receives guarded acceptance in the university system and workplace alike.
William Mitsch is one of the founders of the field of Ecological Engineering, which specializes on managing and restoring ecosystems. There seems to be an obvious connection between the Anthropocene idea and this relatively new field. The Mitsch paper is a good place to start to understand the effort to be more deliberate and thoughtful about ways we intervene in natural systems—something that has run amok in the Anthropocene.
But it is important to me to put Ecological Engineering into a biological context. One of the key concepts that come to the mind of a biologist when we think of the Anthropocence is how almost any organism manipulates its environment. (Zev Trachtenberg has posted on the related idea of “niche construction.”) This is sometimes an apparent byproduct of physiological functions like plants releasing oxygen into the air (thereby making the planet hospitable to most animals) or a very clear, active manipulation like the beaver dam that creates a pond. The pond directly serves the beavers, but many organisms benefit from the existence of the novel pond. Others drown, of course. This kind of large scale and far reaching effect is classified as ecosystem engineering and has become a key concept in ecology. We now recognize that ecosystem engineering has many consequences, including a large increase in species richness. (In the Further Reading section I list a recent meta-analysis by Romero et al. in the highly respected journal Biological Reviews which just made this point.)
So, animals manipulate their environment all the time, how about humans? How are our efforts different? Often we simply mimic nature: we put artificial reefs in place of natural ones. These fake reefs have some of the same functions as natural reefs built by corals, mainly providing hard substrate for other animals to grow upon. Because corals provide more that just a substrate and are living, breathing part of the reef, other functions cannot be mimicked.
Humans have taken ecosystem engineering to a new dimension, partly creating the very Anthropocene we are discussing here. Like almost every other species on the planet our own species has altered the environment from Day 1, but when did we cross the threshold and became the masters of ecosystem engineering? Was it the invention of agriculture? Or any other milestone in the evolution of humanity?
Whenever it was, for our own species ecosystem engineering is obviously now very active and has resulted in planet-wide alterations. This leads me back to Ecological Engineering: it is an applied science, pioneered by Mitsch, who has promoted it since the early 1990’s. What is intriguing about this field is that it is by definition transdisciplinary, but it suffers from a problem that all of transdisciplinary approaches have, namely limited acceptance in the “pure” fields.
It is necessary for us to realize that Ecosystem Engineering, when done by humans has a moral and political dimension to it, but an engineering approach has additional aspects to think about: Engineering might be a misleading term, as it implies that we have control over all the moving parts. The science of Ecology is far from having a complete understanding of the dynamics that govern ecosystems; can we manage something we don’t understand all that well? At the same time we may have already altered all “natural” systems to a point where we are unable to research them as if they were naturals. Maybe this is the biological version of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Mitsch, W.J., 1993. Ecological engineering—a cooperative role with the planetary life–support systems. Environmental Science and Technology, 27, 438–445. DOI: 10.1021/es00040a600. One of Mitsch’s early papers that helped launch the field.
Romero, G.Q. et al. 2014. Ecosystem engineering effects on species diversity across ecosystems: a meta-analysis. Biological Reviews, DOI: 10.1111/brv.12138. This paper argues that ecosystem engineering increases the number of species, but the effects depend e.g. on latitude (they are stronger in the tropics) and other factors.