Why should engineers care about ecology?

Engineering as a field of practice has deep roots in human history. It dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, and might be much older. In ancient civilizations, the predecessors of engineers were probably craftsmen and artists. I believe that this eternal urge to do things better has always been their main driver. Since new solutions usually come through a long chain of trial and error, this is critical for success,

Current engineering practices in the Western world evolved since renaissance times. Mathematics, physics, chemistry and a diversity of other practical and scientific disciplines were increasingly included. Engineering is widely ramified today. All fields of engineering encompass a large formalized body of knowledge and practices, which is carefully guarded by engineering boards.

Engineering has become the single most important human practice on Earth. Compared to earlier ages, the potential impact of engineering has drastically increased in scale. Successful engineering design may now lead to its global distribution in a very short time. Think, e.g., of new types of plastics, pharmaceuticals, anticorrosive coatings, or sunscreens based on nanoparticles. If such inventions are introduced into the global market, they often also enter the global ecological cycles. This may (and often does) lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences in ecosystems.

Almost all ecological processes on Earth are connected through material cycles. The tremendous amount of human activities and our high mobility accelerate the velocity of material distribution through these cycles. The global biosphere is now changing in an unprecedented way. Nature has sustained life on Earth for more than a billion years, in spite of disasters of all kinds. Do we really want to find out by trial and error, if it can continue sustain us?

Forming a sustainable human civilization is the greatest challenge we face today. As a civilization, we need to understand how we – a biological being and part of nature – can co-exist with all the other biological beings in nature in a healthy and sustainable way. The science of ecology has been unraveling and trying to understand the incredibly flexible, yet resilient web of life on Earth. The principles and processes found by ecologists can inform engineers and inspire a new kind of truly sustainable design. This is why engineers should care about ecology.

After all, we are dealing with our own life-support system! In the following weeks, I want to explore how an ecologically inspired practice of engineering might look like.

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