Ecological engineering

Ecological Engineering is the emerging field of the use of ecological processes within natural or constructed imitation of natural systems to achieve engineering goals. It has also been described as "the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both" (Mitsch, 1998)

The following is submitted by David Del Porto: The term, "ecological engineering," was first coined by the late Dr. Howard T. Odum in 1962. Howard Odum was professor emeritus at the University of Florida, where his work in systems ecology had flourished.

Ecological engineering, he wrote, is "those cases where the energy supplied by man is small relative to the natural sources but sufficient to produce large effects in the resulting patterns and processes." (H.T. Odum, 1962, "Man and Ecosystem" Proceedings, Lockwood Conference on the Suburban Forest and Ecology. Bulletin Connecticut Agric. Station)

Another definition that follows from that relates to ecosystem management by human society (Center for Wetlands, University of Florida) :

"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."

Another definition seeks to use the ecological paradigm to construct ecologies to solve vexing world-class problems, such as pollution:

It is predicated on the belief that the self-organizing order found in stable ecosystms is so universal that it can be applied as an engineering discipline to solve the pressing problems of global pollution, food production and efficient resource-utilization, while providing a high quality of life for all human society. (David Del Porto)

In this definition, the ecological paradigm reveals how to safely utilize the polluting components of unwanted residuals, or "wastes," to ultimately grow green plants that have value to human society, but not at the expense of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Planning, design and construction with the ecological paradigm as a template is the work of ecological engineers.

Ecological engineering is based on the self-designing capacity of nature to take ecosystems to sustainable optimum states. Past engineering approaches overuse fossil fuels and require intensive maintenance because they are out of balance with nature. Ecological engineering solutions rely more on natural energy flows (solar-based) and are often very low maintenance, when done correctly.

Examples of ecological engineering are the restoration of a landscape or the creation of a wetland ecosystem to treat wastewater. In the case of restoring a landscape denuded of all soil by erosion, the ecological engineer would approach the problem not by trucking in tons of soil, he or she would work to establish soil-building organisms to do the work. In the case of wastewater treatment, the conventional engineer would use electricity to pump and aerate the water while dumping in tons of chemicals. The ecological engineer would use the natural assimilative capacity of certain plants and microbes to remove the pollutants of concern in a gravity-flow system.