Why We Should Care About ‘Human Ecology’

By Jay Richards Published on September 20, 2017

The word “ecology” has a bad rap. Perhaps it’s because the left often uses the word as a club to beat political opponents. And as a roadblock to keep humans from “interfering with nature.” But Christians need to embrace the concept. That’s especially true if we’re committed to human life, marriage and families.

Let me explain.

Flowers and Bees

Bee on an Apple Blossom - 400

“Ecology” refers to the idea that plants and animals depend upon each other and their natural surroundings. It also refers to the science that studies these relationships.

Some honey bees, for instance, draw nectar from apple blossoms to make honey. By flying to and fro on different flowers and trees, they pollinate the flowers. The trees can then produce seeds and fruit, which farmers can harvest. Apple farmers often cultivate beehives or bring in beekeepers for this reason.

The bees and the trees rely on the right amounts of sun, water and soil. And the bees and trees rely on each other. For some kinds of apple trees, if the bees disappeared, the trees wouldn’t bear fruit. Their “ecosystem” would be disrupted.

Life on earth is not just about competition, about “nature, red in tooth and claw.” It’s filled with cooperation and altruism as well.

Agoutis and Trees

Or take the agouti, a cute little rodent that forages the jungle floors of Brazil. It’s the only critter around with teeth sharp enough to breach the hard pods of the towering Brazil nut tree. Agoutis grind through the outer shell and eat a couple of the big nuts inside. They then bury the rest for later, and forget where they buried them. So, they look for another pod to chew open, and … you can guess the rest.

Agoutis depend on Brazil nut trees to drop the pods to the ground. The trees depend on the agoutis to break the pods, bury some of the nuts, and forget where they buried them. That, in a nutshell, is an ecosystem.


Life on earth is not just about competition, about “nature, red in tooth and claw.” It’s filled with cooperation and altruism as well. The Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting on the first chapter of Genesis, says this is how God wanted it:

God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.

More Than Beasts

Like those bees and agoutis, we are embodied creatures. We need food and water and shelter to survive. But unlike bees and agoutis, which act mostly on instinct, we’re also spiritual and social beings endowed with free will. No one is an island. We are each born into families and raised by parents (ideally). We live in neighborhoods and cities and countries, whose customs and cultures shape our habits and outlooks. We are taught by teachers. We worship in churches. We marry and form families. And even as adults, we need others: Long bouts of loneliness can wear down our bodies.

Human ecology, then, goes beyond the clean air, water, food and shelter we need to survive. It includes not just the laws of physics, but the natural law. It includes all those concrete institutions we need to become more than we were. To develop virtue. To be happy. To flourish.

In the last fifty years, the most vital human institutions have been subject to vicious assault.

Up With Nature! Down With Humans!

Here’s a great paradox of our age. In the last fifty years, we’ve become much more aware of natural ecosystems. We fret about them far more than our ancestors did.

This includes human ecosystems. And despite problem areas, the air we breathe and water we drink are cleaner than ever. In the developed world, almost no one dies from the air and water-borne diseases that beset our ancestors for millennia. We’ve learned to clean up most the industrial pollutants of the last century, from lead to sulfur dioxide. We continue to find clever ways to clean up after ourselves. Yet still, leading voices in our culture push the cause of natural ecology with life-and-death urgency.

In contrast, our culture has gotten ever more hostile to the “ecosystems” that distinguish us from plants and animals. In the last fifty years, the most vital human institutions have been subject to vicious assault.

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The first environment in which we enter the world — our mother’s womb — is now a high-risk zone. Roughly one in four American kids is raised by only one parent. (That number is far higher for the poor and most minorities.) About half of marriages end in divorce. The link between sex and procreation grows ever wider.

Governments around the world now deign to redefine marriage, an institution that predates every state and every society. And fast on the heels of that assault is the attack on human nature itself. Even the existence of men and women, of male and female, father and mother, is up for grabs.

Human Ecology

This makes no sense. We depend not just on healthy water and soil, but on healthy culture, on vibrant families and churches and neighborhoods.

Any good defense of human ecology,* then, must seek to protect and preserve not just our natural environment, but our moral and cultural environment as well.

And who better to do that than believers who know that God created us, male and female, body and soul?


Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream and an Assistant Research Professor in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter.

*Check out the work of the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America.

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  • One thing we should NOT do is draw some kind of supernatural distinction between humans and the rest of the species we share the planet with. All are interconnected. Our species is fortunate in that we are capable of shaping the world to our own whims, even to the point of impacting the climate. We are not endangered. And we are remarkably adaptable over short periods of geological time. The rest of the species we share this planet with? Not so much.

    “Human ecology” is part of ECOLOGY. “Ecology” refers to the interconnectedness of all life on Earth. We are quick to swat for flies and spray for mosquitoes, but if one day ALL the insect species on Earth died off from some mysterious insect plague, life for humans would get very bad, very quickly.

    • Andrew Mason

      Are there any other species on this planet that are sentient, or made in God’s image? It actually is reasonable to make a distinction between mankind, animals, and plants – though the boundaries between the latter 2 can get a tad fuzzy..

      • We don’t yet have any way of knowing to what degree elephants or whales or gorillas are “sentient.” And we created God in OUR image, not the other way around. Like it or not, humans ARE animals. We are the product of tens of millions of years of mammal evolution. What happens to our branch of the evolutionary tree, I suppose, depends more on US than anything. Maybe that’s a good definition of “sentience.”

        • GPS Daddy

          It makes no sense to speak of sentient beings in a worldview that claims there is only the physical realm. In this world view sentience is nothing more than chemical reactions. All mammals have chemical reactions in their brains. Some more than others. Where do you draw the line and say that this animal is sentient and this other one is not? Atheism is unable to engage the question.

          Any atheist that does engage the question must steal from God to do so. You do reject the idea that there is a non-physical world, right Chuck?

          >>As for “God,” we created God in OUR image, not the other way around.

          In order to make this statement you must declare yourself the designer of life. But methodical materialism cannot accept that there is a non-physical designer behind life. This worldview presumptions excludes this. So your left with only one option: Humans ARE animals. Nothing more, nothing less. Who is to say that a human baby is worth more that a gorilla? This worldview is unable to parse this question. In order to address it the atheist against must steal from God.

          Methodical materialism leads to a hopelessly confused view of the world and confused values.

          • Oh, BROTHER. Neither life nor the Universe require “gods” to exist.

          • GPS Daddy

            Hmm, in order to say that with a straight face, Chuck, you either believe that the physical world is not real or your ignorant of the fine tuning of the universe.

            But its interesting that all you can do in your responses is invalidate the other person. No reasoning, no logic, and shallow responses.

          • Andrew Mason

            What’s your basis for asserting the universe exists? Elon Musk for instance has advanced the notion that reality is an illusion – ‘we’ simply exist in a simulation. I’m unclear on whether we are part of the simulation, and thus our sentience is an illusion, or whether we are supposed to be real entities existing in said simulated environment. Either way the simulation requires ‘gods’.

          • Dean Bruckner

            “Brother” caps or not makes no sense in an atheist/materialist world. That’s stolen property as well! ( though I do appreciate you using that word as an exclamation than a vulgarity or a profanity–thanks!)

          • Willam Nat

            And you “know this absolutely” because YOU are such a smart atheist. Oh, atheists are so confused.

        • Andrew Mason

          We are the product of millions of years of evolution? RoFL! Try pulling the other one. Perhaps you’d like to argue in favour of Columbine etc next? The fact is humans are not animals, though have the capacity to act as badly – or more accurately worse than animals.

          No we didn’t create God in our image. Why would we? What purpose would creating a deity serve in an evolved world? The fact is ancient societies were monotheistic then devolved into polytheism, pantheism, ancestor worship, atheism etc.

          Actually we can easily assess the sentience of elephants, whales, gorillas etc. Do they have language? Do they comprehend arithmetic, or have philosophy? Do they have technology? Or are such instances restricted to mimicking humans? Don’t get me wrong, animals can be quite intelligent, but at the end of the day they are not sentient.

          I think therefore I am etc. Of course the modern version would more accurately be ‘I think I am’ reflecting confusion about our capacity to think.

          • swordfish

            “at the end of the day [animals] are not sentient.”

            Definition of Sentient: “able to perceive or feel things.”

            Are elephants, whales and gorillas able to perceive and feel things? Yes, they can, so you’re wrong.

            “The fact is humans are not animals”

            Definition of Animal: “a living organism that feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.”

            Sorry, but you’re wrong again.

        • AndRebecca

          Oh please.

        • Willam Nat

          So YOU reveal here that you are an atheist. Thus, you have NO respect for the unique value of human life. Figures.

    • Willam Nat

      Because we DO draw a supernatural distinction between humans and the rest of the species, we do not become like Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot. Mao, etc.

  • Pawel66

    Human Ecology is great concept. Thank you Dr. Richards!
    One of the challenges of the modern world is the impact of urban development on the relation between people. Iity life can be very productive and exciting, bit since biblical times has been associated with weakened interpersonal relations (including family bonds) loss of sense of responsibility for one’s neighbors and overreliance on State.
    It is surprising that, over at least past five thousand years, no one has been able to effectively address this problem.

    The best of luck to you and the Institute for Human Ecology!

  • Phoebe

    Nice article. However I believe the rate of divorce is lower than 50 percent, though still higher than it should be

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