Green Jobs in Ecology - dummies

By Carol L. McClelland

The word ecology alone sounds like the perfect field for a green job-seeker. After all, we cannot have a sustainable future without sustaining the earth in a healthy state. If you are interested in an applied environmental science that focuses on the ecosystem, then ecology may well be the right realm for your eco-conscious career transition.

Within ecology, scientists study populations of organisms and how those organisms interact with each other and with their physical environment. The ecosystem is the primary unit of investigation for ecologists. Think of an ecosystem as a collection of organisms that share the same habitat. Understanding how the organisms within an ecosystem function and interact provides valuable information about the interdependencies and environmental needs of the organisms under study.

As an applied science, ecology allows scientists to understand the impact of changing environments on organisms and the best ways to conserve and restore the environment to support the ecosystem. The successful management of natural resources such as forests, fish, and wildlife depends on sound ecological research. In addition, ecological science contributes to a wide range of environmental issues, such as ecological restoration, global climate change, reduced biodiversity, habitat destruction, and extinction.

Thriving ecosystems perform essential services that we depend on, including clean air, clean water, food, clothing, fuel, and lumber products. In addition, intact ecosystems regulate floodwaters and keep lands fertile and crops pollinated. Many believe that understanding the true monetary value of these ecological services would bring our economic system into better balance with the needs of the planet.

Ecology is a multi-faceted discipline. Each ecological project is defined by a number of factors, including the complexity or scope of interdependencies, the organism, biome, climate, scale, or phenomenon being studied, and the technique used for research. Furthermore, scientists are guided by the following approaches, depending on the purpose of their work:

  • Systems ecology focuses on the influence of humans on ecosystems.

  • Applied ecology applies ecological principles to real-world environmental problems.

  • Conservation ecology is dedicated to reducing the risk of extinction.

  • Restoration ecology uncovers what’s needed to repair damaged ecosystems.

  • Population ecology is the study of populations of organisms, including how they increase and go extinct.

  • Environmental biology studies the natural world, as a whole or in a particular area, especially as affected by human activity.

The ecology field’s current status

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has several programs in motion that incorporate ecology into their planning and programming.

  • In 2008 the EPA released an interactive Report of the Environment that discusses the nation’s air, water, land, human health, and ecological conditions. The agency’s goal is to track this data over time to create longitudinal trends, which will allow it to compare the conditions at one point in time with conditions at another point in time. This data provides the EPA with objective indicators about the state of the environment that it can use to develop future projects. The first edition of the report highlighted gaps in data reporting that must be resolved before viable conclusions can be drawn.

  • The Ecosystem Services Research Program is a five-year project to determine the full value of the services — such as clean water, clean air, land stability — that ecosystems provide. With this knowledge, the EPA, policymakers, and resource managers will be able to make better decisions about programs and projects that protect and enhance ecosystem services.

Future trends in ecology

The Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), the interagency organization responsible for federal climate research, has indicated that its current monitoring systems are not adequate to perform the level of observations needed to track changes from climate change. Scientists believe it is important to understand how climate change impacts the distribution and population of animal and plant species, how the ecosystems are being disturbed by climate change, and how the changes in climate are impacting nutrients in the ecosystem. Although progress has been slow, setting up this monitoring system is one of the CCSP’s top priorities.

In a pure sense, ecology is a scientific study rather than an industry. That said, more and more instances of applied ecology are appearing within ecology and in the related disciplines. This trend is likely to continue as sustainability and systems thinking take hold.

In the design world, several industries are emerging that blend ecological principles with aspects of the built environment: ecological design, ecological engineering, and industrial ecology. Although the names seem similar, each specialty has its own focus and opportunities.

Ecology is also influencing the role humans play in the entire equation of environmental impact. Several fields, including human ecology, environmental psychology, and ecological anthropology have evolved to examine issues related to the interaction between humans, culture, and the planet.

Sample jobs related to ecology

Here are some jobs you might consider pursuing, if a career in ecology interests you

  • Ecological planning: Environmental consultant, environmental planner, program manager, environmental analyst, land use planner, landscape architect

  • Ecological management: Ecologist, naturalist, natural resource manager, wildlife specialist, wildlife biologist, field ecologist, land manager, nature manager, conservation biologist

  • Ecological research: Research scientist, field technician, research technician, laboratory assistant, research coordinator, research administrator, research assistant, ecosystem modeler, biogeographer, GIS specialist, spatial statistician

  • Teaching: In universities, schools, museums, and nature centers