Adj : pertaining to the relationships between organisms, and between organisms and their environments
Ecological often connotes harmony, implying beautiful networks of frequently mutualistic relationships. Ecologically friendly. Ecological design. Ecological literacy. Ecological knowledge. An ecological civilization. For systems enthusiasts, type one Complex Adapted Systems (CAS 1). This is the meaning I intend. However, historically the word included mighty discord, especially in relationships between humans. I find this contradictory etymology worth visiting for participating in those implied networks today: it can turn the word into a reminder.
Oíkos, ancient Greek for house or family, serves as the root word of ecology and economy, but it might not necessarily denote “home” the convivial way many contemporary English speakers assume. When and where oíkos originated, 5th century BC Athens, the word could variously refer to the members of a family, their house, their farm, and all the humans the family had enslaved. It regularly encompassed chattel slavery, a parasitic to predatory relationship between humans. Contemporary elites considered oíkoi the basic political and economic units of Athens, the first democracy in Europe. Slaves and women were barred from participating in politics and, with the exception of prostitutes, from holding significant property (Cox 2014). Some elites expressed difficulty imagining a world without slavery: according to Aristotle, only a society where tools could operate themselves could function without slaves (4th century BCE). The decision to enslave someone was rarely if ever based on the color of that person’s skin (Painter 2010). Between the fifth to the fifteenth centuries AD, the Byzantine era, while slavery remained legal, serfdom largely replaced slavery as a mode of labor in the region (Lenski 2021). Greek speakers imported a new word for house and home—σπίτι (spíti), from Latin hospitium—during this time. Ancient Athenian Greek, Attic, evolved into Demotiki and eventually Standard Modern Greek (Encyclopedia Britannica). In Standard Modern Greek, oíkos is uncommon as the word for home or house—used only 1% of the time, according to the language site Word Hippo. Σπίτι (spíti) is the typical word. Greek women cast their first votes in 1952. Attic remained popular internationally among centuries of scholars interested in Ancient Greek art and science. Many people still draw from Attic to develop new terminology.
Greek’s oikonomia became Latin’s oeconomia and, by the 1530s, English’s economy, all meaning “household management.” Economy as the management of a nation emerged in the 1650s. Ernst Haeckel drew from economy when he coined and promoted ecology, oecologie, in the 19th century. He called for studying “the place each organism takes in the household of nature, in the economy of all nature” (Haeckel, quoted in Egerton 2013)
Haeckel certainly amplified disharmony in the household of humans. As a “scientific” racist and ableist, Haeckel believed that empirical evidence proved or would prove that certain groups of Europeans were better suited to survive than any other populations and that groups such as some black and indigenous peoples, as well as some people with different abilities, were doomed to extinction due to supposed maladaptations. He co-founded the Monist society which attracted thousands of members organized around Social Darwinism, the now-debunked “survival of the fittest” rationalization of imperialism and colonialism (Gasman 1998). The following is under some debate but several historians, including the prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, conclude that Haeckel’s career contributed to Nazi ideology (Gould 2002). Haeckel clearly helped popularize a framework that many governments operationalized into eugenicist policies such as anti-miscegenation laws and forced sterilizations, motivated by supremacist assumptions (Jackson & Weidman 2006). An article in the Ecological Society of America’s Bulletin concludes that contemporary ecologists might recognize Haeckel as a founder in a similar way to how supporters of US democracy recognize Thomas Jefferson: as one who profoundly violated the group's contemporary core ethos (Egerton 2013). While “scientific” racist postulates and their ilk have since been proven empirically false, tremendous work remains to correct for atrocities made under them worldwide, including and beyond Haeckel’s direct network of influence.
Haeckel’s word “ecological,” with all its etymology, might serve as a reminder of work needed to make harmony in this cosmic abode. Slavers and supremacists inflicted and inflict vast ecological and economic damage which, unlike the victims’ genetic inheritances, often hamper communities’ thriving to this day. Present remedies include versions of truth and reconciliation councils, and reparations. The Earth Charter, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the United Nations Declarations on Universal Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples' Rights are great guiding documents with which to begin. This work contributes to an ecological civilization—either in the present, popular sense of those words (including about CAS 1: systems predominately comprised of mutualistic relationships) or one made more graceful through careful and caring paradigms.
In addition to visiting the etymology, I propose a new adverb phrase that encompasses many of ecological’s typical connotations: al amor de la vida.