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Much of the science that ecologists use is not new. The ancient Greeks recorded their observations of natural history many centuries ago. However, linking the studies of life and the physical environment is fairly new. Ernst von Haeckel, a German biologist, first defined the term ecology in 1866. Like many scientists of his time, he grappled with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution based on natural selection. This theory said that those species of plants and animals that were best adapted to their environment would survive. Although Haeckel did not agree with Darwin, he and many other scientists grew fascinated with the links between living things and their physical environment. At that time, very important discoveries in geology proved that many forms of plants and animals had once existed but had died out. Fossils showed startlingly unfamiliar plant types, for example, as well as prehistoric animal remains that no one had ever imagined existed. (Before such discoveries, people assumed that the species they saw all around them had always existed.) Realization that there were important connections between living things and their physical environment was a key step in the development of the science of ecology.

Like most of the other environmental careers, the professional field of ecology did not really grow popular until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Before then, some scientists and others had tried to warn the public about the ill effects of industrialization, unchecked natural resource consumption, overpopulation, spoiling of wilderness areas, and other thoughtless misuses of the environment. But not until the years after World War II (with growing use of radiation and of pesticides and other chemicals, soaring industrial and automobile pollution, and increasing chemical discharge into waterways) did widespread public alarm about the environment grow. By this time, many feared it was too late. Heavy municipal and industrial discharge into Lake Erie, for example, made it unable to sustain life as before.

In response, the U.S. government passed a series of hard-hitting environmental laws during the 1960s and 1970s. To become compliant with these laws, companies and municipalities began to look around for professionals who understood the problems and could help take steps to remedy them. Originally they drew professionals from many existing fields, such as geologists, sanitary engineers, biologists, and chemists. These professionals may not have studied environmental problems as such at school, but they were able to apply the science they knew to the problems at hand.

To some extent, this continues to be true today. Many people working on environmental problems still come from general science or engineering backgrounds. Recently, however, there has been a trend toward specialization. Students in fields such as biology, chemistry, engineering, law, urban planning, and communications can obtain degrees with specialization in the environment. An ecologist today can either have a background in traditional biological or physical sciences or have studied these subjects specifically in the context of environmental problems.

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