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Industrial Ecologists


Industrial ecology is a relatively new field of scientific research. Interest in studying the impact that industrial systems have on the environment started in the 1960s and 1970s. The government started to take a more active role in monitoring and regulating industrial practices. Many environmental laws and institutions were established during this time and the public became aware of the importance of protecting and maintaining a healthy environment. 

The term industrial ecology also gained the public's attention when it was used in an article published in Scientific American in 1989. In their article "Strategies for Manufacturing," authors Robert Frosch and Nicholas Gallopoulos explored ideas for sustainable practices in manufacturing. For example, their sub-title for the article is "Waste from one industrial process can serve as the raw materials for another, thereby reducing the impact of industry on the environment." In the late 1990s, the Journal of Industrial Ecology was created and continues to publish research and news on the field of industrial ecology.

Ecology alone is not a new field. Many centuries ago the ancient Greeks recorded their observations of natural history. The integration of life and physical environment studies is fairly new, with German biologist Ernst von Haeckel first defining the term ecology in 1866. He, like many of his peers, grappled with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution based on natural selection, which said that the species of plants and animals that were best adapted to their environment would survive. Haeckel disagreed with Darwin, but he and many other scientists grew fascinated with the links between living things and their physical environment. During this time, important geological discoveries proved that many forms of plants and animals had once existed and had died out. For instance, fossils showed startlingly unfamiliar plant types, as well as prehistoric animal remains that no one had ever imagined existed. Before this, people assumed that the species they saw all around them had always existed. A key development in the science of ecology was the realization that there were important connections between living things and their physical environment.

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, some scientists and others had tried to warn the public about the negative effects of industrialization, unchecked natural resource consumption, overpopulation, spoiling of wilderness areas, and other thoughtless misuses of the environment. It was in  the years after World War II that the public became alarmed about the environment, due to the increased use of radiation, pesticides, and other chemicals; soaring industrial and automobile pollution; and chemical discharge into waterways. 

Since then, strict environmental laws have been enacted and enforced (although the strength of enforcement varies by presidential administration). Companies and municipalities seek the services of environmental scientists and specialists, such as industrial ecologists, to help them identify problems and recommend remedies for compliance with environmental regulations. Industrial ecologists today can 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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