This word found its way into the language through the combined efforts of a German biologist and an English zoologist. Ernst Haeckel was one of the great chroniclers of life on earth, not only naming thousands of species in his lifetime but also compiling delightfully detailed drawings and lithographic prints of countless land and sea creatures. Haeckel was also an early champion of Darwinism, and gave an environmental perspective to many of the issues raised in Darwin’s work. In 1866 he coined the word ecology to describe analysis of the relationship between living organisms and their environment. The word is a marriage of the Greek oikos (house) and the suffix ology indicating study. Haeckel’s analytical skill also extended to politics and warfare. In September 1914, recognising that the conflict in Europe would spread, he coined the phrase “First World War”, giving a name to the four year horror that would inflict so much harm on the planet he loved.
The word ecology entered English usage thanks to a man who shared many of Haeckel’s passions. E.R. Lankester was a professor of zoology and director of the Natural History Museum in London. Like Haeckel he avidly studied Darwinism and was an authority on marine life. Lankester’s research took him from Oxford to universities in Vienna, Leipzig and Jena, and in translating Haeckel’s History of Creation he formally introduced ecology to his native language.
Lankester was knighted for his contribution to science, and he gained wider fame as a contributor to The Outline of History, a chronicle of life on earth by the novelist H G Wells. Wells was a student and admirer of Lankester’s, and while his fiction would often paint pictures of an apocalyptic future, his non-fiction paid tribute to the history and environmental beauty of the planet.
Ecology became a major political issue in the 1960s and 1970s and the British Ecology Party was formed in 1972. Unfortunately people found the name unmemorable and in 1975 it was rebranded as the Green Party. In the 2005 UK general election it received almost 300,000 votes and today over 100 local government councillors serve under the banner of ecology and environmental protection. There have been notable successes elsewhere in Europe. In both Ireland and the Czech Republic, Green Parties have recently served in coalition governments. The name may have changed but the environmental interests of Haeckel and Lankester remain intact.
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