I went to a teeny school (College of the Atlantic, or COA) with one major that close to nobody has ever heard of.
It was a joke on campus.
There’s a facebook group called, “now THAT’S what I call human ecology!”
Loosely but officially defined, Human Ecology is the study of how people interact with their various environments.
On campus, however, Human Ecology is when a lobster pees in your hand or how long the tofu scramble has been molding in the fridge or talking about composting toilets over Sunday night community dinners. And human ecology is how we have all sat and watched somebody meditate as an open mic act, how we all sing along with familiar songs while sitting on the roof, how we go skinny dipping off the dock and how the water is always colder than we thought it would be. Human ecology is the fact that we don’t have school colors, or a mascot, or anything like that, but we do have our own appropriated runic symbol mash up and a sea shanty.
I was talking with a friend who graduated with me last year about human ecology and how strange it is that it’s not a joke to everyone. How at school, where we were all paying a ridiculous amount of money to study this “human ecology” thing, it was a giant joke and, yet, in the real world people actually seemed to think it wasn’t that funny. In the real world when we jokingly answer “human ecology!” to something people look at us with a combination of confusion and interest. They ask questions. You try to explain why it’s a joke to them. They, inevitably, don’t get it.
Because human ecology is real. It is real and that’s such a weird revelation. I know I spent a few years studying it and that I better hope it’s real for the amount of debt I’m in, but it’s real. It has real world applications. It’s this giant, amorphous, real, tangible yet intangible THING. It’s a THING. Not a joke.
I mean, it’s still funny. It’s funny when a lobster pees on your hand. It’s funny that our only officially recognized holiday on campus is Earth Day. It’s funny that we argue over whether or not to fly the American Flag on campus (the answer is that we don’t fly it, just in case your were wondering).
But it’s also real.
We all have to interact with our environments. Our natural environments, our human made environments, our chosen environments and the environments we have no choice over. We have to interact with the other people in our environments, whether we like them or not. Each of our identities, whether that is male or female or both or neither or other, our sexual orientations, whether we proudly display them or hide them. Our religious identities, our political identities, our hobbies and our -trovertedness and everything else about our person has to interact with the rest of the world, every day.
Before we’re allowed to graduate we all have to write a paper on Human Ecology and what it means to us. I wrote mine about identities and how acceptable they are based on where you live and what you choose to do. I talked about the principles of Unitarian Universalism and how they factored into my own definition of human ecology, and I talked about my identity as a religious person and how that put me at odd on the college campus where almost nobody regularly practiced any kind of “mainstream” religion.
I was not unhappy with my paper, but it didn’t really say what I had hoped it would say. It came across as more “angry at my school for thinking they are so gosh darn accepting” than anything else. And I still feel a lot of that. It’s fine to be queer, socialist, a nudist, polyamorous, or hold pretty much any other liberal fringe identity at COA and fit right in – it’s expected to a point. But it’s a lot harder to be a person of faith, or to explain that you have no interest in being vegan and not apologize for it, or to admit you stop at Dunkin Donuts every so often (or more than every so often).
With all of that, though, I think that COA, and human ecology, does have a lot to offer. If you strip away how it’s “lived” at the college there’s a damn lot to be said for it, in concept and in practice.
Paying attention to how our various identities interact with our various communities. How my identity as a trans person interacts with my religious community How my identity as a polyamorous person interacts with my queer communities. How my identity as an introvert interacts with my activist communities. How I, as a person composed of a multitude of identities, interact with my world which is composed of an astonishing number of communities.
Human Ecology is recognizing those interactions, and learning from those interactions, and seeing how those interactions could be different or better or changed or just how they could be interpreted by the rest of the world. And that’s important. It’s important to take the focus off of ourselves and see how the world sees us. It’s something I find myself thinking about a lot as I travel through this wacky, post-college world where we don’t all share this view that the world would be great if we all hugged a little more and ate less meat.
Ministry is not a popular career choice for many COA graduates. When I inquired from the alum office I learned that there are 4 graduates, that they know of, who have gone into religious leadership.
One UU minister, one Baptist minister, one Episcopalian minister, one Rabbi.
Which surprised me a little. I kind of thought that once COA students left school, settled a little into “normal” life, and started reflecting on their degrees that more of them would come to the same conclusion I have. That minister is one really excellent way to put human ecology to practice. You have this little community where you all interact with one another on a, hopefully, spiritual level. Where, in UU congregations, human interaction is often at the core of everything you are doing. Our first principle calls us to interact with people with respect to their inherent worth and dignity. Our second principle tells us to engage in every relation to another person with justice, equity and compassion. Our third principle implores acceptance and encouragement of each persons spiritual growth. And so on. Human ecology, and I’m willing to posit UUism, is about interaction.
In writing this I come to the same conclusion that I did with my human ecology paper. That, for me, human ecology is already defined for me in the principles of Unitarian Universalism. But I’ll add something more now; human ecology can be best lived, for me, in religious leadership.