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We lay the foundations for a critical human ecology (CHE) that combines the strengths of the biophysical human ecology tradition in environmental sociology with those of historical materialism. We show the strengths of a critically informed human ecology by addressing four key meta-theoretical issues: materialist versus idealist approaches in the social sciences, dialectical versus reductionist analyses, the respective importance of historical and ahistorical causal explanations, and the difference between structural and functional interpretations of phenomena. CHE breaks with the idealism of Western Marxism, which dominated academic neo-Marxist thought in the latter half of the 20th century, and advocates instead the pursuit of a materialist, scientific methodology in dialectical perspective for the explanation of social and ecological change. In turn, this project also involves a critique of the ahistorical and functionalist tendencies of traditional human ecology, while sharing human ecology's basic starting point: the ecological embeddedness of human societies.