We argue that population growth rate is the key unifying variable linking the various facets of population ecology. The importance of population growth rate lies partly in its central role in forecasting future population trends; indeed if the form of density dependence were constant and known, then the future population dynamics could to some degree be predicted. We argue that population growth rate is also central to our understanding of environmental stress: environmental stressors should be defined as factors which when first applied to a population reduce population growth rate. The joint action of such stressors determines an organism's ecological niche, which should be defined as the set of environmental conditions where population growth rate is greater than zero (where population growth rate = r = loge(Nt+1/Nt)). While environmental stressors have negative effects on population growth rate, the same is true of population density, the case of negative linear effects corresponding to the well–known logistic equation. Following Sinclair, we recognize population regulation as occurring when population growth rate is negatively density dependent. Surprisingly, given its fundamental importance in population ecology, only 25 studies were discovered in the literature in which population growth rate has been plotted against population density. In 12 of these the effects of density were linear; in all but two of the remainder the relationship was concave viewed from above.
Alternative approaches to establishing the determinants of population growth rate are reviewed, paying special attention to the demographic and mechanistic approaches. The effects of population density on population growth rate may act through their effects on food availability and associated effects on somatic growth, fecundity and survival, according to a 'numerical response', the evidence for which is briefly reviewed. Alternatively, there may be effects on population growth rate of population density in addition to those that arise through the partitioning of food between competitors; this is 'interference competition'. The distinction is illustrated using a replicated laboratory experiment on a marine copepod, Tisbe battagliae. Application of these approaches in conservation biology, ecotoxicology and human demography is briefly considered. We conclude that population regulation, density dependence, resource and interference competition, the effects of environmental stress and the form of the ecological niche, are all best defined and analysed in terms of population growth rate.