What is Environment?

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This introduction defines some basic terms, discusses the system approach to study of the environment, and briefly describes environmental worldviews (ethics).

Introduction and Definitions

Before we can start we must know what we mean by the environment.

Everything that affects a living organism

Environmental Science 
interdisciplinary study of both the scientific and social aspects of the environment and human interactions with the environment.

Notice the use of the word "interdisciplinary". Environmental science includes chemistry, physics, biology, economics, politics, etc.

The definition of environmental science should be compared with that for ecology

branch of biology studying relationship between living organisms and their environment.

Finally a definition we will use below. Note this is a working definition. A more precise definition will be given later (see the ecology section):

A region within which organisms interact. For example: the Amazon, Khao Yai National Park.

Sustainable Development

There are many definitions of sustainable development, but the one below, from the Brundtland Report, is the most commonly quoted.

Sustainable Development 
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

As part of this, countries agreed in 2015 on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's). These consist of 17 goals subdivided into 169 more specific targets. These are to be achieved by 2030. The list of the goals can be found on the offical SDG website. Clicking on the individual goals will give you a description and the targets for that goal.

System approach

The environment can be considered to be divided into systems.

Environmental science is then how these systems interact with each other.

Systems involved are:

  • Biosphere - all living organisms
  • Lithosphere - the Earth's solid surface (rock, soil, etc.)
  • Hydrosphere - Water in all its forms: liquid, solid (ice), vapor
  • Atmosphere - the air surrounding the Earth
Diagram showing the interrelationships between the systems in the environment and human society

Another way to look at the importance of the environment is shown in the diagram below:

Diagram showing the services provided by the environment

Environmental Ethics and Attitudes

Environmental Ethics

There are many ways to look at the environment. These worldviews or environmental ethics can be divided as follows:

  • Anthropocentric (Human-centered) - belief that animals, plants, and the Earth are for the use of man. Save the environment only when it gives value to mankind.
  • Biocentric (Life-centered) - all living organisms (including humans) have equal value.
  • Ecocentric (Ecosystem-centered)- all ecosystems (not only individual organisms) have value.
  • Gaia - A version of ecocentric which considers the whole Earth as an organism that naturally regulated itself.

Environmental Attitudes

Environmental attitudes, or approaches, are how we approach the issues of economic development and preserving nature.

  • Development - The development approach considers the most important factor to be economic development. This economic development is more important then preserving nature.
  • Preservation - The preservation approach is to preserve as much of the environment as possible. Nature has intrinsic value independent from human use.
  • Conservation - This attempts a balance between the development and preservation approaches. A good example of this is preservation of natural areas for use as hunting or fishing areas.