What is Environment?

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This introduction defines some basic terms, introduces principles of sustainability, briefly describes environmental ethics, justice, and worldviews, and discusses sustainable development

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, geology, engineering, etc. It also includes not only science, but social sciences such as economics, politics, geography, etc. It also includes how humans interact with the environment.

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.

Systems 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


Ability of the Earth's natural systems and human cultural systems to survive and adapt to changing environmental conditions into the future

Principles of Sustainability

Science Principles

  • Dependence on solar energy (ultimate energy source for almost all organisms)
  • Biodiversity (services provided by various species)
  • Chemical cycling (chemical, such as nutrients, are continuely being recycled through the ecosystem)

Social Science Principles

  • Full-cost pricing (including costs in addition to benefits)
  • Win-win solutions (as opposed to a win-lose approach)
  • Responsibility to future generations

Natural Capital

Another way to look at the importance of the environment the concept of natural capital as shown in the diagram below:

Diagram showing the services provided by the environment

Environmental Ethics and Worldviews

Environmental Ethics

A set of moral values (what is right or wrong)
Environmental Ethics 
Extension of ethics to include not only humans, but all the environment


Humans are members of a community of life along with all other species, and on equal terms

Paul Taylor


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe



The Earth system behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological, and human components

Declaration of Amsterdam (on the Gaia hypothesis)

Environmental Worldviews

Environmental Worldviews 
Set of assumptions and values reflecting how you think the world works and what your role in the world should be.

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

  • Human-centered (Anthropocentric) - Nature is primarily a support system for humans. Animal, plants, and the Earth are for the use of man.
  • Life-centered (Biocentric)- all living organisms (including humans) have equal value.
  • Earth-centered - Earth's life-support systems exist for all species for billions of years, long before humans existed.

Environmental Approaches

Environmental 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.

Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice 
promotes environmental, economic and social justice by recognizing the direct link between economic, environmental and health issues and demanding a safe, clean community and workplace environment.

Environmental justice is designed to prevent Environmental Discrimination

Environmental Discrimination -- Examples

In the United States, African-Americans and Hispanics are more like to live near a polluting industry and are more likely to be exposed to pollution. (Environmental racism) [1]

In Brazil (and other countries) indigenous people's land is being illegally logged and occupied by agribusiness.

In Indonesia, some rich upper class people are using their wealth to influence local governments to allow plantations, etc. to take over forests.

In Papua New Guinea, mining companies from (mostly) Australia are polluting the environment. These rich country companies are using weak environmental regulations to increase profits. (Environmental imperialism)

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.


  1. Clark LP, Millet DB, Marshall JD (2014) National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Inequality: Outdoor NO2 Air Pollution in the United States. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94431. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0094431