Definition & scope – Environmental Studies

Environmental studies deals with every issue that affects an organism. It is essentially a multidisciplinary approach that brings about an appreciation of our natural world and human impacts on its integrity. It is an applied science as its seeks practical answers to making human civilization sustainable on the earth’s finite resources. Its components include biology, geology, chemistry, physics, engineering, sociology, health, anthropology, economics, statistics, computers and philosophy.

We inhabit two worlds. One is the natural world of plants, animals, soils, air, and water that preceded us by billions of years and of which we are a part. The other is the world of social institutions and artifacts that we create for ourselves using science, technology, culture, and political organization. Both of these factors are part of our environment (from the French environner: to encircle or surround). Both the natural world and the “built” or technological, social, and cultural world, make up our environment. Environmental science is the systematic study of our environment and our place in it. Because environmental problems are complex, environmental science draws on many fields of knowledge. Sciences such as biology, chemistry, earth science, and geography provide important information. Social sciences and humanities, from political science and economics to art and literature, help us understand how society responds to environmental crises and opportunities. Environmental science is also mission oriented: generally we try to understand problems so that we can offer solutions in public health and environmental quality. The distinguished economist Barbara Ward has pointed out that very often the difficulty is not in identifying remedies, but in making them socially, economically, and politically acceptable. Foresters know how to plant trees, but not how to establish conditions under which villagers in developing countries can manage plantations for themselves. Engineers know how to control pollution, but not how to persuade factories to install the necessary equipment. City planners know how to design urban areas, but not how to make them affordable for everyone. Solutions to these problems increasingly involve both social systems and natural science. One of your tasks in this class may be to discover where your knowledge and interests contribute to understanding questions in environmental science
As we look around at the area in which we live, we see that our surroundings were originally a natural landscape such as a forest, a river, a mountain, a desert, or a combination of these elements. Most of us live in landscapes that have been heavily modified by human beings, in villages, towns or cities. But even those of us who live in cities get our food supply from surrounding villages and these in turn are dependent on natural landscapes such as forests, grasslands, rivers, seashores, for resources such as water for agriculture, fuel wood, fodder, and fish. Thus our daily lives are linked with our surroundings and inevitably affects them. We use water to drink and for other day-to-day activities. We breathe air, we use resources from which food is made and we depend on the community of living plants and animals which form a web of life, of which we are also a part. Everything around us forms our environment and our lives depend on keeping its vital systems as intact as possible. Our dependence on nature is so great that we cannot continue to live without protecting the earth’s environmental resources. Thus most traditions refer to our environment as ‘Mother Nature’ and most traditional societies have learned that respecting nature is vital for their livelihoods. This has led to many cultural practices that helped traditional societies protect and preserve their natural resources. Respect for nature and all living creatures is not new to India. All our traditions are based on these values. Emperor Ashoka’s edict proclaimed that all forms of life are important for our well being in Fourth Century BC. Over the past 200 years however, modern societies began to believe that easy answers to the question of producing more resources could be provided by means of technological innovations.For example, though growing more food by using fertilizers and pesticides, developing better strains of domestic animals and crops, irrigating farmland through mega dams and developing industry, led to rapid economic growth, the ill effects of this type of development, led to environmental degradation.

The industrial development and intensive agriculture that provides the goods for our increasingly consumer oriented society uses up large amounts of natural resources such as water, minerals, petroleum products, wood, etc. Non-renewable resources, such as minerals and oil are those which will be exhausted in the future if we continue to extract these without a thought for subsequent generations.

Renewable resources, such as timber and water, are those which can be used but can be regenerated by natural processes such as regrowth or rainfall. But these too will be depleted if we continue to use them faster than nature can replace them. For example, if the removal of timber and firewood from a forest is faster than the regrowth and regeneration of trees, it cannot replenish the supply. And loss of forest cover not only depletes the forest of its resources, such as timber and other non-wood products, but affect our water resources because an intact natural forest acts like a sponge which holds water and releases it slowly. Deforestation leads to floods in the monsoon and dry rivers once the rains are over.

Such multiple effects on the environment resulting from routine human activities must be appreciated by each one of us, if it is to provide us with the resources we need in the long-term. Our natural resources can be compared with money in a bank. If we use it rapidly, the capital will be reduced to zero. On the other hand, if we use only the interest, it can sustain us over the longer term. This is called sustainable utilisation or development.

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