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1: Environmental Science Preface

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    What is Environmental Science?

    Environmental science is the dynamic, interdisciplinary study of the interaction of living and non-living parts of the environment, with special focus on the impact of humans on the environment. The study of environmental science includes circumstances, objects, or conditions by which an organism or community is surrounded and the complex ways in which they interact.

    Environmental Science is Interdisciplinary

    Environmental science includes disciplines in the physical sciences (like geology, soil science, physical geography, chemistry, and atmospheric sciences), life sciences (like ecology, conservation biology, restoration biology, and population biology), social sciences (like human geography, economics, law, political science, and anthropology), and humanities (philosophy, ethics). As such, environmental scientists are a diverse bunch. However, they all come together for the focus of studying and identifying past, current, and future environmental issues while also exploring solutions to the environmental issues and also considering practical needs.


    Venn diagram illustrating how interdisciplinary environmental science is. It incorporates humanities, social, and natural sciences.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Venn diagram illustrating how environmental science is interdisciplinary between humanities, natural sciences (which includes physical and life sciences) and social sciences. Image by Rachel Schleiger (CC-BY-NC).


    Why Study Environmental Science?

    The need for equitable, ethical, and sustainable use of Earth’s resources by a global population that nears the carrying capacity of the planet requires us not only to understand how human behaviors affect the environment, but also the scientific principles that govern interactions between the living and non-living. Our future depends on our ability to understand and evaluate evidence-based arguments about the environmental consequences of human actions and technologies, and to make informed decisions based on those arguments.

    From global climate change to habitat loss driven by human population growth and development, Earth is becoming a different planet—right before our eyes. The global scale and rate of environmental change are beyond anything in recorded human history. Our challenge is to acquire an improved understanding of Earth’s complex environmental systems; systems characterized by interactions within and among their natural and human components that link local to global and short-term to long-term phenomena, and individual behavior to collective action. The complexity of environmental challenges demands that we all participate in finding and implementing solutions leading to long-term environmental sustainability.

    The Tragedy of the Commons

    In his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin (1968) looked at what happens when humans do not limit their actions by including the land as part of their ethic. The tragedy of the commons develops in the following way: Imagine a pasture open to all (the ‘commons’). It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. As rational beings, each herdsman seeks to maximize their gain. Adding more cattle increases their profit, and they do not suffer any immediate negative consequence because the commons are shared by all. The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course is to add another animal to their herd, and then another, and so forth. However, this same conclusion is reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing the commons. Therein lies the tragedy: each person is locked into a system that compels them to increase their herd, without limit, in a world that is limited. Eventually this leads to the ruination of the commons. In a society that believes in the freedom of the commons, freedom brings ruin to all because each person acts selfishly.

    Hardin went on to apply the situation to modern commons: overgrazing of public lands, overuse of public forests and parks, depletion of fish populations in the ocean, use of rivers as a common dumping ground for sewage, and fouling the air with pollution.

    The “Tragedy of the Commons” is applicable to what is arguably the most consequential environmental problem: global climate change. The atmosphere is a commons into which countries are dumping carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Although we know that the generation of greenhouse gases will have damaging effects upon the entire globe, we continue to burn fossil fuels. As a country, the immediate benefit from the continued use of fossil fuels is seen as a positive component (because of economic growth). All countries, however, will share the negative long-term effects.

    Some Indicators of Global Environmental Stress

    • Forests Deforestation remains a main issue. 1 million hectares of forest were lost every year in the decade 1980-1990. The largest losses of forest area are taking place in the tropical moist deciduous forests, the zone best suited to human settlement and agriculture. Recent estimates suggest that nearly two-thirds of tropical deforestation is due to farmers clearing land for agriculture. There is increasing concern about the decline in forest quality associated with intensive use of forests and unregulated access.
    • Soil — As much as 10% of the earth’s vegetated surface is now at least moderately degraded. Trends in soil quality and management of irrigated land raise serious questions about longer-term sustainability. It is estimated that about 20% of the world’s 250 million hectares of irrigated land are already degraded to the point where crop production is seriously reduced.
    • Fresh water — Some 20% of the world’s population lacks access to safe water and 50% lacks access to safe sanitation. If current trends in water use persist, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in countries experiencing moderate or high water stress by 2025.
    • Marine fisheries — 25% of the world’s marine fisheries are being fished at their maximum level of productivity and 35% are overfished (yields are declining). In order to maintain current per capita consumption of fish, global fish harvests must be increased; much of the increase might come through aquaculture which is a known source of water pollution, wetland loss and mangrove swamp destruction.
    • Biodiversity — Biodiversity is increasingly coming under threat from development, which destroys or degrades natural habitats, and from pollution from a variety of sources. The first comprehensive global assessment of biodiversity put the total number of species at close to 14 million and found that between 1% and 11% of the world’s species may be threatened by extinction every decade. Coastal ecosystems, which host a very large proportion of marine species, are at great risk with perhaps one-third of the world’s coasts at high potential risk of degradation and another 17% at moderate risk.
    • Atmosphere — The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has established that human activities are having a discernible influence on global climate. CO2 emissions in most industrialized countries have risen during the past few years and countries generally failed to stabilize their greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 as required by the Climate Change convention.
    • Toxic chemicals — About 100,000 chemicals are now in commercial use and their potential impacts on human health and ecological function represent largely unknown risks. Persistent organic pollutants are now so widely distributed by air and ocean currents that they are found in the tissues of people and wildlife everywhere; they are of particular concern because of their high levels of toxicity and persistence in the environment.
    • Hazardous wastes — Pollution from heavy metals, especially from their use in industry and mining, is also creating serious health consequences in many parts of the world. Incidents and accidents involving uncontrolled radioactive sources continue to increase, and particular risks are posed by the legacy of contaminated areas left from military activities involving nuclear materials.
    • Waste — Domestic and industrial waste production continues to increase in both absolute and per capita terms, worldwide. In the developed world, per capita waste generation has increased threefold over the past 20 years; in developing countries, it is highly likely that waste generation will double during the next decade. The level of awareness regarding the health and environmental impacts of inadequate waste disposal remains rather poor; poor sanitation and waste management infrastructure is still one of the principal causes of death and disability for the urban poor.


    Modified by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger from The Earth, Humans, & the EnvironmentEnvironment and Sustainability, and Environmental Ethics from Environmental Biology by Matthew R. Fisher (licensed under CC-BY)

    This page titled 1: Environmental Science Preface is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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