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1.1 What is 'the environment'?

Define the term 'environment'.

Many meanings

The term 'environment' is widely used and has a broad range of definitions, meanings and interpretations. What does the term 'environment' mean? In popular usage, for some people, the term 'environment' means, simply, 'nature': in other words, the natural landscape together with all of its non-human features, characteristics and processes. To those people, the environment is often closely related to notions of wilderness and of pristine landscapes that have not been influenced - or, at least, that have been imperceptibly influenced - by human activities. However, for other people, the term 'environment' includes human elements to some extent. Many people would regard agricultural and pastoral landscapes as being part of the environment, whilst others are yet more inclusive and regard all elements of the earth's surface - including urban areas - as constituting the environment. Thus, in popular usage, the notion of the 'environment' is associated with diverse images and is bound up with various assumptions and beliefs that are often unspoken - yet may be strongly held. All of these usages, however, have a central underlying assumption: that the 'environment' exists in some kind of relation to humans. Hence the environment is, variously, the 'backdrop' to the unfolding narrative of human history, the habitats and resources that humans exploit, the 'hinterland' that surrounds human settlements, or the 'wilderness' that humans have not yet domesticated or dominated.

In its most literal sense, 'environment' simply means 'surroundings' (environs); hence the environment of an individual, object, element or system includes all of the other entities with which it is surrounded. However, in reality, individuals, objects, elements and systems rarely exist in isolation; instead, they tend to interact to varying extents with their surrounding entities. Therefore, it is not particularly helpful to conceptualise the 'environment' without including in that conceptualisation some notion of relationship. Individuals, objects, elements and systems influence - and are in turn influenced by - their surroundings. Indeed, the networks of relationships that exist between different entities may, in some cases, be extensive and highly complex. Thus the 'environment' may be regarded as a 'space' or a 'field' in which networks of relationships, interconnections and interactions between entities occur. To those who have studied the science of ecology, such a conceptualisation will be familiar, since ecologists are concerned with both the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components of environmental systems - and especially with the interactions of those components. In fact, the term 'environment' is often used interchangeably with an ecological term 'ecosystem', which may be defined as a community of interacting organisms together with their physical surroundings. The notion of interrelationship is a central one in environmental science and management, since many environmental issues have occurred because one environmental system has been disturbed or degraded - either accidentally or deliberately - as a result of changes in another.

A systems analysis approach

By focusing on the interactions and interrelationships between different parts of the environment, we are using language that is characteristic of a systems analysis approach - or a systems framework - and applying it to the understanding of environmental science and management. Indeed, many environmental scientists now tend to think in terms of the whole 'earth system' and its components, subsystems and processes. In some ways, the term 'earth system' is a more useful one than 'the environment', not least because it highlights the fact that the natural world is a dynamic, complex entity with its own laws and processes, rather than being simply a passive space that is inhabited, exploited and given significance by humans. Moreover, increasingly, scientists have acknowledged that the study of environmental science and management should ideally be interdisciplinary in nature, so that insights from many academic disciplines and scientific specialisms are available to inform the study of environmental issues. This is particularly important when it comes to understanding complex global environmental issues, such as climate change, which affect all parts of the earth system and which require expertise beyond the scope of any single academic discipline. A further consideration is that the study of environmental science and management is, ultimately, focused on the planetary scale - since the earth system forms an integrated whole with many processes that operate globally. This is not to say that the study of environmental issues at other scales is unimportant; indeed, the management of localised environmental issues - such as the pollution of rivers - is critically important for human communities, livelihoods and well-being, as well as for the health and integrity of ecosystems. Nevertheless, the study and management of local and regional environmental issues belongs - rightly - within a holistic, integrated, global context. And whilst the study of the earth system may be subdivided, for convenience, into categories such as 'geosphere', 'atmosphere', 'hydrosphere' and 'biosphere' - as well as into smaller categories - it is important to emphasise that such categories interact and overlap at all spatial and temporal scales.