What is the relationship between environment and society? What kinds of impact do human groups make upon the planet? How have environmental (or ecological) limits shaped human behavior, cultural practices and social institutions? What do developments in science and technology, economic practice and government policy tell us about the changing forms of nature-society relationships? These are some of the questions that germinate discussions about issues pertaining to environment-society relationships.
Environment: Stems from the French world viron, meaning a circle, a round, or the country around. Hence environment means the external conditions and influences affecting the life of an organism, or entire societies, or the “physical and biotic infrastructure” supporting populations of all kind. In this way environment is the total physical and material bases of all life, including land, air, water, and the vital material resources and energy in which societies are embedded. It may be called natural environment.
Natural environment: The earth’s surface and atmosphere, including living organisms, air, water, soil, and other resources necessary to sustain life.
Environment serves three distinct functions for societies:
• Provides our home, or the space in which we conduct our activities (living space);
• Supplies us with the resources that are necessary for living (supply depot); and
• Acts as a ‘sink’ for absorbing the waste products of modern industrial societies (waste repository).
These three functions may compete with each other.
Because of increase in population and the related activities:
• There is substantially more conflict between the three functions,
• The total human demand or ‘load’ may be exceeding the long-term carrying capacity of both specific areas and even of the global ecosystem.
The study of interaction of living organisms and the natural environment. Like any other species, humans depend on the natural environment. But it is the humans who have the culture. With the development of culture human beings transform the environment, for better or worse. Where human beings have put nature to its service, the whole process has germinated problems of solid waste, pollution, global warming, biodiversity, etc. Who created all this? Obviously these are the results of human actions.
Hence one looks at some of the fundamental social issues like: What “the environment” means to people?
How do the meanings (thoughts, hopes, fears) change? How human social patterns put mounting pressure on the environment?
Planet is a single eco-system. Echo is ‘house’, which reminds us that this planet is our home and that all living things and their natural environment are interrelated. It is a system composed of the interaction of all living organisms and their natural environment. Such inter-connectedness means that changes in any part of the natural environment ripple through the entire global ecosystem. For example, ozone is a layer in the atmosphere that restricts the entry of harmful ultraviolet radiation. As a result of environmental changes it is in the depletion process.
How have people gained the power to threaten the natural environment? Human beings have the capacity to develop culture. Continuously the technology is being improved. Human beings have moved from hunting societies to pastorals, to agriculturists, to industrial society and to post-industrial society. In this process of development it has been seen that humans consume natural resources and release pollutants.
Can we say that man has been bending nature? In this process the role of rich countries has been crucial.
They produce 1000 times more goods than the poor nations. Raise the standard of living → produce more solid waste and pollution.
Where there are material benefits of technology → there are negative effects on the environment like:
Running an environmental deficit: A profound and negative long-term harm to the natural environment caused by humanity’s focus on short-term material affluence. The concept of environmental deficit is important for three reasons. First, it reminds us that the state of environment is social issue, reflecting the choices people make about how to live. Second, it suggests that environmental damage – to their air, land, or water – is often unintended. By focusing on the short-term benefits of, say cutting down forests, using throwaway packaging, we fail to see their long-term environmental effects. Third, in some respects, the environmental deficit is reversible. Inasmuch as societies have created environmental problems, in other words, societies can undo many of them.
Population Increase: After technology, the rapid growth of population is another threat to the environment. With the economic development the previous balance between the high birth rate and high death rate has been disturbed by the rapid decline in the death rate and the birth rate lagging behind in its slow decline. The resultant demographic transition has lead to population explosion. By the end of 20th century the planet earth was carrying more than six billion people, out of which about five billion were in the relatively poor countries. Poor people have no choice but to consume whatever is available in the environment.
How about consumerism? So many autos → need oil → pollution. Planet suffers from over-development.
Cultural Patterns: Growth and Limits
Our cultural outlook – especially how we construct a vision of “the good life’ – also has environmental consequences. People look for material comfort whereby progress and science become the cherished values. Logic of growth is the additional consumption of environment. Nevertheless, the finite resources put limits to growth. Humanity must implement policies to control the growth of population, production, and the use of resources in order to avoid environmental collapse.
Technological developments, population growth, and cultural outlook have put increasing demands on the natural environment, and people are becoming concerned. People in the third world countries face grave problems of overpopulation and poverty. What are some of the key environmental issues?
Solid Waste: The “Disposable Society”
Think about a day in your life and collect everything that you throw away. How much will it weigh? In an industrial society like US an average person discards about 2.5 kilograms of paper, metal, plastic, and other disposable material daily (over a lifetime about 50 tons). This is the example of a disposable society, where convenience has become a cultural value. A rich society consumes much more and most of the items have throwaway packaging. The most familiar case is that of fast food, served in cardboard, plastic, and Styrofoam containers that we throw away within minutes. Countless other products are elaborately packaged to make the product more attractive to the consumer. The other disposables: the bottles, pens, razors, flashlights, batteries, and other items designed to have limited life. We are fast emulating the cultural patterns of Western society.
Where does this waste go? Since most of it is not recycled, so it never ‘goes away’. It needs landfills and poses several threats to the natural environment. So it needs land for disposal, which contributes to water pollution (both above and below the ground). For the protection of environment, this waste has to be recycled.
Preserving Clean Water
Oceans, lakes, and streams supply the lifeblood of the global ecosystem. Humans depend on water for drinking, bathing, cooling, cooking, recreation, agriculture, and host of other activities.
According to what scientists call the hydrological cycle, the earth naturally recycles water and refreshes the land.
The process begins as heat from the sun causes the earth’s water to evaporate and form clouds. Water then returns to earth as rain, which drains into streams and rivers and rushes towards sea. This hydrological cycle not only renews the supply of water but cleans it as well. Pollutants steadily build up that affect the water supply and the environment.
Soaring population and complex technology have greatly increased the societies’ appetite for water. Even in parts of world that receive significant rainfall, people are using groundwater faster than it can be naturally replenished.
We must face the reality that water is valuable, and is a finite resource. Greater conservation on the part of individuals, industry, and farming is the answer. Then there is the problem of water pollution affecting the health of the people. It is also part of development and population growth.
Clearing the Air
One of the unexpected consequences of industrial technology (especially the factory and the motor vehicle) has been a decline in air quality. In the developed countries, great strides have been made in combating pollution caused by industrial way of life. Laws have made to prohibit air pollution. Scientists have developed new technologies to reduce the air pollution. But in the developing countries the problem of air pollution is becoming serious. Fuels used for cooking and heating damage the air quality. The poor nations are eager to encourage short-term industrial development but pay little heed to the long-term dangers of air pollution. Cities are plagued by air pollution.
There is also the danger of acid rain. It refers to precipitation, made acidic by air pollution that destroys plant and animal life. It begins with power plants burning fossil fuels (oil and coal) to generate electricity; this burning releases sulfuric and nitrous oxides into the air. As the wind sweeps these gases into the atmosphere, they react with the air to form sulfuric and nitric acids, which turn atmospheric moisture acidic.
One type of pollution can cause another. Air pollution can cause water contamination.
Preserving the Forests
Forests are falling victim to the needs and appetites of the surging world populations. Land is cleared of forests for using it for other purposes. Then we have the lumber industry, which eats the forests.
Forests play an important part in cleansing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide (CO2). With the depletion of forest, the process of cleaning the atmospheres is hampered. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide behaves much like the glass roof of a greenhouse, letting heat from the sun pass through to the earth while preventing much of it radiating back away from the planet. Ecologists therefore speculate about a possible greenhouse effect, a rise in the earth’s temperature due to an increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It will result in global warming. The warming trend will melt vast areas of the polar icecaps and raise the sea level to cover low lying land areas of the world. Though this issue has been a controversy, but certainly it has an effect on biodiversity. These forests are home to a variety of 30 million living species. What is the significance of this biodiversity? Biodiversity is a rich source for human food, a vital genetic resource for research, provides beauty and complexity of environment, and the extinction of any species is irreversible and final.
Society and the environment
It is the operation of society that affects the natural environment.
The values and beliefs to the operation of a social system are highly important. Therefore the state of the environment reflects our attitudes towards the natural world. As part of the logic of growth, environment has been used as a resource. Humans have also been trying to solve the environmental problems, and functionalists are optimistic that human beings can do it.
Social conflict theorists maintain that the problems of natural environment result from social arrangements favored by the elites. Elites directly or indirectly aggravate environmental problems as they advance their self-interest. There is also environment racism: the pattern by which environmental hazards are greatest in proximity to poor people, especially minorities.
Environmental problems from the conflict point of view, result from a society’s class structure and, globally, the world’s hierarchy of nations. It has been that the high-income countries place the greatest demand on the natural environment. Environmental problems are likely to grow worse as in poor societies as they develop economically, using more resources and producing more waste and pollution in the process.
In the long run, all nations of the world share a vital interest in protecting the national environment.
Sustainable Society and World
Solution to the entire range of environmental problems is for all of us to live in a way that does not add to the environmental deficit. We have to look for ecologically sustainable culture, which refers to way of life that meets the needs of the present generation without threatening the environmental legacy of future generations.
Sustainable living calls for three basic goals. The first is the conservation of the finite resources, that is, satisfying our present wants with a responsible eye toward the future. Conservation involves using resources more efficiently, seeking alternative sources of energy, and, in some cases, learning to live with less.
The second goal is reducing waste. Whenever possible, simply using less is the most effective way to reduce waste. In addition, societies around the world need to recycling programs. Success depends upon educating the people to reduce waste and passing laws that require recycling of certain materials.
The third goal in any plan for sustainable ecosystem must be to bring world population growth under control.
But even sweeping environmental strategies – put in place with the best intentions – – will fail without some fundamental changes in how we think about ourselves and our world. We need to realize that the present is tied to the future. Simply put, today’s actions shape tomorrow’s world. Second, rather than viewing humans as “different” from other forms of life and assuming that we have the right to dominate the planet, we must acknowledge that all forms of life are interdependent. Thirdly, achieving a sustainable ecosystem requires global cooperation.