As we have learned in Waking Pakistan Up to the World’s Need to Safeguard the Natural Environment, there is a need for people to be aware of environmental issues, a need which goes chronically unfulfilled.
Before action, there comes the cognition part. All hope of stopping the harm resulting from humanity’s impact on the natural world rests on knowing the situation and being creative enough to think of possible solutions. Trouble is, Environmental issues are themselves a new and developing field in the realm of human study and there is still so much that we have yet to know.
The information we need, extensive as it is, can be summed up as follows. We need to know what is going on and what has been going on with the environment and what human activity will cause what sort of harm and how much harm. The crux of the matter is establishing what it is we do not want to happen. We need to know what are the different future possibilities and chances assuming we do not take action. We need to know what action can be taken and how we may change the future through these actions. Finding solutions to environmental problems involves preventing environmental changes, or reversing environmental changes.
Environmental issues can be summed up as follows. Human civilization is growing rapidly and tremendously, giving it the ability to transform the planet it inhabits. This is largely a new situation, because for most of history until recently, mankind’s presence on Earth was small and grew very slowly. The issues people mostly had to contend with throughout humanity’s existence were relations and conflicts with each other and their endeavors to develop, including overcoming the challenges put in their way by a pristine and untamed nature. But now, in the modern age, the entire globe is in a new situation, in which the natural world is being altered by human beings on a grand scale. By and large, these changes are resulting in negative consequences, compromising the well-being of the planet. Because civilization continues to grow with no end in sight, it is a problem that will define our entire foreseeable future.
That is what modernity is bringing us. Fortunately, modernity also brings us a practically limitless potential for knowledge, for investigating the universe, and for innovation and creativity. We just need to develop capabilities to solve the problems we are creating.
The developed countries, who are the most responsible for large-scale environmental degradation, also lead the way in the field of environmental studies and innovation, like they do with most things, but environmental protection is of critical importance for the entire world. The benefits of modernity are not enjoyed by all. Poor countries both have a low capacity for solving environmental problems and are the most vulnerable to environmental degradation, meaning their people are most vulnerable to suffering caused by environmental degradation.
Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to environmental changes, and itself contributes a great deal to regional environmental degradation. As such, our stakes in this planet-wide crisis are high. It is essential for the well-being of our people and for our nation’s future that we involve ourselves in the global fight to protect the environment. For that, we need expertise first and foremost, which in itself will be a great challenge. So, in this article, we will be exploring what we will need to engage ourselves in if we are to become an environmentally aware nation.
We start with a critical look at Pakistan’s learning environment.
When it comes to Pakistan’s intellectual capacity, our nation has been struggling in many ways. The literacy rate itself is low by world standards, with only 58 percent of the population ten years old and above knowing how to read and write, as far as the latest statistics tell us. Literacy is largely absent in many rural areas. Many Pakistanis are also deprived of formal education in both quantity and quality. Seven million primary-aged children are out of school. Millions experience low standards of schooling, such as teachers often slacking off or being absent altogether. The government has devoted little resources to education for the last several decades. In 2017 and 2018, the education sector was allocated only nine hundred billion rupees out of the government budget, which is unfortunately low for a country with a population that big and that young.
Being as socially stratified a country as it is, a segment of Pakistan’s population is very well-educated, mostly in the cities. Islamabad, the capital, has a literacy rate of 98 percent. Lahore is considered Pakistan’s educational capital though it has 74 percent literacy rate. But just what is Pakistan’s academic performance? It is actually quite modest. Things were really bad in the 90s, when Pakistan lagged behind much of the developing world in terms of spending on research and development. But after the turn of the millennium, the nation embarked on a major program of reform in higher education. Spending on Pakistan’s universities increased tenfold after 2002 and many new universities were created, so Pakistan’s academic output grew. Research publications increased seven fold. According to statistics compiled in 2008, Pakistan produced about 445,000 university graduates per year and in 2009, Pakistan had 162 researchers per million people (the USA had 4651 by comparison). But in the ten years since, Pakistan’s higher education has been steadily deteriorating.
Pakistan’s total academic performance throughout its seven decades of existence can be gauged by the fact that the country has produced only two Nobel laureates, Abdus Salam some decades back for work in theoretical physics that he did in London and Malala Yousafzai for taking a bullet for speaking out against Pakistan’s lack of education. All this for a country classified as a middle power and an emerging economy.
Of course, Knowledge from all around the world freely flows into Pakistan, especially through the Internet. Pakistan also engages in intellectual exchange with the rest of the world through foreigners coming here or Pakistanis going abroad. The country has been involved in programs to make its graduate students and aspiring researchers interact with top international scholars, such as the Landau Meetings in Germany, where some of our students meet with Nobel laureates. Pakistan has been regularly sending university students abroad to study and there are seven million Pakistani expatriates, many of them studying in prosperous countries, but it is causing a brain drain issue for Pakistan. The security situation since 2001 has dissuaded foreign visits to our country a lot.
It so happens that environmental matters, which are a field new to the world, are often neglected in the curricula and R&D of many countries across the world, including Pakistan, where schools don’t give the subject a comprehensive treatment.
In the past, Pakistan paid little attention to environmental issues and public awareness was almost non-existent. The nation first started to really do something in this area in 1983 when the Environmental Protection Ordinance was promulgated, decreeing that governmental bodies should be set up to protect the environment, but little happened in the decade afterwards. It took a long time to formulate policies and environmental institutions were not strong enough to enforce them. Public ignorance of the environment prevalent and while the authorities tried to change that, their efforts made little headway because of the low literacy rate.
The environmental movement in Pakistan grew stronger in the 90s. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Pakistan formulated its comprehensive action plan for the environment, the National Conservation Strategy (NCS). After that, government agencies, civil society, NGOs, the media, and academia became active. Policymakers became more aware of environmental issues and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) began to be made for development schemes. There was a big push to raise public awareness among all sectors of society, with much success. So Pakistan’s development into a nation involved in environmental protection consisted initially of the institutionalization of knowledge, awareness raising, and planning. Once that stage was completed, Pakistan took on the challenge of putting environmental ideas into action, exemplified by the passing of the Environmental Protection Act on December 6, 1997, to replace the totally ineffective Environmental Protection Ordinance. Pakistan’s efforts so far have shown varying degrees of success.
We need to build up on what we have already achieved. Environmental problems are getting worse rapidly over time, and there is a whole lot people still need to learn. So, environmental knowledge must be promoted more among the personnel who run the country. It must be spread more among the masses.
It is only through environmental education that Pakistanis will gain the capability and motivation to be involved in safeguarding the Earth. There are two ways this can happen. Firstly, we need to develop expertise in personnel who dedicate themselves to the field of environmental protection. They can lead the way in action that advances the cause of environmental protection. Secondly, we need everybody, the masses in general, to become involved, because environmental matters are relevant to everybody and especially because all play a part in affecting the environment. The term for that is called Earth citizenship.
For public environmental knowledge, the entire primary and secondary levels of education can be used. At this stage, education is generalized. Students don’t choose what they study but study the same things as everyone else, because they have to learn about life in general. It is in these classrooms that we must incorporate a comprehensive environmental curriculum in order to inculcate Earth citizenship. For professional environmental expertise, we have higher education. This form of education is optional and specified. Students pick what subjects they will study that will be relevant to the kind of careers they are planning to have. In institutions of higher education, we must have well-developed environmental courses so that we can inculcate Earth leaders.
We need to teach general environmental knowledge to all Pakistanis. That includes remote tribal villagers, urban slum dwellers and street children. The destitute must be provided with means of awareness. We should try to include environmental knowledge in what little they can learn, given how important it is in their lives. Besides the basics, Pakistanis must learn about the environmental issues specifically relevant to them, with people of each area being taught what environmental damage is affecting them and what environmental impacts they are responsible for. All must also be made aware of the environmental situation of their entire nation. The global outlook must not be neglected either. Citizens of Pakistan are also citizens of Earth.
People have to be environmentally aware when it comes to their role in life. Many people have occupations that play a big role in environmental degradation or which can be useful for environmental protection, or which will be affected by environmental issues. Whether you are a humble potter or a businessman in a suit and tie in the ISE tower, you must be provided the relevant knowledge as part of your job education. Plus, all those running the country must be well-versed in environmental matters.
Then there are the jobs specifically devoted to environmental protection. You can be an environmental activist, environmental policymaker, environmental inspector, environmental researcher or scientist. For that, we need to institute the proper methods to turn Pakistanis into environmental experts at the top of the hierarchy.
Before we can start thinking about how to deal with environmental issues, we have to think about how we are going to make such thinking happen. What we need first and foremost is education. By that, we mean that knowledge has to be spread, i.e., what people know must be passed on to others. A big problem with environmental protection is that existing knowledge is meager. There are many frontiers of environmental knowledge humanity has yet to enter. But in addition to that, knowledge that already exists often has trouble being obtained by everybody who needs it. So we need to engage in pedagogy, i.e., the methodology of education.
There are two needs of ours, one that knowledge be spread among the masses of Pakistan as widely as possible and the other that existing knowledge be introduced in Pakistan. Socioeconomic factors do not have to restrict the gaining of knowledge because knowledge is not a tangible resource. There is little to expend physically in providing it to people. We just have to find out the right ways to do it (requiring knowledge itself, of course!).
Maybe we need to change our methods. knowledge is not a physical resource but a cerebral one. Why do education activists focus so much on constructing brick-and-mortar school buildings? We must find the most cost-effective ways to spread knowledge.
In the entire global battle to provide universal education, there is one factor that we have not been discussing very much; that is, just what are we supposed to be teaching the world’s underprivileged children once we get them into school? We are trying to give them access to education, but what is that education supposed to consist of?
When, say, a school is finally built in some rural village in Gilgit-Baltistan or FATA, if we teach the children inside the same generic subjects better-off children are taught, which are far off for them, it might be a waste of precious resources. Instead, it is best they be taught information that relates to their immediate concerns. It has to be tailor-made for the situation of the people being taught. Therefore, when providing education to students who were otherwise out of school because of the circumstances they and their families live in, the content of that education should primarily focus on those circumstances.
That includes teaching them why their quality of life is the way it is, teaching them how they can make their lives better. We teach them what is important for them to know like their disaster risks and how the diseases they are vulnerable to can be preempted and treated. In this way, the education can engage the people in helping themselves, i.e., empowering them to fight their circumstances. This way, mass education can also help overcome its central obstacle; motivating the people to avail access to education.
How does the environment figure into this? When poor people cut down forests to get timber and firewood, it brings them immediate benefits. When they are struck by floods and landslides, it brings them immediate problems. When you tell them that their harvesting wood is causing those natural disasters, it is hard to impress upon their minds the connection and you are telling them they should give up some benefits to solve some problems. Getting those people to even listen will be challenging.
The primary goal of providing education to those in difficult circumstances should be making them fully aware of their difficult circumstances and teach them how best to reduce them. As part of that, you teach them how man made impact on the environment contributes to their problems, what problems to expect, and how to take care of the Earth.
One policy we could implement is anonymous and incognito school inspections to make sure the teachers are doing their job properly. Also, we could incorporate technology into schools more, as machines neither slack off nor misbehave.
There is room for improvement in Pakistan’s entire formal education system. Mostly, in addition to what students are being taught, there is the question of how to teach them. A big issue is that rote learning is widespread. It is very much a dictated form of learning, consisting of students memorizing lessons and repeating them in tests. Albert Einstein said that “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” It seems that our traditional methods of education are all about knowing and not enough about understanding.
Education for understanding tends to be more engaging. It gives students more freedom and more motivation to pursue knowledge on their own. It is also the right form of education when it comes to environmental awareness. Repeatable facts don’t help us to uncover how humanity impacts nature. The processes behind environmental degradation are not out there in full view of us. We have to analyze the signs to know they are happening.
Education needs sources of knowledge. There seems to be lack of intellectual resources within Pakistan. Students mostly read Pakistan-made textbooks. To use telecommunication to get to students, Pakistan created its Virtual University. There is a tendency for all such materials to be of poor quality. If lectures (and textbooks) are in English, the language tends to be poor.
We should understand that content made in Pakistan is the best content about Pakistan. The education systems of each country tend to be focused on that country (I might say especially so for developing countries, because only highly developed nations tend to have a cosmopolitan outlook). Same should be the case for environment. Pakistanis need to know more than anyone else all about environmental issues within Pakistan and Pakistanis are also the best people for researching and writing about it. But of course, environmental scholars in the world usually think global and research the environment of the whole world. We cannot count on them to do a thorough job for Pakistan. Therefore, we need to improve Pakistan’s academic capacity so Pakistanis can be adequately taught about Pakistan by Pakistanis. In addition to this, Pakistanis do need to immerse themselves in the global picture, for which all they need is access to global knowledge pool. Generally, becoming experts on the environment entails, in very large part, knowing what the rest of the world knows.
Ours is a world where knowledge and ideas are supposed to flow freely across borders. Pakistan has made English an important language for learning. This enables Pakistan to turn to the rest of the world for educating its citizens.
But the world practices the concept of intellectual property, forbidding many works of knowledge from being copied freely and thus leaving a price tag on knowledge. People in Pakistan therefore may not find it easy to pay for access to the world’s intellectual productions and that which is produced inside Pakistan is often the cheapest, but as we have seen, intellectual publications are not a strong product of our nation.
Whatever economic, social, legal, political, and cultural factors are in the way of intellectual engagement, there are certainly no barriers in the technological sphere. The modern world is optimally designed for limitless dissemination of knowledge in terms of its tools of communication. The most important such tool is the Internet, a global connection of computer networks. Besides allowing people to connect, it has surpassed books as the repository of knowledge. Also, much of its content is free to view. Through the Internet, people in Pakistan are freely able to engage with and learn from the rest of the world, provided they have the appropriate gadget and an Internet connection.
All around the world, people are turning to the Internet for education and educators are turning to the Internet for carrying out their work. Formal educational sources, such as websites with .edu at the end of their URL, are very useful. But nowadays, informal sources are widely available for people, including social media. A lot of education is conducted through casual channels, with two very important kinds being blogs and the YouTube. The big difference between them and .edu URLS, however, is that the latter are a more reliable resource. It is not just how much you learn but also if what you are learning is right, so just remember to check the WordPress or YouTube accounts you are logging onto and find out about the people behind them to see if they are reliable.
One of web’s most renowned resources is the TED series, devoted to lectures on various subjects and on “ideas worth spreading”. TED started its talks in 1990, inviting the world’s experts to speak in front of a large audience of people. Then it went online in 2006 and the impact it made on the public from then on was huge. Anybody who has something important to say can reach out to the world on TED and through countless other outlets as well. Today’s instruments of mass communication serve the purpose of mass education very well. They are a source of education that people can find for themselves and that are possible for people of limited means to access. It is here that environmental education can most thrive. Through the Internet, you can engage in discourse with the whole world about the environment. It is the ideal way to spread environmental literacy throughout the whole world.
The options are limitless. There are so many ways that knowledge can be spread, so many ways that it can be provided to people and so many ways that people can find it themselves. We need to explore them all and find out what are the best ways for each and every person to learn. There is really a vast amount of untapped potential when it comes to how we can learn.
Now, there is one more important matter that we need to deal with. That is, just what is it that we need to learn? As a single field of knowledge, environmental study crosses a variety of other disciplines.
Much of this is because the study of environmental issues involves both the natural world and the human world, which we normally consider to be vastly separate spheres of knowledge. People devoting themselves to one don’t usually pay much attention to the other. Being a naturalist and studying weather patterns or marine wildlife or sediment deposition at a delta or how bacteria act as cloud nuclei sounds like a very different direction from being a historian or a political or social scientist and studying how to resolve international disputes.
But we can’t afford to think that way anymore. We need to apply every field of knowledge to environment. In the following paragraphs, we will begin doing just that.
Our education system must comprehensively teach the knowledge outlined below in order to raise a generation of Pakistanis who can steer the nation towards safeguarding the natural environment.
When studying the world around us, we always need certain tools to help us. One very important toolkit is mathematics. Ah, math. It is something that teachers always push on students all the time in class. It makes a big part of any proper education. That is because mathematics is essential for comprehending the way the world is. It is basically making your brain skilled enough to grasp reality. When you are good at math, you will be good at, by knowing one thing, knowing what else logically follows and you can measure up everything.
For example, by studying simple physics, you know that carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation, so it tends to make the Earth warmer when it is in the atmosphere. But it is only when you are good at math that you can find out things that look quite difficult to know, such as how much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can cause how much warming and how does the increase in CO2 correspond to an increase in global temperatures. And as for something that is really difficult, we need to know how temperatures around the globe can be averaged out to form a big picture, because you can’t just say the world is warming by looking at how hot it is in certain places. Some high-level math is need for mastering this.
Math isn’t a field all by itself but the field behind all fields, including the environment. So you can’t be a good environmental expert without being a good mathematician.
Now, we enter the realm of science. In fact, environmental studies largely consist of science. When you know your science, you’ll be an expert on the environment. Science is the study of the universe all around us. With science, you study how the world is and how it works in physical terms. An essential part of this is studying the universal laws that govern everything. Fundamental principles determine how the universe can be, so we need to know them to fully grasp the universe. There are two scientific fields that are dedicated to this and are therefore fundamental to all of science, physics and chemistry.
Physics is the study, essentially, of how things work, of the mechanisms behind the behavior of the world. Environmental affairs are just one of the countless areas in which it is needed. Knowing physics enables you to know all about how the processes involved in environmental change work, so to be a good environmental scientist, you have to be good at physics. Physics is needed for finding and developing environmental solutions, such as where development of technology is concerned. Technological innovation has always entirely relied on physics (and chemistry).
Of the many branches of physics, the most important can be considered the study of energy. Energy is needed for everything that happens in the universe. It is fundamental to our world. The study of energy has particular importance in environmental issues due to mankind’s demand for energy being one of the basic causes of environmental degradation and environmental degradation occurring mostly through the flow of energy across the natural world being disturbed. The other broad field of physics is mechanics, which is the study of how things work, specifically how matter works. Matter is the physical material making up the world. Knowledge of the laws of forces and motion is a must for knowing about the world, as is the material properties of things.
Of the specific things to study in physics, heat energy is essential because it is a main driver of the workings of the world. Electromagnetism is the same, comprising much of the energy and forces running the world. Both are thus a general part of environmental science. Wave energy is a very big part of our world, so we got to know the various kinds of waves and how they work. Fluid mechanics is a branch of mechanics that is very important for environmental science, especially because air and water are behind almost every dynamic natural process. Nuclear physics is the basis of two important environmental topics, that nuclear energy is a big part of humanity’s prospects for developing clean energy and that radiological contamination, while uncommon, is a severe form of environmental harm when it happens.
There does not seem to be much in physics that is important to the environment, apart from the fact that you need to know how things on Earth interact with the planet’s gravity. However, the broadness of environmental topics means any field could be relevant in some place. There are three examples I can think of in which gravitational physics is environmentally relevant, the tides, Milankovitch cycles, and how Earth’s gravity varies across its surface, which especially has a big effect in determining changes in sea level. Whenever environmental scientists happen to busy themselves with these particular topics, they will have to dive into Newton’s theory of gravity. Like nuclear physics, gravitational physics is relevance to environmental study in only specific ways. Such fields may not be considered a prerequisite for becoming an environmental scientist, but can be studied when you decide to pursue certain environmental topics.
Two major fields of physics of (questionable) importance to the environmental picture are relativity and quantum mechanics. Relativity is physics of very long distances and very fast speeds, which are way out of the bounds of Earth’s environment. Quantum mechanics is physics at an extremely tiny scale. It is the foundation of everything, but not knowing it does not appear to be a severe handicap for an environmental scientist. The situation can be compared to how a zebra’s behavior is determined by its molecular and cellular biology, such as hormones and neurons, but an animal behaviorist does not need to know about any of that to be an expert on how zebras behave.
Quantum physics and relativity are “way out there” types of physics, which don’t directly describe the reality we observe up close. For this reason, some considered them to have no practical benefit, but we now credit these two fields to two of the greatest technological developments in human history, nuclear power and microelectronics. That may be how quantum, relativistic, and other such types of physics can be useful for environmental matters, not for studying the environment, but for seeking innovations for environmental benefits. It is akin to how scientists wishing to change a zebra’s behavior will have to tamper with its hormones and nervous system, requiring them to be fluent in hormonal and neural biology. Much of our quest for saving the environment lies in technological advancement. Since it is still impracticable to halt the march of civilization, we hope that we may one day achieve innovations that will allow humanity to coexist with the environment in a better way. In order to make that possible, we have to look in all directions, which includes diving down to the quantum level. It is safe to say, though, that environmental researchers can ignore physics that is really way out there, like string theory, at least for now.
Chemistry is the other main branch of science that describes the laws of the universe. It is the science of chemicals, thus being basically the study of how things are. That is because chemicals are the composition of all matter. We tend to think of chemicals as being the often nasty synthetic substances we make, which are behind much of the harm incurred by the environment, but the truth is that everything is made of chemicals. Water is a chemical, for example.
H2O, carbon dioxide, amino acids, polycarbonates, PVCs, or whatever, the chemistry of the natural and artificial world plays a fundamental role in environmental issues. By knowing chemistry, you gain the final set of tools needed for understanding these issues as well as being able to find solutions to environmental problems. It appears that the entire field of chemistry is of high environmental importance, with every topic being relevant in ways broad and specific, stoichiometry and chemical reactions, the periodic table, all types of chemical bonds, solutions and precipitation, acids and bases, ions, oxidation, electrochemistry, you name it.
Every category of chemicals plays an important role in environmental matters. One field of chemistry that is particularly important is organic chemistry. It is the chemistry of everything involving carbon. Carbon is a very important element because it can form a tremendous variety of chemical bonds, consequently, it is the basis of all life on Earth, plays a big role in many abiotic natural processes, and is a significant part of the human-built world, with most chemicals created by man being organic. As such, organic chemistry is of huge relevance to the environment.
So we have gone through mathematics, physics, and chemistry, all three of which function as a general toolkit for us. Once you are fully versed in these three areas, you become better at knowing much else. Suppose you are a master mathematician, physicist, and chemist all together. Any environmental topic you come across, it can be very easy for you to learn. We can call math, physics, and chemistry unifying fields for that reason. To illustrate this with an example, if you become an expert in one topic, Newtonian mechanics and associated calculus, you can be good at knowing an endless variety of other topics, such as how a rocket moves or how Usain Bolt runs or how tsunamis happen or how a diesel engine works or how kangaroos jump or how volcanoes erupt. This is generalized knowledge, and if you want to become an environmental scholar, it is worth your while to study such subjects first.
It is time for us now to move onto the numerous specific academic fields that are concerned in environmental studies.
Because environmental matters are all about how the natural environment is being exploited and altered by people, a fundamental part of environmental studies is a full knowledge of the natural world around us. For that, we have the natural sciences. Being an environmental expert in large part involves studying nature. The focus is Planet Earth and everything on it that constitutes the environment that harbors all life. We have to know all about how the natural environment, a deeply interconnected system, is and how it works.
If we are to pick a particular field of natural science, in fact any academic field, that encompasses environmental studies the most, we can say that is ecology. Ecology is the study of how all life on Earth interacts with each other and with the non-living aspects of Earth. Breaking down the basic definition of environmental issue, it is all about living things on Earth, humans and all other species, and how they are faring. It is actually the study of the environment hosting life and so is the core of environmental studies, so much so that the word “ecological” may be used in place of “environmental”, like when we put the prefix eco- before anything to do with environmental concerns.
In order to understand the environment harboring life, first we must understand the planet on which it exists. Scientists tend to divide the Earth’s natural environment into four main spheres, the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere, and each have their respective scientific field of study, geology, meteorology- or rather atmospheric sciences, hydrology, and biology. Each field therefore is of fundamental importance to environmental studies. The first three are often grouped under the banner of earth sciences while biology, or life sciences, is set apart and on its own is a very major part of environmental study. It is behind most of environmental science, in fact. We can say ecology, a branch of biology, unites the four spheres of nature but right now, we have to look at each of the four scientific fields individually.
Geology is the study of the Earth itself, or rather its main body that everything is on. It is the science of the ground beneath our feet, the foundation of the environment. Geology’s main relevance to environmental science is in the characteristics of the Earth and how humanity interacts with it. Civilization largely runs on us digging into the Earth’s crust and extracting materials from it, a main driver of environmental damage. Geologic processes play a fundamental role in shaping the natural environment and are often influenced by human activity.
Environmental matters are heavily concerned with geology but we can say that geology is actually largely unconcerned with environmental matters. The Earth’s vast interior (and anything happening in it, like mantle plumes), which makes up almost the entire planet in terms of sheer scale, is entirely shut off from any interaction with humanity and dynamic geologic processes are usually very slow and work over long periods of time, in contrast to the flowing of water and the rushing of wind, and so have little relevance to the study of the natural environment except where our thinking extends to long periods of time. Plus, the few types of natural phenomena that largely escape human influence are mostly geological, like volcanic and tectonic activity. The part of the geologic world bearing all the relevance to environmental issues is the lithosphere, the entire, outermost layer of the Earth, and the part which is of huge, fundamental importance to environmental issues is the pedosphere, the layer of sediment which comprises most of the Earth’s surface and hence the basis of most natural environments.
There are many geological topics to study for environmental science. One that is very important is geologic resources, how the lithosphere provides us with what we need. And in general, you must study the rocks and minerals making up the Earth’s crust, everything else that is in the Earth’s crust, the rock cycle and how materials pass out of the lithosphere and into the rest of the environment and vice versa, and how geology determines what different parts of the world are like. The Earth’s sediment is, of course, of very broad importance, especially soil. Two geologic processes of enormous importance to the natural environment and hence to humanity’s impact on it are weathering and erosion.
An important part of studying geology in environmental research is that you get a sense of how slowly it took for geological forces to make the natural world the way it is and how rapid in comparison are the human forces that are altering the natural world, often undoing geological forces. You then realize how our impact on the natural world does not easily get reversed and throws the balance of nature out of whack. And in general, you learn how the mark we are leaving on the lithosphere is such a fundamental driver of the degradation of our natural environment.
The atmosphere is the outer component of the entire Earth, the layer of gases wrapping around our planet and serving as the upward background of the entire natural environment. The general study of the atmosphere is called atmospheric sciences. An important subfield of atmospheric sciences is meteorology. It is the study of weather, the dynamic atmospheric activity that mostly goes on in the lower levels of the atmosphere, the troposphere and stratosphere. Climatology is the study of the climate, how weather activity sums up in general and the rules guiding it. Some might think that meteorology is the science of the atmosphere, but “atmospheric sciences” is actually the term encompassing every aspect of the entire atmosphere right up to the edge of outer space.
When it comes to environmental matters, atmospheric matters are overbearing. Highly dynamic, driven by the Sun’s energy, the atmosphere plays a huge role in the natural world, essentially shaping the natural environment. Most natural phenomena are weather-related and the climate is central to how the face of the planet is. On top of all this, humanity is exerting an enormous influence on the Earth’s atmosphere. That is because, in terms of sheer scale, the atmospheric is miniscule, covering the planet like a coating of varnish around a ball. You add in the fact that the Earth’s “varnish” is also very low-density, permeable, and highly active and you can see why it changes at the slightest disturbance. So to sum it up, the atmosphere shapes the natural world to a huge degree and human beings shape the atmosphere to a huge degree. It is therefore the channel through which much of the world’s human-derived environmental change is conducted.
Most atmosphere-related environmental degradation, though, can be divided into two categories, air pollution and climate change. Air pollution derived from human activities tends to be seriously harmful to human beings and other life-forms and comes in a wide variety of forms. But while most forms of air pollution are narrow-ranging, most of the effects of human activity are adding up together to change the very climate of the entire globe. This is mostly through us releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, causing global warming. Global climate change is considered the top environmental issue and it is predicted to fundamentally alter natural environments across the world in ways far out of our reach.
To understand all these very big problems, we have to study the science of the atmosphere, especially meteorology and climatology. As you delve into this subject, you must know first of all that the atmosphere is very much interconnected with itself and with the world underneath. Factors that shape the atmosphere therefore usually have wide-ranging effects and the global climate contains the sum of all these effects being mixed up together. Almost every aspect of the planet shapes weather and climate in some way, such as solar radiation, airborne dust, ocean currents, plant life, animal life, microbial life, the shape of the Earth’s terrain, the color of Earth’s surface, rocks and minerals, volcanic activities, etc. Now that human activity has come into this mix, it is of great importance to us to understand everything about how the atmosphere works.
Hydrology is the study of the Earth’s hydrosphere, which is fundamental to environmental matters and to Earth in general despite being the term for the presence of just one substance on our planet, water. Water’s presence is significant, as it exists in large quantities and behaves in a wide variety of ways. 70 percent of Earth’s surface is covered in water, it shapes our planet in profound ways, and is the foundation of all life on Earth. Life needs water in great quantities to exist and so water shapes how life is present on Earth. Water is also crucial to civilization. We need it for drinking and for producing our food, of course, and water also has an endless variety of other uses for us.
Unfortunately, the hydrosphere has proven to be very vulnerable to human influence, with severe consequences. A very, very large number of environmental issues are water-related, such as water pollution, desertification, aquifer depletion, ocean acidification, melting of glaciers, shrinking of rivers and lakes, changes in ocean currents, acid rain, climate-change driven storms and flooding, the effects of deforestation, spread of waterborne diseases, etc. And generally, water plays a key role in how the environmental changes we are inflicting on Earth are happening. To understand all this, you must immerse yourself in hydrology.
That is no small subject. The hydrosphere is highly complex and, in the form of the water cycle, interconnected. Water also interacts with everything else in the world so much that the hydrosphere merges with the lithosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere in most places. Water is a big part of the atmosphere as vapor and drives the weather to a large degree, it is a potent geologic agent in the form of flowing water, ocean waves, and glacial ice, and it is the main component of the bodies of every living thing on Earth.
There is so much to study in hydrology and studying hydrology will help you know so much. And it all boils down to just that one single substance, water. You first and foremost should study this remarkable substance, so ubiquitous because it has among the most complex physical and chemical characteristics of all the known substances in the universe. Understanding the physics and chemistry of water is therefore an extensive subject in itself, and once you master it, all in hydrology can follow. And once you become proficient in the study of water, the giver of all life, you gain much of the knowledge needed for tackling environmental issues.
For all its influence, water’s biggest importance to Planet Earth is providing the existence of what makes Earth stand out in the universe we know of, life. The biosphere describes the overall presence of life on the planet, but this single term cannot encompass the really complex and widespread nature of life, the study of which, as mentioned, is called biology or life sciences. The role life plays in environmental sciences is so profound that it cannot be summed up in one paragraph or even succinctly described in this article. But we will do an overview of what it means for us. Just know that by reaching biology, you have reached the subject that lies at the heart of environmental matters.
Biology is such a big field that researchers typically only occupy themselves with one of the many subdivisions of biology. The most basic of these fields are molecular and cellular biology. You get to know the fundamentals of life and that enables you to go a long way in environmental science. These subjects can help you get down to the root of many environmental processes and are useful in prediction and innovation. Just be warned that molecular and cellular biology are really, really complex fields. That is because life is that complex. It wouldn’t be so special if it weren’t.
Biodiversity is the term encompassing the variety of life on Earth. If you want to know about life, you will have to know about all the different kinds of life. With several million described species, that is also a really, really big field. But just know what you need to. There are considered to be three kinds of biodiversity, ecosystem diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity. All are important. Genes, species, and ecosystems are said to be the three main aspects of life on Earth.
We will start with genes, the science of which is called genetics. Genetics plays a role in environmental studies in many ways. It defines the various forms of life and determines how traits get passed from offspring to offspring to make life the way it is. You can study the genetic responses of organisms to environmental changes and what effect environmental changes have on an organism’s genetics. Genetics play a big role in population dynamics. One serious issue in conservation biology is that if the population of a certain kind of organism declines to a number close to extinction, it will suffer from a genetic bottleneck, the loss of its genetic diversity, even if the population recovers. Genetic diversity is often overlooked in conservation science, because we tend to focus on species, but the truth is that different genes can also go extinct and we usually wouldn’t want that to happen because different genes have a part to play in our world.
Genetics is foundational to evolution, the mostly long-term science of how life changes in form. It is good to know evolution when it comes to environmental matters. Conservation issues exist in large part due to the fact that living things evolve so slowly that they cannot adapt to man-made environmental changes. We also must know if adaptation is possible. Also, evolution happens quicker the smaller organisms are and evolutionary changes in small life-forms will likely be a big part of the environmental changes people are causing.
Moving onto species, it is actually just one of the many levels of divisions scientists put life into. They classify life on Earth into different groups, classed into main levels, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and species. But scientists have also more levels of classification in the taxonomic tree of life, like domains and subspecies. The term for cataloguing all these different kinds of life is taxonomy. Each taxonomic group often has its own ecological role to play in the world. Knowing taxonomy is basically how you memorize the variety of life-forms.
Major branches of biology are dedicated to the different types of life. One very broad field is microbiology, which is the study of minute life-forms composed of one cell. Microbes consist of viruses, bacteria, archaea, protists, and many fungi. Microbes are invisible and thus easy to overlook but they are a very fundamental part of the world. Their importance in both the natural and human-built environments is huge. One might say microbes are the dominant part of the biosphere in terms of how much they run the world. A major role of microbes in the world is as decomposers. They break down organic substances and release it into the environment as nutrients. They produce many of the chemicals that make up the world.
Bacteriology is the study of bacteria. They are perhaps the dominant type of single-celled organism, so their study is the most important. Virology is the study of viruses, which are a very basal form of life. They cannot even eat on their own but they have a big role to play, keeping populations of more complex microbes in check, sickening and killing many multi-celled organisms, and spreading genes across different organisms. Protists are complex microbes. They are less important than bacteria but have a near-universal presence and occupy the entire range of ecological niches. Archaea are not as abundant a form of life as the other groups. They are mostly extremophiles, living in extreme conditions for life. Their main relevance in environmental matters might be that they will take over whenever environmental degradation gets ‘that bad.’
The study of fungi is mycology. Fungi can be single-celled or multi-celled. They have a fundamental role in the world, mostly by acting as decomposers, thus playing a large part in the recycling and flow of nutrients through the environment. Some consider them the world’s primary decomposers. Many fungi also have a very important role by acting as symbionts with other organisms (it is believed almost all plants in the world obtain nutrients with fungal help) or by being pathogenic agents. Finally, many fungi have important uses for human beings.
There are few environmental concerns directly involving fungi. Fungi are normally so resilient as to be rarely endangered and so widespread as to rarely be invasive (by way of being carried at least). But usually, environmental changes cause ecologically harmful declines or ecologically harmful rise in certain fungi. Environmental change is also how they may be introduced to new places, because they could not live there before. The global spread of fungi is predicted to be a major effect of global warming, leading to severe agricultural losses and decline in many wildlife populations.
On the flipside, fungi can be used in many methods of environmental protection, such as being used for natural pest control so that harmful synthetic pesticides do not have to be used. Scientists in fact believe the kingdom of fungi holds countless secrets that could ultimately help us save the environment. We just have a long way to go in uncovering them, because mycology is a very underdeveloped field. As diverse and important as they are, fungi are not as well-known as plants and animals. They basically run the planet from the shadows.
Photosynthetic organisms are the most important kind of life-form as they are at the base of the food chain, creating their own food through sunlight. They produce the oxygen that makes up a big part of the atmosphere. A big portion of photosynthetic life-forms are microbial and aquatic, like cyanobacteria and algae. They are easy to overlook because they are tiny and/or hidden in water, but they probably are more important for the planet than the land-based plants that we are more familiar with and which exert a more imposing presence. The study of algae is called phycology and the study of plants is called botany.
Botany is a major part of environmental sciences because plants are a very large component of the natural environment. They play a very big role in shaping the planet itself. Among many other things, they create most of the sediment on Earth, prevent it from being eroded, greatly increase the evaporation of water from the ground into the atmosphere, alter the Earth’s albedo, and remove carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. As for the living world, plants made up its matrix. Plants are actually among the few life-forms that create habitats. Most other life-forms on land are surrounded by plants. Plants make up much of their world, in addition to being the ultimate source of food for all life on land.
Human beings have big effects on the world’s plants. The environmental changes we cause often lead to plant declines and we directly clear the Earth of vegetation on a huge scale by using them or getting them out of the way. This has huge environmental repercussions and what we do to plants is a major part of what we do to the Earth. Conservation is so far not a major part of environmental botany because declines in plant populations usually only harm the environment but not threaten the survival prospects of the plant species themselves. We still must not forget that there are plant species out there at risk of extinction.
Now, we are onto the animal kingdom, the study of which is called zoology. It is not very obvious at first what the importance of animals is to the planet. Their presence is not as universal as microbes and not as imposing as plants. But they are the final link in the chain of life. Being large and able to move around, their place in the natural world is vital. They trim the Earth of other organisms like plants and recycle organic matter, enriching the environment, among other roles.
The animal kingdom plays a central role in environmental concerns. Of all the major groups of living things, animals are the most vulnerable to human threats. Many animal wildlife populations are declining, with often debilitating ecological effects, and most species of concern in the field of conservation are animals. Animal populations rising when they shouldn’t are also a significant concern, with invasive animals and animal ecological imbalances being very common problems. Animals play a part in humanity’s influence on the natural world in countless ways. Due to simply the fact that they are such a big part of the natural world, we must know all about animals in order that we can better manage our control over the planet.
The fields of study devoted to different kinds of animals tend to be very well-developed on their own. We will only look at major examples. Entomology is the study of insects. Insects are the most numerous group of animals, with millions of species everywhere on land, and are thus a major part of the terrestrial biosphere. Few insects are known to be endangered, but the importance of this group means they play a very big role in environmental concerns. Also, we should study entomology because when insects are endangered, we usually do not know.
Vertebrate biology is crucial because vertebrates reign supreme in the animal kingdom on large-scale. Fish, the study of which is called ichthyology, are all the vertebrates that live and breathe in water, thus playing a big environmental role. Environmental concerns about them are so big because they (along with some other aquatic life) are the only major group of animals to be regularly eaten by humans without being cultivated and so are being over harvested on a grand scale everywhere.
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, which have a very widespread global presence, but not as much as the other major groups of vertebrates. Their abundance varies across the planet, but generally, being ill-adapted to cold temperatures, amphibians and reptiles are most abundant in tropical climates, which is also where the Earth’s biodiversity in general is the greatest.
Ornithology is the study of birds. Due to the fact that most of them have the power of flight, given them great advantages and the ability to move easily over all of the Earth’s surface, birds are an extremely widespread and important group of animals and so figure prominently in environmental processes and environmental concerns.
Mammals, the study of which is called mammalogy, are a dominant group of vertebrates, especially on the large scale. On that account, mammals are a big part of the biosphere and occupy a particular presence in conservation concerns, since big animals are highly prone to being endangered and their decline tends to have large-scale environmental effects.
And finally, in order to take everything in biology we have learned and put it all together into its environmental context, we have ecology. Here is where we reach ecosystems. We have already gone over how ecology is most important in environmental studies. Now, we’ll see what it is about. Ecology takes the subject beyond the individual organism and into the wider world around it, the relationship of life-forms to the environment. Ecology studies three levels of that relationship. First is population ecology, concerning the relations of individuals within a single species. Second is community ecology, concerning the relations of all different kinds of organisms. Third is ecosystem ecology, concerning the relations of organisms and the abiotic world (atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere).
Ecology is all about how the natural environment that living things comprise functions. It studies how energy and resources flow through the living environment and how the balance of life on Earth is maintained. Human beings are disturbing that balance in countless ways, which is responsible for environmental degradation. Knowledge of the extensive field of ecology enables us to know all about how it is happening, how human beings managed to get to the position in which they are doing it, what consequences our actions have, and how we can solve such problems.
Now we know all that we can about the natural world and the way that it is. But there is one more thing to learn, and that is the way it was, Earth’s past. It is a vast field of science but in which there remains much to discover. We know little about the history of the natural world, and we appear to have little incentive to change that. One might think that it has little relevance to environmental matters, which is about what is happening to the natural environment right now and within the span of human history. But it turns out that delving into the past 4.5 billion years of Earth is actually very useful for us.
The global environmental situation is all about the natural world changing because of human influence. In order for us to confidently know how these changes are happening and what changes are going to happen, we need to look at the changes that already happened. The record of the past is the most reliable way to gauge how the world works. It usually takes millions of years for the natural world to change in significant ways. In fact, human civilization is causing changes so severe that it usually takes eons for changes of such scale to naturally happen. We have to look back that far to help us predict what present changes will lead to. There have also been past events in Earth altering the environment with similar rapidity to what is going on now, and these precedents are perhaps the most useful. We are furthermore better able to know if current environmental trends are really human-related or not. Studying the Earth’s past also gives us important insights into how the Earth is now which otherwise would be harder to gain.
When you extend your inquiry of the natural environment into the long-term past, many of the topics already mentioned, which have been explained as not being of overall great environmental relevance, then attain importance because they are the forces shaping Earth’s development over the ages, such as relativity, gravitational interactions, tectonic drift, mantle plumes, and evolution. There is no clear-cut term for the study of Earth’s past. You can call it paleontology, but many also use that for just the study of past life. Whatever you call it, scientific study of the Earth’s past is perhaps among the most difficult of all scientific fields to make discoveries in. It involves examining the traces of past events remaining in the Earth, but traces tend to be destroyed by later events. The traces that are well-protected tend to be hidden deep in the Earth, where it is difficult to access them. The Earth, being as dynamic and constantly changing as it is, does not leave behind a record designed for being read. Scientists need the mind of a forensic scientist to read what it does leave behind. We better do it, because it is really important for us to learn about the processes of great change in Earth’s history before we experience such change for ourselves.
We are now done with the natural world, the inquiry into our planet itself. It is now time to move onto the other half of the equation, the study of humanity and the world that it has created. It is easy to learn, as we are studying our own kind, but it is also, all by itself, a very, very complex subject.
Technology is the best place to start. Behind every single way that human beings impact the environment, there lies our technological and engineering prowess. It is through our tools that the human race has obtained dominance over the planet and the capability to alter it, making the technological sciences, as well as engineering, hugely critical to the entire field of environmental studies. If you are going to be an environmental researcher, chances are that you will have to be well-versed in technology and engineering. It is very common for people to pursue these two fields, but if the environment is on their mind, their knowledge of tech may have to be considerably broad. That won’t be easy due to the huge variety in all the technology and engineering that civilization has created, runs on, and impacts the environment with.
On the whole, technology enables every human activity that harms the environment, so knowing about the technology involved is worth your while when studying environmental harm. But in addition, much of the world’s technology is of such a nature that its very creation, use, and existence is responsible for environmental damage and that is where the focus is on technology and engineering. Making things often uses up natural resources. Most of humanity’s products end up as waste that pollutes the Earth. The structures we build often directly alter the natural environment. And our enormous demand for energy to run the machines that drive modern civilization is one of the biggest forces ravaging the planet.
Technology and engineering may be behind all environmental problems, but they can also provide us with many of our solutions, our main hope in fact. It can be either through designing technology and engineering in such a way as to make them more environmentally-friendly or through actually using technology and engineering to mitigate environmental harm. If you are seeking to become involved in saving the environment, chances are that you are going to have to get involved in this sort of thing.
It is now time for us to move onto the study of us, the very human species, and the societies we create. Anthropology is the term for the general study of the human species. It is a scientific field and it mostly looks at human beings as a biological construct. In fact, we must not neglect the biological nature of humanity in environmental matters. Human beings are living organisms, very unique organisms, who occupy a position in the ecological balance of life which right now is getting way out of bounds, and to study how this race of highly intelligent, sophisticated beings are altering the planet, we have to first look at what these beings are, what they are like, what is their very nature.
That includes studying their capabilities and their needs, their demands, and their wants which dictate their relationship to the world around them. The science of human behavior, comprising behavioral anthropology, is crucial. An integral part of it is psychology, which intimately studies the human mind.
We also need to study the human body. It is called human physiology. We could say that in environmental studies, the human body is the most important living body to study out of all the individual living species in the world. Just like living things in general, the human body is extremely complex. There is in fact much about it that we have yet to discover. Perhaps some of those secrets could hold the key to saving the planet.
The biggest aspect of the relationship of human beings with the world around them concerns the food we eat. Food is all the substances in world (except water and oxygen) which need to go into our bodies to sustain and nourish us. The human diet plays a very big role in humanity’s impact on the natural world. To study this vital subject, we turn to nutrition and food science. However mundane such a topic of study sounds, the science of food and human nutrition is a very, very complex field. You can tell by the endless variety of food available for you to eat, unless you are poor, and how much you can study if you get into a cooking class. The cooking class, by the way, is just one place, though it may not be readily apparent, into which you can bring environmental action, where you can act to save the planet.
Every subject that we have gone over is placed under the umbrella of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). What is left for us to explore from here can be classified as the humanities. Humanity is the driving force behind all environmental issues and so can be considered the center of environmental matter. So last, but not least, we shall study human society and the ways by which civilization operates, giving us core insight into the processes behind manmade environmental change.
Social sciences is a general term for studies pertaining to human society. It is not very well defined. But first, we start with a subject that is well defined, sociology. Sociology is the study of the masses, of how human society functions in terms of the ordinary people making it up. This is crucial to environmental matters. It is often overlooked, but the real driving force behind human impact on the environment is everybody. A single ordinary individual alone does not really cause any harm through lifestyle choices and actions. But there are 7 billion others like us on this planet and when you add up all the people around us, they together are the force laying waste to the natural environment through what they are doing.
Sociology is the field that studies this, looking at what happens as a result of the sum of the actions of the individuals comprising the society. Sociologists can’t be aware of the individual. They cannot know each person, but they can know the common patterns in human behavior, what sort of behavior is how common and what effect it has on the society as a whole. We also must know what effect it has on the environment as a whole. Sociology is vital for us in this regard, because what ordinary people, the seven billion in total, decide to do plays a fundamental role in human impact on the environment. Most environmental actions have to take into account the behavior of ordinary people and whether they will comply with policies in favor of a healthy environment.
Sociology may be about what people do. But just as consequential to the environment is there being people at all. The fact that the human population stands at seven billion itself is responsible for tremendous impact on the natural environment. To get to know this, we need demography. It is the study of human populations and what kind of people there are. It studies not only the size of populations but how populations change through birth, death, and movement, the number of people with certain characteristics such as religion, language, and race, and the age and gender ratios of a society. Overpopulation is one of the causes of environmental degradation and doing something about it is one of the most important goals of environmental protection. We must know how it is happening and the factors behind population dynamics like the youthfulness of populations of developing countries.
Every human society, of course, has guidance in the form of some sort of authority. The word for that is usually politics. Studying the political sphere of the world is of great important to the environment in many ways. Politics has always enabled and shaped human activities impacting the environment. It is also a big part of the solutions to environmental problems the world is seeking. In fact, it could be said that environmental protection largely relies upon the various forms of authority that govern society. The behavior of human civilization is behind environmental degradation, so centralized authorities are often required to curb such behavior. Most environmental solutions we can think of so far are political, with policies and laws being used to implement environmental protection. Therefore, to know how to protect the environment, we have to become familiar with politics. It is often called political science or simply politics.
Human authorities and political processes have always played an major role in the functioning of the world. There has been interaction between human impact on environment and the politics controlling human activity. So studying that will mean studying how to bring political change for the environment. We should also study the implications of different political systems for the environment. One common political phenomenon playing a big role in environmental concerns is war. In modern times, war tends to cause tremendous environmental harm. We should become involved, not only in how conflict affects the environment, but also in conflict itself and how to stop it from happening or make it happen in a controlled way to minimize harm.
Environmental phenomena do not pay any heed to borders and so tend to end up being of international concern. Human activity in one country can cause environmental harm in another. Solving environmental problems often requires the cooperation of several countries, every country in the world in some cases. Not only are international relations a big part of environmental matters but environmental matters are increasingly becoming a big part of international relations in this day and age.
Rules are always an integral part of governance. They are known as laws in that case and it so happens that the world has generally turned law into a whole domain of its own, separate and of great importance. That is because justice is considered a vital concept of its own. We need to see now how the environment is covered by justice. The study of the world of law is called legal studies and it is really wide-ranging in what it covers, since there are laws for most aspects of human life, and the environment now figures prominently in that coverage. Law is very important for the environment because it is for management of human activity. So when it comes to the activity harming the environment, law always has the potential to determine what happens and, in fact, environmental protection hinges a great deal upon law. One of the main ways to get human beings to stop harming the environment is to pass laws forbidding them and in, many cases, it seems to be the only practical solution. But using laws to protect the environment, or for anything else, is far from a simple matter and you need to dive into the immensely complicated field of legal studies to master it.
A crucial part of the political and legal world is how the common masses figure into it and for that, you have civics. In its strict definition, civics cover all those who are classified as citizens of a state. Civics covers the role they play with regards to the running of a country. Its scope is important for the environment. How people can be turned into good citizens of the Earth has a lot to do with how they function as good citizens of their country.
Sad to say, rules are meant to be broken and not everyone decides to be a good citizen. To study that all-too common phenomenon, we turn to the field of criminology, the study of crime, a type of social studies. It is an extensively pursued field, but the environmental aspect of it is not as developed as it should be, even though crime is highly consequential to the environment. Since laws are such an important means of implementing environmental protection, law-breaking is an important source of environmental damage (just note, though, that criminology covers only the activities that land you in a criminal court, not a civil court, even though the latter are also a major scourge of the environment). We see that in the widespread illegal trade in endangered natural resources all around the globe, all the poaching and all. My forecast for the future is that, in the absence of everything else, crime may become the world’s main environmental threat, because even if environmental protection is ever fully institutionalized, you can’t get everybody on board.
We now get onto one of the most important fields in human intellect and one that is of such high importance to environmental matters that even its name is derived from the same root as the name of the central environmental science, ecology. That field is economics, the study of the economy. Everything we have just gone over, sociology, politics, law, etc. can be considered the study of what human beings decide to do, but economics is the study of what they can do. Human civilization needs resources to exist, needs the flow and exchange of means to function and thrive, and the economy is the measure of it all.
So, of course, economy is pretty much behind all environmental degradation. People do things that harm the environment in order to service the economy, the prime goal of civilization. So we need to study economics. How the environment gets treated is shaped to a fundamental degree by events and processes in commerce, business, and finance. The solutions we are seeking for the environment hinge in large part upon the economy, how we shape the economy to make it more environmentally-friendly and how we use economic methods to solve environmental problems. We also need to know how economic factors figure into every kind of solution we look for, whether it is developing new eco-friendly technology like renewable energy or pushing for legislation putting restrictions on harmful activities like industrial pollution.
Economics is a very complicated field. If people bother to pursue it to the huge extent that they do, it is mostly for their own benefit, because economic activity is how you make a living. But we need to use this science for working for the well-being of the planet so that all life on it can continue living. It can be hard to explain what the essence of economics is, but to break it down, when you know the economy, you know at the fundamental level how human civilization operates, how it came to be the way it is, and how its relations with the natural world work.
Our last remaining field in the study of the human world is history. It is the study of the human past, everything that happened in the world, and so of course combines the other human subjects above into a chronology. It is a very big field, one of the biggest out there, we can say. It is also considered one of the most important. The importance of history is often expressed in the saying that those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But that is rather specific. History, as a record of how the world has been, teaches us all about how the world functions and by describing the events of the past leading to the world we live in now, it makes it easier for us to understand our present world. Historians study the facts about what happened and analyze them to determine the factors guiding the course of history.
Now, history as an academic field is usually dedicated to strictly human affairs. But when we incorporate environmental affairs into the study of the past, we have to bring the past of the natural world into the fold. We are now going to look at the entire history of human beings impacting the natural environment. It is distinct from the paleo-science we dealt with earlier, which is about the history of the natural world before man made influence.
History’s importance for the environment is particularly high. This is because environmental issues are all about how the natural environment used to be pristine and normal but human beings started to influence it more and more over time, leading to the problems we have now. As a result, a view towards the past is an innate part of environmental knowledge.
History is useful in many ways. In order to make a thorough assessment of environmental degradation, you need to know what the environment was like before that degradation set in. Also, much of the changes made to the environment are the result of human activity stretching far back in time, so you also have to delve that far back to know why such changes are here. There is widespread debate about whether some types of environmental change observed today are really the result of human activity or if they are entirely natural. A vital method in resolving such questions is studying the environmental changes that already occurred within the span of human history and finding out what caused them. We need to study the human events behind environmental change. In addition, when we look at all the past situations in which human beings treated the environment better than they do now, we can apply their ways to the present. We need to look at how environmental change influenced human societies.
So we need to embark on a journey into the past. That entails a global perspective, because the entire world’s past, known as world history, can be studied for environmental purposes. We thus need to ascertain which areas of history are important in which way. The world has not been a monolithic bloc for most of history, which is why terms like Medieval History are not a good way of classifying world history, because the word “medieval” describes only circumstances in Europe. Of course, Europe tends to be the historical focus in western education (which has rubbed off on non-western countries due to colonization), but environmental education will require us to abandon that narrow view and look at the entire globe in intimate ways, even if Europe has particular relevance in being the root of modern environment problems (more on that shortly). If we are to divide history for environmental purpose, the best way to do it is not chronologically but in terms of the stages of the development of civilization.
A very important question in environmental history (as with any history course) is when and where to begin. The history in question is the history of humans influencing the environment in artificial manners, but we don’t just have to start right at where that first began. We can also look at its background and get to know the processes leading to it. But as for the question of when it all began, we can say first that the world truly was thoroughly natural when all human beings lived in the Old World tropics. Then, in the late Pleistocene epoch, they spread throughout Europe, northern Asia, Australia, and the Americas, a movement that was accompanied by mass extinction of all the megafauna there. The human arrivals therefore were likely responsible, making it the world’s first man made environmental degradation (and what a start!). This is where we can begin, therefore, although it is really so far back that it is ambiguous if the late Pleistocene mass extinction could be considered part of history or paleo-science. All we may say, perhaps, is that those events serve as the progeniture, the primeval genesis, of a situation that now engulfs the entire planet.
It was not until the invention of agriculture, happening all over the world in the early Holocene period, that man-made environmental impact really started to kick off. It is thus in these times that our historical study really begins. We should find out how agriculture was invented and what impact it had from the beginning. Agriculture made possible the steady development of civilization over the next several thousand years, so next we have to pay attention to this era of time, comprising most of world history. While the world as a whole during this time was highly diverse, the entire age can be classified under the term “pre-modern history”.
Compared to modern times, the Earth saw little man-made environmental degradation during the 10,000 years of pre-modern history. That is because human civilization existed on a small scale, grew very slowly over time, and was very unevenly distributed, with some parts of the world remaining free of it altogether. Nevertheless, the study of the many millennia before modern times has high importance to environmental studies. We need to know how people and nature interacted all this time for many reasons. Firstly, the very fact that human activity went on for several thousand years is responsible for changing the natural world in major ways. In much of the world, the environment we are destroying today is really the environment created by our predecessors over the ages. More often than not, human activity way back in the past has effects lasting to this day. Furthermore, people across the ancient world also often lived in harmony with nature, so we need to know how. Where human impact upon the environment really happened in earnest, we need to how people began to damage the environment and how.
The defining environmental feature of the pre-modern age is that civilization was largely static, changing only very little for long periods of time. Consequently, human activity impacting the environment tended to last for long periods of time with little in the way of further development. This provides us with crucial insights. Firstly, it means that environmental degradation in many cases was allowed to run its full course. Nowadays, the world is so rapidly developing that the damage already inflicted has little effect because we, so far, can go on to exploit the environment even more. But in the millennia of old, people kept exploiting the environment at the same level perpetually. They thus often experienced the ultimate results of their actions. In many cases, it was that the environment sustaining them collapsed, which then often resulted in the collapse of their civilization. The fall of many civilizations in world history is attributed by historians to environmental change. In some cases, it may have been entirely natural, but in many other cases, it was likely self-inflicted. We need to know when and how this happened and what lessons it holds for today.
Finally, we need to study the age of “today” and what led to it. Therefore, we move onto our final area of study, Modern History, the era of history which lasts to the present and which began, by most considerations, around six to five centuries ago. This part of history is what takes center stage in environmental affairs and is of main importance to us. That is because it is within the last five centuries that the natural world began to really buckle under the weight of human civilization, because the growth of civilization took a great leap forward and proceeded at a rapidly accelerating scale which continues today.
And what happened to make this possible? Beginning with Portuguese and Spanish voyages into the Atlantic Ocean in the 1400s, people from the continent of Europe explored and reached out to the entire globe, subsequently also colonizing, occupying a major commercial presence in, and dominating most of it. As a result of this worldwide revolution in human affairs, they created a highly interconnected globe enabling the world to develop so rapidly that in a few hundred years, we’ve gone from wooden sailing ships plying the seas to spacecraft traveling across the solar system. Along with this tremendous progress comes a tremendous cost in terms of the health of the natural environment of Earth. In order for us to know about the situation the entire world is now in, we need to know how it all came to be.
It is no simple matter. Modern history is as complex as the world it has produced. Nowadays, environmental damage is mostly the result of how much civilization is growing, but previously, for most of modern history, westerners and the people they influenced actually behaved in a thoroughly environmentally destructive manner. As they colonized and spread across the world, westerners exploited nature as much as they could, leaving behind a legacy and a mark on the world that is tremendous. We need to study how the environment was and how indigenous societies treated it before western influence. Then, we move onto recent history, beginning around the early to mid-twentieth century, when the world created by western dominance came into its final form. It was in those times that the world finally became conscious of environmental issues, but by then, it was too late, rendering environmental protection the great challenge it is now.
Having engaged in this voyage, we put the circumstances of the present-day and all that may happen in the future into their context, which gives us a clear perspective on the global environmental crisis. In studying environmental history, every subject we have taken a look at in this overview, has to be put together and woven into a comprehensive account of all that is already past. This, in turn, helps us to understand what is happening now and enables us to predict what may happen in the future, the view towards which is another innate part of environmental knowledge. The future, in fact, is the main environmental concern, because where we are going from here is the most important question. In order to answer that question, in order to prepare for the future and take control of it, we must possess as much knowledge as we can and we must practice as thorough an understanding of it as we can. It is in this endeavor of ours that hope for our Earth’s natural environment rests.
About the Author:
Shahzeb Khan is a blogger, opinion columnist, and environmental activist. He authored the children’s book The Tiny King and the Evil Sorcerer, written to inculcate environmental awareness in young minds. He is the co-director of Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management and in charge of its research department. His personal blog is https://jshahzebkhan.wordpress.com/.