Whatis the relationship between environment and society? What kinds of impact dohuman groups make upon the planet? How have environmental (or ecological)limits shaped human behavior, cultural practices and social institutions? Whatdo developments in science and technology, economic practice and governmentpolicy tell us about the changing forms of nature-society relationships? Theseare some of the questions that germinate discussions about issues pertaining toenvironment-society relationships.

Environment:Stems from the French world viron, meaning a circle, a round, or the country around. Hence environmentmeans the external conditions and influences affecting the life of an organism,or entire societies, or the “physical and biotic infrastructure” supportingpopulations of all kind. In this way environment is the total physical andmaterial bases of all life, including land, air, water, and the vital materialresources and energy in which societies are embedded. It may be called naturalenvironment.

Natural environment: The earth’s surface and atmosphere, including living organisms, air,water, soil, and other resources necessary to sustain life.

Environment serves three distinctfunctions for societies:

• Provides our home, orthe space in which we conduct our activities (living space);

• Supplies us with theresources that are necessary for living (supply depot); and

• Acts as a ‘sink’ forabsorbing the waste products of modern industrial societies (waste repository).

These three functions may competewith each other.

Becauseof increase in population and the related activities:

• There is substantiallymore conflict between the three functions,

• The total human demandor ‘load’ may be exceeding the long-term carrying capacity of both specificareas and even of the global ecosystem.


Thestudy of interaction of living organisms and the natural environment. Like anyother species, humans depend on the natural environment. But it is the humanswho have the culture. With the development of culture human beings transformthe environment, for better or worse. Where human beings have put nature to itsservice, the whole process has germinated problems of solid waste, pollution,global warming, biodiversity, etc. Who created all this? Obviously these arethe results of human actions.

Henceone looks at some of the fundamental social issues like: What “the environment”means to people?

Howdo the meanings (thoughts, hopes, fears) change? How human social patterns putmounting pressure on the environment?

Global Dimension:

Planetis a single eco-system. Echo is ‘house’, which reminds us that this planet is our home and that allliving things and their natural environment are interrelated. It is a system composed of the interaction of all living organisms andtheir natural environment. Such inter-connectednessmeans that changes in any part of the natural environment ripple through theentire global ecosystem. For example, ozone is a layer in the atmosphere thatrestricts the entry of harmful ultraviolet radiation. As a result ofenvironmental changes it is in the depletion process.

Historical Dimension:

Howhave people gained the power to threaten the natural environment? Human beingshave the capacity to develop culture. Continuously the technology is beingimproved. Human beings have moved from hunting societies to pastorals, toagriculturists, to industrial society and to post-industrial society. In thisprocess of development it has been seen that humans consume natural resourcesand release pollutants.

Canwe say that man has been bending nature? In this process the role of richcountries has been crucial.

Theyproduce 1000 times more goods than the poor nations. Raise the standard ofliving → produce more solid waste and pollution.

Wherethere are material benefits of technology → there are negativeeffects on the environment like:

Running an environmental deficit: A profound and negative long-term harm to the naturalenvironment caused by humanity’s focus on short-term material affluence. The concept of environmental deficit is important for three reasons. First, itreminds us that the state of environment is social issue, reflecting thechoices people make about how to live. Second, it suggests that environmental damage – to theirair, land, or water – is often unintended. By focusing on the short-term benefits of, say cutting downforests, 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 environmentalproblems, in other words, societies can undo many of them.

Population Increase: After technology, the rapid growth of population is another threat tothe environment. With the economic development the previous balance between thehigh birth rate and high death rate has been disturbed by the rapid decline inthe death rate and the birth rate lagging behind in its slow decline. Theresultant demographic transition has lead to population explosion. By the endof 20th century the planet earth was carrying more than six billion people, outof which about five billion were in the relatively poor countries. Poor peoplehave no choice but to consume whatever is available in the environment.

Howabout consumerism? So many autos → need oil → pollution. Planetsuffers from over-development.

Cultural Patterns: Growth and Limits

Ourcultural outlook – especially how we construct a vision of “the good life’ –also has environmental consequences. People look for material comfort wherebyprogress and science become the cherished values. Logic of growth is theadditional consumption of environment. Nevertheless, the finite resources putlimits to growth. Humanity must implement policies to control the growth of population,production, and the use of resources in order to avoid environmental collapse.


Technologicaldevelopments, population growth, and cultural outlook have put increasingdemands on the natural environment, and people are becoming concerned. Peoplein the third world countries face grave problems of overpopulation and poverty.What are some of the key environmental issues?

Solid Waste: The “Disposable Society”

Thinkabout a day in your life and collect everything that you throw away. How muchwill it weigh? In an industrial society like US an average person discardsabout 2.5 kilograms of paper, metal, plastic, and other disposable materialdaily (over a lifetime about 50 tons). This is the example of a disposablesociety, where convenience has become a cultural value. A rich society consumesmuch more and most of the items have throwaway packaging. The most familiarcase is that of fast food, served in cardboard, plastic, and Styrofoamcontainers that we throw away within minutes. Countless other products areelaborately packaged to make the product more attractive to the consumer. Theother disposables: the bottles, pens, razors, flashlights, batteries, and otheritems designed to have limited life. We are fast emulating the culturalpatterns of Western society.

Wheredoes 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 itneeds land for disposal, which contributes to water pollution (both above andbelow the ground). For the protection of environment, this waste has to berecycled.

Preserving Clean Water

Oceans,lakes, and streams supply the lifeblood of the global ecosystem. Humans dependon water for drinking, bathing, cooling, cooking, recreation, agriculture, andhost of other activities.

Accordingto what scientists call the hydrologicalcycle, the earth naturally recycles water andrefreshes the land.

Theprocess begins as heat from the sun causes the earth’s water to evaporate andform clouds. Water then returns to earth as rain, which drains into streams andrivers and rushes towards sea. This hydrological cycle not only renews thesupply of water but cleans it as well. Pollutants steadily build up that affectthe water supply and the environment.

Soaringpopulation 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 mustface the reality that water is valuable, and is a finite resource. Greaterconservation on the part of individuals, industry, and farming is the answer.Then there is the problem of water pollution affecting the health of thepeople. It is also part of development and population growth.

Clearing the Air

Oneof the unexpected consequences of industrial technology (especially the factoryand the motor vehicle) has been a decline in air quality. In the developedcountries, great strides have been made in combating pollution caused byindustrial way of life. Laws have made to prohibit air pollution. Scientistshave developed new technologies to reduce the air pollution. But in thedeveloping countries the problem of air pollution is becoming serious. Fuels usedfor cooking and heating damage the air quality. The poor nations are eager toencourage short-term industrial development but pay little heed to thelong-term dangers of air pollution. Cities are plagued by air pollution.

Thereis 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) togenerate electricity; this burning releases sulfuric and nitrous oxides into the air. As the wind sweepsthese gases into the atmosphere, they react with the air to form sulfuric and nitric acids, which turnatmospheric moisture acidic.

Onetype of pollution can cause another. Air pollution can cause watercontamination.

Preserving the Forests

Forestsare 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 thelumber industry, which eats the forests.

Forestsplay an important part in cleansing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide (CO2).With the depletion of forest, the process of cleaning the atmospheres ishampered. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide behaves much like the glass roof ofa greenhouse, letting heat from the sun pass through to the earth whilepreventing much of it radiating back away from the planet. Ecologists thereforespeculate about a possible greenhouse effect, a rise in the earth’s temperature due to an increasing concentration ofcarbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It will result in global warming. Thewarming trend will melt vast areas of the polar icecaps and raise the sea levelto cover low lying land areas of the world. Though this issue has been acontroversy, but certainly it has an effect on biodiversity. Theseforests are home to a variety of 30 million living species. What is thesignificance of this biodiversity? Biodiversity is a rich source for humanfood, a vital genetic resource for research, provides beauty and complexity ofenvironment, and the extinction of any species is irreversible and final.

Society and the environment

It is the operation of society thataffects the natural environment.

Thevalues and beliefs to the operation of a social system are highly important.Therefore the state of the environment reflects our attitudes towards thenatural world. As part of the logic of growth, environment has been used as aresource. Humans have also been trying to solve the environmental problems, andfunctionalists are optimistic that human beings can do it.

Socialconflict theorists maintain that the problems of natural environment resultfrom social arrangements favored by the elites. Elites directly or indirectlyaggravate environmental problems as they advance their self-interest. There isalso environment racism: the pattern by which environmental hazards are greatest in proximity topoor people, especially minorities.

Environmentalproblems from the conflict point of view, result from a society’s classstructure and, globally, the world’s hierarchy of nations. It has been that thehigh-income countries place the greatest demand on the natural environment.Environmental problems are likely to grow worse as in poor societies as theydevelop economically, using more resources and producing more waste andpollution in the process.

Inthe long run, all nations of the world share a vital interest in protecting thenational environment.

Sustainable Society and World

Solutionto the entire range of environmental problems is for all of us to live in a waythat 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 presentgeneration without threatening the environmental legacy of future generations.

Sustainableliving 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 thefuture. Conservation involves using resources more efficiently, seeking alternativesources of energy, and, in some cases, learning to live with less.

Thesecond goal is reducing waste. Whenever possible, simply using less is the most effective way to reducewaste. In addition, societies around the world need to recycling programs. Successdepends upon educating the people to reduce waste and passing laws that requirerecycling of certain materials.

Thethird goal in any plan for sustainable ecosystem must be to bring world population growth under control.

Buteven sweeping environmental strategies – put in place with the best intentions– – will fail without some fundamental changes in how we think about ourselvesand our world. We need to realize that the present is tied to thefuture. Simply put, today’s actions shape tomorrow’sworld. Second, rather than viewing humans as “different” from other forms oflife and assuming that we have the right to dominate the planet, we mustacknowledge that all forms of lifeare interdependent. Thirdly, achieving asustainable ecosystem requires global cooperation.

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