What is the relationship between environment and society? What kinds of impact do human groups make upon the planet? How have environmental (or ecological) limits shaped human behavior, cultural practices and social institutions? What do developments in science and technology, economic practice and government policy tell us about the changing forms of nature-society relationships? These are some of the questions that germinate discussions about issues pertaining to environment-society relationships.
Environment: Stems from the French world viron, meaning a circle, a round, or the country around. Hence environment means the external conditions and influences affecting the life of an organism, or entire societies, or the “physical and biotic infrastructure” supporting populations of all kind. In this way environment is the total physical and material bases of all life, including land, air, water, and the vital material resources and energy in which societies are embedded. It may be called natural environment.
Natural environment: The earth's surface and atmosphere, including living organisms, air, water, soil, and other resources necessary to sustain life.
Environment serves three distinct functions for societies:
- Provides our home, or the space in which we conduct our activities (living space);
- Supplies us with the resources that are necessary for living (supply depot); and
- Acts as a ‘sink' for absorbing the waste products of modern industrial societies (waste repository).
These three functions may compete with each other.
Because of increase in population and the related activities:
- There is substantially more conflict between the three functions,
- The total human demand or ‘load' may be exceeding the long-term carrying capacity of both specific areas and even of the global ecosystem.
Ecology: The study of interaction of living organisms and the natural environment. Like any other species, humans depend on the natural environment. But it is the humans who have the culture. With the development of culture human beings transform the environment, for better or worse. Where human beings have put nature to its service, the whole process has germinated problems of solid waste, pollution, global warming, biodiversity, etc. Who created all this? Obviously these are the results of human actions. Hence one looks at some of the fundamental social issues like: What “the environment” means to people? How do the meanings (thoughts, hopes, fears) change? How human social patterns put mounting pressure on the environment?
Planet is a single eco-system. Echo is ‘house', which reminds us that this planet is our home and that all living things and their natural environment are interrelated. It is a system composed of the interaction of all living organisms and their natural environment. Such inter - connectedness means that changes in any part of the natural environment ripple through the entire global ecosystem. For example, ozone is a layer in the atmosphere that restricts the entry of harmful ultraviolet radiation. As a result of environmental changes it is in the depletion process.
How have people gained the power to threaten the natural environment? Human beings have the capacity to develop culture. Continuously the technology is being improved. Human beings have moved from hunting societies to pastorals, to agriculturists, to industrial society and to postindustrial society. In this process of development it has been seen that humans consume natural resources and release pollutants.
Can we say that man has been bending nature? In this process the role of rich countries has been crucial.
They produce 1000 times more goods than the poor nations. Raise the standard of living produce more solid waste and pollution.
Where there are material benefits of technology there are negative effects on the environment like:
Running an environmental deficit: A profound and negative long-term harm to the natural environment caused by humanity's focus on short-term material affluence. The concept of environmental deficit is important for three reasons. First, it reminds us that the state of environment is social issue, reflecting the choices people make about how to live. Second, it suggests that environmental damage - to their air, land, or water - is often unintended. By focusing on the short-term benefits of, say cutting down forests, using throwaway packaging, we fail to see their long-term environmental effects. Third, in some respects, the environmental deficit is reversible. Inasmuch as societies have created environmental problems, in other words, societies can undo many of them.
Population Increase: After technology, the rapid growth of population is another threat to the environment. With the economic development the previous balance between the high birth rate and high death rate has been disturbed by the rapid decline in the death rate and the birth rate lagging behind in its slow decline. The resultant demographic transition has lead to population explosion. By the end of 20th century the planet earth was carrying more than six billion people, out of which about five billion were in the relatively poor countries. Poor people have no choice but to consume whatever is available in the environment.
How about consumerism? So many autos need oil pollution. Planet suffers from overdevelopment.
Cultural Patterns: Growth and Limits
Our cultural outlook - especially how we construct a vision of “the good life' - also has environmental consequences. People look for material comfort whereby progress and science become the cherished values. Logic of growth is the additional consumption of environment. Nevertheless, the finite resources put limits to growth. Humanity must implement policies to control the growth of population, production, and the use of resources in order to avoid environmental collapse.