What is environmental science?
This self-imposed question sometimes serves as a reminder of why I studied (and continue to study) environmental science. Sometimes it’s a motivator. And who knows, it might even help me answer the question “What do you do with an environmental science degree?”
But most of all, it’s a guide. A guide to where I want to be and what I want to achieve. A guide that will allow me to make a positive impact on the world and leave behind an earth that future generations will live on and not say, “Man, those few generations were really selfish.”
Because I have long thought about how to answer this question and have since gained much knowledge on environmental issues through professional experiences, the answer has become even more convoluted – so let’s stick to the basics.
To start off, environmental science is not just one science. It is an interdisciplinary study involving the natural, and more recently, social sciences. The biological and physical sciences include biology, ecology, geography, and more. The social sciences include sociology, economics, and political science.
In a nutshell, it’s a study of how the earth works. I think we all can agree on that. But that’s not all. It’s also a study of how we (humans) are affecting the earth’s systems (“the environment”) and how we are going to deal with subsequent environmental problems as we continue to develop and improve our standard of living.
So, what is “the environment”? As you read above, the environment is the aggregate of earth’s systems. There are many, many systems that provide life-sustaining services to humans, but they can be grouped into 4 categories: 1) Air 2) Water 3) Soil 4) Living Organisms (Biota
When people say we must protect the environment, what they should be saying is we should protect the air, water, soil, and living organisms. We should protect what sustains us. We should protect what will sustain future generations. We should protect us. The earth will be fine.
We are affecting the air, water, soil, and biota in many ways we understand and in ways we have yet to fully understand (think climate change or “fracking”). We have solved many environmental problems, but there is no shortage of new ones.
How we deal with new environmental problems will be in much the same way as we did in the past. First, there must be a need. Necessity is the mother of invention, and dealing with environmental problems is no exception. That’s how humans work. After the necessity arises, we’ll innovate, develop new technologies, and (hopefully) pass legislation.
A good example is how we cleaned up our air here in the United States after heavy industrialization. We first recognized the need (filthy air and health problems), then passed legislation such as the Clean Air Act We also installed new scrubbing technologies on coal-burning power plants. China is now dealing with these very same issues.
I’ll stop here before I get too far off topic. Hopefully this explanation of environmental science will be useful to students, professionals, and other citizens alike.