Environmental science is often confused with other fields of related interest, especially ecology , environmental studies, environmental education , and environmental engineering . Renewed interest in environmental issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s, gave rise to numerous programs at many universities in the United States and other countries, most under two rubrics: environmental science or environmental studies. The former focused, as might be expected, on scientific questions and issues of environmental interest; the latter were often courses, with the emphasis on questions of environmental ethics , aesthetics, literature, etc.
These new academic units marked the first formal appearance of environmental science on most campuses, at least by that label. But environmental science is essentially the application of scientific methods and principles to the study of environmental questions, so it has probably been around in some form as long as science itself. Air and water quality research, for example, have been carried on in many universities for many decades: that research is environmental science.
By whatever label and in whatever unit, environmental science is not constrained within any one discipline; it is a comprehensive field. A considerable amount of environmental research is accomplished in specific departments such as chemistry, physics, civil engineering, or the various biology disciplines. Much of this work is confined to a single field, with no interdisciplinary perspective. These programs graduate scientists who build on their specific training to continue work on environmental problems, sometimes in a specific department, sometimes in an interdisciplinary environmental science program.
Many new academic units are interdisciplinary, their members and graduates specifically designated as environmental scientists. Most have been trained in a specific discipline, but they may have degrees from almost any scientific background. In these units, the degrees granted—from B.S. to Ph.D.—are in Environmental Science, not in a specific discipline.
Environmental science is not ecology, though that discipline may be included. Ecologists are interested in the interactions between some kind of organism and its surroundings. Most ecological research and training does not focus on environmental problems except as those problems impact the organism of interest. Environmental scientists may or may not include organisms in their field of view: they mostly focus on the environmental problem, which may be purely physical in nature . For example, acid deposition can be studied as a problem of emissions and characteristics of the atmosphere without necessarily examining its impact on organisms. An alternate focus might be on the acidification of lakes and the resulting implications for resident fish. Both studies require expertise from more than one traditional discipline; they are studies in environmental science.
[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]
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Jorgensen, S. E., and I. Johnson. Principles of Environmental Science and Technology. 2nd ed. Amsterdam, NY: Elsevier, 1989.