views updated May 18 2018


The term environment became specialized beginning in about the 1960s to designate the context of human and animal groups, with a special emphasis on the natural world and its physical and vegetal components. Within this framework, the word took on an even more limited meaning and in the early twenty-first century refers primarily to the interaction between human and animal activity on the one hand and to humans and the natural world on the other, principally the impact of the former on the latter. In this context, "environment" is often linked with notions of habitat deterioration and species endangerment, and with appropriate responses to these threats, such as species recording and protection and natural-resource and habitat conservation. In a broader sense, however, environment refers to all elements (physical, biological, psychological, social, and cultural) that constitute the context in which life (vegetal, animal, and human) has evolved and continues to evolve. Four major components of this complex notion are taken into consideration here for their particular historical relevance and importance in Western culture: the notion of animism; materialist conceptualizations of environment (including diseases, medicines, and astrology); theological understandings; and contemporary approaches to the environment and environmental issues.

Early Environment and Animism

In addition to sustaining life, the environment has been a major factor in the shaping of life (vegetal, animal, and human) from its origins. For example, some plants produce chemical substances called alkaloids, known for their therapeutic properties; in some cases alkaloids have a toxic effect, interpreted as an adaptive response of the plant to a stress from the environment, specifically predation. Through their negative action on animal physiology (producing intestinal disturbance or even death), such substances aim at provoking an adaptive reaction in predators (avoidance of grazing), defending the plant species against animal aggressions and reducing the risk of or avoiding extinction.

Human beings are so deeply shaped by environment that not only their behavior but their individual physical characteristics have been interpreted as adaptive responses to environmental parameters. A science of the impact of external factors (including but not limited to the social environment) on individual physical features developed as early as the fourth century b.c.e. in ancient Greece; physiognomy dealt with the description and interpretation of individual physical characteristics. In its original form, it consisted in comparing human and animal characteristics, and in interpreting the former with respect to a resemblance to the latter. Although this science did not explicitly appear before the fourth century b.c.e., it certainly predates that time: already in Homer's Iliad, which related historical happenings dating back to the twelfth century b.c.e. and was probably written during the eighth century b.c.e., warriors are frequently compared to animals. In one of its most evolved forms, such theory aimed, principally with the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso (18361909), at predicting the behavior (especially deviant) of individuals on the basis of the observation, measurement, and type of their physical characteristics, as they were considered to be almost totally determined by environmental factors, particularly but not exclusively of a social and economic nature.

Although the earliest history of the conceptualization of environment cannot be reconstituted, anthropology throws some light on the subject by means of a comparison with contemporary Aboriginal societies. Australian Aborigines, for instance, believe that the environment was created by ancestor beings who are still living in the physico-geographical peculiarities they created (mountains, rivers, deserts, and so on). As a consequence, the environment cannot be modified, for it is charged with totemic value. Similarly, humans belong to and are shaped by their environment (not vice versa). This is so ingrained in Aboriginal thought that individuals consider that they cannot be separated from their territory.

Another approach is provided by analytic ethnobotany and ethnopharmacologythat is, the analysis of the constitution of botanical and pharmacological knowledge in the so-called traditional culture (in fact, non-Western ones). Discovery on the part of human beings of the properties of environmental constituents (for example, the nutritive and therapeutic value of plants) is interpreted as having occurred in two different and opposite ways in the general context of a learning theory by trial and error: (1) by biological transmission from animal to human (namely genetic vertical transmission in the tree of life); or (2) by cultural acquisition through at least two possible procedures (neither of which is exclusive): human imitation of animal behavior (for example, that of bees gathering pollen), and human assessment of heads of poppy as remarkable influenced human cultivation of poppies for medicinal use.

Aboriginal thinking was not absent in the Western tradition. In the cultures of the Near East (Mesopotamia), human diseases were understood to be caused by spirits living in specific areas. Ponds, for instance, were supposedly inhabited by bad spirits generating illness, perhaps what a later age would determine to be malaria. Animistic conceptions of the environment lasted until the classical period, as the treatise On Sacred Disease, attributed by tradition to Hippocrates (c. 460after 377 b.c.e.), shows: the author, probably a physician of the second half of the fifth century b.c.e., argued that epilepsy resulted not from spirit possession but from an internal physical malady.

Materialist Conceptualization and Pharmaceuticals

Within Western culture, materialist conceptions of the environment do not seem to take shape until the sixth century b.c.e. by the philosophers of the school of Miletus (in Asia Minor). From Thales (625??547 b.c.e.) to Anaximander (610c. 547 b.c.e.) to Anaximenes (fl. c. 545 b.c.e.), these thinkers proposed to reduce the multiplicity of the world to its primary substance or archê (principle): water (in the case of Thales), air (Anaximenes), and an undetermined, eternal substance (apeiron ) containing all contraries (Anaximander). It was Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) who fully transformed the environment into an object of study by introducing the concept of matter (ulê ), which made it possible to conceptualize physical processes (from generation to transformation and movement). Significantly, the period from the sixth to the fourth centuries b.c.e. saw the first systematic inventories of all components of the world: physical geography with Anaximander and Hecataeus (sixthfifth century b.c.e.) also from Miletus; human geography with Herodotus (c. 484c. 420 b.c.e.); astronomy with Thales and Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 400c. 350 b.c.e.); zoology with Aristotle and his Historia animalium (Research on animals); botany and geology with Theophrastus (c. 372c. 287 b.c.e.) in the Historia plantarum (Research on plants) and De lapidibus (On stones), respectively.

A fundamental question was the interaction between environment and humans, particularly health issues. The Hippocratic treatise Airs, Waters, Places, probably by the same author as On Sacred Disease (second half of the fifth century b.c.e.), is a study of the implications of environment on human health. The wealth of data provided in the work suggests that the idea was not new at the time, and indeed probably had a long history. The discussion centers on diseases and medicines (especially those made from plants). Diseases were attributed to two different, but possibly complementary, causes: internal disturbances (imbalance of the bodily components) and external effects of the environment. The latter was especially implicated in cases of contagious diseaseepidemics, in the current meaning of the wordprovoked by some corruption of the air, specifically material particles (the miasmata ). As for medicines, their action was explained according to two systems, which perhaps developed chronologically: first, a physical immaterial property (heat or cold, for instance) was understood to be transmitted from the medicinal matter to the body. This system implicitly underpins the most important treatise on medicines of antiquity, De materia medica by the Greek Dioscorides (first century c.e.). Whatever its nature, such a property was conceived as a material element transmitted from the medicinal plantfor example, to the bodyin a way that recalls an archaic conceptualization wherein an immaterial element is transmitted from environment to humans. The nature of the property to be introduced into the body was determined by the nature of the disease, and was intended to compensate for a deficiency according to the principle of allotherapy (contraria contrariis ). In this way, the environment allowed a return to the natural state of the body.

In a more abstract and probably successive phase, the action of medicines (including plants) was conceived as an exchange of atoms (considered as small indivisible particles, not the atoms of contemporary science). Such a system, which was rooted in atomistic thinking and its medical application, so-called methodism (first century b.c.e.), was best represented by the Greek physician Galen (129after 216 c.e.). Although more elaborated (since it could account for a wider range of properties), such explanation relied at the end on the same idea as the previousthat is, an exchange between environment and human physiologywith the idea of reestablishing the natural equilibrium of the body. Dioscorides's system, which was most probably not devised by him but utilized anterior knowledge, included a classification of environmental materials ranked so as to form a hierarchy from positively connoted elements to their opposite, with a gradual loss of qualities according to the principle of entropy. Such a classification reflected the history of the world as narrated in the account of the four ages of humankind. According to ancient tales, humankind passed through four ages (from gold to silver, bronze, and eventually iron), each of which corresponded to a degradation of humans' environment and living conditions. Iron era, the present one, is characterized by work, sufferance, and death. Evolution was seen as regressive, not dynamic as in nineteenth-century Darwinian theory, where evolution proceeds by adaptation to changing circumstances and, consecutively, by selection.

Environment and Theology

Astrology presented a special case of the relationship between the environment and health. According to the archaic theory of the symbiosis of environment and humans, planets were among the elements that exerted an influence on individuals, particularly one's health and the course of one's life. Such a system, already attested in Babylonia at the end of the sixth century b.c.e., was transformed in the Greek world from the fourth century b.c.e. onward, with the development of scientific (observational and explanatory) astronomy: as the passage of planets across the sky was predictable, so was their action on the human body. At the end of the fourth century b.c.e., astronomic astrology encountered Eastern and Egyptian religions (where celestial bodies were personalized and venerated as divinities), particularly with the expedition of Alexander the Great (356323 b.c.e.) to Persia and India, the conquest and occupation of Egypt, and the creation of Alexandria (332b.c.e.). Astrology had a new meaning: from its abstract mathematical form, it was personalized and transformed into a religion-like practice, in which the action of divinitiesthat is, of elements of the worldcould be solicited and guided to a determined target, provided that ritual forms were duly followed.

Such para-religious practices, which were not incompatible with the official forms of religion of the Hellenistic and Roman world, collided with Christianity. Following the Jewish tradition, indeed, the new religion conceived the world as God's creation. A new literary genre appeared as early as the fourth century c.e., the Hexaemeron (The account of the six days [of creation]), which narrated the whole process of Creation, from the universe to humankind, including the paradisiacal environment. Similarly, a new anthropology developed, first represented by Nemesius of Emesa (fourth/fifth centuries c.e.). Creation included a hierarchy at the top of which was human beings, who had been created in God's image. In this context, there was no place for evolution: Creation was perfect, all the more because the negative forces of the world had been defeated. Humans were entrusted with the mission of governing and preserving the world, because humans were a reflection of God's wisdom. This theological concept had an impact on such scientific questions as the causes of disease and the origin of the therapeutic properties of plants and other natural substances. Neither resulted from natural causes: diseases were inflicted by God as punishment of sins, and plants were curative owing to the grace of God. The materialistic system was abandoned in favor of that proposed by Galen, which was much more compatible with the Christian understanding of the environment, due to its immaterial nature. As a result of this new vision of the world, human beings' relationship with the environment was no longer direct, but mediated through God. Such a triangular understanding, which lasted until the seventeenth century at least, did not prevent, however, humans from studying and knowing the world: such an undertaking reflected human beings' nature as God's creation. The study and contemplation of the environment, and the exploitation of its resources, became occasions for individuals to discover and adhere to the plan of God.

Contemporary Approaches

From the Renaissance onward, the idea of the environment underwent several successive and rapid transformations. The natural world became a sphere of aesthetic feeling and theist religiosity; it could restore well-being and reflect as well as be imbued with human emotion. It became an object of positivist study and exploitation for human economic activity during the industrial revolution and afterward. In the twentieth century, understanding of the environment was shaped by a broad range of factors such as extensive farming and overexploitation of natural resources; the systematic screening of floras in search of new molecules with previously unknown therapeutic activity; global transportation favoring the transfer of plants and animals into nonnative habitats, where they become invasive, threatening native biota; and the escalation in the size of industrial plants and commercial vectors. The latter concern is related to such major environmental catastrophes as the oil spill of the supertanker Torrey Canyon off the coast of England in 1967, and of a spill by the Amoco Cadiz almost ten years later (1978) affecting the beaches of France and England; the emission of a vapor cloud containing toxic dioxin after a chemical facility explosion in Seveso, Italy, in 1976; the partial meltdown of an atomic reactor at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979; and the explosion of a similar reactor at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 1986.

The absence of preventive regulations and of policies to compensate for damages to persons and the environment after such disasters, in addition to advances in genetic engineering enabling modifications in nature, and globalization, creating a feeling of ubiquity and a common model of thought, contributed during the last decades of the twentieth century to initiatives addressing uncontrolled technological development and the dangers posed to the environment. The modern ideology of continuous and cumulative advances in technological civilization and hence of social well-being came into question, with lingering concerns that history does not necessarily lead to a better future. This was accompanied by the notion that social and technological progress had led to humans being cut off from their environment. Perhaps in reaction to this feeling, an avid search for connection began, for a recovery of a direct and personal contact with nature, a reengagement with traditional environmental values. Such a return took several different forms and affected many if not all areas of contemporary societies in developed countries, from scientific research in traditional (natural) medicines, for instance, to repatriation programs, to protection of the intellectual property of local, namely traditional, communities on the uses of natural substances, to large-scale international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992). "Ecotourism," environmental management, and sustainable development were all concepts aimed at leaving to future generations a healthy and viable world.

See also Animism ; Bioethics ; Evolution ; Materialism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought ; Nature ; Religion ; Science: Overview ; Technology .


Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Chadwick, Derek J., and Joan Marsh, eds. Ethnobotany and the Search for New Drugs. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley, 1994. An overview of current research methods and approaches.

Convention on Biological Diversity. Available at http://www.biodiv.org/convention/articles.asp.

Dubos, René. "Environment." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Edited by Philip P. Wiener. Vol. 2. New York: Scribners, 1973.

Fritz, Robert S., and Ellen L. Simms, eds. Plant Resistance to Herbivores and Pathogens: Ecology, Evolution, and Genetics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Johns, Timothy. The Origins of Human Diet and Medicine: Chemical Ecology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996. On the adaptive responses of plants to stresses from the environment, including the process of domestication.

Larchet, Jean-Claude. Théologie de la maladie. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1991.

Robic, Marie-Claire et al., eds. Du milieu à l'environnement: Pratiques et représentations du rapport homme/nature depuis la Renaissance. Paris: Economica, 1992.

Rumsey, Alan, and James Weiner, eds. Emplaced Myth: Space, Narrative, and Knowledge in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Schultes, Richard Evans, and Siri von Reis, eds. Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Portland, Ore.: Dioscorides, 1995. A selection of readings.

Touwaide, Alain. "Therapeutic Strategies: Drugs." In Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, edited by Mirko D. Grmek. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Whorton, James C. Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Alain Touwaide


views updated May 09 2018


ENVIRONMENT. People farm Earth's biosphere to produce food for the sustenance of the human species. Thus, human food systems are part of Earth's complex ecological systems. All of these systems begin with interactions with the sun, which is the ultimate energy source. Sunlight enables plants to manufacture carbohydrates through the process of photosynthesis, in which chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy, synthesizing organic compounds from inorganic compounds. Plants take carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic elements for this conversion process from the air and soil. Humans obtain their nourishment directly from plants, or from animals nourished directly or indirectly by plants. Thus humans ultimately rely on air, soil, water, and sunlight for sustenance.

Humankind has a strong interest in not fouling the environment, as contaminants in the air, water, or soil can end up in the plants that people or their food animals eat. An extreme example of such contamination was the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in the Ukraine. Although hundreds of thousands of people fled the area that was immediately affected by the explosion, as many as three million people still live in contaminated areas in this farming region. As a result of the ecological devastation from this disaster, enormous amounts of money have been and continue to be spent in an effort to relocate communities and decontaminate the rich farmland.

Environmental Progress and Challenges for Agriculture

Agriculture and food systems play a major role in the ecological health of Earth, including the number and diversity of life forms that inhabit it. Half of the land mass of the United States, excluding Alaska, is privately owned crop, pasture, and range land. As noted in America's Private Lands: A Geography of Hope, the farmers and ranchers who manage these 907 million acres play a key role in maintaining the abundance of these natural resources for present and future generations.

Driven by changing economic and demographic trends, agriculture has become more consolidated, intensified, and specialized. At the same time, there has been increased scientific and public awareness of the detrimental environmental impacts of some agricultural activities, such as the problem of soil erosion. However, by adopting new practices and working with government conservation cost-share and technical-assistance programs, farmers are significantly reducing many of those detrimental impacts. Although soil erosion threatens the future productivity of 29 percent of cultivated acres in the United States, farmers reduced soil erosion on U.S. farmland by 38 percent from 1982 to 1997. Much of this reduction was accomplished by changing from traditional plowing to no-till or minimum-tillage systems that disturb the soil less and leave a protective layer of crop residue. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Program, take marginal or fragile croplands out of production and assist landowners with plantings or practices to buffer stream banks and enhance wildlife habitat. Wetlands, including productive yet fragile ecosystems like prairie potholes, have been restored, and the nesting success of ducks has increased.

Many livestock farmers and ranchers have improved grazing management to benefit livestock productivity as well as soil, water, and wildlife resources. For example, the United States and several western European nations are addressing the problem of excess manure in areas with high concentrations of livestock. Farmers are developing nutrient-management plans to make the best use of fertility-building resources in manure and to prevent excessive field applications or run-off into waterways.

Problems with water quality and water supply due to agricultural practices persist in some areas and have recently emerged in others, such as in the northeastern United States, where the water supply has not been a problem historically. Water quality also affects both freshwater and saltwater fisheries (discussed in more detail below). Careful management of agricultural production is critical in maintaining the ecological health of many estuaries (nurseries for fish and shellfish stocks and food webs). Efforts to improve nutrient management and agricultural conservation practices in the extensive watershed of the U.S. Chesapeake Bay are evidence of the growing awareness of the ecological links between farming and fishing.

Developed countries in North America and western Europe use a combination of technical assistance, incentives, and regulatory approaches to address environmental problems associated with agriculture. However, a lack of human and economic resources limits the ability of developing countries to address environmental problems associated with agriculture or other human activities. The clearing of forests in Brazil continues to accelerate in an effort to develop agricultural production for export. Land is cleared for crops and cultivated pasture, much of it to expand livestock and crop production for export markets. The USDA's Agricultural Baseline Projections February 2002 report (Westcott) predicted that the conversion of undeveloped land into arable land in Brazil's interior will gain momentum over the next decade. Brazil's share of the world soybean market is projected to grow from 28 to 35 percent by 2011.

In his 2000 Nobel anniversary lecture, agricultural researcher Norman Borlaug noted that irrigated agriculture uses 70 percent of global water withdrawals, covers 17 percent of cultivated land (about 679 million acres), and accounts for 40 percent of world food production.

Loss of genetic diversity in crop plants and livestockdriven by market rewards for high yield, cost-efficiency, and product uniformityis increasingly recognized as an environmental concern for agriculture. Other concerns include agriculture's effects on biodiversity and health of critical habitats. Working agriculture can be a positive or negative factor in all these areas of environmental concern, depending on local site conditions and management practices.

World Fisheries and Food Security

Fisheries contribute to world food security, especially since fish are a major source of protein for some of the world's poorest populations. Per capita fish consumption varies among countries, depending on economic wealth, cultural traditions, and fisheries resource base. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), world per capita fish consumption has been increasing since the 1960s, a trend that has been accompanied by increasing incomes. Global trade in fish and shellfish continues to grow and gain importance in developing countries. However, a practice of over-fishing now threatens fisheries around the world. Consumption of fish has been increasing quite dramatically for at least half a century, and stocks have been severely depleted. Too many fish have been harvested with too little thought or provision for protecting the resource base so that it can continue to produce sustainably. U.S. efforts to protect fisheries from over-fishing are showing some results. For example, some long-threatened resources, such as cod and haddock stocks in New England, have begun to recover after decades of decline. However, achieving international cooperation to protect coastal and estuarine environments and to manage and sustain world fisheries remains a challenge.

Toward a More Sustainable Aquaculture

Aquaculture, often promoted as a solution to over-fishing, has expanded dramatically in Asia for domestic and export markets. As with agriculture, the environmental impacts of aquaculture can vary greatly over the range of management systems and practices. The article "Effect of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies," by Naylor et al., describes the paradox of aquaculture as both a possible solution and a contributing factor to the collapse of fisheries stocks worldwide.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, capture fisheries provided a decreasing share of world food fish, while the share that aquaculture provided surgednearly tripling from 10 million metric tons in 1987 to 29 million metric tons in 1997. World capture fish harvests leveled off at around 8595 million metric tons per year, with the catch shifting from larger, higher value carnivorous species of fish to smaller, lower value fish used to make feed for farmed fish. Four of the top five capture fish species were used in feed production for the aquaculture and livestock industries.

Alteration of habitatespecially the large-scale transformation of mangroves and coastal wetlands in Asia into fish-and shrimp-farming pondsalso harms wild fish nurseries and the ecological health of coastal wetlands, coral reefs, and related marine habitat. Other factors that diminish wild fisheries are the collection of wild seed stock, food-web interactions (e.g., over-fishing of small fish species that form the food supply for marine predators, including valuable fish species consumed by humans), introduction of exotic species and pathogens, and nutrient pollution from fish farms.

Aquaculturists farm more than 220 species of finfish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Raising carnivorous species such as salmon, which consume wild fish for feed (producing one pound of farm-raised salmon takes eight pounds of wild fish), can create problems such as inter-breeding of wild fish with escaped farmed fish. But some aquaculture benefits estuarine and marine ecosystems, such as filter-feeding oysters, mussels, clams, and some carp, all of which help purify water. A range of fish and shellfish farming systems are being developed for different species, locations, and conditions. Naylor et al. (pp. 10211023) offered four primary goals for the sustainability and continued growth of the aquaculture industry: (1) expand farming of smaller, lower feeding-level fish; (2) reduce use of fish meal and fish oils in feed; (3) develop integrated farming systems; (4) promote environmentally sound aquaculture practices and resource management.

Food and Ecosystems: Linked since the Rise of Civilization

Humans have always interacted with their environment in order to obtain food. Local ecosystem characteristics, such as the types and quantities of edible plants and plants eaten by food-producing animals, have significantly affected the evolution and development of human societies and cultures. In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond traced many of the outcomes of human history, including the comparative advantages of different societies and the availability and relative abundance of different types of plants and animals. For example, a hospitable growing environment with deep, fertile soil, adequate rainfall, and moderate temperatures provides people with a food-producing advantage. (Examples are the traditional "breadbasket" regions of the world: the midwestern United States, the pampas of South America, the plains of central Europe and the Ukraine, and China's river valleys.) However, through ingenuity, skill, and careful stewardship of resources, humans have produced ample food supplies in challenging environments such as the mountains of Switzerland, the Nile Valley, and arid parts of Australia.

In his book, Diamond also links the development of civilizations to people's ability to produce abundant food supplies in an environment. For example, settlements could become permanent only when people no longer had to wander in search of food, and when they learned to protect and replenish the soil so that they did not have to abandon exhausted farming sites. A sustained and ample food supply enabled societies to develop technology, writing, and political systems, all of which advanced agriculture even further. Highly developed farming systems were the cornerstone of the rise of the Roman Empire and the unification of China. The ancient Romans understood, and wrote extensively about, the practice of sustainable agriculture. They improved plants and animals through selective breeding, and they emphasized the use of manure and composts to replenish and enrich the life-giving capacity of farmed soils.

Lessons from Famines and Ecological Disasters of the Middle Ages

Cycles of disaster and famine in medieval Europe offer an instructive study in the interplay of agriculture and the environment. A series of extreme natural disasters including floods, crop failures, and epidemics among humans and livestock culminated in the Great European Famine of the early 1300s. In the mid-fourteenth century, another wave of natural disasters, which included the spread of bubonic plague, resulted in the loss of about one-third of the population of Europe, with death rates as high as 60 percent in some communities. These famines and ecological disasters most likely resulted from a complex combination of causes. Bruce M. S. Campbell discussed several theories about the famines in "Ecology Versus Economics in Late Thirteenth-and Early Fourteenth-Century English Agriculture," in Agriculture in the Middle Ages (pp. 7697). The floods were most likely part of a period of climate change to cooler, wetter weather, accompanied by storm surges in the North Sea.

Medieval agriculture lacked the dynamism to keep pace with the demands of growing urban populations. In response to food shortages, marginal lands that had been used for livestock, hay, and pasture were now used to raise crops for human consumption. However, reducing livestock numbers not only reduced the quantity of foods produced from animals, but also the supply and use of manure on cropland, which ultimately lessened crop yields.

Lack of technical progress in agriculture, nearly continuous wars, and the extractive feudal economic system made the bad situation worse. Campbell explained (p. 94) that warfare wreaked ecological havoc on the food and agriculture system through physical destruction of crops, livestock, stock, equipment, and physical structures. Burdensome taxes levied to finance warring armies and the expropriation of stock, crops, equipment, and marketing and transportation systems also weakened the existing agricultural systems.

This pattern of famine during and after periods of war or civil strife, often coinciding with epidemics and disastrous droughts or floods, recurs in most modern famines, such as those afflicting Africa since the 1970s. Modern famines show how the ecological, economic, and social destruction of war disrupts the production and distribution of food and, subsequently, a society's ability to feed itself.

From Renaissance to Agricultural Revolution

Significant changes in farming systems that began in parts of Europe during the later medieval period brought about major changes in the ecological health and productivity of the land. Farmers began to combine and integrate crops and livestock in ways that promoted soil quality and fertility and that boosted production. They adopted more intensive and flexible crop rotations, as well as new crops such as oats, turnips grown for animal feed, and nitrogen-fixing legumes. These innovations eliminated the need for fallowing (idling) of land, adding further to sustainable production gains. Campbell found (p. 92) that farmers adopted these systems most readily in areas with natural resource advantages, access to markets, or fewer institutional constraints such as feudal servile tenure or common property rights.

The enclosure of common lands across England in the 1700s and early 1800s transformed agriculture and the English landscape. Well over six million acres, or one-fourth of the cultivated acres in England, were converted from communally held and farmed lands to lands that were privately owned and managed. This conversion enabled farmers to integrate livestock and crops, using manure and crop rotations to restore and improve depleted lands that were formerly pastured or cultivated continuously. The dramatic gains in productivity and prosperity reflect the key role of private property and free enterprise in resource management.

The large amount of available land in the midwestern and western United States lured families to seek new land when the soil became depleted. As a result of this, President Theodore Roosevelt called for a national sense of duty to the land during a 1908 White House Conservation Conference. However, it was not until the dust bowl disaster of the 1930s that major efforts to protect soil and water finally emerged.

The Agricultural Revolution of 17501880 improved yields and adaptation of crops and livestock to local conditions around the world. This period of innovation also set the stage for unprecedented scientific and technical progress in the latter half of the twentieth century. In his Nobel address, Borlaug also noted that in 1940 U.S. farmers produced 56 million tons of corn on 77 million acres of land. In 1999 U.S. farmers produced 240 million tons of corn on 71.7 million acresa greater than fourfold increase in yield per acre, reaped from hybrid seed, fertilizer, and weed control. The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s applied these techniques to rice, wheat, and other crops in the developing world.

Biotechnology and Questions for the Future

In a response to critics who questioned the environmental effects of advances in agricultural science and technology, Borlaug noted that without the dramatic gains in yields brought about by those advances, three times as much land of equal quality would have been required to match food production in the world at that time. Much of that additional 4.4 billion acres of land would have to come from more marginal and environmentally fragile lands.

By the late twentieth century, biotechnology was yielding new adaptations of crops and animals for food and medicine. U.S. farmers quickly adopted new genetically modified crops. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service 2002 report Crop ProductionProspective Plantings, U.S. farmers intended to plant genetically modified seed on 74 percent of soybean acreage, 71 percent of cotton, and 32 percent of corn grown for grain in 2002. Most first-generation genetically engineered varieties were designed to reduce pesticide use or to allow use of more benign chemicals.

Proponents maintain that through biotechnology people will find new ways to increase yields, nutritional and health values, and environmental sustainability of food production. Still, controversy persists about environmental impacts, consumer concerns, and access to the new technology for impoverished people and nations. Some people question the new methods of genetic manipulation on philosophical grounds. Despite his strong support of biotechnology, Borlaug said that national, regional, and world policymakers must resolve serious issues raised by the dominant role of proprietary companies in biotechnology investment and research. He questioned how resource-poor farmers in developing countries could obtain products of biotechnology research and what amount of time product patents should last. Thus, in policymaking processes, societies, governments, and international agencies need to make policy decisions based on credible information about how best to meet human food needs from the land and water while safeguarding valuable resources, ecological integrity, and future productivity.

See also Agriculture since the Industrial Revolution; Aquaculture; Biodiversity; Biotechnology; Crop Improvement; Ecology and Food; Genetic Engineering; Green Revolution; High-Technology Farming; Pesticides; Population and Demographics; Sustainable Agriculture; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety.


Borlaug, Norman. "The Green Revolution Revisited and the Road Ahead." Anniversary lecture. Oslo: Norwegian Nobel Institute, 2000. Available at http://www.nobel.se/peace/articles/index.html.

Campbell, Bruce M. S. "Ecology Versus Economics in Late Thirteenth-and Early Fourteenth-Century English Agriculture." In Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation, edited by Del Sweeney. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Chambers, J. D., and G. E. Mingay. The Agricultural Revolution 17501880. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York and London: Norton, 1997.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2000. Rome: 2000.

Gebauer, Anne Birgitte, and T. Douglas Price, eds. Transitions to Agriculture in Prehistory. Madison, Wis.: Prehistory Press, 1992.

Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162 (1968): 12431248.

Horne, James E., and Maura McDermott. The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 2001.

Naylor, Rosamond L., et al. "Effect of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies." Nature 405 ( June 2000): 10171024.

Pollack, Andrew. "The Green Revolution Yields to the Bottom Line." The New York Times, 15 May 2001.

Russell, Howard S. A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1976.

Sorenson, A. Ann, Richard P. Green, and Karen Russ. Farming on the Edge. DeKalb, Ill.: American Farmland Trust and Center for Agriculture in the Environment, Northern Illinois University, 1997.

Steinfeld, Henning, Cees de Haan, and Harvey Blackburn. Livestock-Environment InteractionsIssues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1997.

U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. Crop ProductionProspective Plantings. March 2002.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. America's Private Lands: A Geography of Hope. 1996.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. National Resources Inventory 1997: Highlights. Revised December 2000.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture. 1997.

Westcott, Paul. Agricultural Baseline Projections. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. February 2002.

Lorraine Stuart Merrill

Urbanization and Development: The Greatest Threat to Agricultural Land in the United States

Between 1992 and 1997 more than 3.2 million acres of prime farmland were converted to developed land, at an average rate of 645,000 acres of prime farmland per year. From 1982 to 1997 approximately 30 percent of newly developed lands were converted prime farmland. Conversion of farms and farmland to the scattered and fragmented development of "urban sprawl" also causes the loss and fragmentation of other farm, pasture, and rangelands, as well as forests, wetlands, and other important habitats.

In Farming on the Edge, A. Ann Sorenson and others reported that 21 percent of prime or unique farmland conversions occurred in twenty major land resource areas that make up 7 percent of the U.S. land base. These most threatened land resource areas are part of or adjacent to expanding population centers and produce some of the highest value agricultural crops and products.

Shorelands and wetlands lose the buffering provided by farm-and forestlands, and non-point-source pollution from storm water runoff increases. Wetlands are a vital natural resource that provide flood protection and enhance water quality, wildlife habitat, and air quality. According to the 1997 National Resources Inventory, nearly 59 percent of wetland acreage is on forestland and 16.5 percent is on agricultural cropland, pasture, and land in the Conservation Reserve Program.

The Aquaculture Rush in China

Asia produces 90 percent of the world's aquaculture output, with China alone producing more than twothirds of the total. Europe, North America, and Japan combined produce just over 10 percent of the total, but these areas consume most of the internationally traded farmed seafood. Excluding mainland China, world fish supplies from aquaculture grew from 3.5 pounds per capita per year in 1991 to 4.7 pounds in 1998. During the same period, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the per capita supply of aquaculture products in mainland China nearly tripled, growing from 13.2 to 37.4 pounds. Fish consumption in China is strongly correlated with economic growth, and freshwater aquaculture is responding rapidly to market stimulus. Many Chinese aquaculture enterprises are family and cooperative farms, often using integrated multiple-species systems to produce lower value, herbivorous species for household subsistence and local markets. As competition increases for land and water resources, more operations are intensifying, and some are producing higher value carnivorous or omnivorous species such as shrimp for export.

The FAO expects aquaculture to continue to grow in Asia, but it also expects the rate of growth to slow when China becomes a member of the World Trade Organization and thus more open to food imports. China may become a market for cultured fish produced in other Asian countries.


views updated May 14 2018


ENVIRONMENT. To reflect squarely upon the environment of early modern Europe, one needs to adopt a perspective shaped by the rise of environmentalism, a way of thinking that gained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. This philosophy calls for a recognition of the intrinsic value of nature and a rejection of the view that humans are somehow outside of nature. Environmental historians are revisiting many of the issues familiar to historians of the early modern age through the perspective of environmentalism, balancing the traditional attention given to people and society with a focus on the environment itselfthe natural and the man-made.

Early modern Europeans thought about the world they lived in. Most earned a precarious living directly from the land, and a minority had the leisure to reflect on the links between their society and the milieus it depended upon. Some worried about perceived changes to the natural world surrounding them, while others eagerly sought ways to improve or better control the features most relevant to economic or social life. Others immersed themselves in the study of nature and reflected upon the place of humankind in the universe. Voyages to very different lands, advances in science and technology, political clashes, and the sheer intellectual dynamism of the period from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment all contributed to the transformation of European thinking about the environment.

Early modern Europeans drained wetlands, tried to improve agricultural practices, and coped with the pollution associated with dense populations. They discovered new resources and worried about the depletion of forests. They sailed to the tropics and mapped their own lands, planted gardens, and fought diseases. All of this can be studied in the long-established fields of history: economic, political, social, and cultural. Other aspects of the period's environment can be explored in works on early modern agriculture and fisheries, mining, public works, urbanism, forestry, science, and medicine.

Not all environmental historians adopt the most rigorous tenets of environmentalism. Some simply share an attitude of respect for nature, perhaps founded on a new awareness of the intricacies and the fragility of ecosystems. Others remain attached to the deeply rooted concept of human stewardship of nature or, more uniquely, proclaim the hybrid character of much of the world around us. Many, in the end, cling to the centrality of human beings to life and, therefore, to history. Yet, however amenable it may be to a variety of interpretations, environmentalism represents an elemental reformulation of an enduring inquiry into the divide between nature and culture. It has led to a genuine broadening of historical research. The following sketch of the thematic and methodological wealth of early modern environmental history is structured around the three poles of the human experience of nature: first, its many and changing representations; second, the rich bodies of knowledge it has fostered; and third, the broad range of institutions and practices developed to guide our daily interactions with the natural world.


The evolution of ideas about nature was first studied through textual analyses before cultural historians expanded this process to a quest for meaningful signs in countless objects. Long before the rise of environmentalism, historians of literature were drawn to the many meanings of the word nature and, distinctly, the quasi-universal explanatory power that it acquired in the eighteenth century. The early modern period soon emerged as a key stage in the evolution of European attitudes toward the natural world. The Renaissance and the scientific revolution advanced more materialistic, less religious, and certainly less magical interpretations of natural phenomena, even before enhancing human agency in these matters. The Enlightenment furthered this positivist trend, readily extending its faith in the perfectibility of humans to society and to its surroundings, while new articulations of private and public interests prepared the way for radical changes in European economies. At the same time, an aesthetic revolution, precursor to the Romantic movement, encouraged a less instrumental, yet still anthropocentric, appreciation of nature. Unsurprisingly, studies of the impact of these key cultural currents upon the ways in which Europeans conceived of their place in the environment reflect regional disparities in their timing and relative strength.

Although for most authors the natural world generally remained just a background, incidental to or even deliberately drawn to advance a thesis, the wealth of early modern literature permits some wide-ranging inquiries. Asking new questions from well-known texts has, for example, identified a great shift in the significance of mountains to early modern society, from repulsive poles to objects of curiosity and, eventually, to a veritable cult rooted in a new appreciation of the sublime. In turn, mountains lent themselves to speculations on the relationship of humans with what must pass for, in a European context, wild spaces. Similar investigations enriched the history of many sciences, including ecology, and influential revisions have turned to social groups often ignored by scholars, revealing, most notably, the pertinence of gender to environmental history.

Students of literature have also invigorated historical research through their probes of the autonomy of a text from its surroundings and the multiplicity of its meanings. This late-twentieth-century trend allows for more critical readings of references to the cultural processes that made sense of the features of a natural milieu for its inhabitants. For instance, considerable work (enriched through collaboration with scientists) has taken place in areas such as the history of natural disasters and of animals, where written records proved singularly opaque because of their moral and exemplary style. More generally, the recent swell of cultural studies also irresistibly expanded the definition of the records likely to expose the mental images familiar to each society. A striking range of cultural manifestations and objects may now testify to the many meanings of various environments, be they obviously man-made, like a garden, or apparently more natural, like a lake, as lasting as a rural landscape or as fleeting as a fair, as universal as bad weather or as singular as early modern tastes for monsters and fantastic lands. Environmental history has much to gain from this blossoming of cultural history since all societies tightly weave their "sites of memory" with their surroundings. Most notably, cultural history has carried the history of landscapes well beyond the social, economic, and agricultural mechanisms of their formation and evolution. It has also brought modes of perception other than the visual within the reach of investigations. Odors, sounds, and tastes now enrich our understanding of the clashes of modernity and tradition characteristic of early modern life, perhaps most evidently in the jumble of urban environments.

Detractors of this embrace of the cultural dimensions of all environments may regret a loss of the "natural," turned into one of the dimensions of human experience rather than a fundamental and unique component of human experience as well as a reality outside of it. Indeed, a cultural analysis tends to present even very natural phenomena as hybrids. Yet, this juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial is precisely what is of interest to many historians when they turn to early modern Europe, because its preindustrial societies remained highly dependent upon environmental conditions while steadily expanding the range of tools available to control their fate.

The ambiguity of early modern stances vis-à-vis nature is perhaps most evident within the context of the great transoceanic expansion that created a frontier of tremendous economic and intellectual importance. This surge of European power, be it associated with the exploitation of tropical islands or the creation of "neo-Europes" by settlers, their animals, their crops, and their parasites, thoroughly challenged perspectives upon nature and the place of humans within their environments. The inquisitive mind of the Enlightenment entertained a great range of interpretations, from highly simplistic schemas to a nascent grasp of the interrelatedness of natural phenomena. Indeed, a loose parallel may be drawn between these intercontinental ventures and recent forays of environmental historians into the similarly unpredictable field of cultural history. Just as the former eventually fostered more relative assessments of the links between social structures and environment, the latter are helping to wrench environmental history away from an overly "essentialist" penchant, most evident in many historical uses of geography and the field of climate history. Exposing the complexities, the vagaries, and the relative weight of the cultural and natural forces that shape identity has made it easier to resist the temptation to link identity and locale too tightly. This is important to the field of environmental history, never entirely free from the specter of determinism.


The contribution of geographers to environmental history is more readily recognized than that of historians of literature. Indeed, it is fair to say that the key to the history of a region or a nation has repeatedly been sought in its geography.

The influence of the French Annales historical school is perhaps most telling in this regard. Starting after World War II, its many disciples were intent on expanding their investigations beyond the political and narrative history that had been common until then. They sought to show history in its social, economic, and geographical contexts by articulating the relationships between a society and its milieu around the concept of "possibilism," that is, suggesting that throughout history, communities strove to make the most of the possibilities offered by a natural milieu while at the same time respecting their own priorities.

The range of closely or loosely Annales -inspired studies of interest to environmental historians is remarkable, in spite of a recognizable rural bias that was perhaps most evident in the early years of this movement. Cities have found the researchers they deserved, ordinary as well as exceptional settings have been treated, and syntheses were not long in appearing. Countless communities, from modest villages to great composite units such as the Mediterranean basin, have been firmly inscribed within their natural parameters, especially with regard to local symbioses between economic practices and resources. Nevertheless, many environmental historians will regret that, in these theses, the significance of a milieu resides precisely in the "thickness" of its links to the socioeconomic structures that it harbored. Environmental features less related to a community and its survival are likely to receive little attention, and some significant fluctuations or even deteriorations of the natural systems surrounding it may remain hidden behind its adaptability.

Like studies of the Annales school, historical geographies of the early modern age may also be said at times to treat nature as a significant but passive background. Nonetheless, historically minded geographers continue to contribute to our knowledge of the evolution of urban and rural landscapes, the emergence of industrial clusters, the ever-changing map of commerce, patterns of land degradation or land reclamation, and so forth. Environmental historians will always profitably revisit such social and spatial arrangements, even if, in their call for a full recognition of the dynamics of a milieu, they choose to focus on the processes of greatest interest to them. They may, for instance, analyze the anthropization of a milieu, that is, the growing role played by humans in its evolution, or they may question its sustainability, seeking in effect a measure of the lasting power of the relationship between a society and its environment.

Many disciplines besides geography are contributing to the growth of environmental history. "Hard sciences," such as medicine, botany, zoology, and ecology, are helping to decipher the material traces of earlier environments. Their contributions are most welcome with regard to prehistoric or particularly long periods with a lack of written sources. However, historians of the early modern age are also learning to use the data provided by ever-sharper scientific tools, to make sense of pollen deposits, animal remains, traces of contaminants, climate fluctuations, epidemics, or, less dramatically, diets. From the social sciences, disciplines such as anthropology, ethnology, archaeology, sociology, or economics, all familiar with the conceptualization of networks and practices that are frequently connected with the environment, also inform many inquiries of an environmental and historical nature. Indeed, the border between environmental history and neighboring fields such as economic history or historical demography ought to remain porous. After all, many productions severely taxed a region's natural resources, and population levels often had a direct impact on European environments, notably in marginal regions. Historians of agriculture, technology, consumption patterns, the material world, military affairs, and many others have much to say about early modern landscapes.


Because the early modern period is at the root of much of the institutional context of European life, the role played by various authorities in mediating the relations between rural or urban communities and their natural surroundings has, quite logically, attracted the attention of environmental historians. A first area of interest concerns the many regulations that anticipated the protection and conservation measures initiated in the twentieth century. Medieval and early modern controls of nuisances were intended to benefit human beings rather than the environment itself. Nonetheless, the range and coherence of the principles they invoked remain significant in the eyes of environmental historians. An array of edicts, intended to protect public health as well as property or the rights of corporate bodies, became law. In many different contexts across Europe, municipal, regional, or even royal powers reached deep into legal precedents to control the deeds of entrepreneurs. While never crafted to safeguard an environment for its own sake, these measures nonetheless tenaciously articulated its many values. Research in this area is often pursued within urban settings, a preference justified by the intricacies and intensities of the issues they raised and the records they left. Beyond the walls of cities, forests also receive considerable attention. Initial probes fueled a long polemic on the overexploitation and an eventual scarcity of wood before the age of coal. Thoughts then turned to the state's intrusions in the relations between these territories and surrounding villages, and soon to the multitude of functions played by forests in the lives of these communities.

Environmental historians also explore the rich world of public works, the early modern period marking an important step in the affirmation of the will of Europeans to restructure their environment. From the great designs of the Renaissance to the sustained eighteenth-century focus on movement and exchanges, from dams to enclosures to land reclamation initiatives, environmental historians are reworking a field familiar to students of engineering, architecture, institutions or, again, agriculture and technology. Their goal is to direct attention away from the heroes or even villains of these stories to the natural milieus where they competed, and their agendas are shaped by important regional distinctions in the timing and types of works undertaken.

Finally, major political landmarks often play a role in environmental histories. Most evidently, the great revolutions that concluded the early modern period were not without impact upon European environments, although it is now clear that in this area as in many others, continuities and changes are not easily sorted out. This truism simply recalls the fact that the early modern age was an age of transition. Then, as before, Europeans continued to reshape their environment without escaping its many imperatives. Yet their successes and failures are of particular interest to environmental historians because they prepared European societies for the radically more assertive attitudes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

See also Agriculture ; Enlightenment ; Industrial Revolution ; Industry ; Renaissance ; Scientific Revolution ; Weather and Climate .


Ambrosoli, Mauro. The Wild and the Sown: Botany and Agriculture in Western Europe, 13501850. Cambridge, 1997; 1st Italian ed., 1992.

Brimblecombe, Peter, and Christian Pfister, eds. The Silent Countdown: Essays in European Environmental History. Berlin, 1990.

Cosgrove, Denis E. The Palladian Landscape: Geographical Change and its Cultural Representations in Sixteenth-Century Italy. Leicester, U.K., 1993.

Corbin, Alain. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge, U.K., 1986; 1st French ed., 1982.

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 9001900. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Glacken, Clarence. Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in the Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley, 1967.

Grove, Richard H. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 16001860. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Johns, Alessa. ed. Dreadful Visitations: Confronting Natural Catastrophe in the Age of Enlightenment. New York, 1999.

Kjaergaard, Thorkild. The Danish Revolution, 15001800: An Ecohistorical Interpretation. Cambridge, U.K., 1994; 1st Danish ed., 1991.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco, 1980.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York, 1996.

Smout, T. Christopher. Nature Contested: Environmental History in Scotland and Northern England since 1600. Edinburgh, 2000.

Thomas, Keith V. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 15001800. New York, 1983.

Watkins, Charles. ed. European Woods and Forests Studies in Cultural History. New York, 1998.

Worster, Donald. Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge, U.K., 1994; 1st ed., 1977.

Zupko, Ronald, and Robert Laures. Straws in the Wind: Medieval Urban Environmental Law, The Case of Northern Italy. Boulder, 1996.

Further references will be found through the web sites of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) and the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH).

Pierre Claude Reynard


views updated May 21 2018


the nineteenth century in environmental history
the transformation of landscapes
energy systems
industrial pollution
cities and pollution
attitudes toward nature and the environment

Human history is embedded in its natural environments. Space and topographical variations encourage or restrict historical development. Industrialization in Great Britain, for example, benefited from low transportation costs made possible by Britain's extensive waterways and long coast. In many countries, the existence of raw materials such as coal or iron ore enabled certain regions to develop as industrial centers (for example, coal mines in the Ruhr Basin). Climate is also a factor in history. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, bad weather frequently caused crop failures and often resulted in famine, which could trigger upheavals such as those that took place on the eve of the French Revolution. The Irish potato famine of 1845 through 1850 was the result of an agricultural blight and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths by starvation and disease, along with massive emigration, changing the social and cultural structure of Ireland. Unfavorable environmental conditions frequently encouraged people to improve their environment through innovation. The Dutch seventeenth-century land reclamation project using dikes and polders not only protected the land from storm tides but was also accompanied by modern, capital-intensive, highly specialized, export-oriented agriculture, which created sustainable economic growth.

the nineteenth century in environmental history

In general, the influence of nature on human life, economy, consumption, and politics was much more important in early modern times than it has been since the twentieth century. Thus the nineteenth century represents a transition period in the relationship of humankind to its environment. The most important factors influencing this transformation were industrialization, the modernization of agriculture, and urban growth. In early modern times, Europeans were limited by the amount of food they could produce. During the nineteenth century, however, and particularly during its second half, they learned to mobilize natural resources and manipulate their environment to an unprecedented extent. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the manipulation of nature became the subject of systematic planning. Europeans disconnected their living conditions gradually from the vagaries of nature—and suffered more and more from pollution.

Some environmental historians argue that industrialization caused the transition from a sustainable to an unsustainable economy. Modern societies, they say, severely damage the environment and rely on nonrenewable resources, especially fossil fuel. Others, however, argue that not even agricultural societies are sustainable, pointing to soil degradation and forest overexploitation in early modern times.

Few dimensions of historical inquiry are as diverse as environmental history. As a general rule, only a regional, and often only a local, approach can produce results of any value. The information contained in this article refers primarily to the industrializing regions of west and central Europe because they pointed the way for Europe's development.


The European population more than doubled between 1800 and 1914. Death rates fell, for example, from twenty-seven per thousand in Germany in 1850 to seventeen per thousand in the early twentieth century. This was mainly due to the increased stability of agrarian production and to improved sanitary conditions in the big cities. Since the eighteenth century, agricultural reformers inspired by the Enlightenment had tried to increase the productivity of farming, proposing more efficient variations on traditional methods. During the nineteenth century, agriculture combined traditional elements, such as crop rotation and the use of human and animal labor, with innovations such as limited mechanization, capital investment, and imported fertilizers (guano, for example) or chemical products (for example, nitrogen-based fertilizers promoted by the German chemist Justus von Liebig beginning in the middle of the century).

Before midcentury, agriculture in certain regions began to specialize and large landowners extended monoculture. In Germany, beginning in the 1860s the regions of Magdeburg and the lower Rhineland were dominated by the intense cultivation of sugar beets, which replaced imported sugar cane. Entrepreneurs opened sugar refineries in the vicinity. The German sugar regions provide a good example of the dependence of commercial monoculture on technical improvement, capital investment, and proximity to infrastructure. In the south of France, Languedoc became a vast monoculture of vineyards. The ecological fragility of monocultures was demonstrated by the phylloxera blight in the late nineteenth century, which devastated French wine production.

the transformation of landscapes

Agrarian modernization had an important impact on the European landscape. The growing influence of agronomics (i.e., the scientific research for the improvement of rural economy) made agriculture increasingly uniform. Local biodiversity was reduced by monocultures and general biodiversity was reduced by selection of the most productive cultivated plants. On the other hand, the agricultural use of non-European species (such as the potato) and the importation of ornamental plants from overseas increased the number of species populating the European countryside and both urban and rural gardens. Since the late eighteenth century, the draining of wetlands had been a central goal of agrarian policy. In England, for example, the enclosures of the late eighteenth century, transforming common ground into privately owned land, encouraged private investment in drainage. Since the Napoleonic era, the French government had supported the draining of marshes by private and public landholders. The most significant wetland drainage and construction of irrigation canals had been carried out by 1860 and nearly all of France's shallow marshes had disappeared. The amount of arable land had been expanded and severe diseases such as malaria had become less of a threat.

Many of the big central European rivers were altered in order to reclaim fertile land for agriculture, reduce flooding, and improve transportation. One of the most significant of these projects was the alteration of the Rhine between 1809 and 1876, which reduced by one-fourth the distance ships had to travel between Basel and Bingen and also accelerated the river's flow, lowering the water table. In the late nineteenth century, floods on the lower Rhine were commonly attributed to these measures. In the early twentieth century, in the

most industrialized regions of Europe, several rivers were turned into mere canals, used for shipping and to absorb waste water.

Modern forestry also changed European landscapes. In the early modern period, forests were used in ways that often conflicted. These uses included pasturing, hunting, berry picking, producing charcoal, gathering firewood, and cutting timber for building. In general, forest use was regulated to at least some extent by common law. Beginning in the eighteenth century, authorities began to transform forests into public or private property. German foresters developed the idea of sustainable use (nachhaltige Nutzung), in which cutting had to be planned carefully and balanced by new plantings. They considered the production of timber the main goal of forestry, banning other uses from the woodlands. As a result, forests often were turned into rationally designed plantations of rectangular monocultures, uniform in both species and age. Where scientific forestry dominated, the result was a forest vulnerable to disease, insect predation, and storm. In many regions, the wooded areas expanded, and foresters often favored conifers over other trees. Landes, near Bordeaux, which had been one of the biggest swamplands in Europe, was transformed into an immense woodland under Emperor Napoleon III when millions of stone pines were planted. The German Black Forest, which had been deciduous woodland, was replanted with pine trees and firs.

Industrialization also altered the notion of space during the nineteenth century, when the mobility of persons and goods increased. In Great Britain, 2,500 miles of canals were built between 1750 and 1815; they constituted 95 percent of the canals in use in 1900. Nevertheless, railways dominated nineteenth-century traffic. The age of the railway started in 1825, when the first public line opened between Stockton and Darlington, in England. By 1850 the French railway network comprised approximately 1,900 miles. In 1885 118,000 miles of railroad were built in Europe, including 25,000 in Germany, 19,000 each in England and France, 6,000 in Italy, 2,500 in Belgium, and 100 in Greece. Railroad building itself constituted an important interference with the environment and also allowed Europeans to move natural resources far from their sources.

energy systems

Industrialization was accompanied by a revolution in the use of energy. The wooden or solar era ended when coal was introduced for industrial use. The early modern economy had relied on renewable energy sources such as wood, charcoal, water, wind, and human or animal labor. Whereas these sources of energy were based on the short-term input of solar energy, fossil fuel is solar energy captured over millions of years. By the end of the nineteenth century, fossil fuel had enabled Europeans to overcome the energy shortage that had hindered economic growth in the eighteenth century. Coal-fired engines empowered humankind to mobilize natural resources seemingly without limit. Since then, human impact on the environment has continued to grow. In the early twentieth century, petroleum and natural gas joined coal as energy sources, and the introduction of electricity required the construction of large power plants. However, these new sources of energy caused problems. First, the use of nonrenewable resources is, in the long run, not sustainable. Second, the burning of coal caused air pollution from smoke, dust, and chemical compounds such as carbon monoxide. The new (and old) manufacturing processes tended to produce artificial substances that disturbed the environment, causing problems for humans, flora, and fauna. The immense increase in production and the concentration of consumption in the cities also caused perpetual problems with garbage.

industrial pollution

Air pollution was not a new phenomenon, but during the nineteenth century it became more and more serious. One important source was the coal-fired engine. Additionally, the smelting of ore released large amounts of sulfur, which harmed plants, animals, and people. In some places, this problem dated back to the preindustrial era. Technicians and health experts looked for ways to reduce the harmful effects of pollutants. With respect to industrial air pollution, the common solution all over Europe was dilution. Factories built high chimneys so that the smoke could drift away. The tallest one (approximately 450 feet) was built in Freiberg, in Saxony, in 1889. Even then, some experts argued that the emissions did not disappear when diluted, but high chimneys lowered the concentration of toxins and made it difficult to identify any specific source of pollution. Other solutions were suggested, including filters, but they proved less efficient and too expensive.

Industry was not the only source of air pollution. The coal stoves used in many households emitted high levels of dust, sulfur dioxides, and particulates. The famous London fog, for example, was in large part the result of individual heating.

Industry produced other forms of pollution. It frequently used fresh water as a resource and dumped waste water into the rivers. The manufacture of sugar from beets required between 247 and 953 cubic feet of water per ton of beets. The nineteenth-century chemical industry produced acids, alkalis, fertilizers, and dyes, and it produced new noxious substances, including formaldehyde, formic acid, phenol, and acetone. Although the dangers posed by these toxins were known, safety precautions were minimal and the chemical industry often poisoned rivers and ground water. In some places, the smell and the color of the rivers depended on the production process of the local industry. Not surprisingly, one of the most striking phenomena of nineteenth-century river pollution was the frequency of large-scale fish kills. Fishermen and hygiene experts were often the most important groups to fight river pollution. One of the few examples of improvement was the production of alkali, which became cleaner as the century progressed. In 1863 England passed the Alkali Acts, forcing soda factories to reduce their emissions of hydrochloric acid.

Agriculture also contributed to water pollution. The runoff of fertilizers added nutritients to

the water, dissolving the oxygen and leading to eutrophication.

cities and pollution

Urban growth was an important element of everyday life in nineteenth-century Europe. London grew from about 1 million inhabitants in 1800 to 2.3 million by 1850. This increasing concentration caused considerable problems involving hygiene and health. Some twenty thousand Parisians died in the great cholera epidemic of 1832, which was caused by water pollution. It was common for mud containing organic garbage and human and animal manure to be discharged into the streets and the rivers. Eventually, public authorities had to react. Whereas few cities possessed an adequate sewage system in the middle of the nineteenth century, by 1900 nearly all major cities in northern Europe had facilities to ensure the distribution of clean water, and these were separated from the evacuation of waste water. Sewers contributed significantly to a reduction in epidemics of cholera and typhoid, and in some places urban manure was put to use. In 1870 Paris established an area of several hundred hectares on the outskirts of the city that was fertilized by sewage water; it was used by farmers who grew vegetables for the capital and constituted a new model for symbiotic urban-rural relations, including consumption, evacuation, and recycling/production. Many cities copied the Parisian example. But the big rivers suffered severely from urban pollution. Although by around 1900 several cities had established their first sewage plants, the cleansing of rivers remained an unsolved problem, not least because it was expensive.

During the nineteenth century, pollution remained regional. Highly industrialized areas and urban centers suffered immensely, but other regions were left nearly untouched by chemicals, smoke, and organic waste.

attitudes toward nature and the environment

In general, nineteenth-century European political and economic thought celebrated technical progress and human liberation from the constraints of nature, and most Europeans welcomed the control of nature. Life expectancy and the quality of life both improved during the nineteenth century.

The Romantics identified what they called "pristine nature" as an inspiring counterpart to modern humanity. Later, agrarian Romanticism developed as a cultural and political ideology, and after 1900 urban reform and health movements called their members "back to nature." At the same time, powerful political movements developed to protect animals and nature itself. Whereas bourgeois landscape protection concentrated on aesthetic issues, pollution control was largely debated among experts and technical specialists. Far from neglecting the harmful effects of pollution, they tried to work out practical solutions. The driving forces behind pollution control were public administrators. In spite of the existence of global environmental protection strategies, authorities tried to solve local problems individually. So the British Public Health Act (1875) contained a smoke abatement section in order to reduce the health problems caused by domestic heating and industrial emissions. As long as damages to the population's health were difficult to prove scientifically, however, the only way for individuals to defend their interests against the big polluters was through lawsuits by claiming economic losses.

The two sides of nineteenth-century attitudes toward nature are exemplified by the human relationship with animals. On the one hand, animals were integrated into the increasingly complex structures of urban, agricultural, and industrial life. Public transportation in the cities relied on horses until the end of the century, as did coal mining. The newly established slaughterhouses ensured the total, efficient, and hygienic processing of livestock. On the other hand, among the middle classes, the keeping of pets resulted in a new vision of the animal as a companion to humans, highly esteemed and even loved. Large predators such as bears and wolves, however, were nearly exterminated when they disturbed farmers. Species that served industrial production were exploited like other natural resources. Whaling, for example, grew into a bloody industry based on explosive harpoons and factory ships. By contrast, birds were greeted as the feathered friends of humankind. In northern Europe, at least, songbirds were excluded from menus and the use of their plumes was a subject of heated debate by 1900.

See alsoCities and Towns; Industrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second.


Brüggemeier, Franz-Josef. Tschernobyl, 26 April 1986: Dieökologische Herausforderung. Munich, 1998. Outlines major environmental problems from 1800 to the present.

Cioc, Mark. The Rhine: An Eco-Biography 1815–2000. Seattle, Wash., 2002. Ecological transformations of one of the largest rivers in Europe.

Delort, Robert, and François Walter. Histoire de l'environnement européen. Paris, 2001. First comprehensive European environmental history.

Hughes, J. Donald. The Mediterranean: An Environmental History. Santa Barbara, Calif., 2005.

Luckin, Bill, Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud, and Dieter Schott, eds. Urban Environment: Resources—Perceptions—Uses. London, 2005. Collection of essays on the urban environment.

Radkau, Joachim. Natur und Macht: Eine Weltgeschichte der Umwelt. Munich, 2000. English translation forthcoming. World environmental history from the beginnings to the twentieth century, with special focus on agriculture.

Sieferle, Rolf Peter. The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Simmons, Ian G. An Environmental History of Great Britain: From 10000 Years Ago to the Present. Edinburgh, 2001.

Whited, Tamara, et al. Northern Europe: An Environmental History. Santa Barbara, Calif., 2005.

Jens Ivo Engels


views updated May 23 2018



Environment has been defined as “the aggregate of all the external conditions and influences affecting the life and development of an organism” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). The aim, then, with either individual organisms or communities, is to distinguish between factors arising from outside the system and factors inherent in the system itself. This sounds simple enough, but in practice the distinction between organism and environment is not always easy to make.

In the first place, there is a problem of limits. This is essentially a matter of definition; to illustrate with an absurd example, when does an apple that a person eats cease to be a part of the environment and start to be a part of the man? Perhaps as soon as it enters the mouth; perhaps not until digestion has been completed. Most people, in any case, would consider indigestion caused by eating a green apple to be an environmental effect. Similarly, internal parasites would be considered part of the environment of the individual in which they live, even though they are entirely inside the system: the question is one of origin rather than present position.

The limit problem is not very serious. More confusing is the problem of interaction between organism and environment. The earth’s atmosphere, for instance, with oxygen and carbon dioxide as component gases, is an essential part of the environment for life as we know it. Yet we now believe that these gases were not part of the early atmosphere of the planet; their existence is a consequence of the action of living organisms, as well as a necessary condition for life. The relation between vegetation and soil provides another type of example. The kind of forest growing in a particular region is at least partly the consequence of the type of soil in that region; yet the nature of the soil is partly determined by the sort of vegetation that has grown on it.

The interaction problem is particularly confusing in the case of man and the human environment. In orienting and judging our surroundings, we depend on our sensory systems; yet, as psychologists can so easily show, what we perceive is in part a consequence of conditioning and learning. We have thus really created many aspects of the shapes, colors, sounds, and smells in the world about us, at least as they influence our behavior.

The concept of culture is responsible for many difficulties in this connection. Should culture be looked at as a part of the individual or of the community? Is it a part of the environment? The answer surely varies, depending on the nature of the study.

For instance, if we are concerned with the ways in which peoples (or individuals) cope with their natural environment, we almost necessarily look at the physical man with the cultural equipment at his disposal for this purpose. Thus the same physical surroundings, the same environment, may have quite different meanings for, say, a food-gathering pygmy, an agricultural Bantu, or a western European. We are here concerned primarily with cultural adaptations or maladaptations. This is the case with many sorts of geographical and anthropological studies; in extreme cases, human nature may be taken as a constant to be ignored and study concentrated on the interaction between culture and environment in this sense of the term.

In many kinds of psychological studies, on the other hand, cultural traits are dealt with as parts of the environment: we become interested in the ways in which individuals are taught to accept their culture, or the ways in which they are frustrated by it and the forms that rebellion takes. In physiological studies, by contrast, culture may or may not be considered as environmental at all. Work on heat stress, for instance, may involve a naked man on a treadmill under controlled climatic conditions, in an attempt to eliminate cultural effects; alternatively, it may involve clothed men under natural conditions. Investigations of such concepts as “comfort zones” assume that people will be wearing culturally acceptable clothing.

Clothing illustrates nicely many aspects of the man-culture-environment relationship. Clothing is definitely external, stemming from outside the system of the individual organism. Yet in many kinds of practical studies, we must assume that people are wearing clothes and observe environmental effects on clothed individuals. Furthermore, the kind of clothing worn may influence individual personality—witness the effect of uniforms, of formal dress, or of work clothes.

Organism and environment, then, are not contrasting or mutually exclusive terms; rather, they represent interacting systems, and the distinction is useful in analysis only when this is kept in mind. Environment is often contrasted with heredity, as in the long controversy over “nature versus nurture” in shaping human personality. There is no “versus.” Every individual is the product of a certain genetic potentiality finding expression in a particular environment or series of environments.

In studies of biological communities, the concept of ecosystem has proved useful: this term covers both the living organisms and the abiotic factors of the environment in which they occur. Biologists thus avoid the dangers of looking at the living members of the community as separate from their surroundings. The extension of this idea to man, to human ecosystems, will surely be rewarding.

Ecologists have tried various ways of analyzing environments to study and compare their different components, but no single system is completely satisfactory. One way involves the separation of the biological and physical environments: the living and the nonliving elements in the surroundings of an individual organism or a species. Thus, one can isolate climate as an aspect of the physical environment. In the case of man, some geographers have thought climate to be a controlling factor in cultural development, considering civilization, for instance, to be a response to a particularly stimulating climatic situation. On the other hand, they see climates that are too warm, too humid, or too cold as having a retarding effect on cultural development.

Climate illustrates another aspect of environment, that of scale. Climate is ordinarily measured in standard meteorological stations that reflect conditions under which few organisms live. Conditions in a forest or meadow, within the soil, or in a pond may be quite different from those where the standard measurements are made. It is, in fact, useful to distinguish among three levels of climate: the microclimate in which an individual lives, perhaps conditions in a cranny in bark or on the underside of a leaf; the ecological climate of some particular habitat, like a forest; and the geographical climate measured by the standard station. The same kind of difference, depending on the focus of interest, applies to many other aspects of the environment.

In the case of man, we have to consider the cultural as well as the biological and physical environments, bringing up the whole series of problems mentioned earlier.

Another way of analyzing environmental factors is in terms of whether or not they affect the particular organism under consideration, and whether or not they are perceived. The sum of the forces and materials in any situation can be looked at as the total environment, but this includes many elements that have no influence on behavior. We live, for instance, in the magnetic field of the earth, but this does not affect our physiology in any known way; and we cannot perceive it without the aid of some instrument like a compass. Similarly, we cannot perceive viruses without instruments, but many of them do affect us by causing disease. Viruses would, then, form part of our operational environment, although not a part of our perceptual environment.

We tend to confuse our own perceptual environment with total reality: to think, for instance, that the forest we see is the “real” forest—for squirrels, birds, and insects as well as for ourselves. Yet it is obvious enough, when we stop to think about it, that each kind of animal lives in a particular sort of perceptual world of its own. The forest that a dog sees, hears, and smells is quite different from the forest that we perceive. This is something that must be clearly kept in mind in studying animal behavior as well as animal ecology.

When we turn to man, the concepts of operational and perceptual environments are inadequate by themselves, just as are those of biological and physical environments. For primitive man, the world is full of spirits which form a very real and important part of his surroundings—form what has sometimes been called the supernatural environment.

This sounds a little condescending; we can see that the people themselves created the spirits that so dominate their lives—that the spirits are merely ideas. Yet our own actions are equally governed by ideas. We may not call them spirits or propitiate them with elaborate rituals, but ideas play roles in our lives that often are at least comparable. We might call this world of ideas the conceptual environment. This differs somewhat from the cultural environment: the latter would include all human artifacts, such as clothing, housing, and tools; the former is concerned with the ideas that govern the form and use of the constructs.

When we look at the human environment, the continuing interaction between organism and surroundings is very evident. It is often said that man, far more than any other animal, has developed the ability to modify environment and thus to live under a wide range of physical and biological conditions. He has, in fact, created a new “biome” or ecological formation—the man-altered landscape, which is rapidly replacing other terrestrial landscapes as forests are cleared, grasslands plowed, and deserts irrigated. Man, assuming ecological dominance within this biome, has affected directly or indirectly all other organisms living there; he has become a new geological force.

Most members of the human species now live within this man-altered landscape. But this environment is not only a consequence of human activity; it is also a determinant of that activity. For instance, man has created the city; but the nature of the city, of the urban environment, governs his behavior much as the nature of the forest governs the behavior of tree squirrels. We could perhaps most profitably look at this new kind of biome as forming the human ecosystem.

It is, of course, not a single system; it includes a varied collection of differing environments: cities, towns, rice paddies, orchards, pastures, highway rights of way, abandoned fields, rubber plantations, and areas devastated by industrial wastes. Curiously, both social and biological scientists tend to neglect the study of this human ecosystem, perhaps because its study requires a blending of both social and biological knowledge.

Marston Bates



The biological concept of environment is developed in ecological textbooks such as Odum & Odum 1953; the sociological, in books like Hawley 1950. The various textbooks of human geography discuss environmental relationships; the point of view of geographical determinism is expressed in Huntington & Cushing 1921. International Symposium 1956 contains much environmental material, with good bibliographies. The point of view of an architect is expressed in Glikson 1963. Bates 1962 develops the idea of the conceptual environment. Dubos 1964 expresses well the need for intensive study of man’s environmental relationships.

Bates, Marston 1962 The Human Environment. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Dubos, Rene 1964 Environmental Biology. BioScience 14:11-14.

Gmkson, Artur 1963 Man’s Relationship to His Environment. Pages 132—152 in Gordon Wolstenholme (editor), Man and His Future. Papers and discussion of a conference sponsored by the Ciba Foundation. Boston: Little.

Hawley, Amos H. 1950 Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. New York: Ronald Press.

Huntington, Ellsworth; and Cushing, S. W. (1921) 195] Principles of Human Geography. 6th ed. Revised by E. B. Shaw. New York: Wiley.

International Symposium on Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, Princeton, N.J., 1955 1956 Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. Edited by William L. Thomas et al. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Odum, Eugene P.; and ODUM, HOWARD T. (1953) 1959 Fundamentals of Ecology. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Saunders.


views updated May 18 2018


When people say "I am concerned about the environment," what do they mean? What does the use of the definite article mean in such a statement? Is there such a thing as "the" environment?

Environment is derived from the French words environ or environner, meaning "around," which in turn originated from the Old French virer and viron (together with the prefix en ), which mean "a circle, around, the country around, or circuit." Etymologists frequently conclude that, in English usage at least, environment is the total of the things or circumstances around an organismincluding humansthough environs is limited to the "surrounding neighborhood of a specific place, the neighborhood or vicinity."

Even a brief etymological encounter with the word environment provokes two persuasive suggestions for possible structuring of a contemporary definition. First, the word environment is identified with a totality, the everything that encompasses each and all of us, and this association is established enough to be not lightly dismissed. The very notion of "environment," as Anatol Rapoport indicated, suggest the partitioning of a "portion of the world into regions, an inside and an outside." The environment is the outside. Second, the word's origin in the phrase "to environ" indicates a process derivative, one that alludes to some sort of action or interaction, at the very least inferring that the encompassing is active, in some sense reciprocal, that the environment, whatever its nature , is not simply an inert phenomenon to be impacted without response or without affecting the organism in return. Environment must be a relative word, because it always refers to something "environed" or enclosed.

Ecology as a discipline is focused on studying the interactions between an organism of some kind and its environment. So ecologists must be concerned with what H. L. Mason and J. H. Langenheim described as a "key concept in the structure of ecological knowledge," but a concept with which ecologists continue to have problems of confusion between ideas and realitythe concept of environment. Mason and Langenheim's article "Language Analysis and the Concept Environment" continues to be the definitive statement on the use of the word environment in experimental ecology.

The results of Mason and Langenheim's analysis were essentially four-fold: 1) they limited environmental phenomena "in the universal sense" to only those phenomena that have an operational relation with any organism: other phenomena present that do not enter a reaction system are excluded, or dismissed as not "environmental phenomena"; 2) they restricted the word environment itself to mean "the class composed of the sum of those phenomena that enter a reaction system of the organism or otherwise directly impinge upon it" so that physical exchange or impingement becomes the clue to a new and limited definition; 3) they specifically note that their definition does not allude to the larger meaning implicit in the etymology of the word; and 4) they designate their limited concept as operational environment but state that when the word environment is used with qualification, then it still refers to the operational construct, establishing that "'environment' per se is synonymous with 'operational environment'."

This definition does allow a prescribed and limited conception of environment and might work for experimental ecology but is much too limited for general usage. Environmental phenomena of relevance to the aforementioned concern for "the" environment must incorporate a multitude of things other than those that physically impinge on each human being. And it is much more interactive and overlapping than a restricted definition would have people believe. To better understand contemporary human interrelationships with the world around them, environment must be an incorporative, holistic term and concept.

Thinking about the environment in the comprehensive sensewith the implication that everything is the environment with each entity connected to each of a multitude of othersmakes environment what David Currie in a book of case studies and material on pollution described "as not a modest concept." But, such scope and complexity, difficult as they are to resolve, intensify rather than eliminate the very real need for a kind of transcendence. The assumption seems valid that human consciousness regarding environment needs to be raised, not restricted. Humans need increasingly to comprehend and care about what happens in far away places and to people they do not know but that do affect them, that do impact even their localized environments, that do impinge on their individual well-being. And they need to incorporate the reciprocal idea that their actions impact people and environments outside the immediate in place and time: in the world today, environmental impacts transcend the local. Thus it is necessary that human awareness of those impacts also be transcendent.

It is uncertain that confining the definition of environment to operationally narrow physical impingement could advance this goal. One suspects instead that it would significantly retard it, a retardation that contemporary human societies can ill afford. Internalization of a larger environment, including an understanding of common usages of the word, might on the other hand aid people in caring about, and assuming responsibility for, what happens to that environment and to the organisms in it.

An operational definition can help people find the mechanisms to deal with problems immediate and local, but can, if they are not careful, limit them to an unacceptable mechanistic and unfeeling approach to problems in the environment-at-large.

Acceptance of either end of the spectruma limited operational definition or an incorporative holistic definitionas the only definition creates more confusion than clarification. Both are needed. Outside the laboratory, however, in study of the interactional, interdependent world of contemporary humankind, the holistic definition must have a place. A sense of the comprehensive "out there," of the totality of world and people as a functionally significant, interacting unit should be seeping into the consciousness of every person.

Carefully chosen qualifiers can help deal with the complexity: "natural" or "built" or "perceptual" all specify aspects of human surroundings more descriptive and less incorporative than "environment" used alone, without adjectives. Other noun can also pick up some of the meanings of environment, though none are direct synonyms: habitat , milieu, mis en scence, ecumene all designate specified and limited aspects of the human environment, but none except "environment" are incorporative of the whole complexity of human surroundings.

An understanding of environment must not be limited to an abstract concept that relates to daily life only in terms of whether to recycle cans or walk to work. The environment is the base for all life, the source of all goods. Poor people in underdeveloped nations know this; their day-to-day survival depends on what happens in their local environments. Whether it rains or does not, whether commercial seiners move into local fishing grounds or leave them alone, and whether local forest products are lost to the cause of world timber production affect these people more directly. What they, like so many other humans around the world, may not also recognize, is that "environment" now extends far beyond the bounds of the local: environment is the intimate enclosure of the individual or a local human population and the global domain of the human species .

The Brundtland report Our Common Future recognized this with a healthy, modern definition: "The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the word 'environment' a connotation of naivety in some political circles." The report goes on to note that "the 'environment' is where we all live...and 'development' is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable."

Each human being lives in a different environment than any other human because every single one screens their surroundings through their own individual experience and perceptions. Yet all human beings live in the same environment, an external reality that all share, draw sustenance from, and excrete into. So understanding environment becomes a dialectic, a resolution and synthesis of individual characteristics and shared conditions. Solving environmental problems depends on the intelligence exhibited in that resolution.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Bates, M. The Human Environment. Berkeley: University of California, School of Forestry, 1962.

Dubos, R. "Environment." Dictionary of the HistoryIn of Ideas, edited by P. P. Wiener. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.


Mason, H. L., and J. H. Langenheim. "Language Analysis and the Concept Environment." Ecology 38 (April 1957): 325-340.

Patten, B. C. "Systems Approach to the Concept of Environment." Ohio Journal of Science 78 (July 1978): 206-222.

Young, G. L. "Environment: Term and Concept in the Social Sciences." Social Science Information 25 (March 1986): 83-124.


views updated Jun 08 2018


The combination of physical, social, and cultural conditions that influence an individual's development and behavior.

The relative importance of heredity and environment in shaping human livesnature versus nurture has long been a topic of debate taken up by thinkers as diverse as John Locke , Charles Darwin , and Sigmund Freud , and forms part of current policy debates in areas

such as crime and education. Traditionally, this controversy pits those who believe that human nature and intelligence are biologically determined (eugenicists) against those who contend that, given a positive and enriching environment, most individuals have the potential for high levels of human development (euthenists). It is agreed that such human characteristics as sex, height, skin and hair color, and, to a certain extent, temperament , are genetically determined at conception. However, there is disagreement over the extent to which other aspects of human developmentincluding behavior, personality , and intelligenceare influenced by such environmental factors as nutrition, emotional climate of the home, and quality of stimulation and parental feedback. In addition to the immediate family , many experts consider the social class and culture in which a child is raised as important environmental factors in determining his or her development.

Intelligence testing and race has resurfaced as a volatile topic in the nature/nurture debate, since African-Americans as a group score 10 to 15 points lower on standard IQ tests than whites. Some experts claim that this disparity demonstrates the differences in inherited ability among the two races, while others attribute the gap to environmental influences. In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, in which they asserted that low-income blacks have innately lower cognitive abilities than whites (based on the gap in IQ scores), a situation that cannot be significantly remedied through government social and educational programs. Many social scientists, however, consider environmental and genetic factors to be so closely intertwined as to make it impossible to clearly separate them. Thus, the contrasting positions of eugenicists and euthenists are actually at opposite ends of a continuum, with most observers of human behavior taking a middle position that emphasizes the interaction between biological predispositions and life experiences.

Social learning theorists refer to another layer of complexity in the relationship between environment and human behavior: the self-generated environment. This concept refers to the fact that a certain behavior or behaviors may produce environmental conditions that can affect future behavior. People who behave in an abrasive manner, for example, help create a hostile social environment, which in turn leads to further hostility on their part. Similarly, the behavior of friendly persons will tend to generate a supportive environment that reinforces and perpetuates their original behavior. Thus, a group of persons who find themselves in the same "potential environment" may experience different "actual environments" as a result of their contrasting behaviors.

Since the 1960s, environmental psychologists have studied the relationship between human behavior and the physical environment, including noise, pollution, and architectural design. Like ethologists, who study animal behavior in their natural habitat, environmental psychologists maintain a holistic view of human behavior that leads them to study it in its natural setting rather than in a laboratory, or at least to supplement laboratory experiments with field research. Environmental psychologists study such topics as the ways in which the architectural design of a psychiatric hospital affects its patients; the effects of aircraft noise on children at a school near an airport; and overcrowding in a college dormitory.

Environment psychology is basically an applied field geared toward solving specific problems rather than a theoretical area of study. Like social learning theory , it is heavily concerned with the reciprocal relationship between behavior and environment, including the ways in which people cope with their physical surroundings by altering them. One exception to this orientation is a position known as determinism , which has influenced much research into the effects of architecture on behavior. The determinist approach emphasizes the adaptation of people to their surroundings, and considers behavior largely as a function of those surroundings, with little reciprocity involved.

See also Eugenics; Jensen, Arthur

Further Reading

Altman, Irwin. The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory, Crowding. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1975.

Gray, Jeffrey Alan. The Psychology of Fear and Stress. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


views updated Jun 27 2018

142. Environment

See also 27. ATMOSPHERE ; 44. BIOLOGY ; 85. CLIMATE ; 133. EARTH .

the study of the relationship of flowers to their environment. anthoecologic , anthoecological , adj.
the study of the effects upon each other of environment and race. anthroposociologic , anthroposociological , adj.
the study of an individual organism, or the species regarded collectively, in relation to environment. autecologic , autecological , adj.
the study of the interrelation of plants and animals in their common environment. bioecologist , n.
ecology, Also bionomy . bionomist , n. bionomic , bionomical , adj.
the transplanting of a plant to a new environment.
destruction of the environment.
ecology, oecology
1 . the branch of biology that studies the relationship of organisms and environments. Also called bionomics, bionomy .
2 . the branch of sociology that studies the environmental spacing and interdependence of people and their institutions, as in rural or urban settings. ecologist , oecologist , n. ecologie , oecologic , ecological , oecological , adj.
any area or region regarded as a unit for ecological observation and study of the interrelationships between organisms and their environment.
a transitional area or zone between two different forms of vegetation, as between forest and plain. ecotonal , adj.
a type or subspecies of life that is especially well adapted to a certain environment. ecotypic , adj.
concern for and action on behalf of the environment and its preservation. environmentalist , n.
the study of the relation of man to the environment in which he works and the application of anatomical, physiological, psychological, and engineering knowledge to the problems involved. Also called biotechnology . ergonomic , adj.
a science concerned with improving the well-being of mankind through improvement of the environment. euthenist , n.
a combination of genetics and ecology that studies animal species and their environment. genecologist , n. genecologic , genecological , adj.
an instrument for measuring impurities in the air. konimetric , adj.
the measurement of impurities in the air by means of a konimeter. konimetric , adj.
koniology, coniology
the study of atmospheric dust and other impurities in the air, as germs, pollen, etc., especially regarding their effect on plant and animal life.
the study of fogs and smogs, especially those affecting air pollution levels.
(of lakes) the quality of containing a low accumulation of dissolved nutrient salts, thus supporting little plant or animal life and having a high oxygen content owing to the low organic content. oligotrophic , adj.
paleoecology, palaeoecology
the branch of ecology that studies the relationship of ancient plants and animals to their environments. paleoecologic, palaeoecologic, paleoecological, palaeoecological , adj.
a person who is concerned with or active in the preservation of wildlife, historical sites, natural habitats, and other features of the environment.
the branch of ecology that studies the relationship between plant and animal communities and their environments. synecologic , synecological , adj.


views updated May 29 2018

environment Literally ‘that which environs or surrounds’, the term is used in various ways in academic discourse. In biology and psychology, environment is frequently juxtaposed to heredity, in an exhaustive division of the causes that shape the character of living things. Heredity refers to what is genetically transmitted, environment to what is given externally. Much of the debate has focused on their relative importance, and environment itself is usually given little substantive content. In other usages the environment is simply the (delimited) social context in which the individual (or any living organism) is located, and the emphasis is on issues of adaptation and adjustment to this environment, as in Jean Piaget's work on cognitive development.

The natural environment, for all its potential significance to sociology as the territory in which human action occurs and as itself modified by human agency, is rarely construed in social terms; until recently it featured little in sociological thinking beyond references to the heredity versus environment debate. Significantly, the current social and political attention given to the environment concentrates on the physical world—on towns, houses, the countryside, and natural resources such as air and water—albeit an environment recognized to be not just a matter of nature but also of human intervention. In this interpretation the term contrasts with concepts like community, society, and social group that highlight social relations rather than physical and material conditions. However, it is precisely the focus on the specificities and impact of the material world and on the way it is socially constructed that produces the potential of an environmental sociology.

Since the 1980s, the sociology of the environment has emerged as an identifiable specialism within the discipline, although it is still rather loosely defined. Among the topics likely to be encountered in any of the standard texts now available will be the following: the role of industrialism in generating environmental degradation; the structural and social origins of environmental movements (see SOCIAL MOVEMENTS); the content and influence of Green politics and parties; the environmental implications of urbanization and globalization; the problems of securing sustainable development; and wider theoretical issues such the possible conflict between a non-exploitative approach to nature and the continued commitment to Enlightenment values such as those of democracy, human rights, and the pursuit of progress. (See, for example, Tim Hayward , Ecological Thought, 1995
, and David Goldblatt , Social Theory and the Environment, 1996
). Several strands of this literature deal with the built environment and lead into discussions of culture (especially popular culture). For example, in his study of the links between environmental and social change, as these are evident in the use of commercial space, Mark Gottdiener (The Theming of America, 1996) depicts ‘themed spaces’ (everything from Graceland and Disneyworld to local shopping malls) as a barrage of familiar and comforting symbols that are intended to make consumers feel good, and to part them systematically from their money in the interests of sustaining economic growth.


views updated May 29 2018

environment briefly describes the surroundings in which we live. We can look at the environment historically in two ways. First, by identifying ways in which the environment has moulded or changed the course of human history. Towns have frequently developed where there were fords or bridges, and ports have grown or declined through the silting-up of themselves or their rivals. Wind and weather have frequently played a decisive role in battles or campaigns. William III in 1688 was assisted by the ‘protestant wind’ which kept James II's fleet in harbour while allowing the invaders to sail to Devon. The presence of bogs by the river Forth was a vital element in the victory of the Scots over the English at Bannockburn in 1314.

Secondly, we may consider the effects of human action on the environment itself. From the earliest prehistoric slash-and-burn agriculture to the development of genetically engineered crops, the natural environment of Britain has been modified by its inhabitants. Perhaps the most notable of changes has been the removal of the blanket of trees which once covered virtually all of the British Isles. Clearance for fields, firewood, and building materials had already reduced cover to 15 per cent of England's land by the time of Domesday Book. By the 16th cent. a timber shortage was developing that encouraged the use of coal, which itself changed the appearance of vast tracts of countryside.

The industrial revolution and the subsequent growth of large towns introduced extensive air pollution and caused acute problems of water supply and sanitation. It was only with legislation such as the Alkali Works Act of 1863 that substantial amelioration of bad conditions was effected. Even so, sooty buildings, smoky chimneys, dead rivers, and grimy canals soon became immortalized in literature set in the industrial north and gave impetus to the Romantic appreciation of ‘natural’ landscape, and to the development of national cultures, linked to an ideal of rural ‘pureness’. Conservation societies were founded from mid-19th cent. onwards.

Calls for conservation accelerated as first railways, then roads, and the inexorable spread of towns, changed the face of the land. Concern has increased about the pollution of rivers and oceans as a result of the indiscriminate dumping of waste. The industrialization of agriculture after the Second World War, with its attendant use of chemicals and uprooting of hedgerows, has destroyed the habitat of many familiar plants and animal species. Many historic town centres have been blighted by insensitive redevelopment, often to accommodate the ever-growing number of cars and lorries. The approaches to most towns now look the same, with the supermarket, the large car park, and the congested roundabout. Sometimes a spectacular disaster has awakened the public conscience. Up to 4,000 people died in the London smog of December 1952: 116 small children were killed in October 1966 at Aberfan when a slag heap, created by coal waste, slipped down a hillside and buried their school. From the 1960s membership of older conservation groups mushroomed, and new and more radical groups, such as the Friends of the Earth, were founded. The Green Party, established to campaign specifically on environmental issues, had more success in persuading the other main parties to steal its clothes than in winning electoral support. In cleaning up rivers and reopening canals, much progress has been made: in creeping urbanization it is doubtful whether we have much improved on the 1930s which saw miles of ribbon-development along the new ‘arterial’ roads.

Christopher N. Lanigan