I.Our environment is the sum total of our surroundings
A photograph of Earth reveals a great deal, but it does not convey the complexity of our environment. Our environment (a term that comes from the French environner, “to surround”) is more than water, land, and air; it is the sum total of our surroundings. It includes all of the biotic factors, or living things, with which we interact. It also includes the abiotic factors, or nonliving things, with which we interact. Our environment includes the continents, oceans, clouds, and ice caps you can see in the photo of Earth from space, as well as the animals, plants, forests, and farms that comprise the landscapes around us. In a more inclusive sense, it also encompasses our built environment, the structures, urban centers, and living spaces humans have created. In its most inclusive sense, our environment also includes the complex webs of scientific, ethical, political, economic, and social relationships and institutions that shape our daily lives. From day to day, people most commonly use the term environment in the first, narrow sense—of a nonhuman or “natural” world apart from human society. This connotation is unfortunate, because it masks the very important fact that humans exist within the environment and are a part of nature. As one of many species of animals on Earth, we share with others the same dependence on a healthy functioning planet. The limitations of language make it all too easy to speak of “people and nature,” or “human society and the environment,” as though they are separate and do not interact. However, the fundamental insight of environmental science is that we are part of the natural world and that our interactions with other parts of it matter a great deal. II. Environmental science explores interactions between humans and our environment Appreciating how we interact with our environment is crucial for a well-informed view of our place in the world and for a mature awareness that we are one species among many on a planet full of life. Understanding our relationship with the environment is also vital because we are altering the very natural systems we need, in ways we do not yet fully comprehend. We depend utterly on our environment for air, water, food, shelter, and everything else essential for living. However, our actions modify our environment, whether we intend them to or not. Many of these actions have enriched our lives, bringing us longer life spans, better health, and greater material wealth, mobility, and leisure time. However, these improvements have often degraded the natural systems that sustain us. Impacts such as air and water pollution, soil erosion, and species extinction can compromise human well-being, pose risks to human life, and threaten our ability to build a society that will survive and thrive in the long term. The elements of our environment were functioning long before the human species appeared, and we would be wise to realize that we need to keep these elements in place. Environmental science is the study of how the natural world works, how our environment affects us, and how we affect our environment. We need to understand our interactions with our environment because such knowledge is the essential first step toward devising solutions to our most pressing environmental problems. Many environmental scientists are taking this next step, trying to apply their knowledge to develop solutions to the many environmental challenges we face. It can be daunting to reflect on the sheer magnitude of environmental dilemmas that confront us today, but with these problems also come countless opportunities for devising creative solutions. The topics studied by environmental scientists are the most centrally important issues to our world and its future. Right now, global conditions are changing more quickly than ever. Right now, through science, we as a civilization are gaining knowledge more rapidly than ever....
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