The word ‘environment’ is derived from the old French word ‘environer’ – which means to ‘surround, enclose, and encircle’. Environment refers to an aggregate of conditions or surroundings in which living beings such as humans, animals, and plants live or survive and non-living things exist.
All living beings including man and their environment are mutually reactive, affecting each other in a number of ways. It is generally equated with nature wherein physical components of the planet earth such as earth, air, water, etc. support and affect life in the biosphere.
Environment represents the physical components of the earth, wherein man is an important factor affecting the environment.
Environment comprises interacting systems of physical, biological, and cultural elements, which are interlinked individually as well as collectively in various ways.
Physical elements constitute space, landforms, water-bodies, climate, soils, rocks, and minerals. These elements determine the variable character of human habitat, and also its opportunities and limitations.
Biological elements include plants, animals, micro-organisms, and man.
Cultural elements include economic, social and political conditions which are largely man-made features.
Since environment is a combination of physical and biological factors, it contains both living or biotic and non-living or abiotic components. On the basis of this basic structure, environment can be divided into physical or abiotic and living or biotic environment.
Physical environment is made up of the following states - solid, liquid, and gas. These three elements signify lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere respectively. On the basis of spatial distribution, smaller units are termed as coastal environment, plateau environment, mountain environment, lake environment, river environment, maritime environment, etc.
Biotic environment consists of plants (flora) and animals (fauna) including human beings as a significant factor. Thus, biotic environment can be of two types such as floral environment and faunal environment.
Apart from the above, there are social, cultural, and psychological environment.
This type of environment includes the varied aspects of socio-cultural interactions along with its outcomes such as beliefs, attitudes, stereotypes etc. The tangible and intangible aspects of environment are included in it.
Psychological environment deals with the perception and experiences related to any environmental setting. Some environment may be stimulating and exciting for us, while others may be dull and boring. Psychological environment is more often used in the organizational context.
Man and environment relationship is as old as the evolution of mankind. Since the evolution of man, the physical elements of the planet earth, such as terrain, soil, water, climate, flora and fauna formed man’s environment. During that time man was a typically a ‘physical man’ because of his limited wants, requirements, and total dependence on nature.
With the growth in social and economic activities, advancement in technologies, man expanded his own environment through design and skill to have provisions for improved and better food, shelter, access, and comfort or luxuries. Man’s ability to survive in a variety of ecosystem and his unique ability to adapt to a great variety of external conditions make man-environment relationship quite a fascinating area of study.
The environment in which man survives and to which he adapts himself and which he influences include physical, socio-cultural, and biological aspects. Man and environment has never been static and a great many factors are responsible for the shifts in man environment relationship.
The man and environment relationship can be studied under the following approaches.
Determinism − Friedrich Ratzel, the German geographer, was responsible for the development of the concepts of determinism, which was further expanded by Ellsworth Huntington.
This approach is based on the concept of ‘nature controls man’ or ‘earth made man’. According to this approach, man is largely influenced by nature. In fact, the determinism states that man is subordinate to natural environment because all aspects of human life such as physical (health and well-being), social, economic, political, ethical, aesthetic, etc. not only depend on but are dominantly controlled by the physical environment.
World famous biologist, Charles Darwin, in 1859 laid the foundation stone of the concept of environment influences on man and other organism.
Possibilism − Lucien Febvre, the French historian, founded the concept of Possibilism. Possibilism approach in the study of man-environment relationship is an offshoot of the criticism of environmental determinism and the impact of science and technology on such a relationship.
Possibilism indicates that the physical environment is passive and man is the active agent at liberty to choose between wide ranges of environmental possibilities. According to it, the pattern of human activity is the result of the initiative and mobility of man operating within the natural framework. Nowadays, the role of natural elements in conditioning, though not controlling human activities, is often lost sight of.
Possibilists were largely aware of the limitations of freedom of man to dictate terms to environment. It was agreed upon by the possibilists that man lacks the abilities to fully tame the nature and is not always victorious over it. As result of the above, some geographers vouched for ‘cooperation with nature’ or ‘mutual interaction’ between man and environment.
Ecological Approach − This approach is based upon the basic principle of ecology, which is the study of mutual interaction between organisms and physical environment on the one hand, and the interaction among the organism on the other in a given ecosystem. This approach describes man as an integral part of nature or environment. Man, being most skilled and intelligent, has a unique role to play in maintaining a natural environment as healthy and productive as it should be.
This approach emphasizes on wise and restrained use of natural resources, application of appropriate environmental management programs, policies and strategies keeping in view certain basic principles of ecology so that already depleted natural resources are replenished, and health and productivity of the nature is restored.
Environmental studies refer to an extensive and systematic study of nature/environment and of its physical, biological, social, and cultural factors, and the nature and characteristics of relationship between man and environment. How far man influences nature and to what extent nature delivers its bounties constitute another objective of environmental studies.
It is an interdisciplinary study as subjects like ecology, biochemistry, toxicology, geography, geology, meteorology, sociology, etc. are dealt with under environmental studies.
Nature or environment sustains life. As a conscious and rational being, man needs to know the importance of environment and help keep the environment as healthy and productive as it can be. It is the environment that has made this beautiful world possible for him. Hence, there is an ever demanding need for environmental studies.
The natural environment that mankind had before the onset of industrialization, urbanization, and exponential growth in population was expectedly healthy and resilient. Nature was able to replenish the loss of its resources, which was very limited.
After the onset of modern civilization, the overall health and efficiency of natural environment started deteriorating gradually and went on to such an extent that nature has virtually lost its natural ability to replenish the loss of resources caused by man.
Environmentalists, geographers, and biologists the world over are constantly endeavoring for a sustainable solution to restore a sustainable environment.
There is a need for focus on environmental management, laws governing environment protection, pollution and recycling of non-bio-degradable material, etc. There is also a need for careful and cautious use of natural resources in the present time to establish sustainability in every aspect of nature.
There is a need to clarify modern environmental concepts such as how to conserve biodiversity and maintain an ecological balance.
Environmental studies help us understand the importance of our environment and teaches us to use natural resources more efficiently and embrace a sustainable way of living. It enables us to know the behavior of organisms under natural conditions and the interrelationship between organisms in population and communities.