Our environment means our physical surroundings and the characteristics of the place in which we live. It also refers to the wider natural world of land, sea and atmosphere. Humans have been interacting with their environment since people first walked the Earth. For example, humans have been cutting down forests to clear land to grow crops for centuries and by doing so we have altered the environment. Conversely, the environment affects us in many different ways as well. A simple example is the way we change our clothes in response to cold or hot weather. In this section we will introduce some of the ways in which humans influence their environment and how the environment influences us, both positively and negatively.
A good climate, accessible clean water, fertile soil, etc. are aspects of the physical environment that enable people to live and thrive. However, harsh environments, such as a very hot climate, limited water and infertile land, make it more difficult for people to survive. We are also affected by major environmental events such as earthquakes, floods and drought that damage homes, property and agriculture. These can lead to the displacement of people and can cause injury, loss of life and destruction of livelihoods. They can also damage water sources and pipelines, causing water contamination and spreading waterborne diseases. In Study Session 10 you will learn more about the effects of floods and droughts.
Our relationship with the environment changed with industrialisation, which began in the 18th century in the UK, shortly followed by elsewhere in Europe and North America, and then spreading across the world. Prior to industrialisation, the impacts of human activity were not very significant because the technologies used were not capable of modifying the environment on a large scale. People at that time lived in agricultural societies using hand tools and simple technologies with limited environmental impact (Figure 1.1). Industrialisation has allowed for a greater exploitation of resources. For example, we now use powerful chainsaws to cut down trees and industrially produced chemical fertilisers and pesticides for crop production. These changes have rapidly increased the human impact on the environment.
The links between human activity and the environment are complex and varied, but can be grouped into two main types of activity:
- use of natural resources such as land, food, water, soils, minerals, plants and animals
- production of wastes from a range of activities including agriculture, industry and mining, as well as wastes from our own bodies.
These are described in the following sections.