1 The world we live in

1.1 Environment and technology

A central concern of environmental studies is the relationship between technology and our environment: how people use technology to transform materials into forms which can meet our needs and wants. In the process of doing this we inevitably change the environment which provides these materials but which also supports all life.

A few moments ago I went to my fridge and took some milk out to add to a cup of coffee. I used this common example of a modern domestic appliance without a second thought, as I have done on countless occasions before. For me and for many others a fridge provides a convenient and hopefully safe store for milk and other foodstuffs. Surely this adds to our general well-being, but are we at the same time harming our environment?

I won't attempt to answer this question directly here; instead I will introduce you to some ideas and case studies that present the issue from a variety of different standpoints. I hope that this approach will give you a broad perspective which you can use to explore and assess such issues, as well as giving you a taste of environment-related studies. But just before we start I had better try to clarify what I mean by the environment. In everyday language there are many environments – the economic environment, the political environment, for example – as well as the ‘natural environment’. What we mean by these usages is the context in which we live and work, which both shapes and influences us and on which we, in turn, have an effect. They are all suitable topics for study, but this unit is mainly concerned with what is often termed the natural environment: the physical and biological world which we and all living things inhabit, interact in and share. The question is, what exactly do we mean by natural?