1 The world we live in

1.2 We are part of nature

Take a few minutes to look around at your surroundings before you read on. What do you see? Obviously this depends on where you are at the moment: at home, at work, or perhaps travelling in between, or maybe you have the misfortune to be laid up in hospital. Possibly like me you are at home. I am fortunate to have a study where I do much of my writing and you won't be surprised to hear that I'm looking at a computer screen at the moment. What else can I see? Books and bookshelves, furniture of various sorts, pictures, a camera, some clothes, then a carpet on the floor, electrical leads, plugs and a socket, lighting, a radio, a radiator, walls and ceiling, a door, and a window overlooking a small and somewhat untidy garden. I don't know what you can see, but wherever you are, it is likely that what we are both looking at has several important features in common. It is a scene made almost entirely of manufactured materials, which may have come from almost anywhere in the world. I can see products made from wood, cotton, paper, metal, cardboard, glass, and a variety of polymers, while hidden behind my wallpaper are plaster, bricks and mortar. In most cases I can only guess where all these materials might have come from.

This material world we inhabit is one we humans have largely designed and manufactured, and is supported by an amazing infrastructure of transport, communication and many other services that we take for granted. Without them, for example, you wouldn't be reading this page or studying this OpenLearn unit. The technological basis of our society has undergone major transformations in the last two centuries and whether you regard such changes as ‘progress’ or not, today you would probably find it hard to manage without most of them. Certainly, if I were honest, I would have to admit that I would be reluctant to lose most of my creature comforts, ranging from central heating to my CD player.

But, you might argue, I have only really described my home, which has been designed and built, and is surrounded by a built urban environment. You could point out that the countryside and open spaces are quite different, and you might be fortunate enough to be reading this in such surroundings. Even in towns ‘nature’ is hard to avoid whether in the form of the flowers and vegetables (and weeds) in my garden, the cats which trample over them, or even the pot plant standing on the window-sill. And what of ourselves, aren't we part of nature as well? To all this, I would have to agree, yes, we are certainly part of nature. Figure 1 illustrates this relationship in a simple way.

Figure 1: We are part of nature. Nature supplies material requirements for life, absorbs our wastes, and provides life-support services such as climate stabilisation, all of which make Earth hospitable for people.

One of the ideas that will be developed in this Introduction is that we can't escape from nature's laws, but our impact and influence on our environment spreads far beyond our immediate surroundings. The landscapes you can see in the British Isles, from the close hedge-rowed pastures still found in western parts of the country, the grain fields of the East, to the heather and bracken covered uplands of northern Britain, have all been modified by human occupation and agriculture. A similar pattern prevails through much of Europe where the human influence can be quite marked, as in the agricultural land recovered from the sea in the Netherlands, and the ancient vineyards and olive groves of the south. Even in high mountain regions, such as the Alps, away from the ski developments, local populations have attempted to control and channel the naturally destructive forces that mould the landscape, through river management, including hydroelectric schemes, and avalanche control.

There are very few landscapes which we have not altered. Many of these are actively managed by us for our own use, for agriculture or leisure, for example, and most of the rest are also affected by our activities whether we mean to or not. Even the atmosphere and the oceans have been modified by us in ways that we are only beginning to understand, and these, in turn, affect the flows of energy and materials to all ecosystems. It is, then, difficult to make a clear distinction between a ‘managed environment’ and a ‘natural ecosystem’, although we can all understand the difference in principle between planned management and inadvertent change.

Not only are we part of nature, but, as Figure 1 suggests, we exert an increasingly dominant influence on our planet. Our ability to make use of its resources, whether animate or inanimate, for our own ends is the basis of our material affluence, bringing benefits to many, though by no means to all. We cannot assume, however, that the goods and services we take from our natural surroundings are either limitless or free. In particular, if we disturb the environment beyond its natural abilities to sustain itself or respond to change, there may be adverse and unexpected consequences. Now, this last sentence can be interpreted in many different ways from the alarmist to the complacent. I would place myself somewhere in between these extremes. I believe we face many difficult environmental issues, some more serious than others, and that we are likely to discover many more in the future. I also believe that science and technology, wisely used, can help us solve, or at least mitigate, many of them. But every time we intervene to manage or control an environmental problem we have to take responsibility for the consequences. Increasingly we are becoming the managers or stewards of our environment – whether we like it or not.

Your opinions may well differ from those expressed in the last paragraph. Since you have chosen to study this unit about the environment, I would not be surprised if you already have quite strong views about some of the environmental issues we face.

Exercise 1

What are the most pressing environmental issues that concern you at the moment? Spend a few minutes thinking and making notes on, say, four environmental issues before reading the discussion below.

Discussion

The first point to emphasise is that there are no right or wrong answers to a question such as this. The issues that you have identified as important will depend on your circumstances, your priorities and your values. For example, you may be interested in several global environmental issues; alternatively you may be concerned about a particular local problem that affects you directly.

Here are a few issues you might have considered, but please note that my list makes no claim to be comprehensive, and, by the time you read this, new environmental topics may have become topical causes for concern and discussion. From a range of possible global environmental issues I'll mention just a few: global climate change; the continuing threat to the ozone layer; loss of natural habitats, e.g. tropical forests; loss of biodiversity, including threats to individual species, from insects to whales; and the depletion of vital natural resources such as oil and gas. At the other end of the scale the issues which may concern you are likely to reflect your local situation and these may vary widely. If you live in a city, noise, air pollution and litter may be on your list; in the countryside it may be protection of open spaces, or access to them, or perhaps worries about certain farming practices. Other important issues include access to sufficient clean water, and to safe, healthy food and the related matters of how these resources are distributed, which could be thought of as either local or global problems depending on your perspective. You may be thinking about solutions as well, from energy saving and recycling, to participating in planning decisions about new developments. For comparison I've included Figure 2 which shows part of a report by the Electrolux Group on public reactions to environmental issues. The problems identified are arranged according to geographical and time scales. You may well find you have some concerns in common!

Figure 2: Public reactions to environmental issues.

To end this section, I'd like to emphasise a point made in the previous discussion; that people in different situations, in inner cities, in the countryside, in affluent or developing countries, are likely to have quite different priorities. When solutions or agreements are being discussed which may affect widely differing groups it is only common sense to find out and take into account their different perspectives.