We explain what the environment is, and explore its general characteristics. In addition, we discuss renewable, non-renewable and perpetual resources.

medio ambiente
In an environment, all components interact with one another.

What is the environment?

The environment is defined as the various natural and social components that interact within an interconnected system. From a physical perspective, the environment is composed of elements such as air, water, soil, plant and animal life. These components are interrelated in a delicate balance that sustains life on the planet.

The social components of the environment encompass human activity and human interaction with the elements of nature. Humans depend on natural resources (such as food, water, and energy) for survival.

The relationship between the natural and social components of the environment is complex and dynamic. Deforestation, for example, can lead to biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and shifts in weather patterns, in addition to having an impact on water availability and the health of local communities.

Environmental issues such as climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution, and soil degradation, call for sustainable actions to mitigate and solve them. It is necessary that governments and businesses alike implement environmental conservation practices, promote the development of clean technologies, and adopt policies aimed at environmental care.

Environmental issues

As a result of the overexploitation of resources and the degradation of natural and ecological cycles, present-day major environmental issues are:

  • Climate change. It is evidenced by the rise in global temperature and the intensification of extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves, and storms.
  • Deforestation. It entails the disappearance of large native forest areas, mostly caused by the expansion of agricultural and livestock frontiers.
  • Soil degradation. It is evidenced by the progressive loss of soil fertility and productivity.
  • Pollution. It is the presence of toxic substances and pollutants in the environment that may affect humans, ecosystems, and climate. 

Composition of the environment

The elements that make up the environment can be classified into biotic and abiotic components.

  • Biotic components. They encompass all living beings: plants, animals, insects, microorganisms, and fungi. From a social viewpoint, it also encompasses humans.
  • Abiotic components. They encompass air, water, rocks, and all non-living elements. Abiotic components also include all human-made constructions, such as buildings, roads, and urban infrastructure.

Natural resources

Wind energy is a type of perpetual resource.

Throughout history, humans have made use of what the environment has offered them for survival including water, food, shelter, clothing, leisure, and communication.

Natural resources are all the elements of the natural environment to which humans give some type of use. They can be classified into:

  • Renewable resources. They are those resources that are replenished naturally over a socially acceptable timeframe. If adequately used, they are always available for extraction and use. They include all crops and animals for livestock farming.
  • Non-renewable resources. Originating from geological processes, their formation occurs at a much slower rate than the human population takes to use them. Since they take millions of years to form, the existence of non-renewable resources can be considered fixed, with their reserves running out as they are used. They include minerals and hydrocarbons such as oil and gas.
  • Perpetual resources. They are those resources whose existence is so vast and renewal so constant that they are inexhaustible. They include solar energy, Earth's radiation, sea water, air, and wind.

Environmental care

Companies extracting resources and transforming them into manufactured goods, as well as governments and societies at large play a key role in the use of natural resources and waste management.

Companies rely on natural resources for their manufacturing processes and the production of goods and services. The exploitation of resources without taking into account their renewal times can lead to the overexploitation of ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity, and the pollution of the air, water and soil.

Governments play a fundamental role in regulating and overseeing business activities to ensure they are conducted responsibly and sustainably. However, the relationship between companies and governments can sometimes be complex, as economic interests may influence political decisions and the enforcement of environmental regulations. This may lead to ineffective control over business activities and inadequate natural resource management.

Societies also play a major role in the interrelation between human activity and the natural environment, since consumption patterns and human lifestyles have a direct impact on the use of natural resources and waste management.

Although individual actions have a smaller impact on environmental degradation than large polluting industries, it is important to rethink habits and behaviors at the individual level, such as reducing plastic use and introducing recycling practices, avoiding unnecessary electricity consumption, and saving valuable resources like drinking water.

The environment concept

The concept of the environment originates from ecology, a science developed during the 20th century as an offshoot of biology that studies the relationships between living beings and their surroundings. It was coined by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who defined ecology as "the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment".

Since then, the term environment has been used to refer to the group of physical, chemical, and biological factors that influence living beings and determine their distribution, population, and behavior. For this reason, the concepts of environment and nature are often linked.

With new developments in the field during the 20th century, environmental research increasingly began to focus on the importance of social, economic, and cultural factors to understand and address environmental issues. This led to a broadening of the environment concept, which came to encompass not only the physical and biological components but also the social and human aspects that interact with the natural environment.

The environmental movement

The environmental movement emerged in Europe in the 1970s, and has since then expanded globally, exerting a significant impact by raising awareness and calling to action on environmental issues.

Concerns about air and water pollution, and the destruction of natural ecosystems led to the creation of organizations and movements dedicated to environmental protection. One of the most important events was the Stockholm Conference, which was the first to warn about the limits of economic growth and the need for a more sustainable use of natural resources.

The environmental movement quickly spread to other countries around the world, motivated by growing public concern and awareness of the human impact on the environment.

Today, the environmental movement continues to be of great importance worldwide. The climate crisis, biodiversity loss, pollution, and other environmental threats are critical issues on the global agenda. Political advocacy, collective action, environmental education, and the search for sustainable solutions are among the main actions of environmental movements.

Throughout history, environmentalism has had renown figures worldwide. Some of the most notable include:

  • Wangari Maathai (1940-2011). She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in reforestation and the promotion of sustainability in Africa.
  • Vandana Shiva (1952-). An Indian philosopher, physicist, and writer, she stands out as a mainstream activist of ecofeminism in her struggle for biodiversity conservation and the sustainable production of healthy food.
  • Berta Cáceres (1971-2016). A Honduran woman who fought for environmental defense and against the privatization of access to river water. She was assassinated in March 2016.
  • Chico Mendes (1944 - 1988). A Brazilian activist who opposed deforestation and the expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Amazon. He was assassinated in December 1988.

World Environment Day

World Environment Day is celebrated annually on 5 June. It was established by the United Nations General Assembly to commemorate the start of the Stockholm Conference, which was held in Sweden from June 5 to June 16, 1972.

The Stockholm Conference was the first time in history in which authorities from countries around the world gathered, motivated by the growing concern over the impact of economic and productive activities on the environment.  Every year, World Environment Day focuses on a specific theme to address a pressing environmental issue, such as water pollution, climate change, and species extinction. On June 5th, countries hold conferences, conventions, and other events related to that year's theme, as well as symbolic activities like lighting up buildings and landmarks in green.

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How to cite

SPOSOB, Gustavo. "Environment".
Encyclopedia of Humanities. 23 February, 2024, https://humanidades.com/en/environment/.

About the author

Author: Gustavo Sposob

Bachelor degree in Geography for Middle and Higher education (UBA).

Translated by: Marilina Gary

Degree in English Language Teaching (Juan XXIII Institute of Higher Education, Bahía Blanca, Argentina).

Updated on: 23 February, 2024
Posted on: 19 February, 2024

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