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Environmental studies deal with every issue that affects an organism. It is essentially a multidisciplinary approach that brings about an appreciation of our natural world and human impacts on its integrity. It is an applied science as it seeks practical answers to making human civilization sustainable on the earth’s finite resources.
Its components include biology, geology, chemistry, physics, engineering, sociology, health, anthropology, economics, statistics, computers and philosophy.
As we look around at the area in which we live, we see that our surroundings were originally a natural landscape such as a forest, a river, a mountain, a desert, or a combination of these elements. Most of us live in landscapes that have been heavily modified by human beings, in villages, towns or cities. But even those of us who live in cities get our food supply from surrounding villages and these, in turn, are dependent on natural landscapes such as forests, grasslands, rivers, seashores, for resources such as water for agriculture, fuelwood, fodder, and fish. Thus our daily lives are linked with our surroundings and inevitably affects them. We use water to drink and for other day-to-day activities. We breathe air, we use resources from which food is made and we depend on the community of living plants and animals which form a web of life, of which we are also a part. Everything around us forms our environment and our lives depend on keeping its vital systems as intact as possible.
Our dependence on nature is so great that we cannot continue to live without protecting the earth’s environmental resources. Thus most traditions refer to our environment as ‘Mother Nature’ and most traditional societies have learned that respecting nature is vital for their livelihoods. This has led to many cultural practices that helped traditional societies protect and preserve their natural resources. Respect for nature and all living creatures is not new to India. All our traditions are based on these values. Emperor Ashoka’s edict proclaimed that all forms of life are important for our well being in Fourth Century BC.
Over the past 200 years, however, modern societies began to believe that easy answers to the question of producing more resources could be provided by means of technological innovations. For example, though growing more food by using fertilizers and pesticides, developing better strains of domestic animals and crops, irrigating farmland through mega-dams and developing industry, led to rapid economic growth, the ill effects of this type of development, led to environmental degradation.
The industrial development and intensive agriculture that provides the goods for our increasingly consumer-oriented society use up large amounts of natural resources such as water, minerals, petroleum products, wood, etc. Nonrenewable resources, such as minerals and oil are those which will be exhausted in the future if we continue to extract these without a thought for subsequent generations. Renewable resources, such as timber and water, are those which can be used but can be regenerated by natural processes such as regrowth or rainfall. But these too will be depleted if we continue to use them faster than nature can replace them. For example, if the removal of timber and firewood from a forest is faster than the regrowth and regeneration of trees, it cannot replenish the supply. And a loss of forest cover not only depletes the forest of its resources, such as timber and other non-wood products but affect our water resources because an intact natural forest acts like a sponge which holds water and releases it slowly. Deforestation leads to floods in the monsoon and dry rivers once the rains are over.
Such multiple effects on the environment resulting from routine human activities must be appreciated by each one of us if it is to provide us with the resources we need in the long-term.
Our natural resources can be compared with money in a bank. If we use it rapidly, the capital will be reduced to zero. On the other hand, if we use only the interest, it can sustain us over the longer term. This is called sustainable utilization or development.
The environment is not a single subject. It is an integration of several subjects that include both Science and Social Studies. To understand all the different aspects of our environment we need to understand biology, chemistry, physics, geography, resource management, economics and population issues. Thus the scope of environmental studies is extremely wide and covers some aspects of nearly every major discipline.
We live in a world in which natural resources are limited. Water, air, soil, minerals, oil, the products we get from forests, grasslands, oceans and from agriculture and livestock, are all a part of our life support systems. Without them, life itself would be impossible. As we keep increasing in numbers and the quantity of resource improving this situation will only happen if each of us begins to take actions in our daily lives that will help preserve our environmental resources. We cannot expect Governments alone to manage the safeguarding of the environment, nor can we expect other people to prevent environmental damage. We need to do it ourselves. It is a responsibility that each of us must take on as one’s own.
The productive value of nature: As scientists make new advances in fields such as biotechnology we begin to understand that the world’s species contain an incredible and uncountable number of complex chemicals. These are the raw materials that are used for developing new medicines and industrial products and are a storehouse from which to develop thousands of new products in the future. The flowering plants and insects that form the most species-rich groups of living organisms are thus vital for the future development of man. If we degrade their habitat these species will become extinct. If one sees being sold or used, a product that comes from an illegally killed wild species, if we do not inform the authorities, we become a party to its extinction. Once they are lost, man cannot bring them back. When we permit the destruction of a forest, wetland or other natural area and do not protest about it, future generations are being denied the use of these valuable resources and will blame us for these rash and negligent actions towards the environment.
Thus the urgent need to protect all living species is a concept that we need to understand and act upon. While individually, we perhaps cannot directly prevent the extinction of a species, creating a strong public opinion to protect the National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in which wild species live is an important aspect of sustainable living. There is a close link between agriculture and the forest, which illustrates its productive value. For crops to be successful, the flowers of fruit trees and vegetables must be pollinated by insects, bats and birds. Their life cycles however frequently require intact forests.
Aesthetic/Recreational value of nature: The aesthetic and recreational values that nature possesses enlivens our existence on earth. This is created by developing National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in relatively undisturbed areas. A true wilderness experience has not only recreational value but is an incredible learning experience. It brings about an understanding of the oneness of nature and the fact that we are entirely dependent upon the intricate functioning of ecosystems.
The beauty of nature encompasses every aspect of the living and non-living part of our earth. One can appreciate the magnificence of a mountain, the power of the sea, the beauty of a forest, and the vast expanse of the desert. It is these natural vistas and their incredible diversity of plant and animal life that has led to the development of several philosophies of life. It has also inspired artists to develop visual arts and writers and poets to create their works that vitalize our lives.
A wilderness experience has exceptional recreational value. This has been described as nature tourism, or wildlife tourism, and is also one aspect of adventure tourism. These recreational facilities not only provide a pleasurable experience but are intended to create a deep respect and love for nature. They are also key tools in educating people about the fragility of the environment and the need for sustainable lifestyles.
In an urban setting, green spaces and gardens are vital to the psychological and physical health of city dwellers. It provides not only an aesthetic and visual appeal but the ability to ensure that each individual is able to access a certain amount of peace and tranquillity. Thus urban environmental planners must ensure that these facilities are created in growing urban complexes. Another important conservation education facility in urban settings includes the need to set up well designed and properly managed zoological parks and aquariums. These have go great value in sensitizing school students to wildlife. Many young people who frequented zoos as young children grow up to love wildlife and become conservationists.
In the absence of access to a Protected Area, a botanical garden or a zoo, one concept that can be developed is to create small nature awareness areas with interpretation facilities at district and taluka levels. These areas can be developed to mimic natural ecosystems even though they could be relatively small in size. Such nature trails are invaluable assets for creating conservation education and awareness. They can be developed in a small woodlot, a patch of grassland, a pond ecosystem, or be situated in an undisturbed river or coastal area. This would bring home to the visitor the importance of protecting our dwindling wilderness areas.
The option values of nature: While we utilise several goods and services of nature and enjoy its benefits, we must recognize that every activity that we do in our daily lives has an adverse impact on nature’s integrity. Thus if we use up all our resources, kill off and let species of plants and animals become extinct on earth, pollute our air and water, degrade land, and create enormous quantities of waste, we as a generation will leave nothing for future generations. Our present generation has developed its economies and lifestyles on unsustainable patterns of life. however, nature provides us with various options on how we utilize its goods and services. This is its option value. We can use up goods and services greedily and destroy its integrity and long-term values, or we can use its resources sustainably and reduce our impacts on the environment. The option value allows us to use its resources sustainably and preserve its goods and services for the future.