Thursday, 27 June 2013

Environment equals...?

"When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe."  John Muir, journal entry July 27 1869
The term environment is very commonly used and in many different contexts. I guess we all think we know what it means but maybe we should take some time to spot where, when and how it’s used and what we are implying when we use it. Given its use in conversation, newspapers, magazines, on television, amongst scientists and politicians and given what dictionaries say, the environment conventionally means those conditions or surroundings external to us or to some other organism. But can it just be this?

Environmental scientists perhaps go a little further, regarding the environment as the sum total of external influences acting on an organism. There’s that word external again though. UK environmental law defines the term narrowly eg the Environmental Protection Act 1990 Part 1, Section 1 says environment:
Consists of all, or any, of the following media, namely air, water and land; and the medium of air includes the air within buildings and the air within other natural or man-made structures above or below ground.’

These ‘definitions’ are really not that helpful in revealing what the environment really is. They are not complete and accurate:  ‘external conditions’ could mean many things; people and other living things don’t and can’t exist in isolation but need networks of systems. If we are to be clear and complete about what ‘sum total’ means would we not include everything – the biophysical, the socio-economic, the political.....? If so then the environment can’t be a ‘single issue’ as many refer to it - and it can’t be apolitical either.
Referring just to external conditions is highly problematic. If environment is air, water and land what about the water and air and the stuff from the land that is in living organisms and the systems they interconnect with? With respect to the term ‘external’, where/how does one draw the boundary except in an arbitrary way?

To live sustainably we need to recognise and act on the fact that the environment is not just our surroundings or the biophysical world but also humans and their social, economic and other systems. We are a part of it, are dependent on it...there are multidimensional interrelationships and feedbacks. The environment is not something that just overlaps with the economy and society, as in the conventional view of sustainable development (pictured): it surrounds, penetrates and includes them. The environment is an integrated suite of systems that provides all the facilities necessary for life. We are always linked in and are never fully in control. Using the term environment narrowly, referring to it as external, wrongly implies that people are not a part of it so a change of language use is needed. This is one key to solving problems.
Consider a proposal to build a football stadium on greenbelt land: there is an obvious biophysical issue about loss of finite land with food growing, biodiversity enhancing, water management, carbon absorbing, human health and recreation…value. However, there are inseparable, interrelated and interdependent economic issues such as damaging local food production, any income from recreation, local job creation in building and running a new stadium, benefits and losses from stimulating housing, road or other developments alongside the stadium and so on. Social and political issues also feature in that the planning process has to be gone through, some local residents and environmentalists may be objecting and local football supporters and investors arguing for, a town green application may be made and the law courts may be used, local and other election results may be affected…In short the issue goes far beyond the environment as ‘external’  biophysical surroundings and has intimately entwined biophysical, economic, social and political dimensions. Human socio-economic and socio-political structures and events happen within the biophysical, depend upon it and impact upon it. The environment is the interconnections, interrelationships and interdependencies.

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