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Environmental Studies-Introduction

What is environmental science?

The scientific study and management of conditions and circumstances that affect humans and other living things

-multidisciplinary: synthesis of the physical, biological and social sciences

-applied: problem solving or management orientation, not just technological

This study is carried out in the effort to preserve, restore or simulate the natural or optimal human environment

Ideally, environmental science can provide the objective footings for a sound environmental policy (alas, wisdom and values must supply the subjective foundation)

What good is it?

-environmental engineers can help with a number of environmental problems, but cannot solve them alone

-by analogy, automotive engineers can make cars safer but cannot prevent traffic casualties

-let's list environmental problems:


-air pollution

-water pollution

-destruction of habitats

-waste of resources


-soil erosion

-radioactive wastes

-toxic wastes

-solid wastes


-acid rain

-carbon dioxide

-reductions in stratospheric ozone

-destruction of wetlands

-loss of biodiversity

-drinking water: one third of all deaths in the third world are caused by lack of safe drinking water; three million children die from diarrhea every year

-food production: grain harvests tripled from 1950 to 1990 but have not increased since then

-many of these are interrelated (as we might expect)

-in general, environmental problems are closely tied to social phenomena (Chapter 7 of Nebel & Wright, 7th ed. takes an interesting look at some of these)

-the development of human culture (the "revolutions") has brought us to our current state of environmental exploitation

-there is a great division between the developed nations of the West and North and the less developed (or Third World) nations of the East and South (in Nebel and Wright, 7th ed, see Table 7-1 on p 171 and Figure 23-1 on p 558)


-consumption of resources

-production of pollutants



-this division exists within countries as well

-environmental racism = differential exposure to toxic waste based on race

-Bullard, 1978, Dumping on Dixie

-in Houston, 5 out of 5 HW landfills and 6 out of 8 HW incinerators were located in a black neighborhood

-EPA's, 1992, Environmental Equity Working Group

-exposure to toxins higher among non-whites and the poor (of all races)

-the poor within the US are much more likely to live near a hazardous waste facility (see p 361 in Nebel & Wright, 7th ed.)

-in the short run, these inequalities may lead to social and political unrest; in the long they may hasten environmental collapse

-there is a growing cry for environmental justice

-these problems extend beyond the reach of the engineer

Environmental Management

Resources: things that satisfy the needs and wants of civilization



-plants and animals


Management, Exploitation, Conservation, and Preservation

-resource management: the process of directing and controlling the utilization of resources

-exploitation: using resources to meet human needs without regard for consequences (arguably this is NOT management)

-preservation: the setting aside or saving of a resource, presumably for future use or enjoyment

-conservation: making and carrying out decisions so as to utilize natural resources wisely

-Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons"--a commonly held resource is used to depletion

-the solution? private ownership of resources or regulation of common use

Environmental Philosophy

-one of the central concepts in ecology is the notion of limits, which are environmental factors that determine the extent of expansion of living things

-for example, the growth of algae in freshwater ecosystems is "phosphorus limited"; that is, once the available phosphorus is used up, no more algae can grow

-the human animal draws a variety of resources from and makes dramatic changes to the environment; since the ability of the global environment to sustain these demands and changes is limited, the growth of the human species is arguably likewise limited

-needless to say, there is more than one point of view on this topic

-one school of thought goes back to Thomas Malthus, an English economist, b. Feb. 14, 1766, d. Dec. 29, 1834

-Malthus was one of the earliest thinkers to study population growth as it relates to general human welfare. After studying philosophy, mathematics, and theology at Cambridge (1784-88), Malthus took holy orders (1790) and became (1805) professor of history and political economy at East India College near London

-he published a monumental treatise in 1798 entitled An Essay of the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society.

-Malthus's population principle held that population growth would be checked by dwindling food supplies

-his principle of diminishing returns suggested that, as the population grew, more and more labor would be needed to produce each food unit (we will use another meaning of diminishing returns later)

-this point of view has been expanded by the neo-Malthusians who hold that we are running out of not only food but water, air and all other resources as well

-an alternative point of view says that the world is a big place full of wonderful things and that people are very clever and have done quite well thus far by coming up with better and better technology

-each new wave of technology has produced a better standard of living, more people and a whole new set of problems

-some people would go so far as to argue that to eliminate environmental problems, we need only eliminate environmentalists, environmental regulations, etc.

-parallel to this argument is the question of whether nature is fragile or resilient


-how long is the long run and when does it begin?

-environmental scientists and engineers can be a big help in the struggle toward sustainable development

-the reasonable course would seem to be prudent investment of our environmental capital with the long term goal of a life-income trust (for the life of the planet)

-there have been various views of environmental management over the years

-for thousands of years, people have noticed the ugly after-effects of unrestrained development of resources

-Plato commented on deforestation twenty five centuries ago

-during the later years of the industrial revolution, the notion of utilitarian conservation came forward

-natural resources should be developed wisely so that we can derive the best benefit from them; this might be called anthropocentric conservation

-this is one of the ideals that drove Teddy Roosevelt and Gilbert Pinchot to establish the national forest system

-in contrast to this philosophy, is the idea that natural things (ie, non-human) have rights of their own

-this idea can be called biocentric

-biocentric ideals of John Muir helped bring about the National Park system

-the adherents of biocentric preservationism claim that human domination over nature is wrong; many call instead for a beneficient stewardship of nature

-others argue that even stewardship is too patronizing

-a fully equal relationship with nature, even if philosophically desirable, seems politically impossible in the near future; sustainable development and prudent stewardship seem like more practical aims

-it's an old argument that says we need economic development

-development is the only way that the poor can improve their lot without taking from the rich

The Contribution of Scientists and Engineers

-ideally, science provides an objective basis for decision making

-the scientific method



-natural laws = uniformitarianism

-scientific contraversy

-scientific vs non-scientific

-evaluting scientific work (see Nebel & Wright, 7th ed. p 19)

-environmental scientists and engineers can help by providing not only tools and technology for pollution control, but also assistance in planning

-planning is required to balance human needs with objectives

-forms the link between goals (such as preservation, conservation, economic development, recreation, etc.) and resource management activities

-planning can be carried out at the international, national, regional, state, district, or local level

-at each level there are variations in:

-available information


-means of implementation

-tools for planning

-research: information gathering by use of field surveys and measurements, laboratory experimentation, and reviews of published work; the planning may identify the need for additional research

-databases: the computerized or other compilation of research data; allows appropriate access to and use of available information

-information gathered from industry reports of toxic releases (Form R) are compiled in public access databases

-models: simulations of systems; simplified or smaller versions that we expect to act like the real things in important ways

-allow us to examine the effects of varying different aspects of a system without risking an actual undesirable outcome

-can be physical, representational, mathematical (computer)

-global warming is predicted by computer models of the effects of increasing CO2 levels


-land: wetlands, habitats, soil types

-water: surface water classes, groundwater aquifer classes

-plants & animals: endangered species

Let's continue with our description of environmental science

The "environment" is literally simply the surroundings

-environmental science focuses on the effects of the surroundings on living things, and on the effects of living things, particularly humans, on their surroundings

Life: not simple to define (we will attempt a simple definition)

-a type of organization of matter

-living things:

-exchange matter and energy with the environment

-undergo transformations but retain a recognizable and predictable structure throughout their life; (death is the irreversible loss of that structure)

-can reproduce

-living things have chemical, structural, and functional similarities that point to a common origin

-Oparin's hypothesis: lightning etc in prebiotic seas rich in carbon dioxide and ammonia lead to organic precursors to life

-this hypothesis received experimental support in 1953 when graduate student Stanley Miller (working under Nobel prize winner Harold Urey) ran "lightning" through a flask containing boiling water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen

-these conditions simulated those of the earth in the Archean Eon

-after a week, amino acids had been formed in the flask

Ecology vs environmental science

-often considered synonynous BUT

-ecology = the branch of biology which is concerned with the study of the relationship between an organism or group of organisms with other living things and with the non-living environment

-environmental science may include interests outside of this definition of ecology (on the other hand, since humans are animals, the study of anything humans do to or within the environment is arguably in the domain of ecology)

Some concepts we will use in the next few weeks, months, years....

biomass: (1) living or once living matter, ie, "food"; (2) all the living matter on the planet; (3) also used as a synonym for biosphere

biosphere: (1) the zone of the earth in which living things are found

-most of the earth's surface, the oceans, the atmosphere to about 10,000 feet

(2) all the living things on the planet

(3) the global ecosystem

ecosystem: a functional ecological unit composed of living and non-living things

-sharing a common space, weather conditions, physical substrate etc.

-not fully isolated from surrounding units but interacting

-classifications and divisions are flexible

energy: the ability to do work or transform the state of matter; one of the two "things" considered by physics

-virtually all the energy that moves and synthesizes living matter is supplied by the sun via photosynthesis

-energy used human societies likewise comes from the sun except for nuclear or geothermal energy

-the stores of chemically-fixed sunlight (eg, fossil fuels, food) are limited, the rate at which sunlight can be converted to other usable forms is also limited

homeostasis: the tendency and ability of living things to maintain steady states by regulating material and energy transformations

-typically employs feedback mechanisms: the return of a portion of output as input

-the thermostat is the classic feedback device: a proper thermostat employs "negative feedback",

-measuring a drop in temperature leads to a signal to effect a rise in temperature and vice-versa=> steady is maintained

-a "thermostat" that used "positive feedback" would not maintain steady state=> a rise in temperature would trigger a signal calling for further rise in temperature

-homeostasis is observed within ecosystems as well as within individual organisms

matter: anything that has mass and takes up space; one of the two "things" considered by physics

-living organisms are composed of matter but arranged by complex manipulations of energy

symbiosis: literally "living together"; generally used to mean the mutually beneficial interaction of dissimilar organisms

system: "a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole" (Websters)

-the properties of a whole system may be greater than the sum of the properties of the individual components=>a change in one aspect of a system usually has repurcussions for other parts and for the whole system

-may be open (freely exchanging materials, energy, information, etc, outside the system) or closed (having little interaction outside the system)

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