What is Environmental Science? Nature, Importance, challenges

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Environmental Science

Earth environment is the only home that we have, and it provides air, food, water and other needs to us. So, entire life support system depends on the well-being of the environment and its components. You have also gone through the various human activities that are adversely affecting our environment by disturbing the balance of nature.
In this post we will discuss about Environmental Science, its nature and the reason behind its emergence as a separate field of science. We will also discuss how the integration of environmental science with other fields e.g., biology, chemistry, ecology, statistics, computer science etc. any environmental issues can be handled. A study of this unit will help you to understand the scope and importance of this branch. It also enables us to know why public awareness is required in solving various environmental issues and how the environment education can be useful in doing so.

What is Environmental Science

You have studied about environment in Unit-1 and you know that everything that surrounds us comprises environment. It covers all the external forces, influences and conditions that affect the life of living organisms. It is the combination of physical, chemical, biological and social components on Earth that directly or indirectly affects the development and survival of an organism. Among all components, the humans under biological component occupy a central position among other organisms. Therefore, nowadays major focus is on the various anthropogenic activities affecting the environment at global level. Apart from this several socio-economic, cultural and political factors are also simultaneously influencing our environment.

In today’s world human perception of nature, natural resources and wildlife has been changed. Now humans have started realizing that he is just a species among other species on Earth and his well-being is linked to well-being of others. Severe environmental problems like climate change, pollution, global warming, ozone layer depletion, acid rain, deforestation, desertification etc. are evident as major threats to the life existing on Earth. For this, general knowledge about life supporting environment, its working and persisting environmental problems has become obligatory. Since no other academic discipline covers the above-mentioned areas completely, therefore new academic discipline i.e. environmental science has been introduced to fill this gap. The study which includes various aspects of environment like its quality, its maintenance and conservation of its biotic and abiotic components can be collectively stated as “Environmental science”. It can be defined as “the study of all systems of air, land, water, energy and life surrounding the man”. It is an applied science that deals with every issue affecting organism and is mainly concerned with the analysis of human impacts on the physical, chemical and biological environment of Earth. According to some academicians, environmental science is a study of the environment including all biophysical as well as anthropogenic conditions under which an organism lives.

The Environmental science came into existence after the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s environmental science book named “Silent Spring” (1962) documented the adverse effect of indiscriminate use of pesticides addressing environmental issues for the first time. Many issues like Santa Barbara oil spill (1969) in California and catching fire incident in the Cuyahoga River of Cleveland, Ohio (1969) increased the visibility of environmental matters. The book named “Limit to Growth” by Club of Rome (1972) and the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference, 1972) also drew the attention of the world towards environmental imbalance. As the outcome of this conference, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was created. Further in 1987, Brundtland Commission (formerly known as the World Commission on Environment and Development) introduced the term Sustainable Development in its report “Our Common Future” focussing on the need of balanced development process for the welfare of nature and future generations. This report influenced the Earth Summit; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1992) where the Agenda 21 related to sustainable development was adopted. Similarly, in 2002 at Johannesburg (South Africa), the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held that also emphasized on eco-friendly developmental processes. In the same context, “The Future we Want” is the declaration on sustainable development and a green economy adopted at United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (2012) in Rio.

As discussed above, the concept of environment and environmental problems are no more restricted to a region, country or continent but have become a matter of global concern. For example, the leakage of a toxic gas in the air from the industry in USA may to some extent also pollute the air of Europe. We Indians were alarmed due to oil spillage in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean during Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (Gulf war). These global environmental concern led to the creation of various international environmental agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS), World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), World Conservation Strategy (WCS), International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and Global Environmental Facility (GEF),Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Similarly, many scientific forums and conventions were held for settling environmental issues, for example Ramsar Convention for conservation of wetland fauna and flora, Montreal Protocol for protecting the ozone layer, Kyoto Protocol for reducing emission of greenhouse gases, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for quantifying the extent of global warming and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for biodiversity conservation. These developments lead to the emergence of environment science as new academic field to tackle the environmental problems.

Environmental science is driven by three basic aspects i.e (i) need of multi-disciplinary approach to analyse complex environmental problems; (ii) advent of environmental laws needing specific environmental protocols of investigation; (iii) growing public awareness towards various environmental problems. Since 1970s, environmental science has been encouraged worldwide and included in the formal education systems of different countries in order to create awareness among peoples. In India, 2003 onwards environment education has been made compulsory at graduate level in all the universities and colleges. 

Multidisciplinary Nature

The environment and its persisting problems are highly complex due to which it requires interdisciplinary efforts to understand them. It assimilates approaches of various disciplines to fulfil its objective. So, it can be defined as interdisciplinary field that integrate various academics fields (physical, biological, chemical and information sciences etc.) to understand the structure, function and environmental problems of environment.
Environmentalists are generally concerned with the understanding of earth processes, assessing different energy systems, pollution control, natural resources and its management and global climate change etc.

Basically, core subjects of Environmental science are biological sciences like zoology, botany, microbiology and physiology etc. But many environmental concerns can be resolved through application of other academic disciplines. Disciplines like physics, chemistry, geography, geology and atmospheric sciences help us in understanding physical, structural and functional organization of our environment. For example, to understand the phenomenon of global warming, computer models are created by physicists for studying atmospheric circulation and infra-red radiation transmission, atmospheric chemicals and their reactions are inspected by the chemists, plant and animal contributions to carbon dioxide fluxes are analysed by biologists whereas meteorologists and oceanographers help in understanding the atmospheric dynamics. Similarly, mathematical science is used in environmental modelling whereas for data interpretation computer science is required. The expertise from the fields of environmental engineering and architecture helps in finding solutions to technical issues like pollution management, waste management, green building, and green energy and focuses on design and technology for improving environmental quality.

The activity of living and non-living component of the environment is governed by laws of physical, chemical, geological and biological sciences whereas; human activity and their behaviour are studied under psychological, political and social sciences. Rules for maintenance of healthy state of environment come under authority of national legislation while agreements related to environmental issues faced by different countries come under international law. International cooperation is an essential aspect for dealing global environmental issues like climate change, ozone layer depletion, environmental pollution, trade in hazardous substances, biodiversity loss, depletion of natural resources, ecological imbalance etc. Economics aids in better understanding of the social background required for achieving growth and development. For the fulfilment of above-mentioned goals management studies will help in formulation and implementation of environment related policies. Apart from this, environment study is also connected with philosophy, ethics and cultural traditions that help in achieving our goal sustainably. Therefore, environment science requires different experts from various fields of science while taking any environment related decisions. Thus, we can say that environmental science has multidisciplinary approach that integrates with various academic fields i.e. physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, anthropology, geography, geology, climatology, atmospheric sciences, archaeology, environmental economics, sociology, statistics, political science, law, economics, philosophy, management, technology, ethics and health science etc. to analyse and manage different complex environmental problems.

Environmental science involves the study of several aspects that influence our biophysical environment, earth processes, ecological systems, biodiversity, natural resource, different energy systems, climate change, and different types of pollutions and so on. For this, above-mentioned discipline has been united to develop different subdivisions of environmental science. Its major subdivisions include ecology, geosciences, environmental chemistry, atmospheric science, environmental microbiology, environmental toxicology, and environmental impact assessment. Apart from this, other subdivisions are environmental studies, environmental engineering, environmental economics, environmental ethics, environmental management, environmental sociology, environmental biotechnology etc. These are generally treated as independent academic disciplines parallel to environmental science. 

1. Major subdivision of environmental science

(i) Ecology: It is the study of relations of organisms to one another and to their biophysical environment that include both biotic and abiotic components. It further includes the study of biodiversity, distribution, abundance, biomass and population of organisms along with competition and cooperation among them. Ecologists as environmental scientists, study the relationships between environment and the population of a particular species within that environment and various correlating aspects among them.

(ii) Geoscience: It involves the study of environment related areas - geology, soil science, volcanoes and the Earth’s crust. For example, for analysing the erosion of the Earth’s surface in particular area soil scientists, physicists, biologists, and geo-morphologists are involved. Geo-morphologists can study the movement of sediments, biologists study its impacts to the plants and animals, physicists analyse the light transmission changes in erosion causing water, and the soil scientists can make the final calculations on the water flow when it penetrates the soil causing the soil erosion.

(iii) Atmospheric science: It deals with the study of the Earth’s atmosphere and analyses its relation to atmospheres of other systems. It involves a wide variety of scientific studies related to space, astrology and the Earth’s atmosphere (meteorology, pollution, gas emissions, and airborne contaminants). For example, for studying Earth’s atmosphere physicists analyses its atmospheric circulation at particular part, chemist’s analysis the chemicals existent in this part and their relationships with the environment, meteorologists study the dynamics of the atmosphere whereas biologists observe how the plants and animals are affected and their relationship with the environment.

(iv) Environmental chemistry: It involves the study of the chemical and biochemical phenomenon that occur in environment. It includes atmospheric, aquatic, soil, and analytic chemistry. It involves in understanding how the healthy, uncontaminated environment works and the optimum concentration of chemicals that present naturally in environment. Above understanding helps in the study of the effect of human activities and release of chemical on the environment.

(v) Environmental microbiology: It involves the study of microorganisms, their relationship with one another and with their environment. Microbes being omnipresence affects the entire biosphere and plays important role in regulating biogeochemical system of our environment. Environmental microbiologists study the ways through which microorganisms interact with the environment.

(vi) Environmental toxicology: It is a field of science that deals with the study of the harmful effects of various chemical, biological and physical agents on living organisms and the ecosystem. The environmental toxicologists study the toxic pollutants, its potential source, its effect on biophysical environment and identifying the ways for minimizing their toxic effects on humans and other living organisms.

(vii) Environmental legislation and education: Environmental legislation involves the collection of laws and regulations related to environment. This further ensures the consideration of environment while taking any decisions that can impact environment. Some of the Environmental legislations are the Environment Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Montreal Protocol, and the Clean Water Act etc. Environmental education is concerned with creating awareness in general public for environmental problems around them through formal and informal education.
Thus, we can say that today environmental science is acting as an active part of the scientific world that has accelerated the need to address Earth’s environmental problems. It encompasses multiple scientific fields and sciences inter related one another. 

Scope and Importance of Environmental Science 

In the process of development, the quest of human to control and exploit nature and its services has literally whacked up everything in this Mother Nature. While doing so we interrupted the complex system of environment and its life forms which in turn can results in severe outcomes, the kind of which have not been witnessed before. An environmental science has a vast scope as it covers a wide range of subject matters or issues related to our complex life-supporting system.

Scope of the subject can be described in terms of its areas of applicability and career opportunities. There are three major areas of its applicability-
(a) management of natural resources;
(b) conservation of ecosystem and biodiversity and
(c) prevention and control of human induced pollution. In addition, environmental science plays an important role in solving environmental issues like climate change, global warming, ozone layer depletion, pollution, energy crisis, desertification, urbanization, population explosion, loss of biodiversity, disposal of wastes and so on. The scope of environmental science is not only limited to studying concepts, components and environmental problems, but also to find out a practical global solution by raising public awareness towards the immediate need for environmental protection. In recent decades, environmental science has been considered to be associated with a number of career opportunities. Following are the major career options related to the subject: 

Research and development (R&D): This includes research on various environmental issues, for example studying different types of pollution their causes and effects. It further involves in development of clean and efficient technologies for future. Some of the common carrier profiles are scientists, researchers, and analysts.

Consultancy: Environment consultancies are hired by governments, industries and NGOs for carrying out laboratory-based environmental analysis or studies that is required for environment impact assessment (EIA) and other processes. Environmental experts are needed by industries to guide them for adopting clean eco-friendly technologies, controlling pollution, disposing the wastes, and carrying out environmental audit. 

Green media and green advocacy: In order to generate environment awareness, there is an immense need for skilled manpower in the field of print and electronic media. A number of magazines and newspapers regularly publish articles on environmental theme, for example, Down to Earth, a magazine published by Centre for Science and Environment. Other environment related magazines are Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, and Mother Earth News etc. Today, lawyers are playing important role in ensuring implementation of environmental norms, laws, and programmes. Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is the important way of using law strategically for social change thus empowering people to fight against anti-environment activity. 

NGOs: NGOs plays an important role in environment protection as they constitute a world-wide network interacting with government and intergovernmental organization. Now days, most of the environmental programmes are being implemented through NGOs, with the help of funds from national and international agencies. There are large number of NGOs in India and in other countries working for environmental protection, conservation and awareness. Some common examples of environmental NGOs are Green-peace, CI, WWF, CSE, TERI, Kalpavriksh, Tarun Bharat Sangh. 

Government jobs, State, National and International agencies: A number of conventional jobs are available in government sector like in environmental ministry, pollution control boards, national parks, and biosphere reserves etc. Various states, national and international agencies such as UNEP, IUCN and World Bank require qualified human resources for implementing environment related projects. 

Academics: Environmental science has been encouraged worldwide and included in the formal education systems of different countries. Today it is taught at almost every level of education i.e. from school to university level. For this, large numbers of teachers or academicians are required.

At present world is facing several environmental problems that have grown in size and complexity day by day, threatening the survival of mankind on earth. These problems can be solved only when everyone cares for the environment and have the knowledge regarding causes, consequences, and remedial measures of different environmental problems. In order to achieve this goal, environmental science is promoted and taught at different educational levels from school to colleges and universities. The environment science enlightens us, about the need of protection and conservation of environment and has become important for the following reasons:

1. To realize that environmental problems are global and are of International importance: Environmental science lets us recognize that environment issues like climate change, global warming and ozone depletion, acid rain, marine pollution and biodiversity loss etc. are not just national problems but are global issues and hence must be tackled with international efforts and cooperation.

2. To understand the impacts of development on environment: It’s well known that development results in urbanization, industrial growth, expansion of telecommunication and transport systems and hi-tech agriculture etc. and this affected our environment in various ways. Environmental science makes us aware of various environmental problems and draws the attention of general population towards the need for different environment friendly steps for example, decentralization of industries to reduce congestion in urban areas that will reduce pollution. The aim is to achieve all this sustainably.

3. To understand the interrelationship between organisms: Environmental science is important because it enables us to understand the interrelationships between the organisms. For example, plants produce and release oxygen to the atmosphere that human’s need for respiration while humans breathe out carbon dioxide that plants need for photosynthesis. Plants are sources of food for humans and animals whereas animals’ faecal matter is the source of nutrients for plants and other organisms. Thus, organisms are dependent on each other for survival.

4. To focus on the need of biodiversity conservation and how to conserve it: Biodiversity is the richness of biological variations on earth. Environment science helps us to understand how the continuous loss of biodiversity due to over exploitation, habitat degradation, and deforestation and land pollution has posed threat to the existence of mankind.

5. To identify sustainable ways of living and development: Environmental science is concerned with finding out various sustainable ways of living without compromising the future generations need. Environmental sustainability means creating awareness among people about proper consumption of resources and minimizing unnecessary waste. This includes minimizing energy consumption, conserving natural resources; embracing the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle), conserving power etc.

6. To develop awareness about environmental problems at local, national and international levels: Environmental science aims to educate and equip learners with necessary environmental skills and to pass this to the community in order to create awareness. 

Need for Public Awareness 

After the agricultural, scientific and industrial revolution in the recent past, huge human impact has been seen on our environment. Today, earth systems are immensely affected by human activities like extracting materials, using energy and emitting pollution for fulfilling the quest of food, shelter and other products of growing population of the world. 
Over-exploitation of natural resources, environmental pollution, industrialization, introduction of the faster mode of transportation, large crowded cities or urbanization, deforestation, use of insecticides, pesticides, improper use of fertilizers and chemicals etc are the contributing factors that affected the life of man, animals and other organisms. 
Today, earth is going through major environmental changes and the activity of human has upsets the balance of the ecosystem. The raised concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone) has been already introduced in the environment and that shall persist for long in atmosphere. The chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that released due to humans’ activities will continue to deplete ozone layer for centuries to come. Forest cover cleared by us shall take decades to regenerate and extinct species will never come back. All these changes and their outcomes will make our lives more and more difficult. The future of entire humanity is at great risk. So, it is essential to make the public aware of the consequences of the environmental degradation, if the reformative measures are not undertaken in time then this may result in the extinction of life too. Today, we are facing various environmental challenges and need of the time is that every individual should get acquainted with these challenges so that we all realize our responsibilities towards our mother Nature and act accordingly in eco-friendly way. 

Environmental challenges

  • Overpopulation: In this developing world, human population is increasing day by day. To meet the demand of this uncontrolled growing population, considerable pressure is developing on nature and its resources. It is exceeding the carrying capacity of Earth ultimately leading to imbalance in nature. Hence, the greatest challenge present today is to limit the population growth by developing awareness among people and society.
  • Poverty: In India vast majority of our people are directly or indirectly dependent on the natural resources of the country for the fulfilment of their basic needs of food, fuel, shelter and fodder. Large number of people (about 40%) is still below the poverty line. Environment degradation has adversely affected the life and livelihood of poor and tribal population who depend upon the resources of their immediate surroundings. Thus, we can say that the challenges of poverty and environment degradation are two facets of the same challenge.
  • Urbanisation: In present scenario, urbanisation and industrialization has given birth to a large number of environmental problems. Due to rapid industrialization job opportunities in particular areas has increased, that diverted the gigantic concentration of people to the urban areas competing for limited resources. Rapid housing constructions leads to the overcrowding problems or development of slum areas having many issues like poverty, inadequate water, poor sanitation facilities, lack of rubbish disposal, industrial pollution etc. Hence, dealing with problems due to rapid urbanization is a major challenge.
  • Agricultural growth: Agriculture plays an important role in growth and development of nation. But just like other forms of human activities, growth in agricultural activities for increasing production also have negative impact on Environment. Hi-tech agricultural activities have led to the various environmental problems like soil degradation and erosion, air, water and soil pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation etc. High yielding verities have caused soil salinity and damage to physical structure of soil. Need of the hour is to meet the agricultural need of the growing demand in sustainable and eco-friendly way.
  • Need for water conservation and ground water: In this rapidly developing world, factors like community wastes, sewage waste, industrial effluents, chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides have polluted our surface water and also affected the quality of groundwater. Therefore, the most important challenge of today’s world is to restore and maintain the water quality of our rivers and other water bodies. For this there is immense need of finding suitable strategies for conservation of water, provision of safe drinking water and keeping water bodies clean.
  • Development and Forests degradation: In India, forest cover has been declining due to pressures of agriculture, rapid urbanization process and other uses. Earlier rural people and tribal communities inhabiting forests respects trees, birds and animals and plays important role in restoring and conserving forests. In India there are many sacred grooves where plant species are protected by the local communities’ thereby playing role in conservation of species. Thus, it is the need of the time to develop strategies for the joint management of forests where traditional knowledge and experience of the local communities and modern techniques of forest Department can be utilized together.
  • Reduction of Genetic Diversity: At present most, wild genetic stocks have been disappearing from nature due to certain reasons like climate change, deforestation, habitat loss, overexploitation, pollution and invasive species etc. For example, Asiatic Lions are facing problem of loss of genetic diversity. Today, the protected areas network like sanctuaries, national parks, biosphere reserves, declining forest cover etc. have isolated wildlife populations thereby decreasing changes of the group breeding with another. Therefore, remedial steps are needed to be taken to check decreasing genetic diversity.
  • Air, water and soil pollution: Majority of our industrial plant are the huge source of air, water and soil pollution due to improper disposal of highly toxic industrial and chemical waste. Large number of cities and industrial areas has been identified as the highly polluted area in terms of air, water and pollution. Various environment legislation like The Air Act (1981), The Water Act (1974), The Environment Act (1986) and The Biological Diversity Act (2002) etc. are enforced in the country, but their implementation needs great resources, technical expertise, political and social will. Again, for solving this problem public awareness about these rules is necessary.
Through the study of above-mentioned challenges, it is clear that our environment is getting degraded day by day due to human activities and we need to do seriously something about it. We often take this issue carelessly and feel that government should take necessary steps. But truth is that we all are equally responsible towards our mother nature and the goal of environment protection can be achieved only by joint efforts. Active co-operation of each and every one, at all level of social organization, scientists, educationists, students, politicians and administrators is needed. A little effort by a single person can cause significant improvement in conditions of the environment. For example, a person can use energy more efficiently, one can prefer bicycle over car thus saving petrol and reducing pollution, minimizing the use of paper, a few grains saved by us can make food affordable to poor. Hence, we can say that major environmental problems can be resolved if the initiation begins at grass root level with the effort of a single individual. For this, public awareness needs to be created. In this context, various media (social, print and electronic) can strongly influence public opinion and can aid in developing public awareness towards environment protection. Also, awareness among people towards environmental issues can be developed by giving Environmental Education.

Environmental Education (EE)

Environment education helps individual to understand how their decisions and actions are affecting the environment and to know how we can keep our environment healthy and sustainable for our future generations. Now it is the high time to manage our behaviour and action towards environment and for this environmental education can act as a milestone.


In this unit we have gone through the concept of environmental science and its various aspects. So far you have learnt that.
  • Environmental science is an applied science dealing with every issue that affects the life of an organism. It mainly emphasizes on the analysis of human impacts on the physical, chemical and biological environment of Earth. 
  • Environmental science has multidisciplinary nature as it integrates various academic fields like physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, anthropology, geography, geology, climatology, atmospheric sciences, archaeology, environmental economics, sociology, statistics, political science, law, economics, philosophy, management, technology, ethics and health science etc. for dealing complex environmental problems.
  • Ecology, geosciences, environmental chemistry, atmospheric science, environmental microbiology and environmental toxicology etc. are its major subdivisions.
  • Major areas of its applicability are management of natural resources, conservation of ecosystem and biodiversity and prevention and control of pollution.
  • Some of the career options related to the subject are consultancy, research and development (R&D), academics, green media, green advocacy, NGOs, Government jobs and jobs in State, National and International agencies etc. 
  • The environment science plays important role in realizing that the environmental problems are global, knowing the impacts of development on it, identifying sustainable ways of living, understanding the need of biodiversity conservation and the need of developing public awareness about environmental problems. 
  • Today, world is facing challenges like overpopulation, poverty, agricultural growth, need to ground water, forests degradation, reduction of genetic diversity, urbanization, air, water and soil pollution etc.
  • For creating awareness among people towards environment and its issues Environmental Education (EE) is important.

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