Bringing Environmental Science To Our Attention: Environmental Studies

People commonly think of someone who is passionate about the environment as a scientist in the field doing research. However, Environmental Studies as an academic discipline is one that is made up of many concentrations that may not necessarily involve scientific research. These concentrations include philosophy, politics and law among others. What is significant to note is that all of these careers are devoted to the cause of bettering the environment. Those who work for the policies and institutions that devote their time to environmental causes outside of the field remain to be an important part of solving the anthropogenic, or human-caused, problems of the environment that plague us today-by informing the public and creating initiative.

Environmental scientists are vital to the field as they create the solutions that can be implemented, but they can’t do it all on their own. There must also be people such as policymakers and environmental lawyers who take charge to enforce environmental laws and regulations. And that is where the field of environmental studies comes in. It approaches the problems and solutions that environmental science delineates and makes them more palatable for the general populace, creates policies to implement solutions, forms sustainable businesses based on those principles, and so much more.

Habana Outpost

Habana Outpost in Fort Greene, Brooklyn uses solar panels, recycled building materials and a bike-powered blender among other technology to spread the word about sustainability.

An environmental policy is defined as general practices, rules, strategies or plans that guide particular decisions and actions toward the goals of preventing, reducing or mitigating harmful effects on nature or natural resources. The academic discipline of environmental studies is centered on the study of the creation, implementation, evolution and effectiveness of environmental policies. Where environmental studies differs from the natural sciences is that its main focus is not on producing scientific data but using the data to analyze, evaluate and inform.

Much of what environmental policy is based on is getting people to be more sustainable, or think in terms of what resources and services the environment will be able to provide for us in the future, based on how much we tax it now. Sustainability can be broken down into three principles: a reliance on solar energy, biological diversity, and chemical cycling. These may seem like just snippets of the whole but the three principles actually make up more parts of the definition than many people realize. The sun, for example, warms the planet and supports photosynthesis but also powers indirect forms of energy such as wind and flowing water-both used to produce electricity. Thus, although sustainability may seem abstract or difficult to grasp in its purest form it can be addressed simply with those three principles.

A Solar Installation in the Riverdale Section of the Bronx

A Solar Installation in the Riverdale Section of the Bronx

One main part of environmental studies and policy is outreach, or how the message of sustainability should be getting to the general populace. Much of the goal of sustainability can be achieved by involving people in purchasing green products or voting for certain policies, or simply changing parts of their lifestyle. One of the main ways this can be done is by simply illuminating the facts of their day-to-day contributions to the Earth’s problems.

A quiz done by the Global Footprint Network, a nonprofit organization established to enable a sustainable future where all people have the opportunity to live satisfying lives within the means of one planet, surprised even me as to how big my ecological footprint, or how much land area it takes to support my lifestyle, was. Although I admit to generally looking to live a fairly “green” life I was surprised to find that if everyone on Earth lived like I did we would require close to four and a half Earths! Although this is alarming, it makes sense in the context of how much a deficit the United States has in terms of the country’s ecological footprint, or land required to sustain a person: 5.1 hectares/person. This is the greatest amount by far of any industrialized country. The United States’ debt means that it has less of a biological capacity per person or ability to replenish its renewable resources and absorb the resulting waste products and pollution than it can keep up with its production.

Industrialized countries like the U.S. have higher average ecological footprints than other countries

Industrialized countries like the U.S. have higher average ecological footprints than other countries

Once people can see how much resources we are using as a whole, we come to the effects that are outlined by environmental science and solutions to solve them. We have massive amounts of pollution, desertification is rampant, biodiversity is declining, our climate is changing too rapidly, oceans are acidifying and more.

There are four main causes of the environmental problems that plague us today: the exponential rate of growth of human population, unsustainable use of resources, poverty and excluding environmental costs from market prices, all of which are generally self-explanatory. Solutions come wide and varied, and perhaps can be addressed another time, but the creativity and ingenuity of humanity has not let down progress before, and many of these problems have been mitigated in laboratory settings-the main, real problem is worldview and how these issues are addressed.

How we address these issues also seems to fall into categories as well: the planetary management worldview which assumes we can use nature for our needs indefinitely, the stewardship worldview which maintains that we manage the earth for our benefit but we also have an ethical responsibility to be stewards of the Earth, and the environmental wisdom worldview which states that our success depends on learning how life on earth sustains itself and integrating that into our thoughts. These views are held from people as varied as political candidates to celebrities.

Vaclav Smil, a scientist and policy analyst subscribes to the planetary management worldview

Vaclav Smil, a scientist and policy analyst subscribes to the planetary management worldview

But no matter how we look at the way we should treat our planet, it is important that people understand the problems that are being caused by all of our actions. Many who study environmental science think of resource depletion and sustainability in terms of an everyday field we can understand, like finances. What we have on Earth right now is natural capital, what keeps us and other forms of life on Earth alive like trees or algae that produce oxygen. It is vital to make certain that we keep this invaluable capital in order to keep a balance to our ecosystems.

You may notice with the Ecological footprint graphic that the higher the country’s GDP the higher the ecological deficit gets, with certain exceptions. If people thought of the resources on Earth as assets that can be used but not so easily replenished and that they need to be preserved by spending them modestly, like saving earnings in a savings account instead of blowing it all, perhaps those in industrialized and post-industrialized societies would think more before buying particular products, or voting for particular policies. Its obvious that policy is a motivator across the globe,  so thinking of our earth’s resources like this, although it is a simplification, may motivate people to want to be sustainable. The fault does not entirely lie with these nations, but beginning with them is a great start.

Saving our natural assets should be just like saving money in a piggy bank-don't overdraw

Saving our natural assets should be just like saving money in a piggy bank-don’t overdraw

The main goal of environmental studies is to create an environmentally sustainable society. This goal is not one to be met with black and white solutions but a multifaceted plan of addressing the problems. Because these potential solutions cover such a broad range of concentrations it is vital that they are looked at from all sides. And that is where the environmental studies field comes in. The generation of adults growing up today are those who will turn the tides on which direction the world will go, and the more informed they are, the more we can change it.

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