Environmental Science For Dummies
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Environmental science is a field of study focused on Earth’s environment and the resources it provides to every living organism, including humans. Environmental scientists focus on studying the environment and everything in it and finding sustainable solutions to environmental issues. In particular, this means meeting the needs of human beings (and other organisms) today without damaging the environment, depleting resources, or compromising the earth’s ability to meet the resource needs of the future.

A sustainable solution to an environmental problem must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and culturally acceptable.

This Cheat Sheet summarizes some key aspects of what environmental scientists study.

Patterns of environmental racism in the U.S.

Despite decades of environmental cleanups and legislation to protect Americans from hazardous waste and environmental damage, environmental scientists see distinct patterns of inequity, or unfairness.

Specifically, they see that Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans are many times more likely to be impacted by environmental health and safety concerns. Here are just a few facts about this pattern of environmental racism in the United States:

  • Air pollution: Communities of color all over the United States are exposed to much higher amounts of air pollution, including exposure to smog, ash, and soot, than white communities. This leads to higher rates of asthma and cancer in these communities.
  • Lead exposure: Black American children are poisoned by lead at rates five times that of white American children. Lead is found in older buildings and paint, as well as spread through particles in the air from industrial pollution.
  • Hazardous waste: Hazardous and toxic waste disposal sites are more often put in communities of color than in white neighborhoods. This includes the many hazardous and toxic waste disposal sites placed on indigenous lands and reservations.
  • Safe drinking water: Contaminated and unsafe drinking water impacts populations in Black, brown, and Indigenous towns and cities. Large cities with primarily Black populations, such as Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, have been exposed for outdated and dangerous water supply systems.
  • Higher temperatures: As temperatures get warmer each year with climate change, the impacts of the heat are felt more distinctly in communities of color. Studies show that within cities, neighborhoods with Black populations (as a result of mid-century segregation) currently experience higher temperatures and incidences of heat-related illness. These locations often have less green space and landscaping, which works to moderate some of the heat.

How to characterize a population of living things

Scientists who study living organisms examine them from different perspectives of complexity. The simplest level is the individual. Each individual is a member of a population. Each population is made up of a group of individuals of the same species that occupy the same environment and interact with each other.

Many different populations together make up a community, and many different communities interact with one another in an ecosystem. A group of ecosystems that interact with one another is called a biome, and all the biomes on the globe make up the Earth’s biosphere.

Examining populations, specifically, is useful because they grow, decline, and respond to their environment together. Scientists use a few common measurements to characterize populations:

  • Size: This is the number of individuals that make it up.

  • Density: This is the number of individuals (population size) in relation to the area they inhabit.

  • Distribution: The distribution of a population indicates where the individuals are located across the environment they occupy. For example, although 1,000 honeybees may live in your backyard, most of them stay in the hive, while only a few fly around to the flowers.

  • Sex ratio: This refers to the number of males versus females within a population.

  • Age structure: This describes how many individuals fall into different age classes. For example, some populations consist mainly of young individuals, while others include individuals spread across many ages.

What defines an ecosystem?

The basic unit of study in environmental science is the ecosystem. An ecosystem consists of a biological community and its physical environment. Here are the most important things you need to know about ecosystems:

  • An ecosystem can be as small as a drop of water or as large as a forest.

  • Some ecosystems (such as caves) have clear boundaries, while others (such as forests) do not.

  • An ecosystem provides the organisms that live in it what they need to survive: food (energy), water, and shelter.

  • All the biological processes in an ecosystem run on energy captured from the sun.

  • Energy moves around an ecosystem through the food web.

  • The number of producers (or plants) in an ecosystem determines that ecosystem’s productivity potential.

  • An ecosystem recycles matter through the process of decomposition.

  • Ecosystems provide services, such as food production (farmland), water filtering (wetlands), carbon removal, raw material production (timber, rubber), and aesthetic value.

  • Because many modern human societies get their food, water, and other resources from all over the planet, you can consider the entire globe to be the human ecosystem.

Working toward a more sustainable environment

Environmental science is all about finding ways to live more sustainably, which means using resources today in a way that maintains their supplies for the future. Environmental sustainability doesn’t mean living without luxuries, but rather being aware of your resource consumption and reducing unnecessary waste.

The following sustainability measures start small with what you can do individually to take better care of the Earth; the list then branches out to cover more far-reaching changes.

  • Eating locally: Depending more on locally available food reduces the amount of energy used in food transportation and supports your local food-producing economy.

  • Recycling: Doing so reduces trash and conserves natural resources.

  • Conserving water: Water conservation is the process of using less water to begin with and recycling or reusing as much water as possible. The goal of water conservation is to maintain a freshwater supply that can meet the needs of as many people as possible for as long as possible.

  • Taking steps toward smarter land use: Both large-scale and small-scale possibilities include compact architecture and urban design to efficiently use land space, mixed-use planning that locates businesses close to where people live, and creation of parks and other green spaces to provide recreation for people and habitat for wildlife.

  • Creating a sustainable economy: Environmental economists seek to include the cost of environmental damage in product pricing through taxes, fines, and regulations.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Alecia M. Spooner has been teaching at the college level for more than 15 years. She currently teaches at Seattle Central College, where she is Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Alecia teaches earth science courses that are accessible and engaging, while stressing scientific literacy and critical thinking.

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