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.

Long-term impact of key environmental legislation in the U.S.

The peak of environmental legislation in the U.S. occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s in particular, Congress passed a number of important laws to repair environmental damage and protect the environment from further pollution. In fact, the relatively clean and healthy environment you enjoy today is a result of the laws passed during this period (some of which have been updated multiple times since their initial passing).

Here are a few of the laws that continue to have a big impact today:

  • Clean Air Act of 1970: This law was the first to regulate air pollution on a national scale and set goals for improving air quality across the U.S. It was updated in 1990 to address ozone depletion and acid rain, in addition to overall air quality.

  • Clean Water Act of 1972: Before this law, no rules mandated what type or amount of waste could be dumped into public waters. The Clean Water Act is viewed as one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation because it led to dramatic improvement in water quality across the U.S.

  • Endangered Species Act of 1973: The Endangered Species Act set up a process for legally recognizing and seeking to conserve plant and animal species in danger of extinction. As a result of this law, many species have recovered from near extinction, including the bald eagle, whooping crane, and grey wolf.

  • Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974: This piece of legislation was aimed at improving public health by protecting public drinking water supplies from contamination. Amendments in 1986 and 1996 shifted the focus away from treating polluted water to protecting drinking water from pollution at its source.

  • National Forest Management Act of 1976: This law required that national forest resources be managed through an approach that considers how timber removal affects the ecosystem as a whole. One effect of this act is that forest management plans also evaluate non-timber land use (such as recreation).

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: The size of a population is the number of individuals that make it up.

  • Density: The density of a population 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: The sex ratio of a population is the number of males versus females.

  • Age structure: The age structure of a population 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 teaches Earth and Environmental Sciences at a community college and enjoys developing active-learning science curriculums for adults. Alecia is also the author of Geology For Dummies.

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