Environment is derived from the French words environ or environner, meaning around, which in turn originated from the Old French virer and viron (together with the prefix en), which mean “a circle, around, the country around, or circuit.” Etymologists frequently conclude that, in English usage at least, environment is the total of the things or circumstances around an organism—including humans—though environs is limited to the “surrounding neighborhood of a specific place, the neighborhood, or vicinity.”
The word environment provokes two persuasive suggestions for a contemporary definition. First, the word environment is identified with a totality, everything that encompasses all of us, and this association is established enough to be not lightly dismissed. The very notion of environment, as Russian-born mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport (1911–2007) indicated, suggests the partitioning of a “portion of the world into regions, an inside and an outside.” The environment is the outside. Second, the word’s origin in the phrase “to environ” indicates a process that alludes to some sort of action or interaction, suggesting that the environment is not simply an inert phenomenon to be acted on without response or without affecting the organism in return. Environment must be a relative word, because it always refers to something environed or enclosed.
Ecology as a discipline is focused on studying the interactions between an organism and its environment. Ecologists must be concerned with what H.L. Mason and J.H. Langenheim described as a “key concept in the structure of ecological knowledge,” but a concept with which ecologists continue to have problems of confusion between ideas and reality—the concept of environment. Mason and Langenheim’s article “Language Analysis and the Concept Environment” continues to be the definitive statement on the use of the word environment in experimental ecology.
The results of Mason and Langenheim’s analysis were essentially four-fold: (1) they limited environmental phenomena “in the universal sense” to only those phenomena that have an operational relation with any organism. Other phenomena present that do not enter a reaction system are excluded or dismissed as they are not considered “environmental phenomena”; (2) they restricted the word environment itself to mean “the class composed of the sum of those phenomena that enter a reaction system of the organism or otherwise directly impinge upon it” so that physical exchange or impingement becomes the clue to a new and limited definition; (3) they specifically note that their definition does not allude to the larger meaning implicit in the etymology of the word; and (4) they designate their limited concept as operational environment, but state that when the word environment is used with qualification, then it still refers to the operational construct, establishing that “‘environment per se is synonymous with ‘operational environment.”’
This definition does allow a prescribed and limited conception of environment and might work for experimental ecology but is much too limited for general usage. To be relevant environmental phenomena must incorporate a multitude of things other than those that physically impinge on each human being. It needs to be more interactive and overlapping than a restricted definition. To better understand contemporary human interrelationships with the world around them, environment must be an incorporative, holistic term and concept.
Thinking about the environment in the comprehensive sense—with the implication that everything is the environment with each entity connected to each of a multitude of others—makes environment what American lawyer David Currie (1936–2007) in a Page 558 | Top of Articlebook of case studies and material on pollution described “as not a modest concept.” But, such scope and complexity, difficult as they are to resolve, intensify rather than eliminate the very real need for a kind of transcendence. The assumption seems valid that human consciousness regarding environment needs to be raised, not restricted. Humans need increasingly to comprehend and care about what happens in far away places and to people they do not know but that do affect them, that have an impact on even their localized environments, and that do impinge on their individual well-being. And they need to incorporate the reciprocal idea that their actions affect people and environments outside the immediate in place and time; in the world today, environmental impacts transcend the local. Thus it is necessary that human awareness of those impacts also be transcendent.
Confining the definition of environment to operationally narrow physical impingement would likely advance this goal. It may significantly retard it, a retardation that contemporary human societies cannot afford. Internalization of a larger environment, including an understanding of common usages of the word, might on the other hand aid people in caring about, and assuming responsibility for, what happens to that environment and to the organisms in it.
An operational definition can help people deal with problems immediate and local, but can, if they are not careful, limit them to an unacceptable mechanistic and unfeeling approach to problems in the environment-at-large.
Acceptance of either end of the spectrum—a limited operational definition or an incorporative holistic definition—as the only definition creates more confusion than clarification. Both are needed. Outside the laboratory, however, in study of the interactional, interdependent world of contemporary humankind, the holistic definition must have a place. A sense of the comprehensive outside, of the totality of world and of people as a functionally significant, interacting unit should be a part of the consciousness of every person.
Carefully chosen qualifiers can help deal with the complexity: the terms natural, built, or perceptual all specify aspects of human surroundings more descriptive and less incorporative than the word environment used alone. Other nouns can also pick up some of the meanings of environment, though none are direct synonyms: habitat, milieu, mis en scene, and ecumene all designate specified and limited aspects of the human environment, but none except environment are incorporative of the whole complexity of human surroundings.
An understanding of environment must not be limited to an abstract concept that relates to daily life in terms of choices to recycle or walk to work. The environment is the base for all life, the source of all goods. Poor people in underdeveloped nations know this; their daily survival depends on what happens in their local environments. The precipitation in their area, the movement of commercial seiners into local fishing grounds, and the loss of local forest products due to world timber production affect these people more directly. What they, like so many other humans around the world, may not also recognize, is that environment now extends far beyond the bounds of the local; environment is the intimate enclosure of the individual or a local human population and the global domain of the human species.
The Brundtland Report Our Common Future, from the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), or the Brundtland Commission, recognized this with a healthy, modern definition: “The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the word ‘environment’ a connotation of naivety in some political circles.” The report goes on to note that “the ‘environment’ is where we all live, and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”
The Brundtland Commission focused on the degradation of the human environment and natural resources and the effect of the degradation on social and economic development. Based on current environmental issues, the Commission promoted global sustainable development, which is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable development of the environment offers the possibility that our surroundings can be maintained and potentially improved through careful actions and mitigation or elimination of pollutants.
Each human being lives in a different environment than any other human because every single one screens their surroundings through their own individual experience and perceptions. Yet all human beings live in the same environment, an external reality that all share. The environment must be maintained to support current and future generations. Understanding the environment requires a resolution and synthesis of individual characteristics and shared conditions. Solving environmental problems depends on the intelligence exhibited in that resolution.
Attfield, Robin. The Ethics of the Environment. International library of essays in public and professional ethics. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2008.
Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008.
Eisner, Marc Allen. Governing the Environment: The Transformation of Environmental Protection. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006.
Kahn, Matthew E. Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2006.
Park, Chris C. A Dictionary of Environment and Conservation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Sinha, Prabhas Chandra. Guidelines for Human Environment and Sustainable Development. Global environmental law, policy and action plan series. New Delhi: SBS, 2006.
Gerald L. Young