Humans and the Environment

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Date: 2020
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 775 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 970L

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Humans rely on the environment, the world around them, to survive. However, their actions also affect the environment, sometimes in harmful ways. For example, the number of people living on Earth increased dramatically in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. More people use more of Earth’s resources, create more air and water pollution, and ultimately cause climate change. However, humans throughout the world can take steps to help reduce their negative impact on the environment.

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Fast Facts

  • The world’s population was roughly 7.8 billion in 2020.
  • Climate scientists have noticed that the twenty-first century includes some of the warmest years on record.
  • Roughly 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year.

How Humans Affect the Environment

Humans have affected the environment throughout time. However, they did not always have as much impact on the environment. Groups of early humans used resources from nature. They hunted animals and farmed crops. They built homes and buildings from rocks, dirt, and wood. Over time, though, people invented new types of technology that allowed them to alter the environment in new ways, such as by flying planes, driving automobiles, and building cities. These changes have harmed the environment in many ways. For example, deforestation, which is the cutting down of forests for land use, negatively affects the environment by reducing the number of plant and animal species and decreasing the amount of oxygen in the air.

Land Use

One way that people affect the environment is by using land. Humans use land for farming, industry, and housing. When they use land, they clear away the plants that grow there, which causes the soil to erode. Clearing away the land can cause some animals to become extinct. Building structures and installing cement can prevent water from draining into the ground, which can cause flooding.


People also affect the environment through pollution, in particular air and water pollution. Water pollution includes chemicals, trash, and other materials that people dump into the water. Plastic pollution is a serious problem in oceans and other bodies of water. The plastic can break down into small pieces and make plants and animals sick. Animals also eat the plastic because they think it is food. This can be fatal. Scientists have found dead whales, birds, and fish with their stomachs full of plastic.

Air pollution occurs when human activity puts chemicals into the air. For example, fossil fuels are burned to create electricity and power automobiles. Burning fossil fuels releases chemicals into the air that can make animals, plants, and humans sick.

Climate Change

One of the most serious ways that humans harm the environment is by causing climate change. Climate change occurs over time mainly because of humans burning fossil fuels. The burning releases gases into the air that make global temperatures rise. The rising temperatures change Earth’s climate. Climate change also melts ice and makes sea levels rise, causing the land in some places to be covered with ocean water. The gases that cause climate change also make ocean water more acidic, which can kill coral and other sea life.

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Connections: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

People have varying opinions about the overall effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the environment. These are plants and animals that have had their DNA changed. Humans do this on purpose, such as when they change the genetics of plants by breeding them with other plants to produce the desired results in offspring. However, humans have also accidentally created some GMOs. For example, they made chemicals called herbicides to kill weeds. Over time, though, some types of weeds developed resistance to the herbicides. The herbicides helped make very strong weeds. These strong weeds change the environment because they are hardier than other plants and prevent them from growing.

Use of Natural Resources

Humans also greatly influence the environment because they use natural resources, including nonrenewable sources, at a fast pace. People need to use resources to survive. They use minerals and metals, fossil fuels, lumber from trees, and groundwater. Nonrenewable resources, such as fossil fuels, will eventually run out if humans continue to use them. Furthermore, extracting resources may also harm the environment by releasing dangerous chemicals or killing animals and plants.

Protecting the Environment

Fortunately, humans can reduce the negative effects they have on the environment. Governments can pass laws preventing people from polluting, burning fossil fuels, and cutting down trees. However, these laws are often unpopular because businesses make more money when they do not have to follow laws that protect the environment. Humans can also make individual changes in their everyday lives to prevent harming the environment. For example, they can fly less and reduce the amount of electricity used in their homes.

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Words to Know

Wear away.
Die out.
Not being able to be replaced.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|UHXPGJ498885062