Basics of Environmental Science

By Michael Allaby | Go to book overview

1

Introduction
When you have read this chapter you will have been introduced to:
• a definition of the disciplines that comprise the environmental sciences
• cycles of elements and environmental interactions
• the difference between ecology and environmentalism
• the history of environmental science
• attitudes to the natural world and the way they change over time

1

What is environmental science?

There was a time when, as an educated person, you would have been expected to converse confidently about any intellectual or cultural topic. You would have read the latest novel, been familiar with the work of the better-known poets, have had an opinion about the current state of art, musical composition and both musical and theatrical performance. Should the subject of the conversation have changed, you would have felt equally relaxed discussing philosophical ideas. These might well have included the results of recent scientific research, for until quite recently the word ‘philosophy’ was used to describe theories derived from the investigation of natural phenomena as well as those we associate with philosophy today. The word ‘science’ is simply an anglicized version of the Latin scientia, which means ‘knowledge’. In German, which borrowed much less from Latin, what we call ‘science’ is known as Wissenschaft, literally ‘knowledge’. ‘Science’ did not begin to be used in its restricted modern sense until the middle of the last century.

As scientific discoveries accumulated it became increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, for any one person to keep fully abreast of developments across the entire field. A point came when there was just too much information for a single brain to hold. Scientists themselves could no longer switch back and forth between disciplines as they used to do. They became specialists and during this century their specialisms have divided repeatedly. As a broadly educated person today, you may still have a general grasp of the basic principles of most of the specialisms, but not of the detail in which the research workers themselves are immersed. This is not your fault and you are not alone. Trapped inside their own specialisms, most research scientists find it difficult to communicate with those engaged in other research areas, even those bordering their own. No doubt you have heard the cliché defining a specialist as someone who knows more and more about less and less. We are in the middle of what journalists call an ‘information explosion’ and most of that information is being generated by scientists.

Clearly, the situation is unsatisfactory and there is a need to draw the specialisms into groups that will provide overarching views of broad topics. It should be possible, for example, to fit the work of the molecular biologist, extracting, cloning, and sequencing DNA, into some context that would relate it to the work of the taxonomist, and the work of both to that of the biochemist. What these disciplines share is their subject matter. All of them deal with living or once-living organisms. They deal with life and so these, as well as a whole range of related specialisms, have come to be grouped together as the life sciences. Similarly, geophysics, geochemistry, geomorphology, hydrology, mineralogy, pedology, oceanography, climatology, meteorology, and other disciplines

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Basics of Environmental Science
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Figures vii
  • Tables xi
  • Preface to the Second Edition xiii
  • How to Use This Book xv
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Earth Sciences 19
  • 3 - Physical Resources 90
  • 4 - Biosphere 137
  • 5 - Biological Resources 200
  • References 258
  • 6 - Environmental Management 261
  • Further Reading 296
  • Glossary 300
  • Bibliography 307
  • Index 316
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