HUMANS AND THEIR ENVIRONMENT
The interface of air, water and land forms a life supporting layer known as the biosphere. The biosphere is the broadest Earth ecosystem, which is the spatial unit for the study of environmental geography. The prime concern of environmental geography is to study the components of natural environment separately and together, their linkages at various levels through physical and biological processes and human responses to environment relationships. These aspects cannot be studied in isolation. They are not only linked together but also to the physical environment in which they are found. Thus to understand the environment you will need to study each of the Earth system components : lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere.
The physical and biological components of the Earth are interlinked with each other, like a tapestry. If we pull a thread from a tapestry at one end, the whole tapestry can unravel. Similarly even a slight modification in the Earth's environment can lead to disasters such as floods and droughts, extinction of species and so on. In particular, species extinction is quite common these days. One fourth of the species presently living on the Earth may become extinct by the end of this century if the present environmental conditions persist. So, let us understand in this lesson about, the relationship that exists between the humans and their environment.
In geography, the relationship between humans and environment are identified as an overall system. In this system, the factors such as humans, animals, plants, climate, rocks and soils have a functional (Fig. 1-1) interaction. This functional interaction is under threat always by the development of science and technology and has adverse effects on our environment.
The dawn of industrial revolution since eighteenth century initiated the growth of science and technology. Many technological tools were discovered. Over the time, human communities acquired the technical knowhow and developed the skill to handle the technical tools. This in turn helped the modern human community to improve their standard of lliving and became technological community. These technological humans recklessly and indiscriminately exploited natural resources for industrial expansion and urban growth. These events altogether created most of the present day environmental problems.
So, it is the human technology that has drastically changed the human environment relationship from the prehistoric period to the present, most advanced industrial period. Thus a study of changing relationships between humans and the environment from a historical perspective may help in demonstrating the increasing adverse impacts of human activities on the environment. The changing relationships of humans, with the natural environment from prehistoric to modern periods may be divided into four stages:
1. Period of Food Gathering and Hunting
2. Period of Animal Domestication and Pastoralism
3. Period of Plant Domestication and Agriculture
4. Period of Science, Technology and Indsutrialization.
human were functionally a physical human because their basic needs were limited to food only, which they could collect (Fig.No.1.2) from their surroundings. They used to satisfy their hunger by fruits, which were easily obtained from the trees and plants; they spent the nights in the caves and on the trees. So the relationship between human and the environment was very friendly. The natural environment provided all requirements of early humans and thus they were totally dependent on their environment. Hence they are called as Physical Humans.
Over a period of time, humans learnt to hunt animals for their food. So, hunting became the first form of destruction of natural resources. But yet, such activities on the natural environment did not make any negative impacts on the environment at a larger scale. This is because of the limited requirements and a very low population existed at that time.
The discovery of fire (Fig.No.1.3) made a significant change in the attitude of humans because they learned to cook animal flesh before eating. This practice required wood, which they got from the forests. Such a demand made another significant starting point in the technology. The humans invented some device to cut and chop trees and their branches to get firewood. They also invented some tools to kill animals. Thus the discovery of fire and the invention of tools and weapons made the humans capable of exploiting the natural resources at a faster rate from their environment. Thus fire became one of the major ecological tools used by humans and changed the environment for their own benefit.
Over the time the primitive communities gathered larger herds of domesticated animals. But they still stuck to a nomadic way of life, as they had to move from one place to another place, in search of water and fooder for their animals and food for themselves. Even then the natural state of the environment was not disturbed much because their population and their domesticated animals were still under manageable size. So the changes brought in by human activities on the environment were well within the limit of self-regulatory mechanism of the natural environmental system.
The cultivation of main food crops resulted in the formation of social groups and organization, which gave birth to early human civilization known as 'river valley civilization'. Humans settled in the river valleys due to availability of water and fertile land for cultivation. This meant the emergence of socially organized human communities. Human civilization and farming practices changed the cordial relationships that existed between the humans and their natural environment at that time. Gradual but continuous improvements in farming practices resulted in gradual increase in human population and in the number of domesticated animals. More and more virgin forest land were cleared through felling of trees with the help of more advanced tools and weapons. Additionally, through burning of forest they increased the agricultural land. Humans also moved to other places in search of new fertile land. This led to the spread of human population all over the Earth and more destruction of their natural environment. Shifting cultivation, the most prevalent form of primitive cultivation, was responsible for the destruction of natural forests. Such farming practices are still in operation in many of the hilly regions of South and Southeast Asia.
At one point of time, humans developed their own environment known as 'cultural environment' by building houses and creating villages and towns and cities. The elements of cultural environment, such as buildings and roads, were built. Agricultural development changed the physical human into 'economic human' but no serious damage was done to the natural environment though significant changes, no doubt, were brought in the environment.