Environment is the source of life. It not only directs but also determines the existence, growth and development of human beings and all their activities. The quality of our social life depends mostly on the quality of the natural environment.
Primitive man was solely dependent for its existence (food, water and shelter, etc.) on the environment around him. From geographical point of view, environment includes the entire range of external influences—both physical and biological—that affects the life and death of an organism.
It is the force of nature in the form of physical, climatic and biotic factors. This spatial aspect of the environment is studied in details by geographers. Sociologists are not directly concerned with the spatial aspect of the environment.
But they do study environment (natural) to the extent that it affects the individual’s activities and society. Sociologists use the term ‘environment’ in a wider perspective to include social, cultural, economical and historical and geographical environment.
Society is but one component of human life and is never independent of environment; instead, there is a complex interactive process among organization (society), population, technology and environment. A society is the organization of a population but the size and characteristics of any population depend upon the sustaining environment.
Society is playing a vital role in spoiling, denigrating and degeneration of environment. As such, it has become an important social problem to be studied by sociologists. Human actions have a direct impact on the ecosystem.
These actions have brought immense changes in our planet earth that have resulted into many environmental problems. It is the impact of human beings on nature in the form of technology and industry that has created so many consequences which are social.
Technology is the crucial factor in the interaction of people with environment. It changes the terms and conditions of the interaction; it provides more sustenance and permits population to grow. The power of modern technology is immense and its indiscriminate use has altered the environment in ways unimagined only a few decades ago.
It extends the human capacity to modify environment but its indiscriminate use is the root of an ecological crisis. Modem society itself is now utterly dependent on technical intervention and technological harnessing of the forces of nature.
If this goes wrong in a serious way (as we are witnessing today), then, the consequences are likely to be correspondingly very serious. According to Milbrath (1989), ‘the technology that enabled the unprecedented economic growth of the 20th century has had a dramatic effect on our natural resources’.
It has resulted into the following environmental problems:
1. A rapid growth of world population.
2. The depletion of natural resources such as:
(a) shrinking of forests and wetlands,
(b) erosion of soil and coral reefs,
(c) depletion of underground water and severe shortage of fresh drinking water,
(d) vanishing of plants, and
(e) salinization in some countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Middle East.
3. The depletion of living organism—loss of biodiversity, the rapidly extinction of many animal species, collapsing of fisheries, etc.
4. The rising pollution of air and water.
5. Rising of temperature (global warming and its disastrous effects).
6. The thinning of the ozone layer.
7. Poisoning of rivers, seas and underground resources.
Until recently we exploited and changed the environment (and still changing and exploiting) without concern for the future, but extensive pollution and the destruction and depletion of natural resources will mean the destruction of ourselves or destruction of society.
Even though science and technology have radically altered the terms of adaptation to the nature, we still need to adapt to the environment. Human society is embedded in an environment. We must not forget that the human being is first and foremost an animal, sharing living space with other animal species in an environment on which they are mutually dependent.
If we do not give attention to our environment, we are putting our own existence in grave peril. Not only this, we are spoiling the fate of our future generations also. People now have started realizing that the civilization that they have built for the last thousands of years may not survive more if some drastic steps are not taken immediately to save our environment from degradation.
Fresh air, clean drinking water, natural gas, petroleum and the earth’s topsoil are all finite resources that will exhaust if we continue to exploit them at the present rate in the name of the development. As we deplete precious natural resources and degrade the environment, we also destroy its ability to rejuvenate itself.