BIOL 103, Module 1-2, What is Environmental Science


So this is module 1, lecture 2, also recorded on April 17th. In this particular presentation, I want to provide a usable definition of environmental science, describe the many fields of study that are involved, and demonstrate how competing interests may be interested in environmental policies. So again, it’s the beginning of the semester; we really we need to know: What is environmental science? One definition from Wikipedia is that it’s a multi disciplinary academic field… I’m not going to read all of those disciplines, but that’s a pretty good list right there, although it’s not complete. And the study of the environment and the solution to environmental problems. Now, that’s kind of complicated, so let’s simplify it a bit on the next slide. Environmental science – and this is my personal definition – is an interdisciplinary study of humans, the natural world, and how we interact with our environment. And there are a couple key parts that I like to point out in this definition: I like the interdisciplinary part. We in environmental science rely on a lot of different fields of study. On that previous slide, biology, chemistry, geology, but it goes further than that. We go into politics, economics, government, governmental policy, laws…there’s so much to it. We are definitely studying humans. This course is very much about humans and how we interact with the natural world. So yes, we study nature, but we are studying it in the context of how humans interact with [natre]. Another definition…and this is from Essential Environment 5th Edition, it’s one of the textbooks that HACC uses for this biology 103 course throughout all its campuses. Environmental science is the scientific study of how the natural world works, how how our environment affects us, and how we affect our environment. So again, we’re looking at nature, humans, and how we affect nature. And then, the reciprocal of how nature affects us. So a couple items here: environmental science science is the study of the resources we use; the living organisms we kill, grow, and utilize; the water we drink; the air we breathe; the pollution we produce; and the energy we use. If you look at the course syllabus or the course objectives, [they] talk about energy, water, air pollution. These are all key components of this course. Environmental studies looks at the interests of many different groups of people, and one of my favorite places in the world, Yellowstone National Park, is a great opportunity for me to talk about fire policy. And when studying fire policy, there are two major competing viewpoints. On one hand, fire is bad, right? Yes. Buildings and property are destroyed, wildlife is killed, the blackened forest, which is the reslt of the fire, is quite unsightly too many people. People do die, firefighting costs a lot of money, there of course are many more negatives to forest fire, but forest fire is also good. The fire itself returns nutrients to the soil. As everything is burned down to ash, this allows for a renewed renewed cycle of birth and growth. After the fire…usually the very next season, there are beautiful fields of flowers and plants that grow up where there had been a fire previously. Many of those small plants, small flowers, and even the ash itself provides valuable resources for wildlife. Some wildlife are actually known to just chew on the ash…it’s so nutritious for them. And in the Rocky Mountains, and in Yellowstone specifically, there’s a particular pine tree called the Lodgepole pine. Its cones will only open when there’s a fire, and for many years, we prevented fires, and the Lodgepole pines were not regrowing. We had forests of lodgepole dying out, but no new lodgepole pines coming in. Let’s take this all the step further and look at the different groups of people in Yellowstone National Park who have a vested interest in fire policy. Tourists, for example, or tourist groups – if there’s a fire, their vacation is ruined, their property might be damaged, but then again, the counterpoint is that the fires themselves draw crowds and those wild flower fields following the fire…they’re going to draw even more crowds by themselves. The ranchers outside of the park are pretty interested. As an example, fire drives the Bison (aka Buffalo, but bison is the technical term) drives those bison from the park, off into ranching lands. And there’s an irrational fear that Brucellosis, a disease, can be transmitted from bison into cattle. (This is actually not true.) Biologists are constantly conducting research on the parks ecosystems and wildlife. On one hand perhaps preventing fires would allow them to continue their study undisturbed, but at the same time, preventing fires, by its very nature , has a negative effect on the environment. These environments require fire, so for biologists it’s a kind of a win loose situation.The park rangers themselves, or politicians, or other governmental officials, must manage all the competing interests of all these different groups. And one more: insurance companies. Just like your car insurance company or homeowners or your renter’s insurance company…these insurance companies insure buildings within the park, machinery, cars, public vehicles, and the lives of firefighters and their equipment. And also all the personal property insurance of all the tourists – their auto insurance, and so on. And there are many more. So all these different groups would have some kind of an interest in fire policy, and whether we are allowing fires to happen or not. So this is one quick example. Does this help clarify the field of environmental studies? Is it what you were expecting? I’m going to guess that this is not quite what you thought this class would be, because students often incorrectly think that this is an ecology class. In that type of class, we study nature, we study animals, plants, predators, prey, food chains, and so on. But environmental science is so much more than that. So in summary, yes, it’s interdisciplinary. I really think that’s an important part of the definition. You study people, and we study how people interact with, use, and benefit from the natural world. That’s it for now. I’ll see you on the next video.

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