Environmental science often seems daunting but this is due to the jargon and language that has grown around this field. To understand environmental science more effectively, one needs to have a working knowledge of the various concepts often discussed. The following overview of terms will help one gain a better understanding of this important field.
The scientific method refers to a body of techniques designed to investigate unknown ideas, create knowledge, and integrate preexisting knowledge. To be considered scientific in methodology an inquiry must gather empirical, observable, and measurable evidence which is subject to rational understanding. An important aspect of scientific method also includes the formulation of a hypothesis which is attempted to be proven through the evidence gathered.[i]
Environmental science is a multi-academic field that integrates many different fields of study including physics, chemistry, biology, soil science, geology, and geography. The purpose of this multi-based study is to derive a complete overview of the environment, and the solutions to environmental problems.[ii]
Anthropocentrism is school of thought which describes the tendency for human beings to regard themselves as the central and most important beings in the world or in nature. This school of thought also describes the tendency of humans to assess reality through an exclusively human perspective.[iii]
Biocentrism states that nature does not exist simply to be used or consumed by humans, but that humans are simply one species amongst many and that because people are part of an ecosystem, any actions which negatively affect the living systems of which we are a part, adversely affect humans as well. [iv]
Dualism is often referred to the dichotomy that exists between the “subject” (observer) and the “object” (the observed). Dualism show that there is an inherent flaw in science as it is always described from one perspective.
Ecocentrism is a term used in ecological political philosophy to denote a nature-centered, as opposed to human-centered, system of values.
Ecology is the scientific study of the relation of living organisms to each other and their surroundings.
Eco-philosophy is a school of thought which sees humanity as one with nature, as an integral part of the process of evolution which carries the universe onward from matter to life, to consciousness, and ultimately to divine. This is closely related with concepts such and Deep Ecology and have almost religious implications.
Ethics, or moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality. Ethics strives to determine concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice, etc.
Hedonism is a school of thought which argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. This school of thought is often used to evaluate actions in terms of how much pleasure and how little pain they produce. In the simplest terms, a hedonist strives to maximize pleasure and decrease pain.[v]
Holism describes the concept that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave. Thus the parts do not equal the whole.[vi]
Individualism political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook in grained in morality that stresses “the moral worth of the individual” Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so independence and self-reliance while opposing most external interference upon one’s own interests, whether by society, family or any other group or institution.[vii]
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance.[viii]
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that attempts to explain the fundamental nature of being and the world. It should be noted that this terminology is not easily defined and has become overused to point of having little meaning. For example, while philosophers argue metaphysical ideas laypersons also argue what they believe to be metaphysical concepts such as ghosts or psychic activity. The colloquial overlap has muddled the view of metaphysics as a topic.[ix]
Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features. In conservation and in ecology the concepts often refer to living in a manner which uses resources sparingly.
Monism is any philosophical view which holds that there is unity in a given field of inquiry, where this is not to be expected. Thus, some philosophers may hold that the universe is really just one thing, despite its many appearances and diversities; or theology may support the view that there is one God, with many manifestations in different religions.[x]
Ethical extensionism is an argument in environmental ethics that moral standing ought to be extended to things (animals, plants, species, the earth) that traditionally are not thought of as having moral standing.[xi]
Pluralism is used to denote a diversity of views, and stands in opposition to one single approach or method of interpretation. As an example all religions would be seen as having merit.
Naturalism is a philosophy that posits a particular picture of reality, being, and existence that typically excludes the supernatural.
Normative has specialized meanings in several academic disciplines. Generically, it means relating to an ideal standard or model.
Pragmatism is a philosophical movement which claims that an ideology or proposition is true if and only if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that impractical ideas are to be rejected.
Relativism is the concept of points of view having no absolute truth or validity, and have only relative, subjective values according to differences in perception and consideration.[xii]
A utilitarian is a person that measures the moral worth of an action solely by its usefulness in maximizing utility. Utilitarians define utility as pleasure, preference satisfaction, knowledge or other things.
Environmental justice refers to the equal distribution of burdens and benefits to groups such as racial minorities, residents of economically disadvantaged areas, or residents of developing nations. Environmental justice also includes providing the opportunity for meaningful participation, recognition or awareness of local and/or cultural issues, and ensuring the capability of people to function fully with society.[xiii]
Fossil fuels are fuels formed by natural resources such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms.
Renewable energy is energy which comes from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat, which are naturally replenished by nature.
Anthropocentric and Biocentric thinking although fundamentally opposed in view both seem to have merit with regard to dealing with ecological issues on local community levels. The connection of these ideas is philosophically driven and must be understood in order to see the benefit with ecological issues. Biocentrism places humans as a part of nature and therefore vulnerable to the damages that they inflict on the ecology. However, the Biocentric view is not complete or perfect in nature without the consideration of humans interpreting ecology through human understanding. Thus an anthropocentric view becomes necessary in order to realize that humans are responsible for their affects on nature. For example, Biocentric thinking overlooks the idea that if humans are a part of nature that their actions are indicative of their being. As a lion kills and leaves a gazelle and leaves its carcass on the prairie, likewise humans create garbage and bury it in the earth. To consider humans morally incorrect for polluting is really not a Biocentric thought but instead the application of human interpreted ethics thus making the concept of pollution anthropocentric. So for the purpose of viewing and environmental issue the two schools of thought might be different but are still closely bound fundamentally. An anthropocentrist might look at the problem of pollution as being a uniquely human problem but in most cases would apply a solution which protects humans from the problem.
Such ideas might include landfills yet at the same time biocentrists might agree with this form of refuse removal because it would protect the ecology from the affects of widespread waste dumping. The tendency of anthropocentric thinkers is to center decision making on human perspective and this can cause problems of landfills being placed where wildlife refuges exist. This reality is often the result of considering nonhumans as less important than humans. Biocentric thinking often looks at human involvement with nature as a too close of an association. For instance, humans are so far removed from nature that to consider certain ecologically sustainable solutions is unrealistic. For instance, the use of 100% recyclable goods is an impossibility. The reason for this is that certain goods such as medical plastics cannot be recycled in a normal method and because of energy requirements this would leaves a larger footprint on the ecology than if the goods had been left to breakdown on their own. The two schools of thought must find an even playing field for consensus otherwise progress is halted.
[i] Rules for the study of natural philosophy”, Newton 1999, pp. 794–6, from Book 3, The System of the World.
[ii] Environmental Science: Iowa State University, http://www.ensci.iastate.edu
[iii] Anthropocentrism — Merriam-Webster Dictionary
[iv] Judi Bari (1995). “Revolutionary Ecology: Biocentrism & Deep Ecology” (in English). Alarm: A Journal of Revolutionary Ecology.
[v] Hedonism, 2004–04–20 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
[vi] Jan C. Smuts, 1926 Holism and Evolution MacMillan, Compass/Viking Press 1961 reprint: ISBN 0–598–63750–8, Greenwood Press 1973 reprint: ISBN 0–8371–6556–3, Sierra Sunrise 1999
[vii] Swart, Koenraad W. (1962). “”Individualism” in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (1826–1860)”. Journal of the History of Ideas(University of Pennsylvania Press) 23 (1): 77–90.
[xi] Des Jardins, J. R. (2006). Environmental ethics: An introduction to environmental philosophy (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
[xiii] Schlosberg, David. (2007) Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford University Press.