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What is the relationship between people and the environment?

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The relationship between humans and the environment tends to be reciprocal. Human beings are shaped by their environmental and geographical contexts, but they impact these environments and geography in turn. This is one of the underlying patterns that stretch across all of human history: how people are influenced and influenced by their geographical factors.

On the most basic level, one might say that life is not even possible without the correct environmental preconditions, but even beyond that, civilizations tend to be shaped by their geographical preconditions. If we look towards the Ancient World, consider the role of the mountains as well as the sea in shaping the polis civilization of Ancient Greece. As a second example, consider Ancient Egypt, which historically stretched along the Nile River Delta. Consider the issue of geographic barriers and natural boundaries, and how their presence (or non-presence) have impacted the frequencies of invasions and migrations between different geographical regions. From the Ancient World all the way through to the present, the environment has been critical in shaping human culture.

On the other hand, as said before, the relationship between people and the environment runs both ways. The long-term use of agriculture, in many contexts, has resulted in the gradual depletion of soil quality. We can look towards examples like the damming of rivers or the clearing of forests and likewise see humans transforming the geographies in which they reside. We can look towards the impacts of industrialization and towards modern problems of environmental degradation. In short, human beings have relied on the environment and been shaped by the environment, but they've shaped that environment as well.

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The relationship between humans and the environment is symbiotic, yet one-sided. The Earth’s environment, a product of numerous factors including the planet’s size, distance from the nearest star (the Sun), and the convergence of innumerable elements that came together some four-and-a-half billion years ago, is more fragile than many appreciate. While certainly resilient, the environment is vulnerable to ill-considered activities on the part of humans. The interaction between humans and the environment has evolved along with humanity. As populations grow around the world and as large industrialized or industrializing countries continue to exploit the planet’s natural resources, the relationship between people and the environment changes, and mostly for the worse.

Human life can exist on Earth because of the unique set of circumstances described in the above paragraph. An atmosphere rich in oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and other elements was essential for the emergence of life. Especially since the advent of industrialization, however, humans’ ability to alter the environment has accelerated. Debates will continue to take place regarding the extent of human-related changes to the environment, but there is no question that the relationship between humans and the environment has been one-sided and deleterious to both. Mass deforestation in South America and South and Southeast Asia, for instance, has seriously altered the environment in a way that threatens human existence in those regions. Pollutants associated with the exploitation of fossil fuels are blamed for global temperature changes that may be related to the frequency and severity of natural disasters like hurricanes. During the 1970s, concerns about the effect on the environment of the use of consumer products containing chlorofluorocarbons—in effect, a connection was discovered between the mass use of such products and destruction to the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere—compelled governments around the world to agree to phase out such products. In short, the relationship between humans and the environment can be extremely tenuous.

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The relationship between humans and the environment is a two-way street.  On the one hand, the environment in which people live can do a great deal to shape their societies.  On the other hand, people have always been able to change their environments for better or for worse.

Societies are shaped to some extent by environment.  People who live in a jungle have different ways than people who live in deserts.  The places where the first civilizations arose were determined by the availability of water and of plants and animals that could be domesticated.  In these ways, the environment affects people.

But people affect the environment as well.  This is especially true today when there are so many more people in the world than in past times.  People can harm the environment (global warming, for example) or help it (conservation).

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