Online College Courses for Credit

3 Tutorials that teach Environmental Concepts
Take your pick:
Environmental Concepts

Environmental Concepts

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize the key concepts related to the human relationship with the environment. 

See More

Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

Video Transcription

Download PDF

[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. I hope you're having a great day. In this lesson, we're going to introduce some environmental terms and discuss the relationship between humans and their environment. So let's start with the I-PAT equation-- so I-PAT.

I-PAT is an equation that helps us to understand the effects of human society on the environment-- so impact, or effect. Impact, the first term, is equal to Population times Affluence times Technology. So given that we multiply these terms together, increasing any one of them, or decreasing any one of them, will have wider effects on the impact in the environment.

So think about hunter-gatherer societies, and think about industrial production societies. The impact on the environment is a lot different. Hunter-gatherer societies had a lot smaller populations, so this value is much lower.

There were much less affluent. They had a lot less material possessions, things like that that take materials from the environment needed to produce these possessions. And they were more technologically simple. So the impact was cumulatively less.

So if we have 100 million people in the society, for instance, and we are at a medium level of affluence and we are at a high level technological sophistication-- well what if the population increases, and we start to get more affluent? Like what's happening when you see these debates right now, who are we to justify, who are we to say that China can't develop in the same way that we are? Who are we to deny them affluence, even though it's going to have environmental impacts?

If the rest of the world tries to live like Americans, this is going to have a huge environmental impact. But who are we to deny them that ability, given that we've enjoyed it? So as these values change in the equation, the impact of the environment will change.

We have been running an environmental deficit. An environmental deficit is the idea that humans cause damage to the environment in a negative fashion. And we're running a deficit. So what do I mean by this? I mean that we're taking more from the environment than we're giving. We're destroying the environment more than we're protecting it.

And this can be very harmful for us down the road because we're privileging short-term gains over long-term sustainability. So in the short term, yes, it's really good to wrench all those materials from the environment, produce something, spew a bunch of pollution into the air, but we have nicer bicycles now. Or we have nicer shirts now. Do you see what I'm saying? There's a short-term gain, but it could have long-term negative effects and effects on the natural environment.

The natural environment is everything out there, the material reality of the natural world. Anything found on the Earth's surface or in the atmosphere can be considered part of the natural environment. So plants, animals, rocks, clouds, oceans, even storms like hurricanes, any natural thing is considered a part of the natural environment. And these are damaged when humans run an environmental deficit.

So so far we've discussed the I-PAT equation, environmental deficits, and their effects on the natural environment. But now let's focus on ecology and ecosystems as related to human activity. And ecology is a branch of study. It's the study of how organisms interact with each other and the natural environment.

Sociologists are particularly interested in human ecology, or the study of humans interacting with their environment such, like I said, producing an environmental deficit. So an ecosystem then is a more specific look at organisms in a particular space, interacting with each other and with the natural environment to make a system in a particular locality.

So Lake Superior is an ecosystem. Your neighbor's pond can even be a micro-ecosystem. The rainforest is an ecosystem. And because these things are systemic, ecology forces us to think about things in a systemic fashion, nature is a system that we're continually coming to understand in a more nuanced fashion.

Because it is systemic, it's affected by human environmental impact in ways that we don't necessarily predict all the time. So running an environmental deficit can cause serious problems down the road because we don't yet accurately understand the extent to which nature is systemic. And it might be intimately systemic in broader ways than we understand. This has been an introduction to environmental topics and, specifically, a sociological take on environmental topics. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

The study of systemic interactions within the environment.


The natural interactions of organisms within an environment.

Environmental Deficit

The idea that humans are causing lasting damage to the natural world, we're taking more than we're giving.


An equation that attempts to explain how much of an impact a population has on the environment.

Natural Environment

The material reality of the natural world found on the Earth's surface and atmosphere.