What is Human Environment?

What is the human environment?

The human environment is the complex continuum of matter and conditions that surround humans and human society. The human environment is concerned with people who live in different environments, their activities, and the environmental features that they have created.

The relationship between human social systems and the natural environment is a two-way interaction. Humans influence the environment, and the resulting changes in the environment in turn influence our perceptions and behaviors.

The nature and type of society influence their impact on ecosystems. Important characteristics of human social systems include population size, social organization, values, and technology. wealth, education, and knowledge. Settlements are part of the human environment. There are two broad types, namely, rural and urban. They are classified based on certain criteria, such as population size, economic activities, and spatial characteristics.

The pattern of human activities results from the relationships between humans and the natural environment. Human activities include agricultural production, manufacturing, commercial activities, the provision of services (such as education, health care, and banking), the transportation of people, goods, and information, and so on.

Human activities that generate income are known as economic activities. Economic activities are broadly grouped into primary, secondary, and tertiary activities. Higher services under tertiary activities are further classified into quaternary and quinary activities. The way human activities are organized in space is referred to as spatial organization.

In an area such as a local government area, towns and villages, farms, roads, markets, schools, and hospitals occupy specific locations. When taken together, they constitute the way space is organized in that specific area. Hence, spatial organization is the aggregate pattern of the use of space.

Primary Activities

Primary activities involve the extraction and utilization of the earth's resources, such as land, water, vegetation, building materials, and minerals. It includes hunting and gathering, pastoral activities, fishing, forestry, agriculture, and mining and quarrying. These activities are directly dependent on the environment.

Agriculture is a very important economic activity. It is an important source of food, industrial raw materials, and employment. The type of crop or livestock produced, types and quantities of inputs, and size and shape of farm plots are influenced by natural, economic, social, and political factors.

Natural factors that mostly affect agriculture are climate, especially temperature and precipitation, topography, and soil. Economic factors include the market, transportation facilities, labor, and capital. Social factors affect agriculture through ownership and inheritance of land, type of crop cultivated, and type of farming practiced (shifting cultivation, subsistence farming, extensive farming, or mixed farming). The political system, i.e., capitalistic, communist, or socialistic, determines the pattern of agriculture.

In some countries, for example, China, agriculture is fully controlled by the government, while it is a private concern in others like the USA and Canada. The government's policies regarding land, irrigation, marketing, trade, etc. have a direct impact on agriculture. Similarly, subsidies, loan policies, purchase policies, agricultural marketing, international trade, and the tax policy of the government also have a direct impact on agricultural production and its development.

Geographers are concerned with how the agricultural landscape is organized. The agricultural land use theory developed in 1826 by J.H. von Thunen explains the determinants of the prices of agricultural products and how the variations in the price of products influence the spatial patterns of agricultural production.

According to von Thunen, the spatial distribution of crops, livestock, and farming systems depends on competitive bidding between products and farming systems, and land is assigned to the highest bidder. This means that if it costs more to cultivate cassava than yams on a plot of land, cassava will be cultivated on that plot, while yams will be grown on another plot.

The concept of economic rent is basic to von Thunen's theory. Economic rent is the surplus production, which can be obtained from the use of a better plot or soil, over and above the return or production, which can be obtained by applying the same inputs (labor, fertilizers, etc.) to a poorer plot.

Secondary Activities

Secondary activities add value to natural resources by transforming raw materials into valuable products. Secondary activities, therefore, are concerned with manufacturing, processing, and construction (infrastructure) industries.

The location and size of industries are determined by the availability of capital, government policy, site requirements, historical factors, a good transport network and communication, the presence of raw materials, sources of energy and labor, and a ready market. Others include the presence of water bodies near the industries for cooling down the machines, political stability, and an attractive locality.

Classical and Neoclassical theories that explain the location of manufacturing industries have been developed by economists and geographers and are broadly classified as follows:

  • Least cost approach: According to Alfred Weber, an optimal location is one where total transportation costs per unit of output are at a minimum. Failing this, transportation diseconomies are offset by economies of agglomeration and low labor costs.
  • Profit maximization or market area approach: Losch noted that optimal location occurs where the largest possible market area is monopolized, that is, where sales potential and total revenue potential are maximized.
  • Behavioral/organizational approach: Pred's Theory considers a human being as a rational, satisfying being. Thus, the ability to act could make an entrepreneur shift to more or less successful locational decisions.

In most of the locational theories, transport costs are emphasized, and the actions of individual entrepreneurs rather than corporate bodies are emphasized. Technological changes in transportation, technology, world trade patterns, changes in labor requirements, the nature of energy sources, etc. influence the application of these theories. Also, factors like globalization and the growth of multinational companies have become important.

Tertiary Activities

Tertiary activities include both production and exchange. Production involves the 'provision of services that are 'consumed'. Exchange involves trade, transport, and communication facilities that are used to overcome distance and make possible the marketing and distribution of products. Rural and urban markets differ. Urban markets operate daily, while most rural markets in developing countries are periodic, as they hold on intervals of three, seven, or nine days.

Periodic markets exist due to a lack of storage facilities, poor transport facilities, and low population density. Periodicity has the advantage of concentrating demand for specific products at specific places on specific days so that the enterprise can survive. Periodicity is a device for reducing the distance a buyer travels to obtain goods and services.

Stine's theory of periodic markets is based on the Central Place Theory by Christaller (1925). The Central Place Theory explains marketing functions provided by cities to their hinterland and the tributary areas of intra-city services.

Quartenary Activities

Quaternary activities are specialized tertiary activities in the 'Knowledge Sector'. There has been a very high growth in demand for and consumption of information-based services, including mutual fund managers, tax consultants, software developers, and statisticians.

Personnel working in office buildings, elementary schools and university classrooms, hospitals and doctors' offices, theaters, accounting firms, and brokerage firms all belong to this category of services. Like some of the tertiary functions, quaternary activities can also be outsourced. They are not tied to resources, affected by the environment, or necessarily localized by market.

Quinary Activities

Quinary activities are services that focus on the creation, re-arrangement, and interpretation of new and existing ideas; data interpretation; and the use and evaluation of new technologies.

Often referred to as 'gold collar' professions, they represent another subdivision of the tertiary sector, representing the special and highly paid skills of senior business executives, government officials, research scientists, financial and legal consultants, etc. The highest level of decision-makers or policymakers performs quinary activities.

Human Impact on the Environment

There are two major approaches or beliefs concerning the man-environment relationship, and these have been a subject of debate. The idea that man is a product of the environment was dominant during classical times and onward. The work of Charles Darwin on the Origin of Species seemed to confirm the position of man as a creature adapted to his environment.

Geographers focused their attention on the effects of the physical environment and fostered the belief that man was a passive creature molded by natural forces. This viewpoint that the environment is predominant in man-environment interactions is known as environmental determinism.

The second approach, known as possibilism, is concerned with the freedom of man to make a choice under given environmental conditions. The environment provides a range of opportunities to which man reacts. It is possible for man to influence the environment by exploiting possibilities in it. This viewpoint has become more acceptable today because man exploits the possibilities in the environment to satisfy his needs. The impact of humans on the environment is both positive and negative.

Destructive Impact of Human Activities

A major factor that accounts for the increased impact of human activities on the physical environment is population growth. Population is defined as the total number of people living in a geographical area at a specific time. Population is described in terms of absolute size (number) and density (man-land ratio).

The growth of the population is an important factor that affects the utilization of environmental resources. The size and growth of the population are influenced by natural increase (births and deaths) and migration change (permanent change in the residence of individuals, usually determined by the difference between immigration and emigration).

While births and immigration lead to population increases, deaths and emigration cause a decrease in population totals. On a global scale, migration is unimportant as all movements take place within the limits of the world.

Population determines how much impact humans exert on the natural environment and the demand for resources. The greater the population, the more impacts are exerted. The world population has been increasing at a rapid rate. In 1990, the world population was 5.288 billion. This increased to 6.122 billion by 2000, 6.933 billion in 2010, and 7.53 billion in 2017 (World Bank 2018). Population growth has had a negative impact on the quality of the environment as more land is used for agriculture and resource utilization has increased.

  • More technologies have been developed to enhance the exploitation of resources and agricultural yields. Wastes from industries, pesticides, fertilizers, and households also increase. As more people are born and live in cities, the levels of carbon dioxide emissions increase, leading to global warming. The destructive impacts of humans on the environment include:
  • The burning of fossil fuels, automobile exhausts, and gaseous effluents from factories has led to pollution of land, air, and water and its related consequences.
  • Overconsumption: Overconsumption is a situation where resource use has outpaced the sustainable capacity of the ecosystem. A prolonged pattern of overconsumption leads to environmental degradation and the eventual loss of resource bases.
  • Hunting of animals and birds and the introduction of new predators into the environment have caused the extinction of some species.
  • Mining activities lead to erosion and the formation of sinkholes. loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water by chemicals from mining processes.

  • The influence of transport on the environment is significant because it is a major user of energy. especially petroleum. This creates air pollution, including nitrous oxides and particulates, and is a significant contributor to global warming through the emission of carbon dioxide.
  • Deforestation due to increased demand for land for agriculture, settlements, and infrastructure causes erosion, loss of natural habitat, loss of biodiversity, loss of oxygen producers, and loss of carbon dioxide eliminators.

Positive Impact of Human Activities

The positive impacts of human activities on the environment can be achieved through the following:

  • Promoting afforestation: Planting trees plays an important role in reducing air pollution by improving the overall air quality.
  • Conservation of water resources: By not throwing industrial and domestic waste into rivers, lakes, etc., water pollution is prevented. Techniques like rainwater harvesting, watershed management, and drip irrigation help in the conservation of water resources.
  • Soil conservation: methods like contour plowing, terrace farming, crop rotation, windbreaks, and shelter belts play an important role in preventing soil erosion.
  • Conservation of flora and fauna: By setting up conservation areas, botanical gardens, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and biosphere reserves, humans play a significant role in the conservation of flora and fauna.
  • Use of renewable sources of energy like solar energy, biofuels, wind energy, etc. would help conserve non-renewable sources of energy.
  • Removal of invasive species by planting indigenous trees.
  • Enforcement of environmental laws and management programs has a positive effect on the world's ecosystems.
  • Selective breeding has improved crop yields.
  • Domestication of animals has protected them from their predators.
  • Humans are responsible for the introduction of new species of plants from one part of the world to another; for example, rubber from the Amazon Basin of Brazil was brought to Malaysia, which is now the world's largest producer of rubber.


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