The Impact Of Society On The Environment

Society's ability to cause significant disruption in the environment is a recent phenomenon, strongly influenced by demography and technological development. Primitive peoples, for example, being few in number, and operating at low energy levels with only basic tools, did very little to alter their environment. The characteristically low natural growth rates of the

Table 1.2 Energy use, technological development and the environment


Daily per capita energy consumption (kcais)

Main sources


Environmental impact

1,000,000 BC


Food; human muscle

Daily life


100,000 BC


Food; fire; simple tools

Heating; cooking;

Local and short term;


mainly vegetation

destruction and

reduction of animal


5,000 BC


Animals; agricultural


Local and longer term;



mainly in agricultural


hearths (e.g. Egypt,

Mesopotamia); natural

vegetation replaced by

cultivated crops; aquatic

environment altered;

beginnings of soil


AD 1400


Wind; water; coal;


Local and longer term

windmills; waterwheels

operations; pumping

or permanent; natural

water; sawmilling;

vegetation removed;

grinding grain;

urban air pollution


already common

AD 1800


Coal; steam engine


Local and regional and


permanent; major

industrial processes;

landscape changes


begin; air and water

pollution common in

industrial areas

AD 1980


Fossil fuels; nuclear


Local; regional and

energy; internal


global; permanent and

combustion engine;

industrial processes;

perhaps irreversible



air, water and soil

social and cultural

deterioration on global


scale; acid rain;

enhanced greenhouse

effect; ozone depletion;

increased atmospheric


Source: Compiled from data in Biswas (1974), Kleinbach and Salvagin (1986)

Source: Compiled from data in Biswas (1974), Kleinbach and Salvagin (1986)

Figure 1.1 World population growth and significant technological developments

Figure 1.1 World population growth and significant technological developments

hunting and gathering groups who inhabited the earth in prehistoric times ensured that populations remained small. This, combined with their nomadic lifestyle, and the absence of any mechanism other than human muscle by which they could utilize the energy available to them, limited their impact on the environment. In truth, they were almost entirely dominated by it. When it was benign, survival was assured. When it was malevolent, survival was threatened. Population totals changed little for thousands of years, but slowly, and in only a few areas at first, the dominance of the environment began to be challenged. Central to that challenge was the development of technology which allowed the more efficient use of energy (see Table 1.2). It was the ability to concentrate and then expend larger and larger amounts of energy that made the earth's human population uniquely able to alter the environment. The ever-growing demand for energy to maintain that ability is at the root of many modern environmental problems (Biswas 1974).

The level of human intervention in the environment increased only slowly over thousands of years, punctuated by significant events which helped to accelerate the process (see Figure 1.1). Agriculture replaced hunting and gathering in some areas, methods for converting the energy in wind and falling water were discovered, and coal became the first of the fossil fuels to be used in any quantity. As late as the mid-eighteenth century, however, the environmental impact of human activities seldom extended beyond the local or regional level. A global impact only became possible with the major developments in technology and the population increase which accompanied the so-called Industrial Revolution. Since then—with the introduction of such devices as the steam engine, the electric generator and the internal combustion engine—energy consumption has increased sixfold, and world population is now five times greater than it was in 1800. The exact relationship between population growth and technology remains a matter of controversy, but there can be no denying that in combination these two elements were responsible for the increasingly rapid environmental change which began in the mid-eighteenth century. At present, change is often equated with deterioration, but then technological advancement promised such a degree of mastery over the environment that it seemed such problems as famine and disease, which had plagued mankind for centuries, would be overcome, and the quality of life of the world's rapidly expanding population would be improved infinitely. That promise was fulfilled to some extent, but, paradoxically, the same technology which had solved some of the old problems, exacerbated others, and ultimately created new ones.

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