Learning Center
How do Humans Interact with the Environment?

When was the last time you went outside?

You probably go outside every day. In fact – practically everyone goes outside every day! It’s a completely normal, not-particularly-exciting part of life (except when you’re going someplace awesome, like to the beach to snorkel or the mountains to snowboard, of course). However, even doing regular things outside like riding your bike or cutting the grass has an effect on the environment.

Riding your bike doesn’t seem like it would do much to the environment, but it can change it in small ways. For example, if you and your friends ride your bike off-road every day in the same area, you can cause grooves to form in the ground when you make tracks. When it rains, these grooves can collect water and cause it to flow it in a direction it wouldn’t have gone if you hadn’t ridden there.

Also, cutting your grass can affect the environment, especially if you use a gas-powered lawn mower. (Gasoline is a fuel that is processed from crude oil, or petroleum. Petroleum is a fossil fuel that is extracted from the earth by drilling.) Even if you don’t use a power mower, and cut your grass with a non-powered reel mower, cutting the grass can spread weeds throughout your lawn and even onto your neighbor’s property!

Some things have less of an effect on the environment than others. For example, if you walk to your local park, the environmental effect will be much lower than if you rode in a car, because the car uses several resources, including fuel, to operate. So, it’s important to know how our common activities impact our ecosystem, and what we can do to make sure those activities don’t damage our environment.

What is interaction?

When you perform an activity, you are probably interacting with someone or something. When you play basketball with friends, you’re interacting with your friends, the ball, and the basketball court. Interaction is any action you take that affects something else. You might interact with something without even realizing it!

People interact with the environment individually, but they also interact with the environment collectively, or as a part of a large group. For example, when groups of people all go to the beach on a holiday weekend, we are interacting with the environment collectively, which has a greater overall effect on the surroundings than if only one person went to the beach.

Collective action is very often the cause of big changes to the environment. We all do small things sometimes that aren’t good for the planet – we might drive a short distance when we could walk, or leave the water running when we brush our teeth. It’s when everyone does these small things that we damage the environment.

Businesses that manufacture products are also a collective example of how humans interact with the environment. They impact the environment while they are making the product because they use materials that were either farmed or harvested, and machines that use power sources. Farming can change the environment a lot, because farmers often use chemicals to destroy undesirable plants and animals that threaten crops. They also sell their products to lots of people, using cars and trucks to get them to stores. The people who buy the products then use either all or part of them and throw the packaging away. These acts have a major effect on the environment.

How do living things interact and depend on each other?

All living things need other living things to survive. This is called the interdependence of living things. Living things provide other living things with food, shelter, and water, both directly and indirectly.

The complex relationships between living things fall into three categories:

  • Symbiotic. Symbiotic relationships are when both species benefit, or one species benefits and the other isn’t affected. For example, tickbirds will ride on the backs of rhinos and other large animals and eat the flies and other insects they find there. This is a symbiotic relationship because one animal benefits directly – the tickbird has a food source – and the other animal benefits indirectly – the rhino is comfortable because insects are being removed from its body, but it’s not doing any of the work.
  • Competitive. Competitive relationships exist when two or more species rely upon the same environmental resources to survive. The two species must then compete for the same water and food sources, with one species emerging the winner. This competition may lead to one species becoming the dominant species in a particular environment.
  • Predatory. Predatory relationships exist when one living organism eats another.

All living things on Earth are a part of what is known as the biosphere, one of four main components that make up the planet, which we will discuss below.

What are the Earth’s four main systems?

Did you know about the planet’s systems? You might not have heard of them, but they are incredibly important. They are the processes that make life on Earth possible!

All of the systems work together to create the ecosystem. The four main systems that make up the ecosystem are:

  • Biosphere: The biosphere system is the total composition of living things on the planet, including the environments that contain them.
  • Hydrosphere: The hydrosphere consists of all the water found on the planet, including all of the oceans, lakes, and rivers, and even the water that is contained above the surface of the earth, like rain clouds.
  • Atmosphere: The atmosphere consists of all of the gasses surrounding the Earth, including oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.
  • Lithosphere: The lithosphere is the Earth’s crust and mantle – every non-living thing on the planet that makes it solid. Mountains, rocks, and the ground underneath our feet are part of the lithosphere.

Additionally, there is a fifth sphere, which influences the other systems and occasionally overlaps:

  • Cryosphere: The cryosphere consists of all of the frozen elements of the Earth, including frozen water (glaciers and ice sheets) and permafrost (frozen soil). The cryosphere overlaps with the lithosphere and hydrosphere; when permafrost thaws and glaciers melt due to climate warming, they become part of the lithosphere and hydrosphere.

These main systems interact to create the environment as we know it. For example, the lithosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere together influence temperature. Forests, which are an element within the biosphere, have a big effect on temperature.

It’s important to know how we interact with these systems, because our actions can affect how they function. When we pollute our land (lithosphere), oceans (hydrosphere), and air (atmosphere), they can’t support life (biosphere).

Within the biosphere (all living things), there are forests.

The biosphere consists of all life on the planet, including the life found in the deepest oceans to the highest mountains. The forest biome is a significant part of the biosphere.

There are three main types of forests: Tropical, temperate, and boreal forests. These types of forests exist in different parts of the planet, and have evolved based upon climate differences.

Forests are important to the survival of the planet. They help keep the air clean, they filter our water and help make it clean and drinkable, and they are home to millions of plants and animals. The survival of forests depends upon many things, and human interaction with the environment is a major factor. Some types of interaction help preserve forests; other types destroy them. Humans interact with the forests in the following ways:

  • Forest management: Forest management is the system that oversees the health and condition of forests, including controlling forest fires, making sure tourists are respectful, and taking care of the rivers and lakes in the forests. Forest management is important because it makes sure forests will survive for generations to come.
  • Forests for profits: Forests for profits are programs that pay landowners to grow trees, rather than cut them down for wood products or to clear land for building. This also helps forests survive.
  • Deforestation: The clearing of forest land for development, resources, or other purposes. Deforestation is highly damaging to the environment because it removes the trees and plants that support animal life.
  • Invasive species: Invasive species are plants and animals that are brought into forests by humans, either on purpose or accidentally, that change the forest ecosystem by competing for resources (food and shelter) with naturally-occurring plants and animals.
  • Natural disasters (human impact): Natural disasters include fires, floods, and hurricanes, which can be made worse by human impact. For example, a forest fire may spread more quickly and cause more damage because an invasive species has flammable qualities that caused the fire to spread more quickly.

How have humans developed ways of interacting with, and depending upon, their environment?

Human beings throughout history have always interacted with the environment. From discovering fire in the prehistoric era, to drilling for fossil fuels today, humans have used the environment as a source of food, water, shelter, light, and heat. In the modern era, we use the environment to find the resources to build and manufacture things we use every day, like homes, vehicles, and communications devices like smartphones.

Two of the most significant ways humans interact with the environment are through agricultural and industrial practices.

What are agricultural and industrial practices?

Agriculture is growing food by farming the land or raising animals for meat and dairy products. This requires using large sections of land, which have to be continually watered and fertilized so that crops can grow. Many agricultural practices require the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to keep insects, animals, weeds, and diseases from destroying crops.

While it might not seem as though planting vegetables would be harmful to the environment; it is actually one of the most damaging ways humans impact the Earth’s systems. This is because the water that is used on the crops carries the chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides into the groundwater and streams, polluting waterways and harming wildlife. The land used for farming also has to be cleared, and most farmlands were once forests with lots of different plants and animals.

Although the cultivation of crops is damaging to the environment, it is the livestock (animals) that cause the most environmental damage, particularly cattle and pigs. The animals produce tons of waste that pollute soil and water, and they also release tons of methane gas and nitrous oxide that contribute to climate change.

All large-scale agricultural practices require the use of farm machinery that burns fossil fuels. Agricultural practices also require transportation of the harvested materials using petroleum-fueled vehicles.

Agricultural practices impact all four spheres significantly: Emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) build in the atmosphere; pollutants from chemical fertilizers and collect in the hydrosphere and lithosphere; plants and animals in the biosphere are poisoned by pesticides.

Industrial practices involve the manufacture of products. These products can be automobiles, clothing, food products, plastic products, and everything humans use in their daily lives.

The industrial sector affects the spheres in lots of ways. The raw materials that are used to manufacture products are either grown or mined, and must be transported to the facilities. The transportation process burns fossil fuels, affecting the atmosphere. The manufacturing process uses energy sourced from coal, and produces waste from manufacturing materials, impacting the lithosphere and hydrosphere if the waste materials get into streams and the soil. Finally, the products are transported using petroleum burning vehicles to retailers and warehouses for sale to the public.

Agricultural and industrial practices are only two of the big influences over the health of the Earth’s spheres, but they contain all of the ways humans impact the environment. These are:

  • Using energy from fossil fuels – coal, gas, and petroleum – and sustainable sources like solar, wind, and water
  • Transporting raw materials and manufactured products to manufacturers and consumers
  • Commercial building maintenance – the water and power supply – for factories and industrial warehousing

Unfortunately, as we have seen, our interaction with the environment isn’t always positive or healthy. In fact, many of the techniques we use to manufacture things have done significant damage to our forests. When we clear forests for wood or to build developments like shopping malls or factories, we are destroying a very important part of the biosphere.

Additionally, each of us affects the environment whenever we use products, travel, or even use air conditioning or heat to keep us comfortable. These common activities amount to what is known as a carbon footprint. Our carbon footprint is everything we do that causes the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere, which leads to the planet getting warmer. When the planet gets warmer, it becomes more difficult for forests to survive. Using fewer products and recycling, driving less, and reducing the amount of air conditioning and heat can help reduce our carbon footprint.

How has human interaction harmed the environment?

When humans interaction with the environment, sometimes it can cause significant problems. Humans remove valuable natural resources and harm ecosystems, threatening the survival of lots of different living organisms. Humans damage the environment in the following ways:

  • Destroyed forests: Deforestation is the widespread removal of forests. Forests are removed for different reasons, such as clearing land for buildings or cutting down trees for wood. However, cutting down forests is extremely harmful to the environment because it destroys the habitat for large populations of animals and plants, and changes the life forms within the biosystem – some animals die, and other animals move away. Sometimes animals native to the forest, like bears and deer, move into neighborhoods where they can get hurt by traffic. Forest lands are essential for maintaining healthy environments, because the large number of trees helps to clear pollutants from the air, soil, and water through the process of photosynthesis. Large-scale deforestation has significantly contributed to climate change, which is widespread temperature increase. When the Earth gets warmer, it becomes inhospitable to many species of animals, including humans.
  • Spread pollution: When chemicals, garbage, and harmful particles are released into the air, soil, and water, it is known as pollution. Pollution is commonly caused by emissions and waste from vehicles, factories, airplanes, power plants, and agricultural areas, but it also occurs from cigarette smoke, aerosol spray cans, and highly populated areas that create lots of trash. Pollution can also come from nature in the form of wildfires and volcanic eruptions, but human activities are the biggest pollution sources. Pollution can cause health problems for humans and animals. People who live in areas with high amounts of pollution are more likely to have asthma, heart disease, and even cancer. Animals also suffer from health problems due to pollution – it is estimated that approximately one million sea birds are killed every year by pollution.

What’s Being Done?

Because our collective actions can affect the environment negatively, it is important that we also do positive things collectively to help the environment stay healthy. Some of the things we can do include:

Recycling

Nature recycles elements all the time – when living things die in the wild, they decompose and break down into the soil, which creates nutrients that allow other plants to grow. We can help the environment by consistently recycling our products. By recycling our waste plastics, glass, wood, and other materials, we can reduce the amount of pollution in our air, soil, and water and the volume of trash in landfills.

Maintain Green Spaces

Green spaces are places throughout a community that are dedicated to nature. This means that they cannot be converted to buildings – they have to be protected so that wildlife can live safely and healthfully.

Create Nature Reserves

Nature reserves, also called wildlife preservations, are large national parks that protect threatened wildlife. These areas allow wildlife to exist exactly as it would without human interference.

Restore Global Forests

Protecting and restoring global forests are critically important for improving the health of the environment. Forests currently cover approximately 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface, and they are crucial for maintaining air quality, preventing soil erosion, and encouraging biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest alone is responsible for 20 percent of the air we breathe.

Forests are home to millions of plant and animal species, some of which we don’t yet know! We use plants found in forests around the world for medicine and other resources, so it is essential that we keep them healthy.

Forest Founders is dedicated to preserving our world’s forests by encouraging landowners to minimize or even eliminate deforestation, and by planting new trees. To learn more about Forest Founders’ mission to preserve global forests, please visit the ForestFounders.org information page.

Human Interaction with the Environment

  • What is interaction? Any activity you perform where you affect something or someone.
  • How do living things interact and depend on each other? Living things need other living things to survive – we need food, shelter, and water. This is called the interdependence of things, and it is either symbiotic, competitive, or predatory.
  • What are Earth’s main systems? The four main systems are the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere. The biosphere consists of all living things including all land and sea animals and plants; the hydrosphere is all collections of water, including oceans, rivers, lakes, and even rainclouds; the lithosphere is the mountains, rocks, and land that make up the Earth’s solid crust and mantle; the atmosphere is all of the gasses surrounding the planet. Additionally, a fifth system, the cryosphere, consists of all frozen areas of the Earth including glaciers and permafrost
  • Are forests part of the biosphere? Yes. The three main types of forests are tropical, temperate, and boreal forests.
  • How have humans impacted forests? Humans impact forests both positively and negatively. Positive examples include forest management and forests for profit. Negative examples include invasive species, deforestation, and how invasive species and deforestation can make natural disasters worse.
  • How have humans developed ways of interacting with and depending upon their environment? Humans have used the natural environment as a food, shelter, and water source for millions of years. Today, we use the natural environment as a source for manufactured goods. However, the ways we source materials for the things we need has caused significant damage by destroying forests for wood or to clear the land for development.
  • What’s being done? We can restore forests by protecting existing ones and planting new ones. We can also make sure to reduce our carbon footprint by driving less, using fewer products, and using less air conditioning and heating in our homes.