Human-Environment Interaction: Definition & Examples

human environment interaction examples
Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Fotorech

Human-environment interaction refers to how humans relate to the rest of their ecosystem. We'll show you the different types and some examples.

What Is Human-Environment Interaction? A Definition

The term ‘human-environment interaction’ describes the ways in which humans influence and are in turn influenced by their surrounding ecosystems. Humans can, for example, influence their environment by clearing trees from a forest to make farmland. In contrast, the environment may influence the behavior of the people living in it — for example, by pushing them to invent warm clothing during colder seasons.

Why Is Understanding Human-Environment Interactions Important?

Understanding the dynamics within human-environment interactions is an integral aspect of developing sustainable solutions to environmental issues. Human behavior has historically altered local ecosystems to a tremendous extent. For example, according to a 2005 paper, human fire usage caused a major wave of extinction and ecological change during the Pleistocene Era. Identifying how our current actions could have similar impacts can help us change for the better.

On the flip side, understanding the effects of the Earth’s changing climate can inform how we choose to adapt to our new world. For example, according to the World Meteorological Organization, there are now five times as many extreme weather, climate, and water events as there were 50 years ago. Nonetheless, deaths have decreased thanks to improvements in early alert programs, which were developed in response to human needs. As you can see, understanding how our changing planet may affect us can help us plan for our futures as well.

3 Types of Human-Environment Interaction

Building shelter is one example of how humans interact with their environments.
Building shelter is one example of how humans interact with their environments.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Free-Photos)

There are three major types of human-environment interaction. These are:

  1. Dependence on the Environment: We humans are dependent on the world around us for basic needs such as food, water, and shelter. In modern society, our dependence may also extend to other resources as well. For example, many of us rely on money or fossil fuels that often supply energy to our homes. For better or for worse, these dependencies shape how humans behave, such as what kinds of resources they may seek and/or maintain within their environment.
  2. Modifying the Environment: Humans can modify the world around them in order to suit their needs. For example, we might build a shelter to shield ourselves from weather or clear a plot of land for farming. These modifications range from having minimal effects on the rest of the ecosystem to being completely disruptive. For example, vertical farming, an innovative agricultural technique, may offer a more ecologically friendly alternative to large-scale industrial farming. These conventional techniques are not only bad for the environment but can also promote animal and human diseases, according to the United Nations. Learning which modifications are environmentally harmful will help us create more sustainable alternatives.
  3. Adaptation to the Environment: Humans have adapted to live in a wide range of environments, from the freezing arctic circle to blazing regions along the equator. Adaptation to such environments can be both genetic and learned. For example, having darker skin is a genetic adaptation that might help an individual living in sunny environments; in contrast, a learned adaptation that could have the same effect is creating garments that shield your skin from the sun. Developing new ways to adapt to a changing world will be a vital part of creating a sustainable future.

Of course, there is a significant amount of overlap between all three kinds of human-environment interaction. Our dependence on the environment affects the way we choose to modify it, and the way we modify the environment can be one of the ways we adapt to it.

While these categories may not be set in stone, thinking of these different kinds of human-environment interactions can be a helpful way of analyzing our own relationships to the environment. In the section below, you can read examples of human-environment interactions that have led to solutions for environmental issues.

Example of Human-Environment Interactions

Human-environment interaction has helped identify solutions for environmental issues — for example in the fishing industry.
Human-environment interaction has helped identify solutions for environmental issues — for example in the fishing industry.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / Free-Photos)

Climate change is a complex issue with no one-size-fits-all solution. But understanding the effects of human-environment interactions can often be the first step for developing more sustainable ways of living. Analyses at a local level can help identify behaviors that we need to alter for more sustainable living, according to a 2016 paper.

An example of this can be found in another study:

  • Once scientists had observed the catastrophic effects of overfishing, different organizations began to take action in order to minimize or prevent future damage. Scientists were able to find a solution by analyzing a particular instance of human-environment interaction: humans are dependent on marine resources, so by overfishing they modified their environment in a negative way.
  • Once scientists had analyzed this issue and identified the interactive relationships between humans and the marine environment, the issue that needed to be solved became clear. This clarity enabled researchers to then focus on how to incentivize fisheries to stop overexploiting resources.

Crucially, analyses of human-environment interactions take into account the various factors that the people involved are dependent on. Rather than merely focusing on the direct effect of behavior on the environment, such analyses consider which dependencies drive these behaviors.

  • For example, in the case of overfishing, the analysis considered not only a direct reliance on seafood within some communities but also commercialized fishing as a livelihood for countless individuals across the globe.
  • Acknowledging these complex needs allowed scientists to identify the importance of economic and social incentives in order to reduce the amount of fishing. This allowed them to propose solutions that are not only environmentally responsible but could also protect the livelihoods of those currently employed in fishing industries.

Below, we’ll take a look at seven other examples of human-environment interactions that have benefitted or could benefit from a similar analysis.

7 More Examples of Human-Environment Interaction and Areas for Future Development

The Galapagos islands are home to many rare species. Unfortunately, tourism has been threatening the delicate ecosystem there. Analyzing the dynamics of human-environment interactions there can help create a more sustainable tourism industry.
The Galapagos islands are home to many rare species. Unfortunately, tourism has been threatening the delicate ecosystem there. Analyzing the dynamics of human-environment interactions there can help create a more sustainable tourism industry.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / pen_ash)
  1. Tourism on the Galapagos Islands: Many environmentalists have raised concerns over how increasing tourism has damaged the unique ecosystem in the Galapagos. But many local residents have been hesitant to support restrictions because they rely economically on the industry. Finding an environmental solution that also allows residents to continue earning a living will be important for solving this environmental issue.
  2. Whaling in Japan: Japan’s whaling industry only employs a few hundred individuals today and barely contributes to the nation’s economy. But still, deep cultural ties have caused inertia against an anti-whaling stance, according to research from California State University. Acknowledging these cultural roots can allow researchers to develop better arguments for passing legislation for the conservation of marine life.
  3. Oil, Gas, and Mining Industries: Extensive planning and risk assessment can prevent some of the most environmentally damaging industries from causing serious harm to surrounding ecosystems, including human communities. For example, scientists suggest that planning oil pipeline routes to avoid settlements and to preserve nearby wildlife can minimize the negative effects of this industry.
  4. Balancing Land for Agricultural Use and Preservation: Governments often pass legislation to protect natural landscapes when they reach a critical point. But these protections will often be removed once an ecosystem has sufficiently recovered. This leads communities to overexploit resources to a breaking point, then briefly protect them, before overexploiting once more. Some scientists have proposed models of human-environment interactions as a solution to discover and implement an equilibrium between human agricultural needs and protecting natural ecosystems.
  5. Animal Consumption and Disease Regulation: The inhumane conditions in which livestock are kept and slaughtered are a concern of their own. But another issue with animal agriculture is its potential for creating outbreaks of new diseases. Research analyzing human-animal interactions is therefore of vital importance to public health.
  6. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The increase in human contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere has been linked to sudden climate change over the past 50 years. Recognizing these impacts of human behavior has sparked discussions about the importance of creating alternatives for industries that produce large amounts of greenhouse gases.
  7. Overhunting: People may hunt to obtain food, or to cull populations of predators such as wolves, which they consider a danger or nuisance to human communities. If done in excess, hunting can overthrow the delicate balance of an ecosystem, causing some species to overpopulate while others dwindle. An analysis of human-environment interactions can help us understand this balance and identify how much hunting is permissible, where necessary, before we reach a point where humans cause major damage to local wildlife.

These examples of human-environment interactions offer scientists an important tool for generating feasible solutions to pressing environmental issues. Sustainability, after all, entails a lifestyle that is not only good for the environment, but which we can realistically sustain over long periods of time. Understanding how we interact with and rely on the environment, therefore, is going to be very important for a brighter future.

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