Handbooks of Research Methods and Applications series
Edited by Matthias Ruth
Chapter 1: An introduction to methods and applications in environmental studies
The prosperity and fate of humanity are intricately tied to the biophysical and geochemical processes that shape its environment. Conversely, virtually no aspect of environmental change remains untouched by human activity. Our societies continuously draw on materials and energy – the food we eat, the fuels we burn and the substances we use to produce the goods and services we enjoy. This conversion of materials and energy into desired products also inevitably brings with it the generation of waste products, many of which continue to be released into the environment, often with little regard for their long-term effects on the health of people and other species. As goods and services are produced and consumed, as waste products are generated, released and accumulated, as technologies, resource endowments and environmental quality change, society, too, changes – sometimes as a result of these other changes, sometimes as a driver for them. Technological change has afforded humanity ever more clever ways to expand and tap into its resource base, seek and use limited materials and energy more efficiently, and cut down on the emission of many pollutants. Almost unfathomable improvements in public health, increases in life expectancies, and expansions of material wealth occurred in large parts of the world in just the past two centuries. It is therefore easy to see the temptations to extrapolate from our recent past into the future, seeing a world of increased technological prowess, perhaps even accompanied by broad social engagement in the decisions that shape our world.