Human Environment Interaction

Essential Purpose

The human response to the characteristics of a physical environment comes with consequences for both the human culture and the physical environment.

The relationship between the natural environment and human culture is a two-way street. Too often, only one part is asserted: that the form of the natural environment influences (or, in extreme cases, determines) the human culture of a place. Mountains may prove obstacles to communication, but transport technology overcomes the barriers. Climate may limit the growth of certain crops, but irrigation or greenhouse protection can extend a plant’s natural limits. That is not to say that the natural environment does not pose risks: hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or droughts all pose risks to human settlement. But as human technology expands, people are able to adapt to the constraints once placed by the natural environment.

Besides technological adaptation, human culture has increasingly modified the natural environment, shaping it to its needs. Clearing forests for agriculture, paving surfaces for urban areas, damming rivers, exploiting minerals, polluting air, streams and oceans, are all examples of the permanent changes to the natural world resulting from human culture.

Places are the resolution of the forces of nature and adaptations by human culture. Moreover, as this relationship changes over time, so too do places. We should treat human change to the environment as a diversion of energy to human society from the path it follows in the natural system.

Rather than simply comparing the nature of the physical environment with what people do with it, we should consider human perception. Thus, an environment may be considered hazardous by an objective observer, but explaining human adaptation involves knowing how the environment is perceived by those who use it. People might not be expected to settle on the sides of active volcanoes, as in Central America, or build on the shores of hurricane-prone coasts – that they do requires understanding how they perceive the environment and deal with the risk.


Essential Questions

  • To what extent can people predict the consequences from human alterations to the physical environment?
  • Does how humans perceive the environment affect how they choose to modify it?
  • What can be learned from human modification to the environment?


Dams: Harmful or helpful?

Using the links below answer the following:

Why and how are dams constructed?

What are the costs and benefits of dam construction on people and the environment?

How effective are dams in achieving their objective without harming the environment?


Case Study: Three Gorges Dam

Using the following links, investigate the environmental impact of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam