Environmental Literacy

Environmental literacy can be defined as: “the degree to which people have an objective and well-informed understanding of environmental issues.” Today, it is extremely important to have a understanding of environmental issues. This is because the human economy is engaged in a wide range of activities that are causing enormous damage to the ecosystems that sustain both our species and Earth’s legacy of biodiversity. All around us, this is witnessed by pollution, climate warming, collapsing fisheries, deforestation, the degradation of agricultural soil, extinctions and endangerment of species, and other damages.

Nevertheless, we need not be overly pessimistic. If our society takes constructive actions now, or at least soon, it will not be too late to prevent or repair many of these important environmental problems, which threaten the welfare of people and most other species. Within limits, humans are prescient creatures, and our society is capable of implementing a sustainable economy that can support our livelihoods as well as healthy ecosystems.

It is clear, however, that any sustainable economy will involve ways of doing business that are different from those that have recently been dominant. It will also require fundamental changes in the lifestyles of many people, especially those living in wealthy countries such as Canada. Ultimately, such socio-economic transformations must involve much less use of energy, materials, and other resources, in comparison with what many of us take for granted today. A more respectful attitude toward the natural world is also badly needed.

Achieving such a transformation will depend on citizens having a sound understanding of environmental issues. Any imposition of restrictions on access to resources will initially be uncomfortable for many people. Nevertheless, I believe that people will be more willing to soften their lifestyle if they understand the reasons for those changes in the context of the livelihoods of future generations and ecological sustainability more generally. With such an understanding, most people will support economic and social changes that conserve the quality of their own and future environments.

A broad-based environmental literacy will be a key requirement if a country such as Canada is to achieve the difficult transition into an ecologically sustainable economy. Within that context, this book was developed to help Canadian students in universities and colleges to have an objective and well-informed understanding of important environmental issues.

A Canadian Textbook

This textbook is intended to provide the core elements of a curriculum for teaching environmental science at the introductory level in Canadian colleges and universities. This book is suitable for students beginning a program in environmental science, environmental studies, or sustainability. It is also appropriate for arts students who require a science elective, and for science students who require a non-major elective. Not many introductory textbooks in environmental science are written in a way that provides a deep examination of issues that are particularly important in Canada, and the ways they are being dealt with by governments and society-at-large. Canada has unique national and regional perspectives that should be understood by Canadian students, and it is regrettable that many of them are studying from textbooks whose focus is not their own country.

This book, however, was written from the ground-up to provide Canadian information and examples. This national context is integrated throughout the text, along with North American and global data that provide a broader perspective. Special Canadian Focus boxes illustrate important examples of environmental issues in our national context. At the same time, Global Focus boxes enhance the international context for learning about issues, while In Detail boxes examine particular topics in greater depth.

Approach and Organization of the Book

Environmental science draws on knowledge and methods from many fields of the sciences and social sciences, including biology, chemistry, economics, ethics, geography, geology, medicine, physics, political science, sociology, and statistics. Many environmental specialists adopt an interdisciplinary approach to integrate these different ways of knowing in order to help understand and prevent environmental damage. This book also adopts an interdisciplinary approach by drawing on a variety of disciplines. At the same time, however, the choice of topics and the interpretations offered reflect my own experience and world view as an ecologist – one who has had a rather specialized career examining the ecological dimensions of environmental problems.

The book is organized into twenty-eight chapters that are grouped into six parts:

Part I

"Ecosystems and Humans" serves as an introduction to the broad field of environmental science. It defines environmental science, explains the principles of the ecosystem approach, gives an overview of environmental stressors caused by human activities, and describes various world views.

Part II

"The Biosphere: Characteristics and Dynamics" consists of eight chapters that provide a scientific foundation for much of what follows:

  • Chapter 2 explains the scientific approach to identifying and understanding environmental problems
    • Chapter 3 examines the geological, hydrological, and atmospheric characteristics of planet Earth
    • Chapter 4 provides a basic understanding of the kinds and transformations energy, along with practical implications
    • Chapter 5 explains the flows and cycles of nutrients
    • Chapter 6 examines the overarching implications of evolution for biological and ecological change
    • Chapter 7 is an overview of the various levels at which biodiversity can be examined, while also explaining why it is important for intrinsic reasons as well as the welfare of humans
    • Chapter 8 described the major biomes of Earth, from both a global perspective, as well as a Canadian one
    • Chapter 9 provides an explanation of the realm of ecology, while also explaining the underlying context of that subject area to many environmental problems

Part III

"The Human Population" deals with the growth and implications of the human population. It consists of two chapters:

  • Chapter 10 examines global population growth and its causes
  • Chapter 11 focuses on Canadian population issues, at both national and provincial/territorial levels

Part IV

"Natural Resources" deals with the resources that humans and all other species need to sustain their livelihoods. It consists of three chapters:

  • Chapter 12 examines the relationship between resources and sustainable development, within the context of the fields of economics and the more recently emerged perspectives of ecological economics
  • Chapter 13 looks at the limited supplies of non-renewable resources, and their place in a sustainable human economy
  • Chapter 14 examines renewable resources, and explains why they are the basic underpinning of any economy that is sustainable over the longer term

Part V

"Environmental Damages" consists of thirteen chapters that deal with important damages that are being caused by human activities.

  • Chapter 15 explains the broader topics of environmental stressors, as well as the various kinds of pollution and disturbance
  • Chapter 16 examines gaseous air pollution and the kinds of damage that are caused
  • Chapter 17 looks at climate change and how its recent dynamics appear to be forced by anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases
  • Chapter 18 focuses on metals and other toxic elements and some of their environmental effects
  • Chapter 19 explains the causes of acidification, with particular attention to surface waters that have been affected by “acid rain”, or the deposition of acidifying gases and precipitation
  • Chapter 20 examines problems of surface waters that are not covered in other chapters, such as eutrophication and hydroelectric development
  • Chapter 21 looks at oil spills and the damage caused to marine and terrestrial environments
  • Chapter 22 explains the various kinds of pesticides and their used, and described case studies of environmental damages that are associated with their use
  • Chapter 23 looks at forestry operations and their environmental effects, with particular attention to ecological damages
  • Chapter 24 examines the environmental effects of agricultural activities
  • Chapter 25 explains urban ecology and the benefits that could be achieves by taking a more ecological approach to planning and the management of green spaces
  • Chapter 26 looks at the causes and consequences of warfare, including those that are socioeconomic and others that represent environmental damages
  • Chapter 27 examines the biodiversity crisis, including extinctions and endangerment of species and even entire kinds of ecological communities, as well as mitigations that can be applied, such as the designation of protected areas and the use of softer management practices on working landscapes.

Part VI

"Ecologically Sustainable Development" consists of one chapter that provides a synthesis and conclusion for the book.

  • Chapter 28 discusses the process of assessing environmental impacts, provides a synthetic overview of ecologically sustainable development, and it considers the prospects for Canada and for spaceship Earth

New to This Edition

One completely new chapter has been added to this sixth edition – chapter 26 examines the causes and consequences of warfare. This is a topic that is not often included in environmental textbooks, despite the fact that warfare has devastating impacts on people, their economy, and the natural world. This chapter has a global focus, but particular attention is paid to conflicts in which Canada played a significant role.

Of course, a lot of effort has gone into updating the information in this data-rich textbook. This has been done wherever new data were available, and as a result the information content is fresh and current. Lastly, all of the boxes have been reviewed and updated, and new ones have been added that highlight emerging issues that are relevant to Canada, within an international context.

In addition, the book has been thoroughly edited to improve the clarity and accessibility of its language and format, with an eye to making the content more appealing to undergraduate students.


A special effort has been made to incorporate features that will facilitate learning and enhance an understanding of environmental science:

  • Chapter Objectives are presented at the beginning of each chapter that summarize the anticipated learning outcomes
  • Key terms are boldfaced where defined in the text, and are listed in a comprehensive glossary
  • Canadian Focus boxes illustrate the application of important concepts to Canadian case studies
  • Global Focus boxes enhance the international context for learning about environmental issues
  • In Detail and Environmental Issues boxes provide additional technical information on selected topics
  • Images, Figures, and Tables are abundant throughout, many of them being original analyses of publically available data, and all with an explanatory caption that is further developed within the text
  • Questions for Review are presented at the end of each chapter that provide opportunities to test students’ factual and conceptual understanding of the material presented in the chapter (sample answers are provided in the Instructor’s Manual; see below)
  • Questions for Discussion are also presented at the end of each chapter to provide thought-provoking queries that help to stimulate careful reflection and class discussion
  • Exploring Issues questions at the end of each chapter provide activities and exercises that help students to delve deeper into environmental issues
  • References are listed, by chapter, at the end of the book to help guide users to further reading
  • A comprehensive Index makes looking up topics easy
  • An Instructor’s Manual is available that includes suggested answers to all the questions for review and discussion at the end of each chapter
  • Lecture Templates in a PowerPoint format are available for all chapters, consisting of bulleted lecture notes and full-colour versions of images, figures, and tables


I am grateful for the help that many busy colleagues and other professionals have provided over the years and editions during which this book has been developed. These helpful persons offered an extremely valuable service by informally reviewing draft material and by making important ideas and information available to me. Inevitably, I was not able to incorporate all of the criticisms and suggestions, sometimes because they did not correspond with my own interpretation of the subject matter. However, the overwhelming majority of suggestions and criticisms offered by these people resulted in beneficial changes, and they improved the quality of the material.

These helpful colleagues are: Gordon Beanlands, Christine Beauchamp, Stephen Beauchamp, Karen Beazley, Marian Binkley, Chris Corkett, Ray Cote, Roger Cox, Les Cwynar, Roger Doyle, Peter Duinker, William Ernst, Peter Feige, Tracy Fleming, George Francis, David Gauthier, Chuck Geale, William Gizyn, Patricia Harding, Chris Harvey-Clarke, Owen Hertzman, Jeff Hutchings, Adrian Johnston, Joseph Kerekes, Allan Kuja, Roshani Lacoul, Patriia Lane, Brian Le, Judy Loo, Annette Luttermann, Paul Mandell, Moira McConnell, Ian McLaren, Chris Miller, Pierre Mineau, Gunther Muecke, Neil Munro, Ram Myers, David Nettleship, David Patriquin, Allan Pinder, Stephen Price, Nigel Roulet, Robert Scheibling, Tara Steeves, Donald Stewart, Kate Turner, Tony Turner, Torgney Viegerstad, Richard Wassersug, Peter Wells, Mary-Anne White, Hal Whitehead, Sheilagh Whitley, Martin Willison, Stephen Woodley, and Vince Zelazney.

In addition, the publisher asked instructors at universities and colleges in Canada to provide formal reviews of parts of the book, in each of its editions. I am grateful to the following instructors for providing that invaluable help and constructive criticisms. They are: Susan Bare, Linda Campbell, Daniel Catt, Danielle Fortin, Scott Gilbert, Jon Hornung Richard A. Jarrell, Trudy Kavanagh, Patrick Lane, Cindy Mehlenbacher, Stephen Murphy, Michael Pidwirny, Roberto Quinlan, Lawton Shaw, Sue Vajoczki, Frank Williams, and Carl Wolfe.

Several personal acknowledgements are also in order. I thank my spouse, George-Anne Merrill, for her patient and uncomplaining tolerance of my work habits and lifestyle, and for being my best friend in spite of everything I do and don’t do. Also, my grown children, Jonathan and Rachael, for mysterious motivations that succeeding generations engender in their parents.

If readers of this book have any comments, suggestions, or criticisms about the material or the approach, I would be truly grateful if you would communicate your ideas to me for future improvements.

Bill Freedman
Department of Biology
Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia

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