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Environment refers to something with which a living being (or something that is treated in analogy to a living being) has a causal relationship. The concept of the environment must be distinguished from the concept of the environment , which is spatially (and not causally) defined.

Concept history

The term environment is also used associatively to refer to the nature surrounding people . Often in an idyllic perspective.

The word was originally a loan translation from the Danish omverden, documented since 1800, meaning "surrounding country, surrounding world". In the second half of the 19th century environment also became a substitute word for the milieu borrowed from French .

Milieu was originally a term for the (material or immaterial) substrate or medium within which life arises and takes place - a hypothesis of the life sciences of the time, which was close to the ether concept of physics: the essential quality of this "milieu" was to be clarified as a central question to theoretically refute theories such as spontaneous generation . The book Environment and Inner World of Animals , published in 1909 by Jakob Johann von Uexküll , was decisive for the dominant meaning “The environment of a living being, which affects it and influences its living conditions” in the last few decades .

The reference to the individual differentiates the term from related terms such as ecosystem or nature .

Environment in the political-ecological debate

In the political debate since the late 1960s, the term environment - and its meaning - has been linked to the ecological movement. In real political disputes, it is often used synonymously with the word nature , sometimes also the word ecology . These different uses make it blurred on the one hand, and on the other hand it refers to the world around us.

It was not until late that an ethical debate began about which moral arguments could apply to protecting the environment.

Panoramic view of the Garzweiler opencast mine . Environment also means man-made environment. This in turn is not always idyllic, but sometimes necessary. However, an assessment can only be made through moral-ethical or political considerations.

Environment in ecology discourse

The concept of the environment has its starting point in the political context in relation to man-made influences on the nature surrounding people, which is usually presented negatively. What was clear about this environmental concept was its human perspective ( anthropocentrism ): Essentially, the human environment should continue to be kept worth living in.

The Lüneburg Heath is an example of how a man-made environment (it was created in the Neolithic through overgrazing of widespread forests ) can also present itself positively.

Environment and the sustainability debate

This has not changed with the transition to the sustainability debate. In addition to the inclusion of inter- and intra-generational considerations of justice and a sustainable economic perspective, the main aim is to leave behind an environment for future generations in which they can live in a similar way to today's generation. In this context, the term environment still plays a new meaning: In the discussion about the vulnerability ( vulnerability or vulnerability ) of people as a measure of action, for example, the climate change to prevent or limit its effects. The vulnerability of specific groups of people is closely linked to their geographical and natural environment - and the effects that climate change, for example, will have on it. The socio-cultural environment plays a special role: For the poor, the effects of environmental destruction are usually particularly drastic.

Environment in Pedagogy and Education

Environmental education , which was introduced as an educational approach in the 1970s due to the environmental movement , was the forerunner of education for sustainable development . However, it has not become superfluous or suppressed with education for sustainable development, because learning in direct contact with nature still enables immediate learning success. Modern nature and environmental education , however, has advanced didactically and has been adapted in terms of content and methodology to the theoretical considerations of systemic relationships. In this respect, she uses many elements of systems- theoretical thinking or experiential approaches. Through practical exercises and personal experiences of this kind, complex relationships should be made tangible in order to be effective in terms of protecting the environment.

Environment in the humanities

People can take their environment (or its conditions) with them through technology and thus live in otherwise hostile environments, such as space .

Environment in philosophical anthropology

In the context of philosophical anthropology, the environmental connection received an important impetus from Max Scheler . In response to the general question about the essential difference between humans and animals , he postulated an important principle with the special position of humans: the (environmental) openness of humans. As a spiritual being, man is no longer “instinctual and bound to the environment, but rather“ free from the environment ”and, as we want to call it,“ open to the world ”: such a being has“ world ””. Animals, or living beings in general, are integrated into their respective environment, since it represents a specifically vital environment. Development is an interplay of the adaptation of living beings to their environment, as the theory of evolution is able to show. Animal behavior is in a broad sense dictated by their environment. Humans (also) differ from animals in that they are much less tied back to the environment. On the contrary: people can create their own environment, sometimes even in hostile environments (as the international space station ISS shows). And they can put themselves into the living (environment) world of animals through their intellect.

In the course of the scientific debate, the originally very narrow context of the environment was expanded. In addition to the “psychological environment”, as the sum of the properties and characteristics that induce species-specific actions and reactions, the “physical environment” (abiotic and cosmic environment) and for humans the “socio-cultural environment” (social, technological, economic and cultural environment) added.

Environment in Psychology

The development of a person's personality is most strongly dependent on the socio-cultural environment, understood as a milieu. Developmental psychology dedicates itself to this fact, assuming that the relation to objects and the environment change considerably with age. The term habitat emphasizes this subjective component of the environment, while setting, analogous to the terms nature or ecosystem, generally represents a more objective approach. The relatively young discipline of environmental psychology deals primarily with the aspect of interaction with people's actions and people's attitudes, in particular to protect the environment.

Ethics and the environment

With the ecological footprint , an assessment of the consequences of human behavior on the environment should be made clear. This is an important approach in the moral-ethical, but also political environmental discussion.

The accusation of anthropocentrism sparked a discussion within the ethical disciplines about the justification of an environmental ethics that continues to this day. Based on Hans Jonas' attempt to establish a categorical imperative of technological societies (1984) towards the environment, various principles of moral justification, such as the ability of animals to suffer ( pathocentrism ) or an abstract life principle ( biocentrism ) are discussed. In this context, Honnefelder (1993) refers to the problem that ethics that should not only protect the environment in relation to humans, but also want to recognize the environment as an independent value, should perhaps better be called "ecological ethics". But the “anthroporelativity of all norms in the sense of a reference to people as the addressees of norms”, as well as the need to shape people towards their environment, make the term environmental ethics appear justified. And not just as so-called "hyphenated ethics" (such as corporate ethics or institutional ethics ), but - in addition to individual and social ethics - as an independent discipline.

Time and environment

It is becoming increasingly clear that the environment has a special relationship with time . The temporal component is, on the one hand, that environments are historically different for people . This concerns both the pure environment, which (can) change over the course of time, as well as the view that people focus on their environment. But the diverse interrelationships, for example between living systems and their environment, are also subject to changes over time. In this respect, an important task is to find adequate "time measures for the environment". An “ecology of time” does not mean “ adding time aspects to ecologically relevant issues ”. The relationship is more fundamental insofar as the environment and time represent a topic to be researched independently and a new task has thus arisen.

Environment in Sociology

In the sociological debate, the environment plays an important role in various areas:

  • In environmental sociology , people usually speak of the environment. It deals with the relationship between nature and society. The environment appears as nature which, on the one hand, affects people (storms, earthquakes, etc.), and, on the other hand, has to be protected from people (climate change, forest dieback, etc.). Environmental sociology has different theoretical and practical approaches, which also result in different ways of looking at the environment.
  • In addition, environmental problems (threats and threats) and their growing importance for value-related debates are attracting sociological attention.
  • From the field of work sociology comes the debate about the relationship between subjective action, the knowledge about it and the part that physical interaction with the environment has in it. These studies show that, for example, a perceptive perception of objects or working methods is associated with a “practical examination of the environment and depends on it”.

Environment as a (system) theoretical concept

The circuit diagram of a VE301W Volksempfänger as a closed technical system. Technical systems are interesting because they represent both the starting point of system-theoretical thinking and all of their components can be calculated and manipulated. The boundary and the relationship to the environment are defined and / or built by people.
Systems-theoretical thinking has established itself as an important part of newer environmental education.

In systems theory , a general distinction is made between system and environment. In the classic approaches, the environment stands for everything that is not the system, that is, it is defined as complementary to the system. In postmodern approaches, the relationship between system and environment is seen in terms of difference theory. Luhmann, for example, defines the system as the difference between the system and the environment: "A system" is "the difference between the system and the environment."

In addition to the observation and delimitation of the “external” environment by a system (e.g. that of the market by a company), there is another possible observation perspective: the observation of the organization by its members (by the “internal” environment). Georg Simmel already points out that the individuals belong partly to the systems and partly remain outside the system (without using the system term): Every member of a society lives simultaneously “inside” and “outside” (outside with his psyche, his religious convictions etc.). This limit is variable.

Environment in classical systems theories

There are two types of classical system theories : one deals with open systems (e.g. General System Theory , L. von Bertalanffy ) and the other deals with operationally closed systems ( cybernetics , N. Wiener ).

In systems theory, which deals with closed systems , the environment is not directly addressed. As the environment around the system, spontaneous disturbances (perturbations) appear on the system surface, for example in the form of stimuli that the system has to compensate. A typical representative is H. Maturana , who treats the nervous system as operationally closed.

In systems theory, in which open systems are dealt with, systems react to environmental conditions, that is, they are open to information from the environment in the sense that the environment determines the system behavior.

Environment in postmodern systems theories

In the systems theory of N. Luhmann , environment is a theoretical term. For him, a system always arises when there is a differentiable unity between systems and the distinction between system and environment. The "starting point of every system-theoretical analysis [...] has to serve the difference between system and environment."

For him, however, the environment is not an undefined residual variable, for example to maintain or replenish energy or information, but - in a differential consideration - a constitutive requirement of the system. In contrast to the environment, for example, the identity of the system results. The demarcation from the environment is therefore indispensable for social systems in order to reduce the complexity, which in principle cannot be assessed, and thus to be able to act ( complexity reduction). There are always impulses in the environment or impulses from the environment when there is connectivity .

Environment in organizational theory

Similar to systems theory, organizational theory generally distinguishes between a system (here: organization) and its environment. One can distinguish between formal and informal dimensions of the environment.

The formal ones would be:

  • Environmental complexity
  • Environmental dynamics
  • Environmental pressure

Informals are:

  • global environment
  • Task environment
  • Interest Groups

In the organization (task / activity) of an organization (institution), the environment must urgently be taken into account, e.g. B. Suppliers, buyers, political and legal restrictions.

Environment in the natural sciences

Instead of the term “environment”, more neutral terms are usually used within the natural sciences. Common are z. B. Habitat , ecosystem , nature , etc. More precise determinations of the relationship between individuals and their environment are treated differently in the various scientific disciplines.

There is a theoretical debate that continues to this day (with empirical examples of twin research ), especially between the natural and social sciences, on the relationship between the environment and the individual. The question is which of the two factors or areas controls human behavior and human characteristics to what extent.

Plant-environment interaction

A set of male chromosomes . In genetics in particular , the debate about what influence the environment has on human development has sparked off . In this context, the environment must already be located on the epigenetic level.

Hereditary disposition and environment

The debate about the question of who or what is responsible for human behavior was very extreme and ideological on the part of some evolutionary biologists compared to social psychologists and philosophers. Such deterministic perspectives were also the reason for the decoding of the human genome in the human genome project “ HUGO ”. The hope behind this was that by repairing “defective” genes, diseases could be cured or specific peculiarities of people could be changed. Since then it has become more and more evident that the environment plays an enormous role. This can already be seen in monogenetic diseases (such as the metabolic disease phenylketonuria , which is often mentioned in this context ), i.e. diseases that are determined by a precisely localizable genetic defect. The phenotypic course, ie the individual manifestation of the disease , is very different for the same "cause" and depends crucially on the respective environment. First in a microbiological sense, i.e. the cellular environment as the immediate environment of the genome.

The relatively new research direction of epigenetics deals with the question of how the environment can trigger gene expressions, which in turn can be passed on to daughter cells . It is still very controversial whether these gene expressions can be permanently reflected in the genome and thus can be passed on to offspring. A vivid example is the honey bee. A change in diet in the larval stage causes one of the larvae to develop into a queen while the other become workers. There is no DNA methylation in the queen . While the genes are stable, the epigens are dynamic and can be influenced by environmental factors such as a change in diet.

Environmental influences on human development

The system-environment interaction can be easily researched and demonstrated in diseases such as schizophrenia . Based on twin research , it was found that an increased susceptibility to developing schizophrenia is largely genetic . If certain genetic factors are inherited, the risk of disease can increase to around 80%. But not only the genetic makeup, but also our environmental influences, such as early, negative experiences before or during pregnancy, increase the risk. Such prenatal and perinatal influencing factors are, for example, a lack of oxygen in the child or an infection, increased stress, malnutrition or diabetes in the mother, as well as smoking during pregnancy.

Studies have also shown that living in urban areas can have a negative impact on the risk of schizophrenia. This is also exacerbated if one belongs to an ethnic minority, a low social class or lives in poverty. One attempt to explain is the negative impact of the stressful environment, reduced availability of resources and possible discrimination. On the basis of diseases such as schizophrenia, it is possible to impressively show the great importance that various environmental influences have on our development. Some important influencing factors are discussed in greater detail below.

Prenatal influencing factors

Much research has explored the impact of prenatal (prenatal) stress on the psychological and physical development of a child. With regard to physical factors, standardized questionnaires were used to find out that prenatal stress and fears in the mother, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy, can have a negative impact on the duration of pregnancy and the birth weight and also lead to more frequent premature births. For ethical reasons, psychological factors, such as the behavior change triggered by prenatal stress, are researched primarily on the basis of animal experiments, which, however, allow conclusions to be drawn about humans. Mary L. Schneider studied a group of 24 rhesus monkeys, 6 months of age, half of which were descended from mothers who were periodically stressed. Five times a week they were locked in a dark room and confronted with loud noises. The offspring of these mothers exhibited disruptive behaviors such as pushing other young monkeys or self-harm. In addition, disturbed exploratory behavior could be demonstrated. These young monkeys also had lower birth weights, motor deficits, and suffered from passivity and increased distractibility.

Similar results can also be found in humans. Various authors were able to show that there is a connection between early childhood regulation and relationship disorders, such as excessive crying, and increased stress levels, fears and prenatal depression in the mother. This had a particularly negative effect on the child if it occurred in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Stimulating environment

In an experiment with rats, Rosenzweig and Krech investigated the extent to which the environment influences brain development. Some young rats were raised in a low-irritation single cage, while others were kept as a group in a cage with a “natural environment”. The rats that had more stimulation, for example in the form of toys, developed a thicker cortex . After 60 days the weight of the brain had increased by 7-10% and the synapses by 20%. In addition, this group was more active and curious. These results also had a major impact on the way children are treated and cared for. For example, they led to a drastic improvement in conditions for children in homes. It was also shown that stimulation such as tender touch also has a positive effect on children. This could be seen in the form of weight gain and faster neurological development.

Environment and talent (intelligence)

The debate between supporters of individuation and socialization theorists with regard to the question of human talent or intelligence goes in a similar direction to the debate about the question of hereditary disposition and the environment. The first problem is the definition and conceptualization of talent itself (or intelligence ). The first question is what exactly a talent can be. The underlying problem is whether talent (intelligence) is a person 's characteristic that possibly exists unchangeably (is invariable), or whether talent or intelligence (exclusively) through inspiration from the socio-cultural environment, for example an extreme helpful parents or a good school system comes. Here, too, despite all the difficulty in providing empirical evidence, it should turn out that both factors, ie “disposition and environment”, must work together. At least so that talent (or intelligence) can develop.


  • Fritz Böhle , Stephanie Porschen-Hueck: Body knowledge and bodily knowledge. In: Reiner Keller , Michael Meuser (Ed.): Body knowledge. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2011, pp. 53–67.
  • Martin Held: Time measures for the environment. In: Martin Held, Karlheinz A. Geißler (Ed.): Ecology of the time. Finding the right measures of time. Hirzel, Stuttgart 1993, ISBN 978-3-8047-1264-5 , pp. 7-31.
  • Bernd Herrmann (ed.): Man and the environment in the Middle Ages. Stuttgart 1986.
  • Ludger Honnefelder : Which nature should we protect? berlin university press, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-86280-005-6 .
  • Ludger Honnefelder: Which nature should we protect? In: GAIA. Vol. 2, No. 5, Nomos, Baden-Baden 1993, pp. 253-264.
  • Joseph Huber : Environmental Sociology. In: Günter Endruweit, Gisela Trommsdorff (Hrsg.): Dictionary of Sociology. 2nd Edition. Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart 2002, pp. 641-645.
  • Hans Jonas : The principle of responsibility. Attempting ethics for technological civilization. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1984, ISBN 3-518-37585-7 .
  • Wilhelm Korff , Lutwin Beck , Paul Mikat (eds.): Lexicon of Bioethics. Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 1998, ISBN 3-579-00264-3 .
  • Michael Lenz: Plant-Environment Discourse. History, systematics and educational relevance. Klinkhardt, Bad Heilbrunn 2012.
  • Niklas Luhmann : Social Systems. Outline of a general theory. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1993, ISBN 3-518-28266-2 .
  • Franz Petermann , Kay Niebank, Herbert Scheithauer (Hrsg.): Development science. Developmental Psychology - Genetics - Neuropsychology. Springer, Berlin a. a. 2004, especially chap. 6: Biopsychosocial interactions in development. Pp. 237-291.
  • Max Scheler : The position of man in the cosmos. Bouvier, Bonn 2002, ISBN 3-416-02592-X .
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  • FBM de Waal: Who controls people: genes or the environment? In: Spectrum of Science. Digest No. 2/2000, pp. 68-73.

Web links

Commons : Environment  - collection of images, videos and audio files
 Wikinews: Environment  - in the news
Wiktionary: Environment  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Ludwig Trepl : General Ecology. Volume 1: Organism and Environment. Frankfurt / M., Lang: 106ff .; see. 1. Uexküll, Jakob from 1909: Environment and inner world of animals. Springer, Berlin 2005.
  2. Baggesen: Poet. w. 2, quoted in UMWELT, f., The world surrounding people . In: Jacob Grimm , Wilhelm Grimm : German Dictionary . Hirzel, Leipzig 1854–1961 ( woerterbuchnetz.de , University of Trier).
  3. Scheler: The position of man in the cosmos. 2002, p. 38.
  4. C. George Boeree : Personality theories with Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966) . online ; P. 9, 16 on head. "Personal world", p. 16 on head. "Eigenwelt, Mitwelt, Umwelt".
  5. R. Oerter: The ecological approach. In: R. Oerter, L. Montada (Ed.): Developmental Psychology. Psychologie-Verlags-Union, Weinheim 1987, pp. 87–128.
  6. Honnefelder 1993, p. 259.
  7. see above all Held 1993, p. 13 or Held & Geißler 1993
  8. See Lars Clausen : From dealing with landscape. In: Ders., Krasser social change. Leske + Budrich, Opladen 1994, pp. 91-99.
  9. Cf. Karl-Heinz Hillmann : Environmental Crisis and Value Change. Königshausen and Neumann, Würzburg ²1986.
  10. Böhle & Porschen 2011, p. 62.
  11. Niklas Luhmann: Introduction to Systems Theory , 2004, p. 66
  12. ^ Georg Simmel: Religion and Society . In: G. Simmel: The individual law , ed. by Michael Landmann, new edition 1987, p. 50.
  13. "The nervous system thus functions as a closed network of changes in the activity relationships between its components" ( Baum der Wissens. 1984, p. 180).
  14. ^ Luhmann: Social Systems. Outline of a general theory. 1993, p. 35.
  15. Schreyögg (2003), p. 309ff
  16. SPIEGEL ONLINE, Hamburg Germany: Special food: How royal jelly turns a bee into a queen - SPIEGEL ONLINE - Science. Retrieved February 18, 2017 .
  17. Van Os, Jim. Kapur, Shitij: Schizophrenia. In: The Lancet. Volume 374, No. 9690. 2009, p. 638 , accessed February 18, 2017 .
  18. Van Os, Jim. Kapur, Shitij: Schizophrenia. In: The Lancet. Volume 374. No. 9690. 2009, pp. 636-637 , accessed February 18, 2017 .
  19. a b Mueser, Kim T., Susan R .: Schizophrenia. In: The Lancet. Volume 363. No. 9426. 2004, p. 2064 , accessed February 18, 2017 .
  20. ^ Wadhwa, Pathik D. et al .: The association between prenatal stress and infant birth weight and gestational age at birth: A prospective investigation. In: American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Volume 169, No. 4. 1993, Retrieved February 18, 2017 .
  21. Schneider, ML: Prenatal stress exposure alters postnatal behavioral expression under conditions of novelty challenge in rhesus monkey infants . In: Wiley Periodicals, Inc. (Ed.): Developmental Psychobiology . tape 25 , no. 7 , 1992, pp. 529-540 .
  22. Papousek, M .: Regulatory Disorders of Early Childhood: Clinical Evidence for a New Diagnostic Concept . In: M. Papousek, M. Schieche, H. Wurmser (eds.): Regulatory disorders in early childhood. Early risks and help in the developmental context of parent-child relationships . Huber, Bern 2004, p. 77-110 .
  23. Myers, David G .: Psychology . 3. Edition. Woth Publishers, New York 2013, pp. 153 .

Notes and quotes

  1. "The form of such behavior is that of" cosmopolitanism ", the principle of shaking off the ban on the environment [...] Incarnation is elevation to cosmopolitanism by virtue of the spirit" (Scheler: The position of man in the cosmos. 2002, p. 40.)
  2. "The child leaves the family as a living space and enters the environmental school [...] The entry into professional life again brings with it a large-scale change in the environment [...]" (R. Oerter: The ecological approach. P. 88.)
  3. "But nature appears not only as that which conditions and encompasses man, which claims protection in its own legality preceding all actions, but also as that which is made and shaped by man, which in its form claims protection because this form is part of culture, that is part of the design of the successful life of the respective society. In this sense, the nature to be protected also includes the cultural monument in the built-up nature. ”(Honnefelder 1993, p. 262)
  4. "Recognition and comprehension through sensory perception and subjectivizing action have been largely suppressed and discriminated in modern societies, especially in systems of purposeful action, and here especially in the work area" (Böhle & Porschen 2011, p. 64).
  5. “[Social] systems are not only occasional and not only adaptive, they are structurally oriented towards their environment and could not exist without the environment. They constitute and they maintain themselves through the creation and maintenance of a difference to the environment, and they use their limits to regulate this difference. ”(Luhmann: Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer Allgemeine theory. 1993, p. 35)
  6. "For the theory of self-referential systems, the environment is rather a prerequisite for the identity of the system, because identity is only possible through difference." (Luhmann: Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer Allgemeine theory. 1993, p. 243)
  7. “When a scientist speaks of a hereditary trait, he simply means: Part of the variation in this trait can be explained by genetic factors. The fact that the environment is responsible for at least as much variability is usually neglected ”(Waal 2000, p. 72).