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soil is a major sink of carbon dioxide

An Overview of the Environment, Ecology and Nutrient Cycles

By David Okul

Environmental education is a process of learning about the environment to work with it and not destroy it. It is the purpose of this blog post to introduce basic concepts of environmental education to the readers. The definitions of environment and ecology will help you understand the concept of the environment.

What is the Environment?

The environment is all the surrounding of an organism.


Better still; the environment can be defined as a combination of different systems. These systems include;

The physical environment e.g. atmosphere, water, and soil

The biological environment e.g. plants and animals

The social environment i.e. humans


An organism-environment has two parts which include

Non-living parts such as temperature. The non-living part is also called the abiotic component

The living part includes plants, animals, and microorganisms. The living part is also called the biotic component.

Definition of Ecology

Ecology as a science attempts to explain ‘how nature works’. The term was derived from two Greek words: Oikos meaning “house and Logos, meaning, “study of’. The coining of the term was done in 1869 by German biologist Ernst Haeckel.

As such, ecology is the study of living things in their home or environment: all the external conditions and factors, living and non-living that affect an organism. In the words of Miller (1991), ecology is the study of the interactions between organisms and their living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) environment. Note that the keyword is interactions. It means that exchanges occur within the environment

Ecology was of practical interest early in human history.  In primitive societies, the people seem to understand their environment and work with the forces of plants and animals for their survival. Civilization tends to use tools, such as fire, to modify the natural environment. Technological advances have made some of us oblivious of the role of nature in the survival of mankind. Many of us forget our continuing dependence on the natural resources for air, water, and indirectly, food, recreation, waste disposal, etc.

Biosphere and the Ecosphere

The earth has several major parts that play a role in sustaining life. You are part of what ecologists call the “biosphere” – the living and dead organisms found near the earth surface in parts of the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), and lithosphere (soil)

The biosphere is that part of the earth’s surface and its immediate atmosphere that is inhabited by living organisms. The biosphere fulfills three (3) primary functions for living things;

  1. a) It provides a place where living things complete their life cycle (a habitat)
  2. b) It provides a stable habitat within which the evolution of species can occur.
  3. c) Powered by solar energy, it forms a self-regenerating system that supports life.

The biosphere represents a complex series of interrelationships between the soil, rock, water, and air and the living organisms contained in it.

Energy Flow and Matters Recycling

Do you know wonder what keeps humans (you, me), and most other organisms alive on this planet? To answer this question, you need to understand the fundamental processes, which govern life on planet earth. It will interest you to know life (yours inclusive) on earth depends largely on two fundamental processes presented below:

  1. a) The one-way flow of energy from the sun which is the major source of energy for ecosystems. In short, the sun is either directly or indirectly a source of energy for all life on earth.
  2. b) The recycling of chemicals required by living organisms through parts of the ecosphere. Important cycles include carbon, phosphorous, nitrogen, water, and oxygen cycles.

A basic in environmental education; you will recall that the source of the energy, which sustains life on earth, is the sun. Solar energy lights and warms the earth and supplies the energy used by green plants to synthesize the compounds, which keep them alive and serve as food for almost all other organisms. Solar energy also controls the recycling of key chemicals and drives the climate and weather, which distribute heat and freshwater over the earth’s surface.

Cause and Effect in the environment and ecology

As you are probably aware from the laws of physics, every action causes a reaction. Everything that we do set off a chain of events that extend far beyond our control. Negative action will result in a negative reaction while positive action will result in a positive reaction. For instance, pollution, a negative, will fill the air with substances that harm people’s lungs, rise in the air to cause global warming, falls back as acid rain harming vegetation, and contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer. On the other hand, simple acts such as recycling can save trees from being cut down unnecessarily. Even small actions in the protection of the environment are significant. So, always look into doing positive things for the environment, they do count!

The difference between environment and ecology

Many people tend to confuse ecology with the environment. But they are different concepts. While the environment is concerned with surroundings, ecology attempts to explain how the environment works (that is, the interactions between and among the biotic and abiotic components).

Ecologies attempt to explain the interactions among the five levels of organization of matter (organisms, population, communities, ecosystem, and the biosphere)

The ecosystem is a subset of ecology that focuses on a particular environment. All ecosystems come together to form one gigantic ecosystem called the biosphere.

All in all, we note that ecology focuses on the relationships between organisms and the components of their environment.

David Okul is an environmental management professional with over 10 years experience on donor projects, conservation, forestry, ecotourism, and community-based natural resources management. When not working on  environmental projects, I spend my time writing for Silvica on a variety of topics. The view in this blog are personal and do not represent the organizations that he is associated with.