Environment has become a central term in contemporary debates regarding the relationship between humankind and its surroundings, especially regarding how the two interact (including whether there can be equilibrium in such interaction, whether such interaction is presently damaging but reversible, or whether the planet faces unprecedented global danger). The already significant difficulty of engaging in public discussion of such issues is exacerbated by the degree to which the polysemy of the word environment and its derivatives reflects but at the same time disguises contested ideas and ideals about the place of humans in the natural and social world.
The word environment is borrowed into English from Middle French environnement, from environner “to surround.” The word is first attested in the OED in a translation of Plutarch’s Morals in 1603, but only becomes established in English in C18. By the 1720s, environment was being used in two senses, each of which reflects its etymological meaning. The first sense, “[t]he action of circumnavigating, encompassing, or surrounding something; the state of being encompassed or surrounded,” is already rare in C18 and obsolete after C19. It is the second sense, “[t]he area surrounding a place or thing; the environs, surroundings, or physical context,” which leads into the word’s present-day meanings that have widened to include both physical and non-physical contexts.
Current uses of environment can be split into two branches. The general meaning is that of “the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates,” a sense that encompasses a number of narrower subsenses found from mC19 onward. In these more recent senses environment is usually qualified with respect to a specified place or circumstance: the environment of something or someone, or type of environment. The inhabitant(s) of an environment, whether implied or specified, are generally living things, including (but not restricted to) humans. In post-C19 scientific use, environment is used to refer to what Darwin would have described as the “external conditions” that affect the life, existence, or properties of an organism. Where a particular type of environment is intended, an appropriate modifier is used. The most frequent collocates in different periods of this kind of use are telling: the phrases production environment and work environment, for example, are not common until the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, but are now among the most frequent. Such qualified senses of environment imply an interaction between an entity and surroundings or conditions, with many examples showing blurring between technical use in scientific disciplines and more widespread, non-technical use. The derived form environmental is found from mC19 onward, in collocations such as environmental factors and environmental causes, which often have the same connotation of interaction between a physical environment and its contents, with the physical environment influencing any living inhabitants.
From around 1930, environment begins to be used with an explicitly non-physical meaning, referring to the social, political, and cultural context that shapes a person’s behavior and attitudes. The emergence of this sense reflects the rise of behaviorist ideas such as those of B. F. Skinner, who argued that “[i]t is the environment which is ‘responsible’ for the objectionable behavior [e.g., alcoholism and juvenile delinquency], and it is the environment, not some attribute of the individual, which must be changed” (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971, 74). Such use of environment is not the beginning of the basic idea that “nurture” is more of a determinant than “nature”; and the related terms environmentalism and environmentalist, respectively the theory positing the primary influence of environment and a proponent of that theory, are found earlier than environment in this sense.
Perhaps the most significant semantic development in environment comes in mC20, when environment begins to be used without modification but usually with a preceding definite article: as the environment. In this instantly recognizable use in contemporary public debate, environment refers to the whole natural world, rather than to the immediate physical context of a particular organism. The Independent notes, for example, that “Environments . . . keep changing in size,” and suggests that in such talk the referent is inevitably “enormously enlarged” (June 25, 2000). First attested in the OED in 1948, the environment is closely synonymous with the natural world, and shares in the positive connotations of the terms nature and natural, as well as countryside. However, environment has come to mean more than simply natural world or countryside. In recent years it has been influenced by the word’s earlier meanings, which encompass the notion of interaction between subject and environment, so that environment now denotes surroundings “esp. as affected by human activity.” Environmental issues are not simply matters pertaining to the natural world, but issues associated with human behavior; such issues involve a semantic reversal, now foregrounding the impact made by the human inhabitant on its surroundings rather than vice versa. In much of the popular press, this contemporary sense of environment has become far more frequent than any other, in part reflecting the fact that it is a term used in the names of many governmental and non-governmental organizations, e.g., the Environment Agency (UK, 1995) and the Environmental Protection Agency (US, 1970). The importance of such bodies and the emergence of green politics in the late 1970s as a more mainstream political force reflect a political trend that Williams had already noted in the second edition of Keywords (1983) toward “a central concern with human relations to the physical world as the necessary basis for social and economic policy.”
That central political concern is nevertheless not consistently expressed in the same terms. In 1983, for example, Williams suggested that “[e]cology and its associated words largely replaced the environment grouping from the late 1960s,” an apparent replacement, as it seemed to Williams, that appears to have been reversed in recent decades. Indeed, the relationship between environment and related words is complex. As a group, ecology, ecological, and ecologist appear to have more “scientific” connotations than environment, environmental, and environmentalist, which may be why those terms have remained more restricted in their patterns of use. An ecologist is typically a qualified professional, whereas an environmentalist is as likely to be an enthusiastic amateur; ecologically sound appears more precise than environmentally friendly or its partial synonym green. The environmental movement seems to have largely taken over from the earlier ecological movement, and environmental has increased in other collocations while ecological appears to have plateaued. One further difference between the two clusters of terms is that ecology does not have an everyday sense equivalent to environment, and this may be responsible for the growth in frequency and use of environment-related terms. There is nevertheless one exception to this tendency: use of the prefix eco-, which benefits from being “snappier” than alternatives and is productive in a large number of new forms, including now relatively established ecotourism (1992), eco-warrior (1987), and ecofeminist (1980).
C21 nuances associated with environment are not always easy to distinguish. In political and media discourse, speakers often shift between them without acknowledging they are doing so. An example of this can be seen in a 2003 UK newspaper interview with Margaret Beckett, a former UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, whose first two uses of the word suggest the “natural world” sense, while the third shows a more specific, modified sense:
The whole environment debate has been seen as either a rural thing or a concern only of the Greens. . . . What is needed now is to mainstream it, and to show the links between social justice, poverty and the environment. We must recognise that poverty goes hand in hand with environmental degradation. If you destroy your environment then you are impoverishing yourself at a later time.
This foregrounds the connection between the natural world in general and the immediate circumstances of individuals. But the connections made between environment and social issues blur an important distinction between physical surroundings and non-physical context. In this regard, contemporary use of environment shows complications that highlight both the political significance of the word and the intractability of debates in which it has become an essential term.