Environmental Degradation: What exactly is it?

By Irina Bright.

This article is part of our Environment section

See the complete list of all our Pollution Articles here.

Environmental degradation is an umbrella concept which covers a variety of issues including: pollution, biodiversity loss & animal extinction, deforestation & desertification, global warming, and a lot more.


sunshine lake mountains Here come The Sun.
Photo: McKayla Crump.


What is Environmental Degradation?

Degradation of Air

Degradation of Water

Degradation of Land

Other Types of Degradation

Causes of Environmental Degradation

Effects of Environmental Degradation



The state of our environment has been deteriorating for at least the past couple of centuries, and virtually every part of the planet has been touched by this process in one way or another.

It would be no exaggeration to say that environmental degradation was jump-started by the industrial revolution that took place in the 19th century.

The industrial revolution mechanized the production of goods and introduced the use of machinery and other heavy equipment - which, in their turn, were fuelled by dirty sources of energy, ex. petroleum.

The modern technological progress that the humanity is so proud of, is in fact the very basis of environmental deterioration.

On the one hand, we all enjoy the benefits of such progress; on the other hand, it is a major driving cause of the environmental decline in general.

So let's have a further look at this issue below.

What is Environmental Degradation?

Environmental degradation is basically anything and everything that deviates from a natural process or structure.

In other words, degradation of the environment is either:

  • a significant damage to, or
  • a complete loss of an environmental process or structure.

Most people associate environmental degradation with environmental pollution. But it encompasses a much broader area than just pollution and touches upon all realms of life - air, water and land.

Environmental Degradation of Air

air pollution himalaya, haze Environmental Degradation of Air. Air Pollution Haze, Himalaya.
© NASA Earth Observatory

Atmosphere is an inseparable part of our planet.

Life simply cannot exist without air - whether we talk about humans, animals or plants.

We absolutely depend upon the atmosphere to protect all life on Earth.

The atmosphere performs the following very important environmental functions:

  • It provides us with clean air and oxygen;
  • It protects the Earth from ultra-violet solar radiation;
  • It regulates the global temperature;
  • It keeps the climate stable for the whole planet.

From this perspective, if any of these atmospheric functions are impaired, we all suffer alongside the wider environment.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is an obvious example of atmospheric degradation.

Possibly the biggest problem with air pollution is its trans-boundary nature: it travels freely around the planet knowing no borders and spreading toxins around many different regions of the world.

The most immediate concern about air pollution is, of course, the damage it can potentially cause to human health.

Most gaseous air pollutants are tiny in size, and are easily lodged within a person's lungs. From there they can transport themselves straight into one's blood supply and cause havoc within one's whole body.

Particulate air pollutants are larger in size and cannot enter the blood supply as freely as gaseous pollutants. Despite that, particulates too can cause all sorts of discomfort to humans and animals alike.

Ozone Layer Depletion

The ozone layer in the atmosphere protects our planet from ultra-violet radiation from the sun.

If the ozone layer is damaged, excessive amounts of ultra-violet rays can reach the surface of the Earth. Such excessive UV radiation is thought to cause health-related problems for humans and animals including numerous skin conditions and issues with eyesight.

In the middle of the 1980s, scientists warned of the formation of a big "ozone hole" in the atmosphere above the Antarctic continent. The hole is believed to have been caused by air pollutants called CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons).

Since that time, international legislation against CFC pollution was put in place and, in a rare case of successful co-operation between many countries, this issue has largely been resolved.

Environmental Degradation of Water

The loss of water quality and quantity is another huge sign of environmental degradation.

It is hard to over-estimate the importance of water for life on Earth.

Water covers 70% of the planet's surface, it makes up 60% of the human body and is also present in the air in the form of vapor and clouds.

So clean water is absolutely crucial for human health as well as the health of our physical environment.

Water Pollution

water pollution © Darrenw

Yet water - just like air - has not escaped its destiny of being "used and abused" by people.

Industrialized methods of production of physical goods and agricultural crops usually require large quantities of water. Factories and especially modern agricultural practices depend heavily on water for their mechanized processes.

So water is drawn from surrounding areas; once the production process is completed, the waste water is dumped back into natural water reservoirs - rivers, lakes and so on, which are often expected to re-absorb this polluted water, purify it to a certain degree and send it back into "environmental circulation".

Urbanization doesn't help the situation either. Large cities require huge sewage systems. Millions of people concentrated in relatively small areas generate far too much water waste - and the neighboring environment usually doesn't have enough capacity to neutralize such waste quickly before it starts contaminating it.

Potable Water Contamination & Depletion

Apart from industrially-induced water pollution, the next thing that comes to mind is pollution of potable water that 7 billion of us human beings rely upon every single day.

There are at least two major issues we currently face with potable water:

  • Many natural reservoirs of potable water, ex. aquifers, are either threatened with contamination from surrounding areas (including from contaminated land), or getting depleted due to being generally over-exploited; and
  • Most of the water present on Earth is saline, and requires de-salination to make it potable.

Any type of processing before safe water is delivered to consumers is often subject to further risks of contamination which are not always easy to avoid.

On top of that, large and complicated systems of pipelines that deliver tap water to millions of people are also susceptible to different types of contamination at many points of such water-supply networks.

And, since everything in nature is ultimately connected to each other, we should never forget that industrially polluted water can also enter drinking water supply systems.

Ocean Acidification & Acid Rain

Ocean acidification is probably one of the most invisible examples of environmental degradation.

As a result of air pollution during the last 200 years or so, oceans had to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which inevitably led to their "acidification".

Ocean acidification damages many oceanic organisms which specifically need calcium to form their shells.

Also, since we know very little about oceans in general, we still don't know about many other potentially destructive effects that acidification can bring to organisms living under ocean water.

Just like ocean acidification, acid rain too originates from air pollution. Some air pollutants (ex. sulfur dioxide) interact with water molecules in the air and form "acid rain".

Acid rain was a big problem in the 1970s - 1980s. Personally, I remember learning about it when I was in high school myself.

But since then a lot of international attention has been paid to this issue - which seems to be pretty much under control now.

Environmental Degradation of Land

Degradation of land is almost a natural "continuation" of air & water pollution.

Deposition of air pollutants onto the soil and seeping of water pollutants through to adjacent land areas lead to land contamination and its quality deterioration.

But in addition to that, many other direct actions by humans make this situation even worse.


amazon deforestation Deforestation in Amazon.
© Daniele Gidsicki

We have written a lot about tropical rainforests and their value for global ecology.

Not only do rainforests regulate regional & global climates, they are also incredibly large storages of biodiversity which sustains life as we know it.

Deforestation therefore may lead to:

  • serious destabilization of the climatic system of the world;
  • loss of animal and plant diversity, including many foods that are unique to rainforests;
  • habitat loss for local tribes;
  • irreparable damage to many other localized environmental services.

As industrialization and material consumption took an enormous leap forward, so did regrettably deforestation.

Our assumption is that forests are lost at a rate similar to that of the growth in global consumption in general.

A lot of work is currently being done to protect rainforests from potential destruction.

Please get engaged and do what you can to help save them now.


I believe desertification is one of the most extreme and saddest examples of environmental degradation land.

Desertification is a process during which productive lands with a healthy vegetation cover turn into "empty dead sand spaces" unable to sustain plants, animals or any other life around them.

There are many deserts in the world which had been formed naturally over many thousands of years, with their own unique living systems.

But desertification that we are discussing here is often a result of human activities, and may be caused by deforestation, global warming & droughts, over-exploitation of natural water reservoirs, and so on.

In fact, Brazil - being a host to some of the largest forested areas in the world - can be a good example for our purposes.

Many bloggers report that the north-eastern part of Brazil is now being affected by desertification at an alarming rate. Deforestation is often cited as a major contributor to desertification in this part of the country.

Soil Erosion & Chemicalization

Soil erosion is a reduction in the quality of topsoil, specifically from the view-point of agricultural production.

Soil may quickly become infertile due to being over-exploited and over-treated with harsh chemicals which are often used to increase crop yields.

On top of that, deforestation may also play a big part in soil erosion.

This is especially true for soils supporting vegetation in rainforests.

It is a well-known fact that rainforest soils are very poor nutrient-wise. All of the "biological & nutrient goodness" of the rainforests is actually contained in the vegetation above the soil - rather than deep down in the soil itself.

So once the trees are lost, soil is almost impossible to regenerate - nothing ends up growing there for many years to come.

Other Types of Environmental Degradation

Since environmental degradation covers a very wide area of global ecology, there are of course many other important issues that deserve our attention.

Global warming, biodiversity loss, animal extinction (and a lot more) are all big international topics, and we have covered many of them in further detail elsewhere on our website.

They all demonstrate yet again just how degraded our environment has grown to be over the last several decades.

I am concerned that the totality of all these issues may lead to a tipping point in the history of our planet from where there may be no point of return.

Let's try to do everything we can to reverse this process before it's too late and leave this world a better place for those who will come here after us.

Causes of Environmental Degradation

Over-Production, Over-Consumption & Over-Population

Some time ago, I wrote about fundamental causes of environmental pollution and explained how over-production, over-consumption and over-population all contribute to it.

Well, all of them also contribute to many aspects of environmental degradation in general that I have described above.

It's pretty much the same old problem: the more we produce, the more we consume and the more of us living on this planet - the more damage we cause to the surrounding environment, as simple as that.

Also, it's not only the fact that we produce and consume way too much of things we really don't need.

The real problem is that too many of these used products are discarded as waste, and the environment is simply unable to neutralize them quickly enough before they start damaging it.

And the growth of population numbers globally doesn't help the situation either, of course.

Effects of Environmental Degradation

The main effect or should I say "consequence", of our complete disregard for the nature stems from the inability of air, water and land - the three most important, life-giving planetary dimensions - to deliver undisturbed environmental services required by all living organisms.

We need clean air to breathe; we need clean water to hydrate our bodies; we need pure land to grow healthy food. If we don't have all of this, we will eventually die.

Polluted air, water and land bring about disease and endless misery to humans, animals and plants.

No one is happy at the end.

We can certainly prevent "the end" - but we'd better do it as soon as possible.

>> Learn more about pollution effects and how harmful they can be, here.

Environmental Degradation: Conclusion

The damage that we cause to the environment is currently NOT counted as a cost in economic and social terms.

This lack of "environmental value" has allowed us to over-exploit "free" natural resources - which are, of course, not free.

It has also led to over-production of cheap goods with very short lifespans which are liberally discarded into the environment after use, and then new cheap goods are purchased and discarded again, and this cycle goes on and on - affecting the planet's capacity to restore its environmental services in good time.

We have to change this paradigm of our interaction with the environment.

The nature doesn't owe us anything. It is not there for us to "control" and "manage" it either.

We were born to live in harmony with it - indeed, we are a big part of it. And we certainly don't have the right to exploit and destroy it without thinking about the future generations of humans and animals who will be here after us.

Written by:     Irina Bright
Original publication date:     2012
Republication date:     2020