Environmental protection can be defined as the prevention of unwanted changes to ecosystems and their constituent parts. This includes
• the protection of ecosystems and their constituent parts from changes associated with human activities; and
• the prevention of unwanted natural changes to ecosystems and their constituent parts.
One issue associated with this definition is whether 'ecosystems and their constituent parts' include humans and communities, or whether environmental protection is only concerned with the protection of natural capital. From an ecological perspective, humans are regarded as an integral part of the ecosystem. Separating humanity from the natural environment can therefore be seen as artificial. While this is true, the phrase environmental protection is not used to refer to measures that are designed to regulate or mediate direct interaction between people. For example, laws prohibiting assault are not regarded as environmental protection measures. Environmental protection is concerned with the relationship between people and the natural environment rather than the relationships between people and communities.
Another issue is whether environmental protection relates to preservation, conservation, or both. Preservation refers to the protection of an ecosystem or natural environment from change, while conservation is generally associated with the sustainable use of natural resources. The objective of conservation is to ensure the maintenance of a stock of renewable resources that is being exploited for human purposes rather than the protection of the natural environment from any anthropogenic modifications. The exploitation of natural resources for human purposes is not environmental protection as it is not associated with the prevention of unwanted changes. The change associated with exploitation is deliberate and wanted, at least by those doing the exploitation. However, measures that are put in place to prevent overexploitation ofnatural resources do constitute environmental protection. They are designed to prevent exploitation beyond a point that is deemed desirable or sustainable. For example, catch quotas in fisheries and air pollution limits are environmental protection measures because, while they accept some environmental degradation, they aim to limit it.
The distinction between preservation and conservation has dissipated in recent years with growing recognition of the dynamic nature of natural systems, humanity's place in the biosphere, and the need for active human involvement to maintain the integrity of certain ecosystems. Consequently, environmental protection is now generally used to refer to measures that have traditionally been associated with preservation (e.g., reserves, including national parks), as well as conservation and natural resource management initiatives.
A critical aspect of environmental protection is that it is driven by the values that humans attribute to different aspects of the environment. These values need not be instrumental, but the motivating factor for environmental protection is always the prevention of changes to the environment that humans do not want. This is why measures associated with the prevention of unwanted natural changes to ecosystems - like the prevention of coastal erosion or systematic burning in reserves to reduce the risk of wildfires - can be included as environmental protection. Such measures do not aim to protect ecosystems from human activities but rather from natural forces that are deemed to threaten human interests.
Environmental remediation is distinct from environmental protection as its primary objective is to restore an ecosystem or natural environment to a previous state; that is, like exploitation, it is associated with deliberately induced change, as opposed to the prevention of change.
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