Like all other species, humans have to be able to satisfy their basic needs, of which eating is the most important if survival is to be guaranteed. To achieve this basic aim, societies throughout history have exploited the resources provided by the natural environment. However, the extent to which these resources are exploited has increased as technical and technological capacity has increased. Natural resources, then, have been exploited more as human beings have developed.

The emergence of agriculture and animal husbandry, and the sedentarism of the Neolithic people can be regarded as the point at which human beings began to distance themselves from the natural environment. The so-called Neolithic revolution led to the first great change in the history of humankind, with the appearance of stable villages which, in turn, were the origin of modern cities. Since then, human societies have developed continuously, although this development has not been spatially or temporally uniform throughout the planet and there have been periods of stagnation and even retrocess.

There is no doubt that being able to obtain and use more and more natural resources – some of which have been around since Antiquity while others are new – has prompted great advances and improvements. Nevertheless, it is equally true that this increasingly intensive exploitation of the natural environment has had a greater impact on the environment itself. The immediate result is the disruption of the natural environment, which can involve degradation (pollution) to such an extent that the effects cannot be reversed.

This module will describe the changes that have occurred over the centuries in the relationship between human societies and the natural environment. This relationship has undergone constant evolution, and has resulted in the shattering of the fragile equilibrium between humankind and the natural environment because of the former’s increasing ability to impinge on the latter. And the extent of the effect on the environment has increased in direct proportion to the level of development and has given rise to the paired terms that make up the title of this module: human development and environmental change.

First we shall describe and analyse how the various systems that make up the environment work. They all have their own laws but are highly inter-related, which means that any change in or impact on one of them will have repercussions on all of them as a whole. The natural environment is not a static element; rather it is extremely dynamic. This dynamism is regularly manifested on the earth’s surface in the form of natural hazards, which are analysed in another module. However, the fact that these hazards have a natural origin does not mean that human societies do not have to suffer their consequences.