A legal definition of the environment helps delineate the scope of the subject, determine the application of legal rules, and establish the extent of liability when harm occurs. The word environment is derived from an ancient French word environner, meaning to encircle. By broadly applying to surroundings, environment can include the aggregate of natural, social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community. Thus, environmental problems can be deemed to include such problems as traffic congestion, crime, and noise. Geographically, environment can refer to a limited area or encompass the entire planet, including the atmosphere and stratosphere (Judicial Handbook on Environmental Law (UNEP, 2005).
Of course, defining an Environment is not an easy task. Most treaties, declarations, codes of conduct, guidelines, etc. don’t attempt to define it directly. No doubt this is because it is difficult both to identify and to restrict the scope of such an ambiguous term, which could be used to encompass anything.
Many conventions (like The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development) avoid the problem, however, no doubt because, as Caldwell remarks ‘it is a term that everyone understands and no one is able to define’ Caldwell, International environmental Policy and Law (1st edn. Durham, NC, 1980), 170.
Some other treaties and other instruments define the environment in different ways considering the subject matter they want to address. For example, the Declaration of the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) merely referred obliquely to man’s environment adding that ‘both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and man-made, are essential for his well-being and enjoyment of basic human rights.
The world commission on environment and development (WCED) relied on an even more succinct approach; it remarks that ‘the environment is where we live’.
The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development refers at many points to environmental needs, environmental protection, and environmental degradation and so on, but nowhere identifies what these include. Interestingly it eschews the term entirely in principle 1, declaring instead that human beings ‘are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.’
The Council of Europe Convention on Civil Liability for Damage Resulting from Activities Dangerous to the Environment defines the environment as including (The Council of Europe Convention on Civil Liability for Damage Resulting from Activities Dangerous to the Environment which was done at Lugano, 21 June 1998, Art.2.10);
Natural resources both abiotic and biotic, such as air, water, soil, fauna and flora and the interaction between the same factors; property which forms part of the cultural heritage; and the characteristic aspects of the landscape
When we come back to our legal system, the Environmental Protection Organs Establishment Proclamation defines the environment as (Environmental Protection Organs Establishment Proclamation, Proclamation No. 295/2002, Neg. Gaz., 9th Year, No. 7, 2(3):
The totality of all materials whether in their natural state or modified or changed by human, their external spaces and interactions which affected their quality or quantity and the welfare of human or other living beings, including but not restricted to, land, atmosphere, weather and climate, water, living things, sound, odor, taste, social factors, and aesthetics.
Finally, it should be kept in mind that any definition of the environment will have the Alice-in-Wonderland-quality of meaning that we want it to mean.