Environmental sociology is defined as the study of interactions among the physical environment, social behaviors, and social institutions.
Because humans interact with the environment on many different levels (from the global environment to a local neighborhood, village, or even apartment), the issues investigated by environmental sociologists are almost limitless. Additionally, because humans interact with the environment in so many different ways, the methodology of environmental sociology involves a variety of disciplines. Geographers, historians, ecologists, naturalists, psychologists, public health officials, and others have all made contributions to both the theory and the practice of environmental sociology. Yet, despite the vast scope and breadth of its subject matter, the emergence of environmental sociology as a distinct, accepted branch of sociology is a relatively recent development.
The understanding that the physical environment plays a critical role in the shaping of human culture and society is as old as recorded history. The Greek historian Herodotus, known as the "father of history," noted in the 5th Century B.C. that "Egypt is the gift of the Nile." His statement credited the annual flooding of the Nile River as the basis for the agricultural production that sustained ancient Egyptian civilization.
Some of the first efforts to explain the effects of physical environment on human society occurred during the period of the Enlightenment in 16th- and 17th-Century Western Europe. The French philosopher Jean Bodin believed that climatic differences contributed to discrepancies between societies; his insights were weakened, however, by general acceptance of the medieval theory of the role of "humours" (vital fluids) in defining the character of both individuals and societies.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, various philosophers, historians, scholars, and sociologists contributed ideas that influenced the discipline known today as environmental sociology. Some of these influential people include the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, the French scholar Emile Durkheim, the German sociologist Max Weber, and the German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx. The Origin of Species, an influential book by the English naturalist Charles Darwin, also helped to alter perspectives concerning the nature of civilization and social progress. After the book's publication, there were attempts to apply the concept of natural selection in the development of species to human and social institutions.
The development of environmental sociology as a distinct discipline within the broader field of sociology originated in the 1960s. In 1964, sociologists in the Rural Sociological Society formed a committee to study the sociological aspects of forest research, which was later broadened to cover natural resource development in general. Many of the early advocates of environmental sociology were rural sociologists.
Another major factor in the emergence of environmental sociology was the energy crisis of the early 1970s; this situation renewed public interest in issues of resource scarcity and societal responses.
The development of environmental sociology during the past 30 years has paralleled that of the environmental movement itself. The rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s aroused interest in the field among sociologists; it led to the establishment of environmental sociology as a recognized subspecialty within the discipline. However, declining interest in environmental issues among policy makers during the more conservative years of the Reagan administration led to a subsequent waning of interest among sociologists: Fewer articles were devoted to the subject in academic sociological journals of the time, which may have contributed to the emergence of a social constructivist critique of environmental sociology. The revival of public interest in environmental problems during the Clinton administration, though, once again sparked a rising number of articles on the subject. Today, environmental sociology occupies a recognized, although minor, place in the field of sociology.
Environmental sociologists have influenced the application of environmental sociological principles throughout the broader levels of society. Environmental impact statements now play an important and sometimes pivotal role in decisions concerning natural resource development, conservation, urban and regional planning, construction projects, and other issues. As a result, environmental groups, private industry, government agencies, and other interest groups often call upon the expertise of environmental sociologists. Moreover, environmental sociology has become an important tool for public health officials: It helps to assess the ways that the environment interacts with various social factors, ultimately affecting human health, safety, and other issues.
General: The field of environmental sociology focuses on a variety of physical environments that range from the completely natural to completely man-made. "Modified" environments are natural environments, such as polluted lakes or planned landscapes, which show various degrees of human alteration.
Some major areas of study in environmental sociology include agriculture, natural resources, disasters, the environmental movement, and the man-made environment. These studies deal with the reciprocal interactions between each of these topics and humans.
Agriculture and natural resources:
The availability of water has always been a crucial element in societal-environmental relationships. In the Middle East, irrigation of lands along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers helped societies to flourish in ancient Sumer and Babylon. However, overgrazing and deforestation led to soil erosion and eventually to the silting up of the river system; they also led to the destruction of the agricultural bases for these societies.
In the Western United States, land settlement hinged on irrigation because of the very low levels of annual rainfall. Some 50 million acres in 17 Western states are irrigated; 99% of agricultural land in Arizona and Nevada was irrigated as of 1992. This dependence on irrigation led to the creation of large commercial agricultural units: That is because the yield per acre on irrigated lands is low, and only large-scale enterprises are economically sustainable. At the same time, population growth in Western states (due in large part to the success of irrigation programs) has fostered the growth of urban and suburban areas, industry, and recreational facilities, all of which compete for limited water supplies.
The waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries comprise the major water supply for seven Western and Southwestern states, including Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California. As a result, there have been increased disputes in recent years over several issues, such as the diversion of water to California urban areas from agricultural areas in neighboring states, water rights between the city of San Diego and farmers in the nearby Imperial and Coachella Valleys, and water allocation between Upper Basin states (Montana, Utah) and Lower Basin states (California, Nevada). An agreement among the seven states over water allocation was reached in 2008. However, participants at a 2008 conference on "Adjusting to Less Water: Climate Change and the Colorado River" warned that water management reform would be necessary to overcome the effects of drought and global warming. Recent research cautions that Colorado River water deliveries may face a reduction of 60-90% by mid-century, due to human-caused climate change. Such a reduction would impact millions of people and millions of acres of farmland.
The advent of new technology has allowed for the expanded use of water resources in agriculture. In the Great Plains, extending from North Dakota down to Western Texas, the physical environment is characterized by good soil and a relatively long growing season; there are, however, low rainfall totals and comparatively little surface water (rivers, streams, and lakes). The dominating feature of the environment is the Ogallala Aquifer, a groundwater storage reservoir that runs nearly the entire length of the Great Plains; it covers about 174,000 square miles of territory. Although the Ogallala Aquifer was tapped for irrigation as early as 1911, it was only after World War II, when more efficient drills, lightweight pipes, and sprinkler systems were developed, that it became a significant resource for agriculture. By the 1960s, water from the aquifer was being pumped at a rate of 1,000 square feet per minute. Ninety percent of this water was used to fuel a vast expansion in agriculture, including the production of corn, wheat, sorghum, and alfalfa. These crops, in turn, were used to promote the raising of dairy and beef cattle, hogs, and poultry. The meat-processing industries also benefited, to the extent that the region provided some 35% of the food grown in the United States.
By the 1980s, the Ogallala Reservoir was becoming strained due to extensive water mining. A study of groundwater and population redistribution in Kansas noted the migration of water from rural areas in western Kansas (where groundwater was scarcer), to "oases," where groundwater was relatively plentiful after the Ogallala Reservoir began to deplete. Farmers who are determined to remain on the land are now turning to less profitable but more enduring dryland agriculture: They are shifting to crops that require less water, or accepting smaller annual crop yields. Other analysts have suggested a return to a short-grass agricultural model that is based on grass-fed cattle ranching, tourism (dude ranching), dry land farming, and even buffalo-raising.
Studies of the built (man-made) environment deal with the relationship between human social behavior, physical structures, and the spaces those structures create. These studies may vary from the investigation of a single room, block, or neighborhood, to macro-environments, such as cities, suburbs, metropolitan areas, or rural communities. Categories of the built environment covered in such studies may include the social organization of a specific site, the means of communication, the use of semi-fixed amenities (appliances, furniture), ambient properties (light, heat, ventilation, sound), and architectonic qualities (decoration, construction material, textures). Urban environmentalists note that fixed features, such as walls, roofs, and total footage, are particularly adapted to reflect social concerns. The degree of enclosure in a particular space may also be an indication of social status. For instance, corporate managers may have private offices, while lower-ranking employees may be in areas that are more open. Similarly, access to windows and corner offices may be status indicators.
Security and safety are important subjects in the sociology of the built environment. Jane Jacobs, an urban writer and activist, was one of the first to note the role of "eyes on the street" in the urban environment. Jacobs was referring to the existence of doorways and windows that allow for the surveillance of outside activity by neighborhood residents. She also noted, conversely, the presence of factors (such as obstructions or stairwells) that obscure specific areas from sight.
Other physical factors affecting crime rates are the presence of locks or fences, communication facilities, lighting, and entrance/exit options. For instance, areas with limited entrance/exit options tend to discourage criminal activity and are also used to funnel people into relatively defined and visible areas; this type of floor plan makes it easier for residents to screen entrants and to distinguish residents and neighbors from intruders. Research has also found that positive front entrance features, such as porches and stoops, not only promote an easier view of public areas, but also encourage more human interaction and greater physical activity among elderly residents.
A related but controversial issue is the concept of "defensible space" in urban areas. This concept was put forward by Oscar Newman, a city planner and architect. Newman found that crime rates in New York were higher in high-rise, heavily-populated apartment complexes than they were in smaller units. He suggested that communal areas (such as hallways and entrances) in large buildings were used by so many people that no individuals or families felt they had a particular responsibility for them; this lack of "ownership" encouraged neglect, vandalism, and crime. In contrast, smaller complexes would promote a sense of territoriality and control. The safety of communal areas in and around such buildings would increase, and it would also encourage greater use of communal spaces and more interaction among the residents. Newman's views have been criticized for dependence on a "territorial instinct" and for legitimizing efforts to fence in and isolate public housing and low-income families. His views, however, continue to be influential in the design of urban public spaces.
The environmental sociology of macro-environments (such as cities, suburbs, and metropolitan regions) has been less susceptible to scientific analysis, because of the diversity of the environments themselves and the interconnections between them. Urban and metropolitan environments are associated on the one hand with higher crime rates, declines in family ties, and more privatized lifestyles. On the other hand, they are also linked to increased diversity and creativity. As a result, it is hard for environmental sociologists to analyze how physical environment contributes to such characteristics, compared with social, political, and cultural factors.
Health Impact: The urban physical environment may impact human health. Its effect on health issues, particularly obesity, has been the subject of several studies. Inner cities have high obesity rates. However, they also have dense populations, high levels of street connectivity, and sidewalks, all of which are thought to encourage walking. It has been suggested that safety-related issues, such as distressed housing, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots, discourage the physical activity of residents in inner city areas.
It has also been suggested that the nutritional environment in some urban areas contributes to obesity. A Portland, Oregon, study surveyed residents to ascertain their body-mass index, the number of visits to fast-food restaurants, fried food consumption, household income, consumption of fruits and vegetables, and race/ethnicity. Researchers found a significant association between the high number of fast-food restaurants, weekly visits to such restaurants, obesity, and low fruit/vegetable consumption. Suburban areas have not been exempt from criticism, either: It has been argued that the lack of sidewalks, the inability to walk to distant schools from residential areas, and the high use of automobiles has increased levels of childhood obesity. However, this theory has not been proven, possibly because of the availability of other physical activity options for children in these areas.
Air pollution is another concerning issue in the urban environment. Ongoing research shows that air pollution may negatively impact the health of both humans and animals. Air pollution has been known to cause eye irritation, respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and allergic reactions. Medical problems arising from air pollution may lead to increased healthcare expenditures and loss of productivity in the workplace.
Land Use: One issue under debate is urban sprawl, defined as the development of low-density, segregated-use, automobile-centric communities on the outskirts of urban and metropolitan centers. Defenders of such developments argue that they satisfy the mainstream values of many Americans: specifically, those citizens who desire relatively large, single-family homes with front and backyards and who prefer to drive to work, stores, school, and recreational areas. Opponents argue that such developments spur air pollution through increased auto use; these communities may also encourage traffic jams, sewage problems, wilderness and forest destruction, poor water quality, and storm water runoff problems, while requiring a wasteful and highly expensive infrastructure.
Environmental sociologists advocate "smart growth." This form of urban development features narrower roads and highways (to preserve land and reduce traffic flow), smaller plots of land, and the close proximity of stores, schools, entertainment, and recreational facilities. It also features sidewalks and bicycle lanes to provide alternate means of access, as well as mixed-use zoning to allow, for example, the building of apartments over storefronts.
Other land-use issues may involve value judgments as to the proper use of undeveloped land. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is known as the site of the most famous battle of the American Civil War; however, many battlefield sites in and around Gettysburg lie outside the boundaries of the Gettysburg National Park. These sites are now a subject of dispute among commercial developers and historians, preservationists, and some local residents. A similar struggle is underway at the Wilderness Civil War battlefield site in Virginia, provoked by Wal-Mart's plans to build a shopping center adjoining the site. Wal-Mart's development plans have also led to conflicts in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and other areas.
Disasters may be natural or technological. Natural disasters, such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, and earthquakes, are disasters caused by environmental factors. Technological disasters, on the other hand, are associated with man-made infrastructures. They may include mining accidents, nuclear or chemical plant explosions, and major train derailments. Well-known examples of technological disasters include the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Such catastrophes are usually accidental, but they may also be intentionally caused (for example) by terrorists.
In recent years, the study of societal responses to disasters has become a major focus of environmental sociologists. This research focuses attention on the issues of societal preparation for possible natural disasters and on how social institutions and groups cope with these disasters once they occur. Two events in particular have spurred interest in this type of research: Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of September 11th. These tragedies led the U.S. military and the Homeland Security Department to examine social responses to disasters.
Environmental sociologists have investigated how populations or specific social groups perceive the risk of natural or technological hazards. Researchers have found that hazards that occur infrequently, such as major earthquakes, do not raise the perception of risk sufficiently to motivate adjustments or preparatory measures. At the same time, they have found that in areas where disasters are more frequent (such as the flood plains of rivers, or coastal areas that are subject to hurricanes), a "disaster subculture" may develop: here, the risks are recognized but do not significantly affect the willingness of people to remain in the environment. Researchers have found that efforts to lessen the possible effects of disasters may promote social complacency. There may be an underestimation of the true effects of natural hazards when governmental programs (such as efforts to reduce the effects of flooding) have been put in place.
Research on the impact of large-scale flooding on government decision-making and citizen resilience has found a "natural disinclination" for citizens to evacuate; this lack of action may lead to otherwise-preventable drownings and injuries. Researchers have also found that efforts by government or international agencies after floods tends to focus almost entirely on short-term emergency relief measures; these actions continue, despite the increased and known incidence of long-term chronic diseases that occur after floods. The resulting effects of these illnesses may last for decades.
Studies have also shown that devoting resources to the protection of property at the expense of direct disaster relief is a misuse of assets: The perception of anti-social responses, such as looting, may be greatly exaggerated in the wake of disasters. In Bolivia, a study of risk perception, risk management, and vulnerability to landslides in the city of La Paz found that both government agencies and residents underestimated the risk of landslides; this belief led to unnecessary casualties.
Sociologists have also noted the varying social responses to natural versus technological disasters. In the case of natural disasters, the agent, such as fire, flood, or earthquake, is seldom in doubt; the extent and nature of the damage is clear, and there is little debate about the appropriate response. In the case of technological disasters, however, the cause may be a matter of controversy, the victims may be harder to identify (because the disasters' effects may last for years), and the assessments of damage and potential risk may vary widely. To complicate matters, local communities often lack the means to detect, assess, or adequately prepare for the possible negative consequences of technological projects.
Because technological disasters may involve powerful sociopolitical interests (including corporations, political leaders, and government institutions), the assignment of responsibility for a disaster may provoke major social and political conflicts. For example, thousands of people died in 1984 after toxic gas was released from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. The Indian government took 10 years to issue a report on the disaster.
A similar incident occurred in the United States with Love Canal. This neighborhood in Niagara Falls was built on a site in which some 21,000 tons of toxic chemical waste had been buried. By 1979, it was found that 56% of school-age children in the area had birth defects. Even 15 years after the discovery, however, the extent to which the toxic chemicals leached from the site and the best means of cleaning up the area remained matters of debate. Love Canal also demonstrated some of the differing social reactions that may occur after technological disasters.
The level of social anger is much higher after a technological disaster than it is after a natural disaster, because technological disasters are perceived as avoidable. Also, the degree of social organization provoked by such disasters is higher: Citizen-groups tend to form in response to the perceived failures of industry, government, or both to accept responsibility for the disaster and respond to it. Finally, the cohesiveness of the community itself may split because of differing perceptions about the cause of the disaster or the best way to cope with it. At Love Canal, three different citizens' groups formed; there were deep differences among those who perceived the threat and those who did not and among families who were affected to different extents by the disaster.
A related subject is the distribution of risk among different social populations, as defined by income, race, or national origin. In 1982, environmental activists and the mainly African-American residents of Warren County, North Carolina, joined forces to resist a planned dump of 21,000 tons of PCP-contaminated soil into a local landfill. Their efforts drew national attention and led to the creation of an Environmental Justice Movement. This group campaigned against perceived efforts to place potentially-hazardous or polluting facilities (such as landfills, incinerators, factories, and diesel bus depots) in primarily poor African-American and Latino communities.
Another social issue arising out of disasters is triage. Triage is the prioritizing of patients, (usually victims of battles or disasters) for treatment, to maximize the number of survivors.
Although various systems for prioritizing such patients have been proposed, there is a lack of national standards for disaster triage. Some physicians and public health specialists have argued that the ethical standards commonly accepted in normal healthcare (such as physician liability, informed patient consent, standards of care, and scope of individual medical practice) are impractical in dealing with pandemics or natural disasters. Other health specialists have rejected attempts to decide who should or should not be treated in disaster situations; they insist that such decisions should remain in the hands of the treating physician.
Environmental movement: Environmental sociologists have studied the sociology of the environmental movement itself; they note how the success of environmental activists has led other social interests (industrialists, extractive industries, logging companies, and libertarian and conservative activists) to promote a more conservative "Wise Use" movement. This movement defends economic initiatives, property rights, and local control against government interference that may have been provoked by radical environmentalists. They have suggested that the notion of "sustainable development" (development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), is in itself a social construct: Those needs may be defined very differently by different communities and/or interest groups in society. Sociologists also note the changing nature of environmentalism, from traditional conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, to the more issue-oriented groups that have emerged out of the environmental movement. Some examples of these newer groups include Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Justice Activists. These groups habitually criticize older environmental groups as being white, middle- to upper-class elites who ignore the environmental concerns of poor black, Latin, Native American, and mainly urban populations.
The understanding that the physical environment may play a critical role in the shaping of human culture and society is as old as recorded history. The Greek historian Herodotus, known as the "father of history," noted in the 5th Century B.C. that "Egypt is the gift of the Nile." His statement credited the annual flooding of the Nile River as the basis for the agricultural production that sustained ancient Egyptian civilization.
Some of the first efforts to explain the effects of physical environment on human society occurred during the period of the Enlightenment in 16th- and 17th-Century Western Europe. The French philosopher Jean Bodin believed that climatic differences contributed to discrepancies between societies; his insights were weakened, however, by general acceptance of the medieval theory of the role of "humours" (vital fluids) in defining the character of both individuals and societies.
The 18th-Century French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu called climate "the first and most powerful of all empires." He argued that cold climates compressed the fibers in human bodies, while warm climates expanded them, affecting the character of both individuals and societies. He also suggested that differences in soil quality could affect political institutions: He claimed that fertile soil encouraged the development of monarchies, while more barren soil encouraged the development of republics (because soil exploitation was associated with greater self-sufficiency and, consequently, independence).
Later in the 18th Century, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder argued that climatic and geographical differences were key elements in the formation of distinct human societies. He stated in his book, Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, "The structure of the earth, in its natural variety and diversity, renders all such distinguishing conditions inescapable." Herder emphasized the role of language and culture, as well as climate and geography, in shaping different human societies. He is seen by many people as a forerunner of modern linguistics and anthropology.
Nineteenth-Century British historian Henry Thomas Buckle attempted to define the inter-relationships between the physical environment and human society. Buckle was heavily influenced by French philosopher Auguste Compte's theory of positivism, which stated that all knowledge was based on "positive" facts, or observational evidence. Such objective studies of human behavior could be the basis for a science of human society. Buckle emphasized that scientific history was the history of societies and cultures, and that great men were reflections of their society far more than they were creators of it. Specifically, Buckle claimed that climate, soil, food, and the conditions of nature were the primary engines of intellectual progress. He argued that the essential difference between Western European culture and other cultures was that European societies had subdued nature, while other societies were still subject to nature.
Buckle's views were highly influential for a time. They fell out of favor, however, due to the inconsistent and uneven documentation of his claims and his over-reliance on defining basic historical principles by statistical averages. His insistence on the primary role of the physical environment in intellectual progress, to the detriment of other factors, was eventually judged as overly simplistic. Nevertheless, his assertion that European culture had subdued nature and his claim that the study of civilization should focus on societies, not individuals, has continued to influence sociological and historical discourse.
Discussions concerning the nature of civilization and social progress were fundamentally altered by the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species;
there were subsequent attempts to apply its discussion of the role of natural selection in the development of species to human societies and institutions. These efforts were based on the concept that competition is an integral part any relationship, including relationships among individuals, groups, and societies.
The most famous of these theories was the notion of "survival of the fittest." Philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined and popularized the term, used it to describe Darwin's concept of natural selection, after reading The Origin of Species. In the fifth edition, Darwin himself used the term, giving full credit to Spencer. In reality, the term "social Darwinism" was rarely used in the 19th Century; many of the concepts associated with it, including eugenics (the concept of "scientific" breeding to produce the "fittest" humans) either predated Darwin's work or had little to do with it. However, arguments that human nature and human progress were biologically rather than socially determined were widespread in the later part of the 19th Century.
Pioneering work in the development of sociology as a discipline took place in this context and was to some extent affected by it. The French scholar Emile Durkheim is generally credited as the father of modern sociology. In the late 19th Century, he founded the first sociology journal, L'Ann©e Sociologique, created the first department of sociology in Europe, and in 1895 established the basic principles of sociology in his book, Rules of the Sociological Method. Durkheim claimed that he had turned the principles of positivism into a scientific methodology similar to that used in the natural sciences. He did this primarily through the use of statistical data and analysis to study human social behavior. The keystone of his method was that social facts are phenomena not based on individual actions or the sum of individual actions; they can be explained only by other social facts, rather than by psychological or biological investigations. In his book, Rules of the Sociological Method, Durkheim dismissed the role of the physical environment in shaping human society, saying, "It is not the land that explains man, it is man that explains the land."
Durkheim's contemporary, German sociologist Max Weber, argued that any understanding of human behavior must take into account not only observable behavior, but also the participants' own conceptions of themselves and their actions. Analysis of large-scale social phenomena requires that the interpretation of data is based on "ideal types" of behavior that could then be compared to real behavior. Weber argued that complete scientific objectivity was impossible in sociology.
A third contributor to the formation of classic sociology, Karl Marx, also explained social behavior in the context of purely human activity. Marx did this through his theories on the labor theory of value, and on the relations of different classes to the means of production in different forms of human society. Marx (and his colleague Friedrich Engels) placed more emphasis than other 19th-Century sociology pioneers on the fact that human social activity takes place in the context of an objective, physical world. Some commentators have argued that both Marx and Engels went farther: that they were, to some degree, concerned about the social interactions between humanity and the physical environment. One famous statement in Marx's early writings pointed to the "humanization of nature and the naturalization of man." Other observers claim that Marx's statement has nothing to do with ecological concerns and that it actually refers to the goal of remaking nature to suit human needs, as well as freeing humanity from the constraints of the natural environment. Marx spoke approvingly of mastering nature through the use of science and technology. In later writings, however, he conceded that man could transform nature but could not conquer it.
In his own later work, Engels more clearly indicated the limits of humanity's ability to control the physical environment. He noted that every conquest of nature takes its own revenge. He cited as examples the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, and the Near East, whose campaigns of massive deforestation to gain more land for cultivation ultimately destroyed the land's fertility. Engels concluded by saying that real mastery of nature consists of knowing and correctly applying its laws. In these statements, he seems to have foreshadowed the concerns of present-day environmentalists and ecologists.
The development of environmental sociology as a distinct discipline within the broader field of sociology originated in the 1960s. In 1964, sociologists in the Rural Sociological Society formed a committee to study the sociological aspects of forest research. This field of study was later broadened to cover natural resource development in general. Many of the early advocates of environmental sociology were rural sociologists. It has been suggested that their interest in issues specific to rural areas (including natural resource management, leisure areas, land use management, and communities' dependence on resource extraction) encouraged their appreciation of the role of the physical environment in shaping rural societies.
Another major factor in the emergence of environmental sociology was the energy crisis of the early 1970s, which renewed interest in issues of resource scarcity and societal responses to scarcity. In 1972, the Society for the Study of Social Problems created its own Environmental Problems Division. The following year, the American Sociological Association (ASA) set up a committee to create guidelines for sociological contributions to environmental impact statements. This committee evolved to become the Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Sociology. The Section on Environmental Sociology was recognized in 1976 and was later renamed the ASA Section on Environment and Technology. This group still exists today.
The emergence of environmental sociology provoked discussion and controversy about the fundamental principles of sociological methodology. In particular, American sociologists William Catton, Jr. and Riley Dunlap argued that classical sociology had fallen into what they termed a "human exemptionalist paradigm." This model implicitly assumed that human society had freed itself from the constraints of the physical environment and was consequently ignoring the physical world. Catton and Dunlap believed that the roots of this fallacy lay in the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries, ushering in an era of technological and industrial progress and increasing urbanization. For the first time in history, human activity was competing with climatic changes and the forces of nature as the major shaping force in social behavior. The duo suggested a reorientation of sociology, from the human exemptionalist paradigm to a "New Ecological Paradigm." This newer model would observe, analyze, and explain social processes within the context of the biosphere, rather than simply as "social facts."
A second major theoretical construct in the formative years of environmental sociology was American sociologist Allan Schnaiberg's neo-Marxist analysis of what he called the "treadmill of production." Schnaiberg argued that modern industrial society is characterized by a drive to increase growth and profits, largely by increasing or creating demand for new products. This increased demand leads to degradation of the physical and social environment, both through "extraction" (resource depletion) and "addition" (pollution and waste). Schnaiberg believed the technological and scientific advances used to resolve the problems caused by such growth simply led to further problems in an ever-recurring cycle, or treadmill. The political system may attempt to address the consequences of the treadmill by socializing its environmental and social costs; examples include the subsidization of research, or the creation of tax-supported "Superfunds" to address the consequences of toxic waste. However, the political system itself is equally dependent on maintaining the growth cycle: It cannot resolve the contradictions built into the "social-environmental dialectic," as the growth cycle reaches or exceeds the physical capacity of society to sustain it. While Schnaiberg's theories have been influential, particularly in the international arena, they have been criticized as having an over-emphasis on issues of natural resource exploitation and scarcity, to the detriment of other issues.
In contrast, ecological modernization theory (which first emerged in Western Europe in the 1980s) focuses on the potential for the structural reform of modern technological societies. It incorporates ecological principles into the social processes of production and consumption. Some of the defining characteristics of ecological modernization theory include the following: Science and technology are of value in preventing or curing environmental problems rather than being viewed primarily as causes of these problems; market forces have a positive role to play in resolving environmental problems; and the role of traditional government intervention to resolve environmental problems is being overtaken by both non-governmental institutions and organizations and by local and supranational governing organizations. Ecological modernists point to several examples as evidence of the application of ecological modernism in practice. These examples include the development of energy-efficient refrigerators and light bulbs; local recycling rules on the micro-level; and the development of international protocols on issues such as limits on chlorofluorocarbons that threaten the ozone layer and pollution emission standards.
In the 1990s, the application of social constructionist theory to the concepts addressed by environmental sociology led to further controversy; there was concern about issues raised by Catton, Dunlap, Schnaiberg, and others, as well as the nature of environmental sociology itself. Social constructivism refers to the concept that all knowledge, including what is generally termed scientific knowledge, is not independent of cultural norms and values, but may, in fact, simply reproduce those values. With respect to environmental sociology, it was argued that concepts such as "global environmental change" represented a social ideology as much as a scientific concept. Advocates of such change were selective in their choice of facts in order to make the concept more attractive to social and political elites. Social constructivists such as Daniel Hannigen correctly predicted that certain social groups would make their own selection of facts to argue that the evidence of environmental activists was insufficiently certain to justify major policy changes; such activists were trying to enforce a premature closure of the scientific debate on climate change and its consequences. Some environmental sociologists responded that the social constructivist critique ignored the scientific basis for the new concepts they had introduced. They felt that it reinforced the human exemptionalist paradigm and was ultimately an attack on the legitimacy of environmental sociology.
The development of environmental sociology during the past 30 years has paralleled that of the environmental movement itself. The rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s aroused interest in the field among sociologists; it led to the establishment of environmental sociology as a recognized subspecialty within the sociology discipline. Declining interest in environmental issues among policymakers during the more conservative years of the Reagan administration led to a subsequent waning of interest in the topic among sociologists, as well: Fewer articles were devoted to the subject in academic sociological journals of the time, which may have contributed to the emergence of a social constructivist critique of environmental sociology. The revival of public interest in environmental problems during the Clinton administration, however, once again sparked a rising number of articles on the subject. Today, environmental sociology occupies a recognized, although minor, place in the field of sociology. Since 1969, only about 2% of articles published in sociological journals have been devoted to the subject; the percentage of articles published in the major journals is somewhat smaller.
Obesity: Environmental sociology suggests that the urban physical environment may impact human health, and its impact on obesity has been the subject of several studies.
Obesity may have serious long-term effects on health. Individuals who are overweight have an increased risk of developing many life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer. According to the American Heart Association, obesity was associated with nearly 112,000 deaths in 2005.
Inner cities have high obesity rates. However, they also have dense populations, high levels of street connectivity, and sidewalks, all of which are thought to encourage walking. It has been suggested that safety-related issues, such as distressed housing, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots, discourage physical activity in inner city areas. It has also been suggested that the nutritional environment in some urban areas contributes to obesity.
A Portland, Oregon study surveyed residents to ascertain their body-mass index, their number of visits to fast-food restaurants, residents' levels of fried food consumption, the amount of household income, residents' overall consumption of fruits and vegetables, and their race/ethnicity. There was a significant association between the high number of fast-food restaurants, weekly visits to such restaurants, obesity, and low fruit/vegetable consumption.
Research suggests that increased levels of childhood obesity may also occur in suburban areas, due to the lack of sidewalks, the relative distance of schools from residential areas, and the high amounts of automobile traffic. This theory has not been proven, however, possibly because of the availability of other physical activity options for suburban children.
Air pollution: Air pollution is a concerning health issue in the urban environment. Ongoing research shows that air pollution may negatively impact the health of both humans and animals. It has been known to cause eye irritation, respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and allergic reactions. The medical problems arising from air pollution may lead to increased healthcare expenditures and loss of productivity in the workplace.
Traffic accidents and fatalities: Traffic accidents and fatalities are also areas of study in environmental sociology. The Pedestrian Safety Guide and Countermeasure Selection System (PEDSAFE) states that in 2003, 86% of non-fatal pedestrian-related accidents in the United States occurred in urban populations, and 72% of pedestrian fatalities occurred in urban areas. In 2005, almost 5,000 U.S. pedestrians were killed by traffic. The risk to pedestrians may increase in urban-sprawl areas because of the lack of pedestrian-friendly areas, as well as the general lack of sidewalks in residential neighborhoods. According to PEDSAFE, peak times for pedestrian-related accidents are in the mornings and afternoons during rush hour; pedestrian fatalities are most prevalent between the hours of 5pm and 11pm. Understanding higher-risk areas and times is useful, because it is then possible to target pedestrian safety interventions for these high-risk populations.
Crime deterrence: In the urban environment, environmental sociology has highlighted how building design and street planning may affect the safety of residents and visitors. It is possible to prevent and deter crime through factors such as the careful placement of doorways and windows, the use of proper lighting, the utilization of communal spaces, the presence or absence of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, and through various entrance/exit options. Other physical factors affecting crime rates are the presence of locks, fences, and communication facilities. Areas with limited entrance/exit options tend to discourage criminal activity and also tend to funnel people into relatively defined and visible areas. This layout makes it easier for residents to screen entrants and to distinguish residents and neighbors from intruders. Windows and doorways may also allow residents to more-easily monitor the outside world. Obstructions or stairwells, however, may block such observations.
Disaster studies: Disaster studies have shed new light on how individuals and communities assess the risks of natural or technological disasters. These studies have also tracked how a person's perception of risk affects, or does not affect, social behavior. As a result of such research, environmental sociologists have outlined ways in which the social effects of disasters may be mitigated.
One way to mitigate the social effects of disasters is through "normativeness." Normativenes states that organizations respond better to disasters if their assigned, disaster-related responsibilities are similar to their normal activities. Other mitigating factors include the provision of preparedness training (including training in coordinating the actions of organizations responding to disasters); the pre-identification of resources necessary to cope with disasters, including drugs and other essential medical supplies; and the establishment of lines of authority and internal command structures.
Environmental impact: Urbanization may have negative effects on the environment, as well as on humans. Natural environments (such as woodlands, wetlands, and pastures) are lost when development takes place. Urbanization may lead to a reduction in water quality, an increased opportunity for wildfires, and forest fragmentation (the division of large forests into smaller parts). Animal and bird populations may be negatively affected by the loss of their habitats and food sources. When agricultural land is lost to development, less soil is available to grow crops. This loss of croplands may lead to dependence on distant soil resources and food production and to a greater reliance on high-yield crops.
Climate change is another topic of concern among environmental sociologists. Some environmental sociologists believe that the effects of climate change may be lessened or accelerated by social action, and that plans for development need to include risk assessment. These researchers feel that the key to a reduction in vulnerability may be the reduction of risk. However, the perception of risk is in itself a social act, subject to bias: The intervention of conflicting interest groups may ultimately be an exercise in political power, rather than scientific analysis. Environmental sociologists have widely varying opinions on the most appropriate types of actions to carry out. There are also disagreements about which social agencies are best suited to implement environmentally-related social policies.
The largest macro-environment is the planet itself. One of the effects of the global division of labor is that human social activity has worldwide consequences. These consequences may include the spread of radiation from nuclear accidents and accelerated global warming from the combined effects of industrial production and deforestation. This division of labor has led to the development of some transnational corporations that are not concerned with the possible environmental- and health-related consequences of their actions. These companies may export obsolete or potentially-dangerous technologies or products to, or use extractive industries (such as asbestos or copper mining) in, countries that are anxious for economic development. There is also the possibility of global epidemiological impacts, due to advances in the speed of international travel and worldwide population growth and urbanism. An example of such a global impact is the rapid spread of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus from Mexico around the world, over the span of a few days in Spring 2009.
FUTURE RESEARCH AND APPLICATIONS
Environmental sociology currently holds a somewhat contradictory place in the wider field of sociological studies. It has an accepted (if relatively minor) role in the field, as measured by the number of published articles devoted to environmental sociology in the academic literature. Historically, this role has fluctuated according to the importance given to the environmental concerns of society as a whole. Since these concerns are currently attracting increased attention, the role of environmental sociology within sociological studies overall may increase accordingly.
While the emergence of environmental sociology as a distinct subfield in sociological studies has been accompanied by lively theoretical debates, these debates have had little impact on the methodology of sociological analysis; this analysis remains dominated by the empirical, quantitative techniques of classical sociology. One reason for this approach is that the proper unit of analysis for researching and explaining environmental issues is unresolved: Ecosystems do not coincide with the political boundaries (primarily national) that define traditional units of sociological analysis. They are operative on a variety of levels, from local to global. Moreover, for at least some schools of environmental sociology, issues like global warming and climate change force a worldwide level of analysis that does not fit easily into the research models of classical sociology.
Available literature on environmental sociology has devoted little attention to the issue of sustainable energy. A glance at the Tables of Contents of some of the standard texts covering environmental sociology today shows that they lack chapters devoted specifically to energy issues. This omission likely reflects the waning of interest in the scarcity of fossil fuels after the end of the 1970s energy crisis. The lack of research may soon be corrected, however, given current concerns about energy resources.
Another topic of interest for future research is the health effects of hazardous waste materials. Despite major disasters involving toxic waste disposal (such as Love Canal), and reports of adverse effects (such as birth defects and higher cancer rates), comparatively little is known about the long-term effects of toxic landfills. Self-reported symptoms such as fatigue, sleeplessness, and headaches are consistently noted in epidemiological studies of residents living near these sites. It is unknown if these health issues are the result of toxicological effects, social stress relating to the landfills, or if they are due to reporting bias. Most surveys note a lack of direct-exposure studies, making it difficult to establish the ultimate health impact of landfills.
This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the National Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).
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