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Introduction to Sociology

Social Sciences

The Environment and Society

Tác giả: OpenStaxCollege

The subfield of environmental sociology studies how humans interact with their environments. This field is closely related to human ecology, which focuses on the relationship between people and their built and natural environment. This is an area that is garnering more attention as extreme weather patterns and policy battles over climate change dominate the news. A key factor of environmental sociology is the concept of carrying capacity, which refers to the maximum amount of life that can be sustained within a given area. While this concept can refer to grazing lands or to rivers, it also can be applied to the earth as a whole.

Too little land for grazing means starving cattle. (Photo courtesy of newbeatphoto/flickr)


Pollution describes when contaminants are introduced into an environment (water, air, land) at levels that are damaging. Directly related to carrying capacity, environments can often sustain a limited amount of contaminants without marked change, and water, air, and soil can “heal” themselves to a certain degree. However, once contaminant levels reach a certain point, the results can be catastrophic.


Look at your watch. Wait 15 seconds. Then another 15. In that time, two children have died from lack of access to clean drinking water. Access to safe water is one of the most basic human needs, and it is woefully out of reach for millions of people on the planet. Many of the major diseases that peripheral countries battle, such as diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid, are caused by contaminated water. Often, young children are unable to go to school because they must instead walk several hours a day just to collect potable water for their family. The situation is only getting more dire as the global population increases. Water is a key resource battleground in the 21st century.

As every child learns in school, 70 percent of Earth is made of water. Despite that figure, there is a finite amount of water usable by humans and it is constantly used and reused in a sustainable water cycle. The way that humans use this abundant natural resource, however, renders much of it unsuitable for consumption and unable to sustain life. For instance, it takes two and a half liters of water to produce a single liter of Coca-Cola. The company and its bottlers use close to 300 billion liters of water a year, often in locales that are short of useable water (Blanchard 2007).

As a consequence of population concentrations, water close to human settlements is frequently polluted with untreated or partially treated human waste (sewage), chemicals, radioactivity, and levels of heat sufficient to create large “dead zones” incapable of supporting aquatic life. The methods of food production used by many core nations rely on liberal doses of nitrogen and pesticides, which end up back in the water supply. In some cases, water pollution affects the quality of the aquatic life consumed by water and land animals. As we move along the food chain, the pollutants travel from prey to predator. Since humans consume at all levels of the food chain, we ultimately consume the carcinogens, such as mercury, accumulated through several branches of the food web.


Some of you might have read The Grapes of Wrath in English class years ago. Steinbeck’s tale of the Joads, driven out of their home by the Dust Bowl, is still playing out today. In China, as in Depression-era Oklahoma, over-tilling soil in an attempt to expand agriculture has resulted in the disappearance of large patches of topsoil.

Soil erosion and desertification are just two of the many forms of soil pollution. In addition, all of the chemicals and pollutants that harm our water supplies can also leach into soil with similar effects. Brown zones where nothing can grow are common results of soil pollution. One demand of the population boom on the planet is an attendant requirement for more food to be produced. The so-called “Green Revolution” in the 1960s saw chemists and world aid organizations working together to bring modern farming methods, complete with pesticides, to developing countries. The immediate result was positive: food yields went up and burgeoning populations were fed. But as time has gone on, these areas have fallen into even more difficult straits as the damage done by modern methods leave traditional farmers with less than they had to start.

Dredging certain beaches in an attempt to maintain valuable beachfront property from coastal erosion has resulted in greater storm impact on shorelines, and damage to beach ecosystems (Turneffe Atoll Trust 2008). The results of these dredging projects have damaged reefs, sea grass beds, and shorelines, and can kill off large swaths of marine life. Ultimately, this damage threatens local fisheries, tourism, and other parts of the local economy.


Where should garbage go when you’ve run out of room? This is a question that is increasingly pressing the planet. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Krejci/flickr)

Where is your last cell phone? What about the one before that? Or the huge old television set your family had before flat screens became popular? For most of us, the answer is a sheepish shrug. We don’t pay attention to the demise of old items, and since electronics drop in price and increase in innovation at an incredible clip, we have been trained by their manufacturers to upgrade frequently.

Garbage creation and control are major issues for most core and industrializing nations, quickly becoming one of the most critical environmental issues faced in America. Americans buy products, use them, and then throw them away. When you got rid of those old electronics, where did they go? Did you dispose of them according to government safety guidelines? Chances are good you didn’t even know there are guidelines. Multiply your electronics times a few million, take into account the numerous toxic chemicals they contain, and then imagine either burying those chemicals in the ground, or lighting them on fire.

There are two primary means of waste disposal in the U.S.: landfill and incineration. When it comes to dangerous toxins, neither is a good choice. In the case of more innocuous trash, the synthetic Styrofoam and plastics that many of us use every day do not dissolve in a natural way. Burn them, and they release carcinogens into the air. Their improper (intentional or not) incineration adds to air pollution and increases smog. Dump them in landfills, and they do not decompose. As landfill sites fill up, we risk an increase in groundwater contamination.


China’s fast-growing economy and burgeoning industry have translated into notoriously poor air quality. Smog hangs heavily over the major cities, sometimes grounding aircraft that cannot navigate through it. Pedestrians and cyclists wear masks to protect themselves. In Beijing, citizens are skeptical that the government-issued daily pollution ratings are trustworthy. Increasingly, they are taking their own pollution measurements in the hopes that accurate information will galvanize others to action. Given that some days they can barely see down the street, they hope that action comes soon (Papenfuss 2011).

Humanity, with its growing population, use of fossil fuels, and increasingly urbanized society, is putting too much stress on the earth’s atmosphere. The amount of air pollution varies from locale to locale, and you may be more personally affected than you realize. How often do you check air quality reports before leaving your house? Depending on where you live, this question can sound utterly strange or like an everyday matter. Along with oxygen, most of the time we are also breathing in soot, hydrocarbons, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur oxides. As discussed above, in some parts of the world, it is a necessity for people to check air quality levels, and it is not uncommon to wear air filters on particularly bad days.

Much of the pollution in the air comes from human activity. How many college students move their cars across campus at least once a day? Who checks the environmental report card on how many pollutants each company throws into the air before purchasing a cell phone? Many of us are guilty of taking our environment for granted without concern for how everyday decisions add up to a long-term global problem. How many minor adjustments can you think of, like walking instead of driving, that would reduce your overall carbon footprint?

Remember the example of the “tragedy of the commons.” Each of us is affected by air pollution. But like the herder who adds one more head of cattle to realize the benefits of owning more cows, but who does not have to pay the price of the overgrazed land, we take the benefit of driving or buying the latest cell phones without worrying about the end result. Air pollution accumulates in the body, much like the effects of smoking cigarettes accumulate over time, leading to more chronic illnesses. And in addition to directly affecting human health, air pollution affects crop quality as well as heating and cooling costs. In other words, we all pay a lot more than the price at the pump when we fill up our tank with gas.

Toxic and Radioactive Waste

Radioactivity is a form of air pollution. While nuclear energy promises a safe and abundant power source, increasingly it is looked upon as a danger to the environment and to those who inhabit it. We accumulate nuclear waste, which we must then keep track of long term and ultimately figure out how to store the toxic waste material without damaging the environment or putting future generations at risk.

The recent earthquake in Japan illustrates the dangers of even safe, government-monitored nuclear energy. When disaster occurs, how can we safely evacuate the large numbers of affected people? Indeed, how can we even be sure how far the evacuation radius should extend? Radiation can also enter the food chain, causing damage from the bottom (phytoplankton and microscopic soil organisms) all the way to the top. Once again, the price paid for cheap power is much greater than what is seen on the electric bill.

An aerial view of the Gulf Coast, taken in May of 2010, illustrates the damage done by the BP Deep Water Horizon spill. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Warren/flickr)

The enormous oil disaster that hit the Louisiana Gulf Coast is just one of a frighteningly high number of environmental crises that have led to toxic residue. From the Love Canal neighborhood of the 1970s to the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash of 1989, from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant incident in 2011—the list goes on. Often, the stories are not newsmakers, but simply an unpleasant part of life for the people who live near toxic sites such as in the stories of Centralia, Pennsylvania and Hinkley, California. In many cases, people in these neighborhoods can be part of a cancer cluster without realizing the cause.

Oil on the gulf shore beaches caused great destruction, killing marine and land animals and crippling local business. (Photo courtesy of AV8ter/flickr)

Climate Change

World systems analysis suggests that core nations (like the U.S. and Western Europe) were historically the greatest source of greenhouse gases, but have now evolved into postindustrial societies. Now that semi-peripheral and peripheral nations are industrializing, the core nations wish to enact strict protocols regarding the causes of global warming (since their economies are no longer so dependent on greenhouse-gas-causing industries). However, the semi-peripheral and peripheral nations rightly point out that they only want the same economic chance to evolve their economies, and since they were unduly affected by the progress of core nations, if the core nations now insist on “green” policies, they should pay offsets or subsidies of some kind. There are no easy answers to this conflict. It may well not be “fair” that the core nations benefited from ignorance during their industrial boom. But with China leading the way as a top greenhouse gas emitter, it matters less to the planet whether they get their fair shake at polluting. The international community continues to work toward a way to manage climate change. The Durban Talks that concluded in December 2011 point to a willingness by both core countries and peripheral nations to move toward a legally binding instrument for all countries (World Resource Institute 2011).

Climate change, which used to be called global warming, is a deeply controversial subject, despite decades of scientific research that demonstrates its existence. Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures due to human activity and, in particular, the release of greenhouse gases into the environment. While the planet as a whole is warming––hence the term global warming––the term climate change is now used because the short-term variations can include higher or lower temperatures, despite the overarching trend toward warmth. Another effect is more extreme weather. There are increasingly more record-breaking weather phenomena, from the number of Category 4 hurricanes to the amount of snowfall in a given winter. These extremes, while they make for dramatic television coverage, can cause immeasurable damage to crops, property, and even lives.

So why is climate change a controversy? The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) recognizes its existence. So do the close to 200 countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, a document intended to engage countries in voluntary actions to limit the activity that leads to climate change. (The United States was not one of the 200 nations committed to this initiative to reduce environmental damage, and the refusal to sign continues to be a source of contention.) So what’s the argument about? Well, for the companies making billions of dollars in the production of goods and services, climate change is a dirty concept indeed. The idea of costly regulations that would require expensive operational upgrades has been a source of great anxiety to much of the business community, and as a rebuttal they argue, via lobbyists, that such regulations would be disastrous for the economy. Some go so far as to question the science used as evidence. There is a lot of finger-pointing among countries, especially when the issue arises of who “gets” to pollute.

Environmental Racism

Environmental racism refers to the way in which minority group neighborhoods (populated primarily by people of color and members of low socioeconomic groups) are burdened with a disproportionate number of hazards, including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odors that lower the quality of life. All around the globe, members of minority groups bear a greater burden of the health problems resulting from higher exposure to waste and pollution. This can occur due to unsafe or unhealthy work conditions where no regulations exist (or are enforced) for poor workers, or in neighborhoods that are uncomfortably close to toxic materials.

The statistics on environmental racism are shocking. When studying the impact on African Americans, research shows that it pervades all aspects of their lives: environmentally unsound housing, schools with asbestos problems, facilities and playgrounds with lead paint. A 20-year comparative study led by sociologist Robert Bullard determined “race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities” (Bullard et al. 2007). His research found, for example, that African American children are five times more likely to have lead poisoning (the leading environmental health threat for children) than their Caucasian counterparts, and that a disproportionate number of people of color reside in areas with hazardous waste facilities (Bullard et al. 2007). Sociologists involved with the project are examining how environmental racism is addressed in the long-term cleanup of the environmental disasters caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Why does environmental racism exist? The reason is simple. Those with resources can raise awareness, money, and public attention to ensure that their communities are unsullied. This has led to an inequitable distribution of environmental burdens. Another method of keeping this inequity alive is NIMBY protests. NIMBY, or Not in My Back Yard, is the name for a movement of engaged citizens who are mostly protesting something objectionable that will happen to them, rather than its existence at all. Chemical plants, airports, landfills, and other municipal or corporate projects are often the subject of NIMBY demonstrations. And equally often, the NIMBYists win, and the objectionable project is moved closer to those who have fewer resources to fight it.


The area of environmental sociology is growing as extreme weather patterns and concerns over climate change increase. Human activity leads to pollution of soil, water, and air, compromising the health of the entire food chain. While everyone is at risk, poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods and nations bear a greater burden of the planet’s pollution, a dynamic known as environmental racism.

Section Quiz

The “tragedy of the commons” is a reference to what?

  1. Global warming
  2. African landowners
  3. The common grazing lands in Oxford
  4. The misuse of private space

What are ways that human activity impacts the water supply?

  1. Creating sewage
  2. Spreading chemicals
  3. Increasing radioactivity
  4. All of the above

Which is an example of environmental racism?

  1. The fact that a disproportionate percentage of people of color live in environmentally hazardous areas
  2. Greenpeace protests
  3. The prevalence of asbestos in formerly “whites only” schools
  4. Prejudice similar to racism against people with different environmental views than one’s own

What is not a negative outcome of shoreline dredging?

  1. Damaged coral reefs
  2. Death of marine life
  3. Ruined sea grass beds
  4. Reduction of human population

What are the two primary methods of waste disposal?

  1. Landfill and incineration
  2. Incineration and compost
  3. Decomposition and incineration
  4. Marine dumping and landfills

Where does a large percentage of e-waste wind up?

  1. Incinerators
  2. Recycled in peripheral nations
  3. Repurposed into new electronics
  4. Dumped into ocean repositories

What types of municipal projects often result in environmental racism?

  1. Toxic dumps or other objectionable projects
  2. The location of schools, libraries, and other cultural institutions
  3. Hospitals and other health and safety sites
  4. Public transportation options

Short Answer

What celebrities come to mind when you think about environmental causes? Do you believe they are knowledgeable about their causes? What would lead you to believe or disbelieve a celebrity spokesperson?

How do you think the issue of e-waste should be dealt with? Should the responsibility fall to the companies that make the products or the consumer who buys them? Would your buying habits be different if you had to pay to recycle old electronics?

Can you think of a modern example of the tragedy of the commons, where public use without accountability has created a negative outcome?

NIMBY protests occur when concerned citizens band together to speak up against something that will impact them negatively. Is this a positive or negative trend? Give an example of a NIMBY protest and whether you support it or not.

Further Research

Visit the Cleanups in My Community website: to see where environmental hazards have been identified in your backyard, and what is being done about them.

What is your carbon footprint? Find out using the carbon footprint calculator at

Find out more about greening the electronics process by looking at Greenpeace’s guide:


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Blanchard, Ben. 2007. “Coke Vows to Reduce Water Used in Drink Production.” Reuters, June 5. Retrieved December 14, 2011 (

Bullard, Robert D., Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright. 2007. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007. United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. Retrieved January 22, 2012 (

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Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162(3859):1243–1248. Retrieved December 10, 2011 (

Kamps, Kevin. 2001. “Environmental Racism, Tribal Sovereignty and Nuclear Waste.” Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Retrieved January 22, 2012 (

Ogunseitanl, Oladele, Julie M. Stoning, Jean-Daniel M. Sapphires, and Andrew A. Shapiro. 2009. “The Electronics Revolution: From E-Wonderland to E-Wasteland.” Science 326(5953):670–671. Retrieved December 14, 2011 (

Papenfuss, Mary. 2011. “Cynical Chinese Taking Own Smog Readings.” Newser, December 8. Retrieved January 23, 2012 (

Turneffe Atoll Trust. 2008. “Improper Development: Recommendations of the Turneffe Atoll Coastal Advisory Committee.” Retrieved December 14, 2011 (

World Resources Institute. 2011. “Statement: A Climate Change Agreement in Durban.” December 11. Retrieved December 13, 2011 (

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