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Environmental sociology emerged in the 1970s, largely in response to widespread societal awareness of environmental problems and mobilization of support for environmental protection symbolized by celebration of the first ”Earth Day” in 1970. Early sociological research on environmental topics involved analyses of public opinion toward environmental issues; environmental activism at both the individual and organizational levels; governmental agencies responsible for natural resource management and environmental protection; and the roles of activists, media, scientists and public officials in generating attention to environmental problems. This research applied perspectives from established sociological fields such as social psychology, social movements, political sociology, and organizational sociology to environmental topics, constituting a ”sociology of environmental issues.”
The 1973-4 energy crisis highlighting the dependence of industrialized societies on fossil fuels, and increasing awareness of the seriousness of air and water pollution throughout the 1970s, ushered in a new strand of sociological research -examining how societies affect their environments and in turn are affected by changing environmental conditions such as pollution and resource scarcity. This concern with societal-environmental relationships reflected the emergence of a true ”environmental sociology,” and by the late 1970s it was a small but vigorous field. Its focus on the relationships between modern societies and their environments represented a major departure from disciplinary norms, however, putting environmental sociology on the margins of the larger discipline.
Sociology became a distinct discipline over a century ago by emphasizing the social – as opposed to biological, geographical and psychological -causes of human behavior. It developed during an era of general resource abundance, technological progress and economic growth. As a result, sociology became grounded in a cultural worldview which assumed that sophisticated social organization (e.g., complex division of labor) and scientific and technological advances had freed industrial societies from environmental influences such as resource constraints. This assumption reinforced negative reactions to earlier excesses of ”environmental determinism” such as geographers’ efforts to explain cultural differences via climatic variation. The result was that mid-twentieth-century sociology largely ignored the physical environment, and sociological references to ”the environment” typically meant the social context of the phenomenon being investigated.
Sociological analyses of the societal impacts of energy shortages and possibility of ecological ”limits to growth” constituted a significant disciplinary development in the 1970s. This work was quickly supplemented by research on the social impacts of toxic contamination and other forms of pollution, as well as examinations of the societal factors generating environmental degradation. By the 1980s a growing number of environmental sociologists were ignoring disciplinary norms by analyzing the societal causes and impacts of environmental problems.
The evolution of this work since the 1980s has turned environmental sociology into an intellectually vibrant field. It has achieved legitimacy in the larger discipline and credibility in academia and society at large due to realization that environmental problems are ”social problems.” They are caused by human behavior, have harmful impacts on humans (and other species) and their solution requires collective action. Moreover, environmental conditions do not become ”problems” until they are defined and recognized as such. These aspects of environmental problems led to four major emphases in contemporary environmental sociology: analyses of (1) the ”social construction” of environmental problems, (2) the causes of such problems, (3) the potential and actual impacts of the problems, and (4) societal efforts to solve the problems.
Noting that phenomena such as industrial wastes may be ignored in one era and/or locale but viewed as ”pollution” later on or in other locations, environmental sociologists analyze how environmental conditions come to be viewed as ”problematic.” Researchers examine the roles of activists, government officials, scientists and the media in defining conditions as problematic; the techniques employed to legitimize the claims; and the challenges faced in gaining widespread acceptance of the claims. These analyses demonstrate that environmental problems do not simply emerge from ”objective” conditions, but must be socially constructed as problematic by key actors and then become widely accepted as such.
Once environmental problems are recognized, their sources can be studied. Since environmental problems are frequently created by human behavior, environmental sociologists analyze the social forces generating such problems – from local toxic contamination to tropical deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Some studies investigate the roles of particular industries or government agencies in creating the problems, while others employ cross-national data to sort out the relative impacts of population, affluence and other national characteristics on indicators of environmental degradation such as CO2 emissions or deforestation. Current cross-national research examines the relative importance of population size and growth, national affluence, consumption levels and economic factors such as trade patterns in generating environmental degradation.
Environmental problems are typically viewed as problematic because they pose threats to humans, and many environmental sociologists investigate the wide-ranging social impacts of these problems. The discovery of toxic wastes at Love Canal in the late 1970s stimulated numerous studies of ”contaminated communities,” and interest in the social impacts of a range of environmentally undesirable conditions from leaking landfills to air pollution. A common finding is that racial minorities and lower socioeconomic strata are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, and ”environmental justice” research has become a major theme in environmental sociology. Recent analyses of how wealthy nations use poorer nations as resource providers and pollution dumps demonstrate environmental injustice at the global level.
Lastly, environmental sociologists examine efforts to solve or prevent environmental problems, often by evaluating existing and potential environmental policies. They demonstrate how environmentally relevant behaviors are embedded in structural conditions, and that promoting pro-environmental behavior therefore requires more than appealing for voluntary changes in lifestyle. Developing effective mass transit systems and providing community-wide collection of recyclables, for example, are more effective than simply asking people to drive less and recycle more. Likewise, promoting energy-efficient building standards is more efficacious than appealing for household conservation. At the macro level, environmental sociologists examine characteristics of industries and nation-states associated with environmental performance in order to determine the potential for improvements, as well as the roles of governments, corporations, and non-governmental organizations in promoting such improvements.
- Dietz, T. & Stern, P. C. (eds.) (2002) New Tools for Environmental Policy. National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
- Dunlap, R. E. & Marshall, B. M. (2007) Environmental sociology. In: Bryant, C. D. & Peck, D. L. (eds.), 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Volume. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 329-W.
- Hannigan, J. (2006) Environmental Sociology: A Social Constructivist Perspective, 2nd Routledge, New York.
- Harper, C. L. (2008) Environment and Society, 4th edn. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
- Pellow, D. N. & Brulle, R. J. (2005) Power, Justice, and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal ofthe Environ-mental Justice Movement. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.