Human Relationship to the Environment
In the natural sciences, the term ecology refers to the study of the relationship of organisms to one another and their environment. It is the study of ecosystems. In the early 20th century, sociologists adopted the term human ecology to apply to the relationship of humans with one another and their environment. Sociologists define the environment as the surroundings in which a person lives or operates. It includes people's natural, social, and built environments.
The environment may seem like a topic more suited to natural or physical scientists than to social scientists, specifically sociologists. But environment has an enormous impact on people. In turn, people have an enormous impact on their environment. People create their own social systems, which include families, communities, cultures, and societies. They create institutions and organizations within their societies. Human ecology looks at human social systems in connection with environmental ecosystems, within the time in which they live.
One concept used in human ecology is carrying capacity, or the number of people, other living organisms, or crops a region can support without environmental degradation. Originally, the idea of carrying capacity was used to determine the number of animals that could be placed in an area without damaging the land with overgrazing. Later, the idea of carrying capacity expanded to describe the number of people who can live in an area, based on the resources available. Those resources include food, water, clean air, housing, sanitation, and other materials and substances necessary for life. Carrying capacity can refer to a specific region or to Earth as a whole.
A pressing modern issue is climate change, also known as global warming. Climate change is the long-term change in temperature and climate patterns because of human activity. Scientists have documented warming global temperatures and increased extreme weather, with 97 percent of the world's climatologists and environmental scientists in agreement that humans have had an adverse effect on the environment. Climate change is specifically caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the environment. It is a direct example of human impact on the environment, and many people and governments are working to manage climate change. Others, primarily companies that engage in the production that causes greenhouse gas emissions and the politicians who agree with them, believe regulating emissions is too costly.
Sociological Study of Environmental Issues
Since early humans began farming over 10,000 years ago, people have been changing the environment, including populations of plants and animals and the landscape. But modern industry has given those changes significantly greater impact. Humans and human consumption are depleting natural resources and polluting the environment at higher rates than ever before. Sociology looks at environmental issues in terms of social behavior and social structure.
For example, pollution is a significant issue. Air pollution, which is chiefly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, causes a range of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and asthma. In some places, including many cities in China, the air is so toxic that people often need to wear air pollution masks. Many people worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water. Polluted water, created by sewage, industrial waste, and chemicals, causes diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid. Lead in drinking water is especially dangerous to children and can lead to disabilities and impaired growth. Sociologists study both the social causes and the social impacts of pollution. For example, a 2017 study found that poor air quality has an impact on mental health. Air quality and other environmental characteristics are social determinants of health (factors that shape health and illness). Sociologists also consider how potential solutions to pollution might be related to economic, social, and political structures.
Minority communities bear the brunt of pollution, waste, and toxic materials. This is referred to as environmental racism, practices that impact economically and socially disadvantaged communities, burdening them with a disproportionate share of environmental hazards. For example, almost all the landfills in Houston, Texas, are located next to predominantly African American communities. A major oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, runs through Native American land. Leaks threaten to contaminate the water in those areas. In Flint, Michigan, a city whose population is 54 percent African American, the water supply was contaminated by lead in 2014. In 2018, despite ongoing concerns about the safety of the water, the governor of Michigan ended a program that supplied free bottled water to residents of Flint.
Damage to the environment has led to a push for sustainable development, or economic development that meets people's needs but does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Advocates of sustainable development recognize the benefits of economic development. They note that economic growth, technology, industrialization, and other factors that impact the environment also serve to improve people's lives, particularly the lives of those living in poverty. Therefore, limiting development is not a viable solution to environmental issues. Sustainable development considers the potential impacts of human activity in order to prevent catastrophic outcomes that totally deplete or damage natural resources to the extent that future generations cannot maintain a comfortable standard of living. A primary goal of sustainable development is to limit activity that would to prevent people in the future from producing food, medicines, tools, and other goods that meet their needs. Similarly, it considers how to preserve air, soil, and water quality that can support the health and well-being of future societies. Sustainable development encourages the use of recycled or renewable resources (natural resources, such as wind or solar energy, that can be replenished naturally over time), maintains biodiversity, and protects clean air, water, and land. Challenges to sustainable development include political and cultural pressures and traditions. Major corporations that make huge profits while impacting the environment resist calls to change their practices. Societies and social groups that can afford high rates of consumption and do not directly feel the impacts of overuse of resources have little incentive to make major changes to lifestyles that are comfortable and convenient. This leads some theorists to predict that such changes will not occur until they are forced on societies by natural and economic disasters. Other theorists note growing acceptance of the idea of sustainable development. They predict major changes in the ways societies use and allocate resources as people adapt to a changing world.