Human beings are only one part of a complex environment. The term “environment” refers to the conditions and circumstances surrounding and affecting a particular group of living creatures. Although environmental problems can be caused by nonhuman intervention such as severe weather, the most severe environmental damage has been the product of human activities. The magnitude of environmental problems has become so great that the survival of the human species, as well as other species, is in question. This makes environmental concerns a social problem. This unit will explore the consequences of human activity on the environment.
The sheer number of people on the planet today is a key factor in environmental degradation. To understand the effect of population growth, a few definitions are necessary. Population refers to the total number of people inhabiting a particular geographic area at a specified time. Three basic elements affect the size, composition, and distribution of human populations: fertility, mortality, and migration.
Fertility. Fertility refers to the actual number of children born. The simplest measure of fertility is the birthrate. The birthrate is the number of live births occurring in a particular population during a given year for each one thousand people in that population.
Mortality. Mortality refers to the number of deaths that occur in a particular population. The death rate is the number of deaths for every one thousand people. The death rate doesn’t take into account that people of some ages, such as the very young, are more likely to die. The infant mortality rate is the rate of death among infants under one year of age. Infants have experienced the greatest decline in death rates for all age groups. Another way to describe mortality is with the term life expectancy. Life expectancy refers to the number of years, on average, that people can expect to live. Americans have experienced an increase in life expectancy over the past century. The life expectancy of women has increased more than that of men. When the results of the birthrate and death rate are combined, the difference taken between the two figures is referred to as the rate of natural increase. For example, in 2010, the birthrate was 14.3 and the death rate was 8.2, yielding a rate of natural increase of 0.57 percent.
Migration. Migration refers to a permanent change of residence. In some cases there is an attraction that leads people to migrate to a particular place. For example, in the Southwest portion of the United States, the “attraction” to many Latin American migrants is the prospect of a better paying job and a higher lifestyle. Migration is not a critical element of overall population growth, since all that is happening is that people are moving from country “x” to country “y”. Although migration may have an impact on specific regions, fertility and mortality rates are more important factors in assessing overall population growth.
Recent World Population Growth
For most of human history, people were sparsely populated around the planet. Several thousand years ago, there were fewer people on earth than now inhabit a large city like New York or Tokyo. The explosion in human population can be best understood if we look at how long of time it takes the human population to double. From the beginning of the Christian era, it took 1,650 years for the world population to double. The world’s current growth rate is about 1.3%, representing a doubling time of 54 years. We can expect the world’s population of approximately 6 billion to become 12 billion by 2054 if the current rate of growth continues. The world’s growth rate peaked in the 1960s at 2% and a doubling time of 35 years. Growth rates vary from country to country. Modern countries that have entered the post industrial stage of development are characterized by low birthrates and low death rates. In the less industrial developed countries, have seen their death rates decline substantially. But cultural factors such as the desire for a large family, have not changed as quickly. Birth rates are still high in developing countries. This has meant that most of the world’s population growth has occurred in the world’s poorer and less developed nations.
The study of human population growth has been ongoing for the last two centuries. The British economist Thomas Malthus was the first to articulate how human population growth could become a social problem. Thomas Malthus argued that because of the natural human urge to reproduce human population increases geometrically (1, 2, 4, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, etc.). However, food supply, at most, can only increase arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc.). Therefore, since food is an essential component to human life, population growth in any area or on the planet, if unchecked, would lead to starvation. Malthus has his critics. He is accused by many to have failed to comprehend man’s ability to use science and technology to increase food supply to meet the needs of an increasing population.
Cities have existed for thousands of years and can be traced back to the river valley civilizations of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), Egypt, India, and China. At first, these settlements depended largely on agriculture and domestic cattle, but as they grew in size they became centers for merchants and traders.
Urban growth, also known as urbanization, accelerated dramatically with the advent of industrialization some 200 years ago. At that time, large numbers of people moved to cities in search of jobs, mostly in factories. But the most rapid growth has taken place over the past 50 years. While less than one-third of the world’s population lived in cities in 1950, about two thirds of humanity is expected to live in urban areas by 2030. Most of that urbanization is taking place in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Cities make a lot of sense for humans. People are concentrated in a small space rather than being spread out over a large territory. This allows the government and others to provide more service such as water, electricity, and transportation to a larger number of people. Schools and shops are more easily accessible than in rural areas.
Cities have always been at the center of economic growth and technological advances. The promise of jobs and prosperity pulls people to cities. But their rapid growth has also brought with it many negative things: violence, poverty, overcrowding, health problems, and pollution. Many cities in developing countries in particular are growing too rapidly for their own good, with many residents unable to find jobs and forced to live in slums.1
The Social Problems Associated With Population Growth
One consequence of population growth is crowding. Studies of animals have shown that extreme crowding can have adverse consequences, including increases in aggression and erratic behavior.
A second consequence to over population is food shortages. Food shortages will be most severe in developing countries which have rapid population growth but where agricultural production cannot keep up with an increasing population. Millions of people die each year from starvation and malnutrition.
Another problem from over population is the depletion of resources. There is debate on how serious a problem this is. There are some who predict that many resources, especially fossil fuels, will run out by the end of this century. Others predict new technologies will allow for new discoveries of resources.
All of the problems mentioned in the previous paragraphs could lead to the additional problem: intergroup conflict. Competition for scarce resources will increase conflict between groups. This might lead to one of Malthus’s checks on population growth: war.
The term ecosystem (a contraction of ecological system) is generally understood as to the entire assemblage of organisms (plant, animal and other living beings) living together in a certain space with their environment, functioning as a loose unit. Together, these components and their interactions with and relationships to each other form a dynamic and complex new whole, functioning as an “ecological unit”, with additional characteristics that can’t be found in the individual components. The concept of an ecosystem has led to the realization by many people that the environment is interconnected and that human activity can negatively impact an ecosystem. This realization has led to the modern environmental movement which has sought to educate the public on how human activity is producing an ecological disaster.
Types of Environmental Pollution
The following are a brief description of some of the types of pollution found in our highly industrialized society that is stressing our fragile ecosystem and threatening life on the planet.
Chemical Pollution. Over 75,000 different chemicals have been released into the environment. Many of these chemicals have not had studies done to determine long term effects. These chemicals are found in everything humans create, from food to clothing to fertilizers to plastics to insulation. People are exposed to these chemicals when they use the product or when the chemicals used in the product leech into the groundwater, are carried into the air, or find their way into the food we eat. Some chemicals like mercury and lead harm children’s brains and may be the cause of the increase in developmental disabilities such as autism and attention deficit disorder. For humans, exposure to chemicals may cause cancer, sterility, and problems to the respiratory and nervous systems. For the environment at large, chemical pollution contributes to algae blooms, acidic water, and the destruction of coral reefs.
Solid Waste Pollution. Solid waste pollution refers to all of the waste (garbage) produced by human activities. The United States is the largest producer of solid waste in the world. The problem of what to do with solid waste is compounded by the contaminates that the waste contains. One health hazard is toxic sludge, a mix of human and industrial waste produced by wastewater treatment plants. This toxic sludge is then spread on farmland, golf courses and other areas where humans interact. All landfills leak toxic residues into the groundwater. Many communities have contaminate drinking water and crops as a result.
Water pollution. The hydrologic cycle refers to the process by which water is purified by draining underground or through evaporation into the atmosphere. This natural cycle makes water able to be reused. However, various types of human pollution has interfered with this process and made water unusable. The pollution has become so severe that the hydrologic cycle cannot cleanse the water. This means governments regularly issue warnings against drinking water, swimming in it, or eating fish caught from polluted rivers and lakes.
Air Pollution. Generally any substance that people introduce into the atmosphere that has damaging effects on living things and the environment is considered air pollution.
Carbon dioxide is the main pollutant. Though living things emit carbon dioxide when they breathe, carbon dioxide is widely considered to be a pollutant when associated with cars, planes, power plants, and other human activities that involve the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline and natural gas. In the past 150 years, such activities have pumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise its levels higher than they have been for hundreds of thousands of years.
Other pollutants include methane—which comes from such sources as swamps and gas emitted by livestock—and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used in refrigerants and aerosol propellants until they were banned because of their deteriorating effect on Earth’s ozone layer. According to a National Defense Resource Council report, each year in the United States alone, pollution from coal power plants is responsible for more than 13,000 premature deaths and 20,000 heart attacks, and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks. The total cost of these health impacts (“monetized value of adverse health impacts”) is more than $100 billion per year.
Radiation Pollution. Radiation pollution is serious because it can stay deadly for a long period of time. There are three main sources of radiation pollution: the by-products of manufacturing nuclear weapons, the radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants, and the low-grade radioactive wastes that are by-products of our health industries. Radioactive pollution is fast becoming a major concern due to the increase in the usage of nuclear fuel. The radioactive byproducts of nuclear reactions are often disposed without any precautionary measures to isolate the harmful components, which can contaminate air, soil and water. When soil is contaminated by radioactive substances, the harmful substances are transferred into the plants growing on it. It leads to genetic mutation and affects the plant’s normal functioning. Some plants may die after such exposure, while others may develop weak seeds. Eating any part of the contaminated plant, primarily fruits, poses serious health risks. Since plants are the base of all food chains, their contamination can lead to radioactive deposition all along the food web. The impact of radioactive pollution on human beings can vary from mild to fatal; the magnitude of the adverse effects largely depends on the level and duration of exposure to radioactivity. Low levels of localized exposure may only have a superficial effect and cause mild skin irritation. Effects of long, but low-intensity exposures include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of hair, bruises due to subcutaneous bleeding etc. Long-term exposure or exposure to high amounts of radiation can have far more serious health effects. People with heavy radiation exposure are at a very high risk for cancers. Skin cancer, lung cancer and thyroid cancer are some of the common types of cancers caused by radiation.2
Social Sources of Environmental Problems
There are many social sources that affect how humans view the environment. Below is a brief description of some of the main factors.
Cornucopia View of Nature: According to this perspective, American’s tend to view nature as a vast store house of resources waiting for people to use. Nature is viewed as something that exists to serve people. Resources are viewed as free and inexhaustible.
Faith in Technology: There is a strong belief among many people that technological answers to environmental problems can and will be developed.Technology is seen as not the source of environmental problems, but rather the solution. Although this faith may yet be seen to be true, humans are beginning to realize that technology may not be the solution and in fact may be part of the problem. For example, ask yourself if you think air conditioning is part of the problem or a solution to environmental problems.
Belief in Individualism. As long as people hold a narrow self-orientation rather than a group orientation, the environmental situation will continue to worsen. The focus on private property rights and the quest for profits allow individuals to disregard the welfare of the general community.
Economic Factors: Under capitalism, there is an emphasis on growth and over consumption. In capitalist society there appears to be a belief that progress somehow translates into consumption of material things as evidence of success. The increased production that results from greater levels of consumption creates more pollution, depletes resources, and contributes to the creation of waste products.
Politics: Pollution is ultimately encouraged rather than discouraged as a result of the “government’s cozy relationship with large polluters.” This position is supported when one investigates current laws that have only minimal effect on stopping pollution. When an offense is detected, usually only a slap on the wrist results.
Demographic Patterns: The concentration of people in cities is another source of environmental problems. Due to extreme concentration of people, the ecology cannot absorb waste products. Whenever people become concentrated in small areas, pollution and waste will also be concentrated. The tendency toward urbanization is a structural condition that breeds pollution. Another problem is related to the growth of suburbs which necessitate a great deal of driving and automobiles represent a significant source of pollution.
Systems of Inequality: Within communities, the dangers of pollution and other environmental problems fall disproportionately on the poor and minority groups. These groups are taxed at higher rates for addressing environmental problems even though they use fewer resources and pollute less. This system of inequality extends globally to wealthy countries which pollute more and leave a larger environmental footprint compared to poorer countries.
Global Environmental Problems
There are a number of environmental problems human society is currently dealing with. Below is a short summary of some the major environmental concerns.
a) Global Warming. Global warming is the term used to describe a gradual increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and its oceans, a change that is believed to be permanently changing the Earth’s climate. There is great debate among many people, and sometimes in the news, on whether global warming is real (some call it a hoax). But climate scientists looking at the data and facts agree the planet is warming. While many view the effects of global warming to be more substantial and more rapidly occurring than others do, the scientific consensus on climatic changes related to global warming is that the average temperature of the Earth has risen between 0.4 and 0.8 °C over the past 100 years. The increased volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing, agriculture, and other human activities, are believed to be the primary sources of the global warming that has occurred over the past 50 years. Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate carrying out global warming research have recently predicted that average global temperatures could increase between 1.4 and 5.8 °C by the year 2100. Changes resulting from global warming may include rising sea levels due to the melting of the polar ice caps, as well as an increase in occurrence and severity of storms and other severe weather events. Global warming could cause some of the great food producing regions of the world to dry up into dust bowls, and result in extinctions of many species of plants and animals. Such changes could cause mass migrations, an increase in warfare, and the deaths of many people.3
b) Deforestation. Deforestation is clearing Earth’s forests on a massive scale, often resulting in damage to the quality of the land. Forests still cover about 30 percent of the world’s land area, but swaths the size of Panama are lost each and every year. The world’s rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years at the current rate of deforestation.
Forests are cut down for many reasons, but most of them are related to money or to people’s need to provide for their families. The biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture. Farmers cut forests to provide more room for planting crops or grazing livestock. Often many small farmers will each clear a few acres to feed their families by cutting down trees and burning them in a process known as “slash and burn” agriculture.
Logging operations, which provide the world’s wood and paper products, also cut countless trees each year. Loggers, some of them acting illegally, also build roads to access more and more remote forests—which leads to further deforestation. Forests are also cut as a result of growing urban sprawl.
Deforestation has many negative effects on the environment. The most dramatic impact is a loss of habitat for millions of species. Seventy percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and many cannot survive the deforestation that destroys their homes.
Deforestation also drives climate change. Forest soils are moist, but without protection from sun-blocking tree cover they quickly dry out. Trees also help perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapor back into the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles, many former forest lands can quickly become barren deserts.
Trees also play a critical role in absorbing the greenhouse gases that fuel global warming. Fewer forests means larger amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere—and increased speed and severity of global warming.
The quickest solution to deforestation would be to simply stop cutting down trees. Though deforestation rates have slowed a bit in recent years, financial realities make this unlikely to occur. 4
c) Problems With the World’s Oceans. Most areas of the world’s oceans are experiencing habitat loss. But coastal areas, with their closeness to human population centers, have suffered disproportionately and mainly from manmade stresses. Habitat loss here has far-reaching impacts on the entire ocean’s biodiversity. These critical areas, which include estuaries, swamps, marshes, and wetlands, serve as breeding grounds or nurseries for nearly all marine species. Scientists are still coming to grips with the consequences that excessive atmospheric carbon dioxide and Earth’s rapid warming are having on ecosystems. But there is ample evidence indicating that the oceans are bearing the brunt of these changes. As Earth’s temperature rises, it is primarily the oceans that absorb the extra heat. Even small temperature changes can have far-reaching effects on the life cycles of marine animals from corals to whales. In addition, warmer temperatures cause excess melting of ice caps and glaciers, raising sea levels and flooding estuaries. High levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, are absorbed by the oceans, where the gas dissolves into carbonic acid. This elevated acidity inhibits the ability of marine animals, including many plankton organisms, to create shells, disrupting life within the very foundation of the ocean’s food web. 5
d) Land Degradation. Land degradation is caused by multiple forces, including extreme weather conditions particularly drought, and human activities that pollute or degrade the quality of soils and land utility negatively affecting food production, livelihoods, and the production and provision of other ecosystem goods and services.
Land degradation has accelerated during the 20th century due to increasing and combined pressures of agricultural and livestock production (over-cultivation, overgrazing, forest conversion), urbanization, deforestation, and extreme weather events such as droughts and coastal surges which salinate land. Desertification, is a form of land degradation, by which fertile land becomes desert.
These social and environmental processes are stressing the world’s arable lands and pastures essential for the provision of food and water and quality air. Land degradation and desertification can affect human health through complex pathways. As land is degraded and in some places deserts expand, food production is reduced, water sources dry up and populations are pressured to move to more hospitable areas. The potential impacts of desertification on health include: higher threats of malnutrition from reduced food and water supplies; more water- and food-borne diseases that result from poor hygiene and a lack of clean water; respiratory diseases caused by atmospheric dust from wind erosion and other air pollutants; and the spread of infectious diseases as populations migrate.6
Most authorities agree that serious environmental problems confront the world. Many people around the planet are becoming aware of the accumulating evidence of ecological damage. Although there are going to be competing visions for protecting the environment, most solutions will probably contain some of the following:
Collective Action by Interest Groups. Collective Action by a variety of interest groups will be a key to how environmental problems are handled in the future. Environmental interest groups have pressured corporations, nations, and the United Nations to reduce pollution and preserve the environment. This pressure has resulted in some destructive projects being cancelled or changed to make them more environmentally sensitive.
Moderating Economic Growth. Some of our environmental problems are caused by the pursuit of economic growth to meet short term economic goals. A major question that people around the world are going to struggle with in the future is can the features of capitalism, which include individualism, profit seeking, and permanent growth be reconciled with the limited resilience of our ecosystem to respond to the assaults on it.
Government Regulation. This will be a key area heavily influenced by politics. Over the decades, laws and court rulings have placed limits on most of the pollution and degradation of the environment. This regulation is one of the cornerstones of environmental policy. There is an ongoing political battle over how far to extend regulation and over whether the costs of regulation are worth the benefits.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. One of the most environmentally sensitive things a person can do is to consume fewer products. The recycling of materials and products could be considered in the design and production stages.
New Approaches to Energy. Energy consumption is a major cause of global warming and climate change. One solution is to move away from exhaustible and polluting resources such as coal and oil, to renewable energy resources that have no limit on how long humans can exploit them and do not increase global warming. Solar energy would be one such example.
International Cooperation. Environmental problems are global in nature. International agreements and policies will need to be established.
Finally, successfully alleviating environmental problems may call for the emergence of new cultural values that emphasize living in harmony with the environment and conserving resources rather than mastery over the earth.
Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
1. The Day After Tomorrow. A paleoclimatologist for NORAD, must make a daring trek across America to reach his son, trapped in the cross-hairs of a sudden international storm which plunges the planet into a new Ice Age.
2. Climate of Change. A documentary focused on the efforts of everyday people all over the world who are making a difference in the fight against global warming.
Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca 2012 Social Problems (Twelfth Edition) Boston: Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)
Sullivan, Thomas J.
2012 Introduction to Social Problems (9th Edition) Boston: Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)
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