Environmental Sociology

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Environmental sociology is a relatively new area of inquiry that emerged largely in response to increased societal recognition of the seriousness of environmental problems. Many areas of sociology have similarly arisen as a result of societal attention to problematic conditions, including poverty and inequality, racial and gender discrimination, and crime and delinquency. Environmental sociology is unique, however, in that sociological attention to environmental problems had to overcome strong disciplinary traditions that discouraged giving attention to nonsocial conditions such as environmental quality. Consequently, the growth of sociological work on environmental issues has been accompanied by a critique and reassessment of core sociological assumptions and practices, with the result that environmental sociology has a somewhat ambivalent stance toward its parent discipline.

We begin with a brief examination of the nature and evolution of environmental problems, in order to clarify the kinds of issues that are of concern to environmental sociologists. Then we describe the emergence of societal attention to environmental problems, highlighting sociological work on environmental activism and related topics. Next we describe sociology's response to the increased salience of environmental problems, including the development of environmental sociology as an area of inquiry as well as its critique of mainstream sociology's neglect of environmental issues. Then we review some important emphases of the field, including analyses of the causes of environmental problems, examinations of the social impacts of these problems, and analyses of solutions to such problems. We end with a brief overview of recent trends and debates in the field.


Environmental sociology is typically defined as the study of relations between human societies and their physical environments or, more simply, "societal–environmental interactions" (Dunlap and Catton 1979). Such interactions include the ways in which humans influence the environment as well as the ways in which environmental conditions (often modified by human action) influence human affairs, plus the manner in which such interactions are socially construed and acted upon. The relevance of these interactions to sociology stems from the fact that human populations depend upon the biophysical environment for survival, and this in turn necessitates a closer look at the functions that the environment serves for human beings.

Three Functions of the Environment. The biophysical environment serves many essential functions for human populations, as it does for all other species (Daily 1997), but three basic types can be singled out. First, the environment provides us with the resources that are necessary for life, ranging from air and water to food to materials needed for shelter, transportation, and the vast range of economic goods we produce. Human ecologists thus view the environment as providing the "sustenance base" for human societies, and we can also think of it as a "supply depot." Some resources, such as forests, are potentially renewable while others, like fossil fuels, are nonrenewable or finite. When we use resources faster than the environment can supply them, even if they are potentially renewable (such as clean water), we create resource shortages or scarcities (Catton 1980).

Second, in the process of consuming resources humans, like all species, produce "waste" products; indeed, humans produce a far greater quantity and variety of waste products than do other species. The environment must serve as a "sink" or "waste repository" for these wastes, either absorbing or recycling them into useful or at least harmless substances (as when trees absorb carbon dioxide and return oxygen to the air). When land was sparsely populated and utilization of resources was minimal, this was seldom a problem. Modern and/or densely populated societies generate more waste than the environment can process, however, and the result is the various forms of "pollution" that are so prevalent worldwide.

Humans, like other species, must also have a place to exist, and the environment provides our home—where we live, work, play, travel, and spend our lives. In the most general case, the planet Earth provides the home for our species. Thus, the third function of the environment is to provide a "living space" or habitat for human populations. When too many people try to live in a given space, the result is overcrowding, a common occurrence in many urban areas (especially in poorer nations). Some analysts suggest that the entire planet is now overpopulated by human beings, although efforts to determine the number of people the Earth can support has proven to be difficult and contentious (Cohen 1995).

When humans overuse an environment's ability to fulfill these three functions, "environmental problems" in the form of pollution, resource scarcities, and overcrowding and/or overpopulation are the result. However, not only must the environment serve all three functions for humans, but when a given environment is used for one function its ability to fulfill the other two is often impaired. Such conditions of functional competition often yield newer, more complex environmental problems.

Competition among environmental functions is especially obvious in conflicts between the living-space and waste-repository functions, as using an area for a waste site typically makes it unsuitable for living space. When an area is used as a garbage landfill or hazardous waste site, for example, people don't even want to live near it, much less on it (Freudenburg 1997). Likewise, if hazardous materials escape from a waste repository and contaminate the soil, water, or air, the area can no longer serve as a supply depot for drinking water or for growing agricultural products. Finally, converting farmland or forests into housing subdivisions creates more living space for people, but it means that the land can no longer function as a supply depot for food or timber (or as habitat for wildlife).

The Evolution of Environmental Problems. Understanding these three functions played by the environment provides insight into the evolution of environmental problems, or the problematic conditions created by human overuse of the environment. In the 1960s and early 1970s when awareness of environmental problems was growing rapidly in the United States, primary attention was given to air and water pollution and to litter—problems stemming from the environment's inability to absorb human waste products—as well as to the importance of protecting areas of natural beauty. The "energy crisis" of 1973 highlighted the dependence of modern industrialized nations on fossil fuels and raised the specter of resource scarcity in general. The living-space function came to the forefront in the late 1970s when it was discovered that a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, was built on an abandoned chemical waste site that had begun to leak toxic materials. Love Canal came to symbolize the growing problems of using an area as both waste repository and living space.

New environmental problems continually emerge, the result of humans trying to make incompatible uses of given environments. Global warming is an excellent example. It is primarily a consequence of a rapid increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere produced by a wide range of human activities—especially burning fossil fuels (coal, gas, and oil), wood, and forest lands. This buildup of carbon dioxide (CO2) traps more of the Sun's heat, thus raising the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere. While global warming results from overuse of the Earth's atmosphere as a waste site, the resulting warming may in turn produce changes that make our planet less suitable as a living space (not only for humans, but especially for other forms of life). A warmer climate may also affect the Earth's ability to continue producing natural resources, especially food supplies (Stern et al. 1992).

These examples of how human activities are harming the ability of the environment to serve as our supply depot, living space, and waste repository involve focusing on specific aspects of particular environments (e.g., a given river's ability to absorb wastes without becoming polluted). However, it is increasingly recognized that the health of entire ecosystems is being jeopardized as a result of growing human demands being placed on them. An ecosystem is an interacting set of living organisms (animals and plants) and their nonliving environment (air, land, water) that are bound together by a flow of energy and nutrients (e.g., food chains); it can range in size from a small pond, to a large region such the Brazilian rainforest, to the entire biosphere—the Earth's global ecosystem (Freese 1997). Technically, it is not "the environment" but "ecosystems" that serve the three functions for humans—and for all other living species.

Exceeding the capacity of a given ecosystem to fulfill one of the three functions may disrupt not only its ability to fulfill the other two but its ability to continue to function at all. As a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report notes, "Ecological systems like the atmosphere, oceans, and wetlands have a limited capacity for absorbing the environmental degradation caused by human activities. After that capacity is exceeded, it is only a matter of time before those ecosystems begin to deteriorate and human health and welfare begin to suffer" (EPA Science Advisory Board 1990, p. 17). Human overuse of ecosystems thus creates "ecological disruptions" that become "ecological problems" for humans. As more and more people require places to live, use resources, and produce wastes, it is likely that ecological problems will worsen and that new ones will continue to emerge.

The notion that human societies face "limits to growth" was originally based on the assumption that we would run out of natural resources such as oil, but nowadays it is recognized that the ability of ecosystems to fulfill any of the three necessary functions can be exceeded. Ozone depletion, for example, stems from exceeding the atmosphere's limited ability to absorb chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other pollutants. Thus, it is not the supply of natural resources per se, but the finite ability of the global ecosystem to provide us with resources, absorb our wastes, and still offer suitable living space (all of which, as we have seen, are interrelated) that constrains human societies. The emergence of problems such as ozone depletion, climate change, species extinction, and rainforest destruction are indications that modern societies may be taxing the limits of the global ecosystem (see, e.g., Daily 1997).

This brief sketch of the nature and evolution of environmental problems reveals the rich subject matter studied by environmental sociologists. While broadly construed as the study of relations between human societies and their physical environments, the field focuses primary attention on the ways in which modern societies are altering their environments and the ways in which such alterations eventually create problematic conditions for our societies—as well as the ambiguities and controversies involved in assessing and responding to these alterations and impacts (Hannigan 1995). Despite improvements in specific environmental problems, such as urban air quality and the quality of many streams and lakes, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, newer and often more serious environmental problems—often affecting wider geographic areas—have continued to emerge as greater effort is made to monitor the quality of the environment. Consequently, it seems safe to assume that environmental sociology will have no shortage of subject matter in the foreseeable future.


Environmental concerns first attained considerable prominence in the United States with the rise of the progressive conservation movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s in response to reckless exploitation of the nation's resources. This movement included both "utilitarians" like Gifford Pinchot, who sought to manage natural resources such as forests wisely to ensure their continued availability, and "preservationists" like John Muir, who sought to preserve areas of natural beauty for their own sake. Although these two factions eventually came into conflict, their joint efforts led to legislation establishing national parks and agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service while also spawning organizations such as the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society.

These "conservation" organizations and agencies continued to exist and grow periodically throughout the first half of the twentieth century, but they did not become highly visible until the 1950s and 1960s, when preservationist organizations such as the Sierra Club achieved renewed visibility by fighting for the protection of areas of natural beauty such as the Grand Canyon (which had been threatened by damming). The older preservationist concern with natural areas gradually coalesced with concerns about issues such as pesticide contamination—publicized by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring—and air and water pollution and other urban-based problems (Taylor 1997). These newer "environmental" problems tended to be more complex in origin (often stemming from new technologies), and had delayed, complex, and difficult-to-detect effects that were consequential for human (as well as nonhuman) health and welfare. Encompassing pollution and loss of recreational and aesthetic resources, and ultimately the consequences of overusing all three functions of the environment, such problems were increasingly viewed as threats not only to "environmental quality" but to our "quality of life" (Dunlap and Mertig 1992).

By the late 1960s the older conservation movement had evolved into a modern "environmental movement," as traditional conservation organizations joined with newer, multi-issue organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund, to pursue a wide range of environmental goals. The transformation from conservationism to environmentalism—symbolized by celebration of the first "Earth Day" in 1970—is reflected by the growth of an "environmental" discourse that largely supplanted the older conservation/preservation discourses (Brulle 1996) as well as by the explosive growth of both local and national environmental organizations concerned with a wide range of issues in the 1970s (McLaughlin and Khawaja 1999). With a reported 20 million participants, "E-Day" not only launched the contemporary environmental movement but mobilized a far greater base of support for environmentalism than had ever been achieved by the earlier conservation movement (Dunlap and Mertig 1992).

Environmental sociologists quickly tried to explain the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Besides highlighting the crucial roles played by older conservation organizations (such as the Sierra Club) in mobilizing public support, they pointed to the following factors: growth of scientific knowledge about problems such as pesticides and smog; intense media coverage devoted to incidents such as the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill; rapid increase in outdoor recreation that brought more and more people into direct contact with threatened environments; widespread post–World War II affluence that stimulated increasing concern with quality of life over more materialistic pursuits; and, finally, the general climate of social activism that grew out of the civil rights, anti–Vietnam War and student-power movements (see, e.g., Morrison et al. 1972). More recent analyses have emphasized the decline of class politics and materialist concerns and the subsequent emergence of new social movements devoted to quality-of-life goals as the broad sociocultural context in which environmentalism developed (e.g., Buttel 1992).

The last three decades of the twentieth century have seen enormous changes in the nature of environmentalism, often chronicled by sociologists. The large national organizations, like the Sierra Club, constituting the core of the "environmental lobby" have remained strong, but their limited ability to produce effective results and the continual emergence of new issues that escape their purview have resulted in the emergence of numerous alternative strands of environmental activism. The result is that environmentalism is far more diverse than in the older days of the utilitarian–preservationist bifurcation (Dunlap and Mertig 1992). A major divide is that between the national organizations and the burgeoning number of local, grassroots groups that are typically concerned with hazardous conditions in their communities. A particularly potent form of grassroots activism has arisen in response to evidence of environmental racism, or the disproportionate location of hazardous facilities in minority communities, and the "environmental justice" movement spearheaded by people of color is the result (Taylor 1997). A variety of other splinter groups, including radical environmentalism (exemplified by the direct-action tactics pursued by Earth First!), deep ecology (a biocentric philosophy urging the equality of all forms of life), and ecofeminism (which links environmental degradation to the exploitation of women), along with the increasing internationalization of environmental organizations, make the contemporary environmental movement a highly complex entity (Brulle 1996).

Regardless of its historical causes, the establishment and continued existence of a viable environmental movement has ensured that environmental issues remain on the nation's policy agenda. Several pieces of landmark legislation aimed at protecting and improving environmental quality were passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the National Environmental Policy Act requiring environmental impact assessments and establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite some ups and downs, environmental quality has remained a major national goal for the last three decades of the twentieth century, with new concerns continually emerging—often in response to specific "crises" such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

The environmental movement has been widely criticized for failing to halt environmental degradation in our nation (and the world). Nonetheless, compared to other social movements, environmentalism has clearly been one of the most influential movements of the last half of the twentieth century, ranking with the women's movement, civil rights movement, and peace/antiwar movements as having changed the contours of contemporary life. Environmental concerns are now institutionalized throughout our society, not only in government laws and agencies, but in the form of environmental education (K–12) and college-level environmental studies, environmental reporters and news beats among major media, environmental affairs offices within major corporations, the growing involvement of mainstream religions with environmental problems, and a reasonably well funded and institutionalized discipline of environmental science. To these institutional indicators one can add cultural changes such as the emergence of an environmental discourse throughout society, including advertising; the ubiquity (if not effectiveness) of recycling and the gradual growth of green consumer behaviors; and the normative disapproval of outright assaults on environmental quality whether by governments or industry. Despite the intermittent emergence of open opposition to environmentalism—as represented by the current "wise-use" movement that seeks to lift governmental restrictions on use of natural resources (Switzer 1997)—the overall trends toward "environmentalization" validate claims that we are witnessing a "greening" of society at both the institutional and cultural levels (Buttel 1992).


Although there was scattered sociological attention to natural resource issues prior to the 1970s, environmental sociology developed in that decade as sociology's own response to the emergence of environmental problems. At first sociologists tended to pay more attention to societal response to environmental problems than to the problems themselves. As noted earlier, analyses of the environmental movement were popular, as were studies of public attitudes toward environmental issues. Prime topics included identifying the social sectors from which environmental activists were drawn and the social bases of pro-environmental attitudes among the general public (Dunlap and Catton 1979). Broader analyses of the ways in which "environment" was being constructed as a social problem, and the vital roles played by both activists and the media in this process, also received attention (Albrecht 1975). In addition, rural sociologists conducted a growing number of studies of natural resource agencies, while other sociologists examined environmental politics and policy making. In general, sociological work on environmental issues typically employed perspectives from the larger discipline to shed light on societal awareness of and response to environmental problems. In today's parlance, these initial efforts largely involved analyses of aspects of the "social construction of environmental problems" and represented what was termed a "sociology of environmental issues" (Dunlap and Catton 1979).

As sociologists paid more attention to environmental issues, a few began to look beyond societal attention to environmental problems to the underlying relationships between modern, industrialized societies and the physical environments they inhabit. Concern with the causes of environmental pollution was supplemented by a focus on the social impacts of pollution and resource constraints. In some cases there was explicit attention to the reciprocal relationships between societies and their environments, or to the "ecosystem-dependence" of modern societies (Dunlap and Catton 1994). These concerns were bolstered by the 1973–1974 "energy crisis," as the interrupted flow of oil from Arab nations generated dramatic and widespread impacts and vividly demonstrated the vulnerability of modern industrial societies to an interruption of their fossil fuel supplies and—by extension—to natural resources in general (Rosa et al. 1988). Sociologists were quick to respond with numerous studies of the impacts, particularly the inequitable distribution of negative ones, of energy shortages (Schnaiberg 1975).

Sociological interest in the impacts of energy and other resource scarcities accelerated the emergence of environmental sociology as a distinct area of inquiry by heightening awareness that "environment" was more than just another social problem, and that environmental conditions could indeed have societal consequences. Studies of the societal impacts of energy shortages thus facilitated a transition from the early "sociology of environmental issues" to a self-conscious "environmental sociology" focused explicitly on societal–environmental relations. In retrospect, it is apparent that this concern also contributed to a rather one-sided view of such interactions, however, as the effects of resource constraints on society received far more emphasis than did the impacts of society on the environment (something that has been rectified in more recent research on the causes of environmental degradation).

The nascent environmental sociology of the 1970s was quickly institutionalized via formation of interest groups within the national sociological associations. These groups provided an organizational base for the emergence of environmental sociology as a thriving area of specialization and attracted scholars interested in all aspects of the physical environment—from environmental activism to energy and other natural resources, natural hazards and disasters, social impact assessment, and housing and the built environment (Dunlap and Catton 1983). The late 1970s was a vibrant era of growth for American environmental sociology, but momentum proved difficult to sustain during the 1980s, as the Reagan era was a troublesome period for the field and social science more generally. Ironically, however, sociological interest in environmental issues was beginning to spread internationally, and by the late 1980s and the 1990s environmental sociology was not only reinvigorated in the United States but was being institutionalized in countries around the world and within the International Sociological Association (Dunlap and Catton 1994).

The resurgence of environmental sociology in the United States and its emergence internationally benefited from key societal events. Publicity surrounding Love Canal and other local environmental hazards stimulated interest in the impacts of such hazards on local communities, while major accidents at Three Mile Island, Bophal (India), and Chernobyl dramatized the importance of technological hazards and helped generate sociological interest in the environmental and technological risks facing modern societies (Short 1984). More recently, growing awareness of global environmental problems such as ozone depletion, global climate change, and tropical deforestation have served to enhance sociological interest in environmental problems—particularly at the global level (Dunlap and Catton 1994).


As previously noted, early sociological work on environmental issues typically involved application of standard sociological perspectives drawn from social movements, social psychology, social problems, and so forth to empirical work focusing on societal response to environmental issues. Efforts to theorize about environmental matters were rare, and they tended to involve demonstrations of the utility of established theoretical perspectives, such as Parsonian theory, for viewing environmental issues rather than asking whether such perspectives were adequate for understanding the relations between modern societies and their biophysical environments (Klausner 1971). Since sociologists interested in theorizing about the relations between modern societies and their environments found little guidance from the larger discipline, they drew heavily upon other disciplines, such as general ecology (Catton 1976), or combined ecological and sociological insights in order to develop new theoretical perspectives (Schnaiberg 1975).

Unlike the larger society, in the 1970s mainstream sociology was remarkably oblivious to the relevance of environmental matters. This disciplinary blindness stemmed from a long period of neglect of such matters stimulated by both societal developments and disciplinary traditions. The Durkheimian emphasis on explaining social phenomena only in terms of other "social facts," plus an aversion to earlier excesses of biological and geological "determinisms," had led sociologists to ignore the physical world. These disciplinary traditions were further strengthened by sociology's emergence during an era of unprecedented growth and prosperity, when limits to resource abundance and technological progress were unimaginable, and increased urbanization, which reduced direct contact with the natural environment. With modern, industrialized societies appearing to be increasingly independent of the biophysical world, sociology came to assume that the exceptional features of Homo sapiens—language, technology, science, and culture more generally—made these societies "exempt" from the constraints of nature. Thus, the core task of sociology was to examine the uniquely social determinants of contemporary human life (Dunlap and Catton 1979, 1983). In short, mainstream sociology offered infertile ground for planting sustained interest in the relations between societies and their biophysical environments.

It is not surprising, therefore, that efforts to establish environmental sociology as a legitimate and important area of inquiry included criticism of the larger discipline's blindness to environmental matters. Indeed, efforts to define and codify the field of environmental sociology were accompanied by explication and critique of the "human exemptionalism paradigm" (HEP) on which contemporary sociology was premised. While not denying that human beings are obviously an exceptional species, environmental sociologists argued that our special skills and capabilities nonetheless failed to exempt us from the constraints of the natural environment. Consequently, it was argued that the HEP needed to be replaced by a more ecologically sound perspective, a new ecological paradigm (NEP), that acknowledges the ecosystem-dependence of human societies (Catton and Dunlap 1978, 1980). It was further argued that much of environmental sociology, particularly examinations of the relations between social and environmental factors (as opposed to analyses of the social construction of environmental issues), entailed at least implicit rejection of the HEP with its assumed irrelevance of nonsocial phenomena to modern societies (Dunlap and Catton 1979, 1983).

The call for revision of mainstream sociology's dominant paradigm, and particularly the urging of adoption of an ecological perspective, has been a controversial feature of environmental sociology. While regarded as a core element of the field's commitment to ensuring that the material bases of modern societies are no longer neglected by sociology, the argument has been criticized for deflecting efforts to utilize classical and mainstream theoretical perspectives in environmental sociology (Buttel 1996, 1997). Fortunately, debate about the need for an ecological perspective versus the relevance of mainstream sociological theories has taken a new turn in recent years, as several environmental sociologists have independently begun to develop ecologically informed versions of classical theoretical perspectives. Efforts to develop "green" versions of Durkheimian, Weberian, and especially Marxian macro-sociologies as well as micro-level perspectives, such as symbolic interactionism, bear the fruit of integrating an ecological paradigm with classical theoretical traditions (see Foster 1999 and references in Dunlap 1997).

Increasing awareness of the societal significance of ecological conditions has not only stimulated efforts to develop greener sociological theories but also opened the floodgates of empirical research on societal–environmental relations. Studies such as those conducted by Freudenburg and Gramling (1994) on oil development in coastal waters, which convincingly show how development depends on both environmental conditions and social forces, and by Couch and Kroll-Smith (1985) on community hazards, which demonstrates the differing impacts of natural versus human-made disasters, clearly violate the disciplinary tradition of ignoring all but the social causes of social facts (as do many of the studies to be reviewed later).

While the empirical thrust of environmental sociology thus represents at least implicit rejection of mainstream sociology's "exemptionalist" orientation by continually demonstrating the relevance of environmental factors in modern, industrialized societies, the situation regarding adoption of an ecological paradigm or perspective is less clear. Some environmental sociologists follow Catton's (1980) lead in applying ecological theory and concepts to human societies (e.g., Fischer-Kowalski 1997), and others employ an ecological perspective as an "orienting strategy" that encourages them to raise questions about issues such as the long-term sustainability of current consumption patterns in the wealthy nations (Redclift 1996). However, some environmental sociologists express caution regarding the utility of ecological theory as a guiding framework for environmental sociology (Buttel 1997) or disavow its utility altogether (Macnaghten and Urry 1998). These differing orientations stem from the inherent ambiguities involved in applying concepts and findings from general ecology to human societies (Freese 1997) as well as differences of opinion about the roles of paradigms versus theories in empirical inquiry.


Over the last three decades of the twentieth century, sociological research on environmental issues has focused on a wide range of topics, and we cannot begin to do justice to the full body of work by environmental sociologists. Fortunately, several existing reviews and compilations provide fairly comprehensive overviews of this research, covering the 1970s (Dunlap and Catton 1979), 1980s (Buttel 1987; Rosa et al. 1988), and 1990s (Buttel 1996; Dunlap and Catton 1994; Redclift and Woodgate 1997). Consequently, we limit our attention to sociological work on three particularly important theoretical and policy-relevant topics: the causes of environmental problems, the impacts of such problems, and the solutions to these problems.

Causes of Environmental Problems. Given that environmental sociology arose largely in response to increased recognition of environmental problems, it is not surprising that a good deal of work in the area has been devoted to trying to explain the origins of environmental degradation. Much of the early work, however, was devoted more to analyses and critiques of the rather simplistic views of the causes of environmental degradation that predominated in the literature rather than original studies. The need for such analyses stemmed from the fact that the predominant conceptions of the origins of environmental problems tended to emphasize the importance of single factors such as population growth (emphasized by Paul Ehrlich) or technological development (stressed by Barry Commoner), rather than recognizing the multiplicity of factors involved, and also ignored or simplified the distinctively social causes of environmental degradation. In this context, environmental sociologists tended to explicate the competing range of explanations (Dunlap and Catton 1983) and to criticize the most widely accepted ones for their shortcomings (Schnaiberg 1980).

The most powerful sociological critique of common conceptions of the origins of environmental problems in general, and those by biologists such as Ehrlich and Commoner in particular, was provided by Schnaiberg (1980). Schnaiberg criticized Ehrlich's view by noting the enormous variation in environmental impact between populations of rich and poor nations as well as between the wealthy and poor sectors within individual nations, emphasized that population growth is interrelated with factors such as poverty—which induces poor people to have more children for work-force and security reasons. Similary, Commoner's perspective was criticized for viewing technology as an autonomous force, ignoring the degree to which technological developments are driven by political and especially economic forces—particularly the need for profit and capital accumulation.

Besides demonstrating the oversimplification involved in attributing environmental degradation to either population or technology, Schnaiberg also critiqued a third factor widely mentioned as a cause—the wasteful lifestyles of consumers. In particular, Schnaiberg distinguished between the production and consumption spheres of society, arguing that the former is the more crucial contributor to environmental degradation. Attributing environmental degradation to the affluence of consumers ignores the fact that decisions made in the production realm (e.g., as to what types of transportation will be available to consumers) are far more significant than are the purchasing behaviors of individual consumers. Consequently, Schnaiberg emphasized the "treadmill of production," or the inherent need of market-based economic systems to grow and the powerful coalition of capital, state, and labor supporting such growth, as the most fundamental contributor to environmental degradation.

While Schnaiberg's analysis, which he has continued to update and refine (see, e.g., Schnaiberg and Gould 1994), has become highly influential within environmental sociology (Buttel 1987, 1997), it has proven difficult to translate into concrete empirical research beyond local case studies of organized opposition to treadmill processes (Gould et al. 1996). Consequently, a new generation of sociological analysts, while cognizant of Schnaiberg's insights, have adopted a broader framework for investigating the causes of crucial environmental problems, particularly pressing global problems.

Ironically, one line of this new work has involved revisiting the Ehrlich–Commoner debate over the relative importance of population and technological factors in generating environmental degradation. As their debate progressed, both sides realized that they could not totally ignore the other's preferred cause, or more distinctively social factors, and the debate became encapsulated in differing interpretations of a simple formulation known as the "IPAT" equation. Both Ehrlich and Commoner came to agree that environmental impact = population × affluence × technology, although debate continued over which factor on the right side of the equation had the most impact on environmental degradation (for more on this debate, see Dietz and Rosa 1994; Dunlap et al. 1994).

In recent years environmental sociologists have begun to reassess the IPAT model's utility, particularly as a means of examining the crucial causal forces generating global-level environmental problems such as tropical deforestation and global climate change. Taking into account earlier critiques of the IPAT model, Dietz and Rosa (1994; see also Rosa and Dietz 1998) have proposed a major revision that they label "STIRPAT," for "stochastic impacts by regression on population, affluence and technology." Whereas IPAT is an accounting equation that assumes direct proportionality between impact and each of the other three factors, such that a 10-percent increase in population (or technology or affluence) is assumed to produce a 10-percent increase in impact, STIRPAT treats such linkages as hypotheses to be tested. In addition, it allows both for decomposition of the individual factors (e.g., population size versus growth rate) in the model and the consideration of cultural, institutional, and political factors as additional sources of environmental impact.

While the STIRPAT model can be applied to any environmental impact, the initial application has been to global climate change, where the basic model was used to estimate CO2 emissions (Dietz and Rosa 1997). Two interesting results emerged: First, diseconomies of scale apparently exist at the largest population sizes, as countries with the largest populations (e.g., China and India) have a disproportionate impact on CO2 loads. Second, the results also replicated recurrent findings by economists that suggest the existence of an environmental Kuznets curve. Economists argue in these studies that as affluence increases, environmental impact per unit of affluence decreases, producing an inverted U curve, or a Kuznets curve, named as the relationship between development and inequality posited by Simon Kuznets (see Dietz and Rosa 1997 for citations).

A related sociological study, involving a longitudinal analysis of national CO2 emissions, challenges the economists' faith that economic development will lessen environmental impacts because of the Kuznets curve. Roberts and Grimes (1997) conclude that since the energy crisis of the 1970s, affluent nations have become more carbon-efficient, producing more gross national product per unit of CO2 emissions, but that the carbon efficiency of middle-income nations has gone down slightly and that of the poor nations has dropped substantially. Consequently, the poorest nations are locked into a pattern of high and even increasing environmental impact per unit of affluence, while wealthy nations may indeed follow the patterns proposed by development theorists. If true, this challenge to development theory suggests that the continued development of poor but populous nations like China and India will lead to increasing levels of CO2 and other pollutants rather than the pattern observed in wealthy nations.

Tropical deforestation is another global-level problem that has attracted increasing attention by environmental sociologists seeking to understand its causes. A series of studies by Rudel and colleagues (see Rudel and Roper 1997) employ a variety of theoretical models encompassing population, technology, and affluence (the components of the IPAT and STIRPAT models) as well as a wide range of both national and international social-structural variables such as level of inequality, urbanization, and international debt. These studies typically find a significant impact of population growth in general, and patterns of rural versus urban growth in particular, on deforestation rates, but these effects are moderated by a wide range of environmental conditions and social-structural factors. Importantly, but not surprisingly, Rudel finds that deforestation is partly a function of the size of nations' forests and the topography of forest land as well as political and economic decisions to invest capital in forestry, levels of economic development, and international indebtedness.

Sociological studies of global-level problems such as deforestation and emissions of greenhouse gases, both of which directly contribute to global climate change, are yielding important findings as well as conceptual and methodological strategies for developing a better understanding of the driving forces producing global environmental change and other environmental problems (Rosa and Dietz 1998). As such, they represent an important supplement to natural-science research programs on these topics.

Impacts of Environmental Problems. As noted earlier, environmental sociology was just emerging at the time of the 1973–1974 energy crisis, and it is not surprising that a good deal of effort was made to identify real as well as potential social impacts of energy and other natural resources in this early period of the field. While diverse impacts, from regional migration to consumer lifestyles, were investigated, heavy emphasis was placed on investigating the "equity" impacts of both energy shortages and the policies designed to ameliorate them (Rosa et al. 1988). A general finding was that both the problems and policies often had regressive impacts, with the lower socioeconomic strata bearing a disproportionate cost due, for example, to rising energy costs (Schnaiberg 1975).

Equity has been a persistent concern in environmental sociology, and researchers gradually shifted their attention to the distribution of exposure to environmental hazards (ranging from air and water pollution to hazardous wastes). Again, a persistent finding has been that exposure to environmental hazards is generally negatively correlated with socioeconomic status. A growing number of studies have also found that minority populations are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards, in part because of their lower-than-average socioeconomic levels but perhaps also because of conscious decisions to locate hazardous sites in minority communities. Such findings, which a few recent studies have challenged, have led to charges of "environmental racism" and efforts to achieve "environmental justice." At a broader level, international equity is attracting the attention of environmental sociologists, who are investigating the export of polluting industries from wealthy to poor nations, the disproportionate contribution of wealthy nations to many global-level problems, and the consequent hurdles these phenomena pose for international cooperation to solve environmental problems (Redclift and Sage 1998).

Sociologists have not limited themselves to investigating the equity impacts of environmental problems, and studies of communities exposed to technological or human-made hazards (such as Love Canal) offer particularly rich portrayals of the diverse impacts caused by discovery of community hazards. Whereas natural hazards—such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes—have been found to result in a therapeutic response in which communities unite in efforts to help victims, repair damage, and reestablish life as it was before the disaster struck, technological disasters have been found to have very different impacts (Freudenburg 1997). Although a putative hazard often appears obvious to those who feel affected by it, the ambiguities involved in detecting and assessing such hazards often generate a pattern of intense community conflict. Unlike those affected by natural hazards, the "victims" often find themselves at odds not only with public officials but also with other residents who fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the hazard (for fear of economic loss in terms of property values, jobs, etc.). In many cases, such conflicts have resulted in a long-term erosion of community life as well as exacerbation of the victims' personal traumas stemming from their exposure to the hazards (Couch and Kroll-Smith 1985).

Solutions to Environmental Problems. As was true for the causes of environmental problems, early work by environmental sociologists interested in solutions to these problems often involved explications and critiques of predominant approaches. Early on Heberlein (1974) noted the predilection of the United States for solving environmental problems via a "technological fix," or developing and applying new technologies to solve problems such as air and water pollution. Understandably popular in a nation with a history of technological progress, such a solution is appealing because it avoids mandating behavioral and institutional change. Unfortunately, solving problems with new technologies sometimes creates even more problems, as illustrated by attempts to solve energy shortages with nuclear power. Consequently, as the seriousness and pervasiveness of environmental problems became more obvious, attention was given to a variety of "social fixes," or efforts to change individual and institutional behaviors.

Expanding on Heberlein's analysis, other sociologists (e.g, Dunlap et al. 1994) have identified three broad types of social fixes, or implicit policy types: (1) the cognitive (or knowledge) fix, which assumes that information and persuasion will suffice to produce the necessary changes in behavior, illustrated by campaigns encouraging energy conservation and recycling; (2) the structural fix, which relies on laws and regulations that mandate behavioral change, reflected in highway speed limits or enforced water conservation; and (3) the intermediary behavioral fix, which employs incentives and disincentives to encourage changes in behavior, as illustrated by pollution taxes (penalties) and tax credits (rewards) for installing pollution-abatement technology (see Gardner and Stern 1996 for a more refined typology of policy approaches and detailed examples of each).

Environmental sociologists, in conjunction with other behavioral scientists, have conducted a range of studies that bear on the efficacy of these differing strategies for solving environmental problems, ranging from field experiments to test the effectiveness of information campaigns in inducing energy and water conservation to evaluations of alternative strategies for generating participation in recycling programs (see Gardner and Stern 1996 for a good summary). A noteworthy sociological study was Derksen and Gartrell's (1993) investigation of recycling in Edmonton, Alberta, which found that individuals' level of environmental concern (and, by implication, knowledge about the importance of recycling) was not as important in predicting recycling behavior as was ready access to a curbside recycling program. While sociologists have conducted numerous field experiments and evaluations of community environmental programs, typically investigating the efficacy of one or more of the above-noted "fixes," they have generally left examinations of national and international environmental policy making to political scientists and economists. However, sociologists have begun to pay attention to efforts to negotiate international agreements to achieve reduction of greenhouse gases (Redclift and Sage, 1998), and we expect more sociological work along these lines.


As the foregoing illustrates, environmental sociology not only emerged in response to societal attention to environmental problems but has focused much of its energy on understanding these problems, especially their causes, impacts, and solutions. The field has proved to be more than a passing fad, becoming well institutionalized and also increasingly internationalized. But in the process, fundamental assumptions that once served to unify the field—agreement over the reality of environmental degradation; diagnoses of such degradation as inherent to modern, industrialized societies; and the sense that mainstream sociology was largely blind to the significance of environmental matters—have become matters of debate (Buttel 1996, 1997).

The emergence of environmental problems provided the raison d' etre for environmental sociology, and the seriousness of such problems was seldom challenged. While environmental sociologists from the outset paid attention to ways in which claims about environmental conditions are socially constructed and become the subject of societal conflict (e.g., Albrecht 1975), such efforts seldom questioned the objective existence of environmental problems. In recent years, however, environmental sociology has felt the effects of the larger discipline's turn toward more cultural and interpretative orientations. A growing number of scholars, particularly in Europe, have not only highlighted the contested nature of claims about environmental problems but—in the postmodern tradition—concluded that there is no reason for privileging the claims of any parties to these debates, including those of environmental scientists as well as activists (Macnaghten and Urry 1998).

Such work has led to the emergence of a strong constructivist/interpretative orientation in environmental sociology that challenges the objectivist/realist perspective that has traditionally been dominant. Whereas the realist orientation assumes that the environment is a biophysical entity existing independent of humans, thereby providing the setting for study of human–environment interactions as the core of environmental sociology, the constructivist orientation leads its adherents to adopt an agnostic view of such interactions, preferring instead to examine knowledge claims—and the social forces they reflect—about these interactions (Macnaghten and Urry 1998). These competing perspectives can be readily seen in sociological work on global environmental change (GEC), where those in the realist camp have sought to complement natural-science research by examining, for example, societal processes leading to tropical deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions (noted previously), while constructivists have highlighted the uncertainties in scientific evidence for GEC and the social, political, and historical forces that have made GEC a central topic of scientific and policy-making interest (see Rosa and Dietz 1998). These differing orientations have led to debate among environmental sociologists, with realists pointing to shortcomings of the constructivist approach (Dickens 1996; Murphy 1997) and constructivists demonstrating the utility of their perspective (Hannigan 1995). Fortunately promising syntheses of constructivist and realist perspectives are beginning to emerge (Rosa 1998).

Another source of debate is the inevitability of continued environmental degradation, particularly on the part of advanced, industrialized nations. Whereas environmental sociologists have traditionally seen the drive toward capital accumulation inherent in such societies as making environmental degradation inevitable (as epitomized by Schnaiberg's "treadmill of production" argument), European scholars have increasingly suggested that this may not be the case. Obvious successes in environmental amelioration within advanced European nations have led them to build upon economic models of "industrial ecology," which suggest that modernization of industrial processes can permit production with ever-decreasing levels of material input and pollution output, heralding a new era of "ecological modernization" (Spaargaren and Mol 1992).

This perspective not only adopts a more sanguine image of the future of industrialized societies but, as Buttel (1996, 1997) notes, involves a shift in focus for environmental sociology: from a preoccupation with the origins of environmental degradation to efforts to explain the institutionalization of environmental amelioration (via technological innovation, policy incentives, pressures from citizens' groups, etc.). While representing an important complement to traditional perspectives in the field and building on larger sociological debates about the future of "modernity," ecological modernization is vulnerable to criticism. First, its development in northern Europe leads to concerns that ecological modernization is not applicable to less wealthy and technologically disadvantaged nations. Second, although nations such as the Netherlands have made considerable advances in protecting their own environments, their import of natural resources and export of pollution creates a large "ecological footprint" well beyond their borders (Wackernagel and Rees 1996). Finally, even if continual progress is made in creating cleaner, more efficient production processes, these gains may be offset by continued economic growth and consumption and consequent increased demand for materials and energy (Bunker 1996).

The trends toward adoption of more constructivist/interpretative frameworks and models of ecological modernization are related to a third trend in environmental sociology—the ongoing reassessment of its relationship to the larger discipline. As noted earlier, the emergence of environmental sociology was marked by criticism of mainstream sociology's neglect of the ecosystem-dependence of modern, industrialized societies and consequent inattention to the challenge posed by environmental problems. This critical orientation led many environmental sociologists to look to other disciplines (such as ecology and environmental science) for guidance and probably contributed to a somewhat insular perspective visà-vis mainstream sociology.

But in the 1990s environmental problems, particularly global-level threats like climate change, have caught the attention of growing numbers of eminent sociologists, such as Giddens (1990), who have recognized that such problems cannot be ignored in analyses of the future course of industrial societies. Greater interaction between environmental and mainstream sociology has resulted, and the penetration of currently fashionable perspectives, such as cultural/interpretative frameworks and theories of the nature of late modernity into environmental sociology has followed—as exemplified by the popularity of the constructivist and ecological modernization perspectives. This is resulting in considerable debate and self-reflection among environmental sociologists, something that a maturing field can afford. Hopefully, environmental sociology will emerge with renewed relevance to the larger discipline of sociology as well as continued relevance to societal efforts to ensure an ecologically sustainable future for humankind.

(see also: Environmental Equity)


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Riley E. Dunlap

Eugene A. Rosa

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