In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Sociology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sociology and Modernity
  • Selfishness and the Environment

Sociology Environmental Sociology
Thomas Burns, Beth Caniglia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0117


Although humankind has always relied upon the natural environment, the character of that relationship has changed dramatically over the course of history. With the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, the relationship changed, as it did again with the move to industrialization. Some of the most dramatic changes happened during the 20th and early 21st Centuries. Particularly since the Second World War, environmental problems have become more severe than ever. Many ecosystems stand on the brink of collapse. Environmental problems often stem from any number of causes that are hard to disaggregate. They are manifested on a number of levels and involve complex interactions between natural and social systems. The approach taken in this article is to focus on environmental problems associated with modernity and the approaches environmental sociology has taken to understand and evaluate those problems. With increases in the size and concentration of populations, economies of scale, advanced technological capabilities, elaborate divisions of labor, and widely skewed access to resources, there have arisen ecological imbalances that have manifested themselves in myriad ways. These include air and water pollution, deforestation, global climate change, and biodiversity loss. This leads us to one of the most difficult problems of modernity itself: we have the ability, and perhaps even the propensity, to create environmental problems that go beyond our ability to address them in sustainable ways. With modernity comes a rise in mass education and literacy and, for many, a rising standard of living. And yet with these we see the expansion of unsustainable lifestyles, which are more frequently marked by participation in the treadmill of production and consumption. In and of itself, modernization is not a bad thing, and we certainly cannot revert back to a time before industrialization. Yet if the central problem is the interface between humanity and the natural environment, there are a number of crucial imbalances to consider in natural ecosystems, as well as in human systems. In this article, a brief overview of sociology’s co-evolution with modernity is presented. Then the article reviews environmental sociology’s approaches to the environmental consequences of modernity from macro- to micro-level perspectives. Also examined are approaches that bridge the culture-structure categories.

General Overviews

The following books and articles provide helpful overviews of environmental history and environmental sociology as a field. Ponting 2007 and Hughes 2009 are world-historical accounts in which the complex interpenetrations of human and natural systems are given serious and extended consideration. Particularly since the Industrial Revolution, and even more so in the post–Second World War period, humankind’s impact on the environment has been so profound as to be unprecedented in its cumulative effects (McNeill 2001 and Heinberg 2011). Throughout history, human societies have relied on the natural environment. During much of that time, resources have been plentiful enough to be taken for granted to the extent that environmental goods such as water, trees, air to breathe, and soil in which to grow crops have been taken for granted. As societies continue to do this, they threaten what Catton (in Catton 1976 and Catton 1980) characterizes as “overshoot”—a situation where humankind uses resources beyond the earth’s capacity to sustain itself. Although in the short run this can be inconsequential, as people continue to draw upon nature’s bank of resources “overshoot” is an unsustainable situation, since resources are being used faster than they are being replenished. Heinberg 2011 makes the case that many of the problems inherent in this scenario have already come to pass, and they will continue to get worse unless societies address them on a deep level. Particularly problematic is the built-in assumption in many economic systems that unlimited growth is possible and a necessary component of a healthy economy (Heinberg 2011; Meadows, et al. 1972; and Meadows, et al. 2004). Dunlap 2010 makes a compelling case that sociology must pay closer attention to the complex interface between human and natural systems. Of particular concern for Dunlap is a transition in how people think about the human-environmental interface toward a “new environmental paradigm” that fully appreciates this link. Sociology and history have not paid nearly as much attention to the environment as to other issues. The works in this section serve as correctives to this overall trend.

  • Catton, William R. Jr. 1976. Why the future isn’t what it used to be. Social Science Quarterly 57:276–291.

    Discusses the modern issue of scarcity and how it has affected society. The author presents the ways this situation can be improved upon in the future. He also suggests using the past as a way to better understand the future and thus be able to alleviate the effects of some of the world’s issues.

  • Catton, William R. Jr. 1980. Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    The author presents the idea that the earth is already past its carrying capacity and how that issue relates to ecology. He discusses how overpopulation has already affected the earth. Catton also critiques prior attempted solutions to this problem and explains how they were actually detrimental.

  • Dunlap, Riley. 2010. The maturation and diversification of environmental sociology: From constructivism and realism to agnosticism and pragmatism. In The international handbook of environmental sociology. 2d ed. Edited by Michael R. Redclift and Graham Woodgate, 15–32. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

    DOI: 10.4337/9781849805520

    Provides a thorough update of the field of environmental sociology and includes several of the newer theoretical and empirical areas, such as ecological modernization theory, world polity theory, and climate skepticism. A call for the integration of science and sociology makes this piece stand out from others.

  • Heinberg, Richard. 2011. The end of growth: Adapting to our new economic reality. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society.

    According to this study, the economic pace at which the world is growing has reached its capacity because of natural limits. Explains why the ongoing financial crisis has occurred due to resource depletion, environmental impacts, and increasing amounts of debt.

  • Hughes, J. Donald. 2009. An environmental history of the world: Humankind’s changing role in the community of life. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

    Gives a concise history of how human life and the natural environment have interacted. He focuses on changes in periods of history where human intervention has led to environmental degradation. Each time period discussed contains several case studies that concentrate on ecological patterns arising in that era.

  • McNeill, J. R. 2001. Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth century world. New York: W. W. Norton.

    This text shows how modern human activity has had a tremendous impact on global ecology. It proposes the idea that these impacts can be looked at in a positive light.

  • Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, J. Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The limits of growth: A report of the club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Signet.

    This text seeks to help people understand the magnitude of overusing resources, the increase in population growth, and other related environmental issues. The authors intend to demonstrate how to prepare for the “overshoot” of the global carrying capacity through models and thorough discussion.

  • Meadows, Donella H., Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows. 2004. Limits to growth: The 30-year update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

    Includes updates on a 1972 research study based on the overuse of resources and population growth consequences. Here scientists discuss ways to meet needs without exceeding earth’s carrying capacity and provide an array of possible positive outcomes.

  • Ponting, Clive. 2007. A new green history of the world: The environment and the collapse of great civilizations. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin.

    Discusses the association between human history and the environment. Ponting argues that since the beginning of the development of civilization, humans have continuously produced societies that flourish due to the exploitation of resources, which eventually leads to the population outweighing the amount of resources, thus causing societies to fail.

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