20.4 Understanding the Environment

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe what is meant by the assertion that environmental problems are human problems.
  2. Explain the concepts of environmental inequality and environmental racism.

Sociologists emphasize two important dimensions of the relationship between society and the environment: (a) the impact of human activity and decision making and (b) the existence and consequences of environmental inequality and environmental racism.

Human Activity and Decision Making

Perhaps more than anything else, environmental sociologists emphasize that environmental problems are the result of human decisions and activities that harm the environment. Masses of individuals acting independently of each other make decisions and engage in activities that harm the environment, as when we leave lights on, keep our homes too warm in the winter or too cool in the summer, and drive SUVs and other motor vehicles that get low gas mileage. Corporations, government agencies, and other organizations also make decisions and engage in activities that greatly harm the environment. Sometimes individuals and organizations know full well that their activities are harming the environment, and sometimes they just act carelessly without much thought about the possible environmental harm of their actions. Still, the environment is harmed whether or not they intend to harm it.

In the examples of environmental problems we reviewed in Chapter 20 “Social Change and the Environment”, Section 20.3 “Society and the Environment”—air pollution, climate change, water pollution, and hazardous waste sites—the human factor is obvious: our personal behavior, the actions of corporations, and the weakness of government environmental regulation are all to blame for the serious environmental problems that threaten the planet. Yet we even see the heavy hand of human involvement in certain accidents and “acts of nature” that harm the environment.

A recent example of this “heavy hand” is the BP oil spill that began in April 2010 when an oil rig leased by BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and eventually released almost 5 million barrels of oil (about 200 million gallons) into the ocean. Congressional investigators later concluded that BP had made a series of decisions that “increased the danger of a catastrophic well,” including a decision to save money by using an inferior casing for the well that made an explosion more likely. A news report paraphrased the investigators as concluding that “some of the decisions appeared to violate industry guidelines and were made despite warnings from BP’s own employees and outside contractors” (Fountain, 2010, p. A1).

Pelicans covered in oil from the BP oil spill

The April 2010 BP oil spill occurred after BP made several decisions that may have increased the possibility of a catastrophic explosion of the well.

Sociologists McCarthy and King (2009) cite several other environmental accidents that stemmed from reckless decision making and natural disasters in which human decisions accelerated the harm that occurred. One accident occurred in Bhopal, India, in 1984, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked 40 tons of deadly gas. Between 3,000 and 16,000 people died immediately and another half million suffered permanent illnesses or injuries. A contributing factor for the leak was Union Carbide’s decision to save money by violating safety standards in the construction and management of the plant.

A second preventable accident was the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, in which the tanker hit ground off the coast of Alaska and released 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Among other consequences, the spill killed hundreds of thousands of birds and marine animals and almost destroyed the local fishing and seafood industries. The immediate cause of the accident was that the ship’s captain was an alcoholic and left the bridge in the hands of an unlicensed third mate after drinking five double vodkas in the hours before the crash occurred. Exxon officials knew of his alcoholism but let him command the ship anyway. Also, if the ship had had a double hull (one hull inside the other), it might not have cracked on impact or at least would have released less oil, but Exxon and the rest of the oil industry had successfully lobbied Congress not to require stronger hulls.

Hurricane Katrina was a more recent environmental disaster in which human decision making resulted in a great deal of preventable damage. After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and especially New Orleans in August 2005, the resulting wind and flooding killed more than 1,800 people and left more than 700,000 homeless. McCarthy and King (2009, p. 4) again attribute much of this damage to human decision making: “While hurricanes are typically considered ‘natural disasters,’ Katrina’s extreme consequences must be considered the result of social and political failures.” Long before Katrina hit, it was well known that a major flood could easily breach New Orleans levees and have a devastating impact. Despite this knowledge, U.S., state, and local officials did nothing over the years to strengthen or rebuild the levees. In addition, coastal land that would have protected New Orleans had been lost over time to commercial and residential development.

According to sociologist Nicole Youngman (2009, p. 176), this development also “placed many more people and structures in harm’s way than had existed there during previous hurricanes.” All these factors led Youngman (2009, p. 176) to conclude that Katrina’s impact “demonstrated how a myriad of human and nonhuman factors can come together to produce a profoundly traumatic event.” In short, the flooding after Katrina was a human disaster, not a natural disaster.

Environmental Inequality and Environmental Racism

A second emphasis of environmental sociology is environmental inequality and the related concept of environmental racism. Environmental inequality (also called environmental injustice) refers to the fact that low-income people and people of color are disproportionately likely to experience various environmental problems, while environmental racism refers just to the greater likelihood of people of color to experience these problems (Bullard & Johnson, 2009; Mascarenhas, 2009). The term environmental justice refers to scholarship on environmental inequality and racism and public policy efforts and activism aimed at reducing these forms of inequality and racism. The “Sociology Making a Difference” box discusses scholarship on environmental racism that contributed to interest in, and concern about, this topic and to public policy aimed at addressing it.

Sociology Making a Difference

Environmental Racism in the Land of Cotton

During the 1970s, people began to voice concern about the environment in the United States and across the planet. As research on the environment grew by leaps and bounds, some scholars and activists began to focus on environmental inequality in general and on environmental racism in particular. During the 1980s and 1990s, their research and activism spawned the environmental justice movement that has since shed important light on environmental inequality and racism and helped reduce these problems.

Research by sociologists played a key role in the beginning of the environmental justice movement and continues to play a key role today. Robert D. Bullard of Clark Atlanta University stands out among these sociologists for the impact of his early work in the 1980s on environmental racism in the South and for his continuing scholarship since then. He has been called “the father of environmental justice” and was named by Newsweek as one of the 13 most influential environmental leaders of the 20th century, along with environmental writer Rachel Carson, former vice president Al Gore, and 10 others.

Bullard’s first research project on environmental racism began in the late 1970s after his wife, an attorney, filed a lawsuit on behalf of black residents in Atlanta who were fighting the placement of a landfill in their neighborhood. To collect data for the lawsuit, Bullard studied the placement of landfills in other areas. He found that every city-owned landfill in Houston was in a black neighborhood, even though African Americans amounted to only one-fourth of Houston residents at the time. He also found that three out of four privately owned landfills were in black neighborhoods, as were six of the eight city-owned incinerators. He extended his research to other locations and later recalled what he discovered: “Without a doubt, it was a form of apartheid where whites were making decisions and black people and brown people and people of color, including Native Americans on reservations, had no seat at the table” (Dicum, 2006).

In 1990, Bullard published his findings in his book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Bullard, 1990). This book described the systematic placement in several Southern states of toxic waste sites, landfills, and chemical plants in communities largely populated by low-income residents and/or African Americans. Dumping in Dixie was the first book to examine environmental racism and is widely credited with helping advance the environmental justice movement. It received some notable awards, including the Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.

More recently, Bullard, along with other sociologists and scholars from other disciplines, has documented the impact of race and poverty on the experience of New Orleans residents affected by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. As in many other cities, African Americans and other low-income people largely resided in the lower elevations in New Orleans, and whites and higher-income people largely resided in the higher elevations. The flooding naturally had a much greater impact on the lower elevations and thus on African Americans and the poor. After the flood, African Americans seeking new housing in various real estate markets were more likely than whites to be told that no housing was available (Bullard & Wright, 2009).

For more than three decades, Robert D. Bullard has documented environmental racism in the South and elsewhere in the United States. His work alerted the nation to this issue and helped motivate the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s to begin paying attention to it. Once again, sociology has made a difference.

For example, almost all of the hazardous waste sites already mentioned are located in or near neighborhoods and communities that are largely populated by low-income people and people of color. When factories dump dangerous chemicals into rivers and lakes, the people living nearby are very likely to be low-income and of color. Around the world, the people most affected by climate change and other environmental problems are those in poor nations and, even within those nations, those who are poorer rather than those who are wealthier.

Nomad's living under a tarp supported by sticks

Global climate change is very likely to have its greatest impact on people in the poorest nations, even though these nations are the least responsible for greenhouse gases.

According to the American Sociological Association report mentioned earlier, the emphasis of environmental sociology on environmental inequality reflects the emphasis that the larger discipline of sociology places on social inequality: “A central finding of sociology is that unequal power dynamics shape patterns of social mobility and access to social, political, and economic resources” (Nagel, Dietz, & Broadbent, 2010, p. 17). The report adds that global climate change will have its greatest effects on the poorest nations: “Many of the countries least responsible for the rise in greenhouse gases will be most likely to feel its impacts in changes in weather, sea levels, health care costs, and economic hardships” (Nagel, Dietz, & Broadbent, 2010, p. 17).

An interesting controversy among environmental sociologists is whether social class or race plays a bigger role in environmental inequality. This controversy is called the “race-versus-class debate” (Mascarenhas, 2009). Some sociologists feel that environmental inequality is mostly a matter of social class and economic inequality, and some say that environmental inequality is mostly a matter of race and racial inequality. Taking a middle ground, other sociologists believe that environmental inequality reflects both racial and social class inequality.

Some evidence shows that while low-income people are the most likely to be exposed to environmental problems, this exposure is even more likely if they are people of color than if they are white. As a review of this evidence concluded,

It would be fair to summarize this body of work as showing that the poor and especially the non-white poor bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to suboptimal, unhealthy environmental conditions in the United States. Moreover, the more researchers scrutinize environmental exposure and health data for racial and income inequalities, the stronger the evidence becomes that grave and widespread environmental injustices have occurred throughout the United States. (Evans & Kantrowitz, 2002, p. 323)

Regardless of the correct answer to the race-versus-class debate, the very existence of environmental inequality shows that social inequality in the larger society exposes some people much more than others to environmental dangers.

Improving the Environment: What Sociology Suggests

We have discussed two major emphases of environmental sociology. First, environmental problems are largely the result of human decision making and activity and thus preventable. Second, environmental problems disproportionately affect the poor and people of color.

These two insights have important implications for how to improve our environment. Simply put, we must change the behaviors and decisions of individuals, businesses, and other organizations that harm the environment, and we must do everything possible to lessen the extra environmental harm that the poor and people of color experience. Many environmental scholars and activists believe that these efforts need to focus on the corporations whose industrial activities are often so damaging to the air, water, and land. The “Learning From Other Societies” box discusses a lesson from Australia about the need for this sort of focus.

Learning From Other Societies

Lead Contamination Down Under

Lead is a toxic chemical that causes much damage, especially in children. Among the problems that lead poisoning causes are brain damage, kidney damage, and developmental disability.

During the 1980s, Australian officials responded to research linking lead to these problems by determining that several behaviors of children contributed to high lead levels. These behaviors included placing objects in one’s mouth, nail biting, and not washing one’s hands. But for children living in several smelter towns, the most important factor for their lead levels was whether they lived near a smelter.

Rather than focusing on the emissions from the smelter and on addressing the amount of lead that its activities had added to the surrounding land over the years, the Australian government instead advised parents to do a better job of household cleaning and of making sure that their children did not engage in the behaviors just listed, which contributed to their lead levels. A smelter official in the town of Port Pirie in South Australia said that “given reasonable care and hygiene, then you can live with the levels of contamination from past emissions.”

Despite this official’s assurance, lead blood levels continued to be too high. In 1993, a report by the South Australian Health Commission admitted that the focus on children’s hygiene had not worked. Despite this conclusion, government efforts to address lead poisoning in other smelter towns during the 1990s continued to focus on household cleaning and children’s personal hygiene. A study of this history of these Australian efforts concluded that the government there did not want to offend the lead companies and that the companies were more concerned with losing profits than with reducing lead pollution.

Because the government was reluctant to antagonize business, its efforts focused on the home and placed the responsibility for protecting children on their parents, especially mothers given their more central role in household work and child care. The Australian experience with lead suggests that efforts to improve the environment need to focus more on the corporations that damage the environment than on the behavior of private citizens. The behavior of private citizens is certainly important, but efforts that do not focus sufficiently on the source of environmental hazards will ultimately fail to improve our environment. From the Australian experience, the United States has much to learn. (Bryson, McPhillips, & Robinson, 2009)

Beyond these general approaches to improving the environment that sociological insights suggest, there are a number of strategies and policies that the United States and other nations could and should undertake to help the environment. Although a full discussion of these is beyond the scope of this chapter, a recent report by the Center for American Progress (Madrid, 2010) recommended a number of actions for the United States to undertake, including the following:

  1. Establish mandatory electricity and natural gas reduction targets for utilities.
  2. Expand renewable energy (wind and sun) by setting a national standard of 25% of energy to come from renewable sources by 2025.
  3. Reduce deforestation by increasing the use of sustainable building materials and passing legislation to protect forests.
  4. Reduce the use of fossil fuels by several measures, including higher fuel economy standards for motor vehicles and closing down older coal-fired power plants.
  5. In cities, increase mass transit, develop more bicycle lanes, and develop more efficient ways of using electricity and water.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of our planet depends on the successful implementation of these and other policies. Because, as sociology emphasizes, the environmental problems that confront the world are the result of human activity, changes in human activity are necessary to save the environment.

Key Takeaways

  • Environmental problems are largely the result of human behavior and human decision making. Changes in human activity and decision making are thus necessary to improve the environment.
  • Environmental inequality and environmental racism are significant issues. Within the United States and around the world, environmental problems are more often found where poor people and people of color reside.

For Your Review

  1. Pretend you are on a debate team and that your team is asked to argue in favor of the following resolution: Be it resolved, that air and water pollution is primarily the result of reckless human behavior rather than natural environmental changes. Using evidence from the text, write a two-minute speech (about 300 words) in favor of the resolution.
  2. How much of the environmental racism that exists do you think is intentional? Explain your answer.


Bryson, L., McPhillips, K., & Robinson, K. (2009). Turning public issues into private troubles: Lead contamination, domestic labor, and the exploitation of women’s unpaid labor in Australia. In L. King & D. McCarthy (Eds.), Environmental sociology: From analysis to action (2nd ed., pp. 80–92). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bullard, R. D. (1990). Dumping in Dixie: Race, class, and environmental quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Bullard, R. D., & Johnson, G. S. (2009). Environmental justice: Grassroots activism and its impact on public policy decision making. In L. King & D. McCarthy (Eds.), Environmental sociology: From analysis to action (2nd ed., pp. 63–79). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Bullard, R. D., & Wright, B. (2009). Race, place, and the environment in post-Katrina New Orleans. In R. D. Bullard & B. Wright (Eds.), Race, place, and environmental justice after Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to reclaim, rebuild, and revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (pp. 19–48). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Dicum, G. (2006, March 14). Meet Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice. Grist Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.grist.org/article/dicum.

Evans, G. W., & Kantrowitz, E. (2002). Socioeconomic status and health: The potential role of environmental risk exposure. Annual Review of Public Health, 23(1), 303.

Fountain, H. (2010, June 15). Documents show risky decisions before BP blowout. The New York Times, p. A1.

Madrid, J. (2010). From a “green farce” to a green future: Refuting false claims about immigrants and the environment. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Mascarenhas, M. (2009). Environmental inequality and environmental justice. In K. A. Gould & T. L. Lewis (Eds.), Twenty lessons in environmental sociology (pp. 127–141). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, D., & King, L. (2009). Introduction: Environmental problems require social solutions. In L. King & D. McCarthy (Eds.), Environmental sociology: From analysis to action (2nd ed., pp. 1–22). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Nagel, J., Dietz, T., & Broadbent, J. (Eds.). (2010). Workshop on sociological perspectives on global climate change. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation and American Sociological Association.

Youngman, N. (2009). Understanding disaster vulnerability: Floods and hurricanes. In K. A. Gould & T. L. Lewis (Eds.), Twenty lessons in environmental sociology (pp. 176–190). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


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