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Environment and Sociology

Sociology can help us to understand how environmental problems are distributed in regions, countries and communities. For example although global warming will affect everyone on the planet, it will do so in different ways to different groups and communities.

Flooding kills many more people in low-lying, poor countries, such as Bangladesh, where housing and emergency infrastructures are less able to cope with severe weather than in Europe. In richer countries, such as the USA, the issues raised by global warming for policy- makers are likely to concern indirect effects, such as rising levels of immigration as people try to enter the country from areas more directly affected.

Sociologists can provide an account of how patterns of human behavior create pressure on the natural environment. The levels of pollution produced by industrialized countries would cause catastrophe if repeated in the world's poorer, non-industrial nations. Sociological theories of capitalist expansion, globalization or rationalization can help us to understand how human societies are transforming the environment.

 policies and proposals aimed at providing solutions to environmental problems. For example, some environmental activists argue that people in the rich countries must turn away from consumerism and return to simpler ways of life living close to the land if global ecological disaster is to be avoided. They argue that rescuing the global environment will thus mean radical social as well as technological change.

However, given the enormous global inequalities that currently exist, there is little chance that the poor countries of the developing world will sacrifice their own economic growth because of environmental problems created largely by the rich countries. For instance, some governments in developing countries have argued that in relation to global warming there is no parallel between the 'luxury emissions' produced by the developed world and their own 'survival emissions', In this way, sociological accounts of international relations and global inequality can clarify some of the underlying causes of the environmental problems we face today.

Although there are ideas within the work of the classical founders of sociology that have been pursued in an environmental direction by later sociologists, the environment was not a central problem of classical sociology. This situation became increasingly difficult once sociologists began to explore the problems identified by environmental campaigners.

The recent sociological studies of the environment have been characterized by a dispute amongst social constructionist and critical realist approaches over just how environmental issues should be studied sociologically.