# 8.7: Population and the Environment

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## Population and the Environment

Social Problems in the News

“India’s Air the World’s Unhealthiest,” the headline said. A study by researchers at Columbia and Yale Universities ranked India as having the worst air pollution on the planet. India’s levels of one component of air pollution, fine particulate matter, were almost five times higher than the safe level for humans. The head of an Indian environmental organization attributed her country’s air problem to its numbers of motor vehicles. Although India has fewer vehicles per capita than wealthy nations, its vehicles are very polluting, and it still has a very high number of vehicles because of its huge population. Adding that India has very weak emission standards, she called for stronger standards: “We need to take big steps or the problem will overwhelm us.”

Source: Timmons & Vyawahare, 2012Timmons, H., & Vyawahare, M. (2012, February 1). India’s air the world’s unhealthiest, study says. New York Times. Retrieved from http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/2002/2001/indias-air-the-worlds-unhealthiest-study-says.

This news story reminds us that air pollution is a worldwide problem. The story also reminds us that a major reason for India’s air pollution problem is its sheer population size, as India ranks second in the world with 1.2 billion people, just behind China. As India’s example suggests, population and environmental problems are often intertwined.

This chapter examines problems such as food scarcity and climate change associated with population growth and the environment. We will see that these problems raise complex issues without easy solutions, but we will also see that these are urgent problems that must be addressed. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the earth depends on adequate solutions to these problems.

## Sociological Perspectives on Population and the Environment

##### Learning Objectives
1. Understand the perspectives that functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism offer on population and the environment.

As usual, the major sociological perspectives offer insights that help us understand issues relating to population growth and to the environment. Table 15.1 summarizes their assumptions.

Table 15.1 Theory Snapshot

 Theoretical Perspective Major Assumptions Funtionalism Population and the environments affect each other. Normal population growth is essential for any society, but population growth that is too great too little leads to various problems. Environmental problems are to be expected in an industrial society, but severe environmental problems are dysfunctionals. Conflict Theory Population growth is not a serious problems because the world has sufficient food and other resources, all of which must to be more equitably distributed. The practices of multinational corporation and weak regulation of these practices account for many environment problems. Symbolic Interactionism People have certain perceptions and understanding of population and environmental issues. Their social backgrounds affect these perceptions, which are important to appreciate if population and environmental problems are to be addressed.

## Functionalism

Functionalism considers population growth and its various components (birth, death, and migration) as normal and essential processes for any society. A society certainly cannot survive if it loses members, but it can thrive only if it grows so that it can meet future challenges. Functionalism also considers pollution and other environmental problems to be an inevitable consequence of today’s society, but it assumes that environmental problems that are too severe are certainly dysfunctional for society.

The reasons for the importance of population growth depend on the type of a society’s economy. For example, agricultural and other nonindustrial societies need high birth rates to counteract their high death rates. Industrial societies have lower death rates, but they still need to be able to hire younger workers as older workers retire, while new industries need to be able to count on hiring enough young workers with the skills and knowledge these industries require. However, population growth that is too rapid and severe can be dysfunctional for a society. Such growth creates crowding and can use up valuable resources such as food, and it can also harm the environment.

As this discussion suggests, functionalism emphasizes how the population and environment affect each other. Population growth leads to certain environmental problems, as we shall see, while environmental problems have important consequences for the populations for whole nations and even the world. At the same time, several industrial nations today actually do not have enough population growth to provide sufficient numbers of younger workers to replace retiring workers and to maintain their tax bases. While too much population growth causes many problems, then, too little population growth also causes problems.

## Conflict Theory

Conflict theory does not consider population growth to be a serious problem. Instead, it assumes that the earth has enough food and other resources to meet the needs of its growing population. To the extent that food shortages and other problems meeting these needs exist, these problems reflect decisions by economic and political elites in poor nations to deprive their peoples of food and other resources; they also reflect operations by multinational corporations that deprive these nations of their natural resources. If population growth is a problem, then, it is a problem not because there is a lack of food and other resources, but rather because these resources are not distributed fairly. To the extent this is true, efforts to satisfy the world’s need for food and other resources should focus on distributing these resources more equitably rather than on limiting population growth.

At the same time, conflict theory recognizes that many poor nations still have population growth that is more than desirable. The theory blames this growth on the failure of these nations’ governments to make contraceptives readily available and to do everything possible to increase women’s education and independence (which both reduce their birth rates).

In regard to a particular population issue we will discuss (immigration), conflict theory emphasizes the role played by racial and ethnic prejudice in popular views on immigration. It generally favors loosening restrictions on immigration into the United States and making it possible for undocumented immigrants to become US citizens if they so desire.

Conflict theory also assumes that the world’s environmental problems are not inevitable and instead arise from two related sources. First, multinational corporations engage in practices that pollute the air, water, and ground. Second, the United States and other governments fail to have strong regulations to limit corporate pollution, and they fail to adequately enforce the regulations they do have.

## Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism offers four kinds of understandings of population and environmental problems. First, it seeks to understand why people engage or do not engage in activities related to population growth and other problems (e.g., the use of contraception) and to environmental problems (e.g., recycling). In order to address population growth and environmental problems, it is important to understand why people become involved, or fail to become involved, in various activities related to these problems.

Second, it emphasizes people’s perceptions of population and environmental problems. To the extent that public attitudes play a key role in the persistence of these problems, it is important to know the reasons for public views on these problems so that efforts to address the problems may be better focused.

Finally, symbolic interactionism emphasizes that people from different social backgrounds and from different cultures may have different understandings of population issues and of environmental issues. For example, someone who grows up in a rural area may consider even a small city to be incredibly crowded, while someone who grows up in a large city may consider a small city to be too tiny and lacking in museums, restaurants, and other amenities that large cities offer.

## Key Takeaways

1. Functionalism recognizes the problems arising from population growth that is too rapid, but disagrees on the extent to which overpopulation is a serious problem.
2. Conflict theory attributes world hunger to inequalities in the distribution of food rather than to overpopulation.
3. Symbolic interactionism considers people’s perceptions and activities regarding population (e.g., contraception) and the environment.

## For Your Review

1. Which of the three major perspectives—functionalism, conflict theory, or symbolic interactionism—seems to have the best approach in how it understands population and environmental issues? Explain your answer.

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