The Environment as a Sociological Issue
The impact we have on our environment is a sociological issue from multiple perspectives. The first and most obvious is that all people share the environment, and thus any degradation affects all of us. This issue becomes critical when you examine it from a perspective of economic inequality, because those who do the most damage to the environment tend to be the ones who suffer last from pollution and environmental degradation such as dead bodies of water and desertification, while the poorest, who consume the least, suffer the most.
This effect is especially striking in the case of wealthy corporations increasing their profits by outsourcing to factories in a country with a cheap labor force and fewer environmental regulations such as China, where global warming caused in part from emissions from these very factories is causing desertification of farmland in the North, destroying farms and sending thousands of desperate, impoverished people from former farming communities to the cities in search of work. Almost invariably, they end up working in the factories, in a bitter circle of inequality that sends untold wealth to the pockets of wealthy executives.
Everywhere in the world, the poor are more likely to live near polluting factories and on polluted soil than the rich. No one wants to live near a refinery or a landfill if they have a choice, so the wealthier move away, and the poor live in the only homes they can afford, however undesirable or unhealthy. Poor communities accept municipal waste from big cities because of lucrative waste management contracts, but even in those cases usually only a few in the community benefit, while the poorest have to live with emissions and contaminants leaking from the landfill and the fleets of transport trucks servicing it. Poor communities accept contracts for storage of nuclear waste in their region, and again, few benefit while the poorest are put at risk. Companies whose processes produce polluting wastes are more likely to illegally dump those wastes in poor regions, knowing that the poor lack the resources to bring legal action against them.
In many countries, the poorest survive by picking through our discarded waste. We have made that all but impossible in the US, but not in the countries to which we ship our least-wanted waste. We in the US hide our garbage… out of sight, out of mind… and many of us think that the pollution from the products we buy doesn’t affect us or doesn’t exist because it’s half a world away, but every iPhone, every notebook computer, every Luna bar, yogurt cup, package of Tofurkey, and disposable paper Starbucks cup has an environmental price that is paid first by the impoverished, and then, eventually, by us.
How can we solve this problem of environmental degradation?
We can stop.
Stop buying stuff we don’t need. Stop buying disposable plastic toys, stop buying more clothes than we can (or even want to) wear, stop buying stuff that is contained within a disposable wrapper. It is not enough to recycle; the only way to interrupt the cycle is to minimize consumption on all levels.