Introduction to Sociology/Human Ecology and Environment
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Human Impact on the Environment
Global warming, while a major concern for a variety of reasons, will also affect some components of the eco-system that one might normally consider. For instance, the projected temperatures and CO2 levels that will accompany global warming lead to the rapid and expansive growth of plants that are typically considered weeds. The idea that some plants are "weeds" is actually a subjective understanding and illustrates social constructionism quite well; we construct the category of weeds to denote whichever plants we currently don't want to have in a specific location. What's more, weed scientists are well aware of the fact that weeds co-evolve with human efforts to eradicate them, which has made many plant species commonly seen as weeds even hardier than they were before humans began trying to eradicate them.
Some might wonder why there is so little action being taken by the U.S., the world's leading polluter and contributor to global warming, despite the government being aware of its role in global warming. There is some evidence to suggest that the reason is because of politics and greed.  Senators from states with large coal deposits are substantially more likely to oppose climate-friendly legislative proposals than are senators from other states. As political campaigns in the U.S. are largely funded by donations, and many of those come from companies and employees of large companies, it is likely the case that the monetary benefits derived by the large companies extracting coal translate into political opposition to climate-friendly policies. In a sense, then, short-term monetary gain is preventing the U.S. from taking action on long-term climate degradation.
Another reason why people are unwilling to take action on climate change is because of human psychology. People tend to prefer to focus on risks that have an identifiable perpetrator. Since the responsibility for climate change is diffused throughout all of humanity, it is difficult to pick a single perpetrator. Humans also tend to think about threats based on how immediate and salient they are; the consequences of climate change are neither immediate nor salient for most people.
Environmental Impact on Humans
Just as humans influence the environment, the environment influences human behavior. For instance, instances of "uncomfortable" weather - i.e., very hot, humid, wet, or cold weather - changes who people call and how long they talk with them. People are more likely to call and talk longer with close family and friends during instances of bad weather.
The Social Psychology of Sustainability
Enabling Sustainable Living
Increasing Efficiency and Productivity
To sustain a future for all human life, we must continue to push the boundaries of technology. Automobiles have become more fuel efficient and produce much less pollution. Documents are now stored, copied, delivered, and produced electronically. Forget the copier machine, right click, copy, and then paste. From home appliances, to light bulbs, highways, buildings, and medicine, technological advances are certainly paving the road into the future. Who knew the 21st century would be so far ahead of it time?
Another vital step in sustaining future life is reducing consumption. For humans to inhabit the earth for centuries to come, we must obtain the ability to both consume and pollute less. Birth rates are continually dropping, due to the escalating numbers of educated and employed women in the world. However, the world is still at its full capacity. Many countries in the world have tried to reduce consumption, but many have simply given up or have not yet witnessed the constructive outcomes. Ideas such as, rewarding those who recycle, carpool, use public transportation, and use environmental friendly equipment to power their homes would be a great place to start. On the other hand, we must also penalize those who add to the over consumption of resources. Fine, ticket, tax, or charge those who drive separately. Those who leave their light on in their homes 24 hours of the day, drive three-hundred miles for vacation in an S.U.V., and throw away every piece of trash instead of recycling. Robert Frank, an economist well-versed in social psychology, suggests how a socially responsible market economy might reward achievement while promoting more sustainable consumption.
Intriguingly, Americans favor conservation and reduced consumption, but many don't practice what they preach. For instance, 88% of Americans say it is important to recycle but only 51% often or always do. Changing attitudes about the environment is often easier than changing behaviors.
The Social Psychology of Materialism and Wealth
Increased materialism is most evident in the United States, as one poll clearly represents, Gallup Poll, 1 in 2 women, 2 in 3 men, and 4 in 5 people earning more than $75,000 a year would like to be rich. More and more individuals want to be wealthy during their life, rather than making an effort at living a meaningful life.
Wealth and Well-Being
Can you buy happiness with money? Or maybe even your well-being? Sadly, no, it can’t. There is little, if any, correlation between wealth and well-being. Studies have shown that regardless of how wealthy an individual is, his or her well-being is highly (almost indefinitely) not going to change. In poor countries, where low income threatens basic needs, being relatively well-off does predict greater well-being. Once an individual becomes wealthy, there is an increase in happiness that will only last for short period of time till that individual is no longer happy. Then, even more money and wealth are needed to be content with that individual’s well-being. According to David Lykken, “People who go to work in their overalls and on the bus are just as happy, on the average, as those in suits who drive to work in their own Mercedes” (p. 17). Even the super-rich, the Forbes 100 wealthiest Americans, report only slightly greater happiness than average.
Why Materialism Fails to Satisfy
Materialism fails to satisfy the individual who strive to gain as much as they can in their life time. Those who strive for power, money, and wealth live their lives at a much lower sense of well-being. Those who strive to achieve person growth, wisdom, and knowledge live their lives with a much higher sense of well-being. Being materialistic and obtaining a personal well-being from material objects will only results in a lower sense of well-being. So many things that used to be luxuries have now become necessities, by which an individual will measure there well-being. Eventually, everyone will have that luxury and the individual will feel they need yet another luxury that everyone else does not have, in order to promote their own well-being. The cycle will continue and the materialistic individuals will constantly need more to obtain a higher sense of personal well-being.
Towards Sustainability and Survival
To relieve our society of the materialistic nature in which it is engulfed, people must follow the steps of sustainability. Implementing programs and laws that reduce consumption, continue to improve technology, focus on efficiency, realize that wealth and well-being share no correlation, and promote economical growth. People must come together and concentrate their attention on the events which take place in the world instead of centering their focus on their selves. Through the study of social psychology, the world can better itself by contributing to the sustainability and survival of the world. The sooner people come to terms with materialism not leading to a better sense of well-being, the better of a place the world will become.
The New York Times recently ran an article about the storing of coal ash in Perry County Alabama from a massive spill in Tennessee. Perry County is almost 70% black and is a poor county. Thus, questions have been raised about whether the decision to store the coal ash in Perry County is illustrative of environmental racism. The claims of environmental racism are contrasted with the economic benefits to the county and people in the county that will result from the decision to store the polluting coal ash in the county.
- Christopher, Tom. 2008. “Can Weeds Help Solve the Climate Crisis?.” The New York Times, June 29 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/magazine/29weeds-t.html (Accessed February 11, 2010).
- Fisher, Dana. 2006. Bringing the Material Back In: Understanding the U.S. Position on Climate Change. Sociological Forum, Vol. 21, No. 3. (2006), pp. 467-494.
- Sunstein, Cass R. 2013. “People Don’t Fear Climate Change Enough.” BloombergView. Retrieved June 20, 2014 (http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2013-08-27/people-don-t-fear-climate-change-enough).
- Phithakkitnukoon, S., Leong, T. W., Smoreda, Z., & Olivier, P. (2012). Weather Effects on Mobile Social Interactions: A Case Study of Mobile Phone Users in Lisbon, Portugal. PLoS ONE, 7(10), e45745. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045745
- Leiserowitz, A. (in press) “Climate change risk perceptions and behavior in the United States,” in S. Schneider, A. Rosencranz, and M. Mastrandrea, eds. Climate Change Science and Policy. Island Press.
- Dewan, Shaila. 2009. “Clash in Alabama Over Tennessee Coal Ash.” The New York Times, August 30 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/us/30ash.html?partner=rss&emc=rss (Accessed August 30, 2009).
- ^ Frank, R. (1999). Luxury fever: Why money fails to satisfy in an era of excess. New York: Free Press.
- ^ Gallup Poll. (1990, July). Reported by G. Gallup, Jr., & F. Newport, Americans widely disagree on what constitutes “rich.” Gallup Poll Monthly, pp. 28-36.
- ^ Argyle, M. (1999). Causes and correlates of happiness. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwartz (Eds.), Foundations of hedonic psychology: Scientific perspectives on enjoyment and suffering. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- ^ Lykken, D.T. (1999). Happiness. New York: Golden Books.
- ^ Diener, E., Horowistz, J., & Emmons, R.A. (1985). Happiness of the very wealthy. Social Indicators, 16, 263-274.