Chapter 20. Population, Urbanization, and the Environment

Learning Objectives

20.1 Demography and Population

  • Understand demographic measurements, such as fertility, mortality, migration and growth rates.
  • Use population pyramids to visualize and compare population tendencies of different countries.
  • Compare demographic theories of population growth, including Malthusian, cornucopian, zero population growth, and demographic transition theories.
  • Describe current population trends and patterns.

20.2 Urbanization

  • Describe the history and process of urbanization in Canada.
  • Distinguish between different types of cities, including industrial, corporate, postmodern, megalopolis, slum and global cities.
  • Understand the formation of suburbs, exurbs, gentrification, transition zones and concentric zones within cities.
  • Analyze urbanization from various sociological perspectives, including social ecology, critical sociology, and interpretive sociology.

20.3 The Environment and Society

  • Outline the different sociological dimensions of the human relationship to the environment.
  • Apply the concepts of carrying capacity and the tragedy of the commons to the analysis of the human/environment relationship.
  • Analyze climate change from a sociological perspective, including the causes and impacts of climate change, the solutions to climate change, and the socio-political dynamics surrounding climate change.

Introduction to Population, Urbanization, and the Environment

A large plant with tall smokestacks and smoke rising up into the sky.
Figure 20.2 Fort McMurray, Alberta, is the hub that services the Athabasca tar sands. Its population grew by 23% between 2001 and 2006, and 29% between 2006 and 2011, but only by 9% between 2011 and 2016 and 1.3% between 2016 and 2021 (Statistics Canada, 2023). This volatility in the community reflects the effect of the boom and bust cycle of oil as a global commodity. As oil is an export commodity whose price depends on global market values, it is a fundamentally unstable source of capital accumulation. (Photo courtesy of Kris Krüg/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is the current geologic age the planet is living through. It follows upon the Holocene that began with the end of the last ice age 11,700 years ago. It is called “Anthropo” because it has been produced by the impact of human activity on the biosphere (Crutzen, 2002).

Whereas the 4.5 billion year history of the earth passed through numerous geologic ages and has seen the arrival and extinction of different classes of species, like the dinosaurs and giant megafauna, the Anthropocene is the first caused by the technological activities of a living species. Crutzen (2002) observed that the “Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.” Due to human emissions of greenhouse gases, global climate may deviate significantly from its natural patterns for thousands of years to come.

The Anthropocene raises fundamental sociological questions about the relationship between societies and the natural environment (Moore, 2016). What is the role of humans in the interconnected ecosystem of life? How have human institutions and activities, such as states, empires, global markets, urbanization, and more, impacted the entire planet? How can the goals of environmental sustainability and planetary survival be reconciled with resource exploitation and capitalist accumulation?

Extractivism and Environmental Sustainability

The development of the tar sands in Northern Alberta is a good example of these problems. The Alberta tar sands (or bituminous sands) in the northeast of the province have been recognized as an important petroleum resource since the 19th century, when the first extensive surveys were made. They cover about 140,000 square kilometres of boreal forest and muskeg, largely in the Athabasca River basin. The petroleum is in the form of crude bitumen, which is a dense, tar-like substance mixed with sand and clay (hence the name “tar sands”). Extracting bitumen and heavy oils from the tar sands requires pit mining or surface mining; processing the ore with water, steam, and caustic soda; and storing the toxic by-products in tailing ponds.

In 1967, when Suncor began the first intensive commercial development of the tar sands, oil was just over $3 a barrel, and the high cost of extracting oil from bitumen limited the rate at which the resource was developed. In 1967, Suncor produced 15,000 barrels per day. Jumping forward to the 21st century, from 2008 to 2011, at prices that sometimes exceeded $100 a barrel, production was projected to double, from 1.9 million barrels per day in 2010 to 3.8 million barrels per day by 2023. Industry projected that eventually 9 million barrels of bitumen would be produced per day (Gosselin et al. 2010; Grant, Angen, and Dyer 2013). Even with the crash of the oil market in 2014, crude bitumen production continued to climb and totaled about 3.3 million barrels per day in 2021 (Government of Alberta, 2023). Canada is producing more oil and gas than ever before, yet fossil fuels are a major contributor to global temperature increase from accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Lee, 2021).

The controversy over developing the tar sands sets two competing logics against one another: environmental sustainability versus capital accumulation. Environmental sustainability is the degree to which a human activity can be sustained without damaging or undermining basic ecological support systems. Environmental critics of the tar sands development note that the bitumen extraction process requires vast amounts of energy, fresh water, and land, while producing significant environmental impacts in the form of greenhouse gases, reduction in air quality, destruction of peat bogs and wetlands, and accumulation of toxic waste in tailing ponds (Grant, Angen, and Dyer 2013). There are also health impacts: local Indigenous groups have experienced a 30% greater risk of cancer over the total expected cancer rates since 1998 (Droitsch and Simieritsch, 2010). These are factors in addition to the basic problem of sustainability — they involve human reliance on fossil fuels in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change.

On the other hand, Canada has a capitalist economy based on private investment and capital accumulation (although both the federal and provincial governments have invested in tar sands development at various times). Capital accumulation refers to the reinvestment of profit to increase private capital assets (i.e., rather than for any specific public good). A sizable portion of the Canadian economy depends on a capital accumulation strategy of extractivism: the accelerated extraction of oil from bitumen to satisfy a global demand for fossil fuels and to provide economic growth and tax revenue. Five corporations with tremendous power to influence public policy dominate the sector: Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, and Husky Energy (Hussey et al., 2021). In 2017, these five corporations had a revenue of over $115.2 billion, a net income of more than $13.7 billion, and assets valued in excess of $278.8 billion. Extracting hydrocarbons from bitumen is an energy intensive process that increases greenhouse gas emissions (in addition to the atmospheric carbon from burning the fossil fuels themselves). But with large sections of the working class, financial institutions like banks and pension funds, and governments currently dependent on the carbon economy and its long-term return on investment, it is difficult to see a path to meeting Paris Accords and “net zero” commitments to significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Hussey et al. (2021) describe the dilemma of the two competing logics:

Over the past decade or so, concerns about “peak oil” — fears that the supply of oil is running out — have largely waned. As the climate crisis deepens, however, a world dependent on fossil fuels has been confronted with a new problem: oil that can be extracted from known reserves but cannot subsequently be burned…. If the Paris Agreement’s 2°C limit to global warming is to be met, some 60% to 80% of global fossil fuel reserves must remain underground, thereby becoming stranded assets.

A “stranded asset” is as untenable for capital accumulation as continued burning of fossil fuels is for environmental sustainability.

How does sociological research help us understand and respond to these issues?

As the competing frameworks for understanding the Alberta tar sands illustrate, there are important societal issues connected to humans’ relationship to the environment. These affect how and where people live, as well as the sustainability of how and where people live. Sociologists begin to examine these issues through demography (the study of population dynamics), urban sociology (the study of the growth of cities), and environmental sociology (the study of human interaction with natural ecosystems).

Today, humans are at a point of conflict with the carrying capacity of the planet. The world’s population has recently reached 8 billion (United Nations, 2022). Can the planet sustain such a population? Is this the right question to ask?

Just from the point of view of the waste generated by human consumption, the problems seem insurmountable. Humans in the global north generate more trash than ever, from Tim Hortons’ coffee cups to single-use plastics, to obsolete cell phones with toxic chemicals, to food waste that could be composted. Where is it all going? Until it developed the Green Lane landfill site, the city of Toronto sent up to 140 garbage trucks a day across the border to Michigan State. When the Green Lane site is full in 2027, it is unclear where the trash will go (Hasham 2013).

Moreover, the location of the landfill is a prime example of environmental racism: the unequal access to a clean environment and basic environmental resources based on race. The landfill was purchased from private property that neighboured the Oneida Nation. In an agreement with the city of Toronto, the Oneida Nation receives a percentage of the revenue from the landfill, but residents still have to put up with smell and rats (Albert, 2018). Cities and city-living create new challenges for both society and the environment. Interactions between people and places are critically important to understanding social issues.

On the other hand, out of the 8 billion human inhabitants of the world, “two thirds of people were living in places where fertility rates had fallen below the so-called ‘replacement level’ of 2.1 births per woman” (United Nations Population Fund, 2023). This would suggest that the idea of a “population bomb” or crisis of exponential population growth is not the main problem. When it comes to the carrying capacity of the planet, it is the wealthy who produce the most emissions per capita and have the most impact on climate change. Out of the total population of 8 billion individuals, approximately 5.5 billion people earn less than $10 per day, which limits their ability to consume and have a significant impact on emissions, if they have any impact at all. In fact, in places like Europe and North America where fertility is low, underpopulation is increasingly seen as the problem as populations age and labour forces diminish. This feeds into fears about immigration, the decline of traditional national identities, and the proliferation of conspiratorial thinking like the “great replacement” theory about the extinction of the “white race.”

Structural Functionalism

How do sociologists approach these issues? Structural functionalists note that one of the primary functions that any society needs to perform to ensure its survival is to adapt to the environment. In Talcott Parsons’ AGIL schema (see Chapter 1. Introduction), adaptation is the first of the primary “needs” that a society has to satisfy (1961). For Parsons, the economic system is the human structure that performs the function of adapting to the natural environment in order to provide for human needs. In a functionalist analysis, when the operation of one system — like the economic system — conflicts with the other systems (like the planetary ecological system on which human society depends), disequilibrium and dysfunction are felt throughout society.

In the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, this point was illustrated by showing contrasting images of living in balance with nature with images of living out of balance with nature. The title Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indigenous word meaning “life out of balance.” In the scenes depicting the lifestyle of the fast-paced, urban, consumer society, people pass by in fast motion like sausages on an assembly line. Not only is the economy unhinged from nature in this film, but individual life is shown to have lost meaningful connection with the natural world it is embedded in. One type of question that can be asked from a functionalist perspective is therefore: How can society be organized in a functional manner that restores balance with nature?

A coloured drawing depicting lines of Hopi dancers in traditional ceremonial clothing celebrating a corn dance.
Figure 20.3 A traditional Hopi Corn Dance. A society’s rituals can integrate humans into nature or reinforce their alienation. (Figure courtesy of Tonita Peña/Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 4.0 

Critical Sociology

A critical sociologist will note that disequilibrium in a society’s relationship with the environment does not “just happen.” From the critical sociology point of view, changes in the human/nature relationship have to be examined as outcomes of relations of power and patterns of capital investment and resource extraction. Colonialism and capitalism developed by promoting unrestricted exploitation of natural resources for short-term private profit. These were world changing, global processes based on the concept of “cheap nature” (Moore, 2016). They are systems in which non-economic values — such as community life, ecological systems, and long-term sustainability — have no role in economic calculations of returns on investment. Whereas the commons that sustain life are shared natural resources like air, water or land accessible to all members of a society, as commons they have no direct value in capital accumulation.

In addition, because of the history of global power relations, the issues affecting the environment are not distributed equally around the world. Drought and famine, population pressure on limited resources, slum cities, and lax controls on toxic waste are prominent environmental issues that are major issues in parts of the world. In other parts of the world, people consume resources, throw away surplus, and contribute to global warming at unsustainable rates. From this point of view, “overpopulation” is not the problem of too many people for the earth’s carrying capacity — the distribution of resources is the problem. The United Nations Population Fund report (2023) notes anxiety about overpopulation (a) distracts attention from the serious, but solvable, problems of cutting emissions, redistributing wealth, and budgeting for infrastructure, health services and pension programs; and (b) tends to focus on fertility related solutions, which become a rationale for denying the rights and bodily autonomy of women and girls. 

Interpretive Sociology

Interpretive sociologists note that the human/environment relationship is a product of the meanings humans attribute to it. On a global or macro scale, the perception of catastrophic climate change “defines the situation” confronting humanity and leads to various responses to it. These range from deep mistrust of the modern institutions, technology, and science that produced the problems, to the negotiation of international climate agreements to try to resolve them. As Ulrich Beck (1996) puts it, “How does modern society deal with self generated manufactured uncertainties?” Catastrophic climate change is a monumental uncertainty manufactured by human activities, a source of collective anxiety and uncertainty that humans themselves have created. Addressing it requires coming to consensus over the definition of the situation.

At a micro level, symbolic interactionists interested in the daily interaction of groups and individuals might research topics such as how attitudes toward the environment change through the impact of influencers, how individuals negotiate contradictory messages about industrial development and the environment, or how new practices in everyday life (such as recycling, green technologies, bicycling, the “100-mile” diet, and veganism) emerge from environmental concerns. One interesting question is how discredited theories that challenge global warming research continue to circulate and produce doubt about the effects of greenhouse gases. The divide between what is a publicly credible theory and what is not remains more of a symbolic interaction matter than pure science per se.

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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