Professor Marshall

LESSON 20: Population, Urbanization and the Environment

Lesson 20

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Explain terms and concepts basic to the study of population and demography

Understand issues related to urbanization

Characterize problems related to society and the environment

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can define basic demographic terms

You can articulate basic demographic theory

You can classify trends related to population fluctuations

You can apply basic sociological concepts to issues of climate change

You can characterize issues of environmental racism

You can apply basic sociological theory to issues related to the envirnment

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 20 of your text.

2. COMPLETE the lesson below.


Demography is a topic that is vastly important in today's society. The field of demography can tell the world many things: trends with various populations, what has changed within a population in a given amount of time, birth rates, death rates, and much more. Demographers do this using various tools and models.

Thomas Robert Malthus

Born in 1766, Rev. Malthus was a British scholar. While other theorists believed it was possible for a population to perfect itself and society to continually improve. Malthus believed that "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man (Malthus 5)." Malthus published six editions of his most famous writing, An Essay on the Principle of Population. Each edition incorporated new material and addressed criticism. It was Malthus' belief that in time, every population would suffer either from famine or disease, or the cost of subsistence would be so great the entire population could no longer be supported. If Malthus' theories are correct, then population will be a major social problem for every society. He proposed several solutions to keep this from happening. The first solution is a check that holds the population within its resources by raising the death rate, known as a positive check. The other check has the same effect, lowering the birth rate, known as a preventative check. Additionally, he criticized the notion that agriculture could be infinitely expanded and improved to support an increasing population, though he admitted he was unsure what the limit was. Lastly, Malthus put an emphasis on moral restraint, such as abstinence and waiting to have children until you could support a family.

Malthus led the way in research and theory regarding population in his time and laid the foundation for theories that we use today.

Zero Population Growth

Zero population growth (ZPG; and also called the replacement level of fertility) means that, demographically, the number of people in a population does not grows or declines. Some groups consider this to be a positive social outcome for societies and the world, for myriad issues related to long-term sustainability of our planet. Zero population growth is a goal of some demographic planners who believe that reducing population growth is essential for the overall health of Earth's ecosystems. By practicing SPG, it is asserted that cultural traditions and ethnic diversity will be maintained and preserved.

Even if there is zero population growth, there may be changes in demographics related to important economic factors as well as matters related to aging.

Cornucopian Theory

There are some theorists who believe that our supply of resources is infinite, thus the symbol of the cornucopia:


Theorists who ascribe to this theory say that we could tap an infinite supply of resources by exploiting outer space. As an argument in favor of their theory, they point out that in the past, every time we have feared that we are about to run out of something, we have found more of it, (or have found an acceptable substitute)—they believe this pattern will continue indefinitely. This theory also leans somewhat on human exemptionalism theory, which essentially asserts that the capacity for humans to think allows us to exist based on different rules and laws than those which govern other living animals.

As an example of cornucopia theory, economist Julian Simon (1994) stated that "[w]e now have in our hands - in our libraries really - the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years." (as qtd. in Scarcity or Abundance: A Debate on the Environment. WW Norton, pg 65). Coincidentally, many modern economists in wealthy nations also believe that our economic gains can be infinite.

Demographic Transition Theory

Demographic Transition Theory (DTT) is used to demonstrate and predict change in population. It has four confirmed stages, with a theorized fifth stage. The first, second, third, and fourth stages can be compared to nearly any modern nation or civilization and be seen as accurate.

Before delving too deeply into DTT, it is important to understand a few terms.

Birth Rate: the number of live births per year per one thousand people in the population.

Death Rate: the number of deaths per year per one thousand people in the population.

Population: total number of people in any given area of space, such as a country.

Demographic Transition Model

Stage one  of DTT is when a population is being formed and "pre-modern." Both birth and death rates are extremely high, 30-50 per thousand. This is due to lack of technology, low age-expectancy, high infant mortality rate, religious beliefs, need for workers, and lack of family planning. Death rates are high due to disease, famine, lack of clean water, war, competition for food, and lack of health care. Because the birth and death rates are similar, the population slowly increases.

Stage two  of DTT presents itself when the death rate begins to decline at a rapid rate and the birth rate declines slowly. Urbanization and industrialization lead to healthier habitats, food, and the ability for people to live longer. Everything begins to improve and the death rate lowers, but the birth rate remains high. As the birth rate is still extremely high while the death rate rapidly declines, the population booms. It can double or triple in a single generation. Of the four confirmed stages, stage two and three account for the most population growth.

Stage three  of DTT occurs when a nation is fully industrialized. The birth rate slowly approaches the death rate and the population continues to rise, but begins to stabilize. Jobs, food, housing, and medicine are all available.

Stage four  of DTT is the fourth and final confirmed stage. This stage is manifested by low birth and death rates, and thus a stabilization of the population. This can be witnessed today in many countries around the world. The population is neither growing nor declining at a rapid rate, and the birth and death rates are roughly 10 per thousand (Montgomery).

The first four stages are widely considered to be a reliable model for newly developed and developing countries, while the fifth stage is as of yet widely unknown. However, there are important predictions as to what happens after the fourth stage. Countries such as the USA, Sweden, Japan, and Britain are all used as examples of countries that DTT correctly describes. It is for that reason that it is so important to know what stage five could bring.

Stage Five

Today's developed countries are all sitting in an idle state of non-fluctuation. The population will periodically dip or rise, but only periodically, and it seems to always balance out—with rare exception. This all but asks, "What's next?" The truth is, no one has that answer. However, there is much speculation as to what a possible fifth stage of Demographic Transition Theory could look like. It could be many things: a prolonged stage four, a dramatic dip or rise in population, or a steady decline or rise.

When Demographic Transition Theory was developed, in the mid 1900's, most developed nations were approaching or had just reached stage four. Thus there was little room for anything but solid observations as to what had happened, not necessarily what would happen. 70 years later, there has been plenty of time to develop theory and predictions about stage five.

Though it is hard to say for sure or not if we are entering the fifth stage of DTT yet, many people believe we are. In fact, there are three main indicators people believe show we are entering the fifth stage: firstly, stage four has a low birth rate. Stage five has a very low birth rate. Secondly, a low death rate, and thirdly, a slow decrease of the total population. In stage four, there is similarly a low death rate, but the main change is the extremely low birth rate. This causes the population to age, and eventually, to decline. According to Edward Morgan, a 4th year student at University of St Andrews, "The birth rate is the lowest the human race has ever experienced and for the first time since the Stone Age (excepting medieval plagues), the total population of some developed countries are in decline (Morgan)."

What Stage Five Looks Like

Some of the results of this very-low-birth-rate trend are quite interesting. For example, highly technological societies such as those in Europe, allow for an empowerment of women never before seen in history. If women are not having children, they are working, leading, or contributing to society in any number of heretofore unknown ways (Morgan) . Commonly discussed in sociological circles, women 'swapping' children for careers is becoming more and more common. If women choose to pursue careers, they are less likely to have children (or enough to account for their place in society) and the birth rate—as well as the total fertility rate—begin to decline. On the other hand, it benefits the couple and any child financially by allowing both parents to work and the income to be used for other things.

In addition to women being more prominent in the workplace, a stage five society can also have inter-generational relationships. Due to the extended life expectancy of those in a stage five society, someone has the possibility of developing lasting relationship not only with their parents, but also grandparents, and even great grandparents. In a less developed society, the life expectancy is shorter and the relationships stick to one or two generations. And yet, I have a friend who has a great great grandmother that is still living. It is truly incredible what technology and cleanliness can do.

In his article, Morgan mentions that even though Europe has a declining fertility rate (below the population replacement rate), it's population is still growing. This is only possible due to one thing: a severe influx of immigrants. The effect immigrants have on a nation, or multiple nations, cannot be overstated. It adds new cultures, combines cultures, and creates many minorities. This has both positive and negative effects. Multiculturalism creates an atmosphere where people almost have to stay open minded, but also puts stress on the system and people. Often times, immigrants remain in groups when they immigrate, choosing to isolate themselves instead of become a part of their new society. Morgan uses the example of the conflict between three groups of British people: the far-right, the English Defence League, and British Muslims. There are issues and conflict that arise from the difference in views, and the separation can be seen in the make-up of the British Parliament (Morgan).

In summary, a stage five society results in the empowerment of women in the workplace, inter-generational relationships, and an influx of immigration. However, the immigration is only a temporary solution to a potentially permanent problem. That is, immigration can only be sustained for so long. In order to account for the drop in population due to the extremely low birth rate, societies will have to consider other options.

What Stage 5 Means for the United States of America

The Population Replacement Rate, or PRR, is the number of children each couple needs to have in order to replace the population. For several years now, the United States has had a total fertility rate that is below the Population Replacement Rate. Currently, it is at 1.8. America has long been a stage four society. Today, many would say it is certain America is well beyond stage four and that the model is outdated as a representation of America. In other words, America has less babies being born than people dying. In the end, the result of this is a decline in population. Sure, immigration can (and has, to this day) aid in keeping the population afloat in the short-term but it cannot be sustained. The U.S. birth rate is lower today than any time since the 1920s. The only reason the overall population is still increasing is due to immigration (Morgan).

People need to consider what will happen when immigration stops keeping our population steady. The disadvantages to a declining population are abundant. Firstly, there will be economic downsides. These include a reduction in the labor force, a fall in gross domestic product, and an inability to most efficiently use our available resources (Makama). When there are less young workers than old non-workers, Social Security will be impacted as there may not be enough money to support the elderly. Retirement age will increase dramatically. There will be less mobility of labor. As the average age of the population increases there is increased risk of invasion. Another result of an aging population is a higher dependency ratio, both from the elderly and the children. As the number of untaxed people increases (when more people retire) and the number of workers decreases those that are working will be more heavily taxed. This causes a chain reaction that goes from less people being taxed, to less demand for goods and services, to lower rewards associated with production of goods (Makama).

The United States, even in its current economic depression, is far better off now than it will be if it continues toward under-population. In order to retain its current productivity and the benefits that come with a sustained population, things will have to change in the U.S., and the sooner the better.

Urbanization and Millenials

Most of you belong to the Millennial cohort. Millennials are also known as Generation Y and were born in the years spanning e early 1980s through early 2000. Descriptions of Millennials vary widely depending on the researcher and researcher's academic orientation. Some researchers describe Millennials as being confident and tolerant and predict outcome of civic mindedness as the group ages. Others however defined Millennials as narcissistic, with a sense of entitlement and increased detachment from institutions in society.

What isn't argued about millennial is that as they reach adulthood, they have some traits which set them apart from prior cohorts:

  • Education: millennial have higher level of education than any group in American history.
  • Student debt: along with higher levels of education, millennial carry exorbitant amounts of student debt into their adult lives with them.
  • Unemployment: as baby boomers retire job prospects should be abundant for millennial; unfortunately, this group tends to be unemployed and underemployed at a higher rate than other adult cohorts today.

One interesting demographic characteristic of the Millennial is where many of them are choosing to live. Millennials (and also the elderly, although they are not a part of this lesson) are increasingly moving into urban areas. Preferring urban environments to suburban environments, Millennials want to live in places where there is abundant cultural stimulation as well as a variety of activities in which they can engage. Many Millennials choose not to purchase cars, instead opting to live in urban areas where all of their needs can be met the public transportation or proximity to everything they need. This is contributing to increased revitalization of many of our cities in America – as Millennials begin to live in our cities many neglected pocket of some of our largest urban areas experience a revival or regrowth. Conversely, this can also contribute to a negative growth concern in our suburban areas. When many well – off Americans fled the city in the 1950s and 60s, creating large, self-contained sprawling suburban districts, urban centers in cities began to fall into disrepair. Businesses moved out in order to locate themselves closer to well off populations in the suburbs. Those left behind in the city were often faced with urban decay, high unemployment rates, and a lack of services. This caused cities to languish for many years.

Today, with Millennials choosing to move into urban environments, we may see a revitalization of many of our long neglected urban environments.

How Sociologists Study the Environment

Rotating Earth

While some sociologists specialize in environmental sociology and the science of climate change, most environmental sociologists have a broader perspectives which relates specifically to the human connection to our physical environment. Rather than being caught up in the scientific debate of statistics and data, environmental sociologists want to understand how humans are impacted by changes to the physical environment and further, how humans will interact with each other as changes to the environment take place.

Changes to our environment can cause significant challenges for human and for societies around the world by increasing political and social instability. As people of the world migrate they bring with them social, economic, political, and cultural values which often clash with other groups. Thus, environmental sociologists want to try to understand how the physical environment and the resources (or lack of resources) we have here on earth in our countries contribute to these types of instability.

Along with understanding these fundamental concerns, environmental sociologists also study environmental stratification – that is to say, how different groups have access to different environments and how these environments can be either safe or unsafe for those who live in them. The environmental justice movement springs from this type of understanding. As an example, watch this short film:

What is Environmental Racism?

Environmental Air Quality: CA

Just as we now know that a person's class can impact their life chances in many ways, so can their physical environment. One of the less obvious ways in which a person is impacted by class matters is where they live. Often, the poor live in areas which are more polluted and less environmentally and less physically safe than other areas. Environmental racism is" the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Defined, environmental racism is "inequality in the form of racism linked with environmental factors and processes that cause disproportionate stress on minority communities. Environmental racism is often used to describe specific policies, events, political maneuvers and outcomes which target minority communities for the placement of polluting industries and factories--further, it can be tied to the exclusion of minorities from the decision making process in their communities." Environmental justice is a movement in response to environmental racism.

The most significant problems facing peoples of color are institutional and cultural racism which result in discrimination in access to services, goods and opportunities. Institutional racism involves polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities' access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities. Systemic racism is the basis of individual and institutional racism; it is the value system that is embedded in a society that supports and allows discrimination. Institutional and systemic racism establishes separate and independent barriers. Institutional racism does not have to result from purposeful action (human agency) or intention. Thus, racial discrimination can occur in institutions even when the institution does not intend to make distinctions on the basis of race.

In the context of racism, power is a necessary precondition for discrimination. Racism depends on the ability to give or withhold social benefits, facilities, services, opportunities etc., from someone who is entitled to them, and is denied on the basis of race, color or national origin. The source of power can be formal or informal, legal or illegal, and is not limited to traditional concepts of power. Intent is irrelevant; the focus is on the result of the behavior (


In recent years, environmental sociology has become a very popular field of study. While other sciences try to wrestle with the mechanics of environmental issues, sociology tries to shed light on the human element--that is to say, how are people impacted by the environment? The three major theoretical perspectives help us to pivot around the issue and see if from different points of view:

Environmental Theory

As we can see from these perspectives, issues about the environment don't exist until we identify them as such--for many years during the early Industrial Revolution in the West, urban centers had much worse air quality than many of our major cities do today--then, the air quality was considered an unfortunate byproduct of a changing world. Not until the last several decades has there been a concentrated effort by many groups and individuals to change the way we view air quality and air pollution. Environmental hazards are now viewed by most as something that must be mitigated in order for groups to have the best possible quality of life.

Common Environmental Hazards

Oftentimes minority communities bear the brunt of environmental hazards due to their proximity to densely populated urban areas. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a few of the most prominent examples of environmental hazards include the following:

  • Lead—There is a high concentration of lead problems in low-income communities where the public housing units were built before 1970.
  • Waste sites—Low income and minority populations are more likely than other groups to live near landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste treatment facilities.
  • Air pollution—57% of all European Americans, 65% of African Americans, and 80% of Hispanic Americans live in communities that have failed to meet at least one of EPA's air quality standards.
  • Pesticides—Approximately 90% of the 2 million hired farm workers in the United States are people of color, including Chicano, Puerto Ricans, Caribbean blacks, and African Americans. Through direct exposure to pesticides, farm workers and their families may face serious health risks.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), there is a statistically significant correlation between the location of hazardous waste facilities and the ethnic background of an area's residents. In predominantly minority areas, voter registration and education are often lower than average, and citizens are less likely to challenge proposals or seek financial compensation for environmental and health damages. Further, controversial projects are less likely to be sited in areas expected to pursue collective action. Some studies also suggest that the lack of protest could be due to fear of losing area jobs. Non-minority communities are more likely to succeed when opposing the siting of hazardous waste and sewage treatment facilities, incinerators, and freeways in their areas.

While some social scientists see the siting of hazardous facilities in minority communities as a demonstration of intentional racism, others see the causes as structural and institutional. Again regardless of the intent, this is considered to be racism by definition. Processes such as suburbanization, gentrification, and decentralization lead to patterns of environmental racism even without intentionally discriminatory policies. For example, the process of suburbanization (or white flight) consists of non-minorities leaving industrial zones for safer, cleaner, and less expensive suburban locales. Meanwhile, minority communities are left in the inner cities and in close proximity to polluted industrial zones. In these areas, unemployment is high and businesses are less likely to invest in area improvement, creating poor economic conditions for residents and reinforcing a social formation that reproduces racial inequality.

What Groups are Impacted by Environmental Racism?

Many groups are impacted by environmental racism. Read the article "Environmental Racism: Old Wine in a New Bottle" to get an overview of the problem. While environmental racism occurs worldwide, of particular importance to us in America are the effects of environmental racism on Native American Nations.

Effects on Native American Nations

In the past, the US Army, as sanctioned by the government, used several tactics to remove the Native Americans from their land. First, the American Bison was hunted almost to extinction in the 1870s--the Army encouraged these hunts to force Native Americans off their traditional lands and into reservations further west. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears are also considered early examples of environmental racism in the United States. By 1850, all tribes east of the Mississippi had been removed to western lands, essentially confining them to "lands that were too dry, remote, or barren to attract the attention of settlers and corporations." Later, during World War II, military facilities were often located close to or aside reservations, leading to a situation in which a disproportionate number of the most dangerous military facilities in the US are located near Native American lands. More recently, Native American lands have been used for waste disposal by the United States and multinational corporations, but illegal dumping poses a greater threat.

What is the Environmental Justice Movement?

The term "environmental justice" (EJ) emerged in the US in the first part of the 1980s, and it was coined to bring light to the unequal distribution of burdens and benefits of our environment and resources where we live, work and play. Today, while many disciplines study the environment, sociology uses the EJ movement to study not only unequal distribution of resources in the natural environment, but also the impacts to classes in society. The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines EJ as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies." One focus of the EJ movement is to seek redress due to unequal distributions of environmental burdens such as pollution, industrial facilities and crime.

The International Tribunal of Indigenous People and Oppressed Nations, convened in 1992, established to examine the history of criminal activity against indigenous groups in the United States, published a Significant Bill of Particulars outlining grievances indigenous peoples had with the U.S., including allegations that the United States "deliberately and systematically permitted, aided, and abetted, solicited and conspired to commit the dumping, transportation, and location of nuclear, toxic, medical, and otherwise hazardous waste materials on Native American territories in North America and has thus created a clear and present danger to the health, safety, and physical and mental well-being of Native American People."


As you can see, the social construction of issues related to the environment has largely been focused through the lens of conflict theory. Some groups have had more power than others, and thus have been able to influence and manipulate the environment to their own advantage--while disadvantaging other less powerful groups. Sociology helps us to bring into focus issues related to the environment from a HUMAN perspective. You are encouraged to do some additional investigating about the relationship between people and the natural world.

Works Cited

Deaths in the United States." Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.

Demographic Transition Model." Geography Fieldwork. Barcelona Field Studies Centre S.L., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Fertility and Mortality in the United States." Economic History Services. Economic History Association, 04 Feb. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Makama, Funom. "Population Density and Ageing or Declining Population and How It Effects a Nation's Economic Growth." Ezine Articles. SparkNET, 5 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

Malthus, Thomas R. Malthus-Population: The First Essay. 1st ed. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1995. Print.

Montgomery, Keith. "The Demographic Transition." UW Marathon County. University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

Morgan, Edward. "Looking at the New Demography." New Geography. New Geography, 27 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.