Environmental Sociology: A path to equity

This week, TAMUCC Undergraduate Honors student and sociology major Bailey Otter shares insights from the world of sociology.

I grew up in a slow-moving town of 3,000 people called Clifton, Texas, about 45 minutes from Waco. Clifton had a reputation of being the “rich” town compared to the cluster of other small towns which surrounded us. We always had the best school district, sports facilities, grocery stores, food places, and churches (basically the only things that are in any small town). We even had a hospital, the only one in the area besides those in Waco, and a one-room movie theater.

Exactly one hour away from Clifton is a town called Marlin, made up of roughly 6,000 people. When I was in middle school (circa 2015), my school played against Marlin in sports. When we traveled to the town, our coaches would bring a case of bottled water for us to drink during our games. Why? Because Marlin, a town where 46.4% of the population lives under the poverty line and 50.1% are African American, did not have access to clean water to drink, cook, or bathe. For weeks, they had been under a boil water notice – that is, if their part of town was lucky enough to even have running water. This was largely due to rusty pipes and water treatment plant issues. Essentially, albeit on a smaller scale, the situation mirrored the Flint water crisis, which started a year before Marlin’s water crisis. Additionally, Flint and Marlin have strikingly similar racial and socioeconomic makeups.

Water distribution in Marlin, Texas. Photo by Rod Aydelotte

But this begs the question: Why are low socioeconomic communities impacted so much more by environmental disparities than their affluent counterparts?

Finding the answer to this question is where sociology comes into play – more specifically, environmental sociology. Environmental sociology is a subfield in which researchers examine the connections between society and the environment. Environmental sociology dives into topics such as climate change, economy and environment, public policy and the environment, consumerism (ex. fast fashion, single use items), and cultural intersections with the environment. Sociologists examine these issues through the scientific method and choose either quantitative or qualitative data analysis to utilize the results to propose and enact change within our society.

Environmental sociology was created in the 1960s as a response to the rise of environmental consciousness within our society. Environmental sociology was pioneered by Dr. William Freudenburg, who primarily focused on rural areas and the topics of risk perception and social disruption as they relate to the environment. An honorary pioneer of the field is Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist that focuses on ecofeminism, globalization, and food disparities.

To fully understand the importance of environmental sociology, we must first define the term “sociological imagination.” The sociological imagination is a term coined by C. Wright Mills in 1959 which describes the ability to connect personal struggles to larger social issues.

When we exercise our sociological imagination, we can see the intersections of individual identities with society and, overall, gain a more robust understanding as to why power imbalances and social factors play such a big role in our world.

For example, when we look at the water issues in Marlin or Flint through a sociological lens, we can see that these issues might be so prevalent due to the racial and socioeconomic statuses of the individuals who live in these cities, versus the statuses of those creating the laws that affect those cities.   

So, why is environmental sociology important? The field has indispensable importance within our society, especially relating to topics such as climate change. Sociology serves as the bridge between the public and science; as sociologists, we use science to make way for changes in laws, mindsets, and behaviors of our society.  Environmental sociology, in particular, is important because it brings attention to power imbalances within the control of environmental resources and how these power imbalances affect cultural practices, economics, health, and livelihood for different groups within our society. Additionally, the field allows us to understand our relationship with the environment in a time of rapidly escalating environmental crises.  The discoveries and insights that environmental sociology provides allows for equitable policies to be put into place when it comes to environmental disparities. Essentially, environmental sociology’s importance cannot be understated with the rapidly changing social, political, and physical makeup of Earth and its societies.

Marlin’s 2015 water crisis was resolved at the end of December the same year with a $164,000 filter replacement. According to a letter from the mayor of Marlin, the 2015 crisis was not a standalone incident; there have been three distinct water crises in Marlin since 2012. As a result, the Texas Water Development Board gave a $10.575 million grant to the city to fix the reoccurring issues.

However, Flint and Marlin are not the only instances of underserved communities being affected by environmental issues. Jackson, Mississippi, a city with 82.5% of their population being African American and 24.4% being under the poverty line, is currently experiencing a water crisis similar to Flint and Marlin. These instances can all be identified through the sociological concept of “environmental racism,” which is the pattern of environmental hazards disproportionately affecting people of color.

To learn more about environmental sociology, please visit the links below. When reading these, keep in mind that these serve as a starting point, not a cumulative reading of the topic.

If you are interested in keeping up with Marlin and their water issues, please visit the links below for recent information. Please note that the most recent crisis took place in the winter of 2020/2021.

Protestors during the Flint water crisis. Photo by Erik McGregor

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