Because of the natural and physical nature surrounding environmental issues, the topic might not seem like a sociological concern or area of research. However, seeing as the environment impacts humans as a collective population as well as impacts individuals physically, socially, and culturally, it is more than evident that it is very much a social problem that falls under the sociological scope. There are many reasons for which the environment is a sociological topic, the first and most critical reason being that the environmental crises that the world faces today are a direct result of human activity and thus should be studied as so.
Secondly, environmental changes often create social changes and vice versa. Lastly, in order to solve this issue, it will require the change of social aspects including social awareness, government policy, and economic means, all of which are aspects of sociological studies. Given these reasons, “environmental sociology” is a recognized as a sociological field that studies the relationship between humans and the natural/physical environment.
Various sociological perspectives offer various explanations and solutions for environmental issues in big-picture ways such as institution reform and government intervention, but from a symbolic interactionalist perspective people can see the ways in which individuals effect the environment and thus can help in reforming the way people address issues surrounding the environment. A symbolic interactionist perspective looks at people’s beliefs, values, and understandings on these issues which largely come from their social backgrounds.
The perspective focuses on how people interact and behave regarding these issues with themselves, other people, and through institutions like media and government policies. The perspective might address questions such as how the problems were created, what factors were included in that process, and how the problem is legitimized and by what people. There are many ways a symbolic interactionist perspective could study and address environmental issues but three of the most important include public perception, social constructs and institutions, and people’s social backgrounds.
As a controversial issue and topic across the world, enacting change and creating conversation about environmental issues relies largely on public opinions and individual attitudes. Public and individual attitudes are an area of emphasis for symbolic interactionist studying environmental sociology. Environmental issues in general typically fall low as a priority for people, however given the broad range of sub-categories that fall under the environment, some gain more attention than others.
For the sake of this reflection, I will use the specific environmental crisis of ocean pollution to demonstrate how the symbolic interactionist perspective applies. It is important to understand why people engage or refuse to get involved in activities and behavior on the crisis of ocean pollution. A person’s consideration towards the environment in general can come from many things such as personal values and interests or from public opinion generated through media. For example, where a person was born or where they live might affect how they feel about littering.
Someone who group up in an environment surrounded by the coast, beaches, and the ocean may be more inclined to want to protect and preserve them while someone who grew up in a city and never felt impacted by nature might not recognize a sense of urgency regarding littering. Similarly, people’s priorities might vary given their stance on economics and capitalism.
A person that sees the ocean as an economic opportunity or who has ventures in oil rigs out at sea is influenced by money and has little regard toward the environmental impact of this activity like chemical pollution. A person with a job in marine biology has a career that depends on the preservation of marine life populations in the ocean so they benefit from protecting it, but we should also consider that a person who works on a commercial fishing boat depends on catching fish to make money. Examples like these show how sociologic consideration for a person’s individual beliefs, values, and interests effect the way they perceive issues.
In a broader sense, people’s perception on ocean pollution is also affected by public opinion. Public opinion is often generated through media and advertising and has the ability to reach millions of people across the world (Kendall). Historically, people have taken minimal effort towards addressing ocean pollution perhaps because the issues weren’t covered by media as often as they are today. However, today’s social media and advertising availability give people a platform to raise awareness on these issues in their own efforts aside from mass media like TV coverage now more than ever before as technology and social media continue to grow.
An example of this can be seen through actor Adriane Grenier and his foundation called “Lonely Whale” that he created with the intention of cleaning up the ocean. The originally small-scale foundation started a campaign in 2017 called “Stop Sucking” that challenged people to give up plastic straws and single-use plastic that ultimately end up in the ocean (lonely whale). Through the help of celebrity endorsements, clever advertising, and multi-media platforms, the movement gained international headlines within a few weeks.
The campaign used the hashtag “#stopsucking” on media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and reached more than 304.6 million people across 40 countries within the first 4 months (lonelywhale). The campaign generated so much attention that policies regarding single-use plastics such as plastic straws began changing in 2018 across different states and countries and lead to many businesses ending the distribution of these items. This example goes to show how the symbolic interactionist view on public opinion and awareness can create change in a society as well as demonstrates the effect that an individual’s local efforts can have on peers.
A second area of emphasis that sociologist using the interactionist perspective use implies that environmental issues are real but require social constructs in order to gain attention. In other words, environmental issues exist regardless of whether people acknowledge them but change can only occur through human processes and institutions. It requires public acknowledgement and acknowledgement from other institutions in order for it to be legitimized (M libraries). An interactionist view explains how human activity is the cause of ocean pollution and how political action is needed to affect change (Ogunbameru).
Statistics show that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastics enter the ocean each year and 80% of this plastic comes from the land (NOAA). Altering the devastating course of ocean pollution would require changing policies on plastic consumption, laws on littering, and requiring the use of safer alternatives to plastic, which falls under the jurisdiction of the government. This perspective also includes recognizing the economic effects that banning plastic would have and what potential new markets exist for plastic alternatives.
Another important factor to consider about ocean pollution and institutional change is not just what exactly the government does to implement change, but also how the government addresses ocean pollution with regards to leadership, public knowledge, and the media. While presidential political administrations have varied on their stance on global climate change, there has always been a level of acknowledgement and acceptance for at least some validity to what scientist and members of the EPA reported. However, during the current presidential administration, new people have been appointed for positions within the EPA which has created a domino-effect of dismissal for previously held common-knowledge and for the reversal of policies, funding, and overall attention set aside for protection of the ocean.
Since being appointed as President, Donald Trump has announced plans to open almost all of the United State’s coastlines for offshore oil and drilling, re-opened protected areas to commercial fishing, and refused to agree to policies that address ocean pollution such as the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter (national geographic). These actions taken against ocean pollution that reveal a lack of cooperation from the government have reversed the trajectory for fixing the current state of oceans by undermining ocean pollution as a legitimate concern, thus showing how despite the individual level in which human activity effects the environment, large social institutions and public leaders within these institutions are influential in reflecting attitudes to the public.
A third area of emphasis within Environmental sociology explains how not only does human activity effect the environment, but also that consequently the environment effects humans socially and economically. Environmental problems depict social issues such as race and social classes as they effect people differently. People experience environmental problems disproportionately based on race and income. Ocean pollution effects marine life populations, the quality of marine life as food sources, public areas that people interact in, and climate change.
As fish populations diminish, so do job opportunities for fishermen and restaurant owners who rely on fish for their menu thus creating economic struggle for people. Pollution in the ocean is ingested by the marine life, many of which are fish species that humans eat. This creates health problems for people ingesting harmful chemicals and micro-plastic which leads to medical costs that some people may not be able to afford based on their gender, race, or economic standing.
Furthermore, plastic pollution and greenhouse gases are slowly warming the ocean which leads to the melting of ice caps in the North and South. As ice melts then water levels rise and climate change effects the weather. Natural disasters like hurricanes are occurring more frequently and the aftermaths of these storms place extra burden on low-income citizens who do not have the resources to re-locate, re-build, or renovate the way people with money and affluence do.
In conclusion, the symbolic interactionist perspective explains how ocean pollution from littering and chemical exposure come from careless human activity. The lack of attention to the production, consumption, and treatment of plastic products leads to the littering of trash and chemicals in the ocean which goes on to effect humans and our ecosystem.
The interactionist perspective assumes that humans are directly related to oceanic litter and examines our relationship to the environment through personal values, public opinion, and institutions. The perspective implores change on an individual level, population level, and institutional level for addressing this environmental crisis. Looking at social aspects like cultural attitudes, public opinion, media coverage, and institutional acknowledgement, the symbolic interactionist perspective concludes that because humans are responsible for oceanic pollution, we hold the power to address and alter the issue.