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Environmental deficit

The term Environmental Deficit is used to refer to society's relationship to the natural environment. It suggests that the pursuit of short-term benefits produces negative long-term consequences.

Environmental Deficit highlights three key sociological issues:

Environmental deficits take the form of: The issues surrounding the concept of environmental deficits include the identification of damaging practices and their replacement with those that can contribute to sustainable development. These issues revolve around: The problem of environmental destruction became accentuated in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, this influential work exposed the fact that the widespread use of pesticides was having a devastating effect on wildlife. Although derided by 'experts' associated to the chemical industry and the press alike, Carson's book can be considered as the instigator of a public awareness of the environment that continues to this day. In 1972 two seminal reports, the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth and the Ecologist magazine's Blueprint for Survival took the debate to the global arena by illustrating the potential consequences of an expanding global population. The Limits thesis made the prediction that current levels of economic growth could not continue due to the limited amount of natural resource reserves. The team tested the hypothesis that there were no limits to economic growth by taking into account five variables: They concluded that 'the limits to growth' would be reached by 2100 and struck a blow to the long-standing assumption that human societies could overcome scarcity and reach affluence via unbridled technology. In short, current patterns of growth (whilst supplying short-term solutions) would lead ultimately to an environmental deficit – the consequences of which would be experienced by future generations. Such warnings concerning the global economy's affect on the natural environment have given rise to calls for a sustainable model of development. This means that environmental degradation may be reversible if society radically modifies its values, alters growth trends, and rethinks its use of technology.

Martell describes sustainable development in the following way:

'Sustainability requires technical decisions about choice of technology, energy use and forms of production. Yet it also requires restrictions on growth, resource extraction and pollution and implies radically changed social lifestyles and values, whether taken on by choice or necessity or by some combination of the two. The social lifestyles and values suitable for sustainability are something on which sociologists are eminently well-qualified to comment, since they touch on issues to do with consumption, community and economy in which sociologists have a longstanding interest.'
(Martell, Luke (1994: 47) Ecology and Society: An Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press).
The debate around environmental deficits and sustainable development has not, however, escaped substantial criticism. Many critics have argued that it is neo-Malthusian (after 18th Century economist Thomas Malthus) and is overly fatalistic with regards to population growth. Alternatively, some have suggested that it is too anthropocentric (as opposed to treating the natural environment on equal terms to humanity) by retaining a focus on economic growth and rising living standards. A Marxist perspective challenges the nature of capitalism to be able to implement sustainability. The discussion becomes more complex when we take into account the imbalances between industrialised and developing countries. The continuing controversy surrounding the signing of the Kyoto agreement highlights the global aspect of environmental solutions. As sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens (1994) have pointed out, environmental problems are not confined to national borders, but have far reaching effects beyond nation states. For example, the emotive issue of the destruction of tropical forests saw campaigners unite across the world to fight for their survival as removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The point to made here, is that the destruction of these forests may have met the short-term requirements demanded by a national economy, but, in terms of environmental deficit, the consequences on global future generations is immense if evidence for global warming is accepted.

Going further. See:
Ecology – the relationship between human societies and the natural world.
Biodiversity – the interconnections between species, genetics and habitat that form 'eco-systems'.
Anthropocentrism – an emphasis on human systems.
Ecocentricism – an emphasis on non-human systems.
Risk society

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