Main Body

Population, Urbanization, and the Environment

Dr. William Little and Ron McGivern

Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition by William Little and Ron McGivern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Introduction to Population, Urbanization, and the Environment

Learning Objectives

Demography and Population

  • Understand demographic measurements, such as fertility and mortality rates.
  • Describe a variety of demographic theories, such as Malthusian, cornucopian, zero population growth, and demographic transition theories.
  • Be familiar with current population trends and patterns.


  • Describe the process of urbanization in Canada.
  • Understand the function of suburbs, exurbs, and concentric zones.
  • Discuss urbanization from various sociological perspectives.

The Environment and Society

  • Apply the concept of carrying capacity to environmental concerns.
  • Understand the challenges presented by pollution, garbage, e-waste, and toxic hazards.


Figure 1. Alberta Tar Sands

Ariel view of the Albertan tar sands
The Alberta tar sands has become increasingly controversial since Suncor’s first extraction plant opened in 1967. Development of the tar sands is a classic issue that pits corporate interests against environmental sustainability. Source: (Photo courtesy of Dru Oja Jay, Dominion/flickr)
The Alberta tar sands (or bituminous sands) in the province’s northeast 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 a crude bitumen, which is a dense, tar-like substance mixed with sand and clay. 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 tailings 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 production limited the rate at which the resource was developed. In 1967, Suncor was producing 15,000 barrels/day. Today, at prices that sometimes exceed $100 a barrel, production is projected to double from the present 1.9 million barrels/day to 3.8 million barrels/day by 2023. Industry projects that eventually 9 million barrels of bitumen will be produced per day (Gosselin et al. 2010; Grant, Angen, and Dyer 2013).

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 process of bitumen extraction requires vast amounts of energy, fresh water, and land, while producing significant environmental impacts as greenhouse gases, reduction in air quality, destruction of peat bogs and wetlands, and accumulation of toxic waste in tailings ponds (Grant, Angen, and Dyer 2013). There are also health affects: local aboriginal groups have experienced a 30% greater risk of cancer over expected cancer rates since 1998 (Droitsch and Simieritsch 2010). These are factors besides the basic problem of sustainability—they involve human reliance on fossil fuels in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change.

Figure 2. Fort McMurray, Alberta
A large plant with tall smokestacks and smoke rising up into the sky.
Fort McMurray, Alberta, is the hub that services the Athabasca Tar Sands. Its population grew by 29% between 2006 and 2011, and by 23% between 2001 and 2006. Source: (Photo courtesy of Kris Krüg/Flickr)

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 in order to increase capital assets (rather than for any specific social use). Since 1996, when capital investment exceeded $1 billion per year for the first time, investment has continued to increase, reaching $4.2 billion/year in 2000 and $16 billion/year between 2006 and 2008. Net profits for the industry increased from $3.1 billion to $37.8 billion between 1998 and 2008. Over the same period, the number of people directly employed in tar sands operations rose from 6,000 to 12,000, not including spin-off jobs in construction and maintenance of facilities and other services. Royalties and other land-related payments to the government of Alberta were $3.8 billion in 2008 (Gosselin et al. 2010).

During this period, when the price of oil was high, the tar sands boomed economically. Industry representatives argued that building refineries in Alberta to refine the raw bitumen rather than piping it to distant refineries would “overheat” the economy (i.e., create too many jobs). Some pointed to the “Dutch disease” effect of this economic development (i.e., that the artificially high petro-dollar undermined other important sectors of the economy, notably manufacturing in Ontario and Quebec) (Stanford 2012), and others pointed to the problem of foreign ownership of Canadian resources (two-thirds of tar sands production is owned by foreign corporations) (De Souza 2012). The overall argument from the point of view of capital accumulation is that the benefits to the Canadian economy outweigh the drawbacks. However, the precarious nature of the oil export economy was revealed when the collapse of oil prices in 2014, like in 1986, lead to a massive flight of capital investment out of Alberta (along with tens of thousands of layoffs and loss of tax royalties to the province). As oil is an export commodity whose price depends on the logic of market values, it is an unstable source of capital accumulation.

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

As the competing frameworks for understanding the Alberta tar sands illustrate, there are important societal issues connected to the environment and to how and where people live. Sociologists examine these issues through demography, or the study of population dynamics, and urbanization, the study of the social, political, and economic relationships in cities. Environmental sociologists study how humans interact with their environments.

Today, as has been the case many times in history, we are at a point of conflict in several areas. The world’s population has recently reached 7 billion. A mid-range estimate suggests it will reach 8 billion by 2025 (UN 2013). Can our planet sustain such a population? We generate more trash than ever, from Starbucks’ coffee cups 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 was sending up to 140 garbage trucks a day to Michigan State. When the Green Lane site is full in 2027, it is not clear where the trash will go (Hasham 2013). Cities and city living create new challenges for both society and the environment. These kinds of interactions between people and places are of critical importance.

How do sociologists study these issues? 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, adaptation was the first of the primary “needs” that a society has to satisfy (1961). The economic system performs the function in human society by adapting to the natural environment to provide for human needs. In a functionalist analysis, when the norms of one system — like the economic system — become detached from or unresponsive to the other systems (like the ecological system on which society depends), disequilibrium is 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 Indian 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 nature. One type of question that can be asked from a functionalist perspective is, therefore: How can society be organized in a manner that restores balance with nature?

A critical sociologist will note that disequilibrium in a society’s relationship with the environment does not “just happen.” There are vested interests that promote unrestricted exploitation of natural resources for short-term private profit. Capitalism is a system in which non-economic values—community life, ecological values, long-term sustainability, etc.—have no role in economic calculations of returns on investment. 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. Environmental issues are therefore not distributed equally around the world. Changes in the global mode of production lead to the creation of unsustainable population increases, slum cities, and lax controls on toxic waste in some parts of the world, while in other parts of the world, people consume resources, throw away surplus, and contribute to the problem of global warming at rates that are equally unsustainable.

A symbolic interactionist interested in the day-to-day interaction of groups and individuals might research topics such as how attitudes toward the environment have changed, how individuals negotiate contradictory messages about industrial development and the environment, or how new practices in everyday life (e.g., recycling, smoking, bicycling, the “100-mile” diet, protest activities) emerge because of environmental concerns. One interesting question is how discredited theories that challenge research on global warming continue to circulate and produce doubt about the effects of greenhouse gases. Although the days are gone when a premier of Alberta can proclaim that climate science is a hoax, the divide between what is a publicly credible theory and what is not remains more a matter of symbolic interaction than pure science per se.

Demography and Population

Figure 3. Global Population

People walking through a city.
Earth’s population, which recently grew to 7 billion, could reach 11 billion by the end of the century. Source: (Photo courtesy of David Sim/flickr)

We recently hit a population milestone of 7 billion humans on Earth’s surface. It took approximately 12 years to grow from 6 billion to 7 billion people (United Nations Population Fund 2011). In short, the planet is filling up. It is estimated we will we go from 7 billion to 8 billion by 2025. How will that population be distributed? Where is population the highest? Where is it slowing down? Where will people live? To explore these questions, we turn to demography, or the study of populations. Three of the most important components affecting the issues above are fertility, mortality, and migration.

The fertility rate of a society is a measure noting the number of children born. The fertility number is lower than the fecundity number, which measures the potential number of children that could be born to women of childbearing age. Sociologists measure fertility using the crude birthrate (the number of live births per 1,000 people per year); just as fertility measures childbearing, the mortality rate is a measure of the number of people who die. The crude death rate is a number derived from the number of deaths per 1,000 people per year. When analyzed together, fertility and mortality rates help researchers understand the overall growth occurring in a population.

Another key element in studying populations is the movement of people into and out of an area. This movement is called migration. Migration may take the form of immigration, which describes movement into an area to take up permanent residence, or emigration, which refers to movement out of an area to another place in permanent residence. Migration might be voluntary (as when university students study abroad), involuntary (as when Somalians left the drought and famine-stricken portion of their nation to stay in refugee camps), or forced (as when many First Nations were removed from the lands they had lived in for generations).

The growth rate of a population, or how much the population of defined area grows or shrinks in a specific time period, is therefore a function of the number of births and deaths and the number of people migrating to and from a country. It is calculated as the current population minus the initial population (at the beginning of the time) divided by the initial population (then multiplied by 100).

Figure 4. Population Growth Rate

Population growth rate equals current minus initial all divided by the initial and multiplied by 100
Population growth rate Source: (Image courtesy of Sydney Brown/Khan Academy)

Population Growth

Changing fertility, mortality, and migration rates make up the total population composition, a snapshot of the demographic profile of a population. This number can be measured for societies, nations, world regions, or other groups. The population composition includes the sex ratio (the number of men for every hundred women) as well as the population pyramid (a picture of population distribution by sex and age) (Figure 20.4).

Figure 5. Population Pyramid

A pyramid graph depicting the 2011 population of Canada, grouped by age and sex.
This population pyramid shows the breakdown of the 2011 Canadian population according to age and sex. Source: (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base)
Table 1. Varying Fertility and Mortality Rated by Country. (Chart courtesy of CIA World Factbook 2014)

[Skip Table]

Country Populations (in millions) Fertility Rate Mortality Rate Sex Ration Male to Female
Afghanistan 29.8 5.4% 14.1% 1.03
Sweden 9.1 1.9% 9.5% 0.98
United States 313.2 2.0% 8.24% 0.97
Canada 34.8 1.6% 8.3% 0.99

As Table 1. illustrates, countries vary in fertility rates and mortality rates—the components that make up a population composition. Comparing these four countries reveals that in Afghanistan, there are more men than there are women, whereas the reverse is true in Canada, Sweden, and the United States. Afghanistan also has significantly higher fertility and mortality rates than any of the other three countries have. Do these statistics surprise you? How do you think the population makeup impacts the political climate and economics of the different countries? What factors lead to a sex ratio in which men outnumber women?

Demographic Theories

Sociologists have long looked at population issues as central to understanding human interactions. Below we will look at four theories about population that inform sociological thought: Malthusian, zero population growth, cornucopian, and demographic transition theories.

Malthusian Theory

Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) was an English clergyman who made dire predictions about Earth’s ability to sustain its growing population. According to Malthusian theory, three factors would control human population that exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity, or how many people can live in an area considering the amount of resources. He identified these factors as war, famine, and disease (Malthus 1798). He termed these “positive checks” because they increased mortality rates, thus keeping the population in check, so to speak. These are countered by “preventive checks,” which also seek to control the population, but by reducing fertility rates; preventive checks include birth control and celibacy. Thinking practically, Malthus saw people could only produce so much food in a year, yet the population was increasing at an exponential rate. Eventually, he thought people would run out of food and starve. They would go to war over the increasingly scarce resources, reduce the population to a manageable level, and the cycle would begin anew.

Of course, this has not exactly happened. The human population has continued to grow long past Malthus’s predictions. So what happened? Why did we not die off? There are three reasons that sociologists suggest we continue to expand the population of our planet. First, technological increases in food production have increased both the amount and quality of calories we can produce per person. Second, human ingenuity has developed new medicine to curtail death through disease. Finally, the development and widespread use of contraception and other forms of family planning have decreased the speed at which our population increases. But what about the future? Some still believe that Malthus was correct and that ample resources to support the Earth’s population will soon run out.

Zero Population Growth

A neo-Malthusian researcher named Paul Ehrlich brought Malthus’s predictions into the 20th century. However, according to Ehrlich, it is the environment, not specifically the food supply, that will play a crucial role in the continued health of the planet’s population (Ehrlich 1968). His ideas suggest that the human population is moving rapidly toward complete environmental collapse, as privileged people use up or pollute several environmental resources, such as water and air. He advocated for a goal of zero population growth (ZPG), in which the number of people entering a population through birth or immigration is equal to the number of people leaving it via death or emigration. While support for this concept is mixed, it is still considered a solution to global overpopulation.

Cornucopian Theory

Of course, some theories are less focused on the pessimistic hypothesis that the world’s population will meet a detrimental challenge to sustaining itself. Cornucopian theory scoffs at the idea of humans wiping themselves out; it asserts that human ingenuity can resolve any environmental or social issues that develop. As an example, it points to food supply. If we need more food, the theory contends, agricultural scientists will figure out how to grow it, as they have already been doing for centuries. After all, in this perspective, human ingenuity has been up to the task for thousands of years and there is no reason for that pattern not to continue (Simon 1981).

Demographic Transition Theory

Whether you believe we are headed for environmental disaster and the end of human existence as we know it, or you think people will always adapt to changing circumstances, some sociologists argue there are clear patterns that can be seen in population growth. Modernization theorists argue societies develop along a predictable continuum as they develop from unindustrialized to postindustrial. Following this model, demographic transition theory (Caldwell and Caldwell 2006) suggests that future population growth will develop along a predictable four-stage model.

In Stage 1, birth, death, and infant mortality rates are all high, while life expectancy is short. An example of this stage is 19th century North America. As countries industrialize, they enter Stage 2, where birth rates are higher while infant mortality and the death rates drop. Life expectancy also increases. Afghanistan is currently in this stage. Stage 3 occurs once a society is thoroughly industrialized; birth rates decline, while life expectancy continues to increase. Death rates continue to decrease. Mexico’s population is at this stage. In the last phase, Stage 4, we see the postindustrial era of a society. Birth and death rates are low, people are healthier and live longer, and society enters a phase of population stability. Overall population may even decline. Sweden and Canada could be considered Stage 4.

Current Population Trends

As mentioned earlier, the Earth’s population is 7 billion. That number might not seem particularly jarring on its own; after all, we all know there are lots of people around. But consider the fact that human population grew slowly for most of our existence, then doubled in half a century to reach 6 billion in 1999. And now, just over ten years later, we have added another billion. A look at the graph of projected population indicates that growth is not only going to continue, but it will continue at a rapid rate.

The United Nations Population Fund (2008) categorizes nations as high fertility, intermediate fertility, or low fertility. It expects the population growth to triple between 2011 and 2100 in high-fertility countries, which are currently concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. For countries with intermediate fertility rates (the United States, India, and Mexico all fall into this category), growth is expected to be about 26%. And low-fertility countries like China, Australia, and most of those in Europe will actually see population declines of approximately 20%. Figures 20.5 and 20.6 illustrate this trend.

Figure 6. Projected Population in Africa

The graph shows that population grown in African countries will triple by 2100.
Projected Population in Africa. This graph shows the population growth of countries located on the African continent, many of which have high fertility rates. Source: (Graph courtesy of USAID)

Figure 7. Projected Population in Canada

A graph predicting the growing population of Canada.
Projected Population in Canada. Canada has an intermediate fertility rate, and therefore, a comparatively moderate projected population growth. Source: (Graph courtesy of USAID)

Figure 8. Projected Population in Europe

This chart grows that population growth may actually decrease in Europe.
Projected Population in Europe. This chart shows the projected population growth of Europe for the remainder of this century. Source: (Graph courtesy of USAID)

It would be impossible to discuss population growth and trends without addressing access to family planning resources and birth control. As the stages of population growth show, more industrialized countries see birth rates decline as families limit the number of children they have. Today, many people—over 200 million—still lack access to safe family planning, according to USAID (2010). In its report, this need is growing, with demand projected to increase by 40% in the next 15 years. Many social scholars would assert that until women can have only the children they want and can care for, the poorest countries would always bear the worst burden of overpopulation.

The Greying of Canada

Figure 9. The Raging Grannies

Older women holding umbrellas at a rally.
The Raging Grannies advocate for a national housing program at a rally in Vancouver. Source: (Photo courtesy of Yaokcool/flickr). Raging Grannies by Philip ( used under CC BY NC 2.0 license (

What does it mean to be elderly? Some define it as an issue of physical health, while others simply define it by chronological age. The Canadian government, for example, typically classifies people aged 65 years old as elderly, at which point citizens are eligible for federal benefits such as Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security payments. The World Health Organization has no standard, other than noting that 65 years old is the commonly accepted definition in most core nations, but it suggests a cut-off somewhere between 50 and 55 years old for semi-peripheral nations, such as those in Africa (World Health Organization, 2012). CARP (formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, now just known as CARP) no longer has an eligible age of membership because they suggest that people of all ages can plan for their retirement. It is interesting to note CARP’s name change; by taking the word “retired”out of its name, the organization can broaden its base to any older Canadians, not just retirees. This is especially important now that many people are working to age 70 and beyond.

There is an element of social construction, both local and global, in the way individuals and nations define who is elderly; that is, the shared meaning of the concept of elderly is created through interactions among people in society. This is exemplified by the truism that you are only as old as you feel.

Demographically, the Canadian population over age 65 increased from 5% in 1901 (Novak, 1997) to 14.4% in 2011. Statistics Canada estimates that by 2051 the percentage will increase to 25.5% (Statistics Canada, 2010). This increase has been called “the greying of Canada,” a term that describes the phenomenon of a larger and larger proportion of the population getting older and older.

There are several reasons why Canada is greying so rapidly. One of these is life expectancy: the average number of years a person born today may expect to live. When reviewing Statistics Canada figures that group the elderly by age, in Canada, at least, we are living longer. Between 1983 and 2013, the number of elderly citizens over 85 increased by over 100%. In 2013, the number of centenarians (those 100 years or older) in Canada was 6,900, almost 20 centenarians per 100,000 persons, compared to 11 centenarians per 100,000 persons in 2001  (Statistics Canada, 2013b).

Another reason for the greying of Canada can be attributed to the aging of the baby boomers. Nearly a third of the Canadian population was born in the generation following World War II (between 1946 and 1964) when Canadian families averaged 3.7 children per family (compared to 1.7 today) (Statistics Canada, 2012a). Baby boomers reached the age of 65 in 2011. Finally, the proportion of old to young can be expected to continue to increase because of the below-replacement fertility rate (i.e., the average number of children per woman). A low birth rate contributes to the higher percentage of older people in the population.

As we noted above, not all Canadians age equally. Most glaring is the difference between men and women; as Figure 13.6 shows, women have longer life expectancies than men. In 2013, there were ninety 65-to-79-year-old men per one hundred 65-to-79-year-old women. However, there were only sixty 80+ year-old men per one hundred 80+ year-old women. As the graph shows, the sex ratio actually increased over time, showing that men are closing the gap between their life spans and those of women (Statistics Canada, 2013c).

Figure 10. Number of Males for 100 Females

Sex ratio by age group, 1983 and 2013, Canada. This Statistics Canada chart shows that women live significantly longer than men. However, over the past two decades, men have narrowed the percentage by which women outlive them.
Sex ratio by age group, 1983 and 2013, Canada. This Statistics Canada chart shows that women live significantly longer than men. However, over the past two decades, men have narrowed the percentage by which women outlive them. Source: (Graph courtesy of Statistics Canada, 2013c)

Baby Boomers

Of particular interest to gerontologists right now are the consequences of the aging population of baby boomers, the cohort born between 1946 and 1964 and just now reaching age 65. Coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, the baby boom generation was the first group of children and teenagers with their own spending power and therefore, their own marketing power (Macunovich, 2000). The youth market for commodities such as music, fashion, movies, and automobiles was a major factor in creating a youth-oriented culture. As this group has aged, it has redefined what it means to be young, middle-aged, and, now, old. People in the boomer generation do not want to grow old the way their grandparents did; the result is a wide range of products designed to ward off the effects—or the signs—of aging. Previous generations of people over 65 were “old.” Baby boomers are in “later life” or “the third age” (Gilleard and Higgs, 2007).

The baby boom generation is the cohort driving much of the dramatic increase in the over-65 population. As we can see in Figure 13.7, the biggest bulge in the population pyramid for 2011 (representing the largest population group) is in the age 45 to 55 cohort. As time progresses, the population bulge moves up in age. In 2011, the oldest baby boomers were just reaching the age at which Statistics Canada considers them elderly. In 2020, we can predict, the baby boom bulge will continue to rise up the pyramid, making the largest Canadian population group between 65 and 85 years old.

Figure 11. Portrait of Generations

Portrait of generations, using the age pyramid, Canada, 2011.
Portrait of generations, using the age pyramid, Canada, 2011. Source: (Graph courtesy of Statistics Canada, 2012b)

This aging of the baby boom cohort has serious implications for society. Health care is one area most affected by this trend. For years, hand-wringing has abounded about the additional burden the boomer cohort will place on the publicly funded health care system. The report by the Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada noted in 2001 that the combined public and private expenditure per person each year for medical care was approximately three times as much for persons over 65 than for the average person ($10,834 per person versus $3,174). As health care costs increase with age, the reasoning is that more people entering the 65 and older age group will skyrocket the cost of medical care. In fact, the cost to the health care system, specifically because of aging, is projected to be only 1% per year (Romanow, 2002). The primary sources of cost increase to the health care system come from inflation, rising overall population, and advances in medical technologies (new pharmaceutical drugs, surgical techniques, diagnostic and imaging techniques, and end-of-life care). Regarding end-of-life care, the average Canadian now receives approximately one and a half times more health care services than the average Canadian did in 1975 (Lee, 2007). Even with modest economic growth, existing levels of health care service can be maintained without difficulty if the total increase in costs of health care from all sources, including aging, result in an annual increase in health care budget expenditures of 4.4% over the medium term as expected (Lee, 2007).

Other studies show that aging boomers will bring economic growth to the health care industries, particularly in areas like pharmaceutical manufacturing and home health care services (Bierman, 2011). Further, some argue that many of our medical advances of the past few decades result from boomers’ health requirements. Unlike the elderly of previous generations, boomers do not expect that turning 65 means their active lives are over. They are not willing to abandon work or leisure activities, but they may need more medical support to keep living vigorous lives. This desire of a large group of over-65-year-olds wanting to continue with a high activity level is driving innovation in the medical industry (Shaw, 2012). It is not until the final year of life that health care expenditures undergo a dramatic increase. Approximately one-third to one-half of a typical person’s total health care expenditures occur in the final year of life (Lee, 2007). The implication is that with people living increasingly longer and healthier lives, the cost of health care and aging needs to be refocused on end-of-life care options.

The economic impact of aging boomers is also an area of concern for many observers. Although the baby boom generation earned more than previous generations and enjoyed a higher standard of living, they also squandered their money and did not adequately prepare for retirement. According to a 2013 report from the Bank of Montreal, the average baby boomer falls about $400,000 short of adequate savings to maintain their lifestyles in retirement. The average senior couple spends approximately $54,000 a year, requiring accumulated savings of $1,352,000 to sustain themselves (not considering Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Pension payments). Canadian boomers expected they needed savings of $658,000 to feel financially secure in retirement, but had only saved an average of $228,000. 71% of boomers said they plan to work part time in retirement (BMO Financial Group, 2013). This will have a ripple effect on the economy as boomers work and spend less.

Just as some observers are concerned about the possibility of the health care system being overburdened, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans are also considered to be at risk given the longer life spans of seniors and low interest rates, according to the Auditor General’s 2014 report (CBC News, 2014). The Canada and Quebec Pension Plans are government-run retirement programs funded primarily through payroll taxes. In addition, seniors receive support from the Old Age Security (OAS) program and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (for those with low incomes). Together, the pension plans, OAS, and Guaranteed Income Supplements are credited with successfully reducing old age poverty. Poverty rates for elderly couples were reduced from 17.7% to 2.4% between 1976 and 2011, for single men over 65 from 55.9% to 12.2%, and for single women over 65, from 68.1% to 16.1% (MacKenzie, 2014). Observers acknowledge the systems are running very well, but their payments do not cover cost-of-living expenses, and in the absence of adequate retirement savings, the economic situation of retirees is threatened. With the aging boomer cohort receiving pension benefits, and with fewer workers paying into the pension trust fund, it is estimated that by 2021, the fund will have to draw on its investment income in order to make payments (Davidson, 2013). As a result, the government has raised the retirement age (the age at which people could start receiving retirement benefits) from 65 to 67, and many argue that CPP payments should be increased to ensure the system’s sustainability.

Aging “Out:” LGBT Seniors

Figure 12. Aging LGBT Seniors

A man holding a sign that says, "Legal marriage for gay couples now."
As same-sex marriage becomes a possibility, many gay and lesbian couples can finally tie the knot—sometimes as seniors—after decades of waiting. Source: (Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue/flickr)

How do different groups in our society experience the aging process? Are there any experiences that are universal, or do different populations have unique experiences? An emerging field of study looks at how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people experience the aging process and how their experience differs from that of other groups or the dominant group. This issue is expanding with the aging of the baby boom generation; not only will aging boomers represent a huge bump in the general elderly population, but the number of LGBT seniors is expected to double by 2030 (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al., 2011).

A recent study titled The Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults finds that LGBT older adults have higher rates of disability and depression than their heterosexual peers. They are also less likely to have a support system that might provide elder care: a partner and supportive children (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al., 2011). Even for those LGBT seniors who are partnered, in the United States, some states do not recognize a legal relationship between two people of the same sex, reducing their legal protection and financial options. In Canada, Supreme Court decisions in 2003 and the Civil Marriage Act in 2005 legalized same sex marriage.

As they transition to assisted-living facilities, LGBT people have the added burden of “disclosure management:” the way they share their sexual and relationship identity. In one case study, a 78-year-old lesbian lived alone in a long-term care facility. She had been in a long-term relationship of 32 years and had been visibly active in the gay community earlier in her life. However, in the long-term care setting, she was much quieter about her sexual orientation. She “selectively disclosed” her sexual identity, feeling safer with anonymity and silence (Jenkins et al., 2010). A study from the National Senior Citizens Law Center reports that only 22% of LGBT older adults expect they could be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity in a long-term care facility. Even more telling is the finding that only 16% of non-LGBT older adults expected that LGBT people could be open with facility staff (National Senior Citizens Law Center, 2011).

Same-sex marriage can have major implications for the way the LGBT community ages. With marriage comes the legal and financial protection afforded to opposite-sex couples, as well as less fear of exposure and a reduction in the need to “retreat to the closet” (Jenkins et al., 2010).

Aging around the World

Figure 13. Cultural Values

An old man standing in a lake or river. He appears to be fixing something.
Cultural values and attitudes can shape people’s experience of aging. Source: (Photo courtesy of Tom Coppen/flickr)

From 1950 to approximately 2010, the global population of individuals age 65 and older increased by a range of 5 to 7% (Lee, 2009). This percentage is expected to increase and will have an enormous impact on the dependency ratio: the number of productive working citizens to non-productive (young, disabled, elderly) (Bartram and Roe, 2005). One country that will soon face a serious aging crisis is China, which is on the cusp of an “aging boom”: a period when its elderly population will dramatically increase. The number of people above age 60 in China today is about 178 million, which amounts to 13.3% of its total population (Xuequan, 2011). By 2050, nearly a third of the Chinese population will be age 60 or older, putting a significant burden on the labour force and impacting China’s economic growth (Bannister, Bloom, and Rosenberg, 2010).

As health care improves and life expectancy increases across the world, elder care will be an emerging issue. Wienclaw (2009) suggests that with fewer working-age citizens available to provide home care and long-term assisted care to the elderly, the costs of elder care will increase.

Worldwide, the expectation governing the amount and type of elder care varies from culture to culture. For example, in Asia the responsibility for elder care lies firmly on the family (Yap, Thang, and Traphagan, 2005). This differs from the approach in most Western countries, where the elderly are independent and are expected to tend to their own care. It is not uncommon for family members to intervene only if the elderly relative requires help, often because of poor health. Even then, caring for the elderly is voluntary. In North America, decisions to care for an elderly relative are often conditionally based on the promise of future returns, such as inheritance or, sometimes, the amount of support the elderly provided to the caregiver in the past (Hashimoto, 1996).

These differences are based on cultural attitudes toward aging. In China, several studies have noted the attitude of filial piety (deference and respect to one’s parents and ancestors in all things) as defining all other virtues (Hamilton, 1990; Hsu, 1971). Cultural attitudes in Japan prior to approximately 1986 supported the idea that the elderly deserve help (Ogawa and Retherford, 1993). However, seismic shifts in major social institutions (like family and economy) have created an increased demand for community and government care. For example, the increase in women working outside the home has made it more difficult to provide in-home care to aging parents, leading to an increase in the need for government-supported institutions (Raikhola and Kuroki, 2009).

In North America, many people view caring for the elderly as a burden. Even when there is a family member able and willing to provide for an elderly family member, 60% of family caregivers are employed outside the home and cannot provide the needed support. However, many middle-class families cannot bear the financial burden of “outsourcing” professional health care, resulting in gaps in care (Bookman and Kimbrel, 2011). Chinese Canadians, for example, are thought to have a higher sense of filial responsibility and to perceive providing family help for the elderly as a more normal aspect of life than Caucasian Canadians (Funk, Chappell, and Liu, 2013). It is important to note that even within a country, not all demographic groups treat aging the same way. While most Americans are reluctant to place their elderly members into out-of-home assisted care, demographically, the groups least likely to do so are Latinos, African Americans, and Asians (Bookman and Kimbrel, 2011).

Globally, Canada and other wealthy nations are fairly well equipped to handle the demands of an exponentially increasing elderly population. However, peripheral and semi-peripheral nations face similar increases without comparable resources. Poverty among elders is a concern, especially among elderly women. The feminization of the aging poor, clear in peripheral nations, is directly because of the number of elderly women in those countries who are single, illiterate, and not a part of the labour force (Mujahid, 2006).

In 2002, the Second World Assembly on Aging was held in Madrid, Spain, resulting in the Madrid Plan, an internationally coordinated effort to create comprehensive social policies to address the needs of the worldwide aging population. The plan identifies three themes to guide international policy on aging: 1) publicly acknowledging the global challenges caused by, and the global opportunities created by, a rising global population; 2) empowering the elderly; and 3) linking international policies on aging to international policies on development (Zelenev, 2008).

The Madrid Plan has not yet been successful in achieving all its aims. However, it has increased awareness of the various issues associated with a global aging population, as well as raising the international consciousness to how the factors influencing the vulnerability of the elderly (social exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, and a lack of socio-legal protection) overlap with other developmental issues (basic human rights, empowerment, and participation), leading to an increase in legal protections (Zelenev, 2008).

Challenges Facing the Elderly

Aging comes with many challenges. Losing independence is one potential part of the process, as are diminished physical ability and age discrimination. The term senescence refers to the aging process, including biological, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual changes. This section discusses some challenges we encounter during this process.

As already observed, many older adults remain highly self-sufficient. Others require more care. Because the elderly typically no longer hold jobs, finances can be a challenge. Because of cultural misconceptions, older people can be targets of ridicule and stereotypes. The elderly face many challenges in later life, but they do not have to enter old age without dignity.


Figure 14. Ageism

Elderly stereotypes. Long description available.
Are these street signs humorous or offensive? What shared assumptions make them humorous? Or is memory loss too serious to be made fun of? [Long Description] Source: (Photo courtesy of Tumbleweed/flickr)

Driving to the grocery store, Peter, 23, got stuck behind a car on a four-lane major artery through his city’s business district. The speed limit was 50 kilometres per hour, and while most drivers sped along at 60 to 70 kilometres per hour, the driver in front of him was going the speed limit. Peter tapped on his horn. He tailgated the driver. Finally, Peter passed the car. He glanced over. Sure enough, Peter thought, a grey-haired old man guilty of “DWE,” driving while elderly.

At the grocery store, Peter waited in the checkout line behind an older woman. She paid for her groceries, lifted her bags of food into her cart, and toddled toward the exit. Peter, guessing her to be about 80, was reminded of his grandmother. He paid for his groceries and caught up with her.

“Can I help you with your cart?” he asked.

“No, thank you. I can get it myself,” she said and marched off toward her car.

Peter’s responses to both older people, the driver and the shopper, were prejudiced. In both cases, he made unfair assumptions. He assumed the driver drove cautiously simply because the man was a senior citizen, and he assumed the shopper needed help carrying her groceries just because she was an older woman.

Responses like Peter’s toward older people are fairly common. He didn’t intend to treat people differently based on personal or cultural biases, but he did. Ageism is discrimination (when someone acts on a prejudice) based on age. Dr. Robert Butler coined the term in 1968, noting that ageism exists in all cultures (Brownell, 2010). Ageist attitudes and biases based on stereotypes reduce elderly people to inferior or limited positions.

Ageism can vary in severity. Peter’s attitudes are probably seen as fairly mild, but relating to the elderly in ways that are patronizing can be offensive. When ageism is reflected in the workplace, in health care, and in assisted-living facilities, the effects of discrimination can be more severe. Ageism can make older people fear losing a job, feel dismissed by a doctor, or feel a lack of power and control in their daily living situations.

In ancient societies, the elderly were respected and revered. Many preindustrial societies observed gerontocracy, a type of social structure wherein the power is held by a society’s oldest members. In some countries today, the elderly still have influence and power and their vast knowledge is respected.

In many modern nations, however, industrialization contributed to the diminished social standing of the elderly. Today, wealth, power, and prestige are also held by those in younger age brackets. The average age of corporate executives was 59 in 1980. In 2008, the average age had lowered to 54 (Stuart, 2008). Some older members of the workforce felt threatened by this trend and grew concerned that younger employees in higher-level positions would push them out of the job market. Rapid advancements in technology and media have required additional skill sets that older members of the workforce are less likely to have.

Changes happened not only in the workplace but also at home. In agrarian societies, a married couple cared for their aging parents. The oldest members of the family contributed to the household by doing chores, cooking, and helping with child care. As economies shifted from agrarian to industrial, younger generations moved to cities to work in factories. The elderly were seen as an expensive burden. They did not have the strength and stamina to work outside the home. What began during industrialization, a trend toward older people living apart from their grown children, has become commonplace.

Mistreatment and Abuse

Mistreatment and abuse of the elderly is a major social problem. As expected, with the biology of aging, the elderly sometimes become physically frail. This frailty renders them dependent on others for care — sometimes for small needs like household tasks, and sometimes for help with basic functions like eating and toileting. Unlike a child, who also depends on another for care, an elder is an adult with a lifetime of experience, knowledge, and opinions — a more fully developed person. This makes the care providing situation more complex.

Elder abuse describes when a caretaker intentionally deprives an older person of care or harms the person in his or her charge. Caregivers may be family members, relatives, friends, health professionals, or employees of senior housing or nursing care. The elderly may be subject to abuse.

In a 2009 study on the topic led by Dr. Ron Acierno, the team of researchers identified five major categories of elder abuse: 1) physical abuse, such as hitting or shaking, 2) sexual abuse including rape and coerced nudity, 3) psychological or emotional abuse, such as verbal harassment or humiliation, 4) neglect or failure to provide adequate care, and 5) financial abuse or exploitation (Acierno, 2010).

Table 2. Signs of Elder Abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse encourages people to watch for these signs of mistreatment. (Chart courtesy of National Center on Elder Abuse).

Type of Abuse Signs and Symptoms
Physical abuse Bruises, untreated wounds, sprains, broken glasses, lab findings of medication overdose
Sexual abuse Bruises around breasts or genitals, torn or bloody underclothing, unexplained venereal disease
Emotional/ psychological abuse Being upset or withdrawn, unusual dementia-like behaviour (rocking, sucking)
Neglect Poor hygiene, untreated bed sores, dehydration, soiled bedding
Financial Sudden changes in banking practices, inclusion of additional names on bank cards, abrupt changes to will
Self-neglect Untreated medical conditions, unclean living area, lack of medical items like dentures or glasses

The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) in the United States also identifies abandonment and self-neglect as types of abuse. Table 2 (above) shows some of the signs and symptoms that the NCEA encourages people to notice.

How prevalent is elder abuse? In 2009, Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey reported that 2% of men and 3% of women said that they had been emotionally or financially abused by a child, relative, friend, or caregiver in the five years preceding the survey. Incidents of both self-reported violence and police-reported violence against elders are much lower than for other age groups in the population (Brennan, 2012). Some social researchers believe elder abuse is under-reported and that the number may be higher. The risk of abuse also increases in people with health issues such as dementia (Kohn and Verhoek-Oftedahl, 2011). Older women were found to be victims of verbal abuse more often than their male counterparts.

In Acierno’s study, which included a sample of 5,777 respondents age 60 and older, 5.2% of respondents reported financial abuse, 5.1% said they’d been neglected, and 4.6% endured emotional abuse (Acierno, 2010). The prevalence of physical and sexual abuse was lower at 1.6 and 0.6%, respectively (Acierno, 2010).

Other studies have focused on the caregivers to the elderly to discover the causes of elder abuse. Researchers identified factors that increased the likelihood of caregivers perpetrating abuse against those in their care. Those factors include inexperience, having other demands such as jobs (for those who weren’t professionally employed as caregivers), caring for children, living full time with the dependent elder, and experiencing high stress, isolation, and lack of support (Kohn and Verhoek-Oftedahl, 2011).

A history of depression in the caregiver was also found to increase the likelihood of elder abuse. Neglect was more likely when care was provided by paid caregivers. Many of the caregivers who physically abused elders were themselves abused — most times, when they were children. Family members with some sort of dependency on the elder in their care were more likely to physically abuse that elder. For example, an adult child caring for an elderly parent while, depending on some form of income from that parent, would be considered more likely to perpetrate physical abuse (Kohn and Verhoek-Oftedahl, 2011).

A survey found that 60.1% of caregivers reported verbal aggression as a style of conflict resolution. Paid caregivers in nursing homes were at a high risk of becoming abusive if they had low job satisfaction, treated the elderly like children, or felt burnt out (Kohn and Verhoek-Oftedahl, 2011). Caregivers who was verbally abusive were found to have had less training, lower education, and higher likelihood of depression or other psychiatric disorders. Based on the results, many housing facilities for seniors have increased their screening procedures for caregiver applicants.


Figure 15. Vancouver

The Vancouver skyline at sunset.
The towers of Vancouver against the backdrop of Howe Sound and the Coast Mountains are an iconic image of Canadian city life. Source: (Photo courtesy of Magnus Larsson/flickr)

Urbanization is the study of the social, political, and economic relationships in cities, and someone specializing in urban sociology would study those relationships. In some ways, cities can be microcosms of universal human behaviour, while in others they provide a unique environment that yields their own brand of human behaviour. There is no strict dividing line between rural and urban; rather, there is a continuum where one bleeds into the other. However, once a geographically concentrated population has reached approximately 100,000 people, it typically behaves like a city, regardless of what its designation might be.

The Growth of Cities

According to sociologist Gideon Sjoberg (1965), there are three prerequisites for the development of a city: First, good environment with fresh water and a favourable climate; second, advanced technology, which will produce a food surplus to support non-farmers; and third, strong social organization to ensure social stability and a stable economy. Most scholars agree that the first cities were developed somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, though there are disagreements about exactly where. Most early cities were small by today’s standards, and the largest city around 100 CE was most likely Rome, with about 650,000 inhabitants (Chandler and Fox 1974). The factors limiting the size of ancient cities included lack of adequate sewage control, limited food supply, and immigration restrictions. For example, serfs were tied to the land, and transportation was limited and inefficient. Today, the primary influence on cities’ growth is economic forces.

Figure 16. Population Living in Urban Areas, Canada, 1871-2011

The percentage of Canadians living in urban areas grew from 19% in 1871 to 81% in 2011.
As this chart illustrates, the shift from rural to urban living in Canada has been dramatic and continuous. (Graph courtesy of Employment and Social Development Canada 2014). This reproduction is a copy of the version available at The Government of Canada allows reproduction of this graph in whole or in part for non-commercial purposes, without charge or further permission, (

Urbanization in Canada

Urbanization in Canada proceeded rapidly during the Industrial Era of 1870 to 1920. This was the origin of the industrial city in Canada, a city in which the major business and employment activities revolve around manufacturing, building, machining. The percentage of Canadians living in cities went from 19% in 1871 to 49% in 1920 (Statistics Canada 2011). As more and more opportunities for work appeared in factories, workers left farms (and the rural communities that housed them) to move to the cities. Urban development in Canada in this period focused on Montreal and Toronto, which were the two major hubs of transportation, commerce, and industrial production in the country. These cities took on a modern industrial urban form with tall office towers downtown and a vast spatial expansion of suburbs surrounding them.

Figure 17. Calgary, 1885

A black and white photo of a small town spread out over a flat plain.
Calgary in 1885. Montreal and Toronto were Canada’s major urban centres for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Source: (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Industrial Era, urbanization in Canada from the 1940s onward took the form of the corporate city. Stelter (1986) describes the corporate city as being more focused economically on corporate management and financial (and other related professional) services than industrial production. Five features define the form of corporate cities: dispersal of population in suburbs, high-rise apartment buildings, isolated industrial parks, downtown cores of office towers, and suburban shopping malls. This development was made possible by the reorientation of the city to automobile and truck use, deindustrialization and the rise of the service and knowledge economy, and a spatial decentralization of the population.

Finally, we might note the transformation of the corporate city into a postmodern city form. Postmodern cities are defined by their orientation to circuits of global consumption, the fragmentation of previously homogeneous urban cultures, and the emergence of multiple centres or cores. John Hannigan (1998) describes three related developments that characterize the postmodern city: the edge city, dual city, and fantasy city. Edge cities are urban areas in suburbs or residential areas that have no central core or clear boundaries but form around clusters of shopping malls, entertainment complexes, and office towers at major transportation intersections. Dual cities are cities that are divided into wealthy, high-tech, information-based zones of urban development and poorer, run-down, marginalized zones of urban underdevelopment and informal economic activity. Mike Davis (1990) used the term “fortress city” to describe how cities abandon the commitment to creating viable public spaces and universal access to urban resources in favour of the privatization of public spaces, a “militarization” of private and public security services, and the creation of exclusive gated communities for the wealthy and middle classes. Fantasy cities are cities that choose to transform themselves into Disneyland-like “theme parks” or sites of mega-events (like the Olympics or FIFA World Cup competitions) to draw international tourists. Victoria, B.C., for example, has branded itself as a safe, historical—“more English than the English”—heritage destination for cruise ship and other types of tourism.

Suburbs and Exurbs

As cities grew more crowded, and often more impoverished and costly, more and more people migrated back out of them; but instead of returning to rural small towns (like they had lived in before moving to the city), these people needed close access to the cities for their jobs. In the 1850s, as the urban population expanded and transportation options improved, suburbs developed. Suburbs are the communities surrounding cities, typically close enough for a daily commute in, but far enough away to allow for more space than city living affords. The bucolic suburban landscape of the early 20th century has largely disappeared due to sprawl. Suburban sprawl contributes to traffic congestion, which contributes to commuting time. Commuting times and distances have continued to increase as new suburbs developed farther and farther from city centres. Simultaneously, this dynamic contributed to an exponential increase in natural resource use, like petroleum, which sequentially increased pollution as carbon emissions.

As the suburbs became more crowded and lost their charm, those who could afford it turned to the exurbs, communities that exist outside the ring of suburbs. Exurbs are typically populated by even wealthier families who want more space and have the resources to lengthen their commute. It is interesting to note that unlike U.S. cities, Canadian cities have always kept a fairly large elite residential presence in enclaves around the city centres, a pattern that has been augmented in recent decades by patterns of inner-city resettlement by elites (Caulfield 1994; Keil and Kipfer 2003). As cities develop from industrial to postindustrial, this practice of gentrification becomes more common. Gentrification refers to members of the middle and upper classes entering city areas that have been historically less affluent and renovating properties, while the poor urban underclass are forced by resulting price pressures to leave those neighbourhoods. This practice is widespread and the lower class is pushed into increasingly decaying portions of the city.

Together, the city centres, suburbs, exurbs, and metropolitan areas all combine to form a metropolis. New York was the first North American megalopolis, a huge urban corridor encompassing multiple cities and their surrounding suburbs. The Toronto-Hamilton-Oshawa, Vancouver-Abbotsford-Chilliwack, and Calgary-Edmonton corridors are similar megalopolis formations. These metropolises use vast quantities of natural resources and are a growing part of the North American landscape.

Figure 18. Toronto

An aerial shot of a large residential area.
The suburban sprawl in Toronto means long commutes and traffic congestion. Source: (Photo courtesy of Payon Chung/flickr)

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Figure 19. Suburbs Are Not All White Picket Fences: The Banlieues of Paris

Scorched car in Paris banlieu, November 2005. Source: (Image courtesy of Alain Bachellier/Flickr)

What makes a suburb a suburb? Simply, a suburb is a community surrounding a city. However, when you picture a suburb in your mind, your image may vary widely depending on which nation you call home. In Canada, most consider the suburbs home to upper- and middle-class people with private homes. In other countries, like France, the suburbs – or “banlieues” – are synonymous with housing projects and impoverished communities. In fact, the banlieues of Paris are notorious for their ethnic violence and crime, with higher unemployment and more residents living in poverty than in the city centre. Further, the banlieues have a much higher immigrant population, which in Paris is mostly Arabic and African immigrants. This contradicts the clichéd Canadian image of a typical white-picket-fence suburb.

In 2005, serious riots broke out in the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois after two boys were electrocuted while hiding from the police. They were hiding; it is believed, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, near the scene of a break-in, and they were afraid the police would not believe their innocence. Only a few days earlier, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy (who later became president), gave a speech touting additional measures against urban violence and referring to the people of the banlieue as “rabble” (BBC 2005). After the deaths and subsequent riots, Sarkozy reiterated his zero tolerance policy toward violence and sent in more police. Ultimately, the violence spread across 30 towns and cities in France. Thousands of cars were burned, many hundred were arrested, and both police and protesters suffered serious injuries.

Then-President Jacques Chirac responded by pledging more money for housing programs, jobs programs, and education programs to help the banlieues solve the underlying problems that led to such disastrous unrest. None of the newly launched programs were effective. President Sarkozy ran on a platform of tough regulations toward young offenders, and in 2007 the country elected him. More riots ensued as a response to his election. In 2010, Sarkozy promised “war without mercy” against the crime in the banlieues (France24 2010). Six years after the Clichy-sous-Bois riot, circumstances are no better for those in the banlieues.

Urbanization around the World

In North America, other urban centres experienced a growth spurt during the Industrial Era. In 1800, the only city in the world with a population over 1 million was Beijing, but by 1900, there were 16 cities with a population of over 1 million (United Nations 2008). The development of factories brought people from rural to urban areas, and new technology increased the efficiency of transportation, food production, and food preservation. For example, from the mid-1670s to the early 1900s, London increased its population from 550,000 to 7 million (Old Bailey Proceedings Online 2011). The growth in global urbanization in the 20th and 21st centuries is following the blueprint of North American cities, but is occurring much more quickly and at larger scales, especially in peripheral and semi-peripheral countries. Shanghai almost tripled its population from 7.8 million to 20.2 million between 1990 and 2011, adding the equivalent of the population of New York City in 20 years. It is projected to reach 28.4 million by 2025, third behind Tokyo (38.7 million) and New Delhi (32.9 million) (United Nations 2012).

Global urbanization reached the 50% mark in 2008, meaning that more than half of the global population was living in cities compared to only 30% 50 years ago (United Nations 2008). Global urbanization has been uneven between core countries and the rest of the world, however. Two developments might illustrate some of the stark differences in the global experience of urbanization: the formation of slum cities and global cities.

Figure 20. Global Urbanization

Small houses built closely together in Rio de Janeiro and high rise buildings in London
The slum city and the global city: the Favéla Morro do Prazères in Rio de Janeiro and the London financial district show two sides of global urbanization. Source: (Photos courtesy of dany13/Flickr and Peter Pearson/Flickr)

Slum cities refer to the development on the outskirts of cities of unplanned shantytowns or squats with no access to clean water, sanitation, or other municipal services. These slums exist largely outside the rule of law and have become centres for child labour, prostitution, criminal activities, and struggles between gangs and paramilitary forces for control. Mike Davis (2006) estimates that there are 200,000 slum cities worldwide, including Quarantina in Beirut, the Favéla in Rio de Janeiro, the “City of the Dead” in Cairo, and Santa Cruz Meyehualco in Mexico City. He notes that while slum residents make up only 6% of the urban population in developed countries, they make up 78.2% of city dwellers in semi-peripheral countries. In Davis’s analysis, neoliberal restructuring and the Structural Adjustment Programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are largely responsible for the creation of the informal economy and the withdrawal of the state from urban planning and the provision of services. As a result, slum cities have become the blueprint for urban development in the developing world.

On the other side of the phenomenon of global urbanization are global cities like London, New York, and Tokyo. Saskia Sassen (2001) describes the global city as a unique development based on the new role of cities in the circuits of global information and global capital circulation and accumulation. Global cities become centres for financial and corporate services, providing a technical and information infrastructure and a pool of human resources (skills, professional and technical services, consulting services, etc.) to service the increasingly complex operations of global corporations. They are progressively detached, economically and socially, from their local and national political-geographic contexts. They become instead nodes in a global network of informational, economic, and financial transactions or flows. It becomes possible in this sense to say that New York is closer to Tokyo and London in terms of the number of direct transactions between them than it is to Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Sassen (2005) emphasizes three important tendencies that develop from the formation of global cities: a concentration of wealth in the corporate sectors of these cities, a growing disconnection between the cities and their immediate geographic regions, and the development of a large marginalized population that is excluded from the job market for these high-end activities. The increasing number of global cities:

  1. Host the headquarters of multinational corporations, such as Coca-Cola
  2. Exercise significant international political influence, such as that from Beijing or Berlin
  3. Host the headquarters of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the United Nations
  4. Host influential media, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera
  5. Host advanced communication and transportation infrastructure, such as that in Shanghai (Sassen 2001)

Theoretical Perspectives on Urbanization

As the examples above illustrate, the issues of urbanization play significant roles in the study of sociology. Race, economics, and human behaviour intersect in cities. We can look at urbanization through the sociological perspectives of functionalism and conflict theory. Functional perspectives on urbanization focus on the ecology of the city, while conflict perspective focuses on political economy.

Human ecology is a functionalist field of study that focuses on the relationship between people and their built and natural physical environments (Park 1915). According to this Chicago School approach, urban land use and urban population distribution occur in a predictable pattern once we understand how people relate to their living environment. For example, in Canada, we have a transportation system geared to accommodate individuals and families as interprovincial highways built for cars. In contrast, most parts of Europe emphasize public transportation, such as high-speed rail and commuter lines, as well as walking and bicycling. The challenge for a human ecologist working in Canadian urban planning would be to design landscapes and waterscapes with natural beauty, while also figuring out how to provide for free-flowing transport of innumerable vehicles—not to mention parking!

The concentric zone model (Burgess 1925) is perhaps the most famous example of human ecology. This model views a city as a series of concentric circular areas, expanding outward from the centre of the city, with various “zones” invading (new categories of people and businesses overrun the edges of nearby zones) and succeeding adjacent zones(after invasion, the new inhabitants repurpose the areas they have invaded and push out the previous inhabitants). In this model, Zone A, in the city’s heart, is the centre of the business and cultural district. Zone B, the concentric circle surrounding the city centre, is composed of formerly wealthy homes split into cheap apartments for new immigrant populations; this zone also houses small manufacturers, pawnshops, and other marginal businesses. Zone C comprises the homes of the working class and established ethnic enclaves. Zone D comprises wealthy homes, white-collar workers, and shopping centres. Zone E contains the estates of the upper class (exurbs) and the suburbs.

Figure 21. City Concentric Zones

Zones of a city. Long description available.
This illustration depicts the concentric zones that make up a city. A city depicted as a series of rings. The inner most ring has tall office buildings. The next ring has factories. The three outmost rings have houses that get bigger the farther they are from the city centre. [Long Description] Source: (Photo courtesy of Zeimusu/Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast to the functionalist approach, the critical perspective focuses on the dynamics of power and influence in the city’s shaping. One way to do this is to examine how urban areas change according to specific decisions made by political and economic leaders. Cities are not so much the product of a quasi-natural “ecological” unfolding of social differentiation and succession, but of a dynamic of capital investment and disinvestment. City space is acted on primarily as a commodity that is bought and sold for profit. The dynamics of city development are better understood therefore as products of what Logan and Molotch (1987) call “growth coalitions”—coalitions of politicians, real estate investors, corporations, property owners, urban planners, architects, sports teams, cultural institutions, etc.—who work together to attract private capital to the city and lobby government for subsidies and tax breaks for investors. These coalitions benefit business interests and the middle and upper classes while marginalizing the interests of working and lower classes.

For example, sociologists Feagin and Parker (1990) suggested three aspects to understanding how political and economic leaders control urban growth. First, economic and political leaders work alongside each other to effect change in urban growth and decline, determining where money flows and how land use is regulated. Second, exchange value and use value are balanced to favour the middle and upper classes so that, for example, public land in poor neighbourhoods may be rezoned for use as industrial land. Finally, urban development depends on both structure (groups such as local government) and agency (individuals including business people and activists), and these groups engage in a push-pull dynamic that determines where and how land is actually used. For example, NIMBY (not in my backyard) movements are more likely to emerge in middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods, so these groups have more control over the usage of local land.

At the micro-level of interaction, sociologists have been interested in how human interaction is affected by living in cities. In his famous study “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Simmel described how the built environment and the sheer size and anonymity of the modern city had become a social form, which he called the “metropolitan way of life.” Although the metropolis, its architecture, and the variety of ways of life it contained were products of human creation and expression, as an entity it confronted the individual as a kind of overwhelming monstrosity that threatened to swallow him or her up in its “social-technological mechanism” (Simmel 1903). As a means of self-protection against the city’s overpowering sensory input, people cut themselves off from potentially enriching contact with others and become cold, callous, indifferent, impatient, and blasé.

The Environment and Society

The subfield of environmental sociology studies how humans interact with their environments. This field is closely related to human ecology, which focuses on the relationship between people and their built and natural environment. This area is garnering more attention as extreme weather patterns and policy battles over climate change dominate the news. The primary point of analysis has to do with how human activity transforms the natural environment and human interactions with other species. Two key concepts in environmental sociology are the concepts of carrying capacity, which refers to the maximum amount of life that can be sustained within an area, and the commons, which refers to the collective resources that humans share in common. These collective resources are typically shared natural resources like air, water, plant and animal life, or ecosystems that have remained outside of private ownership or processes of commodification and trade.

In an environmental context, the carrying capacity of different environments depends on the commons to the degree that the commons are necessary for sustaining life. When the commons are threatened through pollution or over-exploitation, the carrying capacity of the environment is degraded. While both concepts can refer to local grazing lands or to rivers, they can also apply to the Earth as a whole. Climate change is a global issue in which the degradation of the global commons through ecologically unsustainable human activities threatens the earth’s carrying capacity.

Making Connections: The Big Picture

Figure 22. The Tragedy of the Commons

Cows so skinny their ribs are showing, walk through a desert.
Desertification is the process in which fertile land is turned into desert through deforestation, drought, and overgrazing. Source: (Photo courtesy of newbeatphoto/flickr)

You might have heard the expression “the tragedy of the commons.” In 1968, an article of the same title written by Garrett Hardin describes how a common pasture is ruined by overgrazing. In England, “the commons” referred to land that the community held in common. Hardin was not the first to notice the phenomenon. Back in the 1800s, Oxford economist William Forster Lloyd looked at the devastated public grazing commons and the unhealthy cattle subject to such limited grazing, and saw that the carrying capacity of the commons had been exceeded. However, since no one held responsibility for the land (as it was open to all), no one will sacrifice to improve it. This is a classical problem of the collective outcome of individual “rational” choices. If each user makes a rational choice by weighing their individual costs and benefits regarding the use of common resources, the collective outcome ultimately undermines each user’s ability to benefit from the common resource. Their rational choices have an irrational outcome. Cattle grazers benefited from adding more cattle to their herd, but they did not have to take on the responsibility of the destroyed lands that were being damaged by overgrazing. So there was an incentive for them to add more head of cattle, and no incentive for restraint.

Satellite photos of Africa taken in the 1970s showed this practice to dramatic effect. The images depicted a dark irregular area over 300 miles around. When seen from above, there was a large fenced area where plenty of grass was growing. Outside the fence, the ground was bare and devastated. The reason was simple: the fenced land was privately owned by informed farmers who carefully rotated their grazing animals and allowed the fields to lie fallow periodically. Outside the fence was land used by nomads. The nomads, like the herdsmen in the 1800s Oxford, increased their heads of cattle without planning for its impact on the greater good. The soil eroded, the plants died, then the cattle died, and, ultimately, some people died.

How does this affect those of us who do not need to graze our cattle? Well, like the cows, we all need food, water, and clean air to survive. With the increasing consumption of resources in the West, increasing world population, and the ever-larger megalopolises with tens of millions of people, the limit of Earth’s carrying capacity is called into question. Earth’s carrying capacity is the global commons. As in the tragedy of the commons Hardin described for the pasturelands of England, each economic and state actor in the world has an interest in maximizing its own economic benefit from exploiting the environment with little interesting incentive to conserve it in the global interest. Whether for cattle or humans, when too many take with too little thought to the rest of the population, the result is usually tragedy.


Pollution describes the introduction of contaminants into an environment (water, air, land) at levels that are damaging. Directly related to carrying capacity, environments can often sustain a limited amount of contaminants without marked change, and water, air, and soil can “heal” themselves to a certain degree. However, once contaminant levels reach a certain point, the results can be catastrophic.


Look at your watch. Wait 15 seconds. Then another 15. In that time, two children have died from lack of access to clean drinking water. Access to safe water is one of the most basic human needs, and it is woefully out of reach for millions of people on the planet. Many of the major diseases that peripheral countries battle, such as diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid, are caused by contaminated water. Often, young children cannot go to school because they must instead walk several hours a day just to collect potable water for their family. The situation is only getting more dire as the global population increases. Water is a key scarce resource in the 21st century.

As every child learns in school, 70% of Earth is made of water. Despite that figure, there is a finite amount of water useable by humans and it is constantly used and reused in a sustainable water cycle. How humans use this abundant natural resource, however, renders much of it unsuitable for consumption and unable to sustain life. For instance, it takes two-and-a-half litres of water to produce a single litre of Coca-Cola. The company and its bottlers use close to 300 billion litres of water a year, often in locales that are short of useable water (Blanchard 2007). Industrial processes like tars sands extraction use vast amounts of water that is not returned to the natural cycle.

Because of population concentrations, water close to human settlements is frequently polluted with untreated or partially treated human waste (sewage), chemicals, radioactivity, and levels of heat sufficient to create large “dead zones” incapable of supporting aquatic life. The methods of food production used by many core nations rely on liberal doses of nitrogen and pesticides, which end up back in the water supply. Sometimes, water pollution affects the quality of the aquatic life consumed by water and land animals. As we move along the food chain, the pollutants travel from prey to predator. Since humans consume at all levels of the food chain, we ultimately consume the carcinogens, such as mercury, accumulated through several branches of the food web.


Steinbeck’s 1930 tale of the Joads, driven out of their home by the Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath, is still playing out today. In China, as in Depression-era Oklahoma, over-tilling soil to expand agriculture has resulted in the disappearance of large patches of topsoil.

Soil erosion and desertification are just two of the many forms of soil pollution. In addition, all of the chemicals and pollutants that harm our water supplies can also leach into soil with similar effects. Brown zones where nothing can grow are common results of soil pollution. One demand of the population boom on the planet is an attendant requirement for more food to be produced. The so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s saw chemists and world aid organizations working together to bring modern farming methods, complete with pesticides, to peripheral and semi-peripheral countries. The immediate result was positive: food yields went up and burgeoning populations were fed. But as time has gone on, these areas have fallen into even more difficult straits as the damage by modern methods leave traditional farmers with less than they had to start.

Dredging certain beaches to maintain valuable beachfront property from coastal erosion has resulted in greater storm impact on shorelines, and damage to beach ecosystems (Turneffe Atoll Trust 2008). The results of these dredging projects have damaged reefs, seagrass beds, and shorelines, and can kill off large swaths of marine life. Ultimately, this damage threatens local fisheries, tourism, and other parts of the local economy.


Figure 23. Waste in the Water

Small colorful plastic garbage on the side of a lake.
Where should garbage go when you’ve run out of room? This is a question that is increasingly pressing the planet. Source: (Photo courtesy of Kevin Krejci/flickr)

Where is your last cell phone? What about the one before that? Or the huge old television set your family had before flat screens became popular? For most of us, the answer is a sheepish shrug. In several provinces, there are product stewardship programs that oblige manufacturers and retailers to pay a per-item fee to fund electronic recycling (Fishlock 2011), but it is not always clear what happens to the items after they are recycled. As individuals, we ignore the demise of old items, and since electronics drop in price and increase in innovation at an incredible clip, we have been trained by their manufacturers to upgrade frequently.

Garbage creation and control are major issues for most core and industrializing nations, quickly becoming one of the most critical environmental issues faced in North America. North Americans buy products, use them, and then throw them away. When you put your garbage out in the trash can where does it go after that?

There are two primary means of waste disposal in Canada: landfill and incineration. With dangerous toxins, neither is an excellent choice. With more innocuous trash, the synthetic Styrofoam and plastics that many of us use every day do not dissolve naturally. Burn them, and they release carcinogens into the air. Their improper (intentional or not) incineration adds to air pollution and increases smog. Dump them in landfills, and they do not decompose. As landfill sites fill up, we risk an increase in groundwater contamination.

Making Connections: Social Policy and Debate

Figure 24. What Should Apple (and Friends) Do about E-Waste?

Piles of computer monitors, printers, microwaves, and hard drives.
A parking lot filled with electronic waste, known as e-waste. Source: (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Environmental Command/flickr)

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is one of the fastest growing segments of garbage. And it is far more problematic than even the mountains of broken plastic and rusty metal that plague the environment. E-waste is the name for obsolete, broken, and worn-out electronics—from computers to mobile phones to televisions. The challenge is that these products, which are multiplying at alarming rates thanks in part to planned obsolescence (designing products to quickly become outdated and then replaced by the constant emergence of newer and cheaper electronics), have toxic chemicals and precious metals in them, which makes for a dangerous combination.

So where do they go? Many companies ship their e-waste to developing nations in Africa and Asia to be “recycled.” While they are, in some senses, recycled, the result is not exactly clean. In fact, it is one of the dirtiest jobs around. Overseas, without the benefit of environmental regulation, e-waste dumps become a kind of boomtown for entrepreneurs willing to sort through endless stacks of broken-down electronics for tiny bits of valuable copper, silver, and other precious metals. Unfortunately, in their hunt, these workers are exposed to deadly toxins.

Governments are taking notice of the impending disaster, and the European Union and Canadian provinces have put stricter regulations in place. These regulations both limit the amount of toxins allowed in electronics and address end-of-life recycling. But corporations, while insisting they are greening their process, often fight stricter regulations. Meanwhile, many environmental groups, including the activist group Greenpeace, have taken up the cause. Greenpeace states it is working to get companies to:

  1. Measure and reduce emissions with energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy policy advocacy
  2. Make greener, efficient, longer-lasting products that are free of hazardous substance
  3. Reduce environmental impacts throughout company operations, from materials and energy used to make products right through to global take-back programs for old products (Greenpeace 2011)

Greenpeace produces annual ratings of how well companies are meeting these goals so that consumers can see how brands stack up. For instance, Apple moved up five spots since the 2010 report. Hopefully, consumers will vote with their wallets, and the greener companies will be rewarded.


China’s fast-growing economy and burgeoning industry have translated into notoriously poor air quality. Smog hangs heavily over the major cities, sometimes grounding aircraft that cannot navigate through it. Pedestrians and cyclists wear masks to protect themselves. In Beijing, citizens are skeptical that the government-issued daily pollution ratings are trustworthy. Increasingly, they are taking their own pollution measurements, hoping accurate information will galvanize others to action. Given that some days they can barely see down the street, they hope that action comes soon (Papenfuss 2011).

Humanity, with its growing population, use of fossil fuels, and increasingly urbanized society, is putting too much stress on Earth’s atmosphere. The amount of air pollution varies from locale to locale, and you may be more affected than you realize. Along with breathing in oxygen, most of the time we are also breathing in soot, hydrocarbons, carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur oxides. Ground-level ozone (O3), which is associated with eye irritation, respiratory problems, and heart diseases, is a colourless gas that forms when nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds from engine exhaust and industrial processes combine in sunlight. Approximately 5,000 people a year die prematurely in Canada due to air pollution (Office of the Auditor General of Canada 2007) and more than half of all Canadians live in areas where ground-level ozone during the summer smog season reaches unacceptable levels (Duncan et al. 1998). Much of the smog in Canada is the product of coal-fired electrical generation stations and industries south of the border. The nitrous oxides and other contaminants drift north with the prevailing winds. The hot and stagnant summers in the Windsor-to-Quebec-City corridor are unfortunately ideal for the creation of ground-level ozone.

Much of the pollution in the air comes from human activity. How many university students move their cars across campus at least once a day? Vancouver and the lower Fraser Valley have the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita car ownership in Canada. 80% of the ground-level ozone in this area comes from automobile exhaust (Vincent and Fick 2000). The volatile organic compounds in the air come from vehicles, printing and surface coating, solvents, and other industrial processes (Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change 2010). Who checks the environmental report card on how many pollutants each company throws into the air before purchasing a cell phone? Many of us are guilty of taking our environment for granted without concern for how everyday decisions add up to a long-term global problem. How many minor adjustments can you think of, like walking instead of driving, that would reduce your overall carbon footprint?

Remember the example of the “tragedy of the commons.” Each of us is affected by air pollution. But like the herder who adds one more head of cattle to realize the benefits of owning more cows, but who does not have to pay the price of the overgrazed land, we take the benefit of driving or buying the latest cell phones without worrying about the result. Air pollution accumulates in the body, much like the effects of smoking cigarettes accumulate over time, leading to more chronic-illnesses. Besides directly affecting human health, air pollution affects crop quality and heating and cooling costs. We all pay a lot more than the price at the pump when we fill up our tank with gas.

Toxic and Radioactive Waste

While nuclear energy promises a safe and abundant power source, increasingly it is looked upon as a danger to the environment and those who inhabit it. The meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 resulted in the release of substantial amounts of radioactive material into the environment. They estimate that cleanup will take decades. Besides the problems of accidental meltdown, regular operation of nuclear power plants leads to the accumulation of nuclear waste, which we must then keep track of long term. This leads to the problem of how to store the toxic waste material without damaging the environment or putting future generations at risk.

The 2011 earthquake in Japan illustrates the dangers of even safe, government-monitored nuclear energy. When a disaster occurs, how can we safely evacuate the large numbers of affected people? Indeed, how can we even be sure how far the evacuation radius should extend? Radiation can also enter the food chain, causing damage from the bottom (phytoplankton and microscopic soil organisms) all the way to the top. Once again, the price paid for power is much greater than what is seen on the electric bill.

Figure 25. Gulf Coast

A stretch of land next to the ocean with much of it stained black.
An aerial view of the Gulf Coast, taken in May 2010, illustrates the damage done by the BP Deep Water Horizon spill. Source: (Photo courtesy of Jeff Warren/flickr)

The enormous oil disaster that hit the Louisiana Gulf Coast is just one of a frighteningly high number of environmental crises that have led to toxic residue. From the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash of 1989 to the Enbridge pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010, from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant incident in 2011—the list goes on. Often, the stories are not newsmakers, but simply an unpleasant part of life for the people who live near toxic sites such as in the stories of Fort Chipweyan, Alberta, and Hinkley, California. Most times, people in these neighbourhoods can be part of a cancer cluster without realizing the cause.

Figure 26. Oil on the Gulf Shore Beaches

Puddles of oil on a sandy beach.
Oil on the gulf shore beaches caused great destruction, killing marine and land animals and crippling local business. Source: (Photo courtesy of AV8ter/flickr)

Climate Change

World systems analysis suggests that core nations (like the United States and those of western Europe) were historically the greatest source of greenhouse gases, but have now developed into postindustrial societies. Now that semi-peripheral and peripheral nations are industrializing, the core nations wish to enact strict protocols regarding the causes of global warming (since their economies are no longer so dependent on greenhouse-gas-causing industries). However, the semi-peripheral and peripheral nations rightly point out that they only want the same economic chance to strengthen their economies, and since they were unduly affected by the progress of core nations, if the core nations now insist on “green” policies, they should pay offsets or subsidies. There are no simple answers to this conflict. It may well not be “fair” that the core nations benefited from ignorance during their industrial boom. But with China leading the way as a top greenhouse gas emitter, it matters less to the planet whether they get their fair shake at polluting. The international community continues to work toward a way to manage climate change. The Durban Talks that concluded in December 2011 point to a willingness by both core countries and peripheral nations to move toward a legally binding instrument for all countries (World Resources Institute 2011).

Climate change, which used to be called global warming, has been made into a deeply controversial subject, despite decades of scientific research that shows its existence. Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures because of human activity and, in particular, the release of greenhouse gases into the environment. While the planet is warming––hence the term global warming––the term climate change is now used because the short-term variations can include higher or lower temperatures, despite the overarching trend toward warmth. Another effect is more extreme weather. There are increasingly more record-breaking weather phenomena, from the number of Category 4 hurricanes to the amount of snowfall in a winter. These extremes, while they make for dramatic television coverage, can cause immeasurable damage to crops, property, and even lives.

So why is climate change a controversy? The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) recognizes its existence. So do the close to 200 countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, a document intended to engage countries in voluntary actions to limit the activity that leads to climate change. (The United States was not one of the 200 nations committed to this initiative to reduce environmental damage; while Canada did sign on, the Conservative government withdrew from the Kyoto accord in 2011.) So what’s the argument about? Well, for the companies making billions of dollars in the production of goods and services, climate change is a dirty concept indeed. The idea of costly regulations that would require expensive operational upgrades has been a source of great anxiety to much of the business community, and as a rebuttal they argue, via lobbyists, that such regulations would be disastrous for the economy. Some question the science used as evidence. There is a lot of finger-pointing among countries, especially when the issue arises of who “gets” to pollute.

Making Connections: Social Policy and Debate

Figure 27. Would You Buy an Environmental Cause from This Woman?

Angelina Jolie
Actor Angelina Jolie advocates for a variety of issues, including environmental causes. Source: (Photo courtesy of chris_natt/Wikimedia Commons)

From breakfast cereals to sports cars, we are used to seeing our favourite actors touting products of all kinds. But what about environmental causes? Who is more trustworthy for promoting the health of our planet: former vice-president Al Gore or international superstar Angelina Jolie? According to a report by Nielsen and the Environmental Change Institute, the answer may vary depending on what country you’re in. Globally, Kofi Annan and Al Gore won top spots as trustworthy spokespeople, but among respondents under age 25, Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie joined Kofi as the most influential spokespeople. Regionally, results varied, with some countries preferring rock stars while others enjoyed getting their environmental messages from sports heroes (Nielsen 2007).

The tradition of rock stars and film celebrities identifying with, if not leading, counter-cultural or progressive social movements was firmly established in the 1960s. Why do we trust the message when it comes from these sources? Most of us do not think that these famous people are scientists in their own right, so it is unclear why their word regarding climate change is so valuable. Many of us do not hear the messages of the scientists, even when 2,500 scientists endorse the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. On the topic of image politics, the strong emotional basis of contemporary politics can be given a sharper focus when popular celebrities step out of their pop culture role and become the face of an issue.

Key Terms

activity theory: Theory which suggests that for individuals to enjoy old age and feel satisfied, they must maintain activities and find a replacement for the statuses and associated roles they have left behind as they aged.
age stratification theory: Theory which states that members of society are stratified by age, just as they are stratified by race, class, and gender.
ageism: Discrimination based on age.
baby boomers: Canadians born between approximately 1946 and 1964.
cancer cluster: A geographic area with high levels of cancer within its population
capital accumulation: The reinvestment of profit in order to increase capital assets (rather than for any specific social use).
carrying capacity: How many people can live in a given area considering the amount of available resources
centenarians: People 100 years old or older.
climate change: Long-term shifts in temperature and climate due to human activity
cohort: A group of people who share a statistical or demographic trait.
commons: Collective resources that humans share in common
concentric zone model: A model of human ecology that views cities as a series of circular rings or zones
continuity theory: Theory which states that the elderly make specific choices to maintain consistency in internal (personality structure, beliefs) and external structures (relationships), remaining active and involved throughout their elder years.
cornucopian theory: Theory which asserts that human ingenuity will rise to the challenge of providing adequate resources for a growing population
corporate city: A city form based economically on corporate management and financial services
demographic transition theory: Theory that describes four stages of population growth, following patterns that connect birth and death rates with stages of industrial development
demography: The study of population
dependency ratio: The number of productive working citizens to non-productive (young, disabled, or elderly).
disengagement theory: Theory which suggests that withdrawing from society and social relationships is a natural part of growing old.
dual cities: Cities that are divided into wealthy, high-tech, information-based zones of urban development and poorer, run-down, marginalized zones of urban underdevelopment and informal economic activity
edge cities: Urban formations based on clusters of shopping malls, entertainment complexes, and office towers at major transportation intersections
elder abuse: When a caretaker intentionally deprives an older person of care or harms the person in their charge.
environmental sociology: The sociological subfield that addresses the relationship between humans and the environment
environmental sustainability: The degree to which a human activity can be sustained without damaging or undermining basic ecological support systems
e-waste: The disposal of broken, obsolete, and worn-out electronics
exchange theory: Theory which suggests that we experience an increased dependence as we age and must increasingly submit to the will of others, because we have fewer ways of compelling others to submit to us.
exurbs: Communities that arise farther out than the suburbs and are typically populated by residents of high socioeconomic status
fantasy cities: Cities that choose to transform themselves into Disneyland-like theme parks or sites of mega-events to draw international tourists
fertility rate: A measure noting the actual number of children born
filial piety: Deference and respect to one’s parents and ancestors in all things.
gentrification: When upper- and middle-class residents renovate and live in properties in certain city areas or communities that have been historically less affluent
geriatrics: A medical specialty focusing on the elderly.
gerontocracy: A type of social structure wherein the power is held by a society’s oldest members.
gerontology: A field of science that seeks to understand the process of aging and the challenges encountered as seniors grow older.
gerotranscendence: The idea that as people age, they transcend limited views of life they held in earlier times.
global city: A unique development based on the new role of cities in the circuits of global information and global capital circulation and accumulation
grief: A psychological, emotional, and social response to the feelings of loss that accompanies death or a similar event.
hospice: Health care that treats terminally ill people by providing comfort during the dying process.
human ecology: A functional perspective that looks at the relationship between people and their built and natural environment
industrial city: A city in which the major business and employment activities revolve around manufacturing, building, machining.
life course: The period from birth to death, including a sequence of predictable life events.
life expectancy: The number of years a person is expected to live.
Malthusian theory: Theory which asserts that population is controlled through positive checks (war, famine, disease) and preventive checks (measures to reduce fertility)
megalopolis: A large urban corridor that encompasses several cities and their surrounding suburbs and exurbs
metropolis: The area that includes a city and its suburbs and exurbs
migration: The movement of people into and out of an area
modernization theory: Theory which suggests that the primary cause of the elderly losing power and influence in society are the parallel forces of industrialization and modernization.
mortality rate: A measure of the number of people who die
NIMBY: “not in my back yard,” describing the tendency of people to protest poor environmental practices when those practices will impact them directly
physician-assisted suicide: The voluntary use of lethal medication provided by a medical doctor to end one’s life.
pollution: When contaminants are introduced into an environment at levels that are damaging
population composition: A snapshot of the demographic profile of a population based on fertility, mortality, and migration rates
population pyramid: Graphic representation that depicts population distribution according to age and sex
postmodern city: A city defined by its orientation to circuits of global consumption, the fragmentation of previously homogeneous cultures, and the emergence of multiple centres or cores
primary aging: Biological factors such as molecular and cellular changes.
secondary aging: Aging that occurs due to controllable factors like exercise and diet.
selective optimization with compensation theory: The idea that successful personal development throughout the life course and subsequent mastery of the challenges associated with everyday life are based on the components of selection, optimization, and compensation.
senescence: The aging process, including biological, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual changes.
sex ratio: The ratio of men to women in a given population
slum cities: The development on the outskirts of cities of unplanned shantytowns or squats with no access to clean water, sanitation, or other municipal services
social gerontology: A specialized field of gerontology that examines the social (and sociological) aspects of aging.
subculture of aging theory: A theory that focuses on the shared community created by the elderly when they are excluded (due to age), voluntarily or involuntarily, from participating in other groups.
suburbs: The communities surrounding cities, typically close enough for a daily commute
thanatology: The systematic study of death and dying.
urban sociology: The subfield of sociology that focuses on the study of urbanization
urbanization: The study of the social, political, and economic relationships of cities
zero population growth: A theoretical goal in which the number of people entering a population through birth or immigration is equal to the number of people leaving it via death or emigration

Section Summary

Demography and Population
Scholars understand demography through various analyses. Malthusian, zero population growth, cornucopian theory, and demographic transition theories all help sociologists study demography. Earth’s human population is growing quickly, especially in peripheral countries. Factors that impact population include birth rates, mortality rates, and migration, including immigration and emigration. There are numerous potential outcomes of the growing population, and sociological perspectives vary on the potential effect of these increased numbers. The growth will pressure the already taxed planet and its natural resources.

Cities provide numerous opportunities for their residents and offer significant benefits including access to goods and numerous job opportunities. At the same time, high-population areas can lead to tensions between demographic groups, as well as environmental strain. While the population of urban dwellers is continuing to rise, sources of social strain are rising along with it. The ultimate challenge for today’s urbanites is finding an equitable way to share the city’s resources while reducing the pollution and energy use that negatively impacts the environment.

The Environment and Society
The area of environmental sociology is growing as extreme weather patterns and concerns over climate change increase. Human activity leads to pollution of soil, water, and air, compromising the health of the entire food chain. While everyone is at risk, poor and disadvantaged neighbourhoods and nations bear a greater burden of the planet’s pollution.

Short Answer

Demography and Population

  1. Given what we know about population growth, what do you think of China’s policy that limits the number of children a family can have? Do you agree with it? Why or why not? What other ways might a country of over 1.3 billion people manage its population?
  2. Describe the effect of immigration or emigration on your life or in a community you have seen. What are the positive effects? What are the negative effects?
  3. Look at trends in birth rates from Stage 4 countries (like those in Europe) versus those from Stage 2 countries (like Afghanistan). How do you think these will impact global power over the next several decades? Does population equal power? Why or why not?


  1. What are the differences between the suburbs and the exurbs, and who is most likely to live in each?
  2. Most major cities in core countries are postindustrial. Can you think of an example of a growing city that is still in its industrial phase? How is it different from most Canadian cities?
  3. Considering the concentric zone model, what type of zone were you raised in? Is this the same or different from that of earlier generations in your family? What type of zone do you reside in now? Do you find that people from one zone stereotype those from another? If so, how?

The Environment and Society

  1. What celebrities come to mind when you think about environmental causes? Do you believe they are knowledgeable about their causes? What would lead you to believe or disbelieve a celebrity spokesperson?
  2. How do you think the issue of e-waste should be dealt with? Should the responsibility fall to the companies that make the products or the consumer who buys them? Would your buying habits be different if you had to pay to recycle old electronics?
  3. Can you think of a modern example of the tragedy of the commons, where public use without accountability has created a negative outcome?
  4. NIMBY protests occur when concerned citizens band together to speak up against something that will impact them negatively. Is this a positive or negative trend? Give an example of a NIMBY protest and state whether you support it.

Further Research

Demography and Population
Learn more about population concerns:

Interested in learning more about the latest research in the field of human ecology? Visit the Society for Human Ecology website to discover what’s emerging in this field:

The Environment and Society
What is your carbon footprint? Find out using the carbon footprint calculator:

Find out more about greening the electronics process by looking at Greenpeace’s guide:


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