environmental depletionthe process in which the stocks of available physical and economic resources tend to run down or become degraded as the result of processes such as the intensification ofagriculture, mining, industrial pollution, physical overcrowding, etc. The idea that the world has reached a situation in which it must pay careful attention to the relative, or even absolute, degradation of the physical and social environment has only recently gained prominence (see GREEN MOVEMENT, SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, POSITIONAL GOODS AND POSITIONALITY). However, some theorists, e.g. Marvin Harris (1978), have even suggested that the process has been visible in human societies over a far longer period. According to Harris, Stone-Age peoples may have lived far happier and healthier lives than many of those who have come after them. From his viewpoint of CULTURAL MATERIALISM, Harris also suggests that many of the cultural, political and socioeconomic transformations undergone by societies in the modern historical era can be explained as the outcome of environmental pressures. These outcomes include the subordination of women, the need for settled agriculture and for state direction, and prohibitions on meat eating in some cultures. However, such claims are obviously far more controversial than the general claim that environmental depletion is not a recent problem, and has major implications.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000