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Putting people into dynamic places: the importance of specific contexts in understanding demographic responses to changes in the natural environment

This special issue features original research presented at the conference, Demographic Responses to Changes in the Natural Environment held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in October 2019.Footnote 1 The conference aimed to extend research on environmental demography and provide timely new information about how environmental changes and events are shaping individual decisions related to core concerns among demographers, namely migration, mortality and morbidity, and fertility and family formation. In this special issue, we feature selected work originating from this conference. The papers presented here represent some of the many scholarly perspectives shaping our current understanding of the population-environment nexus.

This effort leverages an emerging critical mass of researchers at various career stages who are actively investigating environmental demography. At the same time, the field benefits from better availability of environmental data, expanding interest in the human implications of climate change, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events. Accordingly, the research featured here advances conceptual and empirical approaches to investigating the influence of the natural environment on population processes and wellbeing in a variety of contexts spanning the globe.

Environmental conditions, events, and change are of growing concern to human populations. Past events have demonstrated the immediate and longer-term consequences for population health and demographic processes (Curtis et al., 2015; DeWaard et al., 20152020; Duff & Cooper, 1994; Frankenberg et al., 2008; Fussell et al., 2014a; Harville et al., 2015; Ishiguro & Yano, 2015; Nobles et al., 2015; Seltzer & Nobles, 2017). There is reason to anticipate that future events will affect populations in similarly dramatic and perhaps even more pronounced ways. Demographers are uniquely positioned to contribute to the scientific understanding of human implications of changes in the natural environment and subsequent policy responses to those changes. Motivated by this assertion, we developed the conference and this special issue. In partnership with the Population Reference Bureau, we also generated a companion series of research briefs intended for non-academic audiences to extend the reach of sophisticated and policy-relevant environmental demography located at

Scholarship in environmental demography has advanced in recent years, partly owing to improvements in the quality and availability of environmental data. Amidst the progress, significant challenges concerning theoretical development and corresponding analytical strategies persist (Fussell et al., 2014b; Hunter et al., 2015; Kugler et al., 2019). Environmental changes can occur suddenly (e.g., flood, hurricane, tsunami), or they can occur gradually (e.g., land degradation, sea level rise). Some are the result of natural disasters, while others are technological or human-made disasters (through acts of commission or omission). Environmental shocks and stressors expose and often exacerbate existing inequalities (Elliot & Pais, 2010; Mayol-García, 2020). Moreover, demographic responses to such shocks and stressors can vary according to the specific environmental change and the local (social, economic, and political) context (Fussell & Elliot, 2009; Schultz & Elliot, 2013; Roland & Curtis, 2020). Further, the resources and infrastructure necessary for effective planning, adaptation, and mitigations when environmental change disrupts human activities are unevenly distributed. The need to plan and adapt makes the effective translation of scholarship addressing population-environment interactions paramount for future population wellbeing.

As conference organizers and guest editors of this special issue, we are particularly interested in understanding spatial (e.g., national, regional, local) differences in population-environment interactions. This special issue brings together studies investigating a range of different environmental forces to promote our collective understanding of how different events can produce different population outcomes across contexts. This effort to highlight the importance of specific context allows scholars to contribute to the larger discourse on the population-environment nexus without masking essential details of specific cases.

Such details are relevant in several domains in addition to scientific understanding. Context is also important for applications of research findings by policy decision makers and for public discourse on environmental concerns. Each set of authors has generated an accompanying public-facing version of the work featured in this special issue. Our aim is to reduce the disconnection between cutting-edge demographic research produced in the academy and the broader public’s awareness and understanding of scientific work. Environmental change is happening. Environmental events are occurring. These environmental forces have demonstrable consequences for human lives and livelihoods and, by extension, for population wellbeing. The papers in this volume grapple with the population implications of these dynamic forces.

Overview of featured work

This issue begins with a paper that reflects on the origins of the contemporary field of environmental demography. Entwisle identifies three “pivotal moments” in the 1990s, where research was significantly advanced in this area—a call for proposals by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) for research questions related to “population and the environment”; growing availability of new satellite data and maps, which enabled social scientists to imagine new research questions and analyses (leading to a 1996 National Academies of Sciences workshop that brought social scientists and remote-sensing experts together); and Anne Pebley’s presidential address at the 1998 annual meetings of the Population Association of America (PAA) on “Demography and the Environment.” Entwisle goes on to describe the evolution of the field over the past two decades and notes that “the data and tools needed to explore the natural environment as a determinant of demographic outcomes are mostly available.” She highlights the increasing availability of environmental data, with many social surveys now routinely including measures of environmental conditions. She also emphasizes important technological advancements that allow us to store and analyze environmental data. Entwisle points to future opportunities for this field, including integrating both social and environmental measures in research, considering the heterogeneity in environmental effects across individuals, groups and contexts, and consideration of changes over the individual life course and across historical time. Central to this special issue’s theme, Entwisle concludes by recommending that “the multidimensionality of environmental contexts and change be fully embraced” as scholars endeavor to more fully understand how environments and populations are linked.

In the next paper, Hunter and colleagues take on the critical issue of data privacy in spatially located data. Recognizing the need for a balance between accuracy and privacy for relevant population health research, the authors evaluate several geomasking techniques aimed at reducing the likelihood of respondent identification. As one anonymous reviewer points out, this research is “timely and addresses an important topic as confidentiality is increasingly challenged in population-environment research.” Combining individual survey data from the Agincourt Health and Population Unit in rural South Africa with contextual data on vegetation from the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), the authors compare “true” values with those generated by a series of geomasking techniques and find a high degree of variation in estimates depending on the method used. With implications for future work, Hunter and colleagues conclude that more detailed data require techniques that accommodate greater anonymity to preserve privacy and, significantly, the precise threshold is context-specific.

In addition to addressing these broad, centralizing issues in environmental demography, this special issue features a series of papers focusing on two thematic areas of perennial demographic interest: child health and migration. In their study of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Slack and colleagues use unique panel data to identify changes in health status among children exposed to the oil spill. Their approach serves as an innovative example of how to bridge the literature on disaster impacts and the social determinants of health. Using the Resilient Children, Youth, and Communities (RCYC) study, the authors present a longitudinal cohort design rare in disaster impacts research and, in doing so, provide a unique empirical insight on the causal mechanisms of an environmental disaster, a large oil spill. Their results demonstrate that the health effects of physical exposure to the oil spill dissipate over time, whereas the socio-economic effects on health via job and/or income loss are lasting. As one anonymous reviewer aptly noted, “simultaneously examining the role of a direct impact (oil spill exposure) and indirect impact (job/income loss) significantly advances knowledge about the role of socio-economic status in health outcomes in disaster contexts.”

Manduca and Sampson present a significant contribution to our understanding of how environmental toxins affect childhood outcomes over and above health and net of neighborhood social indicators such as poverty and segregation. The study integrates new sources of data to measure cumulative exposure to air pollution and household-derived lead through childhood and bring those exposures to bear on young-adult outcomes including income, young age at first birth, and incarceration. The authors show important disparities in exposure to traffic-related air pollution and household-derived lead exposure by race, even accounting for neighborhood-level indicators. Their findings, which suggest that “differential exposure to environmental toxins in childhood may be a contributor to racial inequality in socioeconomic outcomes among adults,” effectively bring together the literature on environmental sociology and neighborhood health effects.

In the next paper, Randell, Grace, and Bakhtsiyarava focus on mothers with young children in Ethiopia. This team investigates how average monthly rainfall amounts are associated with the duration of exclusive breastfeeding after a child’s birth. The authors find a notable relationship explained by women’s time spent in agricultural labor: More rainfall during the primary agricultural season—signaling more positive growing conditions—results in women spending more days planting and harvesting, which is linked not only with “sub-optimal” infant feeding practices in the short term but also with greater food security in the long term. This paper highlights the trade-offs faced by women in precarious economic circumstances between the infant care and nutrition they are able to provide during a child’s first year versus securing greater sustenance and security for the child and family over a longer period. The authors note that these longer-term benefits may in fact outweigh any negative influence of shorter breastfeeding duration and, thus, they urge greater consideration of trade-offs in the WHO recommendations about exclusive breastfeeding.

Grace and Davenport turn our attention toward vulnerable communities in three West African nations—Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, where food insecurity is high. Focusing on water, which is fundamental for those whose livelihoods depend on livestock, the authors explore the extent to which spatial variation in the availability of water is linked with children’s malnutrition. In particular, the authors use flexible regression modeling techniques to examine how data from remote sensors about the depth of surface waterholes are linked to spatially referenced survey data about children’s height-for-age scores, a common indicator of (mal)nutrition. The authors find that higher waterhole depth is associated with better child health (higher height-for-age values), holding constant a number of individual, household, community and other environmental factors. This paper sheds light on how one aspect of climate change—shifting access to water—not only is important for the livelihoods of those in agricultural contexts but also is linked to the health and wellbeing of the next generation.

In their ambitious article, Quiñones, Liebenehm, and Sharma use a decade’s worth of panel data from the Thailand Vietnam Socio Economic Panel (TVSEP) and detailed rainfall and temperature data to explore the role of two key mediators in the association between exposure to drought and household migration: socioeconomic status and risk tolerance. Their findings show that exposure to spells of drought decreases household migration—specifically, exposure to two consecutive years of drought. The authors demonstrate that this somewhat surprising association is mediated by increased risk aversion and erosion of household income, assets, and consumption following years of drought. In this work, Quiñones and colleagues add nuance to our understanding of environmental events and their relationship to migration, showing that a severe event is not always sufficient to prompt household flight. The decision to leave areas affected by severe climate events is more complex. The authors characterize this relationship as an “environmentally induced poverty trap, whereby exposure to climate shocks directly and indirectly reduces rural population mobility, particularly among poorer households.”

In the final paper, Winkler and Rouleau take a new approach to investigating increasingly relevant environmental hazards in the US context: heat and wildfires. Their work examines whether internal migration patterns in the USA during recent decades are influenced by growing environmental “disamenities” resulting from climate change. Situating heat and wildfires as place-based disamenities, the authors use fixed effects and random effects models to demonstrate that higher incidents of extreme heat and wildfires lead to greater out-migration. Rooted in demographic, sociological, and regional economics literatures, their study provides crucial insights into the impacts of environmental hazards that are likely to be more prevalent in the future and identifies the places most likely impacted by them—high amenity and recreational rural areas.

In featuring this collection of papers, we intend for this volume to enhance our collective understanding about how distinct and dynamic environmental conditions and events influence a range of human behaviors and experiences and, by extension, the populations they comprise. As the environment continues to change and environmental events continue to occur, new questions fundamental to demography arise about the nature of human behaviors and wellbeing and striking inequalities that already exist therein. We hope that demographers will embrace the challenge of exploring these important topics at the forefront of both science and public policy.


  1. 1.

    We appreciate funding for this conference from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute for Child Health and Human Development (R13 HD096853) and from several centers and units at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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Conference funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute for Child Health and Human Development (R13 HD096853) and from several centers and units at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was received. Our efforts were supported by the Center for Demography and Ecology at the UW-Madison (P2C HD047873) and the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Curtis, K.J., Jones, M. & Carlson, M.J. Putting people into dynamic places: the importance of specific contexts in understanding demographic responses to changes in the natural environment. Popul Environ 42, 425–430 (2021).

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