The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change
Terry Leahy's website
Religion and the Environmental Apocalypse
Business Responses to Climate Change Policy
Letter to Greg Combet
Climate Code Red: A Timely Suggestion
The Social Meaning of the Climate Crisis
Sociologists and The Environment: Global Warming As A Case Study -- 2006
Apocalypse Most Likely: Agency and Environmental Risk in the Hunter Region
Women's Responses to Environmental Issues (Short Version)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part A)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part B)
Global Warming and What To Do About It
For the Eighty Percent - A Rap Poem
Lecture: Approaches to Environmental Change
Women's Responses to Environmental Issues (Long Version)
Waiting For the End of the World: Popular Responses to Environmental Issues in Australia
Some Problems of Environmentalist Reformism
Sociological Utopias and Social Transformation: Permaculture and the Gift Economy
Lecture: Deep Ecology
The Social Meaning of the Climate Crisis

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Note: Missing Chapter for Sociology Textbook

What you are about to read is an invited chapter for a sociology textbook.  It was rejected as “unacceptable” by the two editors and the reviewers.

This was about October last year 2009. I am publishing this on my home page as a reasonably up to date survey of my thinking on these matters.  It is also so staff wishing to use a chapter on this topic in their teaching can do so. 

I have re-read this chapter now (Feb 2010) and although there are a few things I will work on for any future versions, I am still ok with it as a useful textbook introduction to the issues.

The Social Meaning of the Climate Crisis

Terry Leahy - 2009

Apocalypse Probably

In the mid nineties I interviewed a number of Hunter residents (NSW, Australia). A typical vision of the future was from Michael:

Very grim, (laughs)  Very grim.  Oh yeah.  Complete disaster.
Yeah I mean because in my lifetime, you think about it, there has never been one positive, uhh, overall macro improvement in the environment.  You name me one. We haven't seen a change in government policy or attitude to keep up.

Margie explained her apathetic political response:

I hide from the news. I don't watch it, and I don't listen to it. I don't go out of my way to keep informed about what's going on in the world ... It's the ostrich syndrome. Most things I don't think that you've really got much power to change, being one person on your own. So it's no good getting het up about it.

She compared her situation to that of Jews in Germany facing the holocaust – if she had been a Jew at that time, she would have rather she had not known what was going to happen. “Who needs ulcers before?” 

This qualitative study was followed by a phone survey (Gow & Leahy 2005).  We asked people whether they thought any of eight different scenarios of apocalypse might happen. Only 8% perceived none as likely and the modal response was that four scenarios were likely or very likely - for example nuclear war, an environmental collapse, plague, the disintegration of moral values and social order. Concern about the environment was expressed in 83% agreeing to the statement "Urgent environmental action is needed or the earth would no longer support human life". Huge majorities were concerned or very concerned about a range of environmental issues.  Yet at the same time, this extreme concern was not matched by any willingness to be involved in environmental politics.  Seventy two per cent never engaged in a local environmental project, even something as politically neutral as a tree planting, 86 per cent never engaged in any kind of political action and 98 per cent were never involved in party politics.  This was not because interviewees believed that governments and big business were handling environmental issues.  Eighty one per cent believed the environment was getting worse because too little was being done to protect it; 77 per cent said the government was doing too little and 73 per cent said we could not trust our elected representatives to protect the environment.

One might have believed that this mismatch might have shifted, with more on climate change in the media and a number of elections said to hinge on climate change.  However recent research suggests this is not the case.  A recent Australian study of teenagers found a gap between optimism about personal futures and extreme pessimism about the planet (Threadgold 2009). There was not much faith in political action:

Mel: Yeah, the whole world is going to self destruct I just hope that we are not part of
        it when it happens [laughter].
Nell: If I could do something I would, but I have no money to contribute…
Mel: And we’re 17 year old school students…
Nell: No one’s going to listen to us…
Mel: And if we protest it’s like, ‘oh, those crazy teenagers’ [laughs].
Nell: Protesting doesn’t work, it doesn’t do anything.

(Threadgold 2009).

A Norwegian study (Norgaard 2006) tries to explain the weakness of social movement activity, behavioural change or public pressure.  Surveys in the USA and Norway point to decreasing concern.  For example 35 per cent in the US survey in 1989 said they personally worried a lot about global warming while by 2001 there were only 28 per cent.  Karie Norgaard speaks of this as a “socially organized denial”.  People in a Norwegian town referred to climate change to explain the thin ice and the late ski season, but it was rarely a topic of conversation – people “lived their lives as though they did not know or care about it” (Norgaard 2006, p. 352).  In the decade after the Kyoto agreement, Norway had tripled its exports of oil and gas and failed to meet its Kyoto targets – in fact emissions had gone up by 20 per cent.  The absence of any strong movement to force government action fits with the way climate change is both acknowledged and sidelined in everyday life. 

Giddens (2009) reports a UK survey.  Only 7 per cent put climate change as the main worry facing the country.  Only 30 per cent were very concerned. Only 7 per cent strongly disagreed with a statement that “I sometimes think climate change may not be as bad as people say” with 42 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing.  Almost 60 per cent thought the government was using climate change to raise taxes.  A high proportion agreed that the UK should wait till bigger countries did something (Giddens 2009, p. 101-103). 

Sociology and Climate Change

So what has been the response of sociology?  In 2008, Constance Lever-Tracy argued that within sociology, environmental issues and global warming are far from the mainstream.  She claims sociologists are reluctant to use the findings of the natural sciences and feel unable to judge these findings critically (Lever-Tracy 2008, p. 446).  Paradoxically, in 2009, two major works of sociology were published on these topics (Giddens 2009; Beck 2009).


Anthony Giddens announces that at the present time we “have no politics of climate change”.  We do not have “a developed analysis of the political innovations that have to be made if our aspirations to limit global warming are to become real” (Giddens 2009, p. 4).  Yet social theorists have in fact made lists of political options that are being tried out (Backstrand & Lovbrand 2007; Verweij et al 2007).  Giddens really means that we do not have a realistic political agenda. 

Giddens begins by arguing that we have to work with parliamentary democracy – it is not realistic to hope for a socialist, environmentalist or anarchist revolution.  He favours state regulation and climate taxes rather than trading systems.  This is to be combined with government investment in renewable energy.  Giddens does not include the option of nationalization, or governments acting to phase out fossil fuels – instead the state subsidizes alternatives. 

Like the “ecological modernization” school (Mol & Spaargaren 2000), Giddens believes that climate change measures can create options for profitable business.  What we need is “to introduce regulation without crippling that sense of adventure and entrepreneurialism upon which a successful response to climate change will also depend” (Giddens 2009, p. 96).  Energy security is the carrot – nations will want to avoid dependence on other countries for oil, gas and coal. 

He favours a raft of energy strategies, including nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration – as necessary to accommodate demands to continue contemporary rich world energy use and affluence.

This is “environmentalist reformism” (for a founding text see Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999). Giddens does not envisage these strategies depending upon or initiating a basic change which will end capitalism.

In the reformist perspective, markets are the main means to distribute products; money, private ownership of the means of production (factories and farms etc.) and wage labour are retained. The rich countries stay affluent and the developing countries become more affluent – they ‘develop’. Economic growth continues. It is argued that this can take place at the same time as environmental damage is cut back. Parliamentary democracy continues.  Giddens, like others in this vein, does not say much about how the demand for climate change policies is to be pressed home to authoritarian dictatorships.  In democracies, the necessary changes are to come about through lifestyle and consumer choice with government regulation.  Giddens emphasizes the latter – a comeback for social democracy. 

Giddens clearly does not believe the very structure of the capitalist economy causes environmental damage. At least, it seems, he has provided a set of politically realistic proposals. But are these strategies drastic enough to deal with the problem?  The politically unlikely may be just what is required. 

A key argument is for “contraction and convergence”. For a politically realistic global solution, Giddens argues that the poorer countries “must have a chance to develop, even if such a process raises emissions, for a period quite steeply” (Giddens 2009, p. 9).  In 2007, he reports, carbon emissions per head were much higher in the rich countries than the poor countries.  For example 26 tonnes in Australia, 23 in the USA, 12 in Germany and 11 in the UK compared to 4.6 in China and 3.5 tonnes in India – and of course much less in the really poor developing countries.  Giddens hopes to buy the support of India and China for a plan to increase emissions for developing countries while rich countries contract (Giddens 2009, p. 183-189). 

This all makes sense until you start to think in detail about the figures. Giddens makes use of the “optimistic” scenarios of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  For no more than a 2 degree centigrade rise in temperature – the IPCC recommends at least a 50% cut in global carbon dioxide emissions from 2000 to 2050 (IPCC 2007, p. 67). This is what Giddens is clearly hoping for – as politically possible.  Global emissions in 2000 were 30 gigatonnes per year.  By 2050 we would be hoping for fifty per cent of this total – 15 gigatonnes.

Here is the calculation that Giddens does not perform.  With 30 gigatonnes and 6 billion people the average emissions are 5 tonnes per head. But, as Giddens notes, in 2050 it is predicted that the global population will be 9 billion.  The average per head by 2050 would have to be 15 gigatonnes divided by 9 billion people – 1.66 tonnes per head.  So in actual fact there is no scope at all for contraction and convergence.  China and India would have to get down to 1.66 tonnes per head so that Ethiopia could converge upwards to this miserable pittance of emissions.  Meanwhile the United States would be cutting to down to 7 per cent per capita of what they now emit, to reach these targets.  This would not be because of any excess of altruism on their part – the USA could only go above 1.66 tonnes per head by insisting that China and India go below that figure and that the really poor countries with less than 1.66 tonnes per head now would stay that way – surely a complete fantasy in political terms (See also Trainer 2007 for this argument).

What we are looking at is the wholesale abandonment of fossil fuels. The mild social democratic reformism proposed by Giddens seems unlikely to be effective in producing such huge economic changes and the massive transfer of energy infrastructure to developing countries that is required. 

If we are thinking of a reformist approach to climate change, that which has been advocated in “Climate Code Red” (Spratt & Sutton  2008) seems a lot more likely to work. David Spratt and Phillip Sutton envisage the transition as a “wartime” mobilization.  Massive government funding, intervention and regulation would be necessary to move transport, energy and industry into this new setting.  In the second world war up to 40% of national economies were devoted to wartime production.  While rationing of some consumer goods took place, there was full employment and GNP growth.  Their estimate for Australia is that we would need to set aside A$300 to A$400 billion to invest in this restructuring.  Over a ten year period this would represent a mere 4% of our total economic production (Spratt & Sutton 2008, p. 227). 

In a state of emergency, governments and the people accept that the emergency has priority and that it will be expensive.  Governments are mandated to intervene and reshape the economy without hesitation.  There is bipartisan support for this.  For this emergency we need to replace all fossil fuel use.  To do that governments have to reshape the energy sector, closing down fossil fuel industries and funding alternatives.  They have to totally re-shape transport to run on alternative energy – electricity from renewable sources or bio-fuels.

To make such a policy effective internationally, we would have to support developing countries, to replace existing fossil fuel energy systems and jump in before economic development took off with fossil fuels.  This would be an ongoing commitment because any poor country could blackmail the world to insist on support or go ahead with fossil fuels.  A combination of generous provision and harsh economic sanctions for countries which stepped out of line, backed up by military force, could work.  The expense of this commitment would make a mockery of Spratt and Sutton’s optimistic budget calculations for the rich countries.


Ulrich Beck (2009) has more of a sense of the enormity of the changes necessary to rein in climate change.  His approach combines two ideas.  One is ecological modernization and the other, which he describes as “world risk society” replacing the “first modernity” needs elaboration to be explained! 

There are many points where Beck’s analysis fits exactly with the approach to environmental matters, pioneered by environmentalist writers such as Amory Lovins and David Suzuki and the academic school characterized as “ecological modernization” (Mol & Spaargaren 2000).  Like them, he believes that government regulation of the market is necessary to kick start an environmental conversion.  After this, huge sections of the business community will see an opportunity for growth:

 … major sectors of the transnational economy have switched sides and are jostling for favourable starting positions in the competition over the markets for environmental technologies. (Beck 2009, p. 3)

For example,  the Europeans might design a new low energy fridge to be constructed by the Chinese to the great profit of all concerned; “only climate change would finally be the loser” (Beck 2009, p. 62).  Like other business optimists, he is confident that citizen groups can constrain business within environmental guidelines.  He mentions a motorists’ boycott of Shell that had threatened to dump an oil drilling platform in the ocean.  Small organizations can force business to look like a villain or opt for the role of “the hero and rescuer” (Beck 2009, p. 99). Economists will end up supporting government regulation “to the extent that the global economy itself sees decisive political action to counter climate change as a source of new opportunities for markets and growth, as is clearly increasingly the case” (Beck 2009, p. 102).  What we will see is a “green capitalism” in which ecology and climate protection become a “direct route to profits” (Beck 2009, p. 103).

This mild business optimist reformism is only one side of Beck’s analysis.  He also believes that “world risk society” is replacing the “first modernity”.  The way I see his position, he is arguing that this change is so fundamental as to be what marxists call a “change in the mode of production” – like the change from the Roman Empire to Feudalism or from Feudalism to Capitalism.  Yet he never speaks of “capitalism” as coming to an end.  How can this paradox be understood?  Within this new world risk society, national governments, parliaments, wage labour and the private ownership of the means of production will all be retained. Yet none of these institutions will have the power and meaning that they used to have.  They become just part of an equation in which everything else that has been central to capitalism is overturned.  We could call this a “revolution without a banner”; it is a revolutionary change in society that is not announced, not acknowledged and, taken as a whole, unintended (for a similar analysis see Leahy 2008). 

Beck maintains that the new risks which industrial modernity has produced are global risks. Their effects cannot be contained within national boundaries.  Environmental risks destroy the basis of class politics as conducted within the “first modernity”.  For a start whole business sectors can be the recipients of environmental damage coming from other business sectors. In cases like this, business owners and their workers in one sector are pitched into confrontation with a similar alliance from another sector.  As well, the environmental risks created by business can become a boomerang and hit back at those who hoped to benefit by creating the risks in the first place.  Global warming can cause hurricanes and property damage in the UK and not just in Bangladesh. 

New global risks are incalculable.  For example, it is very hard to calculate the risks of climate change and what we cannot be sure of could be catastrophic.

Finally the damage we are risking could be irreversible. We may easily reach a tipping point beyond which any human action to control climate change will be ineffective.  With the release of methane from a warming tundra there would come a point at which at cutting back on industrial carbon emissions could have little effect.  Growing temperatures would be unstoppable.

Beck argues that these new global risks are forcing a fundamental restructuring.  Firstly, there has been and we will see more of a “democratization” of society.  National governments and big business will be effectively controlled by citizen groups networked across the globe. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the civic networks and movements have taken the initiative.  It was they who put the global threat on the agenda … Democratic subversion has won a quite improbable thematic victory. (Beck 2009, p. 44)

A newly strengthened public sphere will have the power to reject technological change which may cause environmental damage. Globalized capital will be disempowered “because the consequences of investment decisions give rise to global risks, destabilize markets and awaken the power of the sleeping consumer giant” (Beck 2009, p. 66). States will be forced into alliance with non state actors (civic groups) and other nation states.  There is a “compulsory cosmopolitanism”.  Governments in the rich developed countries are forced to take into account the actions of governments in the developing countries.  The US must pay its arch rival, China “gigantic sums” to “make that country carbon free” (Beck 2009, p. 104).  Global risks challenge us to adopt an ethical standpoint which crosses borders. The poor of the world will come to have the right to a say in the decisions that affect them. This is democratic control of the processes of production on a global scale.

Beck does not see these changes coming about because of a conscious desire to bring about a new “world risk society”.  Instead, we “are being condemned to shape the future in order to survive” (Beck 2009, p. 230).

The new dangers created by world risk society destroy the framework of the first industrial modernity and its basic institutions “class conflict, national statehood and the notion of linear, technological-economic progress” (Beck 2009, p. 81). Beck does not name “capitalism” as a basic institution of industrial modernity.  Nevertheless both class conflict and linear economic progress are foundational for capitalism.  The competition between firms produces growth and the promise of linear progress and increasing affluence is the political glue which holds capitalist society together. Beck argues that the death of class conflict comes about because lines of cleavage and alliances are not predicated on class position in a global risk society.  In so far as this is true it is certainly a new political landscape.

Marxist approaches

While Beck provides a cheeringly optimistic perspective, his account closes off a number of possible future directions, which could be just as likely as “world risk society”. Beck must be aware of the way business has opposed climate change regulation and national governments have been dragging their heels.  Within a marxist framework, these outcomes can be readily explained (McLaughlin 1993; Trainer 1995; Coates & Leahy 2006; Trainer 2007; Kovel 2007; Baer 2008).  In capitalism, firms compete to make sales or get dumped by their shareholders.  Technological efficiency gives a competitive edge and produces growth as the outcome.  Every individual company and nation is economically compelled to externalize the costs of environmental side effects in order to stay in the capitalist game.  Workers are also consumers and voters.  Because capitalism requires that you have a job to survive, they are motivated to vote for parties that are going to increase growth and maintain job levels.  As workers whose daily life is dominated by their bosses, they cherish their increasing pay packets and consumer spending as compensation for their “alienated labour”.  That makes them unlikely allies for any kind of environmentalist plan that might threaten jobs, raise taxes or reduce consumer spending.  All of this fits very well with the ambivalence of the electorate described at the beginning of this chapter. 

Clearly a revolution could change the economic landscape so thoroughly as to remove these constraints of capitalism (Leahy 2004; Coates & Leahy 2006; Kovel 2007; Trainer 2007; Nelson 2008).  If people become sufficiently distressed by climate change they may well turn to something a lot more drastic than Beck envisages.  Beck’s only argument against this is to claim that proposed alternatives to capitalism “have not withstood the test of history, as the twentieth century shows” (2009, p. 212).  The fact is that revolutions are very rarely predictable – in 1975 who could have sensibly predicted the collapse of the Soviet empire?  Revolution by citizen takeover – or through a bottom-up environmental and social transformation, are both possible (Leahy 2004; Holmgren 2008; Leahy 2009). 

The Sociology of Collapse

Of course the other alternative future path for global society is what Jared Diamond has referred to as a “collapse” (Diamond 2005).  Diamond argues that a number of civilisations of the past have collapsed as they were unable to deal with the environmental problems they had created – for example the Mayans, Easter Island, the Anasazi. Beck, it is fair to say, does at least mention this as a possible outcome.  He counters, saying that when people speak of the “end of the world” they are forgetting that this apocalyptic vision has been current several times in European history.  Speaking of the end of the world implies “our own inability to recognize the signs of new world beginnings” (Beck 2009, p. 219).

Beck gives us a philosophical answer to an empirical question – what is the shape of the future?  It is of course true that it will be the beginning of something “new” even if it is the end of something “old”.  A collapse is something quite particular.  Wars and civil conflict, famine and population crash, the massacre of the ruling class – followed by at least several centuries in which large scale state and imperial control collapses and much smaller political units dominate – egalitarian bands, small communes, warlords and the like.  These changes go along with a decline in the technological capacity of the society. 

Surely, some part of the sociological enterprise should consider the current environmental crisis as an example of “collapse”.   Let us imagine that we are at the end of the Roman empire. 

The survey and qualitative data reviewed above is good evidence.  A sense of urgency and commitment to action for change seem unlikely to come from the people that have been interviewed and surveyed in recent years. We could also look at the nature of our problems and detail the political response so far.  “Climate Code Red” by David Spratt and Phillip Sutton explains our climate problems (2008; see also Dyer 2008; Lynas 2007 as well as IPCC 2007).

A key argument is that even the 0.5-degree increase that we have had so far was enough to start the melting of the polar ice, the disintegration of the Greenland ice cap and the melting of much Antarctic ice.  Likely consequences of the current melting are a disastrous rise in sea levels. 

They draw this conclusion from looking at the palaeoclimate data – data which shows what the earth was like in the distant past.  We have an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 380 parts per million, gradually pushing the climate up.  Palaeoclimate data from 130,000 years ago shows that when concentrations of CO2 were the same as today, seas were 5 metres higher. Three million years ago when carbon dioxide was at 350 – 450 ppm, seas were 25 metres higher.  The implication is we are tracking towards this disaster now.

These figures for sea level rise are much higher than the modelling of the IPCC – one to two metres by 2100.  The explanation for this discrepancy is to note that the IPCC modelling avoids inclusion of “slow feedbacks” – because they are very hard to model. However the palaeoclimate data gives us good reasons to think they are quite important.  The theory is that extra carbon in the atmosphere can create a feedback loop.  For example, the initial increase in carbon levels raises the temperature sufficiently to melt some of the global ice cap.  As the ice melts, dark oceans and bare black soils do not reflect sunlight like shiny white ice.  Up goes the temperature again.

A possible feedback is thawing of the arctic tundra, releasing the carbon now locked into frozen soils – an amount that dwarfs global oil reserves.  A possible scenario is a rise of six degrees or more – wiping 90% of species off the earth, as happened 55 million years ago.  Everyone would have to move south of Melbourne or north of London to survive.

So a prudent policy would be to restore the ice caps by going back to less than a 0.5 degree rise.  Such a temperature would be possible if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at 320 parts per million; a point passed some decades ago.

Even if we set the goal at what the IPCC considers the minimum safe level we are looking at a reduction of 50% from 2000 levels by 2050.  This may not seem too severe until we factor in the per capita usage with 9 billion people to make a global average of 1.66 tonnes per head in 2050.   We would surely be looking at a 2020 goal for the rich countries of a fifty per cent reduction to get to 90% by 2050. 

Yet this is far from any actual political agenda.  The Kyoto protocol aimed to cut emissions by 5 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012.  It was not ratified by the Bush government in the US or the Howard government in Australia.  Many nations who signed up to it are unlikely to meet their targets. 

In Australia the most recent development is a proposal to cut by between 5 per cent and 25 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 – and no more than whatever is agreed internationally at Copenhagen in December.  In the meantime Australian governments have continued to add fossil fuel fired power plants and have doubled coal exports. 

The G8 meeting in 2009 agreed to a 50 per cent global cut by 2050 (the IPCC goal).  Realistically, and for the first time, they admitted that the rich countries would have to cut by 80 per cent to make this possible. India and China indicated their dissent; they would not bargain until the rich countries set a target for 2020. 

The next world meeting to replace Kyoto is Copenhagen in December.  What is possible will surely be constrained by the US position.  With Obama, the US has started to commit itself to real goals.  However these are very far from reassuring.  The current policy, passed by the US House of Representatives, is that the USA will reduce by 17 per cent by 2020.  But this is based on 2005 levels – meaning that there is virtually no planned reduction from 1990 levels!  So the USA is locked into doing next to nothing for the next 11 years and the rest of the world will no doubt follow suit. 

Let us look at the real world of emissions during this protracted process.  Between 1990 and 1999 emissions grew by 1.1 per cent per annum and between 2000 and 2004 they grew by 3 per cent per annum (Spratt & Sutton 2008).  If this rate continues, emissions will double every 23 years, by about four times by 2050 (Trainer 2007). One thousand new coal fired power stations will be installed globally by 2012.  It seems likely that China will double emissions by 2030 given its current rate of growth (Spratt & Sutton 2008).

Clearly a key factor is the cost or impossibility of replacing fossil fuels to provide the energy levels we now use – or indeed to increase energy supply to take care of economic growth.  This problem tends to be underestimated (Trainer 2007).

Wind is the cheapest renewable energy but there is no cheap way of storing the energy when the wind is down.  For example, using excess wind power to create hydrogen as storage, the capital cost could be about 11 times that of a coal-fired power plant plus fuel (Trainer 2007, p. 34).  We do not even have enough good wind sites.  If Australia was to supply half its energy from wind via a system that used 4 units of electricity to store one unit, we would need 200 times the area we have in NSW and Victoria with wind speeds sufficient to drive the turbines (Trainer 2007, p. 35). Then there is wind variability. Wind speeds are below what is needed for power generation a good part of the year, even if we source electricity across whole continents.

With solar thermal, short-term storage of heat energy in molten salt is the most probable means of dealing with night-time use and occasional cloudy days. Looking at outback Australia how much capacity would we need to install to equate to a coal-fired plant?  Building the storage system for a 1000 megawatt power station to store heat for three days of cloudy weather would cost 2.5 times as much as the cost of building a coal-fired plant (Trainer 2007, p. 47).  A solar plant could not produce peak capacity most of the year, given winter, night times and cloudy days.  So you would have to build more plant capacity to produce the same amount of energy in a year as would come from a coal-fired plant with a cost 7.5 times as much (Trainer 2007, p. 45). Costs in winter to supply an equivalent amount of power could easily be more than 15 times the costs of the coal-fired plant (Trainer 2007, p. 47).

Biomass is a sad joke to replace oil and gas.  To meet current demand in the United States we would have to harvest biomass from 1,162 million hectares – nine times all US cropland and 8 times all presently forested land in the US (Trainer 2007, p. 87).   A similar analysis can be made of all the technologies usually seen as available to deal with climate change, including nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration.  There is no doubt that the intractable costs of providing rich world energy supplies through alternatives to the usual fossil fuel technologies – and the impossibility of actually growing energy provision without increasing emissions – is holding back government and business action.

Sociology spotlight: Business leaders and climate change

Vanessa Bowden has been following the climate change debate for some years.  When she came to undertake her honours thesis in 2008, she decided to tackle the issue of business views of climate change.  Clearly the Hunter region of Australia, with its industrial base in coal fired power plants and coal exports, was a key site.  The context in Australia was the development of the Labor government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme; a cap and trade system that is intended to reduce carbon emissions by setting a target and issuing a limited number of emissions permits to achieve the reduction.  One of the most striking findings was that business leaders did not believe anything could be done to forestall climate change if it impaired the growth economy or threatened employment. Bush’s famous statement: “The American way of life is not negotiable” is a good summary of their viewpoint.

Many business leaders explained that the effect of the CPRS would be to make their industry uncompetitive, their business would merely migrate to a country where there was no such scheme in place.  Consequently, they had to oppose the application of the scheme to their business.  They argued that internationally and locally, economic growth was inevitable and would continue to require coal as a cheap energy source.

So what theory is apt if we view current society as headed for a “collapse” as Diamond calls it?  Perlman (1983) is an anarchist theorist who sees human history as decisively changed with the invention of social class and the state (about 4000 BC).  The social apparatus that follows from that invention may be characterized as a “beast” or an automaton.  It has transformed itself through different epochs and could now destroy the biosphere itself.  Perlman wonders how a first inhabitant of state society may have viewed it:

He might think of it as a giant worm, a carcass, a monstrous cadaver, its body consisting of numerous segments, its skin pimpled with spears and wheels and other technological implements.  He knows from his own experience that the entire carcass is brought to artificial life by the motions of the human beings trapped inside, the zeks who operate the springs and wheels, just as he knows that the cadaverous head is operated by a mere zek, the head zek. (Perlman 1983, p. 27)

Societies with a state function as machines; the people who operate them are forced into roles which fit the machine’s functioning. Even the ruling class (the head zek) operates within the social machine.

Collapse can come from this automatism.  The social machine of capitalism (competitive private ownership, wage labour, the growth economy) is serviced by its human parts.  It has functioned well so far but can also collapse if the environment changes – like a car engine that works well when the car is on the road but seizes up when the car is driven into a lake.  That is where we are now at with climate change.  The capitalist growth machine has found the cheapest source of energy and will go on until it collapses from the environmental effects. 

Castoriadis  (1987) claims each mode of production has functioned with a “social imaginary” which becomes unconscious.  This mode of thought is based on a set of fictions, which become real if society operates by them. People forget human beings have imagined them. Castoriadis takes wage labour as a key example today; the idea that you can control someone’s work by paying them in money is clearly a fantasy – just as much as the view in some other society that you share inheritance with an owl. 

Collapse makes much sense from this perspective.  Bowden’s interviews with business leaders demonstrate quite well the limits to what can be even envisaged as a response to climate change (2009).

Economic growth is a given and any new energy mix must supply it:

The international energy demand is growing at such a rate that coal will still be required for decades to come – low cost abundant energy is what you're looking for, so there's no doubt I think in our mind that coal will remain an important part of the global energy mix.


To call a halt to growth would invite the end of all social order:

We will have social anarchy if we implement the environmental call to stop coal.

It was unthinkable that any such development could actually take place:

Oh, I – to be honest I - I don't worry about that at all because it won't, that won't happen. It's just not going to happen. Those mines up there they represent just way too much economically for our region for anybody to, to do away with them. It won't happen. It won't, it can't.

Any realistic alternative technology would have to be able to supply exponential growth:

If we're wanting to replace baseload by the coal – or nuclear – with true renewables – to actually replace, the growth of that needs to be exponential. Because we just can't catch up with what's required … We actually don't have a viable alternative.

Environmentalists who believed otherwise did not have a firm grip on reality:

People are living in la la land if they think [coal's] going to be gone overnight.

In this perspective the growth economy and competitive global capitalism is inevitable and anything else is “la la land”– the dissolution of all social order.  If the crisis of climate change cannot be solved within that framework, it just cannot be solved.  This certainty and the refusal to imagine anything radically different from business as usual fits exactly with Castoriadis’s concept of the imaginary institution of society.  That theory helps to make sense of a society, which from any rational point of view, is acting as though hypnotized.


This chapter has focussed on climate change as the most significant environmental issue for sociologists to consider; a choice confirmed by the strength of recent concern in the discipline. The mild reformism espoused by Giddens may be realistic politically but he provides a completely unrealistic scenario for dealing with climate change. Beck’s analysis is closer to the mark.  Any effective response to climate change will be such a radical departure from business as usual that it will make sense to speak of the end of “the first modernity” as he puts it. Yet Beck’s vision of the future is just one possible direction that things may take – the other two are “revolution” and “collapse”.  Sociology must remain open to all possible outcomes.  If collapse is the way things are heading it will be a rare chance for our discipline to document such an event at first hand!    For sociology and for our civilisation, it is certainly a case of “watch this space”.

Sociological Reflection – Are you a zek?

It may seem cynical for sociology to merely observe “collapse” like a TV crew at a train wreck.  But what about your own conduct?  If you truly believed that climate change was a real concern and that everyone could at least do something – how would you actually live your life?  What would you do in your everyday work life, your domestic life, your leisure?  What would you do to exert political pressure?  Make a list.  If there is a difference between this list and what you actually do, reflect on the personal considerations and the social pressures that create this different outcome.

Summary of Main Points

  • Sociological studies on attitudes to the environment point to a gap between knowledge of environmental problems and willingness to act to do something about them.
  • Giddens proposes a reformist solution to climate change, emphasizing a steering of the capitalist economy through social democracy.
  • “Climate Code Red” suggests a more drastic reformist strategy is necessary and could be possible if there was the political will.
  • Beck envisages a revolution without a banner – to a new world risk society that allows effective control of production by ordinary citizen groups.
  • Marxists see the crisis as an inevitable by product of capitalist economic structures and hope for a revolution.
  • “Collapse” theory considers the possibility that society as a social machine can produce collapse, so long as individuals continue to operate according to the “social imaginary”.

Discussion questions

  • How much of the scientific analysis of global warming is already familiar to you?
  • Is a reformist solution of the kind envisaged in “Climate Code Red” likely?
  • Is it realistic to expect people to conduct their lives now in reference to outcomes for our grandchildren’s generation?
  • Do you worry a lot about climate change?  Do the people you know? Is it a topic of discussion?
  • Do you have a sneaking suspicion that you might like to see a catastrophic end to current civilisation?
  • Are you preparing for social collapse by learning how to grow food?

Further resources


Beck, U. 2009, World at Risk, Polity Press, Cambridge UK.

Diamond, J. 2005, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin, Camberwell, Victoria.

Giddens, A. 2009, The Politics of Climate Change, Polity Press, London.

Leahy, T. 2008, ‘Discussion of “Global Warming and Sociology”, Current Sociology, vol 56, no. 3, pp. 475-484.
Spratt, D. & Sutton, P. 2008, Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action, Scribe, Melbourne.

Trainer, T. 2007, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dordrecht.


International Panel on Climate Change:

The Simpler Way by Ted Trainer:

The Gift Economy by Terry Leahy:

Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas:


A Crude Awakening
: the oil crash, Directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormacl, Madman Entertainment, Collingwood.  Explains the oil peak and the massive social impact it will have on our societies.  Excellent on the problems of using renewables to provide energy equivalents to fossil fuels.

Crude: The incredible journey of oil, Directed by Richard Smith, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Roadshow entertainment.  Explains the origin of oil in the ancient past, the carbon cycle, the oil peak and the problems that we could run into with global warming.

Key Concepts

alienated labour

People have to work for a wage to live - they are alienated from -  they have no control over - their conditions of work, the process of production, what they produce and the distribution of their products.

A society defined in relation to key economic features: things have a monetary value; a small capitalist class owns the means of production (factories, farms etc.) ; most other people have to get paid work to live; labour time and the means of production (capital) can be bought and sold on the market. 

Societies with cities. A small wealthy elite based in cities extracts products from the rural hinterland.  A standing army.  Cereal crops.

There is a sudden collapse of civilisation – a drastic fall in population; the disappearance of large states or empires; a decay in the technological power of society.

fossil fuels
Energy sources believed to have been laid down as fossils in the distant past from living plants and animals; a compressed source of carbon that can be burned to produce energy – oil, coal and gas.

global warming
An increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere; attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction and burning of forests.

first modernity
Beck sees industrial society as the first stage of modernity; characterised by the search for increased consumer affluence; the cultural and political separation between working class and middle class; the economy of growth and the constant pressure to increase production through scientific control over nature.

The view that society needs to reform rather than change drastically; we need reforms that keep the basic structures of capitalism and its political and cultural institutions intact. 

world risk society
As defined by Beck, the term ‘world risk society’ is used to refer to a number of aspects of modern society (since the 70s).  Global environmental risks are forcing a change in power relations and social structures – a democratisation of power, an effective control of risks by citizen groups acting to shape government and business decisions, a cosmopolitanism which extends decision making power to the developing countries and their people.

Ten Multiple Choice Questions

1.   People are not very active politically on environmental issues because:

a) They do not know what the problems are.
b) They think they can rely on big business and government to sort things out.
c) They think scientists will come up with a solution.
d)  None of the above.

2.  Giddens is like the ecological modernisation theorists because:

a) He thinks we have to replace the ancient natural environment with a new ecology.
b) He believes that the measures necessary to combat climate change can attract business support.
c) He supports a revolutionary alternative to capitalist society.
d) He favours nuclear power as a solution to climate change.

3.  The strategy of “converge and contract” is:

a) To go for a zero growth economy.
b) To bring all of us down to the ecological footprint of an Ethiopian.
c) A new version of the CSIRO diet.
d) To increase emissions from developing countries while rich countries reduce emissions.

4.  “Climate Code Red” proposes:

a) A “wartime” mobilisation or “state of emergency” to deal with climate change.
b) A communist revolution.
c) A return to hunting and gathering.
d) To allow the market to develop alternative energy as consumer demand drives changes.

5.  Beck is similar to Giddens because he also believes:

a) We need to curb world population to solve environmental problems.
b) Global warming has been an excuse for authorities to intervene to control every aspect of social life.
c) Big business can be induced to support climate change measures.
d) There is no possibility of a solution to global climate problems without world government.

6.  “World risk society” according to Beck is:

a) Just another version of capitalism.
b) A radically different and much more democratic world order.
c) A technocratic society in which power is vested in a scientific elite.
d) A society in which environmental risks can be calculated in advance.

7.  Marxists believe that environmental catastrophes are an almost inevitable outcome of capitalism because:

a) Businesses are controlled by people without ethical principles.
b) Increasing technical power leads to ever more extreme mistakes.
c) Voters and consumers alike fail to see their interests correctly.
d) Managers of firms have to ignore damaging side effects to compete successfully.

8.  “Collapse’ is a term used by Jared Diamond to refer to:

a) The disintegration of all moral values.
b) A society ravaged by natural disasters.
c) What happens when a civilisation cannot deal with its environmental problems.
d) The antipathy of religious fundamentalists to Western culture.

9.  Why are the IPCC climate change scenarios sometimes seen as “optimistic”?

a) The panel is dominated by government representatives who do not want to alarm the public.
b) The scenario models do not include “slow feedbacks” such as the melting of the tundra.
c) The IPCC is a front for a new kind of eco-fascism.
d) There is no way to model global climate accurately.

10.  In Bowden’s research, business leaders of the Hunter:

a) Were hoping that the cap and trade scheme would open up new business opportunities in renewable energy.
b) Were confident that baseload power could be supplied by renewable energy.
c) Were willing to accept whatever changes might be necessary to deal with global warming.
d) Believed that changes to energy supply would have to allow for exponential growth in demand. 


Bäckstrand, K. & Lövbrand, E. 2007, ‘Climate Governance Beyond 2012: Competing Discourses of Green Governmentality, Ecological Modernisation and Civic Environmentalism’, in Pettenger, M. (ed), The Social Construction of Climate Change, Ashgate, Burlington, pp. 123-147.

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