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Sociology of the environment is a new field of sociology that has developed in relation to people’s growing concern about environmental issues. It has a dual focus. On the one hand it deals with the way people in society relate to the natural world. On the other hand it deals with ‘environmentalism’ as a social movement; the development of concern about the environment and the social context of actions about the environment.
It could be argued that the way people relate to the natural world has always been a concern of sociologists. When Marx talks about ‘production’ he is talking about a relationship between workers and the natural objects they work up as products. Anthropologists have always believed that natural objects have symbolic significance and this approach can also be used by sociologists. What is the social meaning of the kangaroo? The environmentalist movement as a topic of sociology can be related to the growing concern with environmental problems. The birth of the movement is normally dated to the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962; a book which documented the effect of toxic pesticides on birds and other animals. The ‘hippy’ movement that developed later in the sixties was the first large scale popular subculture to develop themes from environmentalism.
Today in sociology, two approaches to sociology of the environment battle it out in contemporary academic writing: the realist approach and the constructionist approach. These are different approaches to what sociology does. Does sociology talk about how humans relate to the environment and the social factors that influence that? Or is it mainly about how humans perceive their relationship to the environment – a sociology of perspectives on the environment.
The realist approach
In the realist approach, the problems of the environment are quite real. Inevitably, social scientists will follow the lead of the natural sciences in identifying the problems. The task of sociology is to explain the social causes of environmental problems. Also, what social alternatives could produce a better environmental outcome? In this approach, sociologists are in the same boat as most other commentators on environmental problems. Academics in many disciplines argue about what the problems are and what can be done – for example environmental scientists, economists, and psychologists. If sociology has anything special to offer, it is a deeper and more systematic understanding of the social roots of environmental problems and the processes of social change.
The constructionist approach
A second approach attacks realism and argues that there is no one ‘reality’ of environmental problems. Different people have their own differently constructed and equally valid interpretations of the environment. This second perspective comes from a sociological tradition which says that society is not a real thing – it is socially constructed (Berger & Luckmann 1967). In this view social and other realities do not exist independently of the meanings people create about them. Applied to environmental issues, this approach maintains that ‘there is no singular “nature” as such, only a diversity of contested natures; and that each such nature is constituted through a variety of socio-cultural processes from which such natures cannot be plausibly separated’ (Macnaghten & Urry 1998, p.1; see also Eder 1996). So sociologists should investigate how the environment is understood by different sections of the population, how environmental issues are constituted as social problems and how people respond to these discourses of environmental trouble.
It is hard to deny the force of the constructivist claim that our understanding of environmental problems is constructed in specific social contexts. Realists cope with this awkward truth by saying that ‘that the objective world is real and independent of our categorizations but filtered through subjective conceptual systems and scientific methods that are socially conditioned’ (Robbins 2004, p. 114). So they admit that society influences the way we look at the natural world but they insist that there is a reality out there. We grope uncertainly towards understanding it.
The Realist Approach to Climate Change
To get a sense of the realist approach, the issue of climate change is a good place to begin. Realists see global warming as a real environmental problem; something that is going on because of the way society interacts with the environment. The role of the sociologist is to say why society is producing this problem and evaluate the social barriers to dealing with the problem. If society is causing this problem how does society have to change to stop it?
Realists see global warming as a ‘real problem’ that is revealed by ‘science’. The sociologist must begin by understanding the science before considering how society is responding to this problem. So I will do this here to explain how the approach works. One source for scientific information on this would be the websites of government scientific bodies – for example the CSIRO (2001) or the Bureau of Meteorology (2005). Beyond this are books which are intended to dramatize this problem for the public. For example The Coming Storm by Mark Maslin (2002), a British climate scientist or The Weather Makers by well known Australian scientist, Tim Flannery (2005).
What is climate change?
Summarizing this information, global warming, is mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Coal, which we use to generate electricity, oil, which we use for most of our transport, and gas. When these fuels are burnt they give off carbon dioxide. This is what is warming up the planet (Flannery 2005; Maslin 2002). Looking at cores drilled from the ice in the poles, scientists are able to measure changes in carbon dioxide and temperature in the remote past. For the last 650,000 years the amount of carbon dioxide in the air has never gone over 300 parts per million. Except on a few occasions it did not go over 280 parts per million. Since industrialisation we have pushed that up to 380 parts per million and it is still rising (Smith 2005). Changes in carbon dioxide in this long period match changes in climate (Maslin 2002). It seems pretty obvious that increases in carbon dioxide can increase the temperature. There is now good evidence of an increase in temperature over the last 100 years of about 0.6 degrees. We can expect between 2 and 5 degrees increase in temperature in the next 100 years (CSIRO 2001). It could go higher if we maintain or increase our use of fossil fuels.
So why do scientists and other people regard this as a problem? The effects that are predicted from these temperature changes are regarded as problematic in terms of human well being and the well being of other species. Claims like this are based in ideas about human, animal or plant nature. It is not good to starve to death. It is not good for a species if all its members die and are not reproduced in the next generation. In other words, this is a philosophy of ethics which regards these phenomena as ethical facts and because of that, as much a topic for a social science as any other facts. Nevertheless, as the constructionists point out, these things do not register in society ‘as a problem’ unless people are socially constructed to see them as problematic. Whether they become ‘problematic’ to the extent that they drive social action is also a matter of power in society. It is hard to forget what happened in Rwanda.
Some of the predictions for this century are:
The poles will melt and seas rise by one or two metres
Plants and animals will become extinct or die out in the areas where they live now
Agricultural areas will become deserts and vice versa
Extreme weather events will be a lot more common
Existing cities will not be able to cope with reduced water supplies.
Beyond this, it may be that these problems will be vastly increased by feedback loops which will increase temperatures so much as to endanger life on earth. For example as the earth heats up, the permafrost in the northern tundras will melt – methane gas that has come from rotting vegetable matter (now frozen into the ice) will be released, and this will vastly increase global warming. This will also happen on continental shelves in the ocean. This is called a ‘feedback loop’. Heating through the greenhouse effect starts a process in which more greenhouse gas (methane in this case) is released, causing more greenhouse warming and even more release of methane (Maslin 2002).
What is ‘problematic’ about this?
Taking a few examples can show the sense in which these predicted events are regarded as problematic. For example, with the increase in carbon dioxide dissolved in the oceans, some species are unable to create their calcium based exoskeleton. As a result, in the Southern oceans, the number of krill has gone down to 20 percent of what it was a few decades ago (Flannery 2005, pp. 96–97). Krill is the food that sustains penguins, seals and whales. This is ‘a problem’ in the sense that it is a problem for these species. From the human point of view it is a problem in that many of us have a socially constructed attachment to these species and their well being. In the Northern Hemisphere all the species of the Arctic region depend on the sea ice around the North Pole. This is now melting. We will see the extinction in the wild of such well-known and well-loved species as polar bears, killer whales, seals and reindeer (Flannery 2005). Again, we can see this ‘problem’ as very real for the animals themselves, who will starve to death. But clearly, it is also socially constructed as a problem for many humans.
In terms of our own human needs the consequences are likely to be equally drastic. Parts of Australia have been getting drier and drier – over the last fifty years we have lost more than a fifth of our average rainfall in some areas of Eastern Australia (Bureau of Meteorology 2005). In South Western Australia as a whole, rainfall has dropped by 15% to 20%, with the result that runoff water used to supply dams for Perth has fallen to 50% of what it used to be (IOCI 2002). These changes are having severe consequences in terms of our farming industries and urban water supplies. While we can certainly cope with the current situation, the future looks very much more worrying. South Eastern Australia could lose up to 35% of its rainfall and South West Australia up to 50% (CSIRO 2001). So in the first instance, this is a problem in terms of the economic interests of many, if not all Australians. Agricultural exports are a significant part of our economy. We are socially constructed to regard our standard of living in dollars as an issue. There is nothing innate about this. Beyond this, we may have to locate cities to more favourable areas where rainfall is increasing – such as the Kimberley region. This would be an enormous expense and again would impact on our living standard. Whether, overall, we would get to the point where Australians were starving from lack of food supplies is hard to determine but by no means out of the question. It is difficult to imagine a social construction in which this impact would not be experienced as a problem!
What could be done?
In dealing with the ways to reduce global warming, sociologists of the realist school take their lead from scientists in the sense that scientists specify what kinds of social actions could lead to a reduction in greenhouse gases. It is estimated by scientists that to stabilize climate we would have to cut carbon dioxide emissions by between sixty and eighty percent (Maslin 2002, p. 130). Two strategies are central: § vastly reduce the burning of fossil fuels - 84% of carbon dioxide emissions § reduce de-forestation – 16% of carbon dioxide emissions (Maslin 2002, pp. 94-95).
Fossil fuels are the source of 75% of the world’s energy and more than 80% of energy used in rich countries (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 2000, p. 241). Developing countries are increasing their use of energy (and fossil fuels) as they become more affluent. At present 70% of carbon dioxide emissions are coming from wealthy countries - the richest 20% of the world’s population (Trainer 1995, p. 112). These emissions are mostly from the use of fossil fuels for energy. Carbon emissions from developing countries are to a large extent coming from the destruction and burning of the world’s remaining tropical forests.
We can set out the following list of measures that are often recommended to enact these strategies:
cut the use of fossil fuels in transport
cut domestic energy use – mostly in heating and cooling
cut production of consumer goods
recycling and re-use to save energy in production and raw materials
preserve existing forests and plant more trees to soak up carbon dioxide
move to renewable energy sources
use energy supplies efficiently - in production, transport, buildings.
Obviously, which of these measures are taken, which people make changes and what countries are involved, is a social and not a scientific question.
The Great Divide in Realist Approaches
Realist approaches are in agreement on all of the above, which for the most part is coming from the investigations of natural sciences. Nevertheless, key aspects of this account make assumptions about society. These are particularly obvious in relation to the nature of the ‘problems’ we face; what we perceive as problematic is certainly influenced by social factors. As well, the social categories used by scientists and others to describe these problems embody understandings about society. For example, social statistics about energy use and the division of the world into ‘rich’ or ‘developing’ countries.
So what do realists disagree about? To begin with, there is disagreement about the social causes of these problems. One side, the ‘reformists’, see the problems as coming from ignorance and old fashioned technologies. The other side, the ‘radicals’, think that basic aspects of current economic and social structure make environmental problems like this inevitable. These schools of thought also disagree about what is to be done. Reformists believe we need to ‘reform’ our economy and foster cultural change. Radicals believe nothing short of a basic or ‘radical’ change in social structure will be sufficient. These are definitely sociological issues, but clearly other social sciences such as politics, economics and political philosophy are also relevant.
The Reformist Approach
The reformist approach aims to make small reforms to the economic and political structures of current society to deal with environmental problems. A much read book with this approach is Natural Capitalism (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 2000).
Within this approach markets are the main means to distribute products – products are bought and sold for money ‘natural capitalism does not aim to discard market economics’ (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999, p. 260). Instead what is necessary is the steering of markets ‘in more creative and constructive directions’ (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999, p. 261). Other aspects of the capitalist economy such as money, private ownership of the means of production (factories and farms etc.) and wage labour are also retained.
The rich countries stay affluent and the developing countries become more affluent – they ‘develop’; ‘the only way developing countries will be able to afford to increase their living standards is to avoid the wasteful practices of the industrialized nations’ (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999, p. 251).
In this model economic growth continues. It is argued that this can take place at the same time as environmental damage is cut back. For example according to Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins ‘even if the global economy expanded by 6- to 8-fold, the rate of releasing carbon by burning fossil fuel could simultaneously decrease ‘ (1999, p. 245). In fact, new environmental technology is a growth industry in this account and stimulates growth – ‘reducing the economy’s dependence on fossil fuels can be seen as an investment and job-creation opportunity ‘ (DeCanio, cited in Hawken, Lovins, Lovins, 1999, p. 256).
Environmental reforms come about because people lobby politicians for change - with the threat of voters turning away from parties that do not enact environmental reforms. Markets ‘demand … responsible citizenship to keep them functioning properly’ (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999, p. 260). This is in the rich countries. Proponents do not say much about the way poor countries today rarely experience democracy!
Environmental reforms come about partly through lifestyle changes by ordinary citizens who make different market decisions. But a central aspect of change is various kinds of government intervention. For example, regulations to prevent environmentally damaging practices, taxes such as a carbon tax on the use of fossil fuels, incentives and subsidies for new technologies such as solar hot water services or wind power, international agreements like the Kyoto protocol designed to get countries to agree to environmental reforms. One idea is to replace all taxation based on income with environmental taxes – governments would be totally funded by taxes on harmful environmental activities (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999, p. 167).
According to this account, all these environmental reforms benefit the economy. This is firstly because energy efficiency is cheaper; you are not wasting money on energy you don’t need - ‘because of the resource productivity revolution, the actions and requirements needed to protect the climate are profitable for business right now’ (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins 1999, p. 241). Secondly it is because environmental reforms create new industries and new jobs – for example new energy infrastructure such as wind energy plants or energy efficient double glazed windows.
The Radical Restructuring Perspective
Authors from the radical school do not believe reformist solutions could possibly work. These radical theorists maintain that a much more drastic change in society is necessary to deal with global warming and other environmental problems; a radical restructuring of politics and the economy. Ted Trainer (1995; 1996; 1998) is a represenative writer in this perspective (see also McLaughlin 1993; Pepper 1993; Resistance Books 1993). We will look at this critique of the reformist position. It implies a very different theory of the social causes of environmental problems. Approaches like this are referred to as ‘neo-marxist’ ‘neo-Marxian’ or ‘political economy’ perspectives (Beder 2004; Lawrence, Cheshire & Richards 2004; Robbins 2004).
Critics of the reformist approach think there are a number of problems with the economic structure of capitalist societies.
Paid work and consumerism
In a capitalist economy people have to work for a wage and do not have much control over what they do at work; ‘each person’s lot is to labor at the direction of others for purposes set by others’ (McLaughlin 1993, p. 62). Many people are bored at work. They seek an increasing ownership of consumer goods as hard earned compensation for the stress of the working day. We have a society that ‘condemns many people to frustrating circumstances, … and does not provide people with many opportunities for gaining life satisfaction other than consuming’ (Trainer 1985, p. 35). Accordingly, people do not take kindly to reforms that may regulate or curtail their use of consumer goods for environmental reasons – for example to force them out of their cars and into buses (Leahy 2003; Trainer 1995).
How private ownership produces growth
The very structure of the capitalist economy makes growth inevitable. This is because firms compete to make profits. Less profitable firms are dumped by shareholders. This competition means that it makes sense to invest in technology which allows the firm to produce more with a lower cost in labour. So the same number of workers is producing more goods and services. The only way for firms to sell all these extra goods is to increase their markets. This is growth. ‘This cycle, in which an increased productivity on the part of labor requires increased consumption of the rest of nature, repeats itself again and again’ (McLaughlin 1993, p. 41).
In a market, a firm can always make the most money by selling more to people with more money to buy things. This means that ‘in a market scarce things go mostly to the rich’ (Trainer 1998, p13). This can be a problem if allocation to the poor is necessary to prevent environmental damage or if what we need is more public spending (Trainer 1985; 1998).
In a market economy, investment always goes to the places where the highest profit can be made. If a country sets up a tough regime of environmental regulation - which restricts economic choices and may impede profits - investors will take their money to other countries (Martin & Schumann 1997).
If growth was cut back to prevent environmental damage, the effect in a capitalist economy would be increasing unemployment. Because productivity always increases as a result of competition between firms, markets have to grow for the same number of people to be employed. In fact, in Australia, 3% p.a. is the minimum growth rate if the same number of people are to be employed year after year (Trainer 1995).
Growth as an environmental problem
If growth continues it is very hard to prevent increasing environmental damage. For example, Trainer points out that if we had a 3% per annum increase in growth, by 2070 we would be producing eight times as much as we are now; and what we are doing now is causing massive environmental damage (Trainer 1998). It is the difficulty of coping with such a magnitude of growth over time which makes it impossible to prevent increasing environmental damage. Growth in the economy means more use of resources, more pollution. The critics of reformism do not believe that there can be growth without environmental consequences – growth in ‘service’ industries like entertainment, education and tourism is also connected to new buildings, more transport use and so on (Trainer 1995).
The combination of parliamentary democracy and capitalism is a problem for the environment. Voters have to put their jobs in front of any environmental considerations. Capitalist owners have to resist environmental regulation to compete locally and globally with firms that may be able to avoid it. These same people own the media and have lots of money to spend on media campaigns to promote their perspective and influence voters (McLaughlin 1993; Beder 2004).
Every type of government control advocated by reformists is politically difficult to implement in the framework of capitalism and democracy. Regulation of ordinary consumers and their consumption is considered an invasion of the private sphere in which people can do what they like – unlike the time they have to spend at work doing what they are told. Regulation of economic activity is resisted by managers who have to compete locally and globally to retain shareholder confidence. Environmental taxes are regressive, affecting the poor more than the rich – e.g. a petrol tax driving ordinary people off the roads while the rich can still afford petrol. Much of the cost of moving to an environmental economy would have to come from taxes; resisted by capitalists and consumers alike (McLaughlin 1993).
Supposed benefits to the economy
Radicals do not believe that environmental reforms will benefit the economy. It is true that energy efficiency is cheaper than spending money on energy but that is only the start – you need to actually reduce energy use drastically to avoid global warming. New environmentalist industries and jobs are part of a package that would reduce economic activity and jobs as a whole. For example, the real cost of energy has to go up if you move to sustainable energy alternatives like wind or solar. So the costs of making a house go up, so people can afford less square metres of housing, so there are less jobs in construction. Radicals believe that reformists greatly underestimate the costs of environmental technologies (Trainer 1998, p. 11). For example, solar panels to supply a house with an average Australian electricity supply would cost $408,000! (Trainer 1995, p. 118). The cost of storing and transporting wind or solar power bumps up the total cost far above that of coal fired power, which can be available when and where it is needed. For example, the cost of providing solar power to Europe and North America in winter could be ’20 times as high as for coal-fired plants plus fuel today’, Trainer concludes (1995, p. 128). The cost of moving to an economy that replaces much fossil fuel energy with renewables is also an issue (Heinberg 2003). The bottom line is that if you try to reform the capitalist economy to stop global warming you will end up with a massive economic crisis. You need a different kind of economy.
Radical Restructuring: Alternatives for a Sustainable Society
Critics of reformism have a number of alternative models of how to run society that they think would be more compatible with environmental goals (Leahy 2005). All depend on a decisive overthrow of the political and economic power of the capitalist class and a very different economic structure coming out of that. They also share a commitment to negative economic growth in rich countries, very low energy use, international equity in wealth distribution, and a restructuring of human settlements (for example Trainer 1995; 1996; 1998). Three basic models are outlined. In the mixed economy model, the virtues of three different kinds of economic structure are mixed in equal parts to create the ideal economic and political climate for a sustainable society; capitalism in the private sector, socialism in the public sector and anarchism in a large community sector. In the community sector, people are funded by government with a guaranteed adequate income and can volunteer for community work (Porritt 1990; Tokar 1987; Trainer 1995; Trainer 1996). The socialism with democracy model is like the former Soviet system in that all major property in the means of production (factories, farms, mines etc.) is owned by the state, but it is different in that this is organised democratically – through electoral processes at a national and international level and through community or workplace consultation at the local level (Pepper 1993; Resistance 1999). In the anarchist gift economy model all production of goods and services is voluntary. Clubs and associations produce goods and services - and give them to the community. Or they produce for their own needs. In either case, the tools and instruments of production are also gifts from other clubs of producers. People's access to goods and services does not come through monetary payment but as a result of gifts. There is no money or paid work and no government (Allaby & Bunyard 1980; Bookchin 1971; Leahy 2004; Purchase 1994).
The constructionist approach
So these are the kind of debates that go on within the realist approach to environmental sociology. As we have seen, realists begin by examining what they see as a real problem and go on to debate the social causes of the problem and the kinds of social remedies that may be necessary to deal with the problem. Within the constructionist approach, these kinds of discussion are considered as ‘unsociological’ or matters best left to political pundits and climate scientists. Adrian Franklin makes a strong case for this perspective in his book Nature and Social Theory (2002). Franklin complains about the way realists and neo-Marxians respond to their critics with ‘emotional energy and anger’. This emotional blackmail is intended to put pressure on serious academics to proclaim the reality of environmental problems, to take sides politically with the environmental movement and to name capitalism as the basic cause of a ‘real’ environmental crisis (Franklin 2002, p. 39). For Franklin, this unseemly politicisation of academia is to be resisted.
His basic position is that environmental problems are socially constructed as problems; they are not simply revealed by science and then taken up by a concerned public. Realist and neo-Marxian writings on the environment are not really sociology, according to Franklin. This is because they deal with the way ‘real’ environmental problems may be affected by society. Because what is real is being defined by scientists, sociologists are ‘working according to an agenda set by science’ with only ‘a partial and instrumental sociology of nature’ being possible (Franklin 2002, p. 24).
What Franklin wants is a sociology that considers the claims made about natural conditions rather than assuming that some of these claims are true. ‘Nature is not for us [sociologists] a concrete reality that may be like this or like that’ (Franklin 2002, p. 21).
Franklin demonstrates this approach by looking at the social reasons why people are becoming concerned about environmental problems. According to him the story of environmental concern goes like this. In the early period of modernisation (in the industrial revolution), there was a detachment of people from their traditional ties to nature and to stable rural communities. Paradoxically this began a process in which nature was re-assessed and invested with positive values – the idea of the happy rural life was invented. Yet while people were waxing lyrical about the clouds and daffodils, industrialisation was in fact destroying rural nature. Nothing was actually done to stop this; people were happy enough to let industrialisation continue. This was because they were getting something out of it - stable communities and dependable affluence were the fruits of industrial growth.
However since the 70’s with its ‘new individualism’, people’s anxiety in the face of the uncertainties of economic change has led to a new emphasis on harmonious and stable nature; ‘the historically sudden and abrupt changes in late modernity plunged a hitherto complex, highly regulated modern social order and moral community into disorder, moral confusion and lack of regulation’. Nature as a fount of goodness and harmony ‘seems the panacaea for our disharmonious world’ (Franklin 2002, pp. 17 -18). Franklin here follows many sociologists in seeing the period of neo-liberalism as a period of great personal insecurity for people in the rich countries – with job insecurity and job mobility, the destabilisation of the traditional family and the decay of welfare protections (Beck 1992; Castells 1997; Pusey 2003) Recent environmental concern is only partly about environmental damage. That has always been a feature of modern societies. Instead it is a metaphor and ‘conceals’ a project to restore collectivist and welfarist principles ‘in taking sides with nature we are finding a way perhaps of promoting ourselves, values of community, long-term planning and regulation, providing security, ensuring long-term health and so on’ (Franklin 2002, p. 254).
So we can see how far away from the realist approach this is. Realists begin by saying that global warming is a real problem and one we should be worried about. The fact that people are worried about it just shows they are not completely stupid! However for Franklin this concern does not really come about because of any ‘real’ problems with global warming. Instead it erupts out of people’s problems with job security, an unhappy family life and other social horrors.
Franklin’s own research concerns the ‘embedding’ of nature in western cultures. He shows how the countryside became emblematic of the nation of England. People who had made their money in urban industry bought up country residences and titles and went fox hunting. Later the urban middle class left the cities for the suburbs, cultivating their trees and leafy gardens. Hobby groups of hikers, bird watchers and painters populated the ‘unspoiled’ places of Britain. Working class men developed passions for fishing and spent weekends at their favourite fishing spots. Franklin sees a similar process in Australia - the bush and its native flora and fauna have become signifiers of Australian nationhood. Steve Irwin, the crocodile man, becomes a symbol of Australian masculinity and our football teams are named after iconic native fauna. Go the socceroos!
Franklin shows how ordinary people relate to everyday urban and suburban nature – not just the ‘unspoiled wilderness’ that environmentalists go for. Most people relate to hybrid natures; natures partly created through human intervention. The backyard garden is a typical example. These leisure activities have depended on social reform, making space for parks and gardening through conscious policy. Franklin argues that much current gardening advice is about encouraging nature to flourish - organics, wilderness gardening, polyculture gardening. But even the clipped monocultural lawns and tidy shrubs - maintained with poisonous chemicals and heavy machinery - are expressions of a connection with nature. It is a mistake to think of lawns as ‘aesthetically dead zones’; in fact they are ‘highly sensual’ (Franklin 2002, p. 178).
Franklin notes the wide social composition of many political events and direct actions to protect the environment. This fits his thesis of embedding - as a phenomenon of western culture that has deeply affected every class. As I have explained, Franklin’s own explanation of environmental politics is that the uncertainties of life in the age of neo-liberalism have driven people to see nature as a refuge of harmony and goodness.
How different is this from the realist approach? Franklin does in fact treat nature as a real thing and treat society as a real thing interacting with nature. But what is missing is the realist worry about environmental ‘problems’. In Franklin’s writing, people are already in sympathy with nature; ultimately they will look after the environment adequately. His topic of interest is how this sympathy with nature has come about. What are the social circumstances that have made this happen? While Franklin makes a lot of noise about his philosophical differences from realism, my own sense is that these two approaches are merely different takes on the realities of the connections between nature and people. Perhaps they are not even contradictory; they just focus on different aspects of the connection.
Two key sociological theorists
The writers I have looked at so far are sociologists who have specialised in environmental issues and could be called ‘environmental sociologists’. It is also interesting to take a look at some sociologists who are well known for a great variety of insights and perspectives in sociology but who also have something to say about environmental issues. I will pick two well known sociologists who attempt to relate the whole body of their work to their analysis of environmental issues.
Manuel Castells treats environmentalism as a type of social identity, and relates the growth of the environmentalist movement to reactions to dominant tendencies of current society – what he refers to as the ‘network society’. He is unmistakeably a realist about environmental problems, saying that while the movement has made a huge impact culturally and on society’s institutions, ‘most of our fundamental problems concerning the environment remain’ (Castells, 1997 p. 111). His perspective also fits with those that believe that a sustainable society requires radical restructuring of our economy, social institutions and culture, saying that the successful treatment of environmental problems ‘requires a transformation of modes of production and consumption, as well as our social organisation and personal lives’ (Castells, 1997 p. 111).
He sees environmentalism as a new global social movement, taking off in the late 60s and growing in influence since then. He points out that the movement is not based in any central organisation but is multifaceted, organised through a range of types of social organisation, both local and international. Listing these, he creates a typology of different aspects of the movement. For example, conservationists, who identify themselves as nature lovers, see their enemy as uncontrolled development and have as their goal the defence of wilderness. Another group are those who are involved in Greenpeace to save the planet. He sees their identity as internationalist eco warriors, their enemy as unfettered global development and their goal as sustainability. There is also the counter culture of environmentalists supporting deep ecology, the local activists defending their space from polluters, and the green party politicos.
The environmentalist movement as a whole can be viewed in relation to the ‘network society’, which Castells characterizes in terms of ‘global flows of wealth, power and information constructing real virtuality through media networks’ (Castells, 1997 p. 122).
Castells distinguishes the space of flows from the space of places. The space of flows dominates network society, linking actions at a distance through instant communication. But most human experience is still going on at the local level. This is a fundamental mechanism of the power structures of the network society. Key economic, political and cultural actions are carried out in the space of flows ‘and away from the realm where social meaning can be constructed and political control can be exercised’ (Castells, 1997 p. 129). The environmental movement consistently challenges these priorities. It puts the local impact on particular people or the environment first; rather than bowing down to economic or technological rationality, as it is expressed through global decision making processes. What is implied is a defence of grass roots democracy.
Following Lash and Urry, Castells distinguishes three types of time – clock time, timeless time and glacial time. Clock time is that of the industrial revolution – life parcelled out into organised minutes set by the clock. Timeless time is the disruption of this by global instantaneous communication – decisions made in an instant, disruptions of local sequences of events by sudden intrusions from afar. Consciousness of ‘glacial time’ has been pioneered by environmentalism. Relationships between humans and nature take place over epochs and are connected into the slow pace of evolution and the development of species. The idea of only using ‘renewable’ resources relates to ‘the notion that alteration of basic balances in the planet, and in the universe, may over time, undo a delicate ecological equilibrium, with catastrophic consequences’ (Castells, 1997 p. 125). Environmentalists ask us to look at what we are doing now in relation to the situation of our great grandchildren and with reference to the eons of evolution that have come before.
Castells sees these aspects of environmentalism as creating a new form of social identity – ‘a culture of the human species as a component of nature’ (Castells , 1997 p. 126). In other writings, Castells argues that the fundamentalist religious and nationalist identities of the present day are formed in reaction to the faceless power of the network society. Environmentalism is also like this but it ‘supersedes the opposition between the culture of real virtuality, underlying the global flows of wealth and power, and the expression of fundamentalist cultural or religious identities’ (Castells, 1997 p. 127). This is because it calls on us to identify as members of the human species, not members of any particular historically formed ethnic, national or religious group. It affirms the connection of all humans with each other and with the web of life. An ethic of care is central to this identity; distinguishing it from the instrumentalist logic of state societies and from the ‘dissolution of meaning’ in the network society (Castells 1997, p. 128).
In Beck’s analysis environmental issues come to prominence as an aspect of the transformation of ‘industrial society’ into ‘risk society’ through modernisation – ‘modernization today is dissolving industrial society’ (Beck 1992, p. 10). Key aspects of industrial societies such as the gender division of labour or the social class division between the working and middle classes are disappearing. He argues that industrial society has been a mechanism set up to increase wealth and valued as such. Yet this increasing productivity has produced the environmental risks which are in this day and age calling that mechanism into question – ‘the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks’ (Beck 1992, p. 19). In the first stage of industrial society the public is most concerned about wealth production and the distribution of wealth. This goes along with a faith in science and a political concern with questions of inequality and social class – how to split the cake that industrial society makes available. Now that logic is reversed and risks to the environment become more and more important.
Beck argues that there are two main reasons for this change in emphasis. One is that in the rich countries of the world, material well being has been secured and other matters take priority – people are worried about their health or about their enjoyment of nature, or about the future. The majority ‘sees itself robbed by ecological despoliation of the fruits of its labours – leisure, house and garden’ (Beck 1995a, p. 54). The second reason is that as the power of industrial production expands, the risks have become more and more extreme. Beck strongly believes that we are now seeing ‘the threat of self-destruction of all life on Earth’ (Beck 1992, p. 21). He is particularly concerned about increasing toxicity, building up from the release of industrial chemicals; the long term risks of the nuclear industry; the risks to genetic heritage in gene technology; the destruction of soils through industrial agriculture. Unlike the risks of early industrial society – for example effluents polluting rivers – these risks are often quite global in scope, ‘the afflictions they produce … are no longer tied to their place of origin – the industrial plant’ (Beck 1992, p. 22). For example acid rain, which is killing forests in Scandinavia, may be caused by gases coming out of smokestacks in Britain, or even further away. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant melt down in the Ukraine spread radioactivity as far away as Wales in the UK. Another new feature of ecological risks is that the danger is to all species of living beings ‘people, animals and plants’ (Beck 1992, p. 21); not just human beings. The final one is that these dangers are long term and intergenerational.
Beck sees these processes as having a number of crucial social dimensions. One is the ‘boomerang effect’ – the risks of modernization ‘also strike those who produce or profit from them’ (Beck 1992, p. 23). The attempt to increase wealth also destroys wealth and property. For example, industrial effluent pumped into in a river can wipe out industries such as tourism and fishing; affecting the same communities that are also involved in the polluting industries. The greenhouse effect comes about through ever increasing global production and energy use. Yet the hurricanes and extreme weather that go with this could mean that by 2050 we are spending as much each year to repair the damage as the total global production of wealth (Flannery 2005). Another kind of attack on wealth and private property comes about when governments are pressured into dealing with environmental problems – ‘what was until now considered unpolitical becomes political – the elimination of the causes in the industrialization process itself’ (Beck 1992, p. 25). A popular example in Australia is the way bans on tree clearing prevent farmers from managing ‘their’ properties. Yet these bans have been a belated attempt to prevent salinity problems in agriculture; another example of the boomerang effect.
He argues that environmental risks break up social class and national unities. In industrial societies, a predictable political cleavage opposed the capitalist class to the working class – the conflict was over the distribution of wealth. In the environmental ‘risk’ society, members of these opposing classes can be allies in environmental issues; in opposition to other alliances of capitalists and workers. The divisions are ‘between those who profit and those who lose by the risks’ (Beck 1995a, p. 8). For example in Queensland, owners of farms and their employees both benefit financially from the use of agricultural fertilisers. This cross-class alliance is forced into opposition to the tourist industry – its owners and workers are up in arms as nutrients from farm chemicals wash into the ocean and spoil the Barrier Reef. These contradictions are splits ‘within the ranks of capital – and thus within the ranks of labour’ (Beck 1995a, p. 137).
Some kinds of environmental risks can effect everyone; ‘the class-specific barriers fall before the air we all breathe’ (Beck 1992, p. 36). At a global level, the ‘dynamic of endangerment … undermines the borders of nation states as much as those of military alliances and economic blocs’ (Beck 1992, p. 47). Pollutions produced in one country have problematic effects in other countries. The whole world suffers from the same environmental problems, which can only be resolved by global cooperation.
These changes rewrite the map of industrial society in terms of the kinds of social groups which form political allegiances.
While Beck argues that it is inevitable that social scientists, like everyone else, will depend on science for their understanding of environmental problems, there are other ways in which he totally agrees with the constructionists. The identification of something as a ‘risk’ or ‘hazard’ is not a purely scientific enterprise. ‘Even in their highly mathematical or technical garb, statements on risks contain statements of the type that is how we want to live’ (Beck 1992, p. 58). A hazard is always a hazard to our idea of the good life or to the well being of the natural world. How worried we become is a social question. Beck points out that in Germany, cars kill many people yet the attempt to put a speed limit on expressways has not fired up the public imagination. This is an acceptable risk. On the other hand, the destruction of German forests by acid rain is of extreme concern to people, who see the death of these forests as an assault on German national culture (Beck 1995a). What is perceived by the public as a hazard is always a political and social question; ‘cultural indignation chooses between matters of the highest ‘objective’ urgency, and this choice is not guided by the issues themselves, but by cultural symbols that govern the way people think and act’ (Beck 1995a, p. 47).
Summary of main points
Two sociological approaches to the environment are the realist and the constructionist approach.
Scientists on climate change present nature as a ‘real’ object but also participate in socially constructing environmental problems.
Reformists believe environmental problems can be tackled within the framework of capitalism.
Radicals believe that the economics and culture of capitalism are the key causes of environmental problems.
Franklin argues that the appreciation of nature is socially constructed as part of the culture of western societies.
1. Are environmental problems ‘real’ or ‘socially constructed’?
2. Is a reformist solution to global warming likely?
3. Do any of the proposals for radical alternatives to capitalism seem attractive?
4. Are pastimes like fox-hunting, gardening or surfing examples of a socially constructed love of nature?
5. Is it realistic to expect people to conduct their lives in reference to outcomes for our great great grandchildren’s generation?
6. Do you worry a lot about environmental risks? What about other people?
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§ The Gift Economy by Terry Leahy: http://www.octapod.org/gifteconomy
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