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
Lecture: Approaches to Environmental Change

Week One:

What kinds of things people may do in their own life that relate to ideas about looking after the environment and things that they do that they think are not good for the environment. You should start by talking about your own practices. Write down on the board or on OHP what they say - like start a list of things. Ask them about specific things they may not have considered. Ask them about why they do or don’t do certain things. Be sympathetic. Some examples.

Environmental Practices

  • Using gas rather than electric appliances
  • Using solar hot water
  • Using a slow combustion stove
  • Insulation
  • Low energy bulbs
  • Paint the roof white, awnings, thermal mass etc.
  • Asking electricity company for no greenhouse gases power supply or % of same
  • A recent fridge without cfcs or with energy saving
  • Using bore water or a tank or grey water in the garden
  • Recycling paper, bottles or tins.
  • Not having a car - what kind of car - overseas trips on planes ( my big downfall!)
  • Using leaded petrol or not
  • Using pesticides in the garden
  • A dishwasher or airconditioner
  • Swimming pool
  • Washing and dishwashing powders etc.
  • A compost heap
  • Having a lawn
  • Having a cat or dog
  • Not eating meat, or very much meat
  • Having a permaculture garden and eating some home grown food
  • Being involved in some kind of greenie activist group or voting for the Greens or Democrats
  • Having only two children
  • Using string bags at the supermarket or recycling plakky bags
  • Buying only free range eggs or free range chooks
  • Organic veggies
  • Contributing to an overseas aid organisation
  • Don’t buy anything you don’t absolutely need
  • Moving closer to your job, to school
  • Mudbricks
  • Nappies
  • Buying from op shops
  • Not ironing

My God, what a counsel of perfection. Anyway, what follows are some of the reasons that you should explore about why people don’t do these things - i.e. let them bring them up and only add things if all the bases are not covered.

Reasons for Avoiding Environmental Practices

  • Aesthetics - e.g. brick houses, recycling bins, compost heaps, rats, maggots, ferals and dirty unironed clothes etc.
  • Cleanliness - e.g. endless washing of everything and its effects - constant mowing and tidying etc.
  • Lack of interest
  • Expense - many of these home improvements or green consumer goods actually cost money
  • Leisure - how many of these ideas imply more housework and what are the gender implications
  • Social pressure - what is "cool", stylish etc.
  • Lack of information
  • Don’t think there is really a problem
  • Believe that the burdens of change should be shared by all - why make yourself unhappy when no one else will do anything
  • The problem is Government or Industry - my individual contribution can’t do much
  • Talk about the fact that these are all good reasons - people aren’t totally stupid and none of these reasons are in some sense totally invalid.
  • After the dust has settled on all this a bit you can also add the following as a small lecturette - if it seems appropriate - if there is time etc.

Social Organisation and Environmental Practices

A Key Question that Can Be Asked - Would People Find it Easier to Implement these Environmentalist Strategies if Society Was Organised Differently?

  • For example by government regulation.   
    • If governments banned cars, redesigned cities, banned harmful washing products, raised the price of coal fired power, banned caged chooks, saved the paddocks from overstocking;
    •  Then, many of the choices that individuals make today about environmental practices would be either removed entirely - you would only be able to choose the more environmentally sound practice - or people would choose in an environment that positively sanctioned more environmentally sound practices - e.g. if there was better public transport and bikeways.
    •  So the key question posed by the lay person that corresponds to this hypothesis is as follows: why should I as an individual suffer while freeloaders spoil the environment and make it hard for me to be environmentally positive. What we need is government regulation.
    •  Discuss with the students the question of whether they would actually find such a highly regulated society attractive. What about taxes?
  • What if society was organised so that there was no alienated labour? 
    • If we had a 20 hour week or even no compusory work, would we be so worried by the way environmentally sound household management and travel etc. cuts into our leisure time?
    •  If we were not seeing other people as strangers, as potential enemies, but as members of a community would we still insist on our privacy in ways which have environmentally damaging consequences - e.g. the private house and yard; the private car, swimming pool etc.
    •  If we lived a life in which all work was voluntary and enjoyable would we feel such a strong need to enjoy power and creative individuality through consuming an ever increasing variety of products - such as swimming pools, travel, power boats, fashions, big cars, driving etc.
    •  So the key question posed in this context is as follows. Why should I sacrifice myself now for the environment when only a total change in the organisation of work and leisure could really make it attractive and enjoyable to look after the environment?
    •  Obviously the main issue for the students that comes up with this is whether such a utopia of non alienated labour could ever be possible!

Week Two

Current Environmental Problems and the Reformist Response

Begin the lecture by explaining the hole in the ozone layer and why it has been relatively easy to get some kind of international agreement on phasing out CFCs. The Montreal protocol of 1987 was the key agreement but I understand China has still not signed it.

Go on to explain the Greenhouse effect. What are the greenhouse gases etc. ( I will not put in the summary of the lecture for that bit - you can put in whatever seems appropriate) What are the predictions for temperature rises and what does this mean in terms of disasters:

  • a one to two degree centigrade rise by 2030
  • seas rise one metre
  • forests can’t keep up and die
  • agricultural areas become deserts and vice versa
  • melting of poles
  • feedback loops such as melting of tundra and continental shelf sludge releases methane

Existing evidence and scientific agreement that it is happening. How do they find out about all this stuff?

How to stop this

  • cut the animal population
  • cut rice production
  • cut the burning of fossil fuels
  • slow down the deforestation of tropical forests
  • replace all cut timber with reafforestation

Estimates - 80% of energy in wealthy countries is from fossil fuels - would have to be cut by 70% to stabilize temperatures.

Some long term means of reducing CO2 emissions

  • cut private transport drastically
  • cut domestic energy use drastically - to 18% of the present amount according to Trainer
  • cut production of consumer goods
  • more recycling to save energy
  • debt reduction tied to alternative energy and forest preservation in poor countries

Social Problems - see my article for the book of readings on this. In other words, explain why the above measures are so hard to take for social and political reasons and point out that this is the reason why countries have been so slow to reach agreement and have not decided to do anything very effective - compare this with the situation with CFCs where replacement chemicals are relatively cheap to implement to deal with the problem.

So the above part of the lecture is designed to explain some of the key environmental problems to students and to suggest that we cannot move to an environmentally stable greenhouse situation without major economic consequences. Take a longish break for discussion of all these issues and take your time explaining the science of all this to the students - some will have not the faintest notion what it is all about.

The second part of the lecture is meant to explain what is meant by the "reformist" approach to environmental issues and what are some of the criticisms of this approach from a sociological perspective.

What is Reformism?

Firstly explain that the term "reformist" comes from the jargon of the socialist movement. It refers to the split during the nineteenth century between reformist social democratic parties such as the ALP in Australia and revolutionary socialists such as the marxist communist parties or the anarchists. The former tried to achieve changes by reforming capitalist society while the basic structure of capitalism was retained. The latter wanted to overthrow capitalism entirely and replace it with a completely different economic system. The Soviet Union was an example of this strategy in so far as almost all private industry was taken over by the state which gained complete control of the economy. However this is not the only possible kind of drastic change that could take place. Environmentalist Utopias do not generally advocate a totalitarian state control of the economy but they may advocate some equally drastic structural change in the economy.

Reformism as Reform of the Economy

So what do environmentalist reformists propose:

They advocate a change in values and some reforms of the economy. They do not advocate any drastic changes in the structure of the economy. In their reformist model what stays the same?

  • Representative parliamentary democracy in rich countries.
  • Most wealth, including factories and farms is privately owned
  • Most people work for a wage and it is hard to live without a paid job
  • Markets in goods and services are still the main way to allocate products

In the environmentalist reformist model what changes - i.e. what changes are proposed to make society environmentally sustainable?

  • A massive increase in government regulation of the economy
  • People’s values change so that they elect politicians who will legislate tough environmental regulation
  • Where necessary there is an increase in taxes or specific taxes are targeted to produce environmental sustainability - e.g. the carbon tax

Problems with the reformist strategy

My article for the book of readings explains many of the problems with this model. The basic problem is that the kinds of changes in the economy which are needed to move to environmental sustainability are actually quite expensive. Within the current capitalist economy, the likely result of implementing these changes in any given country would be to cause capital to leave that country with a devastating recession the result. For the world as a whole the outcome would be a severe international recession. As well, this program goes against the entrenched interests of the capitalist class - who would lose profits, and the rest of the population, whose employment and level of spending would be threated by almost all of the measures proposed by environmentalist reformism.

For example, as technology improves each year, the amount of hours of work required to produce any given item drops. To keep the same number of people in a job, you have to keep expanding the market so that more items of the same kind are sold or some new item is created. The result is a continual growth in the economy and in production and its environmental side effects. To actually keep the same number of people in work, you have to increase the GNP by 3% per year. Yet the intended result of environmental reformist proposals is to cut back growth. The result would be unemployment.

It is sometimes argued in reply that new environmentally sound industries would take up the slack by creating work - e.g. in solar power, buses etc. While this is true to a degree, in every case the original environmentally damaging industry is replaced by another environmentally sound industry which is less profitable or causes a loss or profits in some other section of the economy. For example, if you use a carbon tax to get people to employ more solar power you do create work in the solar power industry. However what you also do is to increase the price of power to industry as a whole. The result is that all products that are made with the use of electrical power become more expensive. So fewer people can buy them. So the people who used to be employed making those products which now cannot be sold are out of a job. Discuss this with examples. Another example is the transport industry. In the transition to public transport there is much new work in new railways, bike tracks, buses etc. but at the end of the day, a lot fewer people are employed moving people around really efficiently by bike and public transport than were previously employed making vast numbers of individual cars - how much profit and employment is lost if you replace 50 private cars with one bus and 50 bicycles?

Environmental reformists are quite aware of some of these facts. Discuss what their reactions to these issues might be.

Environmentalist Reformism as an Explanation of Social Problems

While socialist environmentalists see environmental problems as coming about as a result of the economic and political structures of capitalism, environmental reformists have another explanation of environmental problems. They typically see environmental problems as a combined effect of technological developments and human nature - e.g. greed, wastefulness and so on. Or they regard these problems as coming about through some kind of cultural infuence. A typical statement of this kind is sentences which include the word "we" as in "we have created these problems through our greed and indifference". Or they will argue that the fact that Soviet societies also have environmental problems shows that it is not the structure of the economy or politics that causes environmental degradation but the "values of industrial society" that are shared by communist and capitalist societies. From a sociological point of view, these kinds of explanations are what is referred to as "consensus theory".

In a functionalist model of society, society is seen as almost like a living organism - it’s various parts keep together in order to make the society as a whole function. The role of values is particularly important. What they do is to create a society wide consensus on values that keeps society together. When this view is expressed in ordinary speech, it is common to talk about what "we" are doing which can mean - we in this society, we people of the industrial culture or even we human beings operating according to human nature.

Within current sociology, this view of society is generally seen as less than adequate. Instead, what has been called a "conflict" model is more common. In this model society is made up of a number of interest groups. The interests of different groups are often in conflict with each other and relations of power structure society by empowering some groups at the expense of others - e.g. rich vs poor; men vs women; Aborigines vs Whites etc. In this model, society has a certain characteristic because of the way relationships between groups are structured.

This leads to two different ideas about how social change can bring about environmental sustainability. In the consensus model the key to change is a change in values and changes in economic structures are of secondary importance. This is linked to the environmentalist reformist viewpoint. In the conflict model, environmental problems are not necessarily the result of values - they may be an accidental by product of the relationships between groups in society. So within a conflict theory it makes sense to say that the only way to change to environmental sustainability is to change the structure of relationships between groups in society. For example, one kind of environmentalist conflict position argues that ordinary people demand an ever increasing supply of consumer goods because their experience of paid work is not very satisfactory. Consumer goods are a kind of compensation for paid work. In this argument, the expansion of production to increase consumer goods receives political support because of factors about the structure of relationships in work. It does not come about primarily because of a culture of wasteful consumption or because of innate human greed. It is also not something that "we" bring about since it is a result of the structure of relationships between different groups who have quite different interests and purposes.

The Role of Altruism in the Reformist Model

The reformist model tends to argue that greed for consumer goods is one of the main causes of environmental problems. It goes on to ague that what we need is to agree to limit our consumption of consumer goods. In this way the reformist model implies that what we need is less selfishness and more altruism. We will forego the pleasures of consumption now for the sake of future generations or so that third world people can enjoy some increase in consumption without causing environmental catastrophe or so that we can save nature - species and ecosystems from extinction. In all this reformism echoes the moral values of Christianity.

It could be pointed out that Christianity has been advocating this moral position for some time now with only limited success and certainly without radically changing society so as to adopt its moral precepts. In fact the whole idea that humans are sinful by nature and only achieve virtue through God does not hold out much hope for an environmental movement that prescribes altruism as the necessary remedy for environmental problems.

We could also add that the reformist position implies a strange split on values. Reformists support the continued dominance of capitalism as the central economic structure in which environmental reforms are to take place. Yet this economic structure depends on and encourages private greed as the motivation for economic rationality and responsibility at work. Capitalists compete to make better and cheaper products in order to increase the income to shareholders. Workers work hard and qualify themselves in school in order to be able to reap the greatest reward through their work by being paid more. They do this in an environment where they are encouraged to compete to show their superior abilities in order to win respect and wage improvements. All this is premised on self interest, defined fairly narrowly. Yet at the same time, these workers and capitalists must cut back on consumption and put in place stringent government control of the economy for reasons of pure altruism, at the expense of their own private interest. Is this a likely scenario? From the point of view of most groups in the population a key question becomes. Why should we sacrfice our standard of living for the sake of the environment when the rich, the middle class, white people etc. are doing so much better than us?

An alternative moral framework for environmental concern is one in which generosity, benevolence etc are seen as capacities of human nature. In other words, people can take "selfish" pleasure from helping to bring about the well being of other people, of unborn future generations, of animals and plants. In this context these acts are not altruistic in the sense of being self denying but can become an expression of self interest. However, if this moral framework was to become widespread it would in fact undermine the economic structure of capitalist society and lead to a completely different form of economy becoming the de facto reality. Capitalists would be more concerned with the well being of their workers and with the community than with profits. Profits would fall and shareholders would be quite happy so long as they thought their companies were doing the right thing by the environment and their workers. The middle class would give away their extra wealth to poor people in the developing world or to their poor relatives in their own countries and so on. Environmental organisations would be flush with funds and government regulation would not be necessary to make people toe the line etc etc.


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