1- What does the idea “social construction of nature” signify? Elaborate.
2- How, according to treadmill of production theory, does capitalism affect the
environment? Present examples.
3- What is ecological modernization? How, according to this perspective, can
economic growth continue along with protection of nature?
4- What is world system's theory's main argument in terms of environmental
concerns in the developing regions of global capitalism?
5- How does ecological marxism differ from deep ecology?
Environment Sociology: Lecture 1
From Chapter 1 and 2 of Gould and
• What is nature?
• How do you differentiate between nature and
What is Environmental Sociology?
• Scientific study of how social systems interact
• Traditionally, sociology (study of social systems)
and ecology (study of environment/ecosystems)
have been considered separate disciplines
without much in common.
• Lately, sociology has been compelled to address
environmental issues and ecology forced to think
of social causes of env change.
Where does this disciplinary divide
• A basic assumption in Western intellectual
tradition is the division between natural systems
and social/cultural systems produced by humans
• Early sociologists drew on this divide: natural
sciences dealt with natural phenomena and social
sciences studied social phenomena.
• Lately such strict distinctions have been deemed
not useful because it is increasingly
acknowledged that both influence each other.
Env Sociology – A Brief History
• How did Environmental Sociology emerge as an
acceptable sub-discipline of study?
• The historical context -- the ecology movement in
the 1960s and 1970s set the stage for
development of Env Soc.
• In 1976, American Sociological Association (ASA)
started Environmental Sociology as a topical
• Now that section is called Environment and
Technology section of ASA
Some Real World Events – concerns
• Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969 – third largest oil
spill (the largest is the 2010 Deepwater Horizon
spill in Gulf of Mexico)
• Hooker Chemical buried 21,000 tons of toxic
waste in Love Canal, a residential neighborhood
in Niagara Falls, NY – leading to health problems
• Accident at the nuclear power plant in Three Mile
Islands (1979) releasing high levels of radioactive
• Oil crisis of the 1970s (“limits to growth”)
New Environmental Organizations
• Environmental Defense Fund established in
1967 – research done by some of its founders
contributed to understanding the negative
impacts of DDT
• Friends of the Earth in 1969 – membership in
77 countries; does research on impact of
economic globalization on communities etc.
• Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in
• Passing of National Environmental Policy Act in
Congress in 1970.
• Establishment of EPA (Environmental Protection
Agency) in 1970
• Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act (1972)
• Pesticide Control Act (1972)
• Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)
• First Earth Day – observed in 1970 (April 22)
• UN Conference on Human Environment in
Stockholm -- 1972
• HEP and NEP
• What is anthropocentrism?
Critique of Anthropocentrism in
• William Catton and Riley Dunlap (1970) wrote a
series of articles critiquing anthropocentrism in
• Dominant sociological theorists (Durkheim, Marx
and Weber) presented a view of humans and
society as the center of the world.
• This paradigm was labeled Human Exceptionalism
(recently Exemptionalism) Paradigm (HEP)
• They called for an alternative paradigm – New
Ecological Paradigm (NEP)
• NEP was based on the understanding that
humans are one of the many species living on
this planet in an inter-dependent manner.
• New Ecological Paradigm calls for making this
awareness the basis of all human, social,
economic and political decisions, policies and
• This calls for halting superexploitation of
• What is naturework?
• A theoretical perspective in sociology that
emphasizes the significance of small group
interactions in constructing reality (microsociology)
• Understands society as constituted of multiple
interactions among individuals governed by
symbols (eg. language, culture, manners etc.)
• symbolic interactionists think of the reality that
we live by as “socially constructed” through
• Env Sociologists recognize that the environment or
nature is an objective reality that’s out there.
• Yet, we do not perceive nature as it exists.
• We become cognizant of nature in particular ways,
thereby nature itself becomes “real” to us – Gary Fine
called this idea “naturework”
• In other words, naturework is the process by which
nature is transformed (appropriated) into culture, using
the social meanings that we have learned.
• Naturework provides us with ways of thinking about
nature based upon which we act/behave
• There are many forms of nature work possible
Social construction of nature
• A dominant form of naturework in our society includes
processes by which we construct certain spaces as
“natural” and raw and others as “cultured”.
• This has enormous significance for how we interact
with the environment
• In sum, naturework is the process by which humans
socially construct “nature”; this social construction has
bearing on how we act to “nature”
• it is part of everyday processes of interpreting humans’
interaction with nature
Examples of naturework
• The act of tossing a can out of a car window on a
highway underlies a type of naturework.
• What does it say about naturework? – or how do
we construct nature in our everyday existence?
• This act of tossing a can out of a car presupposes
the freeway side as a “raw” spaces that belongs
to nature; not the cultured environs of the home
of the person who does the tossing.
Tossing the can on highway side: its
• In the former case, there is a “separation”
between the person who tosses the can and the
freeway side; in the latter such separation may
not exist (this is based on the nature-culture
• The freeway side is thought of as inorganic
matter; not part of organic and lively
environment (of which he too is part)
• Importantly, the person who tosses the can also
doesn’t feel “accountable” to that “raw,
inorganic” space with which he/she doesn’t feel
any necessary connection
• Time magazine once had a faceless individuals in front
of a computer as the Person of the Year
• The magazine was celebrating the possibilities of
freedoms (of information, ability to conquer distances
through instantaneous communication etc.) that the
internet made available
• The underlying “naturework” here is that of thinking
about nature as limiting freedoms; and humans as
capable of transcending such limitations
• While expanding freedoms is laudable, the question is:
what are the costs, both for humans and nature, of the
expansion of such freedoms?
Space and Place: Disembedding and
• This separation (or disconnect) that humans feel
with their immediate environments is what
Anthony Giddens has called “disembedding”
• Part of human’s alienation from nature
• Giddens also refers to “distanciation” – the ability
to connect with people spatially away from you in
quick time (conquering space)
• This has led to a disconnect between “space” and
How does naturework happen?
• Humans are social animals; various aspects of
social systems (all interrelated) contribute to
• Economic system (market capitalism) – the need
to make more profit means having to produce
more (irrespective of whether there is demand
• then markets have to actively find consumers
• Cultural systems -- Advertisements do the cultural
(and social psychological) work – by playing on
Economy of Desire and the
• Desires are actively generated;
• Examples: cosmetics that can provide the “natural
look”; cars that help “conquer space” (and nature)
• Desires fuel ever increasing production of commodities
– the idea of “treadmill of production”
• This leads to hankering after new technology; the
belief in any new technology as representing
• Bell and Carolan call this “technological
• Nature and environment continue to be thought of as
mere passive “backgrounds” to these social changes.
Us as Part of Nature
• How can we think of HEP and NEP using this
• if we thought of nature as an active component
of our lives and not just a background, then how
would we treat the environment?
• Then, perhaps our cultural perception (regarding
nature as a subservient background to human
exceptionalism) would change
• Perhaps this change in outlook will reflect in our
actions – we may not contribute as much to env
• Michale Bell and Michael Carolan – the status
quo of consumption and related cultural
practices will result in enormous
• Green architect William McDonough talks
about a cradle to cradle concept – recycling.
• Allan Schnaiberg points out that we live with a
“treadmill logic” – the capitalist economic
system is constantly producing new things and
convincing us that we need these new things:
the treadmill of capitalism.
• If one steps off this treadmill, he may be seen
as an outsider to the society.
• How do we understand this concept using
A new naturework
• How would we refashion ourselves and our
“culture” if we thought of ourselves as part of
nature in a “new” naturework?
• How would we act if we realized that many
our actions may have some impact on nature
even if it is not in the immediate
Theories in Environmental
Lecture 2, Env Soc
• Theories are generalizations about some
aspect of the social or natural world based on
empirical evidence gathered from observation
• Theories differ from other types of
generalizations in that they are developed by
employing tools of reason or logic
Environment and Classical Sociology
• Classical sociology emerged in the aftermath
of Enlightenment and responded to industrial
• A common image of social world and the role
of humans: humans were endowed with
reason and this reason could be perfected.
• Natural laws could be uncovered using reason
that would then be used to control nature and
Malthus, the pessimist
• Thomas Malthus in 1798 wrote the famous
“Essay on the Principle of Population”
• Argued that while population grew geometrically,
the amount of land under cultivation grew only
• This would lead to food scarcity in time, further
leading to the collapse of human civilization
• The reason for this food scarcity would be overpopulation
• Is Malthus right? Or, are there
logical/empirical problems in his argument?
Three major Theorists
• Marx – humans had the unique ability to think and be
rational; yet he was concerned about the alienation
that individuals were experiencing in class societies,
particularly at the time of industrial revolution
• Durkheim – was concerned about maintenance of
social order; claimed that individuals in society live by
“social facts” (widely accepted and shared notions
about how social phenomena works)
• Weber – analyzed the changes that human civilization
was experiencing as part of “rationalization” (which he
thought was leading to “disenchantment”).
Brundtland Commission Report
• These theorists did not explicitly address the question
of how human actions are impacting the environment
and how nature may put limits to possible human
• Perhaps because environmental degradation was not
so prevalent in the early days of industrialization
• In the 60s and 70s environment became a serious
• The Brundtland Commission report (titled “Our
Common Future”) emphasized sustainable
Birth of Environmental Sociology
• Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring (1962) – on
the impact of pesticides on the environment.
• Introduction of Earth Day in 1970
• Early type of environmental sociology (in the
1920s) – human ecology studies conducted in
sociology department in Chicago (Robert E.
HEP and NEP
• William Catton and Riley Dunlap (wrote a series of
articles in late 1970s and early 80s)
• HEP – human exceptionalism paradigm (emphasizes
culture as determinants of human affairs)
• NEP – humans are involved in an intricate set of causal
relationships with nature
• The biosphere, on which we depend for survival, is
• while the carrying capacity of nature can be stretched
by human invention, it cannot be done indefinitely
Emphasizing Society in Ecology
• Prior to environmental concerns in Sociology,
scholars in Ecology started to think about the
importance of understanding social change
• Murray Bookchin, in 1960s, introduced the idea
of social ecology.
• Ecological problems emerge from deep-seated
• Hierarchical mentality and class relationships
were giving rise to the idea of dominating the
• Emerged in the 1970s
• Found common grounds between domination
of women and nature – patriarchy
• Rosemary Ruether wrote “New Woman, New
Earth” (1975) – called for ending all forms of
exploitation, both of women and nature
• Called for an ecological society not based on
Theories: Deep Ecology
• Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess identified
difference b/w shallow and deep ecologies.
• While shallow ecology is concerned with
resource depletion and usefulness of Earth for
human beings, Deep Ecology is concerned
with the intrinsic value of the Earth – its
diversity and richness.
Arnae Ness’s proposal
harmony with nature,
awareness of limits to resources,
recognition of human differences
• Bill Devall and George Sessions through their
book Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature
Mattered introduced Naess’s ideas to America
• Aside from Naess’s ideas, they introduced
ideas from Eastern philosophies like Buddhism
and Native American religions to emphasize
harmony with nature
• Bookchin of Social Ecology criticized the
profusion of mysticism in Deep Ecology
• Emphasizes conflict between classes (the
business owners and workers)
• Wealth leads to other types of power – status,
political power etc.
• Workers are alienated in the process
• Capitalism is a system that constantly needs to
reproduce itself (economic growth)
• This puts enormous pressure on environment
• Murray Bookchin
• Environmental problems are best understood
in the context of the system of inequalities
that humans have created.
• Capitalism undermines the factors that sustain
it – both labor and environment
• Increasing ecological crisis emanating from
increasing exploitation of nature will
exacerbate the crisis of capitalism.
Treadmill of Production
• Allan Schnaiberg, “The Environment: From Surplus to
• Human societies depend on flows of energy from
nature and thus are not exempt from the two basic
laws of thermodynamics
• Energy and matter can not be created or destroyed,
they can be transformed; all energy transformations
are degradations that change energy from more to
fewer forms (entropy)
• Damaging relationship with environment: Withdrawals
(raw materials) and additions (waste)
• This may lead to disorganization of biospheric
systems – with industrialization.
• Capitalism works by minimizing labor – by
producing new machines
• Leads to Production of toxins
• The market system supports this system of
treadmill of production that constantly
changes forms of matter and energy for profit
World Systems Theory
• Opposed modernization theory that posited that
“traditionalist” values of third world countries stood in
their way of development
• WS theory pointed out that capitalist world system (based
on production for profit) started emerging since the long
16th century (Immanuel Wallerstein) – 1450 to 1640
• With colonization, a new relation of exploitation was
established between the core or center of the capitalist
world system and peripheral regions that were colonized
• This was based on exploitation of natural resources in the
form of raw materials and minerals transported from these
areas to capitalist centers
• WS theorists argue that this has contributed
to the underdevelopment of peripheral
• Those areas in the middle – the semiperipheral regions (Brazil, China, India, Mexico
etc.) have been attempting to accelerate
• this has led to largescale degradation of
environment in these societies
Ecological Modernization Theory
• Joseph Huber, Martin Janicke, Arthur Mol,
• They emphasize the idea of sustainable
• Superindustrialization as a requirement as
opposed to retreat to traditional forms of
• This requires development of environmental
• Emphasize reflexive modernity (a notion drawn
from postmodern theory)
• What is reflexivity?
• Government has an important initial role in
drafting and implementing environmental policy
• However, soon this stewardship goes into the
hands of the market.
• The state will continue to play an active role in
building environmentally friendly infrastructure
• “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next
Industrial Revolution” by economists Paul
Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins –
is based on ecological modernization theory.
• Next industrial revolution will be based on
adapting to scarcity – building the right kind of
• Radically increase the productivity of resource
• Shift to biologically inspired production
(biomimicry) with closed loops, no waste, and no
• Shift the business model away from the making
and selling of things to providing the service that
the “thing” delivers.
• Reinvest in natural and human capital.
• They emphasize “technofix”.
Second Modernity Theories
• Ulrich Beck (risk society)
• Anthony Giddens (with globalization,
modernity that emerged in the West is
expanding to all parts of the world)
• Risk is a systematic way of dealing with
hazards and insecurities induced by
• Risk, mostly generated by science, is endemic
to modern societies (eg. nuclear science).
• Reflexive scientization as a way forward.
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