Last Updated 17 Apr 2020

Does the Environment matter to Sociology?

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Sociology is described as 'the systematic study of human society' (Macionis and Plummer 2005:4). Because of this, it is unlikely that 'the environment' is one of the key topics that sociologists naturally think of as part of their studies. Indeed environmental issues seem far removed from what is still largely the staple fare of sociology courses. 'What have species loss, acid rain or ozone depletion to do with the mainstream social theory or key disciplinary concepts such as class, power and inequality? (Alan Irwin 2001:8)

Until recently a sociologist would answer 'nothing' but since the emergence of modernity there has been a shift in sociological thinking towards globalisation. According to David Held, this is 'the widening, deepening and speeding up of global interconnectedness'. More generally, it is known as a recent cultural and economical era that centres on universalism, homogeneity and progress. Undoubtedly globalisation is having a profound effect on the world but its specific effect on the environment has become a major topic across all of the social sciences.

Until now sociology never included the environment but as environmental degradation increases affecting world population, cultures and lifestyles, awareness of the environment has now become necessary. 'Environmental degradation is no longer a peripheral concern of the social sciences.... it is an unavoidable and pressing reality. ' (David Goldblatt, 1996:5) Substantial references to the environment are generally limited within classical sociology. Primarily, sociologists have focused on the evolution of social interaction and cultural change.

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In the first half of the 19th century both Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer considered sociology to be epistemologically and ontologically dependent on, or subordinate to, biology. Comte drew on biological analogies and metaphors of form and function and to explore the interrelationship of individuals and institutions in modern society (David Goldblatt, 1996:2). Spencer's work was the first of many attempts to marry Darwinian models of evolution, selection and change to social development.

The work of the classical political economists, also directly examined the relationship between the natural environment and the human economic prospect. Classically, Thomas Malthus inquired into the social consequences of rapid population growth in the context of limited environmental resources with which to feed that population. By the end of the 19th century however, the pace of western industrialisation exploded and population growth continued unabated. All sociological and economical predictions were proved redundant.

From this point of view it is perhaps no surprise that social thinkers bypassed further attempts to engage with the social and economic origins and consequences of environmental change, they didn't want to be proved wrong. When looking at the classical trinity of Weber, Durkheim and Marx there is no marked difference. According to Goldblatt (1996:3), 'Weber's work conducts the most limited engagement with the natural world. There are some reflections on the environmental origins and implications of nomadism in his study of Judaism. Yet his historical investigations... ielded little direct study of the historical impact and social implications of differing natural environments. ' Throughout his work Weber's theoretical reflections on the environment go little further than a few brief paragraphs in 'Economy and Society', 'in all the sciences of human action, account must be taken of processes and phenomena which are devoid of subjective meaning.... favouring or hindering circumstances. ' In other words non-human, unintended processes, such as climate or water-levels, are of significance if they affect human action.

However, Marx and Durkheim are more appropriate. In taking population density and its relationship with material resources to be the driving force behind the evolution of human societies, Durkheim made the natural world a decisive causal factor in human history. Similarly Marx placed the economic interface of human societies and the natural world at the centre of historical change. By contrast, Weber never gave demographics a central causal role in history, he defined action by reference to the ideal type of purposive rational action.

In his opinion, the relationship between means and ends was more significant than the ontological relation between human subject and natural object. (Goldblatt 1996:4) Yet clearly, the works of Marx and Durkheim are of limited use to environmental sociology. The primary ecological issue for classical social theory was not the origins of contemporary environmental degradation, but how premodern societies had been held in check by their natural environments, and how it was that modern societies had come to surpass those limits or had separated themselves in some sense from their 'natural' origins.

Yet it is possible to defend the classical thinkers, modern societies were unconstrained by natural limits and at the height of capitalism and industrialisation, it did not seem that economic growth would prove to be environmentally problematic in any way. From this point of view it is only since the advent of the modern era and particularly the onset of globalisation, that the environment has begun to be examined in a sociological sense. This is done in two main ways.

Most obviously, social life is increasingly generating environmental problems leading to degradation. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have dramatically risen since the invention of industry. Natural resources such as the fossil fuels are burnt in gigantic quantities releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which in turn contributes to global warming and climatic change. Similarly the use of CFCs in refrigerators and aerosols has resulted in the depletion of the ozone layer which allows harmful UV rays from the sun to enter our atmosphere.

Deforestation has also resulted in soil degradation and a loss of rainforest habitat which in turn has caused a global loss of natural animal habitat resulting in the extinction of over 10,000 different animal species. However, these environmental problems are not universally distributed and many sociologists argue that the serious environmental consequences flow from the global disparity of wealth and power, exasperated by globalisation.

For example, the richest 20% of the world's population account for around 90% of the world's motor vehicles which are the primary cause of carbon emissions. Yet the world as a whole will suffer from global climate change. Similarly 'the members of all high-income societies represent 20% of humanity but utilise 80% of all energy produced. ' (Connet, 1991) The causes of environmental degradation are distinctly uneven but the effects look to be even more so.

As shown, the richest, most developed countries have contributed most to environmental degradation but studies have shown that the poor developing countries will be most affected. Global warming and climate change will result in the increase of floods, storms and harvest failures, and these will always most affect those living closest to their means of subsistence. One study predicts a decline in harvests of 30% in India and Pakistan by 2050. Similarly over 90% of global deaths from air pollution occur in the developing world where medical advances are far behind those of the developed world.

As the world has become more aware of the effects that technology has had on the environment, rich, developed nations have had the capital to find alternative resources or to find cures to treat the medical conditions caused by environmental degradation but the poorer countries will have to suffer. Agricultural degradation and desertification is currently severest in Asia and Africa who rely most upon this primary industry and will become unable to diversify from lack of capital. Sociologists look to examine this highly uneven social stratification. Population is also an environmental matter that sociologists have begun to look closely at.

Since 1960 the world's population has increased by over 75% to around 6 billion and most of the current increases derive from the less-developed countries. The problem lies with the question of consumption. By 2050 the global population is expected to have reached 8. 5 billion people, all living with 'western-style' consumption. This is unsustainable, and this raises the question of social lifestyles. To curb the growth rate people will have to change their lifestyles. However, it is unrealistic to assume that people will conform to legislation that changes the way they live.

Until now, social and political thought never included the environment, it was always assumed that it would continue to be able to sustain human lifestyles but this has changed. It looks to sociologists to suggest solutions Traditionally the environment did not matter to sociology, it was barely spoken about by the classical thinkers but the degradation of the environment has become a sociological issue, indirectly because of globalisation. The global homogeneity of western style industrialisation and production resulted in large-scale pollution which is now out of control.

It has reached a stage where consumption outweighs production and humans are unable to look to the traditional optimistic views supported by all the classical, modernist thinkers. This believed that human technological innovations would always be able to be relied upon to support population growth. This is now impossible, the answer is no longer down to 'science' but down to values that people must choose. Sociologically this now raises questions of inequality. Both the causes and solutions of environmental degradation were initiated by western policies and the particular solutions do not suit everyone.

Recently many less developed nations have refused to curb industrial emissions as they feel it is their turn to develop according to the pattern that the western world first started. At the same time, the existing developed countries fear the suggested environmental solutions as they fear the economical repercussions that a reduction of emissions, and therefore industry, will cause. Sociologists now look to examine the possibilities of adhering to the lifestyle change that environmental policy will now cause.

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