Template:Sociology Environmental sociology is typically defined as the sociological study of societal-environmental interactions, although this definition immediately presents the perhaps insolvable problem of separating human cultures from the rest of the environment. Although the focus of the field is the relationship between society and environment in general, environmental sociologists typically place special emphasis on studying the social factors that cause environmental problems, the societal impacts of those problems, and efforts to solve the problems. In addition, considerable attention is paid to the social processes by which certain environmental conditions become socially defined as problems.

Although there was sometimes acrimonious debate between the constructivist and realist "camps" within environmental sociology in the 1990s, the two sides have found considerable common ground as both increasingly accept that while most environmental problems have a material reality they nonetheless become known only via human processes such as scientific knowledge, activists' efforts, and media attention. In other words, most environmental problems have a real ontological status despite our knowledge/awareness of them stemming from social processes, processes by which various conditions are constructed as problems by scientists, activists, media and other social actors. Correspondingly, environmental problems must all be understood via social processes, despite any material basis they may have external to humans. This interactiveness is now broadly accepted, but many aspects of the debate continue in contemporary research in the field.


Modern thought surrounding human-environment relations is traced back to Charles Darwin. Darwin’s concept of natural selection suggested that certain social characteristics played a key role in the survivability of groups in the natural environment. Although typically taken at the micro level, evolutionary principles, particularly adaptability, serve as a microcosm of human ecology. Work by Humphrey and Buttel (2002) traces the linkages between Darwin's work on natural selection, human ecological sociology, and environmental sociology.


It became recognized in the latter half of the 20th century that biological determinism failed to fully explain the relationship between humans and the environment. As the application of social determinism became more useful, the role of sociology became more pervasive in analyzing environmental conditions. At first, classical sociology saw social and cultural factors as the only cause of other social and cultural conditions. This lens ignored the concept of environmental determinism or the environmental factors that cause social phenomena.

The works of William R. Catton, Jr. and Riley Dunlap challenged the constricted anthropocentrism of classical sociology. In the late 1970s, they called for a new holistic, or systems perspective. Since the 1970s, sociology has noticeably transformed to include environmental forces in social explanations. Environmental sociology emerged as a coherent subfield of inquiry after the environmental movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. It has now solidified as a respected, interdisciplinary subject in academia.


Existential dualismEdit

The duality of the human condition rests with cultural uniqueness and evolutionary traits. From one perspective, humans are embedded in the ecosphere and coevolved alongside other species. Humans share the same basic ecological dependencies as other inhabitants of nature. From the other perspective, humans are distinguished from other species because of their innovative capacities, distinct cultures and varied institutions. Human creations have the power to independently manipulate, destroy, and transcend the limits of the natural environment (Buttel and Humphrey, 2002: p.47).

According to Buttel (2005), there are five basic epistemologies in environmental sociology. In practice, this means five different theories of what to blame for environmental degradation, i.e., what to research or consider as important. In order of their invention, these ideas of what to blame build on each other and thus contradict each other.


Works like Hardin's the tragedy of the commons (1968) reformulated Malthusian thought about abstract population to a model of selfishness as causing environmental degradation of the use of common property goods like the air, water, or general environmental conditions. Hardin offered mass privatization or a tyrannical state to induce presumed environmental solutions. Many other sociologists shared this view of solutions well into the 1970s (see Ophuls). There have been many critiques of this view, particularly sociologist Elinor Ostrom or economist Amartya Sen. Even though much of mainstream journalism considers Malthusianism the only view of environmentalism, most sociologists would disagree since social organizational issues of environmental degradation are more demonstrated to cause environmental problems than abstract population per se. For instance, countries with low numbers of people can "outconsume" countries with high numbers of people and have a higher environmental impact this way.

New Ecological ParadigmEdit

In the 1970s, The New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) conception critiqued the claimed lack of human-environmental focus in the classical sociologists and the Sociological priorities their followers created. This was critiqued as the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP). The HEP viewpoint claims that human-environmental relationships were unimportant sociologically because humans are 'exempt' from environmental forces via cultural change. This view was shaped by the leading Western worldview of the time and the desire for Sociology to establish itself as an independent discipline against the then popular racist-biological environmental determinism where environment was all. In this HEP view, human dominance was felt to be justified by the uniqueness of culture, argued to be more adaptable than biological traits. Furthermore, culture also has the capacity to accumulate and innovate, making it capable of solving all natural problems. Therefore, as humans were not conceived of as governed by natural conditions, they were felt to have complete control of their own destiny. Any potential limitation posed by the natural world was felt to be surpassed using human ingenuity. Research proceeded accordingly without environmental analysis.

In the 1970s, sociological scholars like Riley Dunlap and William R. Catton, Jr. began recognizing the limits of what would be termed the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm. Catton and Dunlap (1978) suggested a new perspective that took environmental variables into full account. They coined a new theoretical outlook for Sociology, the New Ecological Paradigm, with assumptions contrary to HEP.

The NEP recognizes the innovative capacity of humans, but says that humans are still ecologically interdependent as with other species. The NEP notes the power of social and cultural forces but does not profess social determinism. Instead, humans are impacted by the cause, effect, and feedback loops of ecosystems. The earth has a finite level of natural resources and waste repositories. Thus, the biophysical environment can impose constraints on human activity. They discussed a few harbingers of this NEP in 'hybridized' theorizing about topics that were neither exclusively social or environmental explanations of environmental conditions. It was additionally a critique of Malthusian views of the 1960s and 1970s.

Dunlap and Catton's work immediately received a critique from Frederick Buttel who argued to the contrary that classical sociological foundations could be found for environmental sociology, particularly in Weber's work on ancient "agrarian civilizations" and Durkheim's view of the division of labor as built on a material premise of specialization/specialization in response to material scarcity. This environmental aspect of Durkheim has been discussed by Schnaiberg (1971) as well.


In the middle of the HEP/NEP debate, the general trend of Neo-Marxism was occurring. There was cross pollenization. Neo-Marxism was based on the collapse of the widespread believability of the Marxist social movement in the failed revolts of the 1960s and the rise of many New Social Movements that failed to fit in many Marxist analytic frameworks of conflict sociology. Sociologists entered the fray with empirical research on these novel social conflicts. Neo-Marxism's stress on the relative autonomy of the state from capital control instead of it being only a reflection of economic determinism of class conflict yielded this novel theoretical viewpoint in the 1970s. Neo-Marxist ideas of conflict sociology were applied to capital/state/labor/environmental conflicts instead of only labor/capital/state conflicts over production.

Therefore, some sociologists wanted to stretch Marxist ideas of social conflict to analyze environmental social movements from this materialist framework instead of interpreting environmental movements as a more cultural "New Social Movement" separate than material concerns. So "Eco-Marxism" was based on using Neo-Marxist conflict sociology concepts of the relative autonomy of the state applied to environmental conflict.

Two people following this school were James O'Connor (The Fiscal Crisis of the State, 1971) and later Allan Schnaiberg.

Later, a different trend developed in eco-Marxism via the historical revisionism of Marxist thought by John Bellamy Foster that desired to push 'eco-Marxism' back to the original Marx himself instead of being only a trend first analyzed in the 1970s. Foster challenged those who assumed Marx neglected the environmental concerns as had been argued in the 1970s against using the classical sociological theorists as a foundation for environmental sociology. By Foster's delving within Marx's Third Book of Das Kapital, Foster argued (1999) that environmentalism didn't have to be imported into Marx's thought because Marx himself was the original 'eco-Marxist' or (his phrase) "eco-communist" who wanted to remove the exploitation of the urban factory worker simultaneously with the removal of rural exploitation of the landscape by industrial agriculture, instead of Marx by the end of his life showing a clear preference of the former over the latter. Thus Foster argues the ecological concerns don't have to be "imported" into classical Marxism, only merely rediscovered in Marx's analysis of the British Agricultural Revolution. In stereotypical interpretations of Marx that eco-Marxist scholar Foster critiques, there was a Promethean view of Marx that assumed Marx was very similar to the humanocentric cultural views critiqued by early environmental sociologists as the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm. Instead, Foster argued Marx himself was an 'eco-communist' concerned about the "Metabolic Rift" of industrial societies with the environment particularly in industrial agriculture destroying the productivity of the land and creating wastes in urban sites that fail to be reintegrated into the land and thus lead toward destruction of urban workers health simultaneously. By this, Foster critiques the assumption in early environmental sociologists that classical sociological thinkers like Marx were supportive of the "Human Exemptionalist Paradigm" and neglectful of environmental conditions in their analysis.

Societal-environmental dialectic

In 1975, the highly influential work of Allan Schnaiberg transfigured environmental sociology, proposing a societal-environmental dialectic, though within the 'neo-Marxist' framework of the relative autonomy of the state as well. This conflictual concept has overwhelming political salience. First, the economic synthesis states that the desire for economic expansion will prevail over ecological concerns. Policy will decide to maximize immediate economic growth at the expense of environmental disruption. Secondly, the managed scarcity synthesis concludes that governments will attempt to control only the most dire of environmental problems to prevent health and economic disasters. This will give the appearance that governments act more environmentally conscious than they really do. Third, the ecological synthesis generates a hypothetical case where environmental degradation is so severe that political forces would respond with sustainable policies. The driving factor would be economic damage caused by environmental degradation. The economic engine would be based on renewable resources at this point. Production and consumption methods would adhere to sustainability regulations.

These conflict-based syntheses have several potential outcomes. One is that the most powerful economic and political forces will preserve the status quo and bolster their dominance. Historically, this is the most common occurrence. Another potential outcome is for contending powerful parties to fall into a stalemate. Lastly, tumultuous social events may result that redistribute economic and political resources.

Treadmill of production

In 1980, the highly influential work of Allan Schnaiberg entitled The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (1980) was a large contribution to this theme of a societal-environmental dialectic. Moving away from economic reductionism like other neo-Marxists, Schnaiberg called for an analysis of how certain projects of "political capitalism" encouraged environmental degradation instead of all capitalism per se. This ongoing trend in Marxism of 'neo-Marxist' analysis (meaning, including the relative autonomy of the state) here added the environmental conditions of abstract additions and withdrawals from the environment as social policies instead of naturalized contexts.

Schnaiberg's political capitalism, otherwise known as the 'treadmill of production,' is a model of conflict as well as cooperation between three abstracted groups: the state, capital (exclusively monopoly capital with its larger fixed costs and thus larger pressures for ongoing expansion of profits to justify more fixed costs), and (organized) labor. He analyzes only the United States at length, though sees such a treadmill of production and of environmental degradation in operation in the Soviet Union or socialist countries as well. The desire for economic expansion was found to be a common political ground for all three contentious groups--in capital, labor, and the state--to surmount their separate interests and postpone conflict by all agreeing on economic growth. Therefore, grounds for a political alliance emerges among these conflictual actors when monopoly capitalism can convince both of the other nodes to support its politicized consolidation. This can appeal to the other nodes since it additionally provides expanding state legitimacy and its own funding while providing (at least at the time) secure worker employment in larger industries with their desired stable or growing consumption. This political capitalism works against smaller scale capitalism or other uses of the state or against other alliances of labor. Schnaiberg called the 'acceleration' of the treadmill this degradative political support for monopoly capitalism's expansion. This acceleration he felt was at root merely an informal alliance--based solely on the propaganda from monopoly capital and the state that worker consumption can only be achieved through further capitalist consolidation.

However, Schnaiberg felt that environmental damage caused by state-political and labor-supported capitalist expansion may cause a decline both in the state's funding as well as worker livelihood. This provides grounds for both to reject their treadmill alliance with monopoly capital. This would mean severing organized labor support and state policy support of monopoly capital's desires of consolidation. Schnaiberg is motivated to optimism by this potential if states and labor movements can be educated to the environmental and livelihood dangers in the long run of any support of monopoly capital. This potentially means these two groups moving away from subsidizing and supporting the degradation of the environment. Schnaiberg pins his hopes for environmental improvement on 'deceleration' of the treadmill--how mounting environmental degradation might yield a breakdown in the acceleration-based treadmill alliance. This deceleration was defined as state and working labor movements designing policies to shrink the scale of the economy as a solution to environmental degradation and their own consumptive requirements. Meanwhile, in the interim, he argued a common alliance between the three is responsible for why they prefer to support common economic growth as a common way to avoid their open conflicts despite mounting environmental costs for the state as well as for laborers due to environmental disruption.

Ecological Modernization / Reflexive ModernizationEdit

Template:See By the 1980s, a critique of Eco-Marxism was in the offing, given empirical data from countries (mostly in Western Europe like the Netherlands, Western Germany and somewhat the United Kingdom) that were attempting to wed environmental protection with economic growth instead of seeing them as separate. This was done through both state and capital restructuring. Major proponents of this school of research are Mol and Spaargaren. Popular examples of ecological modernization would be "cradle to cradle" production cycles, industrial ecology, large-scale organic agriculture, and certain strands of sustainable development--all implying that economic growth is possible if that growth is well organized with the environment in mind.

Reflexive Modernization

The many volumes of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck first argued from the late 1980s that our risk society is potentially being transformed by the environmental social movements of the world into structural change without rejecting the benefits of modernization and industrialization. This is leading to a form of 'reflexive modernization' with a world of reduced risk and better modernization process in economics, politics, and scientific practices as they are made less beholden to a cycle of protecting risk from correction (which he calls our state's organized irresponsibility--politics creates ecodisasters, then claims responsibility in an accident, yet nothing remains corrected because it challenges the very structure of the operation of the economy and the private dominance of development, for example. Beck's idea of a reflexive modernization looks forward to how our ecological and social crises in the late 20th century are leading toward transformations of the whole political and economic system's institutions, making them more "rational" with ecology in mind.

Social Construction of the EnvironmentEdit

Additionally in the 1980s, with the rise of postmodernism in the Western Academy and the appreciation of discourse as a form of power, some sociologists turned to analyzing environmental claims as a form of social construction more than a 'material' requirement. Proponents of this school are Hannigan, particularly in Environmental Sociology: A Social Constructionist View (1995). Hannigan argues for a 'soft constructionism' (environmental problems are materially real though they require social construction to be noticed) over a 'hard constructionism' (the claim that environmental problems are entirely social constructs).


Modern environmentalismEdit

United States

The 1960s built strong cultural momentum for environmental causes, giving birth to the modern environmental movement and large questioning in sociologists interested in analyzing the movement. Widespread green consciousness moved vertically within society, resulting in a series of policy changes across many states in the U.S. and Europe in the 1970s. In the United States, this period was known as the “Environmental Decade” with the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and passing of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and amendments to the Clean Air Act. Earth Day of 1970, celebrated by millions of participants, represented the modern age of environmental thought. The environmental movement continued with incidences such as Love Canal.

Historical studiesEdit

While the current mode of thought expressed in environmental sociology was not prevalent until the 1970s, its application is now used in analysis of ancient peoples. Societies including Easter Island, the Anaszi, and the Mayans were argued to have ended abruptly, largely due to poor environmental management. This has been challenged in later work however as the exclusive cause (biologically-trained Jared Diamond's Collapse (2005); or more modern work on Easter Island). The collapse of the Mayans sent a historic message that even advanced cultures are vulnerable to ecological suicide--though Diamond argues now it was less of a suicide than an environmental climate change that led to a lack of an ability to adapt--and a lack of elite willingness to adapt even when faced with the signs much earlier of nearing ecological problems. At the same time, societal successes for Diamond included New Guinea and Tikopia island whose inhabitants have lived sustainably for 46,000 years.

John Dryzek et al. argue in Green States and Social Movements: Environmentalism in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Norway (2003)[1]that there may be a common global green environmental social movement, though its specific outcomes are nationalist, falling into four 'ideal types' of interaction between environmental movements and state power. They use as their case studies environmental social movements and state interaction from Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany. They analyze the past 30 years of environmentalism and the different outcomes that the green movement has taken in different state contexts and cultures.

Recently and roughly in temporal order below, much longer-term comparative historical studies of environmental degradation are found by sociologists. There are two general trends: many employ world systems theory--analyzing environmental issues over long periods of time and space; and others employ comparative historical methods. Some utilize both methods simultaneously, sometimes without reference to world systems theory (like Whitaker, see below).

Stephen G. Bunker (d. 2005) and Paul S. Ciccantell collaborated on two books from a world systems theory view, following commodity chains through history of the modern world system, charting the changing importance of space, time, and scale of extraction and how these variables influenced the shape and location of the main nodes of the world economy over the past 500 years.[2][3] Their view view of the world was grounded in extraction economies and the politics of different states that seek to dominate the world's resources and each other through gaining hegemonic control of major resources or restructuring global flows in them to benefit their locations.

The three volume work of environmental world systems theory by Sing C. Chew analyzed how "Nature and Culture" interact over long periods of time, starting with World Ecological Degradation (2001)[4][5][6] In later books, Chew argued that there were three "Dark Ages" in world environmental history characterized by periods of state collapse and reorientation in the world economy associated with more localist frameworks of community, economy, and identity coming to dominate the nature/culture relationships after state-facilitated environmental destruction delegitimated other forms. Thus recreated communities were founded in these so called 'Dark Ages,' novel religions were popularized, and perhaps most importantly to him the environment had several centuries to recover from previous destruction. Chew argues that modern green politics and bioregionalism is the start of a similar movement of the present day potentially leading to wholesale system transformation. Therefore, we may be on the edge of yet another global "dark age" which is bright instead of dark on many levels since he argues for human community returning with environmental healing as empires collapse.

More case oriented studies were conducted by historical environmental sociologist Mark D. Whitaker analyzing China, Japan, and Europe over 2,500 years in his book Ecological Revolution (2009)[7]. He argued that instead of environmental movements being "New Social Movements" peculiar to current societies, environmental movements are very old--being expressed via religious movements in the past (or in the present like in ecotheology) that begin to focus on material concerns of health, local ecology, and economic protest against state policy and its extractions. He argues past or present is very similar: that we have participated with a tragic common civilizational process of environmental degradation, economic consolidation, and lack of political representation for many millennia which has predictable outcomes. He argues that a form of bioregionalism, the bioregional state[8], is required to deal with political corruption in present or in past societies connected to environmental degradation.

Interestingly, after looking at the world history of environmental degradation from very different methods, both sociologists Sing Chew and Mark D. Whitaker came to similar conclusions and are proponents of (different forms of) bioregionalism.

See also Edit


References Edit

  • Buttel, Frederick H. and Craig R. Humphrey. 2002. "Sociological Theory and the Natural Environment." Pp. 33-69 in Handbook of Environmental Sociology edited by Riley E. Dunlap and William Michelson, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Diamond, Jared. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking. ISBN 0-670-03337-5.
  • Dunlap, Riley E., Frederick H. Buttel, Peter Dickens, and August Gijswijt (eds.) 2002. Sociological Theory and the Environment: Classical Foundations, Contemporary Insights (Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 0-7425-0186-8).
  • Dunlap, Riley E., and William Michelson (eds.) 2002.Handbook of Environmental Sociology (Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-26808-8)
  • Freudenburg, William R., and Robert Gramling. 1989. "The Emergence of Environmental Sociology: Contributions of Riley E. Dunlap and William R. Catton, Jr.",Sociological Inquiry 59(4): 439-452
  • Harper, Charles. 2004. Environment and Society: Human Perspectives on Environmental Issues. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. ISBN 0131113410
  • Humphrey, Craig R., and Frederick H. Buttel. 1982.Environment, Energy, and Society. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company. ISBN 0-534-00964-6
  • Humphrey, Craig R., Tammy L. Lewis and Frederick H. Buttel. 2002. Environment, Energy and Society: A New Synthesis. Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning. ISBN 0-534-57955-8
  • Mehta, Michael, and Eric Ouellet. 1995. Environmental Sociology: Theory and Practice, Toronto: Captus Press.
  • Redclift, Michael, and Graham Woodgate, eds. 1997.International Handbook of Environmental Sociology(Edgar Elgar, 1997; ISBN 1-84064-243-2)
  • Schnaiberg, Allan. 1980. The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. New York: Oxford University Press. Available:
  1. John Dryzek, Daid Downs, Hans-Kristian Hernes, and David Schlosberg. 2003. Green States and Social Movements: Environmentalism in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Norway. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  2. Stephen G. Bunker and Paul S. Ciccantell. 2005. Globalization and the Race for Resources (Themes in Global Social Change). The Johns Hopkins University.
  3. Stephen G. Bunker and Paul S. Ciccantell. 2007. East Asia and the Global Economy: Japan's Ascent, with Implications for China's Future (Johns Hopkins Studies in Globalization). The Johns Hopkins University.
  4. Sing C. Chew. 2001. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000BC-AD2000. AltaMira Press.
  5. Sing C. Chew. 2006. The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation (World Ecological Degradation). AltaMira Press.
  6. Sing C. Chew. 2008. Ecological Futures: What History Can Teach Us (Trilogy on World Ecological Degradation). AltaMira Press.
  7. Mark D. Whitaker. 2009. Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions; China, Japan, Europe. Cologne, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.
  8. Mark D. Whitaker. 2005. Toward a Bioregional State: A Series of Letters About Political Theory and Formal Institutional Design in the Era of Sustainability. Lincoln, Nebraska: IUniverse.

External links Edit

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