Environmental sociology is the study of interactions between societies
and their natural environments. The field emphasizes the social
factors that influence environmental resource management and cause
environmental issues, the processes by which these environmental
problems are socially constructed and defined as social issues, and
societal responses to these problems.
Environmental sociology emerged as a subfield of sociology in the late
1970s in response to the emergence of the environmental movement in
3.1 Existential dualism
3.3 New Ecological Paradigm
3.4.1 Societal-environmental dialectic
3.4.2 Treadmill of production
Ecological modernization and reflexive modernization
3.6 Social construction of the environment
4.1 Modern environmentalism
4.2 Historical studies
5 Related journals
6 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
Environmental sociology is typically defined as the sociological study
of societal-environmental interactions, although this definition
immediately presents the problem of integrating human cultures with
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.
Ancient Greeks idealized life in nature using the idea of the
pastoral. Much later, Romantic writers such as
Wordsworth took their
inspiration from nature.
Modern thought surrounding human-environment relations can be 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 Craig
Frederick Buttel (2002) traces the linkages between
Darwin's work on natural selection, human ecological sociology, and
Sociology developed as a scholarly discipline in the mid- and
late-19th and early 20th centuries, in a context where biological
determinism had failed to fully explain key features of social change,
including the evolving relationship between humans and their natural
environments. In its foundational years, classical sociology thus saw
social and cultural factors as the dominant, if not exclusive, cause
of social and cultural conditions. This lens down-played interactive
factors in the relationship between humans and their biophysical
Environmental sociology emerged as a coherent subfield of inquiry
after the environmental movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. The
William R. Catton, Jr.
William R. Catton, Jr. and Riley Dunlap, among others,
challenged the constricted anthropocentrism of classical sociology. In
the late 1970s, they called for a new holistic, or systems
perspective. Since the 1970s, general sociology has noticeably
transformed to include environmental forces in social explanations.
Environmental sociology has now solidified as a respected,
interdisciplinary field of study in academia.
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The duality of the human condition rests with cultural uniqueness and
evolutionary traits. From one perspective, humans are embedded in the
ecosphere and co-evolved alongside other species. Humans share the
same basic ecological dependencies as other inhabitants of nature.
From the other perspectives, 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 (kindly mention them). 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 such as Hardin's the tragedy of the commons (1968) reformulated
Malthusian thought about abstract population increases causing famines
into a model of individual selfishness at larger scales causing
degradation of common pool resources such as the air, water, the
oceans, or general environmental conditions. Hardin offered
privatization of resources or government regulation as solutions to
environmental degradation caused by tragedy of the commons conditions.
Many other sociologists shared this view of solutions well into the
1970s (see Ophuls). There have been many critiques of this view
particularly political scientist Elinor Ostrom, or economists Amartya
Sen and Ester Boserup.
Even though much of mainstream journalism considers Malthusianism the
only view of environmentalism, most sociologists would disagree with
Malthusianism since social organizational issues of environmental
degradation are more demonstrated to cause environmental problems than
abstract population or selfishness per se. For examples of this
critique, Ostrom in her book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of
Institutions for Collective Action (1990) argues that instead of
self-interest always causing degradation, it can sometimes motivate
people to take care of their common property resources. To do this
they must change the basic organizational rules of resource use. Her
research provides evidence for sustainable resource management
systems, around common pool resources that have lasted for centuries
in some areas of the world.
Amartya Sen argues in his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on
Entitlement and Deprivation (1980) that population expansion fails to
cause famines or degradation as Malthusians or Neo-Malthusians argue.
Instead, in documented cases a lack of political entitlement to
resources that exist in abundance, causes famines in some populations.
He documents how famines can occur even in the midst of plenty or in
the context of low populations. He argues that famines (and
environmental degradation) would only occur in non-functioning
democracies or unrepresentative states.
Ester Boserup argues in her book The Conditions of Agricultural
Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under
(1965) from inductive, empirical case analysis that Malthus's more
deductive conception of a presumed one-to-one relationship with
agricultural scale and population is actually reversed. Instead of
agricultural technology and scale determining and limiting population
as Malthus attempted to argue, Boserup argued the world is full of
cases of the direct opposite: that population changes and expands
Allan Schnaiberg (below) argues against
Malthusianism with the rationale that under larger capitalist
economies, human degradation moved from localized, population-based
degradation to organizationally caused degradation of capitalist
political economies to blame. He gives the example of the organized
degradation of rainforest areas which states and capitalists push
people off the land before it is degraded by organizational means.
Thus, many authors are critical of Malthusianism, from sociologists
(Schnaiberg)to economists (Sen and Boserup), to political scientists
(Ostrom), and all focus on how a country's social organization of its
extraction can degrade the environment independent of abstract
New Ecological Paradigm
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 Exceptionalism 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
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 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 nor 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 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 pollination.
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
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 attention
brought to the importance of metabolic analysis in Marx’s thought by
John Bellamy Foster. Contrary to previous assumptions that classical
theorists in sociology all had fallen within a Human Exemptionalist
Paradigm, Foster argued that Marx’s materialism lead him to theorize
labor as the metabolic process between humanity and the rest of
nature. In Promethean interpretations of Marx that Foster
critiques, there was an assumption his analysis was very similar to
the anthropocentric views critiqued by early environmental
sociologists. Instead, Foster argued Marx himself was concerned about
the Metabolic Rift generated by capitalist society’s social
metabolism, particularly in industrial agriculture— Marx had
identified an "irreparable rift in the interdependent process of
social metabolism," created by capitalist agriculture that was
destroying the productivity of the land and creating wastes in urban
sites that failed to be reintegrated into the land and thus lead
toward destruction of urban workers health simultaneously.
Reviewing the contribution of this thread of eco-marxism to current
environmental sociology, Pellow and Brehm conclude "The metabolic rift
is a productive development in the field because it connects current
research to classical theory and links sociology with an
interdisciplinary array of scientific literatures focused on ecosystem
Foster emphasized that his argument presupposed the "magisterial work"
of Paul Burkett, who had developed a closely related "red-green"
perspective rooted in a direct examination of Marx's value theory.
Burkett and Foster proceeded to write a number of articles together on
Marx's ecological conceptions, reflecting their shared
More recently, Jason W. Moore inspired by Burkett's
value-analytical approach to Marx's ecology and arguing that Foster's
work did not in itself go far enough, has sought to integrate the
notion of metabolic rift with world systems theory, incorporating
Marxian value-related conceptions. For Moore, the modern world-system
is a capitalist world-ecology, joining the accumulation of capital,
the pursuit of power, and the production of nature in dialectical
unity. Central to Moore's perspective is a philosophical re-reading of
Marx's value theory, through which abstract social labor and abstract
social nature are dialectically bound. Moore argues that the emergent
law of value, from the sixteenth century, was evident in the
extraordinary shift in the scale, scope, and speed of environmental
change. What took premodern civilizations centuries to achieve—such
as the deforestation of Europe in the medieval era—capitalism
realized in mere decades. This world-historical rupture, argues Moore,
can be explained through a law of value that regards labor
productivity as the decisive metric of wealth and power in the modern
world. From this standpoint, the genius of capitalist development has
been to appropriate uncommodified natures—including uncommodified
human natures—as a means of advancing labor productivity in the
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 consciously 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 emerge 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
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
Ecological modernization and reflexive modernization
Further information: Ecological modernization
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 Arthur P.J. Mol and Gert Spaargaren. Popular examples of
ecological modernization would be "cradle to cradle" production
cycles, industrial ecology, large-scale organic agriculture,
biomimicry, permaculture, agroecology and certain strands of
sustainable development—all implying that economic growth is
possible if that growth is well organized with the environment in
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
Social construction of the environment
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 include John A. Hannigan, particularly in Environmental
Sociology: A Social Constructionist Perspective (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).
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 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.
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
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
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) 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
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. Their 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) 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 delegitimized 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
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). 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, 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.
Among the key journals in this field are:
Nature and Culture
Organization & Environment
Population and Environment
Society and Natural Resources
Bibliography of sociology
Ecological modernization theory
Environmental design and planning
Environmental racism in Europe
Sociology of architecture
Sociology of disaster
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ESA Environment & Society Research Network
ISA Research Committee on Environment and Society (RC24)
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Environmental social science
Science, technology and society
Earth system governance
Global catastrophic risk
Human impact on the environment
Earth Overshoot Day
Sustainability marketing myopia
Systemic change resistance
Tragedy of the commons
Climate change mitigation
Sustainability metrics and indices
Standards and certification
Education for Sustainable Development
Urban drainage systems
UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm 1972)
Brundtlandt Commission Report (1983)
Our Common Future
Our Common Future (1987)
Earth Summit (1992)
Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
Agenda 21 (1992)
Convention on Biological Diversity
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ICPD Programme of Action (1994)
UN Millennium Declaration (2000)
Earth Summit 2002 (Rio+10, Johannesburg)
United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development
United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20, 2012)
Sustainable Development Goals