Society and the Environment
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Society and the Environment

Pragmatic Solutions to Ecological Issues

Michael S Carolan

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Society and the Environment

Pragmatic Solutions to Ecological Issues

Michael S Carolan

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About This Book

Without focusing entirely on what is wrong with the world around us, the third edition of Society and the Environment centers its discussion on realistic solutions to the problems that persist and examines current controversies within a socio-organizational context. After introducing "pragmatic environmentalism, " Carolan discusses the complex pressures and variables that exist where ecology and society collide, such as population growth andthe concurrent increase in demands for food and energy, and transportation and its outsized influence on urban and community patterns. With further attention given to the social phenomena and structural dynamics driving today's environmental problems, the book concludes with an important reflection on truly sustainable solutions and what constitutes meaningful social change.

Each chapter in this interdisciplinary text follows a three-part structure beginning with an overview of what is wrong and why. This leads into a discussion on each issue's wide-ranging implications and, finally, a balanced consideration of realistic solutions. Featuring updated and expanded examples, discussion points, and coverage of recent developments including the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, "booming" national economies and wealth distribution, growing global interest in environmental justice—with particular focus on the links between injustice and race and inequality—climate change, and renewable energy, this new edition remains an essential companion for courses on environmental sociology and sustainability.

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Introduction: Individuals, Societies, and Pragmatic Environmentalism

Why must books on the environment be so gloomy? Chapter after chapter detail what’s wrong, followed, if you’re lucky, by a chapter or two on what could be done to turn things around. No wonder my students express bewilderment and, in a few cases, something akin to borderline clinical depression when, during the first week of my Global Environmental Issues class, I ask about their thoughts on the ecological state of the world. A quick query using Google Books yields more than 4.4 million books when the term “environmental problems” is typed into the search bar. A search of the term “environmental solutions”, conversely, brought up 44,800 books. Sex, apparently, isn’t the only thing that sells books. We can add apocalyptic ecological predictions to that list.
I understand why, historically, all this attention has been paid to environmental problems. People are not much interested in reading about solutions until they’ve been convinced that there’s a problem in need of solving. Almost sixty years have passed since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Since then we have been exposed to a steady diet of problem talk, with measurable effect. A 2018 Ipsos poll across twenty-eight countries found that 87 percent of the world agrees that the world climate is changing, while 80 percent reported being concerned about the environmental impact of product waste (Ipsos 2018). In 2017, over half of the adult population in the Netherlands were surveyed, replicating a similar survey five years earlier. Fifty-five percent of respondents indicated that air, soil, and water are severely polluted, compared to 40 percent in 2012. Seventy-five percent reported that nature had been damaged seriously, versus 59 percent in 2012. Such awareness, coupled with a degree of environmental anxiety, no doubt helps explain why, in 2017, 34 percent of respondents in the Netherlands said they would be willing to pay higher taxes for the sake of a better environment, against 24 percent in 2012 (Central Bureau of Statistics 2017). As for Americans: more than half (55 percent) ranked the environment a top policy issue that President Trump and Congress ought to tackle, according to a 2017 survey, just behind poverty (56 percent), race relations (56 percent), and reducing crime (56 percent) (Pew Research Center 2017). (Respondents were asked to list several priorities, which explains why percentages do not add up to 100.) Even friends of mine who would rather lose a limb than be called environmentalists acknowledge the problematic ecological conditions that surround us. (Granted, they might still be in denial about climate change, but not much else.) Who is left to convince? Isn’t it time to turn the corner and talk about—and even celebrate—instances of positive socioecological change?
This book is a bit of both: a bit about problems, a little bit more about solutions. By focusing on ecological solutions—rather than entirely on problems—I am striving to make this book hopeful, recognizing that if we can’t at least think and talk about and point to sustainable alternatives, we really are in trouble. But I am a realistic dreamer, as indicated by my evoking the term pragmatic in the book’s subtitle. Although it never hurts to be imaginative about what could be, we must be realistic about the possibilities. Too often we confuse criticism, to the point of focusing only on what is bad and wrong, with gritty realism. That kind of negative approach is not realism but pessimism.
Pragmatism decries grand narratives—those totalizing theoretical views of the world that claim to explain human mind, body, and society since the beginning of time. As someone who finds social theory interesting, I admit that it is fun to try to “scoop up” the world in one all-encompassing conceptual framework. Grand narratives are like flying at 30,000 feet: they are great for discussing the big picture—things like global capitalism and world political and economic systems. When the time comes to roll up one’s sleeves and talk about practical policy solutions, however, I find these approaches less helpful, especially when issues revolve around sustainability. (I realize grand narratives have their solutions too, but they are often unrealistic, nebulous, and even polemical. In a word, they’re not pragmatic.) Theoretical grand narratives aside, the nontheoretical sustainability literature is equally rife with overly simplistic, one-size-fits-all solutions. Single-handed praise for such phenomena as rooftop urban agriculture (Orsini et al. 2017), climate engineering (National Research Council 2015), bioenergy and biofuels (Konur 2018), and edible insects (as “the last great hope to save the planet,” Martin 2014) generates considerable interest in and excitement around a topic. As a professional sociologist, however, I cannot help but cringe when the pilots of these tomes spend the majority of their time at cruising altitude. Fine-grain details matter; often they determine whether a solution will work in a particular space. A pragmatic environmentalist enjoys big pictures like anyone else. But he or she also realizes that there is no substitute for having one’s feet planted firmly on the ground for establishing what works—and what’s sustainable—for any given situation.

Individualism: Too Much and Not Enough

The pragmatic value of many environmental books is further limited by the problem of individualism. That is, they place either too much or not enough emphasis on individual action. In the former case we’re reduced to selfish, autonomous actors—for instance, sovereign consumers—while in the latter case human behavior isn’t even factored into the equation. Both of these extremes miss the collective nature of social life. As for ascribing too much weight to individual action, the standard argument goes something like this: saving the environment starts with each of us “doing our part”—so go plant a tree, buy organic food, ride a bike, install solar panels on your house, recycle, and so on. You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that our actions, every one of them, are shaped by a whole host of factors. Evidence of this is all around. Most people, for example, already have a good basic understanding of how they can reduce their ecological footprint—who hasn’t heard of the “three Rs” of reduce, reuse, recycle, for example? Yet people’s actions seemingly belie this knowledge. I see this all the time in my students: they recognize the negative ecological impacts of many of their actions yet still do them. (I am certainly just as guilty of this.) While we act in ways that reflect our wants and interests, those very wants and interests are heavily shaped by existing structures—cultural, technological, infrastructural, political, organizational, legal, and so forth. It is not that individual action has no value when it comes to creating meaningful socioecological change. But individual action devoid of collective mobilization—think shopping—will never produce the same level of change as, for example, a well-organized social movement.
Too much focus on the individual can also create dangerous blind spots that risk making circumstances worse for some people. We see this occasionally in the “sacrifice talk” that abounds in the environmental literature—downshift, buy less, give up your car, stop shopping, and so forth. For one thing, I have found this sacrifice talk to be somewhat demoralizing among people genuinely concerned about the environment. Focusing on what one can’t do, rather than on what one can, contributes to the malaise described by many of my students. Moreover, not everyone can afford to sacrifice. To give up something requires you to have something to give up. But not everyone wants to sacrifice, or they are willing to sacrifice only so much for the environment. And in some cases, even wanting to sacrifice may still not be enough to elicit a particular behavior—I know someone, for example, who despises driving his car, yet when the temperature drops below freezing, he makes the choice to drive his child to day care to avoid exposure to the elements. This is why environmental education, as a strategy to change behaviors, can take us only so far: because behaviors do not occur in a vacuum. In order for people to make a “greener” choice, they must have viable greener choices to choose from. And to have those choices often requires collective (not just individual) action.
I think I can speak for all sociologists when I encourage readers to resist the temptation to inject individualist thinking into causal explanations of inequality. To put things plainly, don’t blame individuals for a systemic problem. As you’ll soon see, rising rates of inequality cannot be chalked up to the failings of specific individuals. Inequality is a sociological phenomenon. You will also be hard-pressed to find a greater risk factor for suffering from environmental problems than being poor, which is why issues of global environmental justice are increasingly being discussed in classrooms, courtrooms, and political arenas the world over. Poor people are the least responsible for our environmental ills and yet most affected by them. How is that fair? If we hope to ever make things right, we have to grasp the roots of poverty, which means we have to get over blaming poor people for their lot in life and begin thinking sociologically about how and why we have organized society in such a way that allocates “goods” and “bads” so inefficiently and unjustly. And then we must ask how we can do better, while being clear about what “better” means. The pages that follow are intended to spur on that conversation.
Then there’s the other extreme: the world-without-people perspective. I encounter this often in material written by specialists who obviously know a lot more about technoscientific matters than they do about human behavior and social change. These are the books, essays, and research papers that tout impressive technological solutions to a variety of our social and ecological ills, like the one declaring the need for a “rooftop revolution” and promising to explain to readers “how solar power can save our economy—and our planet—from dirty energy,” to quote directly from the book’s subtitle (Kennedy 2012). Don’t misunderstand my critique; I enjoy reading these materials. Moreover, they contain just the type of outside-the-box thinking that we need. Nor do I doubt the technological feasibility of many of the solutions proposed; indeed, the authors usually go to great lengths to convince us of their long-term practicality. Yet just because something is technologically possible does not automatically mean it is socially, economically, politically, and organizationally probable. Too often the two are conflated, leaving the reader guessing as to how to take something that works in a lab or on paper and scale it up to the level of city, state, nation, or entire world.

The Contribution of the Social Sciences

One explanation for why books with an environmental focus tend to concentrate on problems, and superficially on what ought to be done to change things, is the nature of how expertise has historically been attached to the subject. They are called environmental problems, after all. The discussion is therefore dominated by natural or environmental scientists and engineers. All are very competent to tell us what the state of things is (though even so-called objective facts, as is made clear in later chapters, are mediated and conditioned by social variables and are often premised on the making of subtle value judgments). Yet by nature of their training, they lack a strong grasp of why we got ourselves into this mess and how we might be able to get ourselves out of it. These “why” and “how” questions inevitably require a firm working knowledge of social, political, economic, and cultural variables, which makes these questions better suited for social scientists. Feelings of doom and gloom arise when too much focus is placed on the “what” and not enough on the “why” and “how.” To be fair, the social sciences share some blame in this. They spent a good part of the twentieth century turning away from the material world, preferring instead to focus almost exclusively on phenomena such as language, nonmaterial culture, and, later, social constructivism, an approach that focuses entirely on the sociologically dependent knowledge of a phenomenon rather than on any inherent qualities that the thing possesses (Carolan 2005a, 2005b; Catton and Dunlap 1978). For much of the last century the “worlds” studied by the social and natural sciences had been distinct—indeed, to some degree, even mutually exclusive.
Of my various professional identities, one is “environmental sociologist.” Although I am proud to identify myself with this subfield of sociology, I admit to being tired of answering the question, “What does sociology have to do with the environment?” Much of this, I realize, stems from a general misunderstanding of how the so-called social and natural worlds interact. The very fact that we separate the social from the natural sciences at universities underscores the pervasiveness of this misunderstanding. Yet the longer I study the world, the blurrier this division becomes for me. What does sociology have to do with the environment? More than most realize.
Sociology has a long history of sidestepping environmental variables, phenomena historically understood as under the purview of the natural sciences. It is important to remember that early social thought was developed, at least in part, as a reaction to social Darwinism, which sought to explain much of social life by way of biology. To avoid a repeat of this dark chapter in sociology’s history, social thinkers found safer territory studying phenomena they took to be largely decoupled from the natural world. The problem with environmental issues, however, is that they make a terrible mess of this historically rooted division of labor between the “social” and the “natural” sciences. I do not want to say much more about this now, as the remainder of the book details ways that the social sciences can contribute to discussions about today’s most pressing environmental issues. I will, however, add this: I cannot think of a single environmental problem today that does ...

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