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Sociology of Environment

   Philip Sutton argues that sociology has a crucial role to play in understanding the environment. Sociology can help to explain the social causes of environmental problems. It can explain why people may act in ways which are damaging to the environment, why they may pay little attention to dealing with environmental problems. Sociology can also help illuminate the consequences of environmental problems for societies for example by looking at how they might damage social relationships as well as threaten economic prosperity. A third role for sociology is in evaluating how effective policies are likely to be in preventing or mitigating environmental harms. Sociological theory has the potential to contribute to understanding environmental issues though it was not originally intended to address the relationship between humans and nature. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were interested in industrialization, modernity and rationality which meant decreasing reliance on nature and increasing human control over it. According to O’Conner (1994), capitalism can be seen as responsible for environmental problems. He argues that there are two fundamental contradictions of capitalism: contradiction between capital and labor as suggested by Karl Marx and contradiction between capitalist growth and environmental sustainability. As capitalists pursue even greater growth to help them accumulate wealth, the finite resources of the earth are depleted, and the environment is damaged posing threats to continued economic growth. O’Connor suggested that capitalism destroyed the conditions under which capital accumulation was possible and environmentalists and Marxists had a common interest in undermining capitalism. According to Peter Dickens (2002) Marxism helps to explain why there is a lack of understanding of environmental issues. He points out that Marx argued that both the technical division of labor and social division of labor lead to the fragmentation of knowledge. This benefits capitalists both by making it easier to control the workforce and by making it difficult for workers to set up in competition. It prevents a holistic overview both of production and of society. Dickens suggests that an alliance of Marxist and Environmental political activists can help overcome this problem. Such networks can organize to open new public spaces for public debate raising public awareness of the issues and arguing for the democratization of modern science and technology. According to William Catton (2002) Durkheim can be understood in terms of division of labor and organic solidarity. He had argued that as societies became more complex, they became characterized by organic solidarity a situation in which individuals have specialist jobs and are mutually interdependent because each plays an important role in society. In biological terms, mutual interdependence can be seen as a type of symbiosis – a system in which different species interact in a way that is mutually advantageous. In organic solidarity there are within species symbioses in which social and cultural differences between humans produce mutual interdependence. However, if this is broadened to include other species including species of plants and animals then non-human partners in the ecosystem start to be included in the theory. Durkheim argued that an increased division of labor leading to organic solidarity could be the result of competition for scarce resources because of increase in the population. There establishes a link between Durkheim’s view and the ecological system from which scarce natural resources originate. Raymond Murphy (2002) analyses Max Weber’s work and opens the possibility of developing a complex understanding of the relationship between the environment and society emphasizing the role of human agency in determining how humans interact with the material and natural world. Weber distinguished between formal rationality and substantive rationality. Formal rationality involves following the best means to achieve specific goals. Substantive rationality involves examining whether those goals reflect broader values about what is desirable. Weber’s examination of modernization also has the potential to develop an understanding of how humans are increasingly alienated from nature. He argued that peasants were closely connected to nature in their everyday work environment but with urbanization and modernization, individuals became more and more remote from nature living in a built environment. According to Murphy, Weber’s concept of social action is also useful. Weber believed that social action was action oriented to others in the past, present, or future. These others can be individuals, or they can be groups. In Weber’s theory, social action can be oriented towards previous generations through taking account of tradition. What he did not fully explore was the way in which social action has not been fully oriented towards future generations. The needs of future generations have not been considered in this generation’s own consumption running the risk that in the future people will be oriented towards the present generation in terms of bitterness and resentment about damage to the environment.

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