The Midas touch. Theoretical essays in environmental sociology - Filip Alexandrescu
At first glance, environmental sociology may sound like an oxymoron. If the natural environment represents the realm of the non-social, as it does most likely for many sociologists, what could a sociology of the non-social be about? The short answer is that there are many ways in which the non-social plays a part in the social universe. The long answer, the complexity of which is tackled in part in the pages to follow, is that the “social” or, to be more precise, social agents are oftentimes in the unenviable position of King Midas. This legendary king of Phrygia is said to have acquired from Bacchus the power to turn everything he touched “to yellow gold” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11). Joyful at first, the king with the golden touch soon learned that his potentially unlimited wealth could have soon brought his death by starvation: any piece of tender meat would have instantly turned to gold in his mouth and no sip of wine - turning into liquid gold - could have quenched his thirst. Ovid says that Bacchus felt pity for the man and offered him the chance to wash up his power in a river flowing up in the Lydian heights.
The Midas touch is a useful metaphor for understanding our relationships with nature. Nature is for human society a great source of wealth, a source of knowledge and a source of artistic inspiration. Yet, every time we reach to it, we transform it in positive or negative ways and often beyond recognition. Sociology is well positioned to answer the question of who are “we” who stretch our greedy or curious hands to nature only to discover that oftentimes we change her and ourselves in ways which are not always obvious. Environmental sociology is the study of social – environmental interdependencies and of the reciprocal transformations of society and nature under increasing industrialization and urbanization. What is this book about? The book consists of a collection of essays exploring some of the ways in which sociologists have theorized the relationships between society and environment. It covers a definite historical period, from the 1920s to the 1990s, dealing with the theories that preceded the establishment of environmental sociology as well as the approaches that gave it a distinct identity within the discipline. The six main chapters are all conceptual papers. Each of them explores a number of topics connecting social science ideas with ecology and environmental science through a series of interrogations about the nature of their relationships. The interrogations are, to be sure, formulated mostly from a social science perspective as the book is addressed to sociologists.
How can the environment be integrated into a sociological framework of analysis? By simply recognizing that the environment should have a place in sociological theorizing, its relevance for social life would still remain obscure if one does not inquire into how various ideas of the environment have been pursued in the history of the discipline. This idea of societal-environmental interactions will be explored from a variety of vantage points with the aim of exposing the rich articulations of the environmental problematique in the history of sociology. Since there is no clear-cut route leading from premises to conclusion, the book can be seen as an exploratory theoretical inquiry from the early twentieth century to its closing decades.
Why is this book offered? The intended market for this book is the Romanian academia, especially those scholars who work in or are interested in the intersections of the social and environmental sciences. There is a dearth of environmental sociological writings in Romania. To my knowledge, there is only one book-long study on environmental sociology published by Laura Nistor under the title “Sociology of the environment: a study of attitudes and behaviours in Romania” (2009). Two other introductory pieces to environmental sociology in Romanian are the articles entitled “Environmental sociology as creative marginality: A Review of Its Theories from the ‘Limits to Growth’ to the risk society” (Alexandrescu 2008) and “Sociology and the environment. Integrative perspectives” (Nistor 2008). The book also holds potential value for readers interested in sociological theory-building or theorization. More exactly, it offers an explicit attempt to theorize social – environmental relationships with the aim to improve or deepen our understanding. This means that selected theoretical ideas are systematically explored and linked to each other in order to achieve a more comprehensive or in-depth understanding of the implications or potential application of existing theories. This is perhaps best illustrated in chapter four, where an ecologically inspired perspective on society as an ecosystem – in which a variety of (social) species populations interact – is reinterpreted by means of Max Weber’s ideal type constructs. The final result is a flexible construct of eco-social groups or social species which researchers can fashion according to their interests, while eschewing some of the unfruitful debates in environmental sociology.
The value of the book for a broader international public resides in its specific historical and interpretive focus. Historically, the book covers a lesser known period of environmental sociological ideas in the history of (mostly American) sociology, between the period of the classics such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel or the Chicago School (e. g. Buttel 2000, Gross 2000, Gross 2001, Dunlap et al. 2002, Hannigan 2006, Rosa and Richter 2008, MacDonald 2011) and the emergence of environmental sociology proper (e. g. Catton and Dunlap 1978, Buttel 2002, Dunlap 2008). Chronologically, this covers roughly the period between the 1950s and the 1970s and the authors of these period are discussed in chapters two, three and four, with occasional extensions to more recent publications. The interactions between society and environment revolve around the population – organization – environment – technology (POET) model and involve mostly material interactions between industrial and urban society and its natural environment. In such a view, the Midas touch is “hard” and consequential as it creates enduring conflicts and changes in both environment and society.
From an interpretative point of view, chapters one and five and the last part of chapter two (section 2. 9. 2) are meant to show that in sociologists’ preoccupation with the environment there are sometimes underlying social and intellectual concerns that are not necessarily related to the environment per se. This analysis is not meant to debunk these approaches but rather to show that social concerns can sometimes take naturalistic form while still remaining social in their essence. In such cases, the Midas touch of the social upon nature can be as light as that of a butterfly. The structure of the book consists of six chapters. The first chapter is devoted to a discussion of the beginnings of human ecology, an area of scholarship initiated by the sociologists of the Chicago School in the 1920s and 1930s. This formative period of human ecology is discussed in detail, as it is particularly dense in ideas and also because it presents an interesting paradox. Although it explicitly deals with the natural environment – or what Robert E. Park calls the “biotic substructure of society” – in the explanation of social phenomena, ecological factors (as understood in the natural sciences) are virtually absent from its theorization. What is present, however, is a naturalized form of social processes and phenomena. An alternative sociological interpretation of what human ecologists call the biotic order of human communities is provided in terms of Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Additional support for the naturalization argument is provided by an inquiry into some of the key concepts of human ecology and of its Darwinian tradition. This inquiry also offers some intriguing insights on the circular migration of concepts from eighteenth and nineteenth century social thought to the natural sciences and then returning to sociology and to human ecology in the early twentieth century.
The second chapter covers a broader area of mid-century human ecology and environmental sociology. A relatively even-handed discussion of the strengths and limitations of various approaches and theoretical models is presented. I pay close attention to the POET model, also known as the “ecological complex”, to a number of three of its subsequent elaborations, and to two models of environmental impact. Also discussed are the political economy approach and the New Ecological Paradigm for environmental sociology. This chapter concludes with a systematic treatment of the ways in which each of the approaches surveyed conceptualizes the interactions between environment and society. The third chapter applies a realist lens on the concept of social ecosystem as a way to extend (environmental) sociologists’ ecological imagination, thus emulating Mills’ trailblazing argument for developing the sociological imagination. This is achieved by adjoining the notion of society as ecosystem as developed by economists and sociologists with the case study and interpretations offered by the Indian ecologist Madhav Gadgil and environmental historian Ramachandra Guha (1995).
The fourth chapter is the most ambitious effort in this book to integrate different perspectives developed at different times into one synthetic approach. The social species or eco-social groups approach is offered as a sociological lens for studying societal-environmental interactions. The social species idea is borrowed from an article by Edward Stephan (1970), where it was used to describe various populations (human, animal or plant) that co-exist and interact in an ecological community. Stephan’s multi-species model is used as a theoretical magnifying glass for exploring social – natural configurations. More exactly, I contend that the concept of social species/eco-social group can be used for human groups that can be identified on the basis of three distinct criteria: as part of an ecosystem, as being involved in a social structure and as participating in an universe of socially constructed meanings. In methodological terms, social species concepts can be constructed as Weberian ideal types, in which the three points of view – corresponding to the three criteria mentioned above – are simultaneously or successively accentuated: an ecological, a social structural and a social constructionist point of view.
The fifth chapter continues this approach in an attempt to elaborate an ideal type of environmental or “green” groups. The social constructionist viewpoint is chosen for its maximal significance in conceptualizing such groups. An inquiry at the ecological and structural levels lends support to the argument that the specificity of large-scale environmental movement organizations can best be revealed in their construction of ecological ideologies and worldviews. The sixth chapter follows an approach similar to the one pursued in the first chapter. More exactly, a historical sociological account of the rise and development of environment sociology is offered, based on Karl Mannheim’s argument that the roots of changes in the world of ideas or scholarship should be sought in the changing socio-historical circumstances of the period in which those shifts occurred. Through this interpretive lens, environmental sociology appears as a field of scholarship which emerged with the shift from a rhetoric of convergence to one of conflict in postwar America, with the challenge of the affluent society thesis by the environmental movement and the postwar crystallization of the knowledge class. Finally, the seventh chapter summarizes the main points discussed throughout the book. The different approaches are compared using the three criteria developed in chapter four by locating them – this time by means of a visual model – within a three-dimensional space. The three dimensions of environmental sociology are the ecological, the structural and the constructionist. This mapping exercise appears as a more fruitful alternative to the continued use of key debates and key themes to describe different positions in environmental sociology, such as constructivism vs. realism, ecological modernization vs. ecological realism etc. (Lockie 2015). The second part of the concluding chapter presents some possible points of contention regarding the social species approach outlined in chapter four, along with their proposed resolution. The aim is to show that there is no one absolute or Archimedean point from which to see the manifold articulations of the environment into social configurations. Instead, the environment – society nexus should be seen as contingent on ecological exchanges, on a host of structural factors that lead to unequal ecological exchanges and on the variable social definitions of these exchanges.
The book is addressed to an audience interested in environmental sociology but also to a broader public interested in the intellectual openings provided by a less usual perspective on social life. Undergraduate and graduate students as well as researchers puzzled by the messy frictions between social and natural processes may find useful theoretical clues for thinking in an integrative and critical way about the sociological relevance of environmental changes.
A number of people have contributed to this book with their constructive feedback, stimulating discussions or intellectual support. My great thanks are due to professors Anton Allahar and Roderic Beaujot from Western University for being my supportive MA thesis supervisors. Chapters one, two, four and five were initially developed as part of my master’s thesis. Thanks are also due to professors John Hannigan and Joseph Bryant from the University of Toronto with whom I took a course on environmental sociology and one in historical sociology, respectively. Both of them encouraged me to develop the ideas presented in chapters three and six of this book. Last but not least, I would like to thank my family for providing the intangible support needed when writing a book-long study such as the one offered here. Any shortcomings obviously fall within my responsibility.
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