F. Buttel. Environmental Sociology



Buttel, Frederic. "Environmental and Resource Sociology: Theoretical issues and Opportunities for Synthesis." In Rural Sociology, 1996, vol 61(1), pp. 56-75.

The contribution of rural sociology and rural sociologists

It has often been observed that the majority of the earliest contributors to contemporary environmental sociology were either self-identified rural sociologists, or else sociologists who worked in cognate specialty areas (especially the sociology of development and community studies) and who interacted frequently with rural sociologists. A brief list of the pioneers of environmental sociology during the 1960s and early 1970s who were rural sociologists includes scholars such as D. Morrison, D. Field, R. Burdge, S. Albrecht, and W. Andrews. But if we think of rural sociology according to the expanded definition above, we can see that scholars such as W. Burch, W. Catton, R. Dunlap, A. Schnaiberg, R. Gale, and W. Firey, who have rural sociological interests, were also among environmental sociology's trailblazers.

Why has the rural sociological contribution to environmental sociology been so substantial? No doubt part of the explanation is that what is now known as environmental sociology did not emerge 25 or so years ago de novo, but rather was a field created in substantial measure through the amalgamation of several pre-existing areas of scholarship, most of which were actively contributed to by, if not coterminous with, rural sociology. For example, what is now thought of as natural resource sociology (sociological research on parks and leisure, public lands management and policy, land use planning, and the like) predated contemporary environmental sociology, and became one of its earliest tributaries during the early 1970s (see Burch 1979). Much of the natural resource sociology community shifted its attention to social impact assessment by the mid to late-1970s. Likewise, much of the community studies tradition in rural sociology that survived the behaviorist turn of sociology and rural sociology in the 1950s and 1960s (see Buttel et al. 1990) had been focused on resource-dependent communities such as farming, logging, and fishing communities. Sociological analysis of resource-dependent communities was the second major tributary leading to modern environmental sociology. These two traditions of rural sociological scholarship and their contributions to environmental and resource sociology are extensively discussed in Field and Burch (1988). The roles played by these two tributaries are central to Field and Burch's argument that environmental sociology is not as new or novel as many claim it is.

A third tributary of modern environmental sociology was the social movements research tradition, from which several scholars began to devote attention to the emerging environmental movement as this movement sprang on the U.S. social scene following Earth Day, 1970. For example, one of the first major research anthologies in environmental and resource sociology, Social Behavior, Natural Resources, and the Environment (Burch et al., 1972), was largely devoted to research from a social movements, collective behavior, and public opinion perspective on modern environmentalism and resource management issues. While the social movements field is not generically tied to rural sociology, many of the most influential analyses of the environmental movement were undertaken by persons who otherwise identified as rural sociologists (see, e.g., Burch et al. 1972; Gale 1972; Harry et al. 1969; Morrison 1973, 1976; Morrison et al. 1972). Afourth tributary of contemporary environmental sociology was that of neo-Durkheimian human ecology (e.g., Micklin 1984); as with the social movements tradition, a number of rural sociologists interested in environmental issues were trained in this tradition, even though human ecology is not generically associated with rural sociology.

Rural sociology has been amply represented among the four main tributaries of environmental sociology. In addition, it is useful to note that over and above the lineage of environmental sociology to some of the major specialties within rural sociology, one can attribute to rural sociology a more overarching quality that caused it to be particularly hospitable to a sociology of environment and natural resources. As I suggested earlier, environmental sociology is ultimately a sociology built on recognition of the material bases of social structure and social life. I would argue that rural sociologists, because many of the phenomena they study such as resource management, resource extraction, the exigencies of space, and the genesis and impacts of technologies are material and/or biophysical ones, were more prepared than their counterparts elsewhere in sociology to embrace a view of social structure and social life as having crucial material and biophysical dimensions. Rural sociological receptiveness to the notion of material embeddedness of social life is illustrated by the fact that environmental sociology was able to legitimate itself and achieve recognition as a serious area of work earlier in the Rural Sociological Society than it was able to do so in other sociological organizations.

Environmental sociology in the mid-1990s: its nature and limits

I have argued that environmental sociology is directly or indirectly anchored in a conception of the material embeddedness of social life. Today, the two most influential components of the environmental sociology literature remain those originally contributed by Dunlap and Catton and by Schnaiberg during the mid to late 1970s. While there are many significant differences between these two traditions of scholarship, each of these two main traditions is based on a definite conception of the material/biophysical embeddedness of social processes.

Before discussing and assessing these two major contributions, it is useful to begin by stressing that environment-society relations are very difficult to theorize. In part, this is because environmental and biophysical processes are multifaceted and complex. A vast array of human behaviors and institutions can be said to be affected by, or have impacts on, the natural world. In addition, the core objective of many in environmental sociology to elucidate the roles played by natural forces that are not apparent, at least in their full essence, to social actors further complicates the task of conceptualization. This objective implies a commitment to a realist (as opposed to a nominalist) ontology, in which it is posited that there exist underlying (sociophysical or ecological) phenomena which cannot be directly measured or experienced, but that essentially operate, at least in part, "behind the backs" of social actors.

Interestingly, Marxist and Durkheimian sociologies are also characterized by realist ontologies. It is therefore not surprising that there has been some affinity between paradigmatic versions of environmental-sociological theory and neo-Marxism (e.g., Dickens 1992; J. O'Connor 1994; Schnaiberg 1980) or Durkheimianism (e.g., Klausner 1971). Thus, ironically, the representatives of the classical tradition that are most often criticized by environmental sociologists for their "exemptionalism" (i.e., Marxism and Durkheimianism) share a certain ontological background with the core of environmental sociology. This ontological kinship is among the reasons why environmental sociology has had such a contradictory relationship with Marxism. Environmental-sociological criticism of Marxism is commonplace (e.g.. Murphy 1994). At the same time, there is a vast neo-Marxist literature in environmental sociology, and there are few other areas of sociology today that remain so strongly influenced by Marxism (see, for example, Benton 1989; M. O'Connor 1994) 4

Environimental sociology's materialist nucleus

Dunlap and Catton, as well as Schnaiberg have been the most influential contributors at the theoretical core of environmental sociology. A brief summary of their theoretical systems will help to illustrate the arguments that are most central to the core of environmental sociology scholarship.

Dunlap and Catton's environmental sociology (Catton 1976, 1980; Catton and Dunlap 1978; Dunlap and Catton 1994) is built around several interrelated notions: first, environmental problems and the inability of conventional sociology to address these problems stem from worldviews (the dominant western worldview in society at large, and the related human exemptionalist paradigm insociology) that fail to acknowledge the biophysical bases of social structure and social life; second, modern societies are unsustainable because they are living off of what are essentially finite supplies of fossil fuels (what Catton [1976] has called "ghost acreage") and are using up "ecosystem services" much faster than ecosystems can produce or replenish them; at a global level these processes are being exacerbated by rapid population growth; third, societies are to a greater or lesser degree faced with the prospect of ecological vulnerability, if not "crash," particularly with the exacerbation of global environmental problems; fourth, modern environmental science has amply documented the severity of these environmental problems and is making it clear that major adjustments and adaptations will need to be undertaken, if environmental crisis is to be averted; fifth, recognition of the dimensions of looming environmental crisis is contributing to "paradigm shifts" in society at large, as well as in sociology (toward rejection of the dominant western worldview and acceptance of a new ecological or environmental paradigm); and sixth, environmental improvement and reform will be engendered through the spread of the new ecological paradigm among mass publics, and will be catalyzed by comparable paradigm shifts among social (and natural) scientists.

Schnaiberg's environmental sociology (Schnaiberg, 1980; Schnaiberg and Gould, 1994), by contrast, centers around two key notions: that of a "treadmill of production," and that this treadmill tends to result in environmental degradation (through "withdrawals" [i.e., scarcity of energy and materials] and "additions" [i.e., pollution]). The treadmill of production concept is very closely related to the notion of fiscal crisis of the state developed by O'Connor (1973). The treadmill of production holds that modern capitalism and the modern state exhibit a fundamental logic of promoting economic growth and private capital accumulation, and that the self-reproducing nature of this process causes it to assume the character of a "treadmill."

In part, according to Schnaiberg, the tendency to growth is due to the competitive character of capitalism, such that corporations and entrepreneurs must continually expand their operations and their profits lest they be swamped by other competitors. But there is also a complementary growth logic within the sphere of the state. State agencies and officials prefer growth over stagnation in order to ensure tax revenues (the essential fiscal basis of the state) and to enhance the likelihood of re-election or continuity of power. In order to enhance private accumuladon, the state undertakes spending aimed at subsidizing or socializing the costs of private production and accumulation (e.g., through public subsidy of research and development, transportation infrastructure, military procurement, tax incentives). The accumulation that is fostered tends to be capital intensive, and thus leads to automation, unemployment, and potentially to demands for job-creation or welfare-state-type programs on the part of those displaced or marginalized by capital intensive accumulation. This tendency to legitimation crisis in turn dictates that progressively more subsidy to private capital accumulation be undertaken in order to provide employment and state revenues sufficient for paying the "social expenses" associated with the dislocations of private accumulation. Capital intensive growth creating the dislocations and political demands that drive even more state expenditure on and encouragement of capital intensive growth is the essence of the treadmill character of modern industrial capitalism. Further, Schnaiberg argues that the treadmill of production is directly linked to ecological crisis, since this accumulation process typically requires resource extraction ("withdrawals") and contributes to pollution ("additions").

Note that while there are some key differences between the explanatory frameworks of Dunlap and Catton and of Schnaiberg especially in the causal emphasis on culture/worldviews and on class/political economy, respectivelythey have several strong commonalities. One is that both perspectives involve realist ontologies in which dynamics that are not directly observable to human actors (e.g., ghost acreage, treadmill of production) play a key role. The second is that both have a relatively singular conception of the environment (i.e., that "the environment" can be characterized in an aggregate way as reflecting a greater or lesser degree of scarcity, degradation, finiteness, depletion, and so on) 6 Both conceptions are basically variants of the concept of the "unity of ecological scarcity "the notion that environmental dynamics are all ultimately linked into an overarching unity because in an expansionist economy and society efforts to respond to one environmental problem invariably exacerbate others elaborated by Ophuls (1977). Further, both theories posit that the essential dynamic of modern industrial-capitalist societies has been toward environmental degradation. Finally, both of these styles of analysis are geared primarily to understanding the material substructure of societies; while Dunlap and Catton and also Schnaiberg devote considerable attention to environmental movements and beliefs, the overall thrust in both styles of analysis is to give priority to material-ecological substructure over beliefs and behaviors that are self-consciously environmental.

Recent trends in environmental-sociological theory

Following the development of these core notions of environmental sociology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, environmental sociology came to be strongly influenced by trends in environmental mobilization and in sociology at large. The first major influence was the explosion of attention to global warming and global environmental change from 1988 onward. Dunlap and Catton (1994) have demonstrated that public attention to global change facilitated growth in environmental sociology. Further, and perhaps most significant, dissemination of scientific information about global change served to shore up the confidence and resolve of many environmental sociologists that their theories can and should give priority to the material-ecological substratum of social structure and social life (see especially Dunlap and Catton 1994).

A second, but contradictory shift in environmental sociology over the past decade or so, derives from the larger discipline's "cultural turn" and the diminished stature of structural and materialist sociologies. The demise (ff Eastern European and Soviet state socialism, the growing influence of conservative ideologies, and the diminished appeal of Marxism and socialism have contributed to the decreased persuasiveness of some of the more materialist components of sociology such as neo-Marxism and political economy. At the same time, the excitement generated by cultural studies, constructivism, feminism, postmodernism, semiotics, and so on in academia at large has spilled over into sociology. This has led to rapid growth of cultural sociology, growing influence of microsociological perspectives, and a reduced stature of structural theories'.

One consequence of the cultural turn of the larger discipline is its growing receptivity to seeing environmentalism and related phenomena as being of social significance. Thus, on one hand, one sees that notables of the discipline, such as Giddens (1994) and Beck (1992, 1995), are increasingly placing yery strong emphasis on environmental postures and beliefs. Relatedly, cultural-environmental sociologists and sociologies have made major inroads into environmental sociology in recent years. Dickens (1992), Greider and Gafkovich (1994), McNaughten and Urry (1995), Brule (1995), and Yearley (1991) are examples of the "cultural invasion" of environmental sociology during the early 1990s. Environmental sociology is now frequently undertaken through discourses in which notions such as modernity, postmodernity, risk society, and ecological modernization figure prominently (e.g., Mol and Spaargaren 1993; Spaargaren and Mol 1992). Equally significant has been the drift of sociologists of science, and their notions of the social construction of scientific knowledge, into the environmental sociology arena as interest has grown in researching the environmental sciences and the connections of environmental knowledge production to environmental politics and the environmental movement (Taylor and Buttel 1992; Wynne 1994; Yearley 1991).

The trends of the past decade have thus been uneven or mixed as far as environmental sociology is concerned. On one hand, the legitimacy for studying environmentally related social phenomena has never been greater within sociology. At the same time, the postures that have essentially defined the core of environmental sociology fdr nearly two decadesmaterialism, structuralism, and realism have declined in persuasiveness in the discipline. Most important for present purposes, these contradictory trends have led to major polemics within environmental sociology. Dunlap and Catton (1994) and Murphy (1994), for example, are prominent pieces of recent literature in which the cultural-constructivist invasion of environmental sociology has been strongly rebuked. Each has argued that cultural-environmental sociology is essentially incompatible with a sociology that is able to recognize the material and biophysical substructure of nation-states and global society.

For these reasons environmental sociology over the past half decade or so has become more specialized and, to some degree, balkanized. Also, because some of the most influential theories are essentially metatheories, and do not readily lend themselves to test and falsification, there has been some trend to embracing more middle range theories (e.g., Freudenburg and Gramling 1994a, 1994b). Other scholars, particularly those whose interests lie in resource extraction processes such as agriculture, mining, and timber, have found themselves more at home with theoretical views that come without presuppositions as to the singularity of environmental quality and degradation (see, e.g., Bunker 1992; Freudenburg et al. 1995).

Thus, environmental sociology in the 1990s has a dual character. On one hand, it remains strongly influenced by several strands of realist-materialist scholarship (many of which have some direct or indirect roots in rural sociology) that place major emphasis on revealing the material-ecological substructures of modern societies. At the same time, environmental sociology is now a less consensual and more contested area of scholarship than it was a decade ago. In large part this has been due to the cultural turn of environmental sociology and the challenge that cultural-environmental sociology has presented to the materialist core of the subdiscipline.

While recognizing that environmental sociology faces a major challenge owing to strife over the role that social constructionism and cultural sociology should play, I would argue that over the long term the current period will prove to have been a creative and productive one. In my view, the field is now characterized by several major dualisms and debates, a number of which will be briefly discussed below. In each case, however, there are promising avenues for synthesis that can be seized and exploited. The intense debates that now crop up in the literature and, more commonly, take place in annual meeting hallways and classrooms are providing the raw material for advance in the field.

Emerging opportunities for synthesis within environmental sociology

Environmental sociology in the mid-1990s, though more successful than ever as a subdiscipline of sociology, has made these gains even as it has moved to the precipice of dissension and disarray. Partisanship in the service of ecological realism vs. social constructivism and the debate over whether Marxism is intrinsically "exemptionalist" and unecological are among the major focal points of debate. These debates as currently undertaken in which there is less focus on the specific issues at stake than on the ostensible superiority or inferiority of one or another theoretical systems or "paradigms" are not likely to be fruitful. Typically, there is little to choose between the core arguments of each. For example, the notion that there is a clear objective material reality to ozone depletion and atmospheric pollution is no more or no less true than the notion that humans' interactions with the environment are social, symbolically mediated, and relational (see especially the argument of Freudenburg et al. [1995] about the need to transcend the "nature/society divide" and to see physical and social factors as "conjointly constituted.").

I would argue, however, that more progress can be made if some of these debates are disaggregated into more specific arenas or topics. In this section of the paper I will outline what I see as among the most important lines of debate. For each I will suggest some emergent or plausible lines of synthesis or resolution.

What are the principal phenomena to be explained ?

The subject matter of environmental sociology is, in a sense, straight-forward, consisting of social aspects of environmental problems and environmental issues. This notion, however, obscures the fact that there are two general categories of environmentally related phenomena that need to be accounted for by environmental-sociological theories. One category consists of "ordinary" social practices and phenomena that have environmental dimensions or implications, although they remain invisible or unrecognized. Humans tend to engage in production, in consumption of goods and services, and in institutional behaviors with essentially no recognition or awareness of the resource intensities or ecosystem impacts that are involved. I refer to these practices as being "substructurally-environmental" ones.

The second major class of environmental phenomena consists of behaviors or institutional patterns that are self-consciously environmental or environmentally relevant. These intentionally environmental practices are social patterns or behaviors in which actors are subjectively conscious that they are engaging in environmentally relevant activities, or else are social relations in which at least some actors see the practices as being environmentally related. Examples include environmental mobilization, participation in an environmental movement organization (or engaging in resistance to an environmental group or agency), environmental conflict and politics, environmental regulatory processes, adherence to the "new environmental paradigm," and participation in a recycling program.

To a significant degree existing work in environmental sociology has tended to privilege one or the other category of environmental practices. Macrostructural theories, for example, have tended to emphasize substructurally-environmental social relations, while theories of environmental activism and politics have tended to focus almost exclusively on intentional environmental phenomena. I would argue that a strengthened environmental sociology must take into account both classes of environmentally-relevant phenomena, and be rooted in a more detailed conceptualization of the relations among substructurally-environmental and intentionally-environmental phenomena.

There has been some progress on this count. For example, what has made the work of scholars such as Dunlap and Catton, Schnaiberg, and Murphy so influential is that each has strived to treat both categories of environmental phenomena. But much of this literature has tended to conceptualize the fundamental relation between the two types of phenomena as being essentially a progressive rationalization and environmental consciousness-raising process; it is argued or assumed that, over time, the elaboration of environmental-scientific understanding of the natural world provides environmental movement organizations and, ultimately, citizens and policymakers with the information required to recognize the ecological embeddedness of social institutions. Thus, social practices are seen to shift from being substructurally-environmental to being intentionally-environmental.

However, the notion that scientific understanding of the natural world will tend to be a core building block of environmental consciousness and reform must confront contradictory processes. As Murphy (1994) acknowledges, and Schnaiberg and Gould (1994) stress, the growth of scientific knowledge of the natural world has had a myriad of positive and negative environmental impacts and, if anything, the historical balance has tended to be negative as far as environmental quality is concerned.

While natural science has had a good number of negative environmental impacts, modern environmentalism has increasingly become the paradigmatic example of the "scientization" of social protest and reform. Environmental activists have been at the forefront of recognizing that anchoring social movement claims and strategies in scientific knowledge is an effective strategy in the highly rationalized social structure and political economy of the late 20th century (see Yearley 1991). Yet, the rooting of movement claims in scientific knowledge increases their vulnerability to "deconstruction" through contradictory scientific evidence. Further, some significant quarters of environmentalism (e.g., many persons within the sustainable agriculture movement) are suspicious about, if not outright rejecting of, experimental natural science of any kind (on account of reductionism and other biases); these groups therefore struggle to enhance the role of local or indigenous knowledges in providing solutions to environmental problems. Thus, the complexity of the relations between science and environmentalism suggests the importance of developing a more detailed understanding of the dialectical relations between substructurally-environmental and intentionally-environmental practices.

There are several promising areas of research for exploring the interrelations among substructural and intentional environmental phenomena. One example is research on how social behaviors undergo shifts from one class of phenomena to another. For instance, environmental mobilization is, in a sense, a joint process of redefining otherwise "ordinary" phenomena (e.g., heating one's home in the winter, driving an automobile, purchasing fast-food hamburgers made from beef produced from pastures in former tropical rainforests) into intentionally-environmental phenomena, and of appealing to citizens to join collectively in efforts to influence such behaviors in the interest of environmental improvement. It should also be stressed that because social movement organizations focus on particular environmentally-related behaviors and phenomena does not necessarily mean that these are the most important or fundamental ones from an ecological-scientific perspective. Likewise, among the major tactics of groups that resist environmental reforms are actions serving to obscure or downplay the environmental relevance of phenomena or behaviors, and thus to "de-environmentalize" (or render "ordinary") these phenomena and behaviors.

The political-dialectical relations among the two classes of environmentally-relevant practices can also be explored through research on the social bases of environmentalism and environmental activism. Environmental-sociological treatments of environmentalism have arguably tended to de-emphasize both the complexity of environmentalism and the obstacles to mobilization. Environmental mobilization is typically portrayed as a more or less direct response to environmental degradation, threats of environmental degradation, and growth of environmental knowledge. Extensions of this line of argument suggest that societies are increasingly being restructured into "environmental classes": an environmentally privileged class that has comfortable environments, benefits from environmental destruction, and tends to resist environmental reform, -on one hand, and an environmentally exploited class that suffers from low quality environments, pays for the costs of environmental degradation, and has an interest in environmental improvement, on the other. Environmental mobilization and conflict are conceptualized to flow from this "environmental class structure" (Murphy 1994).

The environmental class structure argument is attractive in some respects, particularly because it helps to explain resistance to environmental reforms. At the same time, these notions should be used cautiously, since they may lead to an "overly-ecologized" view of social reality a view that major social conflicts are essentially struggles over environmental resources, and that environmental activism is largely or simply a response to environmental problems. The environmental class structure notion may thus lead to downplaying other bases of environmentalism and environmental activism. For example, environmentalism arguably has some more purely "social" antecedents. Environmentalism is, in part, a source of personal identity, as has been stressed in elements of the new social movements tradition (Beck 1995). Likewise, environmentalism has arguably grown in stature as a new form or modality of resistance to dominant institutions; in the wake of the declining role of labor parties, trade unions, and other traditional institutions of left politics, environmental criticisms of policies and practices may be an effective or legitimate mode of expressing resistance.

At the same time, environmentalism tends to encounter significant obstacles to effective collective action. Environmentalism has no "natural constituency "that is, no particular social group that undergirds its base of support (as, for example, women comprise with respect to feminism, and minority groups do with regard to the civil rights movement). In environmental struggles, if environmentalists succeed they will tend not to be significantly better off materially than they would have been otherwise, and the major beneficiaries may well be future generations. Perhaps most importantly, while academic social and environmental scientists more often than not tend to see contemporary anti-environmental movements (e.g., the "wise use" and "property rights" movements) as temporary and aberrational phenomena, or as mere fronts for the anti-environmental agendas of certain multinational corporations, these movements are likely to have considerable staying power. The staying power of anti-environmental movements is not only due to the fact that environmental reforms involve costs and provoke resistance among "environmentally privileged classes," to borrow Murphy's (1994) concept. In addition, anti-environmental groups are often quite adept at responding to deep-seated grievances of disenfranchised (and "environmentally exploited") social groups more effectively than environmentalists do. It is of particular relevance to rural" sociologists that these movements are disproportionately focused on nonmetropolitan resource issues. In sum, the tenuousness of the base of support for environmentalism suggests why the movement's access to the media, its ability to broker coalitions, and its choices of ideologies and appeals are so critical. Put somewhat differently, the argument of Freudenburg et al. (1995) about the need to transcend the "nature/society divide" and to see physical and social factors as "conjointly constituted" can be usefully extended to environmental mobilization as well.

What are the "prime movers" and causal factors?

There has been a long tendency within environmental sociology to gauge the seriousness or centrality of an approach to theory or research on the grounds of whether or not biophysical variables are incorporated as explanatory factors. The status of biophysical variables as explanatory factors lies at the heart of Dunlap and Catton's (1979) dichotomization of scholarship into bonafide environmental sociology, on one hand, and mere sociology of environmental issues, on the other. Genuine environmental sociology is seen to be that which rejects exclusive social causality and includes biophysical antecedents. The sociology of environmental issues is said by Dunlap and Catton to be a type of inquiry that explores environmentally related questions, but does so only by employing "social" explanatory variables; this style of research could be said to be indistinguishable from human exemptionalist or ordinary sociology."

I would offer two interrelated observations on this convention. First, following Dickens (1992), it should be noted that while the injunction to incorporate biophysical variables as causal factors makes intuitive sense at a metatheorerical level, it has proven to be very difficult to bring this proposition to bear at a more straightforward theoretical and prepositional level. Further, there is much work to be done in specifying the array of mechanisms through which social and biophysical forces interact, and in being able to specify propositions about the conditions under which particular mechanisms come into play. For example, we can observe that biophysical factors or forces will represent limits or bounds within which certain social structures or behaviors are possible. Biophysical factors or influences may also play the role of "switchman" (the imagery originally developed by Max Weber to depict the role of religion in shaping the course of capitalism), as has been stressed by Murphy (1994) in his recent effort to develop a neo-Weberian environmental sociology. Or the social and biophysical may be so closely and profoundly intertwined, that it would be misleading or artificial to disaggregate them. Taking the mechanism of social-environmental interactions to be an empirical question rather than a metatheoretical injunction is a potentially promising way to build scholarship that can transcend divisions based on biophysical causality.

What is the conceptualization of the environment?

It was noted earlier that the most influential theoretical perspectives in North American environmental sociology have tended to reflect a relatively singular conception of the environment. That is, "the environment" even if it is seen to be multidimensional and a highly complex system is nonetheless seen ultimately as having some upper bound of (long-term, sustainable) human carrying capacity, as being essentially finite, and as having an underlying "unity" (Ophuls, 1977). While a particular region can exceed its carrying capacity by appropriating raw materials and ecosystem services from elsewhere (including "ghost acreage" over time [Catton 1980]), at a higher level of analysis, the human community and global society cannot escape the carrying capacity limits of the biosphere. Thus, this singular conception of the environment essentially presupposes a macro (national or global) level of analysis. And the notion of the singularity of the environment has been reinforced in recent years as a result of the widespread attention given to global environmental change and global warming. Global environmental change and global warming carry the implication that there exists an underlying global biospheric and atmospheric system, the degradation of which will have consequences for all peoples on the earth.

Such singular conceptions of the environment, however, may be problematic in their application to concrete empirical research. This is particularly so when that research is subnational in scope or focuses on ecological systems that are spatially diverse or unevenly affected by human activities.'" To take an agricultural example, we may agree that there is validity to the notion that there are some definite global limits to the size of the human population that can be supplied with food. Even so, empirical inquiry into the ecological constraints on and consequences of agriculture at a subnational level will not find this notion of global carrying capacity to be a source of useful hypotheses about the local ecology of agriculture and food.

These singular vs. plural or regionally-variegated conceptions of the environment obviously both contain an element of truth. Neither warrants being exclusively privileged in theory or research. The conception employed will need to be shaped by the type of resource or biological system of concern. Even scholars who are interested in environmental beliefs and orientations will need to bear in mind that the conception of the environment cannot be established a priori. For example, it is apparent that environmental concern grew during the time of movement mobilization around global environmental change (Dunlap and Catton, 1994), and thus reflected concern that growing degradation on a global scale would adversely affect succeeding generations. But it is arguably the case as well that for environmental beliefs to be enduring they need to be anchored, at least in part, in the concrete experiential realities and immediately tangible concerns of actors. That is, public environmental consciousness has historically grown in tandem with major movement mobilization episodes in which intergenerational, global conceptions of the environment (the population bomb, limits to growth, global warming and global environmental change) have predominated. In each case, however, public environmental consciousness waned, probably at least in part because it is difficult to sustain public concern about environmental problems that lie decades into the future and cannot be directly experienced.

What is the basic tendency of modernity/social change in terms of environmental quality and integrity ?

It was noted earlier that the major theoretical traditions in environmental sociology have tended to see the basic dynamics of modern industrial-capitalist societies as involving a very strong tendency toward environmental degradation. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of environmental sociology has been the strong case that its practitioners have been able to make that conventional sociology's concepts and reasoning cannot explain environmental crisis, and have little to say about the long-term future of human societies in a world of ultimate biophysical limits and ecological scarcity. This posture, despite its obvious utility in understanding the limits of mainstream sociological theory, has its liabilities as well. Theoretical systems that stress the potency and immutability of the forces leading to environmental degradation have difficulty in explaining the conditions under which environmental improvement is possible, and when the way out of the "iron cage" of environmental threat is discussed (as Murphy, 1994, employs Weber's well-known aphorism), these treatments often prove to be voluntaristic, Utopian, and poorly connected to the explanatory thrust employed to account for degradation.

It is possible, however, to find some middle ground between structural inevitability and voluntaristic optimism regarding our environmental future. One of the most significant attempts to do so has been the "ecological modernization" school of environmental sociological thought in Northern Europe. Spaargaren and Mol (1992), for example, have noted that while "modernity" has clearly been accompanied by environmental degradation, one of the concomitants of modernity has been the development of environmental knowledges and social pressures that create a basis for deflecting the course of modernity, in the direction of ecological modernization. Ecological modernization is basically the extension of the practices of modern rationalism to the business enterprise and state organization in ways that lead to adaptations and restructurings that reduce resource consumption and environmental degradation. Thus, while industrial modernization has tended to be in opposition to environmental quality, environmental components and dimensions are being progressively superimposed on the processes of rational calculation. While ecological modernization may err on the side of optimism, it nonetheless represents a positive response to the need of environmental sociology to give greater attention to the social bases of environmental improvement.


Environmental sociology has gone through several phases. Originally something of a faddish response to public attention to environmental problems, the field for several years was essentially a repackaging of several pre-existing literatures. Within a decade, however, environmental sociology came to be unified to a significant degree around the contributions of Dunlap and Catton, Schnaiberg, and a handful of others. The rise of global environmental change in the late 1980s promised even greater convergence. Since that time, however, the declining persuasiveness of Marxism and the cultural turn of sociology and environmental sociology have thwarted the expectation of unity.

Though environmental sociology has become less consensual than it was a decade or so ago, this is by no means entirely unwelcome. The declining persuasiveness of Marxism, both within and outside of environmental sociology, has caused a reevaluation within the Marxist community and has led to considerable innovation within the neo-Marxist tradition (e.g., as represented by Benton [1989]; Faber and O'Connor [1989]; M. O'Connor [1994]; and the new journal, Capitalism-Nature-Socialism). The cultural invasion of environmental sociology is causing needed reassessment of how culture and knowledge are related to nature and social structure. And as I have suggested in this paper, the new issues that have been raised are creating the raw material for new syntheses and areas of empirical research.

I began the paper by noting the formative role that rural sociology has played in the development of environmental sociology. It is thus appropriate to conclude by asking whether rural sociology has further contributions to make to environmental and resource sociology. North America rural sociologists are still very amply represented among the environmental-sociological community so that, in the U.S. and Canada at least, the two subdisciplines are almost certain to develop further in close tandem. By the same token, environmental sociology now has its own national (and, increasingly, international) momentum, so that North American rural sociological perspectives are not likely to be as influential in theoretical (or metatheoretical) terms as they were 20 years ago. In particular, environmental sociology is now exploding in Europe and in several parts of the developing world, with little direct influence from North American rural sociology.

I believe strongly, however, that the rural sociological role in North American environmental and resource sociology will remain as constructive as it is substantial. Environmental sociology obviously has a responsibility to respond to changes in the natural-scientific, public policy, and social bases of environmental issues, but this flexibility can come at the expense of sustained research on crucial resource issues (particularly those that are not of keen interest to major environmental groups). Rural sociological input is essential in keeping environmental sociology relevant to the issues that relate to the majority of the world's people (miners, loggers, indigenous societies, peasants, farmers, and other rural inhabitants) and to the material and environmental issues that most affect them (e.g., food availability and access; land and water tenure, access, use, quality, and degradation). In other words, rural sociology has served, and will continue to serve, to keep environmental sociology diversified and interested in the full range of environmental phenomena and issues that affect the world's citizens.


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