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the sociologists take on the environment

by chuck laszewski

A common mantra when it comes to studying the environment is

that only a disinterested, dispassionate natural scientist can untangle the natural from the social and thus do things like calculate
carbon emissions or predict climate change.
But to many sociologists, this is precisely the wrong approach.
The sociological approach starts from the assumption that the
natural and the social aren't separate and distinct, but in fact mutually created and reproduced.

It's an insight that has profound implications for how all

of usspecialists and citizens alikeunderstand changes in
our ecosystems and what we choose to do (or not) about them.
Sociologists analyze the environment and a whole host of
environmental issues from a variety of angles. Perhaps the oldest and most notable contribution of sociology to the many
different studies of the environment is measuring the harm of
environmental degradation and policies on various communities and populations. What researchers observed many years
ago is powerfully and fundamentally sociological: environmental problems are not equally distributed in their impact and
Sociologists were among the first to unpack the idea that
some communities suffer the harmful effects of environmental
degradation more than othersthat people with less influence
or wealth are more likely to bear the brunt of some kind of
hazard. Environmental racism is the catchphrase, but the idea
behind itthe unequal impact of environmental degradation on
different social groupsis the core idea on which the environmental justice movement is based.
David Pellow, a sociologist in the ethnic studies department at the University of California, San Diego, has written
extensively about environmental racism. Disputes over garbage
collection in Chicago followed the trajectory exactly: While
community activists fought for better recycling programs and
to close landfills in minority neighborhoods,
the politicians, many of whom were
African American or Latino, fought to bring
the landfills, hazardous waste dumps, or
incinerators into the neighborhoods.
The justification always was that it
would increase the tax base and bring jobs
to a depressed area. But as the environmental activists easily
grasped, and as the research bore out, those dirty facilities produced poor economic results and jobs that were hazardous to
the workers, not to mention a new source of toxic emissions
in the neighborhood, Pellow says.
After numerous reports, some by environmental sociologists, proved conclusively that landfills, hazardous waste
dumps, and dirty factories were overwhelmingly established
in poor or minority neighborhoods, President Bill Clinton signed
an environmental justice executive order.
While it established an office in the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, the order and the office unfortunately
provided no enforcement mechanism. There is no evidence
any groups have seen businesses or the government making
concessions on construction locations because of the executive order, notes Sherry Cable, a sociologist at the University

of Tennessee.
The unique sociological perspective is that environmental
problems arent so much the result of misguided leaders or
bad intentions but broader economic forces and social structures. These are frequent targets of analysis and critique by
environmental sociologists.
Many scholars have called attention to the environmental
problems caused by global economic interests and forces by
studying the institutions, policies, and practices surrounding
them. One large institution causing environmental mayhem is
the World Bank.
Few institutions can match its reach and power. It was
founded to funnel money into projects in developing nations
so as to raise standards of living and the gross national product of those recipient nations. Instead, the World Bank often
becomes the paymaster for large projects that do more harm
than good and line the pockets of the already rich or powerful.
Michael Goldman, who studies environmental sociology
at the University of Minnesota, witnessed one such bungled
project while living in western India and working on his
The World Bank had lent money to build canals in the
Thar Desert to bring water to the villages from the Himalayas
in the interest of agricultural production and economic development for the region. Bank officials wrote glowing reports
and made movies for European school students showing how

Environmental problems arent so much the

result of misguided leaders or bad intentions but
broader economic forces and social structures.

Andrew Szasz studied bottled water and developed a theory

that people protect themselves and their families from contamination rather than society at large. Photo by Jennifer McNulty

the 700-mile canal irrigated 2 million hectares of land and

turned it green with crops.
In reality, the project was an environmental disaster. Only
the farmers and villagers along the main canal arteries actually
received water, and those areas were controlled by wealthy
city landlords whose profits didnt even trickle back to the local
communities. Smaller, less well-positioned farmers saw their
crops die. Small sheep farmers were forced off the land, and
the shepherds, traders, and farmers who had lived off the land
there for generations fell into debt.
It was a familiar story for sociologists in certain ways. But
Goldman decided to study the bank itself and its role in creating such a situation. His timing was good. Environmental and
human rights activists around the world had taken notice of
the banks poor record and had begun protesting. Those
demonstrations embarrassed the bank, and its board of directors announced it would change its approach to development
projects. It would become a better steward of the earth and
work with villages and nations to produce more sustainable

Spring 2008 contexts 21

Courtesy photo

ultimately being surprised when the governprojects, the board announced.

ment didnt respond. The process culminatBut the World Banks words, comed with them attending public meetings,
bined with its willingness to work with
coordinating transportation to the local hosenvironmental organizations, had the perpital for tests to confirm illnesses that could be
verse effect of suddenly allowing projects
related to the pollution, and eventually runinto areas such as the Amazon rain forest
ning for local public offices.
and the Mekong River and delta where
They go through an amazing transforthey had been previously kept out. The
mation, Cable says. What comes out of it
results were disastrous, Goldman says.
is political awareness. They say, I am not
One project he wrote about in his
going to let it happen to me again. People
book Imperial Nature was the construcwho take on environmental problems in their
tion of hydroelectric dams on the
UC San Diegos David Pellow has
communities begin to recognize other enviMekong River in Laos. The bank had been
become active with a group fightronmental problems, and the politics behind
trying to build the dams for years, but
ing industrial pollution by providing research about best practices.
them, and are less likely to ignore them, she
protesters had complained its environhas found.
mental and social impact assessments
Analyses like these can help activists and scholars better
were flawed, performed by the dam-building companies, and
understand how to make protests more effective. But such
biased toward construction.
cases also highlight the challengesincreasingly more comTo counter that opposition, the World Bank hired environplex and abstract these daysstanding in the way of broader
mental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Union
movements and change.
of Concerned Scientists to conduct the studies. However, the
For example, Cable explains, mobilizing people to fight
bank made impossible demands, like requiring a fish study that
global warming is difficult because of the complexity of the
would have taken years if done properly be completed in three
science involved and how far removed it is from individual,
weeks. Worse, the outside scientists didnt understand the local
ordinary citizens. Only scientists and native peoples living near
languages, cultures, or political situation.
the Arctic Circle see the polar ice caps meltingits not the
Its the evolution of how critics can be the enablers,
same as watching chemicals pour from a pipe into a local creek
Goldman says. So the bank has become more powerful. Its
or when workers get sick from handling toxic materials.
the greening of the bank, but it has disastrous ecological
The farther it is from the local community, the harder it
effects. These dams provide electricity for Bangkok, and it
is for any of us to grasp, she says.
floods biodiversity areas, and the money goes to ministries,
Sociologists studying the environment have also emphanot the poor.
sized two more traditional movement challenges: leadership
and properly framing issues.
In considering the environmental movement itself, sociologists
Laurel Holland, a sociologist at the University of West
study activism and social changehow environmental conGeorgia, has studied the role of organized religion in moving
cerns receive public attention, how activists and organizations
congregants toward caring about the natural world.
emerge to advocate for new public policies and broader social
The Moral Majority, organized around issues such as
change, and the impacts these movements have on policy and
outlawing abortion, became a powerful force in American
ultimately ecosystems themselves.
politics and helped elect George W. Bush twice. Now, with the
We know from sociological research that the citizen2006 signing of Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to
turned-political-activist in response to environmental insults on
Action by more than 80 well-known evangelical Christians,
a community tends to follow a well-documented arc. Residents
Holland sees the potential for them to turn global warming
see pollution and, assuming the government doesnt know
into a major issue for their members in the 2008 presidential
about it, contact the responsible agency. The government does
nothing and the residents become angry. They organize,
The call to action already has moved the discussion among
become political players, and continue agitating until they get
leaders from the Genesis charge that humans have dominion
action from elected officials and the offending business.
over the earth to a broader discussion of how humans must be
Cable, at the University of Tennessee, documented this
stewards of the earth as part of caring for other people, Holland
pattern in Middlesboro, Kentucky, where a local tannery was
the source of pollution.
The first thing you have to do is convince the parishMobilization here began with women comparing stories
ioners its Gods will and then get them in action, she says.
about illnesses in their children and livestock, progressed to
Talk about it and do it, talk about it and do it. It starts with
their pushing their husbands to do something about it, and


The contemporary environmental movement certainly faces

organizational and political challenges (page 14), but Andrew
Szasz, chair of the sociology department at the University of
California, Santa Cruz, adds to that list the ironies and
irrationalities of uncoordinated individual actions by well-meaning consumers.
When Szasz studied the consumption of bottled water,
he found consumers buy it because theyre aware of the dangers of chemicals in our water and food supply. But, theyve
reacted by protecting themselves and their families, instead of
society at large.
They buy water filters, bottled water,
or organic food and then think theyve
solved the problem. In his recently published book, Shopping our Way to Safety:
How We Changed from Protecting the
Environment to Protecting Ourselves, Szasz
sharply questions this response and compares it unfavorably to building private
bomb shelters in the early 1960s. Its what
Szasz has termed an inverted quarantine.
Unlike the traditional quarantine where the environment
is considered clean and a few sick people have to be kept out
of it, in the inverted quarantine its the environment thats ill
and people who try to remove themselves from it. With the
exception of organic foods, many of the other products consumers buy under the assumption theyre protecting the environment arent regulated and theres no way to know if they
have any positive environmental impact whatsoever. Whats
more, protecting individuals bodies by purchasing products
isnt likely to transform them into environmental activists.
If you think you have fixed the problem with a water
filter, what is the likelihood you will punish a president for vetoing the water bill? Szasz asks. With bottled water, you are not
likely to go through the larger politicization process. They seem
to care a great deal about the environment but they dont do
anything about it. They feel distressed and they take the easy

Photo courtesy Peter Prehn

the pastor.
According to Holland, however, it will take more than ministers talking about the problem. She surveyed Presbyterian
churches in Georgia about where they stood on environmental
issues. All claimed to be green congregations and said environmental concerns were preached from the pulpit.
Holland then collected data from the churches and when
she broke down the statistics one thing became clear: The
churches most actively involved in preventing environmental
damage were those whose ministers were active in environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club. Clearly, this seems
to suggest, movements require not just powerful ideas and
charismatic leadership but also organizations that effectively
get citizens to take action.
way out, especially if they have disposable income.
Szaszs research seems to suggest that when it comes to
global warming, middle-class and wealthy Americans will
simply endeavor to protect their families and themselves. If
they live near the rising oceans, theyll move farther inland.
Theyll ensure their air conditioners are in good working order.
If drinking water becomes scarce, theyll move where its more
plentiful. If they take any positive environmental actions at all,
it will be individually, such as purchasing a hybrid car or
recycling their garbage.
There may indeed be those, though, who are primed to

The World Bank often becomes the paymaster

for large projects that do more harm than good
and line the pockets of the already rich or
take the fight further. The question then becomes whether
they will take up arms and demand that government force
businesses to follow the same rules and guidelines they themselves follow to curb environmental degradation.
At the core of sociological conceptions of and contributions
to environmental studies is the premise that the environment
does not exist independent of social life and the human realm.
Sociology is concerned not only with the social consequences
of environmental degradation but also with its social causes.
Sociologists help us understand how human society
impacts natural systems and ecosystemsand vice versa.
Basically, we tell stories, stories of the interaction between
nature and humans, Szasz says. The story of how society
mobilizesor doesntover global warming and other environmental challenges is still being written.
One path to ensuring the problems of environmental

Spring 2008 contexts 23

degradation and racism dont progress unabated is for sociologists to get involved in environmental movements and public decision-making. Szaszs work on water consumption is one
example of studying a phenomenon in an effort to call attention to collective problems. Others are even more engaged.
Pellow, for example, became active in efforts to stem the
tide of industrial pollution by providing research about how to
do things differently. He has been studying the computer and
other high tech industries for years.
One of the most profitable in the
world, the industry has built a clean
mythology around itself, in contrast to its
Industrial Age brothers, steel and coal. But
researchers learned from workers and
environmental scientists the industry really isnt as clean as it professed to be, Pellow says. In fact, right
from the beginning, they mine the materials they need to manufacture cell phones, silicon chips, and computers. Environmental impacts continue right through the production line where the
toxic chemicals are used for etching and dangerous metals such
as lead have to be handled and disposed of.
The manufacturing of electronics in this country is often
conducted by immigrants who dont understand English well
and dont understand what theyre being exposed to, Pellow
found. Its a global industry, so often the work is shipped to
poorer countries where regulations are non-existent and labor
isnt organized. And as he noted in his most recent book,

Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for

Environmental Justice, the toxic wastes from the electronics
industry invariably finds its way into the natural resources of
those same poor countries.
Pellow, however, has become part of the International
Campaign for Responsible Technology, a network of organizations pushing the industry toward safe and sustainable practices, and an international movement has sprung up around
these issues and this organization.

Basically, we tell stories, stories of the interaction between nature and humans, Szasz says.

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We decided to support the efforts of environmental and

labor groups to push the industry, Pellow says. We did more
research to point out the good and the bad practices. The
International Campaign for Responsible Technology is led by
environmentalists, worker activists, [and] lawyers. They say a lot
of things are not going well here and we need to change it. Im
proud to be part of it.
Chuck Laszewski is a freelance writer and for 25 years was a reporter at the St.

Paul Pioneer Press, where he covered the environment, among other topics. He is
the author of Rock n Roll Radical: The Life and Mysterious Death of Dean Reed.


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