Perspectives on a Role for Environmental Sociology in an Uncertain World
- Joan Martinez Alier, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain
- Riley Dunlap, Oklahoma State University, USA
- Stewart Lockie, Central Queensland University, Australia
- Timothy O’Riordan, University of East Anglia, UK
- Eugene Rosa, Washington State University, USA
- Joan David Tabara, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain
- Steven Yearley, Edinburgh University, UK
Speakers at the International Workshop on “Key challenges of environmental sociology to sustainable societies research”, Barcelona, 9 September 2008, following the First World Forum of Sociology of the International Sociological Association and in particular its Environment and Society Research Committee (RC24) meetings.
Humankind faces two comprehensive dilemmas in this troubled age. Dilemma one is the beginning of a period of economic decline and possible recession, at least in the developed world in the near term. This is coupled with financial uncertainty and a restriction on credit which is impeding investment and house purchase, together with unstable commodity markets.
There is a squeeze on household incomes, so that elements of large scale poverty for energy, food and housing are beginning to emerge. The growing interaction and accumulation of negative side effects derived from economic globalisation and global environmental change in an increasingly interconnected world is creating an unprecedented total risk situation. The developing world is particularly vulnerable with the underclass especially exposed to increased poverty and to extremely uncertain economic prospects.
The second dilemma is the lack of security for future energy, notably oil and gas, and the global prospect of climate change with international pressure on the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This spurs the possibility of expensive and long term risks of nuclear power. Even the possible transition toward renewable energy will be by no means cheap or will be able to be achieved on time. In addition the world faces the prospect of severe shortages of fresh water, the growing number of megacities, soil erosion at an unprecedented speed, predation of inshore and offshore fisheries, and the wholesale loss of healthy spaces for social-environmental interaction and diverse landscapes and habitats.
The recent expansion of the world economy has been fuelled by two factors, one financial, one environmental. Debts have increased enormously in the world, not only private mortgages, but also for instance the large budget and trade deficits in the USA. To pay these debts would require an enormous acceleration of economic growth. However, economic growth relies on mounting quantities of energy and materials, including water. Hence, the debts will not be paid.
Getting more and more energy and materials causes a large quantity of increasing conflicts at the point of extraction, the "commodity frontiers", and the complaints of the environmental justice movement and the increasing examples of an “environmentalism of the poor”. Environmental sociology has done much to show that environmentalism is not a luxury of the rich but it has also roots in the livelihood needs of the poor.
The expansion of the economy requires energy and materials. But oil extraction is reaching the peak of Hubbert's curve, and this helped from 1998 to 2008 to increase its price. The OPEC oligopoly holds because of the trend towards scarcity of supply. Social resistance to extraction of raw materials, and the awareness of the damage from greenhouse gases would not be enough by themselves to stop the increasing thirst for energy and materials in the growing world economies. The increased price of oil and other raw materials has contributed to the financial crisis (many debts will not be paid). In the rich countries the moment is ripe for opening a social discussion on "sustainable de-growth", to which environmental sociology has much to contribute.
Scholarly observers and distinguished commentators estimate a window of a decade to resolve the pressing dilemmas between economic sufficiency and progress toward sustainability. In other words, the next decade is all the time that may realistically be available for profound changes to be made to the global and national economies, to societies and to governing arrangements, if humanity is to maintain its capacity to nurture and care for its global family for the rest of the century.
This suggests the need for unprecedented shifts in social and cultural practices —in the way markets work, in systems of education and in the operation of government. The challenge is magnified because these shifts may have to be put in place just when there are the least propitious economic, social and political circumstances for their acceptance.
This is a time of considerable challenge for the science community, the policy community, for business and civil society, and for government at all scales of action. We believe that this period of immense challenge offers a unique opportunity for social scientists generally, and environmental sociologists in particular, to make crucial contributions to the dialogue and practical action that will be necessary to create the transition to global sustainability. The goal of sustainability comprises a number of key objectives: the redistribution of global opportunities for wellbeing and of economic renaissance around renewable energy, localisation of food supplies and economies more generally, and the acceptance of peacefully managed migration and community cohesion.
Social sciences, and in particular environmental sociology, can contribute significantly to the process of social learning for sustainability, to identifying the social and political constraints that impede the necessary worldwide collaboration and societal transformations toward a viable world, and to unveiling the social-environmental inequalities that make present communities and global societies increasingly unsustainable. In this increasingly interconnected and risky world, transformations are not only needed in existing institutional designs, but also in the way current professional and academic practices are carried out.
As a concerned group of environmental sociologists, we suggest the following ways forward:
- To redouble our efforts to establish an integrated science of sustainability by working with all discipines of the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities to enable society and economy and governing institutions generally to make the necessary transition.
- To create plausible scenarios, narratives and policy pathways that are transformational and yet socially understood and acceptable to all cultures, and to assist communities worldwide in identifying their sustainable needs and creating paths to meeting those needs.
- To establish a better basis for evaluating the social justice and ecological implications of any policy shift, so that appropriate political attention and citizen commitments are made with full consideration to fair treatment and to ecological resilience.
- To work with a range of interested parties and stakeholders to devise forms of governing that are sensitive, robust and caring toward citizens, enabling them to adjust to the coming changes peacefully, effectively, and with confidence and self-respect.
- To create an educational revolution so that every child in the world knows how to live sustainably in their communities and so that all members of future populations understand and are trained to live sustainably and with a nourishing quality of life.
To this end, we suggest that the next World Forum for Sociology be held in Gothenburg, Sweden in September 2010 should address these issues and provide both space for discussion and for establishing and approving a plan of action.
This may take a number of forms:
- a full day of discussion led by environmental sociologists and incorporating a range of other interested parties, including politicians and civil leaders;
- special plenary sessions with not only social scientists, but also representatives from the natural sciences, arts, law, and the humanities, and
- workshops devoted to assessing the state of social science knowledge of sustainability and the contributions we can make to global discussions and deliberations concerning sustainability.
The goals in the coming months are to begin exploring such an agenda and to examine realistic possibilities for collaboration between the Research Committee on Environment and Society (RC 24),and other components of ISA and a range of public and private actors interested in promoting sustainability. A main goal should be to increase the educational and research capacity of social scientists worldwide to contribute to the achievement of sustainability, particularly in the form of specific research projects and open training programmes.