Can we use public sociology to add new dimensions to climate change?
by Francesca Fiennes
Sociology isn’t necessarily the subject that comes to mind when people think of climate change, as it is often dictated by scientific knowledge. However, modern industrial societies cause climate change. We can begin to understand why. We also need to acknowledge the social effects climate change has, even if we do not see or feel these effects, someone, somewhere does. Whether it be farmers struggling through increasing drought, or families who have lost each other and their livelihoods in natural disasters, it is time to pay attention to the global community’s experience of climate change.
We are now moving into the Anthropocene, a new epoch where humans have monopolised the natural cycles of Earth, arguably making us the most invasive mammals upon environments. This has been influenced by a range of human activities such as: radioactive elements and chemical fertiliser changing geological records from 1950 onwards, and the rapid uptake of fossil fuel burning and subsequent sea level rise of the latter half of the 20th century. Our activity has had such an impact that plastic pollution and the result of exacerbated agriculture, such as the domesticated chicken, will define the fossil record of the Anthropocene. When examining climate change sociologically, it is necessary to trace sociological thought before 1950.
Sociological thought flows from modernity to issues born from it, such as industrialisation and capitalism. It has been concerned with the structure vs. agency debate, arguing whether we are dictated by the socialisation of social structure or we act as individual agents. As suggested by John Urry (2010), it is the nature of social life that is central to cause, consequences and mitigation involved in global heating. Society has been reconfigured based on the mobility offered to us. We can now purchase, consume, travel, work, socialise over such distances, within or external to ‘societies’ that we have developed an ‘experience economy’ (Pine and Gillmore, 1999). This has exacerbated the environmental impact of the individual.
Some sociologists argue that whilst we have greater mobility, in reality we have witnessed an endless project of growth, which Alan Schnaiberg (1989) determined as the ‘treadmill of production’. The consistent investment into technologies and labour employed by capitalism creates a treadmill effect. Others have advocated for Ecological Modernisation. This theory holds that modernisation in liberal democracies will eventually tend towards increasing sustainable development through innovation but not radical activism. The right type of growth needs to be promoted to satisfy both capitalist growth and ecological development and protection; still a capitalist ideal.
However, neither of these theories satisfy the gap in modern climate change discourses. Sherilyn Macgregor (2009) advocates for the need for feminist social research into climate change’s effects. She examines the “masculinisation of environmentalism”, whereby conversations occur in masculine domains and don’t aptly consider the “feminisation of poverty”, whereby it is women who deal with the brunt of climate change issues. She opens an interesting conversation into the consequences of climate change hurting the poorest. Community empowerment and gendered approaches could suggest finding solutions. However, Western capitalist societies need to take responsibility for their contributions to climate change whilst not directly receiving the environmental degradation they are causing, based on geographic ‘luck’.
With leaders such as Donald Trump denouncing its existence, it can seem that the radical dialogue around climate change is fading. However, one can argue that strides in the right directions have been made. The UN declared a meat-free diet is more sustainable for the world, advocating veganism. Meat eating contributes more to ‘global warming’ than transport, which documentaries such as Cowspiracy address. This has been left out of the conversation of significant causes of climate change. Social media responds aptly to the missing dialogue. An example of such response is the Climate Collective, who share individual voices concerning climate change, providing an accessible platform for those in need of a new representation of the individual’s experience of it.
Ultimately we have to understand capitalism as a driver of climate change. As sociologists, we must be aware of processes that prioritise growth and profit over sustainability. We need a drastic reduction in our consumption and production in order to, at the very least, slow down environmental degradation and climate change. We further need to recognise the privilege of living in Western industrialised societies in contrast to places like Bangladesh where rising sea levels prevent a deadly, daily threat. For future research, we can examine how climate change might affect existing social structures, and how agents will mobilise together to bring about the changes needed.
MacGregor, S. (2009). A Stranger Silence Still: The Need for Feminist Social Research on Climate Change. The Sociological Review., 57(2), 124-140
Schnaiberg, A. (1980). The environment: From surplus to scarcity. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Urry, J. (2009). Sociology and Climate Change. The Sociological Review., 57(2), 84-100.