27 Mar

What’s this got to do with us?

Posted By polity_admin_user

First posted 30th October 2009

On 29 th  September, a powerful earthquake in the Pacific Ocean produced a tsunami (a large wave) that led to the deaths of more than 170 people in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, with many more injured. This was just the latest in a series of quakes in recent years including a 2006 earthquake in Northern Pakistan and the Kashmir region that killed more than 73,000 people, and another in the Sichuan province of China which caused 87,000 fatalities. In the past, such events would have been described as ‘natural disasters’, unavoidable and unrelated to human activity.

As the discipline that studies human societies and social life, sociology has had little interest in such devastating events either. Sociologists had their own concerns or ‘central problems’ inherited from the founding traditions (Is social inequality inevitable or can it be eliminated? What can governments do to solve social problems? Are religions in long-term decline? In what direction is modern society headed?). These very human issues (and many more) have been central to generations of sociologists and are the subject matter of sociology textbooks used to train future professional sociologists. But there is a strong case that they are not society’s central problems anymore, giving way to environmental issues such as global warming.

In this context, a question I’ve often been asked in relation to environmental issues appears legitimate: ‘what’s this got to do with us?’ Such a pithy query raises serious issues for twenty-first-century sociology. After all, what can sociologists bring to our understanding of environmental problems and natural disasters that environmental scientists cannot? We are not routinely trained in geology and the natural sciences. We are not experts in earthquake prediction, plate tectonics or meteorology. As sociologists, we are in the same position as all other ‘educated laypeople’. We can probably grasp the explanations and arguments made by natural scientists but we’re in no position to debate the scientific evidence on equal terms with them. Should we, then, simply leave environmental problems to natural scientists? I suggest that would risk making sociology irrelevant and therefore unattractive to future students. But it would also ensure that environmental problems are not tackled at source. 

Today we are more keenly aware of human–environment interactions and every ‘natural disaster’ is treated with suspicion, potentially the product of human activity. Global warming has risen to prominence as the central, global environmental issue of the day, and is widely seen as anthropogenic or human-caused, a consequence of large-scale industrial production. This conclusion has been arrived at by an overwhelming majority of environmental scientists who have studied an enormous body of evidence. But of course, these environmental scientists have no formal training in sociology or social science. Does that matter? Well, yes it does. It’s sociologists and social scientists that have developed theories and explanations of social change, industrial development, consumerism and capitalist economic development that are now identified as the underlying causal factors of global warming. One consequence of our mutual ignorance is that dealing with environmental issues today presents the academic community as a whole with a clear choice. We can continue to work in our comfortable separate fields, ignoring what goes on across the disciplinary garden fence, or we can find ways of working more closely together. I think the global scale of today’s major social and environmental problems demands we do the latter, however difficult it may be.  

And of course, if governments want to tackle the underlying social causes of environmental problems, then not only will they need natural scientists who understand what’s happening in the global natural environment, they’ll also need social scientists who understand social processes and can advise them on which policy proposals are most realistic, and therefore likely to be successful. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, set to start on 7th  December, will be seeking to reach a basic international agreement on a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005 (http://en.cop15.dk/). When the delegates to the Conference arrive, for the sake of a realistic and workable agreement, let’s hope that at least some of them are social scientists.

Philip W. Sutton

See Chapter 5 for environmental issues including global warming on pp. 175-84. Also see Chapter 2, pp. 33-44 for the debate on natural vs social sciences. There is also much relevant material on theories of social change in Chapter 3 and globalization on pp. 127-47.