Human Ecology and Environmental Analysis
With the growing awareness of the critical environmental problems facing the world today, ecology, the scientific study of the complex web of interdependent relationships in ecosystems, has moved to the center stage of academic and public discourse. The term ecology comes from the Greek word oikos (‘‘house’’) and, significantly, has the same Greek root as the word economics, from oikonomos (‘‘household manager’’). Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who coined the word ecology in 1868, viewed ecology as a body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature, highlighting its roots in economics and evolutionary theory. He defined ecology as the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.
Ecologists like to look at the environment as an ecosystem of interlocking relationships and exchanges that constitute the web of life. Populations of organisms occupying the same environment (habitat) are said to constitute a community. Together, the communities and their abiotic environments constitute an ecosystem. The various ecosystems taken together constitute the ecosphere, the largest ecological unit. Living organisms exist in the much narrower range of the biosphere, which extends a few hundred feet above the land or under the sea. On its fragile film of air, water, and soil, all life depends. For the sociologist, the most important ecological concepts are diversity and dominance, competition and cooperation, succession and adaptation, evolution and expansion, and carrying capacity and the balance of nature. Over the years, the human ecological, the neo-Malthusian, and the political economy approaches and their variants have come to characterize the field of human ecology.
Classical Human Ecology
The Chicago sociologists Louis Wirth, Robert Ezra Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick McKenzie are recognized as the founders of the human ecological approach in sociology. In the early decades of the twentieth century, American cities were passing through a period of great turbulence due to the effects of rapid industrialization and urbanization. The urban commercial world, with its fierce competition for territory and survival, appeared to mirror the very life-world studied by plant ecologists. In their search for the principles of order, human ecologists turned to the fundamental process of cooperative competition and its two dependent ecological principles of dominance and succession. For classical human ecologists, such as Park (1936), these processes determine the distribution of population and the location and limits of residential areas. City development is then understood in terms of succession—an orderly series of invasion—resistance—succession cycles in the course of which a biotic community moves from a relatively unstable (primary) to a more or less permanent (climax) stage. If resistance fails and the local population withdraws, the neighborhood eventually turns over and the local group is succeeded by the invading social, economic, or racial population. Each individual and every community thus finds its appropriate niche in the physical and living environment. In the hands of the classical human ecologists, human ecology became synonymous with the ecology of space. Park and Burgess identified the natural areas of land use, which come into existence without a preconceived design. Quite influential and popular for a while was the ‘‘Burgess hypothesis’’ regarding the spatial order of the city as a series of concentric zones emanating from the central business district. However, Hawley (1984) has pointed out that with urban characteristics now diffused throughout society, one in effect deals with a system of cities in which the urban hierarchy is cast in terms of functional rather than spatial relations.
Since competition among humans is regulated by culture, Park (1936) made a distinction between the biotic and cultural levels of society: above the symbiotic society based upon competition stands the cultural society based upon communication and consensus. Park identified the problematic of human ecology as the investigation of the processes by which biotic balance and social equilibrium are maintained by the interaction of the three factors constituting what he termed the social complex (population, technological culture [artifacts], and nonmaterial culture [customs and beliefs]), to which he also added a fourth, the natural resources of the habitat. However, while human ecology is here defined as the study of how the interaction of these elements helps maintain or disrupts the biotic balance and the social equilibrium, human agency and the cultural level are left out of consideration by Park and other human ecologists.
Neoclassical Human Ecology
Essentially the same factors reappear as the four POET variables (population, organization, environment, and technology) in Otis Dudley Duncan’s (1964) ecological complex, indicating its point of contact with the early human ecological approach. In any case, it was McKenzie who, by shifting attention from spatial relations to the analysis of sustenance relations, provided the thread of continuity between the classical and the neoclassical approaches. His student Amos Hawley, who has been the ‘‘exemplar’’ of neoclassical human ecology since the 1940s, defines human ecology as the attempt to deal holistically with the phenomenon of organization.
Hawley (1986) views the ecosystem as the adaptive mechanism that emerges out of the interaction of population, organization, and the environment. Organization is the adaptive form that enables a population to act as a unit. The process of system adaptation involves members in relations of interdependence in order to secure sustenance from the environment. Growth is the development of the system’s inner potential to the maximum size and complexity afforded by the existing technology for transportation and communication. Evolution is the creation of greater potential for resumption of system development through the incorporation of new information that enhances the capacity for the movement of people, materials, and messages. In this manner, the system moves from simple to more complex forms.
Hawley (1984) has identified the following propositions, which affirm the interdependence of the demographic and structural factors, as constituting the core of the human ecological paradigm:
The four ecological principles of interdependence, key function, differentiation, and dominance define the processes of system functioning and change. A system is viewed as made up of functioning parts that are related to one another. Adaptation to the environment involves the development of interdependence among members, which increases their collective capacity for action. Differentiation then allows human populations to restore the balance between population and environment that has been upset by competition or improvements in communication and transportation technologies. As adaptation proceeds through a differentiation of environmental relationships, one or a few functions come to mediate environmental inputs to all other functions. Since power follows function in Hawley’s view, dominance attaches to those units that control the flow of sustenance into the ecosystem. The productivity of the key function, which controls the flow of sustenance, determines the extent of functional differentiation. As a result, the dominant units in the system are likely to be economic rather than political.
Since the environment is always in a state of flux, every social system is continuously subject to change. Change alters the life condition of all participants, an alteration to which they must adapt in order to remain in the system. One of the most significant nonrecurrent alterations is cumulative change, involving both endogenous and exogenous changes as complementary phases of a single process. While evolution implies a movement from simple to complex, proceeding through variation and natural selection, cumulative change refers to an increase in scale and complexity as a result of increases in population and territory. Whether the process leads to growth or evolution depends on the concurrent nature of the advances in scale and complexity.
Generalizing the process of cumulative change as a principle of expansion, Hawley (1979, 1986) applies this framework to account for growth phases that intervene between stages of development. When scale and complexity advance together, the normal conditions for growth or expansion arise from the colonization process itself. Expansion, driven by increases in population and in knowledge, involves the growth of a center of activity from which dominance is exercised. The evolution of the system takes place when its scale and complexity do not go hand in hand. Change is resumed as the system acquires new items of information, especially those that reduce the costs of movement away from its environment. Thus an imbalance between population and the carrying capacity of the environment may create external pressures for branching off into colonies and establishing niches in a new environment. Since efficiencies in transportation and communication determine the size of a population, the scope of territorial access, and the opportunity for participation in information flows, Hawley (1979) identifies the technology of movement as the most critical variable. In addition to governing accessibility and, therefore, the spread of settlements and the creation of interaction networks among them, it determines the changes in hierarchy and division of labor. In general, the above process can work on any scale and is limited only by the level of development of the technologies of communication and transportation.
Hawley (1986, pp. 104–106) points out how with the growth of a new regional and international division of labor, states now draw sustenance from a single biophysical environment and are converted to subsystems in a more inclusive world system by the expansive process. In this way, free trade and resocialization of cultures create a far more efficient and cost-effective global reach. The result is a global system thoroughly interlinked by transportation and communication networks. The key positions in this international network are occupied by the technologically advanced nations with their monopoly of information and rich resource bases. However, as larger portions of system territories are brought under their jurisdiction, the management of scale becomes highly problematic. In the absence of a supranational polity, a multipolar international pecking order is then subject to increasing instability, challenge, and change. With mounting costs of administration, the system again tends to return to scale, resulting in some degree of decentralization and local autonomy, but new information and improvements in the technologies of movement put the system back into gear and start the growth process all over again. In the modern period of ‘‘ecological transition,’’ a large portion of the biophysical environment has progressively come under the control of the social system. Hawley, therefore, believes that the growth of social systems has now reached a point at which the evolutionary model has lost its usefulness in explaining cumulative change.
Hawley points out that while expansionism in the past relied on political domination, its modern variant aims at structural convergence along economic and cultural axes to obviate the need for direct rule by the center. The process of modernization and the activities of multinational corporations are a prime example of this type of system expansion, which undermines traditional modes of life and results in the loss of autonomy and sovereignty by individual states. Convergence of divergent patterns of urbanization is brought about by increased economic interdependence among nations and the development of compatible organizational forms and institutional arrangements. This approach, as Wilson (1984, p. 300) points out, is based on the assumption that convergence is mainly a result of market forces that allow countries to compete in the world on an equal basis. He cites evidence that shows how the subordinate status of non-Western nations has hindered their socioeconomic development, sharpened inequalities, increased rural-to-urban migration and rural– urban disparities, and led to the expansion of squatter settlements.
Human ecological theory accounts for the existence of an international hierarchy in terms of functional differences and the operation of its universal principles of ecosystem domination and expansion. Quite understandably, underdevelopment is defined by Hawley simply in terms of inferiority in this network. Since not all can enjoy equal position on scales of size, resources, and centrality with respect to information flows, Hawley believes that the resulting ‘‘inequality among polities might well be an unavoidable condition of an international division of labor, whether built on private or state capitalist principles’’ (1986, pp. 106, 119).
As the process moves toward a world system, all the limiting conditions of cumulative change are reasserted at a higher level. On the one hand, a single world order with only a small tolerance for errors harbors the seeds of totalitarianism (Giddens 1990). On the other, there is also the grave danger that a fatal error may destroy the whole system. Human ecologists, however, rely on further expansion as the sure remedy for the problems created by expansion. To restore ecological balance, they put their faith in the creation of value consensus, rational planning, trickle-downs, market mechanisms, technological fixes and breakthroughs, native ‘‘know-how,’’ and sheer luck.
The real irony of this relentless global expansion elaborated by Hawley lies, however, in the coexistence of the extreme opulence and affluence of the few with the stark poverty and misery of the majority at home and abroad. The large metropolitan centers provide a very poor quality of life. The very scale of urban decay underscores the huge problems facing the city—congestion, polluted air, untreated sewage, high crime rates, dilapidated housing, domestic violence, and broken lives. One therefore needs to ask: What prospect does this scale and level of complexity hold for the future?
Human Ecology and the Problematics of "Chaos"
Chaos theory is the latest attempt to unravel the hidden structure in apparently random systems and to handle chaos within and between systems. In this view, order and disorder (chaos) are seen as two dimensions of the same process: Order generates chaos and chaos generates order (Baker 1993, p. 123). At the heart of both lies a dynamic element, an ‘‘attractor,’’ that creates the turbulence as well as re-creates the order. In the human–social realm, Baker has identified center–periphery, or centriphery, as the attractor. Baker, however, uses the concepts of center and periphery more broadly to cover not only their application in the dependency approach (which views the exploitation and impoverishment of the non-Western peripheral societies as basic to the rise of the dominant Western capitalist center), but also to carry the connotation of humans as ‘‘world-constructors.’’ Centriphery is, then, the universal dynamic process that creates both order and disorder, as well as accounts for the pattern of human social evolution. The center has an entropic effect on the periphery, causing increasing randomness and denuding it of its resources. But as the entropic effects mount, they are fed back to the center. Beyond a certain point, the costs of controlling the periphery become prohibitive. Should the center fail to come up with new centering strategies, it may split off into subcenters or be absorbed by another more powerful center. Baker is thus led to conclude that ‘‘although the effect of feedback is unpredictable, the iteration of a pattern leads to turbulence. The mechanism for change and evolution are endemic to the centriphery process’’ (Baker 1993, p. 141).
Several things need to be noted about this approach. For one, since these eruptive episodes are random, ‘‘the emergence of repeated patterns . . . must be seen as random . . . not as mechanically predictable occurrences. Among other things, the precise character of the emergent pattern cannot be predicted, even though we would no longer be surprised to find a new thing emerging’’ (Francis 1993, p. 239). For another, Baker’s centriphery theory is essentially Hawley’s human ecological theory recast in the language of chaos theory, with the important difference that a specific reference is now made both to the role of agency as ‘‘world-constructors’’ involved in ‘‘categorizing, controlling, dominating, manipulating, absorbing, transforming, and so on,’’ and to their devastating impact on the peripheralized ‘‘others,’’ the victims of progress, who suffer maximum entropy, exploitation, impoverishment, death, and devastation. Even so, Baker’s is the latest, though undoubtedly unintended, attempt to generalize and rationalize Western expansionism and its ‘‘chaotic (unpredictable) . . . devastating, and now increasingly well known, impact on native peoples’’ (Baker 1993, p. 137). As such, the centriphery process, said to explain both order (stability) and disorder (change), is presented not only as evolutionary and irreversible, but also as natural and universal: ‘‘Thus, the Western world became a center through the peripheralization of the non-Western world. And within the Western world, particularly in North America, the city, which peripheralized the rural hinterland, became the megapolis whose peripheralizing effects were simultaneously wider and greater.’’ (p. 136)]
Not only the recurrent iteration of this pattern but even its ‘‘unpredictable’’ outcomes (new strategies of control, splitting off into new subcenters, absorption into a larger center, etc.), are also prefigured in Hawley (1986). Its process is expansion, and its ‘‘attractor’’ is none other than the old master principle of sociology: domination or control (Gibbs 1989). While Friedmann and Wolff (1982) characterize world cities as the material manifestation of the control functions of transnational capital in its attempt to organize the world for the efficient extraction of surplus, Lechner (1985) leaves little doubt that Western ‘‘[materialism] and the emphasis on man’s relation to nature are not simply analytical or philosophical devices, but are logically part of an effort to restore world-mastery’’ (p. 182).
Since the study of organizational dynamics as well as the structure and dynamics of population are at the core of sociology, Namboodiri (1988) claims that rather than being peripheral to sociology, human ecology and demography constitute its core. As a result, he contends that the hybrid ‘‘ecological demography’’ promises a more systematic and comprehensive handling of a common core of sociological problems—such as the analysis of power relations, conflict processes, social stratification, societal evolution, and the like— than any other competing sociological paradigm. However, although human ecologists recognize the possibility of other pairwise interactions in addition to competition, and even highlight the points of convergence between the human ecological and the Marxist point of view (Hawley 1984), human ecology as such does not directly focus on conflict in a central way. In this connection, Namboodiri (1988) points out how the very expansionist imperative of human and social systems, identified as a central postulate by human ecologists, generates the possibility of conflict between the haves and the have-nots far more in a milieu of frustrated expectations, felt injustice, and a growing awareness of entitlements, which includes claims to their own resources by nations and to a higher standard of living by deprived populations. How these factors affect the development of and distribution of resources and the relationships among populations by sex, race, ethnicity, and other stratifiers should obviously be of concern to a socially responsible human ecology, one that moreover should be responsive to Borgatta’s call for a ‘‘proactive sociology’’ (1989, 1996).
The general neglect of cultural factors and the role of norms and agency in human and organizational interaction has also been a cause for concern to many sociologists. While some latitude is provided for incorporating social norms in specific analyses (e.g., in the relationship between group membership and fertility behavior), their macroorientation and focus on whole populations compels human ecologists and demographers to ignore the role of the subjective values and purposes of individual actors in ecological and demographic processes (Namboodiri 1988, pp. 625–627).
The Human Ecological Approach: An Evaluation
While the human ecological approach has strong theoretical underpinnings and proven heuristic value in describing Western expansionism and the colonizing process in supposedly objective terms, its central problem is one of ideology. Like structural functionalism, it is a theory of the status quo that supports existing institutions and arrangements by explaining them as the outcome of invariant principles: ‘‘Its concerns are the concerns of the dominant groups in society—it talks about maximizing efficiency but has nothing to say about increasing accountability, it talks of maintaining equilibrium through gradual change and readjustment and rules out even the possibility of fundamental restructuring’’ (Saunders 1986, pp. 80–81). Not surprisingly, human ecologists downplay the role of social class by subsuming it under the abstract concept of a ‘‘categoric unit.’’ They also fail to analyze the role of the state and of the interlocking power of the political, military, and economic establishment, which are centrally involved in the process of expansion and colonization of peoples and cultures. These omissions account for their total lack of concern for the fate of the ‘‘excluded others’’ and the ‘‘dark side of expansionism’’: colonial exploitation, war, genocide, poverty, pollution, environmental degradation, and ecological destruction. Hutchinson (1993) blames the human ecologists for neglecting or downplaying the role of socioeconomic practices and government policies in creating rental, economic resource, and other differentials. He claims that their analyses tend to be descriptive because they take for granted the existence of phenomena such as socioeconomic or racial and ethnic segregation rather than looking at them in terms of spatial processes that result from the competition between capital and labor.
Environmental Sociology and the New Human Ecology
The mounting public concern since the 1970s about fuel shortages, oil spills, nuclear power plant accidents, acid rain, dying lakes, urban smog, famine and death in the Sahel, rainforest destruction, and the like has made social scientists realize that overexploitation of the ecosystem may destroy the very basis of our planetary survival. Many environmentalists have blamed the voracious appetite of industrial societies and their obsession with growth for the destruction of the fragile balance among the components of the ecological complex.
Having encountered a seemingly unlimited frontier and an expanding economy, the West has come to believe that expansion is in the nature of things. A major reason for the neglect of the physical environment by American sociologists has, therefore, been the anti-ecological worldview of the dominant social paradigm that has been shaped by this belief. At the same time, the exaggerated emphasis by human ecologists on culture, science, and technology as ‘‘exceptional’’ human achievements has led to the illusion that humans are ‘‘exempt’’ from bioecological constraints to which all species are subject. This awareness has led Catton and Dunlap (1978) to develop the fields of new human ecology (Buttel 1987) and environmental sociology to deal with the reciprocal interaction between human activities and the physical environment. They believe that the POET model, broadened to include the role of human agency and culture, provides a useful analytical framework for grounding environmental sociology in the ecological perspective.
In a comprehensive review of the new field, Buttel (1987) has pressed for shifting the focus of environmental sociology from the imbalance of population and resources, emphasized by Catton, to the reality of the unequal distribution of these resources. Allan Schnaiberg’s idea of the ‘‘treadmill of production’’ (1980), which emerges from a dialectical relationship between economic growth and ecological structures, points to the need to focus on production institutions as the primary determinants of economic expansion and to incorporate a conflict dimension in environmental analysis. Buttel’s own work in environmental sociology draws on the ‘‘political economy tradition’’ of the neo-Marxists and the neo-Weberians. Catton’s major contributions, on the other hand, are in the neo-Malthusian tradition. While the problem of order created by the harsh realities of industrial life and expansionism had earlier defined the central problematic of sociology and human ecology, the problem of survival now defines the central problematic of environmental sociology and the neo-Malthusian new human ecology: to the earlier question of how social order is possible is now added the more urgent concern with survival itself.
The Political Economy Approach and the New Urban Sociology
The conservative nature of the classical and neoclassical human ecology paradigms has also come under attack from theorists who focus on the internal contradictions and the global reach of capitalism to understand urban phenomena.
Smith (1995) has argued that a new urban sociology paradigm, which draws on neo-Marxist sociological theory, urban political economy, dependency theory, world-system analysis, and critical theory, has now become dominant and largely supplanted human ecology and the old urban sociology approach to the study of urban phenomena. The conflict between the two approaches is an aspect of the old conflict between the structural-functional and the neo-Marxist (conflict) perspectives in the field of sociology generally. Whereas human ecology’s main concern is with how technological change enables population aggregates to adapt to their environment through changes in social and spatial organization, the new perspective underplays the role of technological determinants or functional imperatives in shaping the urban landscape. It focuses instead on social inequality and conflict, and highlights the role of economic and political elites, states and other institutional actors, and powerful global forces in order to analyze the problematic ‘‘underside’’ of modern city life: urban poverty, housing segregation by race and social class, urban fiscal crises, deindustrialization, structured inequality in the built environment, and the massive level of human misery associated with the rapid growth of megacities in the Third World (Smith 1995, p. 432.) The new approach looks at urban growth within the context of the international division of labor engendered by the global reach of the expansionary logic of competitive capitalism. This process, which translates aspects of competitive capitalism into geographic space, involves ‘‘the creation and destruction of land and built environments we term ‘cities.’ [Moreover,] this leads to concentrations and locational shifts of human populations, infrastructure, and buildings within the urban landscape (resulting in suburbs, neighborhoods, slums, etc.)’’ (Feagin 1988, p. 23, quoted in Smith 1995, p. 438).
A ‘‘new urban paradigm’’ in the political economy tradition has been put forward by Gottdiener and Feagin (1988) as an alternative to the human ecological and the expansionist paradigms discussed earlier. Rather than treating societies as mere population aggregates or as unified biotic communities, the new urban paradigm treats them as specified by their mode of production. In this view, crisis tendencies and profit generation constitute the core of societal development, which is seen as dominated by the process of capital accumulation. Thus, to take one example, conventional human ecologists like to regard central-city restructuring as a consequence of adaptation to increasing population size and the growing complexity of social organization. They then relate these changes to the size of the metropolitan hinterland. The new urban paradigm, on the other hand, emphasizes the impact of the global economy, multinational corporations, the shift to functional specialization in world-system financial and administrative activities, the constant subsidization by the state, the efforts of pro-growth coalitions, and changes in labor-force requirements leading to some renovation and central-city gentrification. It tends to focus on power and inequality, the production and reproduction of capital accumulation, crisis adjustment in sociospatial organizations, and such other processes. The following are some of the basic questions that the new urban sociology paradigm seeks to answer: What is the character of power and inequality? How do they relate to ‘‘ecological’’ patterns? How do production and reproduction processes of capital accumulation, as well as the processes of crisis adjustment, manifest themselves in sociospatial organization?
The Crisis of the New Urban Sociology
However, having apparently supplanted human ecology, the new urban sociology itself appears to be in a state of deep crisis (Hutchinson 1993). Among other things, many of its practitioners are now claiming that the new urban sociology lacks a paradigm equivalent to that of human ecology; that its contribution is critical rather than substantive; that its viewpoint is far more ideological than empirical; and that it lacks a unifying focus, there being as many new urban sociologies as there are its practitioners (La Gory 1993, p. 113). At the same time, while asserting that ‘‘what is most salient about the new approach is . . . its direct challenge to the theory and method of ecology,’’ Gottdiener and Feagin (1988) deride the attempt ‘‘to pick and choose from some of the new literature . . . areas of compatibility, thereby turning the new approach into a mere footnote of the old’’ (p. 167). However, in view of the inadequacy of both approaches, La Gory (1993) suggests the use of network analysis as the preferred strategy for devising a revised urban paradigm that is informed by both the strengths and shortcomings of these two perspectives. And noting the considerable conceptual convergence between the two approaches, Smith (1995) argues for a synthesized urban theory that will require the fleshing out of Hawley’s theory of social organization, technology, and population distributions by incorporating the contributions of the new urban theory regarding the nature and content of the global competitive capitalist system. Thus, Smith claims that while the new urban sociology can provide human ecology with a better understanding of power and dominance and how class interests play a central role in shaping urbanization, human ecology can help the new urban theory pay more attention to the demographic processes and variables in order to develop a theory of demographic change under global capitalism.
Eco-catastrophe and Environmental Collapse
Industrial and industrializing nations are now beset with more or less the same devastating problems of air, land, and water pollution and environmental destruction. Large numbers of lakes and rivers that were not naturally eutrophic have now become so as a result of pollution and chemical runoffs. In the United States, Love Canal and Times Beach, Missouri, made headlines in the 1980s as much as Chernobyl did in 1986 in the Soviet Union. Sulfur dioxide emissions from industrial and power plants cause acid rain that inflicts irreparable damage on buildings, monuments, marine life, trees, and plants. More than 60,000 synthetic chemicals are now on the market, of which a sizable number contaminate the environment and pose health hazards. Over half a million tons of toxic wastes are produced each year in the United States, while the five-year cost of cleaning nuclear waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, may well exceed $30 billion. The soil, lake water, and groundwater near nuclear power and weapons plants are heavily contaminated with such toxins as mercury, arsenic, and many types of solvents, as well as with deadly radioactive materials such as plutonium, tritium, and strontium-90. The contamination is so bad in eight states that huge tracts of land are said to be totally unfit for human habitation and pose serious health hazards for the surrounding communities. The siting of dump sites in minority communities and the international shipment of hazardous waste to non-Western nations raise serious issues of environmental justice. With an annual production of solid waste that doubled between 1960 and the late 1990s to nearly 225 million tons, the United States is producing more garbage than any other nation in the world and will soon be facing a huge problem of disposal as its 2,300 landfills run out of room and their leachates pose serious threats of toxicity.
The environmental destruction is far more serious and widespread in eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union. These countries are the sites of some of the world’s worst pollution. Lakes and rivers are dead or dying. Water is so contaminated in some areas that it is undrinkable. Chemical runoff and sewage and wastewater dumping have created serious groundwater contamination. Lignite (brown coal), the major source of energy for industry and homes in some of these nations, is responsible for the heavy concentration of sulfur dioxide and dust in the air that has caused serious respiratory problems and additional health damage. The hazecovered cities are an environmental disaster. According to Worldwatch estimates, the former Soviet Union alone accounted for a fifth each of global carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions—the former are implicated in global warming; the latter are the principal ingredient of acid rain. These environmental problems thus not only span transboundaries, they also cut across ideological labels.
In non-Western nations, a million people suffer acute poisoning and 20,000 persons die every year from pesticides. Pesticides are a major source of environmental and health problems in the United States as well. But the United States alone exports more than half a billion pounds of pesticides that are restricted in or banned from domestic use. The ecology, natural environment, and resources of these non-Western nations are being destroyed and contaminated at a frightening rate. Irreversible damage is being done by large-scale destruction of rainforests and the intensive use of marginal lands, as well as by the imbalances that result from population pressures and the practices of multinational firms and national elites. Desertification now threatens a third of the earth’s land surface. Poverty, hunger, starvation, famine, and death are endemic throughout much of the world.
Relation between Population and the Environment
What lends urgency to the current population– resource crisis for the West is the fact that while human numbers are declining or standing still at most in industrial societies, they are increasing disproportionately in the rest of the world, a world divided today not only economically and sociopolitically, but also demographically. The technological mastery of the world has resulted in a higher material standard of living in the West, but it has also spelled economic polarization, ecological ruin, and environmental disasters worldwide. At the same time, hunger, famine, poverty, and overpopulation in the rest of the world have raised critical issues of equity, justice, security, and human survival. While the close link among poverty, population growth, and environmental degradation is invariably highlighted by the neo-Malthusians and the media, the impact of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production on the environment does not receive equal emphasis. Much more disconcerting is the fact that the use of the population argument tends to divert attention away from the role of exploitative and oppressive social institutions and arrangements. Schnaiberg and Gould (1994) find the lack of control over industrial production systems rather than population growth to be the main factor contributing to the underdevelopment of Southern societies. Without minimizing the danger of overpopulation, they find clear historical evidence that the worldwide environmental disruption has been caused not by population growth but by the enormous expansion of production, profits, and surplus in the past century. And based on available evidence, Humphrey and Buttel (1982) have been led to conclude that ‘‘[one] of the most important findings to come from the study of the relationship between population size and the environment is the misplaced importance given to world population size as cause of natural resource scarcities and pollution . . . . [We do not] imply that world population growth should be . . . neglected as a cause of environmental problems, [but] a fixation on it as the major reason for pollution and energy crises would be sociologically misguided’’ (p. 60).
Depending on their consensus or conflict orientation, we find that the dominant perspectives on the population–resource dynamic place differential emphasis on the alternative modes of resolving competition over scarce resources. In this respect, the modern division of labor, highlighted by Durkheim, is but one of several modes of resolving competition over scarce resources. Schnore (1965, pp. 12–13) offers a number of alternative survival strategies, which may involve one or a combination of the following:
For human ecology, the most salient aspect of the population–environment relationship is the way it affects human survival and the quality of human life. Under the impact of the interlocking crises of overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation, issues of sustainability and survival have come to occupy center stage. Corresponding to the main approaches in human ecology, three broad positions may be identified for discussion: the pro-growth (expansionist), the neo-Malthusian, and the political economy perspectives. Our discussion of these positions is followed by a consideration of the Brundtland Report, issued by the World Commission on Environment and Development, and of the traditional- Gandhian view of the ecological crisis. Extended treatment of the issues involved may be found in Catton (1980), de la Court (1990), Humphrey and Buttel (1982), Mellos (1988), and Schnaiberg and Gould (1994).
To explain the growth patterns of modern society, this approach builds on the foundations of ‘‘the new synthetic theory developed in the biological sciences in the last forty years, . . . mixing in elements of neo-Malthusian theory, Marx’s historical materialism, and modern systems theory’’ (Lenski 1979, p. 14). It seems quite likely, however, that the basic elements of expansionism, now presented as a natural universal process, were derived from the fundamental American experience of abundance and an open frontier conceived as a process. As Avery O. Craven (1937) put it more than sixty years ago, the basic idea was ‘‘that American history . . . presents a series of recurring social evolutions in diverse geographical areas as a people advance to colonize a continent. The chief characteristic is expansion; the chief peculiarity of institutions, constant readjustment . . . . Into . . . raw and differing areas men and institutions and ideas poured from older basins, there to return to a more or less primitive state and then to climb slowly back toward complexity . . . . The process was similar in each case, with some common results but always with ‘essential differences’ due to time and place’’ (quoted in Potter 1954, p. 145–146.)
In expansionist thinking, scale, complexity, and acceleration—that is, the constant broadening of the limits of the maximum permitted by prevailing circumstances—mark the human–environment encounter. Hawley’s version of human ecology, with its focus on population growth and differentiation as significant processes of continuous change, provides a concise exposition of the pro-growth or expansionist view on the population– resource problematic. Hawley believes that industrial systems have no known upper limits on either the number of specializations or the size of the populations that can be supported. Similar pro-growth sentiments are expressed by other expansionist thinkers. Asserting that resource supplies are finite but unbounded, Hawley (1986, pp. 110–111) questions the neo-Malthusian assumption that overpopulation and overuse will soon exhaust a declining supply of fixed resources. While acknowledging the threat of overpopulation and pollution to the quality of the environment, he points to the inherently expansive nature of populations, technology, and organization that has resulted in a long history of resource expansion through more efficient extraction and use of new and existing resources, new resource development, and resource substitutions. With regard to global food-producing resources, he presents evidence to show that the size of arable land, its productivity, and its agricultural output can be increased beyond the rate of population growth. He blames poverty and the structural conditions that generate it for the chronic food shortages in parts of the world and points to the indispensability of further increments of growth and the creation of central organizations capable of tackling these and other environmental problems. Contrary to the view of the Malthusians, he holds that the expansive power of populations by itself does not cause war, resource depletion, or environmental degradation; it does so only under specific organizational circumstances. Hawley (1986, p. 26) views these outcomes as the result of the maladaptation or malfunctioning of organization, with disequilibrium opening the possibility for evolutionary change through a movement to a higher level of complexity.
While Colin Clark directly links population numbers to power, Herman Kahn (1974) views population increase as a necessary stimulus to economic growth and believes the earth can easily support 15 billion people at $20,000 per capita for a millennium. In fact, he believes that the wider the gap between the rich and the poor, the more the riches will percolate downward. In any case, he is unconvinced that the rich would agree to part with their income to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth. Roger Revelle (1974) believes the earth can actually support nearly thirty times the present population in terms of food supplies and that it would take almost 150 years to hit that mark. While economic development is necessary to provide people with the basis to control their fertility, Revelle is certain the world would drown in its own filth if most of the people in the world were to live at Western standards. Finally, the postindustrial sociologist Daniel Bell (1977) is convinced that economic growth is necessary to reduce the gap between the rich and poor nations. He has little doubt that the ‘‘super-productivity society,’’ with less than 4 percent of its labor force devoted to agriculture, could feed the whole population of the United States, and most of the world as well. In his opinion, pollution exists because the market principle has never been applied to the use of collective goods. Actually, Bell suggests that the government itself could utilize the market to demand a public accounting from all parties on issues of public interest, levy effluent charges for pollutants, and bring effective compliance through the price mechanism.
However, while corporations have shown greater sensitivity and self-regulation, there is evidence that attempts to enforce the ‘‘polluter-pays’’ principle are likely to be resisted or the costs passed on to the public. The negative impact of governmental policies that alleviate energy and resource scarcities is more likely to be felt at the lower socioeconomic levels (Morrison 1976). Dunlap (1979) presents evidence to show that the effects of pollution and the costs of cleaning the environment are borne disproportionately by the poor and may actually serve to reinforce class inequalities.
Within the context of actual and perceived resource scarcities worldwide, neo-Malthusianism has gained ascendance since the 1970s over the earlier theories of demographic transition and neoclassical human ecology (expansionism), which were dominant through the 1960s. Based on the Malthusian notion that population invariably outruns food supply because of a lag between the simple arithmetical increases in resources and the exponential rates of population growth, the neo-Malthusians bring in the notion of carrying capacity to identify overpopulation as the main threat to human planetary survival. However, in spite of the fact that there is no exact or objective formula for determining the optimum population, the neo-Malthusians tie in the notion of carrying capacity—the optimum population that a given environmental resource base can support at a given time—with the idea of an acceptable quality of life that one insists on living. Sometimes the theory of demographic transition, discussed below, is also invoked to explain why Western societies have been able to avoid the Malthusian apocalypse by joining declining death rates and birthrates with increasing standards of living, while non-Western societies cannot, given the least likelihood of their ever achieving Western levels of industrial and economic development, and the sheer impossibility of the whole world living at U.S. standards within the constraints imposed by the finite nature of the earth’s resources (Daly 1979).
Compounding the environmental effects of the poverty-stricken and ‘‘food-hungry’’ populations of the world are the impacts of massive consumption and pollution by the ‘‘energy hungry’’ nations (Miller 1972, p. 117). The latter rise sharply with even a slight growth in the population of Western nations, where one-quarter of the world’s population is responsible for more than 85 percent of worldwide consumption of natural resources and the environmental sinks. Within the United States, a bare 6 percent of the world’s population consumes more than half of the world’s nonrenewable resources and more than a third of all the raw materials produced. G. Tyler Miller, Jr. (1972, p. 122) believes that the real threat to our life-support system, therefore, comes not from the poor but from the affluent megaconsumers and megapolluters who occupy more space, consume more natural resources, disturb the ecology more, and directly and indirectly pollute the land, air, and water with ever-increasing amounts of thermal, chemical, and radioactive wastes. While the Club of Rome (Meadows et al. 1972) and the other neo-Malthusians gave a grace period of thirty or so years, Catton (1980) believes we have already overshot the maximum carrying capacity and are now on a catastrophic downward crash course. In any case, he is convinced that our best bet would be to act as if a crash were imminent and to take advance measures to minimize its impact.
However, the basic premises of Malthusian theory have not stood the test of time. With each technological breakthrough, the Western nations have so far been able to raise their carrying capacity through extending their territorial and environmental reach, which now reaches to the ends of the globe. The social and economic forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution not only telescoped the doubling of human population within a shorter time span, they also brought about ever-rising material standards of living due to astronomical increases in the scale and speed of agricultural and industrial production in the advanced nations. While the Malthusian theory predicts the fall in growth rates of population as a result of rising death rates, this prediction failed to apply during the period of industrial growth. The theory of demographic transition was proposed to cover the anomalous results. The theory specifies declining fertility as a consequence of modernization and economic development. However, in the West itself, smaller families became a clear option only after the newly affluent had suffered a major setback in higher living standards during the Great Depression. On the other hand, the downward transition of fertility worldwide appears to be the result of a complex of factors, including the declining role of tradition and religion, rising levels of income, the increasing role of women’s education and outside employment, urban residence and industrialization, and the awareness and availability of fertility-control measures (Weinstein 1976, p. 85). Many of the generalizations based on the demographic-transition theory have thus proved to be culturally and historically specific.
At the same time, the ‘‘development’’ of poor nations has created a new set of claimants for the resources needed to maintain the high material standard of living of affluent nations. As the poor nations begin to assert control over their own resources, try to set terms of their exchange, or resist outside pressures to transform them into ‘‘environmental preserves’’ or the ‘‘global commons,’’ the prospects of conflict, particularly over critical water, mineral, forest, and energy resources, are greatly magnified. Amartya Sen (1981) has looked at the famine situation as essentially a ‘‘crisis of entitlement,’’ not so much because there is lack of food but because many are denied any claims to it because of the very nature of the market economy. In the West, the entitlement revolution has entailed huge welfare expenditures, which could be financed either by economic growth or by direct redistribution of income (Bell 1976, p. 20). For Bell and the neo-Malthusians, the latter is out of the question.
To restore the population–resource balance—with global economic development, equitable distribution of resources, and the perfectibility of man and society now largely ruled out—the neo- Malthusians rely on sophisticated computer models to predict the end to development and limits to economic and demographic growth for the non-Western nations; others favor ‘‘sustained environment development’’. Still others despair of the effort to avert disaster through population control or the preventive checks of moral restraint proposed by Malthus. Instead, they invoke the operation of the Malthusian positive checks (wars, famines, pestilence, and natural disasters) and raise the specter of massive famines and die-offs to justify triage, war, secessionist movements, adding sterilants to drinking water, forced sterilization, violent and coercive contraceptive technologies for women, even genocide. In a piece published in 1969 in the Stanford Alumni Almanac, and appropriately titled ‘‘The Immorality of Being Softhearted,’’ Garrett Hardin is quite clear that food would be the worst thing to send to the poor. Nothing short of the final solution will do. ‘‘Atomic bombs would be kinder. For a few moments the misery would be acute, but it would soon come to an end for most of the people, leaving a very few survivors to suffer thereafter.’’ These solutions, which would bring about the decimation of entire populations, have been called ecofascist. Such sentiments are by no means uncommon among the neo-Malthusians.
To revert to the neo-Malthusian argument: The tragedy of numbers is compounded by the ‘‘free rider,’’ who derives personal benefits from the collective efforts of others, and the more serious ‘‘tragedy of the commons’’ (Hardin 1966), where each herdsman will add cattle without limit, ignoring the costs imposed on the others and degrading the land held in common. The ‘‘tragedy of the commons’’ is really the tragedy of individualism run amuck, an individualism from which all constraints of private and common morality have been removed. However, others have been quick to point to the equal or far greater extent of environment pollution and ecological destruction in socialist countries as one more evidence of the inevitable convergence of capitalism and socialism!
Many environmental problems are clearly transideological and transnational. Acid rain, oil spills, the destruction of the ozone layer, the threat of global warming—all call for common responsibility and joint regulation. Ironically, it appears that the expressed concern about the destruction of the global commons through overpopulation or industrial pollution is seldom matched by a parallel commitment by powerful nations to preserve or clean up the environment or provide support for international population-control efforts. Instead, one witnesses a mad scramble to divide up the remaining oceanic and other planetary resources without regard to equity, ecology, or environment. As a result, the air and the oceans, as well as the forests and lands of other nations, are being overexploited or used as garbage and toxic dumps with impunity.
Of no small consequence globally is the environmental impact of waste, widespread corruption at all levels, hoarding and price-fixing, and poor storage, distribution, and transportation networks. Not surprisingly, ‘‘formidable mafias based on a triangular alliance between the corrupt bureaucrat, the corrupt politician and the corrupt businessman emerged in all [Indian] States and became a most powerful threat to the conservation of the country’s tree cover’’ (Vohra 1985, p. 50). When one adds to this list the role of political and economic elites and multinational corporations, and of huge debts, huge dams, and huge arms stockpiles, it becomes clear that poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and starvation may have far more to do with political, cultural, and socioeconomic components of food shortages than with sheer numbers alone. This is not to underestimate the immensity of the population problem or to minimize the difficulty of its solution.
With the rise of the ‘‘consumer society’’ and the ‘‘welfare state’’ in the West, and the coupling of the ‘‘revolution of rising expectations’’ and the ‘‘entitlement revolution’’ with the impossibility of generalizing Western levels of consumption worldwide, the problematic nature of the relationship between consumption and production has again come to the fore. On the one hand, food aid and food supply have become powerful political weapons globally; on the other, welfare programs constitute a potentially deprivational means of control (Gibbs 1989, p. 453). Saunders points out that today the basic class divisions centered in the relations of production are increasingly being overlaid by ‘‘a division, which cuts right across the class structure, between those with access to individual forms of consumption and those who are reliant on collective provision’’ (1986, p. 232).
Arguing that the issues of collective consumption must be separated from issues of production and class struggle and that urban struggles develop around the question of social consumption, Saunders contends that by recognizing that consumption may generate its own effects, Castells (1985) opens up the possibility of identifying nonclass bases of power and popular mobilization, as well as nonclass forms of popular aspiration and identity (Saunders 1986, p. 226). It is precisely for this reason that the anticonsumerism of the counterculture during the 1960s was both hailed as a true ‘‘revolution without Marx or Jesus’’ and also seen as a threat to the very existence of a massproduction society. On the other hand, the current neo-Malthusian demands centered on the impossibility of generalizing Western standards of living (level of consumption) to the rest of the world, or on stabilizing consumption at some ‘‘optimum’’ level for achieving a steady state within western societies, also rest on the possibility of regulating production by manipulating mass-consumption patterns.
Barry Commoner (1974) faults socialist as much as capitalist economic theories for neglecting the biosphere as a major factor of production but regards both poverty and population growth as outcomes of colonial exploitation. The world, he believes, has enough food and resources to support nearly twice its present population. The problem, in his view, is a result of gross distributive imbalances between the rich and the poor, and requires a massive redistribution of wealth and resources to abolish poverty and raise standards of living in order to wipe out the root cause of overpopulation. The alternative to this humane solution is the unsavory one of genocide or natural destruction. A study of environmental destruction in southern Honduras by Susan Stonich (1989) illustrates the power of a perspective that combines the concerns of political economy, ecology, and demography. Her conclusion is that environmental degradation arises from fundamental social structures and is intricately connected to problems of land tenure, unemployment, poverty, and demography.
Stonich identifies political and economic factors and export-promotion policies of international lending institutions and aid agencies as the key elements of a development policy for the whole of Central America that is likely to lead to destruction of the remaining tropical forests, worsen poverty and malnutrition, and increase inequality and conflicts within and between nations. Government policies encourage commercial agriculture in order to earn foreign exchange in the face of mounting external debt, which rose by 170 percent in just seven years to equal three-fourths of the 1986 gross national product. The expansion of export-oriented agriculture and the integration of resource-poor rural households into the capitalist sector, often by ruthless and violent means, concentrates the highest population densities in the most marginal highland areas and encourages intensive land-use and adaptive strategies that accelerate ecological decline. Between 1952 and 1974, as a result of changes in land-use patterns, forest land declined by more than two-fifths and the area lying fallow by three-fifths. In the same period, food-crop production was reduced drastically while pasture area rose by more than half regionally and by more than 150 percent in the highlands, where the number of cattle rose by about 70 percent. By 1974, a third of all rural families were landless; two-fifths were below the subsistence level in 1979.
The result has been the evolution of a class of rich peasants raising export-oriented cattle and cash crops, a class of land-poor and landless peasants and wage laborers, and a class of middlemen operatives who serve as transportation links in an expanding regional and national network. The whole socioeconomic structure has an extremely deleterious effect on the regional ecology and environment. These patterns are being repeated all over Africa and Asia. Even the ‘‘green revolution,’’ which uses the model of American agribusiness to commercialize agriculture in non-Western countries, provides only a temporary respite. Its recurrent and increasingly high capital requirements for seed, fertilizer, insecticide, water, land, and machinery wipe out the small farmers and landless laborers. It destroys peasant agriculture, exposes the monocultures to destruction by disease and pests, magnifies inequality, and sows the seeds of social instability and rural strife. To those who subscribe to the political economy perspective, the bioecological explanation thus appears to be too simplistic. It overlooks the social context of development and land distribution within which worldwide destruction of traditional agriculture and the rainforests is now occurring.
In sum, these considerations bring out the fact that debates surrounding resource distribution and the control of population and consumption patterns are neither entirely scientific nor purely ecologically inspired. As Barry Commoner (1974) points out, they are political value positions. Will the changes come voluntarily, or will they involve totalitarian nightmares? ‘‘Sustainable development’’ and ‘‘traditional ecology’’ hold out two contrasting possibilities for the future.
The Brundtland Report and the Promise of Sustainable Development
At the heart of the Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) is the idea of sustainable development that has become the rallying point for diverse agendas linking poverty, underdevelopment, and overpopulation to environmental degradation and ‘‘environmental security.’’ The report defines sustainable development as ‘‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’’ Its popularity lies in its ability to accommodate the opposing idea of limits to growth within the context of economic expansion, but with a new twist. As pointed out by Gro Brundtland (1989), the ‘‘central pivot’’ of the notion of sustainable development remains ‘‘progress, growth, the generation of wealth, and the use of resources.’’ The imposition of limits on consumption is then justified in order to protect the resource base of the environment both locally and globally. At the same time, continuous economic growth is considered essential to meeting the needs of the world’s neediest. In fact, the Brundtland Report indicates that ‘‘a five-to-tenfold increase in world industrial output can be anticipated by the time world population stabilizes sometime in the next century’’ (World Commission on Environment and Development 1997).
Sustainable development is also seen as a strategy to enhance global security by reducing the threat posed by conflict and violence in an inequitable and resource-hungry world. To this end, it promotes a commitment to multilateralism, with a call for strong international institutions to ward off the new threats to security and for the collective management of global interdependence (Brundtland 1989, p. 14). As a result, the interests of economic growth and the environment are seen as mutually reinforcing rather than contradictory. The World Commission Report (1987) duly notes that ecology and economy ‘‘are becoming ever more interwoven—locally, regionally, nationally, and globally—into a seamless net of causes and effects.’’ And the 1990 Worldwatch Institute Report predicts that the world will have a sustainable society by the year 2030 (Brown et al. 1990, p. 175). Meanwhile, the challenge, as Arnold (1989, p. 22) states, is to ensure that the sustainability vision ‘‘is not trivialized or, worse, used as one more way to legitimize the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable in the name of global interest and solidarity.’’
To its credit, the Brundtland Report singled out some forms of economic growth that destroy resources and the environment. The present $1 trillion expenditure on armaments, for example, constitutes ‘‘more than the total income of the poorest half of humanity.’’ According to 1990 United Nations estimates, military expenditures in developing countries, which account for 75 percent of the arms trade, had multiplied by seven times since 1965 to almost $200 billion, compared with a doubling by the industrialized countries. In addition, burgeoning debt, adverse trade policies, and internal instability constitute the overwhelming obstacles to sustained development. The fiftytwo poorest nations of the world are now burdened with nearly a $400 billion debt. With Africa’s total debt approaching $200 billion (half of its overall gross national product and three to four times its annual income from exports), its average debt repayments amount to more than half the export income. The debt burden forces the African nations to concentrate on monocrop export agriculture to the detriment of food-crop production and pushes hungry and landless farmers and nomads to marginal lands that they overgraze and overexploit in order to survive. However, with respect to fixing the responsibility for deforestation, the Brundtland Report appears to be of two minds (de la Court 1990). In asserting that to most farmers, especially the poor ones, ‘‘wood is a ‘free good’ until the last available tree is cut down,’’ the report partly sides with the ‘‘tragedy of the commons’’ argument, accusing the poor farmers of being ‘‘both victims and agents of destruction.’’ On the other hand, it al s o points to a different cause: ‘‘The fuelwood crisis and deforestation—although related—are not the same problems. Wood fuels destined for urban and industrial consumers do tend to come from the forests. But only a small proportion of that used by the rural poor comes from forests. Even in these cases, villagers rarely chop down trees; most collect dead branches or cut them from trees’’ (quoted in de la Court 1990, p. 68). In any case, the Brundtland Report became the focal point for global environmental efforts in the 1990s, even though in the United States it remained ‘‘America’s best-kept secret.’’ It undoubtedly played a crucial role in the United Nations conference on the global environment held in Brazil in 1992.
Social Chaos and the Problematics of Social Ecological Integration
Dennis Wrong (1994, pp. 295–296) has pointed out how the globalization of the world economy and the accompanying spread of communication and transportation systems to embrace more of the world represent an unprecedented increase in the dissociation of system from social integration, and how the fear of disorder has become more acute in a greatly interdependent world suffering from persistent economic scarcity and a limited capacity for human sympathy with others.
To Scott Greer (1979), the rapid growth of American society, made possible by the increase in societal scale, has led to the following Durkheimian dilemma: ‘‘Increasing interdependence requires more cultural integration than we can manage; growth itself has undermined the cultural support system. While bureaucratization may increase order within a segment of the society, what is to guarantee order among segments?’’ In the absence of the spirit of consensus generated by war, economic disaster, or a universalized humanity, Greer feels that symbiosis rather than cultural integration may best remedy the fragmentation accompanying the discontinuities of societal growth. Such an approach would not only emphasize trading partners, controlled markets, and formal and informal co-optation, but ‘‘given the increasing number of role players who do not ‘know their place,’ from white working-class men to black college-educated women, such a system will take an awful lot of work by leaders, middlemen, and fixers, as well as some luck’’ (Greer 1979, pp. 315–316).
Daniel Bell (1976) has made the critical point that while the dominant nineteenth-century view of society as an interrelated web, a structured whole unified by some inner principle, still rules Marxist and functionalist thought, it is no longer applicable. On the contrary, society today is composed of three distinct realms—the technoeconomic structure, the polity, and the culture—each obedient to a different axial (value) principle, each having different rhythms of change, and each following different norms that legitimate different and even contradictory types of behavior. The discordances between these realms are responsible for various contradictions within society. Bell has proposed the creation of a ‘‘public household’’ to overcome the disjunctions among the family, the economy, and the state through the use of modified market mechanisms to further social goals. And given his conviction that the crisis is really a spiritual one of belief and meaning, he recommends the return in Western society of some conception of religion to restore the continuity of generations and provide a ground for humility and care for others. This presents a formidable challenge, however, for Bell is painfully aware that one can neither manufacture such a continuity nor engineer a cultural revolution.
It is doubtful that the problems of order created by the ‘‘normal’’ but dangerous nonrelation between the life-sustaining (ecology–economy) and order-maintaining (sociopolitical) systems of contemporary society can be corrected, as Bell believes, by the creation of a miraculous hybrid—a ‘‘public household’’—protected and nurtured by both the polity and the household to serve the interests of the technoeconomic structure and by the side-door entry of the ‘‘religious’’ to provide for the integrative and ‘‘higher"-order needs of a socially disjointed and spiritually vacuous society. Even the frantic use of a ‘‘holistic’’ ecological approach is bound to fail if its actual goal is somehow to dominate or desperately hold on to a sundered reality in which everything is so hopelessly unrelated to everything else. Since a dependent part cannot grow infinitely at the expense of the others, or usurp the whole for its own purposes without undermining the very conditions of its own existence, the high-powered technoeconomic structure, driven by the insatiable demand for energy, resources, and markets, is inherently disorder-producing and anti-ecological. Its immensity of scale and utilitarian thrust not only destroy traditional structures and sociocultural diversity but also set in motion irreversible and ecologically damaging global processes whose attempted solutions greatly magnify the problems.
That the philosophy and ideology of progress may promote activities inconsistent with sound ecological management and the prospects of human survival is also increasingly being recognized (Peck 1987). But the fact that ‘‘’history’ is not on our side, has no teleology, and supplies us with no guarantees’’ does not mean to Giddens (1990)‘‘that we should, or that we can, give up in our attempts to steer the juggernaut . . . . For we can envisage alternative futures whose very propogation might help them be realised. What is needed is the creation of models of utopian realism’’ (p. 154). Unwilling and unable to abandon the worldconstructionist project, he offers a ‘‘post-scarcity’’ system as perhaps the only possibility but is also bothered by the ‘‘dark side of modernity,’’ the creation of totalitarian power, based on his original insight that totalitarianism and modernity are not just contingently but inherently connected (Giddens 1990, p. 172).
In the stark asymmetry between the disorderproducing and the order-creating powers of the centriphery lies the real ‘‘nightmare of reason’’ and the roots of the current crisis and worldwide chaos. The process is not only incomprehensible (‘‘complex’’), but totally out of control. In this state of affairs, ‘‘what is there to love or preserve in a universe of chaos? How are people supposed to behave in such a universe? If that is the kind of place we inhabit, why not go ahead with all our private ambitions, free of any fear that we may be doing special damage’’ (Worster 1994, p. A3).
Traditional Ecology and the Environment
Patterns of human social organization and technology use reflect the vision a people have of themselves and of their place in the universe. According to Karl Polanyi ( 1974), the question of how to organize human life in a machine society confronts us with a new urgency:
A. K. Saran (1978) does not doubt in the least that the ecological crisis is a self-inflicted one, because an entropic environmental system and an infinitely expanding economy and technology are mutually incompatible. His main argument is that the modern system does not provide a coherent worldview or the proper regulative principle to satisfy the needs of the different orders in a unitive way. In such a system, only a technological solution to the problem of order in the sociopolitical realm can be contemplated, and a piecemeal approach will be relied on to deal with the consequences of a discordant and disharmonious order. In addition to generating tremendous violence, universal disorder, and planetary destruction in the desperate attempt to hold the parts together under its hegemony, such an approach is bound to fail. Since the symbolic is not an integral part of the modern literal consciousness, the attempt to appropriate Mother Earth or other symbols, such as that by the proponents of Gaia, may be ideologically seductive but is both scientifically irrelevant and spiritually vacuous. Neo-Malthusian disclaimers notwithstanding, since evolution has been the master concept to organize and rearrange the world in human terms, the ontology of modern science is necessarily anthropocentric. Saran’s conclusion, therefore, is that there can be no ecological science unless it is grounded in traditional cosmology.
In a study of the Tukano Indians of the northwest Amazon, G. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1977) shows how aboriginal cosmologies, myths, and rituals
However, modernity in its essence has been totally destructive of the traditional vision of human nature, our proper place in the ‘‘web of life,’’ and our conception of the ultimate good. Polanyi ( 1974) points out how with the modern separation of ‘‘economy’’ as the realm of hunger and gain,
The post–World War II creation of the global economy through the idea of ‘‘development’’ is the other half of the story. As pointed out by Wolfgang Sachs (1990), and in line with Hawley’s observation, the concept of development provided the United States with the vision of a new global order in which the former colonies were held together not through political domination but through economic interdependence. But to ‘‘define the economic exploitation of the land and its treasures as ‘development’ was a heritage of the productivist arrogance of the 19th century. Through the trick of a biological metaphor, a simple economic activity turns into a natural and evolutionary process. [Soon] traditions, hierarchies, mental habits—the whole texture Of societies—were all dissolved in the planner’s mechanistic models . . . patterned on the American way of life’’ (p. 42).
However, even after nearly two decades of development work, the results were far from heartening. Instead of declining, inequality, poverty, unemployment, hunger, and squalor actually increased manyfold in all ‘‘developing’’ countries. To summarize: While the expansionist vision tries to tie ecology, economy, and polity together, and the neo-Malthusians add biology to the list, it is in sustainable development that all these orders are firmly knit together—but at a price. The paradoxical nature of the term sustainable development arises from the fact that it attempts to combine the contradictory notions of limits to growth and active growth promotion. However, if the key to maintaining ecological integrity is economic selfsufficiency and production for use, then the problem today is surely one of the inhuman scale of enterprise based on the ‘‘techniques of degradation’’ (Marcel 1952), which serve nothing higher than human self-interest, and of the concept of man as having an economically rather than a spiritually determined nature (Coomaraswamy 1946, p. 2).
Roy Rappaport (1976) has documented how the Maring of New Guinea support as many as 200 people per square mile by cultivating nearly fortyfive acres of cleared forest at a time without damaging the environment. But then they look at the world and its ‘‘resources’’ through very different eyes!
A Proactive Environmental Sociology
Heightened concern with ecology and the environment has now moved into the mainstream of public life as a major priority at the national and international levels. This provides important opportunities for environmental sociologists to contribute to the understanding and solution of these problems. Constance Holden (1989) has highlighted the report of the National Academy of Sciences that outlines an agenda for both micro and macro social scientific studies of ‘‘anthropogenic’’ stresses on the resources and the environment in the north circumpolar region and that has general application. The fragile Arctic region has a great wealth of natural resources. It comprises onetenth of the earth’s area and has a population of 8 million people, of whom a quarter are natives. The report placed major emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, particularly those linking the social and physical sciences and basic and applied research. It emphasized the need for drawing on native knowledge and put urgent priority on issues such as cultural survival and the allocation of scarce resources. It also asked the social scientists to come up with models generalizable to other areas.
An interesting insight concerns how each of the several identities of the Arctic (e.g., as homeland for the natives, as a ‘‘colony’’ exploited for its natural resources, and as the last wilderness) results in a distinctive approach to human–environment relationships. ‘‘These approaches have come increasingly into conflict as subsistence hunters and commercial interests vie for limited stocks of fish and game; communities are shaken by boom and bust cycles in scrambles for mineral resources; and rapid modernization has inflicted trauma on native cultures’’ (Holden 1989, p. 883). The committee identified three areas of interest to the social scientist. In the area of human–environment relationships, there is a need for studies on conflict resolution to strike a balance between commercial needs and the interests of subsistence hunters, sportsmen, and conservation. The second area pertains to community viability, for which a systematic approach is needed to help develop a physical and social services infrastructure to meet the special climatic needs of the region. A final area pertains to the study of the impact of rapid social change (single-industry cash economy, the snowmobile revolution), which is exacting a heavy price from the local inhabitants in terms of higher rates of alcoholism, suicide, stress, loneliness, accidents, and violence.
The shift from expansionist to neo-Malthusian thinking seemingly implies an attempt to come to terms with the finitude of the total ecosphere and changed global realities, but the underlying assumptions and contradictions are again not made explicit. The overriding concern has been with the protection of industrial and commercial interests, even where these interests clearly come in conflict with the interests of individuals, communities, and their environment. The commitment to protect growth or a certain way of life at any cost has led human ecologists and neo-Malthusians to disregard the minimum well-being or sheer survival of the rest of humankind. In fact, Hawley (1986) admits that while ‘‘competition,’’ resulting from demand exceeding the carrying capacity, may account for the exclusion of some contestants from access to their share of a limited resource, it does not shed ‘‘any light on what happens to the excluded members of a population after their exclusion’’ (p. 127). This serious neglect of the concern for the underdog and the undermined is matched by the self admitted tendency of the human ecologists ‘‘not [to] confront policy matters directly’’ (Hawley 1986, p. 127). Given its reliance on largescale macro forces to explain other macro-level phenomena, the human ecological approach does not readily lend itself to policy considerations. Even otherwise, since it views spatial patterns as the natural outcome of ecological processes rather than the result of power relations, it becomes a conservative force in policy applications (La Gory 1993, p. 112).
Edgar Borgatta (1989, 1996) has sought to develop an important field called ‘‘proactive sociology,’’ with a view to closing the wide gap between sociological theory and practice and to save sociology from sheer irrelevance. Sociological approaches, even when application-oriented, have been largely timid, inactive, or merely reactive. They have restricted their focus to studying how changes in social policy may alter behavior and social situations, but they have refrained from making policy recommendations for designing social structures to serve accepted values. Proactive sociologists, on the other hand, would have the task not only of clarifying values and specifying their meaning but also of assuming the responsibility for making policy recommendations based on an understanding of appropriate models of change. In stark contrast to the pretended valueneutral and value-free stance of mainstream sociology, Borgatta (1996) would, therefore, push to include the consideration of values, as well as the examination of possible structures to implement preferred values, among the central tasks for proactive sociologists.
In human ecology, for instance, it is with reference to the population–consumption problematic that questions of value and their interpretation become evident. Rather than waiting to study only the aftereffects of ‘‘all in the path’’—the Three Mile Island radiation leak or the Exxon Valdez oil spill—or stepping in at the end of the ‘‘issue-attention’’ cycle, when the problem is historically interesting but socially irrelevant, a proactive sociology would concern itself with the dynamics out of which problems arise, anticipating potential problem areas and their alternative solutions as the means to translate desired values into effective policy. This would involve identifying possible futures and the consequences of action or inaction for their attainment—a policy dimension ignored by sociologists, despite their belief that this may make all the difference in a fast-changing and turbulent world in which the ability to handle and manage change requires the ability to anticipate change and to adapt social structures to changing requirements. To this end, the sociologist would need to ask whether what he or she was doing would make an impact and be useful to society. The fundamental assumption here is that if we know something about the impact of social structure on behavior, we should be able to propose models for changes in social structures that will effectively implement values that have priority status in society (Borgatta 1989, p. 15). Sociologists would then be obligated to ‘‘address societal values more directly by providing alternate models of potential changes and exploring the consequences these changes may produce if identified values are implemented’’ (Borgatta and Hatch 1988, p. 354).
Following this lead, a ‘‘proactive environmental sociology’’ would have particular application to the ‘‘sociology of environmental issues,’’ which is concerned with the study of environmental movements, resource management problems, and the like. It would broaden the scope of the sociology of environmental issues by focusing specifically on the changes that are required to effectively implement stated values such as equity, environmental justice, rights of the deprived and of ‘‘future generations,’’ resource conservation, equitable sharing of the global commons, the right to clean and healthy environment, sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns, and the like, and by exploring the possible consequences of these changes. Thus David Mahar, an adviser to the World Bank, has argued that blaming peasant colonists for deforestation is ‘‘tantamount to blaming the victim’’ for ‘‘misguided public policies’’ that promote road building, official colonization of the forest, and extensive live-stock development, and that ‘‘purposely or inadvertently encourage rapid depletion of the forest.’’ This definition of the situation led Mahar to propose an ‘‘alternative development model’’ that would put government action on hold so that, based on land-use surveys, lands ‘‘found to have limited agricultural potential—virtually whole of terra firme [sic] of Amazonia— would be held in perpetuity as forest reserves.’’ These and other unconventional conclusions are stated by Mahar as his own and carry the disclaimer that they do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the World Bank itself (cited in Hildyard 1989).
This example also brings out Borgatta’s point that a proactive stance may involve the espousing of unpopular positions. It may lead a proactive environmental sociologist to examine the role of established institutions and values (crass individualism and the impact of ‘‘anthropocentric,’’ ‘‘cowboy,’’ ‘‘superpower,’’ and ‘‘commercialized conservation’’ approaches to the use of finite resources and a fragile environment; wasteful consumption patterns; draconian measures ofpopulation control; corporate nonaccountability and the global impact of multinationals, the state, and the like) in order to facilitate the creation of ecologically sustainable social structures that implement positive environmental values. On this basis, a systematic concern with morality and the application of knowledge would lead to a ‘‘proactive environmental sociology’’ that would prompt the sociologist to formulate alternative policies with respect to the set of environmental values or goals that are to be implemented (Borgatta and Cook 1988, p. 17). This approach would also ensure that the applied aspects of ‘‘environmental sociology’’ would flourish within the discipline and not become detached from sociology, as has been the fate of industrial sociology and many other areas in the past (Borgatta 1989).
Environmental sociologists have complained of the lack of a unifying focus within the field and have noted its specialized, fragmented, and dualistic tendencies, which hinder concept and theory development (Buttel 1987, p. 466). This should be a cause for serious concern insofar as the new human ecology is supposed to provide a holistic, integrated understanding of human–environment interactions. In addition to the problems surrounding functionalist as well as Marxist categories and assumptions is the difficulty of adapting bioecological concepts to the human context. Notions such as ecosystem, niche, succession, climax communities, balance of nature, even evolution—none have clear social referents and all pose formidable problems of inappropriate or illegitimate transferal of concepts. Thus, while one finds constant reference to urban or social ‘‘ecosystems’’ in the literature, the wide-ranging, even global, energy-exchange patterns make the boundaries so diffuse that it becomes impossible to locate an urban ecosystem in time and space, at least in biological terms (Young 1983, p. 195). Or, if humans are defined as niche dwellers, the term niche, ‘‘if adopted directly from biology would produce only one worldwide niche for the entire global species, a result that would render the concept useless. How can the species problem be overcome in adapting such a concept to human ecology?’’ (Young 1983, p. 795).
Terms such as the environment are not easy to define or conceptualize; nor are ecological chain reactions, multiple causal paths, and feedback mechanisms in complex ecosystems easy to delineate. In recognition of the substantial difference between human and bioecological orders, some human ecologists, such as Hawley, have moved away from bioecological models. Thus, Hawley (1986) is highly critical of the neo-Malthusian application of the ‘‘carrying-capacity’’ notion, on the ground that ‘‘while the argument may be suitable for plants and animals, its transfer to the human species is highly questionable’’ (p. 53). While still shying away from assigning a critical role to human agency, or even a policy-making role to the human ecologist, Hawley has nonetheless broadened the scope of his theory by incorporating culture and norms as ecosystem variables. However, as a commentary on Western-style development and its total disregard for limits, Rappaport has raised more basic objections: To treat the components of the environment as if they were mere resources is to view them exclusively in economic terms and invite ‘‘the use and abuse of biological systems of all classes and the neglect of moral and aesthetic considerations in general. Whatever may be meant by the phrase ‘quality of life,’ exploitation does not enhance it’’ (1978, pp. 266–267).
Human ecologists, in general, have not dealt adequately with such concerns, nor with the problems of power, domination, and the role of the state and of ‘‘values’’ in human–environmental relationships. At a minimum, one needs to know the role of the state in the regulation, maintenance, expansion, suppression, and ‘‘resocialization’’ of peoples and societies. If ecosystems are constituted of interdependent parts, one needs to know the nature of the reciprocal relationships among the parts and among the parts and the ecosystem. Rappaport (1978) has drawn attention to the maladaptive tendency of subsystems to become increasingly powerful and to dominate and use the larger system for their own benefit, to the detriment of the general interest and the adaptive flexibility of the system. He mentions the dominating positions occupied by huge corporations and the ‘‘military industrial complex’’ as examples. More broadly, Rappaport ties pollution, ‘‘resource’’ depletion, and the diminution of the quality of life and the destruction of its meanings to the scale of modern societies and the voracious appetites of their industrial metabolisms. Thus, while he does not deny that population increase may have a negative impact on the quality of life, he has little doubt that the real cause of ecosystem destruction and the deterioration of the quality of life is to be found in the way societies are organized, not in their population trends. If that is so, what alternative do humans have?
Within the human ecological perspectives, environmental problems are seen as arising either from the unplanned nature of growth and expansionism, from its attendant externalities and ‘‘commons’’ tragedies, from growth and market restrictions (the pro-growth, expansionist perspective), or from the excess of population over the carrying capacity of the environment (the neo-Malthusian perspective). To restore ecological balance and environmental health, human ecologists place their faith in value consensus, rational planning, systems theory, computer models, economic growth, trickle-downs, market mechanisms, and technological fixes (the pro-growth perspective) or in limits to growth, sustainable development, sticks and carrots, benign neglect, triage, die-offs, outright compulsion, and even genocide (the neo-Malthusian perspective). Within the political economy perspective, on the other hand, the emphasis is on internal contradictions, uneven development, center–periphery relations, capitalist exploitation, the role of multinationals and the state, trade imbalances, and the treadmill of production. To ensure environmental and ecological protection, equitable distribution, and social justice, the proposals from a political economy standpoint range from social revolution to conflict and confrontation, from redistribution to social welfarism and mixed economies.
The political economy perspective is critical of the basic assumption of the Chicago ecologists that changes in population, organization, and the technologies of movement explain expansionary movements and territorial arrangements. By allowing planners to alter spatial forms to dissipate class conflict and social unrest, Smith (1979, p. 255) believes, the perspective becomes a powerful depoliticizing weapon in their hands. He favors ‘‘client-centered’’ planning, which does not assume that ‘‘physical structure determines social structure,’’ but holds that both are shaped by the economic and political structures of society, which provide selective access to opportunities and further discriminatory patterns of land use and investment. Smith therefore offers ‘‘conflictual planning’’ on behalf of the poor and the powerless in order to call attention to the hidden social costs of development and to increase the political costs of pursuing repressive policies disguised as rationally planned allocational, locational, and investment choices. This approach poses three basic questions: ‘‘Whose values, interests, and social actions will determine the purpose, pace, and direction of historical change? Can the costs and benefits of historical change be distributed fairly? Can the changes that do occur further the cause of social justice?’’ (Smith 1979, p. 288).
Schnaiberg (1980) has identified three responses to the contradiction between production expansion and ecological limits:
Schnaiberg’s own preference, short of a social revolution, is for a mixed social democratic system like Sweden’s, with some production expansion and improved welfare distribution under close state supervision.
However, this solution does not quite address the critical concerns of the environment or the needs of three-fourths of humanity. It presents to the world the anti-ecological model of the ‘‘treadmill of production’’ under a more benign form. It ignores the reality of global inequity, environmental injustice, and global-resource wars—the fact that behind every environmental struggle of today lies a struggle over the expansion of the treadmill of production. It is worth noting that at least in the case of sustainable-yield forestry, Schnaiberg and Gould (1994) no longer look to Sweden as the model. With more than 90 percent of Sweden’s native forest now extinct, and its native species replaced by North American tree species, the authors decry that ‘‘native plants and animals have been exterminated, sacrificed for an economically- sustainable industry. The Swedish treadmill is sustained at the expense of the Swedish environment’’ (1994, p. 210). The real thrust, therefore, is not sustainable development at all but what Vandana Shiva (1990) has called commercialized conservation, which puts a dollar value on biodiversity and ‘‘justifies conservation in terms of present or future commercial returns’’ (p. 14). Smith (1979) believes that the environmental problem, like the problem of poverty, has arisen and remains insoluble because of our commitment to existing economic arrangements and institutions and because wealth and power are valued over persons and human need. In fact, the global treadmill operates in such a way that the poor countries often end up financing the development of the rich ones. Thus, during the period from 1982 to 1990, Foster (1995) reports how Third World nations became a net exporter of hard currency to developed countries to the tune of about $30 billion per year, while also remitting almost $12.5 billion in monthly payments on debt alone to their creditors in wealthy nations.
While the West is busy presiding over a general reorganization of the global economy and the ways of living throughout the world, the common problem, as Hilary French (1990) points out, is that of finding the proper balance between sufficiency and excess, which she says will be as difficult for the former socialist nations as it has been for the West. In this context, she points out how Czechoslovakia’s president, Vaclav Havel, has identified the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, and consumer culture as the common enemy.
The uncontrolled greed of the global treadmill has been blamed for the frightening global environmental degradation and for overpowering our sense of responsibility to future generations. ‘‘How much is enough’’ for living a good life (Durning 1992) has become the critical issue today. This concern with sufficiency should lead us to question the equation of consumption with meaningful existence and of the good life with the material standard of living. But such an equation cannot be avoided in a society of abundance, which has to follow the imperative of consumption if its expanding productive capacities are to be put to use. However, since redistribution or any real systemic changes are ruled out, Daly (1979) recommends a control from within based on obedience to objective value, warning that ‘‘if interior restraints on will and appetite diminish, then exterior restraints, coercive police powers, and Malthusian positive checks must increase.’’ (p. 53)
Gandhi, aware both of the fatal attraction and the destructive potential of wanton materialism, saw it as constituting the gravest threat to human freedom, survival, and environmental security. He therefore opted for a simple, nonexploitative, and ecologically sustainable social order. Such a decentralized social order, based on truth and nonviolence, was to be governed by the metaphysically determined optimum levels of wants, technology, and resource use fitted to the requirements of the human scale. In the interim, he demanded that the rich become trustees of the poor in order to serve justice, to mitigate the negative impacts of the differentials of wealth and power, and to avoid class conflicts. His radical vision of a normal social order, nowhere realized as yet, provides a useful yardstick for measuring how ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable a society is in its actual operation. Noting that the world has enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed, Gandhi was convinced that such a social order would come about
From this point of view, while there is little disagreement that overpopulation aggravates environmental and other problems, the attempts to eradicate the root causes of social instability, inequality, and poverty are bound to be far more effective in the long run than the impressive but partially effective approaches to population control. Brian Tokar (1988) has pointed out that, historically, rapid increases in population occur when people become dislocated from their traditional land base and become less secure about their personal and family survival. On the other hand, populations become stable when the future is secure, the infant mortality rate is low, social choices for women are expanding, and parents are not worried about who will support them in their old age.
How to effect the radical changes required to restore the proper ecological balance and preserve the biocultural integrity and diversity of the global ‘‘household,’’ but ‘‘without the most fantastic ‘bust’ of all time’’ (Ehrlich 1968, p. 169), is the formidable challenge and the urgent task facing humankind. This will involve a redirection of the vast, creative human energies away from a self-defeating and ecodestructive expansionist and wasteful orientation, and their rechanneling into life-giving and life-promoting forms of human action and human social organization.
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