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Does the Environment matter to Sociology?

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Introduction

Does the Environment matter to Sociology? Sociology is described as 'the systematic study of human society' (Macionis and Plummer 2005:4). Because of this, it is unlikely that 'the environment' is one of the key topics that sociologists naturally think of as part of their studies. Indeed environmental issues seem far removed from what is still largely the staple fare of sociology courses. 'What have species loss, acid rain or ozone depletion to do with the mainstream social theory or key disciplinary concepts such as class, power and inequality?' (Alan Irwin 2001:8) Until recently a sociologist would answer 'nothing' but since the emergence of modernity there has been a shift in sociological thinking towards globalisation. According to David Held, this is 'the widening, deepening and speeding up of global interconnectedness'. More generally, it is known as a recent cultural and economical era that centres on universalism, homogeneity and progress. Undoubtedly globalisation is having a profound effect on the world but its specific effect on the environment has become a major topic across all of the social sciences. Until now sociology never included the environment but as environmental degradation increases affecting world population, cultures and lifestyles, awareness of the environment has now become necessary. ...read more.

Middle

The primary ecological issue for classical social theory was not the origins of contemporary environmental degradation, but how premodern societies had been held in check by their natural environments, and how it was that modern societies had come to surpass those limits or had separated themselves in some sense from their 'natural' origins. Yet it is possible to defend the classical thinkers, modern societies were unconstrained by natural limits and at the height of capitalism and industrialisation, it did not seem that economic growth would prove to be environmentally problematic in any way. From this point of view it is only since the advent of the modern era and particularly the onset of globalisation, that the environment has begun to be examined in a sociological sense. This is done in two main ways. Most obviously, social life is increasingly generating environmental problems leading to degradation. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have dramatically risen since the invention of industry. Natural resources such as the fossil fuels are burnt in gigantic quantities releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which in turn contributes to global warming and climatic change. Similarly the use of CFCs in refrigerators and aerosols has resulted in the depletion of the ozone layer which allows harmful UV rays from the sun to enter our atmosphere. ...read more.

Conclusion

It looks to sociologists to suggest solutions Traditionally the environment did not matter to sociology, it was barely spoken about by the classical thinkers but the degradation of the environment has become a sociological issue, indirectly because of globalisation. The global homogeneity of western style industrialisation and production resulted in large-scale pollution which is now out of control. It has reached a stage where consumption outweighs production and humans are unable to look to the traditional optimistic views supported by all the classical, modernist thinkers. This believed that human technological innovations would always be able to be relied upon to support population growth. This is now impossible, the answer is no longer down to 'science' but down to values that people must choose. Sociologically this now raises questions of inequality. Both the causes and solutions of environmental degradation were initiated by western policies and the particular solutions do not suit everyone. Recently many less developed nations have refused to curb industrial emissions as they feel it is their turn to develop according to the pattern that the western world first started. At the same time, the existing developed countries fear the suggested environmental solutions as they fear the economical repercussions that a reduction of emissions, and therefore industry, will cause. Sociologists now look to examine the possibilities of adhering to the lifestyle change that environmental policy will now cause. ...read more.

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