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For sociologists, the consideration of ecology – and thus ecology’s role in the economy – is relatively new to the agenda. In a semantic sense, this is necessarily the case. The word ‘‘ecology’’ and its apparatus of meaning only recently entered the vocabulary. But sociology’s ecological turn is much more than the result of semantic invention. It embodies a profound shift in the institutionalized model of nature itself (Frank 1997).
From roughly the mid nineteenth through the mid twentieth centuries, what we now call ‘‘ecology’’ barely existed in the social imagination. Nature appeared in the public realm mostly in the narrowly rationalized form of resources – particular material goods, with status external and subordinate to human society. For instance, in the guise of natural resources, trees materialized as timber and cows took form as livestock. The ecology–economy relationship was uncomplicated accordingly. The ecological system served both as store of natural inputs – raw materials to economic production – and sink for outputted wastes (Berger 1994). In utilizing this system, humans exercised their rightful dominion over earth.
Especially in the West, this resource model of nature grew deeply institutionalized – i.e., taken for granted in culture and organization. Most importantly, perhaps, the resource model helped fuel the twin expansions of industrial ism and capitalism, both of which required the exploitation of natural goods on historically unprecedented scales. Even at the world level during this period, natural resource views gained precedence over the alternatives, expressed for instance in the 1911 International Fur Seal Convention, which set conservation measures aimed at maintaining the commercial exploitation of North Pacific fur seals.
By and large in this era, sociologists took the terms of discourse at face value. This means that to the limited extent they noticed at all, sociologists interpreted ecology’s role in the economy in straightforward resource terms (Buttel 2002). Certainly, sociologists recognized that societies differed in relative shares of nature’s bounty and varied by advances in the means of utilization. But seldom did sociologists challenge the central imagery itself, in which ecology referred to natural resources, meaning basic economic provisions.
During the latter twentieth century, much of this changed. To a striking and extraordinary extent, scientists extended and intensified nature’s rationalization well beyond the resource frame. What had formerly been defined in terms of inputs and outputs acquired a host of new meanings, which rendered nature as ultimately valuable and functional to human society. Scientists reconceived nature as an interconnected ecological ‘‘environment’’ – a planetary life support system. In this resource to ecology shift, for example, trees transcended the meaning of timber and came to appear as oxygen producers, greenhouse gas sinks, species habitats (endangered and otherwise), and themselves essential nodes in the web of life.
Of course this broad redefinition of nature hardly meant that resource imageries disappeared. On the contrary, scientists participated in the invention of technologies that opened vast new natural territories to utilization. Still with the rapid profusion of the environment’s life sustaining properties, the warehouse imagery of nature quickly lost dominant standing.
Within the new paradigm, the old one way road from ecology to economy got widened, bringing new focus to the reverse economy to ecology relationship. Most strikingly, there appeared widespread public concern over the ways economic systems damaged ecological systems, thereby threatening not only material goods but also earth’s life bearing capacities (Berger 1994).
The emergent ecological model of nature gained institutionalization most rapidly in the West, where scientific authority stood tallest. There it catalyzed, for example, changes in the longstanding conservation movement, participants in which began to pose economic activity as the antagonist of environmental vitality. And even at the world level, the new imageries acquired legitimacy, as exemplified by the 1972 founding of the United Nations Environment Program, around the mission ‘‘to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment.’’
As they had previously, sociologists operated within the set parameters of discourse. Most importantly, sociologists offered analyses of the logics and mechanisms whereby different economic configurations caused more or less ecological damage (e.g., Schnaiberg & Gould 1994). Capitalism in particular came under scrutiny. Researchers showed, for instance, ways the profit motive and private ownership combined to exacerbate ecological ills. For the private owner, maximized profit meant maximized exploitation, extracting nature’s commodity values without regard to environmental consequences, as exemplified by the clear cut forest. Likewise for the private owner, maximized profit implied minimized amelioration, privileging the least costly means of exploitation, even when those means wreaked the greatest ecosystem havoc, as illustrated by the strip mine. Furthermore for the private owner, maximized profit rewarded the disposal of ‘‘wastes’’ into the commons, polluting those aspects of nature (notably air and water) shared by the public at large, as in the case of smokestack industries. In virtually all such sociological analyses, the revised ecological definition of nature took priority over the old resource one.
Of course changing conceptions of ‘‘nature’’ continue apace, spurring ongoing reconsideration of the ecology–economy linkages. Along with society at large, sociologists now increasingly notice that economic activity need not be antithetical to ecological well being. Indeed, some sociologists have recently called attention to the environmental benefits of economic activity, which may cause birth rates to decline and environmental values to rise (Inglehart 1990). As the new ideas take hold, such concepts as sustainable development – promising the union of robust economies with healthy ecologies – seem less like pipe dreams than previously. A new ecology–economy partnership may be forging in the public eye.
In some quarters, of course, nature continues to be seen through the resource lens – in simple input–output terms. In other quarters, mean while, any economic rise still indicates certain ecological fall. Both views increasingly, however, seem simplistic and divisive (as seen, for example, in conflicts between wealthy northern and poor southern countries at recent environ mental conferences [Shiva 2000]). In the con temporary world, the aspiration to economic betterment seems unwavering and universal. And in the same world, environmental protection is becoming ever more rule like. The satisfaction of both ends will require ingenuity and compromise. In this middle ground, the socio logical study of ecology and economy may be most promising.
- Berger, J. (1994) The Economy and the Environment. In: Smelser, N. J. & Swedberg, R. (Eds.), The Handbook of Economic Sociology. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Buttel, F. H. (2002). Environmental Sociology and the Sociology of Natural Resources: Institutional Histories and Personal Legacies. Society and Natural Resources 15(3): 205-11.
- Frank, D. J. (1997) Science, Nature, and the Globalization of the Environment, 1870-1990. Social Forces 76 (December): 409-35.
- Inglehart, R. (1990) Culture Shift in Advanced Indus trial Society. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Schnaiberg, A. & Gould, K. A. (1994) Environment and Society: The Enduring Conflict. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
- Shiva, V. (2000) Ecological Balance in an Era of Globalization. In: Wapner, P. & Ruiz, L. E. J. (Eds.), Principled World Politics: The Challenge of Normative International Relations. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.