1. Introduction: Environmental Sociology as a Field of Inquiry
Environmental sociology is the study of how social and ecological systems interact with one another. Both social and ecological systems are very complex and vast on their own, and together the complexity grows. The interaction between social and ecological systems might seem clear when we think about the way our society is built. However, due to the complexity of the interaction, the development of separate disciplines, such as ‘sociology’ focusing on social relationships alone and ‘ecology’ based on environmental relationships without relating to society, bifurcation in intuitions and disciplinary bias, the profound relationships between society and the environment were hardly mentioned for a long period of time. Over time, as Gould and Lewis stated, “The increasing urgency of the negative impacts of social systems on ecosystems created both the social space and social need for the emergence of environmental sociology” [1
] (p. 3). Environmental sociology is a subfield in sociology despite the fact that it also has roots in ecology. The roots are not equally split between sociology and ecology and environmental sociologists are not required to know the natural sciences in ecology. Gould and Lewis describe the core of environmental sociology: its “special focus is on how social systems are organized and change in response to the natural world, just as the changes they produce in the natural world force them to further respond and change” [1
] (p. 3). This editorial, accompanying the Special Issue “sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology”, will first provide a brief sketch on the social and institutional trajectories in which environmental sociology emerged as a distinct field of inquiry.
Environmental sociology became an officially recognized subfield in sociology as late as 1976 [1
]. In the late 1800s, environmental sociology was not a part of sociology at all, but in the early 1900s there were two sociologists who started to talk about the relationship between humans and nature, Henry Thomas Buckle and Ellsworth Huntington. According to Buckle, human society is a product of natural forces and his theory of social change made quite an impact on the intellectual circles in the 19th century [2
]. Huntington, on the other hand, tried to establish a connection between climate and health, energy, and metal processes such as intelligence, genius and willpower. He used his theories to try to explain the rise and fall of ancient societies such as Rome, connecting the fall of the kingdom to changes in the climate. This has been questioned by, for example, Sorokin, who says that the correlations are fictive and that he overestimated the role of the geographical environment. However, he agrees that the geography has an impact on every social constellation. During this time, many sociologists applied Darwinism and the concept of “evolution” and “natural selection” to the human context, and the most prominent social Darwinist was an English social philosopher, Herbert Spencer. He opposed any suggestion that society could be transformed through education or social reform. Instead he believed that it is better to leave it alone and we will change as time goes on. Spencer also had a disciple, Sumner, who thought that we do not only fight with other species in nature, but also in society; however, these theories were largely rejected later on [1
Between the years of 1955 and 1975, it was more evident that the sociological literature became more and more modern, and there are sociologists in particular that stand out during these two decades, David H. Smith, Alex Inkeles and Daniel Lerner. According to Smith and Inkeles, many individual members of certain communities were physiologically trapped in the past and they had problems doing what modern citizens could do, such as keeping to a fixed schedule, observing abstract rules, adopting multiple roles, and empathizing with others; this resulted in many developing nations failing to be a part of the modern world in the 1960s. Humans are not born knowing all these qualities, but through life experience and education we can obtain them. In his book The Passing of Traditional Society
, Lerner discussed that the key to modernity is the media; they have the power to establish a physiological openness among the population [3
]. One reason why the environmental aspect of sociology did not take off was an apprehension that it would take the focus away from the debate that many sociologists thought was more important—class. Even when no one could close their eyes from the environmental issues they were facing, they still said that it was class-related problems that were the cause of the issues, instead of using environmental reasons [2
There are three important founders of classical sociological theories: Émile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx. Émile Durkheim is least likely to be recognized as an environmental sociologist. Émile Durkheim stated that social facts are more important than physical and environmental facts. He put very little effort in the environmental part of sociology and insisted that social facts “are consequently the proper field of sociology” [2
] (p. 6). Max Weber, on the other hand, took environmental sociology into account. He connected economy, science, government and industries with geographical attributes. The third one, Karl Marx, was the one who has provoked the most widespread response from present-day environmental commentators. Marx has affected modern-day environmental sociology the most. He only touched the subject in his work, but many of his ideas later became the starting point for modern theories of the environment. Marx and his colleague, Friedrich Engels, believed that the class conflict did not profit any side of the conflict; instead it alienates people from their work and from nature. This was obvious in the industrial revolution when it was more profitable to use the land for industries rather than agriculture, which forced rural workers to give up their lands and move to cities that were polluted and crowded. Marx and Engels were convinced that capitalism was to blame for these events that eventually led to a bad state for the whole society. They wanted to make the gap between nature and people smaller and reinstate the bond between them, but did not know how to establish it. Marx talked about the “humanization of nature” which he said will give humans a better understanding of nature and how we can co-exist in a way that benefits both the environment and us. He even pointed out specific environmental issues and saw the importance of ecological sustainability. Both Marx and Engels were pro-organic agriculture since they saw the danger in taking away all the nutrients in the soil and using chemicals to get more crops. They suggested that to stop pollution from fertilizers, farmers could use recycled human waste from the city instead [2
None of these three founders—Durkheim, Weber and Marx—spoke directly about environmental sociology, but they were all talking about it indirectly, as they were talking about humans and nature. It was not a single discovery that made environmental sociology a field of inquiry; it was more like a movement driven by political reasons for social reform. Various publications of books and reports during the 1970s drew more intellectual and public attention towards environmental issues and problems. When sociologists first started discussing environmental issues and problems in the 1970s, they applied social theories to the environmental issues; soon a distinct field of study began to emerge. They made a distinction between two parts, one of which studied the interaction between the society and the environment, and the other which dealt more with environmental issues. This separation today is not very clear as both parts often go under the umbrella of environmental sociology [2
The term “environmental sociology” was first used in 1971 by Samuel Klausner in his book On Man in His Environment
]. Riley Dunlap came across Klausner´s book and the term several years later and he is considered one of the founders of this field. He focused mostly on the relationship between modern industrial societies and the physical environments they inhabit. According to many, Earth Day in 1970 was the debut of the modern environmental movement. It all started as a small proposal for national awareness on the environment, but soon, it had grown into a much larger event, with many participants around the world. “Earth Day 1970” symbolizes “Day 1” of the new environmentalism and it is widely used in the American mass media [2
]. It was during this time that environmental sociology became an officially recognized subfield in sociology and the environmental issues started getting more attention on a political level. Sociologists started to incorporate formal niches for environmental sociology, as the Rural Sociological Society´s Natural Resource Research Group was formed in 1960s, the Society for the Social Problem started a group in 1973 and the American Sociological Association´s Environment and Technology group was formed in 1976. Also, among the population, it became a bigger and bigger topic and due to several environmental crises, such as the energy crises in the early 1970s and the Love Canal incident in 1978, and people became more aware of environmental issues and problems. Political actions were also made, both on national and international levels; notable among them was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 [1
]. Later on, the Global Environmental Change Programme was established in the UK and the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997. Further, in the 1990s, environmental sociology was being taught all over the world [2
Today’s world is facing a lot of different problems related to economic growth and environmental protection, and environmental sociology provides key tools to understand them. The “21 issues for the 21st century” is a list made by the United Nations Environmental program (UNEP) that proposes a sustainable earth through keeping the global environment under review and bringing emerging issues to the attention of governments and the international community for action. The problems are divided into five different main issues: cross-cutting issues, land issues, water issues, climate-change issues and development issues. All of the issues are ranked by the UNEP Foresight panel which includes 22 distinguished members of the scientific community from 16 developing and industrialized countries. The issue ranked number one is the cross-cutting issue: Aligning Governance to the Challenges of Global Sustainability. Many governments do not have the capacity to support environmental actions on a global level, but without governments’ support it is going to be hard for the world to solve the environmental issues that lie ahead. Some other issues posing sustainability challenges on the list include: new challenges for ensuring food safety and food security for nine billion people, new challenges for climate change mitigation and adaptation, managing the unintended consequences and changing the face of waste, solving the impending scarcity of strategic minerals and avoiding electronic waste. All of the issues listed have one thing in common: they have become issues because of the way humans use the natural environment [5
One challenge we find in today’s society is the correlation between social and environmental vulnerability. This gives different countries different capabilities to cope with environmental disasters depending on economic and political factors. In history, it is mostly the developed countries that contributed to the anthropogenic environmental problems and issues since they were the first to build large-scale factories and their inhabitants had more money to purchase cars, indulge in mass consumption, and lead lifestyles that harmed the environment. The environmental problems caused by these anthropogenic factors are not only affecting these developed countries but rather the contrary: developing countries are often more exposed to disasters derived largely from human impacts. Developing countries are often more environmentally vulnerable. They are not only afflicted and affected by disasters from human activity, but also by natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and extreme dry periods. Their lack of infrastructure, poor governmental establishment and tight economy make it harder for them to cope with these problems; rather, these factors damage these countries even more, making it even harder to recover from future disasters, and they end up in a vicious circle. The consumption patterns in the world lead to an increasing and unending demand. Developed countries, where the demand often comes from, put pressure on the developing countries to drain their natural resources. This can ruin their environment and lead to a massive loss of biodiversity, but not all developing countries will prioritize environmental protection over economic growth. The resources move from the developing countries to more affluent ones, leading to a core-periphery dynamics where the assets move from countries in the periphery into the core, while political pressure moves in the reverse direction [6
]. The developed countries take advantage of more environmentally vulnerable countries. It not only forces the poor countries to drain their natural resources but also leads to higher emissions of greenhouse gases, thus speeding up global warming. For this to stop, demand needs to decrease. However, to decrease demand is hard since it is often correlated with economic development, something all countries strive for. Countries need to find a way to achieve development without necessarily having to increase demand.
There are many problems regarding the human impact on the environment such as the dilemma and tension between the economy and the environment, increasing demand and environmental vulnerability. Environmental sociology is a tool we can use to understand the complexity of the problems and find solutions, thus making sustainable development a reality and not just a dream. This is necessary if we are going to continue living on this earth and live together with other species in a harmonious manner.
3. Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology
The powerful lens provided by environmental sociology is important not only to understand the current environmental problems and challenges, but also to devise solutions for a sustainable earth. This Special Issue of Sustainability provides an environmental sociology approach to understanding and achieving the widely used notion of “sustainability”, focusing on, among other topics, the inherent discursive formations of environmental sociology, conceptual tools and paradoxes, competing theories and practices, and their complex implications on our society at large.
Some papers in this Special Issue have solid conceptual and theoretical contributions to the study of sustainability. Longo and his colleagues, for example, problematized the prevailing notion of sustainability and sustainable development as mired in a “pre-analytic vision” that naturalizes capitalist social relations and closes off important questions regarding economic growth. To overcome this problem with the sustainability discourse, the authors highlight how several environmental sociology perspectives—such as human ecology, the treadmill of production, and metabolic analysis—can serve as the basis for a more integrative “socio-ecological conception” and can help advance the field of sustainability science [25
]. To better understand and theorize sustainability in a post-natural age, Arias-Maldonado, on the other hand, suggested that environmental sociology should incorporate and reconsider the “anthropocenic turn” in its fold for a realistic understanding of sustainability. The anthropocene, as he explains, is a scientific notion, grounded in geology and Earth-system science, which plausibly suggests that human beings have colonized nature to a degree that has irreversibly altered the functioning of planetary systems, and, consequently, social and natural systems have become “coupled”. Elucidating the consequences of the “anthropocenic turn” for sustainability studies, his paper explores the related notions of hybridity and relational agency as key aspects of a renewed view of nature [26
Other papers applied various tools of environmental sociology in addressing various environmental issues and problems affecting societies and communities around the world. Islam and his colleagues, for example, applied the treadmill of production theory and environmental governance to understand the causes and consequences of trans-boundary haze pollution in Southeast Asia and proposed sustainability through a plural coexistence framework [27
]; Hui-Ting Tang and Yuh-Ming Ling, assembling disparate information across time, space and discipline in their paper, aim to build a clear and concise synthesis of sustainable urban development not only to serve as an essential reference for decision- and policy-makers, but also to encourage more strategically organized sustainability efforts [28
]. Sustainability with “academic ecohealth” literature, focusing on existing engagements and future prospects [29
]; certified organic farming, posing a “metabolic rift” similar to conventional agriculture [30
]; hybrid arrangements and governance as a form of “ecological modernization” in understanding the complexity of climate governance and energy efficiency in US cities [31
]; and the extent to which forms of certification in global agro-food value chains guarantee sustainability [32
] are among the key case studies in this Special Issue that advance our understanding of sustainability through the lens of environmental sociology.
Two papers clearly signal towards methodological innovations within environmental sociology in understanding and addressing today’s sustainability challenges. Mark Brown made a large-scale textual and discourse analysis to show how multinational corporations manage and naturalize “nature-business” through developing a vocabulary and a “grammar” which enables them to manage natural spaces in the same way that they are able to manage their own far-flung business operations [33
]. Sing Chew and Daniel Sarabia, on the other hand, suggest a robust historical analysis of nature-culture relations, focusing on early globalization dating back 5000 years, climate change and system crisis. They believe a long-term tracing of the socioeconomic and political processes of the making of the modern world will allow us to have a more incisive understanding of the current trajectory of world development and transformations [34
Papers published in this issue thus focus on how sustainable development has been understood through different theoretical lenses in environmental sociology, such as ecological modernization, policy/reformist sustainable development, and critical structural approaches (such as the treadmill of production, ecological Marxism, metabolic rift theory, etc.). Also, review papers and original manuscripts draw on how sustainable development has been practiced in, or by, various stakeholders, such as states, corporations, and local communities, for various ends, through the use of specific case studies, showing, for example, the discursive shifts, dynamic formations, and diverse contours of sustainable development. The lens of environmental sociology on sustainability in this Special Issue has therefore been expressed through conceptual and theoretical contributions, methodological innovations, and critical analyses of various cases around the world.