The Sociology of the Environment and Nature

Steven Yearley. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.

Sociology’s Ambivalence about Nature and the Environment

In much of Europe at least, sociology was far slower than other social sciences, notably economics, anthropology, politics and geography, to interest itself in the environment and in nature. In part this tardiness was due to the reluctance of sociologists to take the environment at face value (see Newby, 1991). Sociologists had generally adopted a constructivist attitude towards the natural world and were accustomed to treating claims about the naturalness’ of things as an ideological front. Claims about the natural’ differences between the sexes or between races had been rejected by the majority of sociologists; more interest was shown in the business of ‘deconstructing’ these claims. A consequence of this outlook was that more or less any claims about the supposed natural underpinnings of societal arrangements were viewed with scepticism and were seen as less intellectually interesting than critiques of false naturalization. The incorporation of environmental concerns into such sociological analyses appeared to demand a suspension of this deconstructive attitude and was accordingly unattractive.

Admittedly, some sociologists were not subject to these aversions. Neo-Marxist analysts were often quite happy to interpret environmental problems as further evidence of the real, and in that sense natural, damage done by the capitalist system (Schnaiberg, 1980). The standard lists of concerns over alienation and exploitation could be extended to include the exploitation of nature. And, given the apparent reluctance of the industrialized world’s working classes to object to capitalist oppression and to engage in the class politics anticipated by mainstream Marxists, the damage done to the environment seemed to offer an attractively concrete case in point for demonstrating the perils of capitalism. Marxists were joined in their ready acceptance of the reality of environmental concerns by some proponents of the more pluralistic traditions of North American sociology. Without a firm and exclusive commitment to specific foundational explanatory factors, these sociologists were more easily able to add environmental considerations to their lists of influential variables (see Buttel and Humphrey, 2002). This strategy gave rise to the so-called New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) in North American sociology which sought to include an environmental dimension in its analyses (Dunlap, 1994,2002). As Dunlap et al. have recently argued, this called for environmental sociology to recognize its ‘core as the study of societal-environmental interactions’ (2002:20).

Sociologists who were attracted to neither of these approaches, neither the neo-Marxist nor the NEP, have been faced with the challenge of reconceptualizing sociology’s approach to environmental issues and with having at the same time to face up to problems with sociological conceptualizations of nature (Benton, 1991). Accordingly, the strategy of this chapter is to identify the key areas in this sociological re-writing of environmental themes and in sociology’s approach to nature.

Modernity and Cultures of Environmental Concern: Or why do we Care about Nature and the Environment?

In an important sense, the key sociological question about recent environmental concern is why it has risen to prominence at all. By the start of the twenty-first century, environmental movements—and the movement organizations which often guided them—had consolidated their position in Western industrial societies. In opinion polls, populations frequently pronounced themselves highly concerned about environmental problems (Office for National Statistics, 1999: 184). Environmental organizations, both ‘traditional’ conservation groups and those of relatively recent descent such as Greenpeace, had large memberships, typically on a par with mainstream political organizations and within an order of magnitude of the membership of trade unions. In the 1990s the British conservation and bird-enthusiast group the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds passed the million-member mark, easily three times the typical size of the Labour or Conservative party during that decade. And in many countries, particularly where the electoral system facilitated the development of small parties, Green parties were enjoying moderate success, even forming the smaller ‘half’ of the ruling partnership in Germany after the 1998 elections and again when the government was re-elected in 2002. The Green political philosophy, commonly referred to as ecologism, had become the first successful, progressive mainstream ‘ism’ to enter politics since socialism’s rise over half a century before (for an exploration see Dobson, 1995).

On the face of it, the explanation for this social and political innovation appears straightforward. The increasing frequency and severity of environmental problems, together with enhanced expert understanding of complex ecological topics, forced the issue to the forefront of public life and policy intervention. This line of reasoning is fundamentally supported by ‘realist’ social analysts of all colours (see Murphy, 1995), including the advocates of the NEP and neo-Marxists described above (for a recent example see Dickens, 1992). Though it appears to have much in its favour, one difficulty it faces is that many environmental issues—even if real—are plainly remote from everyday experience so that their reality is not apparent to ordinary citizens. Certain kinds of air pollution can be smelled and tasted, but damage to the ozone layer (some thirty kilometres above the earth’s surface) is not apparent to anyone. And one cannot easily claim that in those cases where citizens lack direct experience of environmental realities they accept the testimony of scientists about the underlying truths. In several notable cases, such as over nuclear safety, over the risks from mobile phones and the acceptability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), members of the public have shown themselves reluctant to accept the official proclamations of the scientific establishment.

The realists’ explanatory storyline can be strengthened somewhat by adding a complementary idea commonly known as the ‘post-materialism thesis.’ Suggestions about post-materialism are usually traced back to the work of Maslow, a psychologist who advanced the proposal that humans have a hierarchy of needs (1954). On this view, it is only when basic needs for survival are met that human cultures can concern themselves with longer-term material and psychological demands. When these in turn are satisfied, people can look to various personal development needs, relating to psychological satisfaction and other non-material goods. The post-materialist hypothesis suggests that, in the second half of the twentieth century, populations in the advanced industrial countries were able to attend to less immediate needs and became receptive to messages and values concerning more intangible goods including environmental protection. In a series of empirical studies, mostly conducted using attitude surveys, researchers claim to have detected broad trends towards the espousal of post-material values and an associated rise in environmental concern in wealthier societies. Sensitized to the importance of non-material goods, populations are receptive to claims about environmental protection which chime with their post-material values (see Inglehart, 1990).

This line of reasoning can also be bolstered by considering the socio-economic roots of many environmental problems. In essence, commentators have argued that environmental problems have lately become particularly pervasive for four kinds of reason. First, with the systematic development of industrialism, human societies are able to exert an unprecedented impact on the environment. Though humans have always transformed their environments, often destructively, we are now able to exaggerate that impact. We are able to operate on an unparalleled scale, digging huger mines, fishing more exhaustively and deforesting more thoroughly than ever before. Additionally, two specific aspects of liberal capitalism also tend to promote environmental damage. The first aspect of capitalism is its commitment to growth. The greatest boast of the capitalist system is that it has generated more economic growth than any other system. Even if the free market tends to generate large disparities in wealth within societies, societies as a whole tend to become consistently wealthier in formal economic terms. Apologists for the free market accordingly argue that even the poor are better off under capitalism since, though they may never get close to the wealth of the rich, because of general growth they will tend to experience a rising trend in personal income. Competition between firms also tends to promote growth since companies that fail to grow face being driven to the wall by expanding competitors. Firms cannot content themselves with mere success but must strive for ever-greater success. The consequence of this is that, on average, mature capitalist economies experience growth every year. Even an economy such as that of the UK which has performed rather modestly since the 1970s has averaged more than a 2 per cent annual growth rate over that period. Given compound interest, this results in the doubling of the economy with nearly every generation, entailing an ever-bigger demand for energy, agricultural products and raw materials. Growth, a seeming imperative of the capitalist system, appears to impel the system towards environmental harmful-ness (see Yearley, 1992b: 144-7).

The third consideration (and the second one tied to the functioning of capitalism) relates to the operation of the pricing system. Many environmental problems can be seen as the result of people benefiting from the resources of the natural world without paying for those resources. For example, car drivers contaminate the air with the emissions from their exhaust pipes but do not have to pay for the diminution of air quality or for the consequential impacts on, for example, pedestrians who have to breathe the sullied air. Advocates of the free market argue that market systems succeed so well because the price mechanism sends signals to consumers and producers, and allows them to match their desires with the supply of goods and services. However, since so many environmental goods are left outside this system of prices—the worth of clean air, the value of landscapes and wildlife, the benefits of a dependable climate—the free market cannot but turn out to be injurious to environmental interests. Of late, economists have sought to argue that the way to remedy these problems is not to reject the wisdom of the market but to introduce reforms that assign prices to environmental goods (Pearce et al., 1989). People happily pay for pure’ bottled waters, so there is evidently an economic value in clean water supplies. However, it is by no means clear that economic values could be attached to all aspects of the environment that people value (Jacobs, 1994). Worse still, many analysts doubt the wisdom of accepting that environmental values can all be measured in financial terms: this would appear to imply that all environmental goods have their price and that, for the right price, it would be reasonable to accept the disappearance of the blue whale or the pervasiveness of foul air in our cities. Environmental economics equates the ‘correct’ value of the environment with its market value, not with the ecological importance or value of a process, species or habitat (O’Neill, 1993).

Lastly, it is commonly noted that the operation of modern liberal democracies tends to lead governments to adopt relatively short-term policy strategies. With elections every four or five years, governments are encouraged to favour policies that will result in popularity before the date of the next election; they have little incentive to focus on issues that will pay dividends only in subsequent decades. There has therefore been a systematic temptation to favour the short term over the long, to prize house- and road-building over habitat protection and to privilege the use of natural resources to create jobs and material wealth.

It is important, however, to acknowledge one weakness in the line of reasoning outlined in the foregoing paragraphs. It is notable that the majority of the emphasis in the social scientific and economic study of environmental problems has been placed on the production side. It is somehow palpable that environmental despoliation can occur in the course of production, whether from mining and other extractive industries, from the use of solvents in industrial processes or from the energy consumed during manufacture. However production makes no sense without consumption, and interesting arguments have arisen of late among cultural analysts of consumption (Shove and Warde, 2002). To some extent these ideas revolve around a reasonably straightforward investigation of consumption patterns. The point is that environmental and allied concerns can spread back from the consumer to the producer so that, for example, consumer resistance to genetically modified foodstuffs in the late 1990s in Europe and parts of East Asia had a big impact both on farmers’ planting decisions—even in the United States, where farmers had to make guesses about the future preferences of European customers for their exports—and ultimately on the fortunes of GM-seed-producing companies. In this sense, Marxist-style arguments about the treadmill of production need to be complemented by analyses of straightforward consumer pressure. Consumption itself may be susceptible to the logic of ecological reform (see Spaargaren, 1997: 161-201): consumer pressure or concerted lobbying about the containers in which, say, hamburgers are served can lead companies to use less harmful or more readily recyclable materials and so on.

But there is a rather more subtle point, namely that in high-modern cultures consumption appears to have moved even further from simple provisioning (providing the necessities of life) to an apparently autonomous activity in its own right. Going shopping is perhaps the leading leisure activity in Britain, Japan and many parts of North America. Consumers seem to favour confirming (perhaps even ‘constructing’) their individuality through their purchasing decisions and accordingly the market for ‘designer’ goods and for apparel bearing the maker’s label has swollen dramatically. Ecological concerns have not meshed easily with this process to date since environmentalists’ favourite arguments about sufficiency appear to miss the mark altogether. Admittedly, certain brands (most famously perhaps the Body Shop) have sought to build their appeal around their environmentally benign corporate philosophy. But in most cases the connection (if there is any at all) has tended to be a negative one; brands represent values at odds with conservationist philosophies. Brands that have built an image around a value (such as excelling at competitive sports) more or less irrelevant to environmental performance or to observance of human rights among developing-country workers have been targeted for protests on account of their environmental or employment standards. Even where these protests have been effective, they have not got at the heart of what brands and shopping are about but have been largely tangential since they fail to recognize the contemporary social functions of consumption. The shopping experience (Falk and Campbell, 1997), precisely because it is no longer about getting the most goods for the least money, is not readily susceptible to the imposition of direct environmental performance standards.

In these ways, environmental harms appear to be the more-or-less automatic consequence of modern industrial, consumerist, liberal capitalism. The realist view (shared by neo-Marxists and adherents of the NEP) is that environmentalism is the counter-reaction. This reaction is most pronounced where socio-economic circumstances have promoted post-material values.

Environmentalism and the Specificities of Late-Modern Culture

In recent years, other analysts have taken a rather more sceptical view of the post-materialist interpretation of the rise of environmentalism and environmental movements. The idea that the key thing about contemporary environmentalism is the presence of novel values has met with suspicion. In part, this suspicion is generic, directed at any sociological explanations that depend on the autonomous power of values (see Barnes, 1995: 233-34). Critics note that while people may espouse values in attitude surveys, they do not necessarily live according to the precepts which might be thought to derive from those values. In any event, values are typically insufficiently precise to shape how people will act in specific practical situations. These critical points have left space for other sociologists to advance alternative interpretations of the specifics of contemporary environmentalism.

Among the more concrete of these has been the argument made by Berger (1986) that susceptibility to claims about the need for environmental protection is most pronounced in a subset of the middle classes. Berger develops the well-known argument about the rise of a new middle class, which he calls the knowledge class. This class fraction differs from the ‘old’ middle class in that the raison d’être of characteristic occupations is not to serve the interests of business and capital (as accountants and surveyors typically do) but to use specialist skills to address the problems created by contemporary social life. Characteristic knowledge class jobs include social work and counselling. This class fraction accordingly has two key interests: an interest in the legitimacy of intervention and regulation and an interest in securing respect for status based on qualification rather than on straightforward commercial competitive success. Berger argues that members of the knowledge class are therefore likely to be predisposed towards such causes as environmental intervention, both because the cause demands regulatory intervention and because the ‘reality’ of the problem is attested to by scientifically and technically credentialled spokespersons.

This is not to suggest that all environmentalists are members of the knowledge class or that all those who work in knowledge class occupations support environmentalism. Other people may have an interest in the identification and resolution of environmental problems, including people from commercial middle class or from working class backgrounds who happen to develop an interest in, say, bird-life or whose lives expose them or their families to rankly polluting industry. Equally, there are other causes to which members of the knowledge class may be attracted. Problems of human rights, of the plight of refugees, of the exploitation of animals or over the compassionate treatment of farm livestock, along with several others, fit the profile for appealing to the knowledge class. Members of the class have, one might say, an elective affinity with these causes. But to account for the relative success of these competing causes one needs to turn to a different set of factors, factors concerned with the ‘marketing’ of the different causes.

Accordingly, the explanation offered by Berger is often accompanied by ideas about competition between organizations or individuals that make claims about problems in need of solution (Yearley, 1992a: 47-76). In the context of the environmental movement, these are commonly ‘movement organizations’ such as Friends of the Earth or the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). To some extent these environmental groups are in competition with each other, for members, sponsors and publicity. But they are also part of a bigger competition to have their problem-claims recognized in the media, by officials and by politicians. They need endangered animals and threatened environments to be recognized as social problems ranking alongside or above ‘rival’ causes such as social discrimination and the plight of homeless young people.

At this point, this interpretation seems to come close to the realist outlook for, if there is really nothing to justify the environmentalists’ alarm calls, the success of claims-making organizations is hard to understand. However, repeated case study analyses have indicated that in many cases the actual extent of the problem is hard to gauge. For example, the issue may be very remote, as with the ozone layer, it may be inevitably conjectural, as with the consequences of climate change, or it may be a matter of probabilities, as with the potential hazard from nuclear waste repositories. The compellingness of environmentalists’ problem-claims thus appears only partially related to direct evidence about the severity of an issue, and to be significantly related to the groups’ success in ‘marketing’ the problem-claim (see Hannigan, 1995: 38-57; Yearley, 1992a: 74-6). Thus, while it is hard to imagine how environmental organizations could make problem-claims in the absence of any environmental threats at all, their ability to make persuasive claims does not appear to be at all closely tied to the demonstrable nature of particular problems. The character of environmentalism is accordingly shaped in an iterative fashion between the claims-making strategies of campaign organizations and the sensibilities of the receptive audience. To put this another way, environmentalism is socially constructed through this process of iteration.

In the past decade an alternative interpretation has been put forward and has won wide support. On this view, what we have come to recognize as ‘ecological concerns’ are only concerns about the natural world in a limited sense; they are as much concerns about people’s behaviour as about the natural environment. To explain why, we need to place contemporary environmental concerns in a broad historical context. Early modern societies, before the industrial revolution, were characterized by many worries about the external environment. Harvests and food supply depended critically on climate conditions, societies experienced periodic problems of shortages with natural resources, and communications could be completely disrupted by adverse weather. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the common experience was that the external environment was coming more and more under human control. Weather forecasting and climatological understanding improved; enhanced farming techniques seemed to free societies more and more from abject dependence on nature. And even if the degree of control over the environment was still highly limited, there was at least optimism that the control would progressively increase. The present was reasonably bright and the future brighter still.

The key recent development has been the reversal of this optimism. Critically, this reversal has happened not so much because the environment has not submitted to further controls, but because the controls themselves have caused new and unexpected harms. Control over food production seemed to be offered by industrial agrochemicals but these turned out to be potentially harmful to consumers and to the wildlife we had come to value. Mass generation of energy freed us from a kind of dependency on the climate by allowing buildings to be warmed or cooled as much as wished, but the nuclear power which offered to give us bountiful energy turned out to have hazards of its own. Accordingly, the central claim here is that modern environmental concern is not so much a concern about the external environment but anxiety about a humanized nature; as Beck slightly gnomically puts it, ‘the ecological movement is not an environmental movement but a social, inward movement which utilizes “nature” as a parameter for certain questions’ (Beck, 1995: 55). Societies are freed from dependence on the vagaries of the weather but are now dependent for their security on the good behaviour of the operators of nuclear power stations. The new GM food production techniques currently on offer boast of a future free from anxieties about food scarcity, but leave us dependent for our food safety and environmental well-being on the adequacy of the regulatory system and the scientific testing of GMOs. Where we feared nature, we now worry about the dependability of organizations and regulatory systems.

On this view, therefore, modern environmental concern is an anxiety about the environment only in a special and rather confined sense. More important, this kind of anxiety is not limited to topics commonly thought of as environmental. For example, a parallel story can be told about medical control over nature. Early modern worries about external sources of disease were partly displaced by optimism about new drugs and treatments, before it turned out that modern medical and animal-management practices using rather indiscriminate dosages of antibiotics were leading to ‘super-bugs’ and treatment-resistant illnesses. Most recently, there has been widespread concern about possible military uses of smallpox. This disease was all but eradicated worldwide, and held only in research facilities in the two leading Cold War powers. In a smallpox-free world vaccination programmes had largely been suspended. Worry about an external threat from a marauding disease is now replaced by concerns about the integrity and dependability of the scientists and technical officials guarding the virus samples. We realize we have delegated control over much of the environment to a few agencies and people; environmental concern is a concern that these agencies maybe no safer than wild nature’ previously was. In extreme cases—as with terrorist access to biological weapons, possibly based on smallpox—harms may be imposed deliberately not adventitiously. On this view, contemporary (late-modern) societies are characterized by continuing concerns over potential self-imposed risks: they are ‘risk societies.’ Environmentalism is simply one symptom of late-modern risk anxiety (see Giddens, 1994: 202-12).

Knowing Nature

Though, as Berger and Beck acknowledge, environmental anxieties are similar to many other current social concerns in terms of the character of the attentive audience and of the kinds of arguments mobilized in public debate, environmental problems tend to be distinctive in one particular dimension. Environmental problems are problems in the natural world and are therefore frequently understood, expressed and debated in scientific terms. The threat of climate change, for example, only makes sense within the context of scientific understandings of atmospheric chemistry, solar radiation and meteorological patterns. Common-sense and everyday experience are not good guides to whether climate change is occurring. In particular, they are not good guides to whether climate change is occurring because of releases of additional greenhouse gases or for some other reason, nor to what the implications of climate change may be a decade or more from now. The politics and culture of environmentalism accordingly have a closer relationship with scientific expertise than most other areas of public life (Yearley, 1992c).

On the face of it, one might suppose that this scientific component of environmental knowledge would tend to assist those making claims about environmental problems since they would have scientific ‘facts’ on their side. One might also expect that the prevalence of scientific considerations would promote agreement since the scientific results would usher people on opposing sides of any dispute into accord. One can point to instances where the central role of scientific knowledge has had something like these favourable consequences. Thus, without simplifying dramatically, one can argue that members of the university-based scientific community worked out that there was a hypothetical pollution risk from substances (most notoriously CFCs) that might degrade the ozone layer (see Benedick, 1991). The suspected ozone depletion was then detected by scientific equipment deployed in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and, subsequently, government officials organized teams of scientific advisers to work out strategies for agreed international reductions in ozone-depleting substances.

However, the relationship between science and environmental protection has not always been this straightforward (and indeed was not that straightforward in this case either, see Yearley, 1996: 110-15). On the contrary, environmentalists have commonly seen demands for scientific proof used to delay or avoid action on ecological problems. For example, up to the 1990s, environmental organizations and many scientists repeatedly expressed concerns about acidic emissions from power stations, factories and vehicles. They proposed that these gas emissions were responsible for the increasingly acid character of rainwater which appeared to be falling in neighbouring regions, a few hundred kilometres away. This ‘acid rain’ was said to be causing trees to die in large numbers and to be harming wildlife by making rivers and lakes too acidic. By and large, the attitude of the authorities was to accept that this story was possibly true. But they demanded more scientific evidence before they would take any action to curb acid emissions since it would—they said—be irresponsible to impose costs on the power industry and on consumers without being sure that such action would have demonstrable environmental benefits. Much more recently a similar pattern of argument has surrounded debates over the environmental safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), particularly foodcrops genetically engineered for resistance to weedkillers or to exhibit resistance to certain insect pests. In the past, farmers have not needed special environmental authorization to plant new varieties of food-crops; environmentalists argue that GM crops are different and need to be thoroughly checked for adverse consequences before they can be planted. The authorities argue that tests to date have shown the crops to be harmless and that there should be no further restriction unless undesirable side effects become manifest. In both these cases, the experience of environmental campaigners has been that demands for scientific proof have tended to be used to defend the status quo. Thus, far from the centrality of science ensuring that agreement is reached, science’s role can sometimes appear to be that of protecting the existing state of affairs from environmental reform.

In other ways too scientific reasoning maybe used to thwart environmentalists’ objectives. During the Reagan years (most of the 1980s) in the USA, industrialists challenged a series of environmental standards and regulations which had been introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They sought judicial review of the EPA’s regulations, arguing before the courts that their industries had been unfairly treated. Using rather idealized notions of standards of scientific proof, industry representatives argued, often successfully, that the EPA’s rulings had not been based on the most rigorous science (Jasanoff, 1990: 180-207; see also Yearley, 1997). The weakening of environmental regulations which Reagan and his political allies sought was achieved as much through these indirect means as by explicit changes to the EPA and to environmental legislation.

One further dimension in which the practical weakness of science has been manifest can be demonstrated through the case of climate change. Climate change resulting from the enhanced greenhouse effect is thought by very many to be among the most severe international environmental problems. It could result in dramatic alterations in the climate with more intense storms and flooding, in rises in sea-level as the seas expand and as ice melts into the oceans, and in threats to wildlife as habitats are transformed by changing weather patterns. For obvious reasons, much of the running on the diagnosis of this problem and on forecasting its implications has been made by scientific bodies. But even in this urgent and dramatic case, the involvement of scientists has not guaranteed agreement. For one thing, the necessary predictions are technically very difficult. Ordinary weather forecasting runs up against limitations after approximately two weeks; it is accordingly difficult to have great confidence in climate predictions which are made decades into the future. Worse still, these predictions necessarily depend on making assumptions about how the overall weather system will respond to warming; it may be that the relatively settled patterns of air and water flows which underlie current weather forecasts will themselves be altered by global temperature rises. These inherent difficulties with the business of climate prediction are compounded by other factors: for example, as climate models demand enormous computing power, the leading models are concentrated in the developed world. Lacking ownership of—and possibly even access to—these models, policymakers from countries of the South may treat the models with a certain degree of suspicion (see Yearley, 1996: 102-7). Equally, the models need to be checked against data on climate conditions supplied from around the world, but it is hard to ensure that similar standards of data quality are observed everywhere. Sophisticated models maybe fed dubious data. On balance, even though concerns about climate change are fundamentally based on appeals to science, that does not guarantee that policymakers are knowledgeable or agreed about the extent of the problem.

One final issue needs to be considered in this section. It seems quite reasonable for social scientists to want to have an assessment of the seriousness of environmental problems. Evidently, there is some presumption that environmental difficulties are serious enough to merit all the regulation and social movement activity that surrounds them. And, of course, realist social scientific explanations treat the severity of ecological problems as the key component in their accounts of the rise of environmentalism as a social phenomenon. However, there are considerations of humility which should stop social scientists straying too far in this direction. The extent of many environmental problems, even the most important ones, is not easy to determine, as is evidenced by the succession of contradictory ‘state of the world’ assessments which have been published (see Lomborg, 2001 for a well-known example). This is both because the biggest problems, such as suspected global climate change, are exceedingly hard to prove conclusively and because the human health effects of environmental pollutants appear to be complex and multicausal. To illustrate these in turn, it is accepted by all commentators that climates are subject to unpredictable variations. Accordingly, there will for many years be reasons to suppose that any apparent climate change is down to natural variations rather than to humanly induced climate shifts. If policy actions are to be taken in a timely way, they will have to be initiated before irrefutable evidence of alterations in the climate is available; policymakers therefore inevitably run the risk of taking actions based on erroneous suppositions. Second, it is widely accepted that air pollution can have serious health effects. But with mobile populations, with the fact that over their working life workers are exposed to a great variety of different gases, and with changing patterns of vehicle pollution, it is hard to know in many cases exactly which air-borne chemicals are the causes of particular disorders. Environmentalists themselves, sensing the precariousness of binding themselves to the factual correctness of each and every one of their claims, have often preferred to talk about generalities rather than specifics. So complex and uncertain are these issues acknowledged to be, that attempts to give an assessment of the state of the environment have, at the start of the twenty-first century, come to be as much a right-wing as an environmentalist or left-wing preoccupation.

Assessing Nature: Limits to Modernist Approaches

If it is difficult to arrive at an agreed and scientifically supported ‘objective’ characterization of environmental issues, there is one further complication besetting the involvement of scientific forms of reasoning in making environmental decisions. Very often, choices between policy options are defended on the basis of a cost-benefit calculation. Cost-benefit analyses (CBAs) attempt to evaluate policy alternatives by systematically comparing their respective advantages and drawbacks. The assumption is that a policy (for example, the construction of a new road link or a new bridge) is to be looked on with favour if its overall benefits outweigh its costs, particularly if the balance in its favour is larger than the benefit in favour of rival schemes. CBAs have become a central component of modernist approaches to environmental policy-making since they provide a way of comparing alternative policies and since they appear to offer an objective way of aggregating the benefit that people will derive. A new bypass road will, for example, provide benefits to many travellers and businesses but will increase the nuisance to people and wildlife living along the proposed route; it may also harm some small businesses that are by-passed. A CBA should allow this balance to be assessed systematically.

However, CBA-like activities have come under criticism on numerous occasions, from affected parties and from the environmental lobby. There have been two principal forms of objection. First, it may not be possible to assess the costs and benefits in an agreed way. When officials none the less proceed on the basis of CBAs, the procedure itself and the people who carry it out may come to be viewed as illegitimate. CBAs depend on the same assumptions about the objective nature of technical assessments as were reviewed in the last section above. Projections about the number of road users on a new by-pass, for example, are inevitably conjectural so that the benefits and costs cannot be weighed with confidence. Worse still, there have often been good grounds for public scepticism about the confidence they can place in the technical analysts called in to carry out CBAs. Experts may not have sufficiently detailed local knowledge or they may apply general principles in ways that do not work out in practice. In the extreme case, CBA technicians may favour the interests of the developer over local objectors and let that interest guide their interpretations; for example, the ‘costs’ of diffuse environmental harms may appear slight when measured against tangible increases in road traffic capacity or shorter projected journey times.

But if the technical difficulties were not daunting enough, the whole utilitarian background to CBAs can itself come under critical scrutiny. CBAs work’ because they offer to balance advantages against detriments so as to produce a calculation of net societal benefit. But this calculus itself may not be met with acceptance. The basis for the calculation may be rejected because people may not agree about what the relevant social unit of assessment is. Installing a park-and-ride scheme for visitors to a tourist city may bring pollution-reduction benefits to the city centre, but it may only exacerbate pollution problems around the out-of-town parking areas. Constructing a dam may yield advantages (including environmental benefits) for areas that receive the hydroelectric power but produce intense problems for people whose homes or farmlands are flooded behind the dam. In such cases, the outcome of the CBA depends critically on how the boundaries around the exercise are drawn. CBAs thus depend on essentially political decisions about the extent of the community whose interests are to be added up. CBAs commonly take political units for granted thus legitimizing the imposition of environmental harms on minority communities for the sake of the greater good of all. In the United States, where waste sites and polluting industry have recurrently been concentrated in ethnic minority areas, minority rights groups have rejected the idea that, for example, Native Americans’ areas can ‘rationally’ be polluted for the sake of the good of the overall US economy. Supposedly ‘technical’ forms of assessment such as CBAs have accordingly been opposed by many campaigns, campaigns that have called instead for ‘environmental justice’ (for an overview see Ringquist, 2000).

On top of this, campaigners have opposed CBAs because of the underlying assumption that all benefits and harms can be weighed on a single scale. They argue that some things may simply not be tradable for others: no amount of reduction in commuting times for example would be ‘worth’ the equivalent of the elimination of rare bird nesting sites (O’Neill, 1993). Proponents of CBAs argue that their techniques simply systematize the way we naturally think about comparing alternatives. But opponents claim that CBAs impose an alien decision-making strategy; such techniques, it is argued, are attempts to ‘colonize the mind’ (see Mulkay et al., 1987).

Very similar issues arise in relation to the way that policy analysts talk about risks. As mentioned above, Beck and other sociologists have attempted to characterize contemporary industrial societies as preoccupied with risks. But a more ‘modernistic’ conception of risk has proved attractive to many policy-making agencies which have used risk calculations as a way of rationalizing approaches to environmental dangers. As an example, environmental campaigners have long protested about the likely hazards of nuclear power. The nuclear industry has preferred to frame the issue in terms of risks. Industry spokespersons point out that many activities entail risks—driving a car, working in a coal mine, living in an earthquake zone as in San Francisco, or using a mobile phone. They claim that the risks of nuclear power need to be set alongside those attaching to other (widely accepted though still risky) social activities. Adherents of this line of reasoning typically suggest that a risk should be understood as the chance of the event happening multiplied by the impact of the event; on such a basis, nuclear power can look rather less risky than many accepted activities, including popular but dangerous sports. Official agencies in many Northern countries are inclined to tackle the majority of environmental problems, from nuclear safety, through mad cow disease’ to policy towards GMOs, on the basis of the language of calculated risks.

However, using numerous case studies, sociologists have again pointed out limitations to this point of view. For one thing, generalized calculations of risk do not necessarily correspond well to specific cases. Airlines are obliged to work out how quickly aircraft can be evacuated, but empirical tests of evacuation procedures inevitably have to make assumptions about the time of day and weather conditions during evacuation and about how many children, pregnant women or people with disabilities are in an ‘average’ passenger cohort. The risks for passengers on any particular flight are thus imprecisely related to the standard figures. Moreover, many topics of environmental concern translate imperfectly into the standard calculus of risk. In the case of mad cow disease,’ it is thought that the incubation time of the disorder may run into decades. Accordingly, the risk to which populations maybe exposed is as yet fundamentally unclear. The calculative language of risk cannot plausibly be applied if the probability of the problem is not known with much accuracy. Similarly, the likelihood of a nuclear reactor going wrong in the coming years cannot be calculated even on the basis of past experience since the reactors themselves are ageing and, in many cases, they are being managed in unprecedentedly cash-strapped times. Though we may live in risk societies, officially sanctioned techniques for calculating and distributing risks have time and again run into profound problems of legitimacy. Officials’ preference for technocratic analyses of risk has not won people over to the view that policy towards major environmental problems can best be worked out by trading risks against benefits to arrive at a socially optimal outcome (Wynne, 1996).

Environmentalism and the Sociology of the Future

Though seeming to start out as an application of well-tried sociological approaches (the sociological study of particular environmental problems and of popular and often successful pressure groups), environmental sociology has offered to become much more. Several authors have interpreted environmentalism itself as a social construction, while others have used anxieties over environmental risks to re-characterize the central preoccupations of contemporary Western societies. Writers in the latter tradition have proposed that environmental concerns are just one element in a denser fabric of anxieties and concerns over the growing ‘humanization of nature,’ thus tying environmental sociology into an understanding of a culture of pessimism in late modernity.

The sociological study of environmental topics has also helped to open up the topics of the source of value and the nature of rational choice in contemporary culture. Alongside persistent public unease over judgements about the value of life (as revealed, for example, in disputes over human cloning and over the right way to allocate scarce health care resources), it is contemporary disputes over the applicability of economic models and CBAs to environmental ‘goods’ that have formed the major challenges to the hegemony of market-led and utilitarian approaches to public policy. In particular, the unwillingness of publics to accept official assessments and allocations of risk—together with the growing popularity of environmental justice campaigns—has resulted in repeated, successful challenges to mainstream risk assessments. As yet, it is unclear how (or if) this void can be filled; to date the official preference has been to try to make the assessments more scientific or more accurate, thus failing completely to address issues at the heart of much of the discontent (Jasanoff, 1990:232-50).

Finally, environmental sociologists have stopped worrying so much about the debate over the ‘reality’ of environmental problems. Realists and constructivists can readily agree about the intractability of risk evaluations; they can both see that climate change models are inevitably imprecise. And they can both acknowledge that the key issues in the public politics of risk assessments are not usually narrow technical ones over whether the risk calculations are ‘correct’ or not. Instead, environmental sociologists find that their studies lead them to investigate pivotal issues in the way that contemporary cultural institutions try to fit modernist conceptual tools to the evaluation of culture and nature. In this sense the sociology of the environment is part of the enterprise of seeing beyond present practices and techniques to the sociology of the future.