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Sociology devoted to local and global ecological problems (like air pollution in cities, the greenhouse effect, or overfishing of the oceans) is active in at least three areas of research: theories of the emergence of ecological problems, environmental attitudes and behavior of the general public, and environmental behavior of corporate actors (business firms, environmental movement organizations, and the state).
Theories of ecological problems fit into the four general paradigms of sociological theory: functionalism/system theory, conflict theory/the political economy perspective, rational choice theory, and interactionist/constructivist approaches. Proponents of functionalism/system theory locate the reasons for ecological problems in the complexities of systems, both eco- and social systems; human beings have difficulty perceiving and predicting the dynamic system effects of their actions, so they destroy the equilibrium of well-adapted natural and social systems. The conflict theory/political economy perspective blames the logic of the capitalist and neoliberal economy for the environmental crisis; capitalist economies are based not only on the exploitation of workers, but to an even greater extent on that of natural resources. Rational choice theory states that ecological problems often have the structure of a social dilemma such as a ”commons dilemma” or a ”prisoner’s dilemma”; in a social dilemma, the rational individual strategy is non-cooperation and free-riding, i.e., pursuing one’s own interests at the expense of the environment. Interactionist/constructivist approaches emphasize that environmental problems – like other societal problems – are socially defined and culturally patterned; given this focus, they are interested primarily in social and political processes through which ecological problems are placed and kept on the problem agenda.
Starting from the premise that ecological problems are finally caused by maladaptive individual behavior, much research focuses on environmental attitudes and behavior in the general public. Judging by the results of surveys in different countries, environmental concern increased to a peak around 1990, but has since decreased or at least stagnated. Citizens with a higher level of environmental concern are usually more likely to be young, female, highly educated, have a higher income, and hold a progressive/liberal political worldview. Comparing different countries, a higher GNP is associated with more widespread environmental awareness. This finding has often been interpreted as an indication that the quality of the environment is a luxury good, important primarily to the rich. There are two opposing schools of thought on the issue of how to change environmentally harmful behavior of individual citizens: attitudinal approaches give priority to moral suasion, value change, and environmental education; structural approaches have a preference for legal restrictions, financial rewards, and more convenient opportunities for ecological behavior.
The interests and behaviors of corporate actors are as important for the quality of the environment as those of individual citizens. The activities of business firms have tremendous effects on the state of the environment, both direct and indirect. Sociologists investigate which industries cause serious environmental damage, under what conditions firms are motivated to improve their ecological performance, which instruments they use to do so, and what barriers prevent a successful implementation of devices developed to reduce negative environmental impacts. Corporate actors directly fighting for an improvement of environmental conditions have grown out of the so-called environmental movement that began at the end of the 1960s. Sociologists have established a separate line of inquiry called social movement research, which is also dedicated to the environmental movement and to environmental NGOs. Many claims and proposals originally articulated by environmental organizations have found acceptance in the conventional political system and are now part of the programs of mainstream political parties and governmental agencies. This means that corporate actors in the political arena have become the dominant players in the field of ecological problems. On the national level, governments have founded their own ministries for the environment, enacted numerous environmental laws, and initiated other policies aimed at the protection of natural resources. Despite disagreement over strategies and measures of success, most governments today declare ”sustainable development” to be the guiding principle behind their environmental policies. According to the well-known Brundtland Report (1987) which elaborated the idea of sustainable development on the international stage, such a development should guarantee that future generations will have a chance to fulfill their basic needs in a sound and healthy environment. More than two decades after the release of this report, it is safe to say more remains to be done in order to narrow the gap between sustainability goals and the actual condition of the environment.
- Gardner, G. T. & Stern, P. C. (1996) Environmental Problems and Human Behavior. Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA.
- Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., & Randers, J. (1992) Beyond the Limits. Post Mills, Chelsea Green.
- Ostrom, E. (1990) Governingthe Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.