Environmental sociology is the fastest-growing sub-discipline and looks at humans’ relationships with the environment. It focuses on the mistakes we have made and how they can be reversed and avoided in the future. Environmental studies involve a lot of science in their investigation of global warming, carbon emission, and the safety of drinking water. Sociology reminds us that both science and environmental science are political and deeply embedded in a social context. Scientific facts do not speak for themselves; they have to be interpreted by the researchers. Interpretations, however, are shaped by a researcher’s standpoint (whether they are paid by corporations or pro-environment groups) and are therefore subject to bias and misrepresentation of facts if they are on the side of the former.
Social science offers two ways to assess arguments about scientific facts. One is to examine the operational definitions used in the arguments: Are they accurate? Are they appropriate? However, some ideas, such as pollution, are difficult to define and definitions are contested. The development of operational definitions is aided by the peer review process, which means academic articles and books are brought under the scrutiny of other experts prior to publication. First, peer review is provided by the community of scholars and thus serves the advancement of the discipline as a whole. The second way is to identify the various stakeholders involved—those citizens, activists, researchers, governments, and corporations who hold a vested interest (social or financial interest) in the outcome of scientific research and the varying interpretations about the state of the environment.
Social ecology, as defined by Murray Bookchin, focuses on the relationship between the social and the environmental and the role of human behaviour in environmental issues. Social ecology emphasizes that ecological problems cannot be understood apart from the social problems from which they have risen. It has been used to better understand unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, industrial pollution, corporate and government responsibility, and environmental politics. We can use Mill’s sociological imagination to understand individual problems with broader social structures and their processes. For example, Paul Formby’s fight to have asbestos viewed as dangerous to miners represents one case where political and corporate power suppressed the dangers (cancers and asbestosis) to mine workers for many years. Formby was ultimately successful in raising awareness for asbestos as a highly toxic and dangerous substance which led to policies reducing risks, but production continued in Canada.
Not only are workers adversely affected by toxins produced in industry, but those living in the surrounding communities are also at risk. Most people who live near and are adversely affected by contaminants and poisons are also people who are already socially marginalized due to “race” or poverty. Such residents disproportionately bear the brunt of poison in drinking water, food, air, and land, demonstrated in the higher levels of cancers, brain tumors, miscarriages, birth defects, and deaths experienced by these populations. Huge multinational corporations such as Monsanto have tried various strategies to evade their responsibilities to their employees and people living in neighbourhoods polluted by their companies. However, some people have been mildly successful in bringing class-action suits against Monsanto, but rarely have gotten adequate, if any, compensation. Monsanto has also patented a number of life forms and successfully sued individual farmers. One such case is that of Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Schmeiser was sued for raising crops of Monsanto-patented canola, the seeds of which he had inadvertently harvested the year before from plants in his field. His fault was that the seeds had blown onto his property from neighbouring farms and he used them for the next harvest. Organization culture (the company and the work it does become a part of the individual identity of the employees, especially those at the upper level) and the moral community (individuals have shared mutual identities and commitment to a common purpose) help to explain how polluting industries (management and staff alike) operate.
Pollution is racialized, this trend is also known as environmental racism. Many toxic dump sites and toxic industrial processing plants are purposely located where non-whites live. For example, the City of Halifax located polluters and dumpsites near Africville. Similarly, oil companies observe different environmental guidelines in Africa than they do in Europe or North America. An example is the complicity between Royal Dutch Shell Oil and oil-friendly military dictatorships in Nigeria who brought about the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led the Ogoni people in non-violent protests against Shell. The Ogoni wanted a halt to oil exploration on the Niger Delta. The pollution of the oil industry differentially affects Nigeria’s black and white populations and illustrates the effects of colonialism in Africa even after independence.
Another example is the case of the Anishinabe people of Grassy Narrows, Ontario whose lands and rivers and fish (an important source of food and income) were polluted by mercury dumped into the English-Wabigoo river system upstream from Grassy Narrows by the Reed Pulp and Paper Company. The provincial government downplayed the issues as the industry was a major employer in Ontario. The people of Grassy Narrows led by Chief Andy Keewatin, pursued the case against both company and province, and contacted Japanese experts in mercury poisoning and taking their case to court. They eventually won $ 8.7 million out-of-court settlement from Reed Pulp and Paper. Despite their activism, agency, and victory and their ongoing involvement in environmental issues, the people of Grassy Narrows have been painted as voiceless victims in the government issues report written by Shkilnyk (1985).
Environmental issues intersect with “race,”, they also intersect with social class. Lower class people are more likely to live and work in conditions characterized by high levels of pollution or environmental hazards. Groups marginalized by poverty are further victimized by relative powerlessness against environmental waste, pollution, and destruction of their land, air, and drinking water. Poor people rarely have the luxury to move from polluted regions, nor are they able to to buy healthier and genetically unaltered (organic) foods. Class also relates to environmental problems in other ways. For example, the E. coli contamination of the water supply in Walkerton, Ontario—which killed seven people and made one-quarter of the population ill—raised questions regarding trust in the social management of pollution. The government’s crisis management reflects the rotten apple approach, which means blame is placed on isolated individuals, not the system itself.
A second example to view environment in a social context is the true cost of the China Price. While Canadian and American people and corporations are able to buy cheap goods from China and the Chinese government earns enormous profits from these sales, Chinese people bear the brunt of the adverse effects of making small wages, working in toxic and dangerous conditions, and dying to win the “survival of the cheapest” contest. Chinese people work in some of the world’s most polluted places, and the death toll is much higher than most westerners know as the state media’s iron control over anything that may interfere with capitalist business relations with the West. Although the possibility of pollution control was demonstrated during the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, the enormous financial benefits accrue to both the Chinese and westerners (corporations that outsource production and consumers) who profit from ignoring terrible working conditions. They (China and the West) keep this improvement from happening.
After reading chapter fourteen, you will be able to:
- Summarize the key goals of environmental sociology.
- Explain how operational definitions and vested interests shape scientific interpretations.
- Summarize key tenets of social ecology and provide examples.
- Define environmental racism.
- Show how “race” and class intersect and shape people’s relationship with the environment and environmental pollution.
- Analyze the complicity of the government with corporations to exploit the environment and the vulnerable working class and Indigenous communities.
- Appreciate Indigenous agency in the Grassy Narrows ecological disaster in Ontario.
- Correlate the causal link between ecological disasters and the ensuing positive social outcome.
- Understand the notion of “scientific mercenary” who willfully perpetuate environmental disasters.
- Fully engage with the ‘global implications of China price through the lens of sociological imagination’.