Nick J Fox and Pam Alldred
Our aim in this paper is bring to bear a materialist and monist perspective on how sociology has considered environment, and to develop an understanding of environmental sustainability as a maximisation of ecological potential (Fox and Alldred, 2017). Drawing on the work of Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti and Gilles Deleuze, we will promote a ‘posthuman’ and ecological sociological perspective that cuts across dualisms of nature and culture, and sees humans as fully integral to the ‘environment’, with the latter re-thought as the world of physical and social relations that is both productive of – and produced by – the on-going flow of events that comprise the history of the Earth and the universe.
Sociology, humans and the environment
Social sciences such as sociology, economics and political science treat ‘the environment’ as the broad social context for human action, and differentiate between the physical and biological environment and the social and cultural environment (Dunlap and Catton, 1979: 245). We can discern three distinct engagements between sociology and environment.
The first applied a view of ‘the environment’ as basically everything that is not part of a human body, a product of human agency, or a human construction. This perspective has been called by Catton and Dunlap (1978) a ‘human exemptionalist (or exceptionalist) paradigm’. Stevens (2012) describes this as
a fundamental separation between humans and the rest of the animal world, culture being a uniquely human quality that is more variable and able to change more rapidly than purely biological traits; that humans have freedom of choice, subject only to social and cultural factors; … and that human ingenuity and problem-solving shows a cumulative progression that can continue to expand ad infinitum.
Second, social scientists have sought understanding of how the physical environment has shaped human existence. Examples include John Urry’s work on how environmental events such as frequent flooding and longer-term climatic changes affect human endeavour, and Halpern’s assessment of the psychological and social effects of the built environment. This thread also offers critical insights into public understanding and construction of environmental hazards (Dunlap, 1998).
Third, sociologists have since the 1990s addressed concerns that ‘the environment’ is progressively being damaged by human social and economic activity, and must be protected from the ravages of an ‘anthropocene’ era. Social theorists explore the problems and challenges scientists face when recommending cultural or behavioural changes to address environmental threats, and how society and individuals assess these threats. Dunlap and Catton (1979) designated this as a ‘new ecological paradigm’, in which humans – though still distinct from the rest of nature – are part of the global ecosystem, and are governed by the same ‘ecological laws’ as other species, which they may not flout with impunity (Stevens, 2012: 580).
A critique of these perspectives
All these environmental sociological angles depended upon sustaining a distinction or an opposition between humans and environment, with the environment ‘conceptually subordinate to society’ (Walker, 2005: 80). Despite environmental sociology’s shift from the exceptionalist to the ecological paradigm, it has remained fundamentally anthropocentric. Arguably this anthropocentric distinction is ingrained in sociology, with ‘nature’ treated as culture’s ‘Other’ (Haraway). We can see this in Durkheim’s separation of the social as a causal agency independent of biological processes, Weber’s anti-naturalism, and Marx’s view of humans’ uniqueness in terms of an ability to produce the means of subsistence – for instance, by farming or industrialization. In wider society, this dualism has also been used as a justification for colonialism, racism, sexism and class domination.
Some sociologists have offered resolutions to the anthropocentrism and nature/culture dualism, including Ted Benton, Gavin Walker and Paul Stevens. But none of these has adopted the radical ontological solution of cutting across the very dualism that sets the social and the natural in opposition. We shall consequently set out a monist ontology that does not differentiate between environment and humans, and that cuts across nature/culture dualism based on post-anthropocentric and posthuman, materialist theory.
Towards environmental monism: two voices
To address this, we draw on the work of Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti.
The feminist biologist turned social theorist Donna Haraway’s analysis of the cyborg, a creature of both flesh and technology, was the hook for her critique of a nature/culture division that underpinned a supremacist politics of sexualisation, racialisation and naturalisation of the West’s Others. She argued that in the contemporary world, we are more and more a mix of nature and culture, as scientific and medical innovations – from prostheses and false teeth to gene therapies and test-tube babies – link bodies to inorganic matter. However, entities labelled as ‘apes’ and ‘women’ have also – in their different ways – unsettled this dualism. Cyborgs, simians and women all transgress the leaky boundary between these domains (1991), and consequently provide the means to reveal the continuities between humans and the rest of the material universe, and the means to overturn many other dualisms including those that oppress specific individuals, groups, classes, genders and species.
For philosopher Rosi Braidotti, the justification for overturning a nature/culture dualism lies in the recognition that the interests of humans are not divorced from the interests of other living things and of the physical Earth. Braidotti is critical of both humanism (which elevates humans above all else, and make man the measure of all things) and anti-humanism that (while acknowledging that humanity is not an intrinsically progressive force) risks throwing out the progressive achievements of humanism concerning solidarity, social justice and equality. Braidotti advocates an alternative ‘posthuman’ project that cuts across the humanist/anti-humanist opposition, emphasizing the vital capacities of all matter – animate and inanimate – for self-organization and ‘becoming’. This is the basis for an eco-philosophy that establishes a continuum between human and non-human matter (2013: 104), and between human subjectivity and planetary ecology, and a posthuman ethics for engagement with the environment, based on a new sense of inter-connectedness between human and non-human.
The monism of new materialism
Materialist ontology starts from the view that there are not pre-existent, fixed entities such as humans, animals, oil and coal, atmospheric conditions, climates, coastlines, economic and political systems, and all the other things that might be part of an environmental event. Rather, all these myriad materialities are relational, gaining form and continuity through their engagements with the other material relations with which they assemble, and through their ‘becomings’. To this list of materialities we must add the expressive relations deriving from human minds, cultures and societies, such as beliefs, desires and values, ideas and feelings, political movements and institutions, ideologies and discourses, and so forth, all of which can materially affect other constituents of an assemblage.
These disparate relations accrete around specific events. Consider, for example, a policy initiative by public health staff in a city council to improve child health by reducing the number of vehicles using the roads during peak times, thus cutting pollution and road traffic accidents, and encouraging people to walk more or use bicycles (Fox and Alldred, 2016). This policy is quite complex, and the relations involved may be represented (in no particular order) by the following assemblage.
cars – public transport – bicycles – roads – fossil fuels – renewable fuels – pollution – schools – work places – shops – services – housing – workers – transport infrastructure – local employers – environmental campaigners – council leaders – urban planners –obesity – climate change – etc.
No doubt many other relations are also involved, but this is sufficient for the example. We might explore this event though some general questions:
- What relations are assembled?
- What are the affects (and the affect economy) between these relations that assemble them and thereby produce the event?
- What are the capacities produced in the different relations by this affect economy – what can the human and non-human relations do?
- What are the micropolitics of the event assemblage – what does the event reveal about which relations in an assemblage are powerful?
Analysis of this assemblage in terms of these questions reveals a multiplicity of affective flows; for instance, an ‘employment’ flow that connects employers, workers, workplaces, houses and economics; an ‘education’ flow between children, schools, houses and so on; a ‘transport’ flow of roads, modes of travel, fuel, pollution, housing, schools, workplaces and so forth; and a ‘climate’ flow of fossil fuels, industry and transport, the atmosphere, the sun etc. The capacities of these affective flows produce the events associated with the assemblage, including economic production, education, traffic congestion, poor air quality, climate change and deleterious health outcomes. The micropolitics of the assemblage reflect the disparate ways power flows through it, including the development of a city environment that bring workplaces and current and future generations of workers into proximity; the economics and physical logistics of managing daily transport; the economics and politics of cheap energy; and the democratic and technocratic processes of planning a city to achieve a range of sometimes contradictory objectives such as economic prosperity and human health/well-being.
This monist analysis suggests that an issue such as improving child health by tacking air pollution is caught up in a highly complex assemblage, with multiple affective flows and contradictory micropolitics. Traditionally, public health interventions and social science analysis of such complex assemblages have sought to isolate a specific cause/effect flow of affect in the assemblage and intervene accordingly (for instance, banning all ‘school run’ journeys by parents transporting children to and from school, and providing an alternative public transport system). The materialist analysis that we are developing here suggests another approach which would aim for a more holistic engagement with the assemblage. Significantly, this would not make a foundational distinction between humans and ‘the rest’, instead adopting a posthuman sensibility that neither privileges nor denies human aspirations, values and desires. The stages in this process would be:
- Seek a comprehensive understanding of the affects and the micropolitics that surround the interactions between children and transport.
- Critically evaluate how the assemblage sustains particular patterns of social, economic and political power.
- Address the contradictions that emerge between the different affective flows between relations (for example, between the needs of industry and the health of citizens).
To these, we suggest a fourth stage:
- Explore multiple ways to engineer sustainability into the assemblage.
Materialist sociology and ‘sustainability’
This last point leads us to the second issue we want to address today. Sustainability is a contested concept (Braidotti et al, 1994; Lockie, 2016; Ratner, 2004), which draws into assemblage a range of natural science, ecological, economic, political, social justice and other perspectives on the interactions and conflicts between nature and culture. Too often however, sustainability is assessed in terms of human needs and desires, albeit those of future human generations (see for example, the Brundtland Report, that defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’).
More significantly, the monist ontology we have developed in this paper (and its rejection of nature/culture dualism) questions the concept of environmental sustainability or continuity itself. The materialist model suggests that most assemblages are not sustainable and have within them contradictory affects that will lead them to fall apart or transmogrify into something else in a day or an hour or a minute (Deleuze and Guattari, 1984: 5). After all, the universe, we are told, is not sustainable, some time in the future it will either expand to infinity and slowly chill to near absolute zero, or collapse into a singularity; one day the Earth will fall into the sun and be utterly transformed materially.
An alternative view of sustainability more in line with a materialist ontology of affects and becomings needs to focus upon potentials and capacities (Braidotti, 2011: 312-3; Parr, 2009: 161), and be marked by a posthuman ethics that moves beyond the usual narrow focus on human potential, to instead encompass the capacity of all matter within an inclusive ‘environment’ (that includes humans) to become other (Guattari, 2000: 20). The posthuman ethics that underpins this becoming counters forces and affective flows constrain the environment’s potentialities – be that by exhausting natural resources, filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, or limiting human possibilities through poverty, inequity or threats to health – fostering in their place affects that enhance human and environmental potentiality.
This re-formulation provides the basis for a materialist perspective on environment that is not only theoretically grounded in the monist perspective on the world that we have presented, but also provides a means to establish a post-anthropocentric and posthuman research agenda for the sociological study of environment. This agenda, we would suggest, is energized first by the monistic ontology that draws humans fully into the environment from which they have been ontologically differentiated in contemporary sociology, and second, by the assemblage/affect approach that focuses not upon single entities, but upon the affectivities and micropolitics of assemblages. Practically speaking, this means designing and undertaking research that is capable of exploring the constellations of relations that assemble around events, and of unpicking the affects, the capacities and the micropolitics that produce these assemblages.
The challenge for sociology of the perspective on environment that we have set out here is to recognize that human endeavours are far less independent of the non-human world than is sometimes supposed. There is an inclination when undertaking sociological research to focus on the cultural at the expense of the natural (for instance, by adopting an interview-based design and develop an interview guide that addresses human interactions, values, beliefs, feelings and desires, without taking account of the broader ‘environment’ around the participants). If, as we have argued here, this nature/culture dualism should be dissolved, then it behoves sociological researchers to ensure that their designs can take account of the ecological breadth of affects that are involved in what might at first glance seem entirely ‘cultural’ (or ‘micro-sociological’) activities and events.
We have sought to develop an alternative, monist ontology of environment in which humans are not separate from, but part of an ecology of the natural and the social. This provides not only the basis for a materialist environmental sociology and approach to sustainability, but also the basis for a post-anthropocentric and post-human project.
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This paper was presented to the British Sociological Association annual conference, Birmingham, April 2016.