On Human Drivers of Environmental Change: A Theoretical Consideration


David Fields I Ecology & Sustainability I Theory I December 20th, 2013



Within the social sciences there is a growing consensus that human social processes, in a dialectical complex interrelationship with the environment, are the primary drivers of destructive ecological change. A broadly shared framework of idiosyncratic ideas and understandings has been formulated to assess the degree to which the genus, and the species, of spatial practices in the capitalist world-system has ensued prodigious modifications of the global ecosystem. Palpable cognitive perceptions, along with a priori assumptions, of the causes and outcomes concerning the bio-synthetical facets of social organization have been articulated-amplifying intelligible explanations and empirical testing of what perceived biophysical characteristics contribute to environmental transformations.

Competing paradigms regarding human-environment interactions have been constructed. Despite their intellectual fragmentation, these perspectives are materialist in essence, since they elucidate the degree to which the historically specific mode of production, capitalism, depending on its scale in a macro-comparative context, produces world-systemic biospheric transmutations.

There is a presupposition that with endless accumulation of capital for the production and realization of surplus value (profits) by way of material inputs, extracted from the physical world with increasing returns to scale, sets in motion a concomitant process of ecological degradation that cannot be decoupled-the income effect of 'Jevons Paradox.' The effect, it is purported, depends on the particular geographical dimensions of spatial productive practice, like peripheral industrialization and resource extraction with concomitant core consumption and innovation, producing anthropogenic methane emissions, and resting on an acceptance of a so-called fundamental 4th law of thermodynamics.

It is requisite to note, however, that there is no distinct 4th law of thermodynamics that the entire physics profession has missed for 100 years, and has somehow been rediscovered, e.g. by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, and unfortunately has since been suppressed. The inherent assumptions concerning the totality of capitalist production and environmental degradation are unexamined; yet, they influence the following prevailing theories in environmental sociology:

  • Ecological modernization theory , which assumes that the genus of capitalist accumulation spawns an environmental Kuznets curve as an evolutionary universal for any country undergoing economic development
  • Treadmill of destruction theory , which assumes increasing levels of pollution due to the aggrandizement of military operations,
  • Neo-Malthusian structural ecology theory , which assumes natural supply constraints in the face of expanding capital accumulation,
  • Ecological exchange theory , which assumes an environmental load displacement as core countries externalize their pollution costs to the periphery via transnational production.

Parametric specifications, regardless of theoretical induction, and explicit clarifications of the environmental research question are primary. As Tom Murphy on "Elusive Entropy" points out (see here):

An unfortunate conflation of the concepts of entropy and disorder has resulted in widespread misunderstanding of what thermodynamic entropy actually means. And if you want to invoke the gravitas of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you'd better make darned sure you're talking about thermodynamic entropy-whose connection to order is not as strong as you might be led to believe.

[…] The resulting duplicate use of the term "entropy" in both thermodynamic and informational contexts has created an unfortunate degree of confusion. While they share some properties and mathematical relationships, only one is bound to obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics (can you guess which one?). But this does not stop folks from invoking entropy as a trump card in arguments-usually unchallenged.

Environmental sociology is prone to developing superior understandings into the degree to which human social processes affect the natural world, which, in turn, shape human social processes. Yet, to escape habitual modes of thought and expression and establish un-darkened analytical articulation, it is pertinent that such prevailing paradigms undergo refinement, to enhance their generalizability to the dynamics of capitalist development and its complex interaction with the natural world; in my view, they do not pay sufficient attention to the role of effective demand and the relationship to distribution under the capitalist mode of production (see Sraffian Environmentalism).



Suggested Readings

Bidard, Christian and Guido Erreygers. 2001. "The Corn-Guano Model." Metroeconomica 52(3):243-53.

Bradford, John Hamilton and Alexander M. Stoner. 2014. "The Treadmill of Destruction and Ecological Exchange in Comparative Perspective: A Panel Study of the Biological Capacity of Nations, 1961-2007." Contemporary Journal of Anthropology and Sociology 4(2):87-113.

Buttel, F. H. 2004. "The Treadmill of Production: An Appreciation, Assessment, and Agenda for Research." Organization & Environment 17(3):323-36.

Foster, John Bellamy and Paul Burkett. 2004. "Ecological Economics and Classical Marxism The 'Podolinsky Business' Reconsidered." Organization & Environment 17(1):32-60.

Foster, John Bellamy and Brett Clark. 2009. "The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction." Monthly Review 61(6):1-18.

Hahnel, Robin. 2012. "The Growth Imperative: Beyond Assuming Conclusions." Review of Radical Political Economics 45(1):24-41.

Hahnel, Robin. 2014. "An Open Letter to the Climate Justice Movement." New Politics 14(4):30.

Hahnel, Robin. 2012. "Left Clouds Over Climate Change Policy." Review of Radical Political Economics 44(2):141-59.

Hooks, Gregory and Chad L. Smith. 2004. "The Treadmill of Destruction: National Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans." American Sociological Review 69(4):558-75.

Hornborg, Alf. 1998. "Towards an Ecological Theory of Unequal Exchange: Articulating World System Theory and Ecological Economics." Ecological Economics 25(1):127-36.

Kapp, K. William. 1972. "Social Costs, Neo-Classical Economics, Environmental Planning: A Reply." Social Science Information 11(1):17-28.

Kemp-Benedict, Eric. 2014. "The Inverted Pyramid: A Neo-Ricardian View on the Economy-environment Relationship." Ecological Economics 107:230-41.

Lidskog, Rolf and Ingemar Elander. 2012. "Ecological Modernization in Practice? The Case of Sustainable Development in Sweden." Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 14(4):411-27.

Marletto, Gerardo. 2010. "Heterodox Environmental Economics: Theoretical Strands in Search of a Paradigm." MPRA Paper No. 19933. Retrieved May 16, 2014 (http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/19933/1/MPRA_paper_19933.pdf).

Matthaei, Julie. 1984. "Rethinking Scarcity: Neoclassicism, NeoMalthusianism, and NeoManrsm." Review of Radical Political Economics 16(2-3):81-94.

Mearman, Andrew. 2005. "Why Have Post-Keynesians Had (relatively) Little to Say on the Economics of the Environment?" International Journal of Environment, Workplace and Employment 1(2):131-54.

Mol, Arthur PJ, Gert Spaargaren, and David A. Sonnenfeld. 2014. "Ecological Modernization Theory: Taking Stock, Moving Forward." Retrieved September 22, 2014 ( http://www.researchgate.net/publication/258266007_Ecological_modernization_theory_taking_stock_moving_forward/file/72e7e529d8468b148e.pdf ).

Moore, Jason W. 2000. "Marx and the Historical Ecology of Capital Accumulation on a World Scale." Journal of World-Systems Research 6(1):133-38.

Moore, Jason W. 2011. "Transcending the Metabolic Rift: A Theory of Crises in the Capitalist World-Ecology." Journal of Peasant Studies 38(1):1-46.

O'Neill, John, Al Campbell, Robin Hahnel, and Michael Albert. 2002. "Socialist Calculation and Environmental Valuation: Money, Markets and Ecology." Science & Society 66(1):137-58.

Parrinello, Sergio. 2001. "The Price of Exhaustible Resources." Metroeconomica 52(3):301-15.

Perelman, Michael. 2007. "Scarcity and Environmental Disaster: Why Hotelling's Price Theory Does Not Apply." Capitalism Nature Socialism 18(1):81-98.

Ravagnani, Fabio. 2008. "Classical Theory and Exhaustible Natural Resources: Notes on the Current Debate." Review of Political Economy 20(1):79-93.

Rice, James. 2007. "Ecological Unequal Exchange: International Trade and Uneven Utilization of Environmental Space in the World System." Social Forces 85(3):1369-92.

Spash, Clive L. and Anthony Ryan. 2012. "Economic Schools of Thought on the Environment: Investigating Unity and Division." Cambridge Journal of Economics 36(5):1091-1121.

Schwartzman, David. 2008. "The Limits to Entropy: Continuing Misuse of Thermodynamics in Environmental and Marxist Theory." Science and Society 72(1):43-62.

Schwartzman, David. 2014. "Is Zero Economic Growth Necessary to Prevent Climate Catastrophe?" Science & Society 78(2):235-40.

York, Richard. 2006. "Ecological Paradoxes: William Stanley Jevons and the Paperless Office." Human Ecology Review 13(2).