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

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