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Session Overview
RN12_01a: Social Theory and the Environment
Wednesday, 21/Aug/2019:
11:00am - 12:30pm

Session Chair: Henriette Rutjes, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ
Location: BS.3.21
Manchester Metropolitan University Building: Business School, Third Floor, North Atrium Oxford Road

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Reconceptualizing Metabolic Rifts as the Product of Strategic Essentialism within a Socially Constructed Adaptive Landscape

Paul Joseph McLaughlin

SUNY Geneseo, United States of America

Foster’s reconstruction of Marx’s analysis of metabolic rifts has generated an influential literature which attributes environmental degradation to the natural tendencies of capitalism. Despite providing new insights, the limitations of this literature are increasingly apparent. Marx’s argument is grounded in functional-developmental essentialism. While this doctrine taxonomically acknowledges environmental relationships and the universal necessity of adaptation, its reliance on context-independent dynamic laws undermines our ability to theorize structural diversity, environmental adaptation and human agency. These difficulties can be overcome by elaborating an alternative evolutionary account of metabolic rifts, premised on the concept of a socially constructed adaptive landscape. The latter defines a negotiated and contested fitness terrain whose shape changes in response to shifts in biophysical, social, economic, political and discursive environments. Actors simultaneously adapt to and actively reshape such landscapes by using alternative collective action frames and frame-alignment processes to mobilize resources and to create or exploit political opportunities, thereby altering the survival probabilities of social roles, routines and organizations. Within this framework, I redefine Spivak’s concept of strategic essentialism as any attempt to use essentialist theories or rhetorics to manipulate evolutionary topographies. Thus, Marxian theory is itself a form of strategic essentialism, one which historically treated large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture as a context-independent ideal. Translated into public policy in the Soviet Union this ideal generated precisely the same environmental problems as modernization theories in capitalist countries. This evolutionary analysis suggests that rather than providing a solution to environmental degradation, Marx’s theory may be part of the problem.

Learning to Downsize

Magnus Boström

Örebro University, Sweden

The paper is a theoretical litterature review focused on the study of groups/people that, for sustainability reasons, change lifestyles, with a focus on reduced consumption. It reviews how social practices, socio-material structures and cultural forces of massconsumption facilitate or prevent such lifestyle change. It draws on the theoretical concepts on transformative learning. In the common understanding of the “green” or “climate friendly” consumer, the consumer is rarely a person who makes profound lifestyle changes, rather minor adjustments in everyday life. One point of criticism in previous research is that this focus on “greening” narrows the scope of social/societal change: minor changes in habits and consumption is insufficient to deal with climate change and other urgent sustainability problems. Another point of criticism concerns that the focus disregards that individuals are embedded in social relations and structural/cultural contexts. In our everyday lives we are dependent on others, on infrastructure and technology; and others are dependent on us (e.g. children). Thus, to understand the conditions for social transformation we need to consider the role of more basic socio-material structures, resources, cultural norms and forces, as well as intimate social relations. Particularly problematic are the structural/cultural forces of mass consumption and social acceleration. Therefore, efforts to downsize must involve a long-term, demanding, and conflictual transformative learning process. However, such a process can also be a life-enriching experience. By becoming less dependent on mass consumption, what are the possibilities for achieving personal development, self-fulfillment, a less stressful life and a sense of (re-)connecting with nature? This paper offers a review of existing literature on the attempts, experiences and achievements by groups and individuals with such aspirations.

Too Rich To Be Green. Challenging Postmaterialism Thesis

Dan Brockington1, Marina Requena-i-Mora1,2

1The University of Sheffield; 2The University of València

The postmaterialist thesis states that the emergence of widespread concern for the environment depends on high levels of economic and physical security. This theory also predicts that people in low-income countries lack concern for the environmental. Environmentalism is a luxury of the rich. The thesis has recently been reformulated to explain the rise of politics hostile to environmentalism in wealthy economies. It is now claimed that there is a cultural backlash in postamaterial values derives from a rise in inequality in wealthy economies. 

In this paper we test the empirical propositions of the postmaterial origins of environmentalism using data from the World Values Survey and the Material and Ecological Footprints. Following Inglehart’s postmaterialist thesis and his current reformulation, our null hypotheses are: 1) High-income countries display more environmental consciousness now and in the 1990s— at a time where there was a relative prosperity in wealthy countries; 2) There is a cultural backlash in environmental consciousness because of a rise in income inequality.

By using linear regression between GDP per capita (now and in the 1990s), GINI index and the indices of environmental health, we find that empirical support for ideas of postmaterialism is weak; indeed, our findings refute its claims. Neither GDP per capita nor the lack of income inequality support the postmaterialist theories of environmental awareness.

We conclude by arguing that concern for the environment is and was not a product of a postmaterialist cultural shift, and we propose two alternatives that could promote more environmental consciousness, especially in high-income countries. 

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