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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: August 2012

9 - Modern sociological approaches to human–environment interactions

from IV - Contributions of sociology


Chapter overview

The previous chapter presented a definition of society, key ideas of the classics, a description of the emergence of environmental sociology, and a conceptualization of drivers of societies in the frame of the ReSTET theory, which links drivers of societies with the given societal and technological trajectories and natural resources.

Chapter 9 first presents ideas of the macrosociological theories of Talcott Parsons, Niklas Luhmann, and Anthony Giddens, and reflects on whether and how the material environment has been included in these theories. We then look at the second wave of US environmental sociology, which integrates environmental issues and variables in sociology. The quantitative modeling of material flows caused by societies has been the object of study for sociologists, who focus on the material consequences of human production and consumption. Here, we take a look at the sociometabolic approach and at the STIRPAT model. We also discuss Ulrich Beck’s view on the material environment. His concept of the world’s risk society proposes that global risks need to be addressed by social institutions above the nation-state level.

As many sociologists define society via communication, we take a look at the role and function of discourse and communication in the view of Jürgen Habermas and the concept of cooperative discourses. Because we consider what is communicated in society to be a matter of social construction, we take a look at how societies construct environmental problems and what problems arise if laypersons and experts, who each have specific roles and rationales in society, interact.

We close with a discussion of two approaches that take fundamentally diverging positions on how societies can develop sustainably. Ecological modernization is an optimistic vision developed by European environmental sociologists on the potential to solve environmental problems by societal and technical modernization. The treadmill of production view argues that the post-industrial society will show an increase in quantitative and qualitative environmental impacts.