Environmental sociology

The way we speak and think about sustainability can be further informed by the discipline of environmental sociology, which focuses on the ‘reciprocal relationship between the environment and larger society’. This field offers a history of thought on many core ideas of relevance to sustainability and provides well-developed terms and definitions. Given this, it’s worth including summaries of some important ideas that illustrate the relevance of environmental sociology to sustainability.

The powerful lens provided by environmental sociology is important not only to understand the current environmental problems and challenges, but also to devise solutions for a sustainable earth’.[1]

Metabolic rift

The narrative of ‘man versus nature’ is a good example of an idea that environmental sociology has explored at length. This separation of ‘human’ and ‘nature’ is still today embedded in much of our thought and actions, even when it comes to sustainability, and therefore is an assumption that is worth questioning. The idea that we are separate from nature is contentious to some environmental sociologists, who argue that it has helped humans rationalize the destruction of nature, by considering themselves as its master – a belief that necessitates “othering”; separating ourselves from the object of our subjugation. This idea is referred to as metabolic rift.

‘Metabolic rift is an important neo-Marxist theory as explained by John B. Foster and Karl Marx. It describes how society and ecology should not be classified as two different entities. Instead, they should be seen as one metabolism as one cannot function without the other. The theory explains that man started to view society and ecology as two separate entities with the rise of the capitalist system, creating a “rift” between humans and earth[2].’

The Treadmill of Production

One important relationship between society and the environment relates to resource extraction and production. The growth-focused model of capitalism often implies infinite growth, creating ever-greater resource extraction which obviously unsustainable on a long enough timescale. This idea of endless growth is known as the treadmill production theory.

In his book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity[3], Allan Schnaiberg, who coined the term, described what he saw as a never-ending cycle of production, arguing that it was the central characteristic of capitalism.

This idea is built upon by Alier[4] who argues that endless economic growth is not compatible with sustainability. Looking at recent history, he notes that the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 is the only time in which global emissions reductions were sustainable. This suggests, according to Alier, that alternative economic models which do not rely on growth are more sustainable. This the idea of degrowth economics.

Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability. The effort to push up the rate of growth by increasing obligations to repay financial debts is in direct conflict with the availability of exhaustible resources and with the capacity of waste sinks. The economic crisis of 2008–09 has resulted in a welcome change to the totally unsustainable trend of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.[5]

These ideas will be explored in future episodes, when we look more closely at economic theory, and alternative, non-mainstream economic models like Alier’s ‘degrowth’.

Modernization and Risk Society

We often talk about how we live now in the Anthropocene. The idea behind this word is that the -cene suffix represents a geological era, and the anthro- prefix denotes us – humans. In other words, the era of humans. This idea can be viewed in terms of the humanity’s geological and ecological impacts. In many areas, human impacts now exceed the natural cycles of the planet. The rising global temperature, most famously, is now a cycle driven more by human impacts than it is by natural processes.

One obvious cause of this development is modernization. This study of modernity in sociology examines a range of historical developments including The Enlightenment, where the importance of science and rationality became embedded in Western society, through to the Industrial Revolution, when machinery allowed for vast increases in production, through to the current Information Age, an era of computerization and global interconnectivity. Modernization represents a broad sweep of time, with some considering even earlier events, such as humanity’s first attempts at agriculture, as the beginning of our technological progress.

The scientific method, the discovery of oil and fossil fuels, the invention of automobiles and the atomic bomb, the rise of international trade, globalization, capitalism, factories, pollution, and climate change – these are all ideas related to our increasing trend globally towards modernization. Industrialization, computerization, globalization, militarization, democratization, and many other -zations suffixes can be said to also fall under this area!

And, as some examples like climate change and the atomic bomb represent – modernization comes with risk. How society manages risk is an area of interest to sociologists in particular, who described the modernizing world as a “risk society“.

‘According to Beck, as cited in Adam, Beck and Van Loon[6] (p. 5), a risk society can be understood as “a particular mode of organization as a response to new challenges enforced upon the world by technologies and practices”. Present society is said to be fraught with risks as a result of modernization where there has been a rapid increase in the advancement and employment of new technologies. While such technologies have brought about increased convenience, productivity and benefits, they are not without risks.’[7]

This idea paints human society against the backdrop of increasing risks, many manufactured from our own increasing production and consumption.

‘The danger here is that as Beck has claimed, there is no form of insurance against the kind of risks that emerge out of risk societies, yet societies continue to take deliberate risks in the name of modernization.’[8]

How a society is structured affects these dangers, according to some analyses. In the capitalist model, according to the treadmill method of production an unsustainable hunger for growth (and through that, modernization) will create increasing amounts of risk. This idea is supported by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who differentiates natural from anthropogenic risks, arguing that we now face an era dominated by the latter:

Humanity has survived what we might call natural existential risks for hundreds of thousands of years; thus, it is prima facie unlikely that any of them will do us in within the next hundred … Empirical impact distributions and scientific models suggest that the likelihood of extinction because of these kinds of risk is extremely small on a time scale of a century or so[9].  In contrast, our species is introducing entirely new kinds of existential risk —threats we have no track record of surviving. Our longevity as a species therefore offers no strong prior grounds for confident optimism. Consideration of specific existential-risk scenarios bears out the suspicion that the great bulk of existential risk in the foreseeable future consists of anthropogenic existential risks —that is, those arising from human activity.[10]


Evident in these perspectives is the idea of the Anthropocene and human-created risk. Perhaps more accurately, we are in the Anthro (human), apeili (threat), cene (era). Anthroapelicene may not have the same ring it, granted, but it arguably captures this era of modernization and its consequences better than the often ecologically-focused concept of the Anthropocene.

The Grass Ceiling seeks to push beyond definitions of sustainability that are purely ecologically-focused, and this reconceptualization of our geological era is an example of under-explored idea want to shed further light on.

Ecological modernization

Some elements of sociology and other disciplines have a more optimistic view of human progress, and of capitalism specifically. The idea that we can reconfigure capitalism to be compatible with sustainability is known as ecological modernization and is another concept worthy of further exploration. For now, it’s important to note the existence of a seemingly contradictory idea, captured bluntly by Alier who proposes an alternative economic model known as degrowth:

Economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability.

Joan Martinez Alier, Socially Sustainable Economic De‐growth


[1] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[2] Foster, J.B. Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology. Am. J. Sociol. 1999, 105, 366–405.

[3] Allan, S. The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity; Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 1980.

[4] Alier, J. M. (2009). Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth. Development and Change, 40(6), 1099-1119. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01618.x

[5] Alier, J. M. (2009). Socially Sustainable Economic De-growth. Development and Change, 40(6), 1099-1119. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01618.x

[6] Adam, B.; Ulrich, B.; Van Loon, J. (Eds.) The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory; Sage Publications: London, UK, 2000.

[7] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[8] Islam, M. S. (2017). Sustainability through the Lens of Environmental Sociology. Sustainability, 1-11.

[9] Smil, V. (2008) Global catastrophes and trends: the next fifty years. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, Cambridge.

[10] Bostrom, N. (2013, February). Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority. Global Policy, 4(1), pp. 15-31. doi:10.1111/1758-5899.12002


5 thoughts on “Environmental sociology

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