The Environmental Crisis: Culture, Power and the Possibility of Change
Call for Papers for a Special Issue of the ESA Journal European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology
Environmental impacts stem from, and are embedded in, complex systems of production, consumption, influence and practice that need understanding at multiple levels. Yet contemporary debates often ignore sociality altogether. Public discourse on responding to environmental crises such as climate change and the spread of microplastics continues to stress individual action, on the one hand, or on the other hand references to actions on a massive scale by governments or ‘humanity’. Moreover, it continues to be assumed that accumulating and disseminating knowledge is key to policy change, notwithstanding decades of questionable results accruing from knowledge-centred campaigns rooted in information-deficit models. Not only are links between knowledge and action complex and many-sided, not only are there strong social variations even in recognising what action-relevant knowledge is, but this type of discourse ignores many layers of mid-range social interactions, not least people’s engagement in resource-intensive everyday practices such as driving or heating space and water. The latter are particularly useful as an object of sustainability research in the social sciences because they tend to be the target of culturally significant prescriptions concerning how to do things, and why, and because they demonstrate the ways in which different forms of resource use, including seemingly wasteful activities, fulfill important social functions. Challenging such resource-intensive practices thus requires a detailed understanding of the cultural processes that underpin their concerted (re)production in everyday life.
Concentrating on urging individuals to act is not only ineffective in terms of power, reach and social complexity; it can lead to perverse consequences, as when consumers were persuaded to purchase energy-efficient light bulbs or to use diesel for their cars, measures revealed to be counter-productive from an environmental point of view. Moreover, placing the burden of responsibility for climate action and environmental protection on individuals completely ignores many important questions of justice, responsibility and efficacy.
Emphasising the impacts of ‘humanity’ in its entirety also starkly fails to locate effective responsibility, leading to a diffusion of responsibility and resulting inaction. Finally, underlining the need for changing public policy, however accurate, may neglect issues of culture and power that are key to environmental change. As is evident from the more culture-centred literature on society-environment-relations, nothing less than a deep cultural and political shift is needed to transform current environmentally exploitative practices such as driving and the use of plastics.
This call for papers seeks empirically grounded analyses that take specific account of cultural and political features of resource-intensive socio-environmental practices, not least the effects of interconnected imbalances in equality and power on how different groups in society view and use natural resources. Understanding potential responses to environmental problems is heavily shaped by local and communal imaginaries and practices on different scales. Considerable progress has been made in developing ideas about practices; how do they help us understand cultures of reasoning and discursive regimes, or how practices interlock on different social levels? For all the talk of change, and the use of novel slogans to help publics conceptualise environmental problems, are effective advances taking place? How do interlocking systems of governance and domination make it harder for us to relate non-exploitatively to the rest of the natural world, and what can be done to mitigate this?
Sociology and sociologists need to contribute in a more detailed fashion, and more incisively, to understanding the challenges and opportunities involved in responding to environmental crises. Papers for this special issue, whether empirical, theoretical or (preferably) both, are solicited on this topic before June 2020.
Henrike Rau and Ricca Edmondson
Ricca.Edmondson [at] nuigalway.ie