January 09, 2009

The Sociology of Sustainability

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I’ve been thinking of teaching a new Sociology course– the Sociology of Sustainability. This word, sustainability, is everywhere these days and it is an important concept that will be with us for some time. It seems new to us here in the United States, which, should be no surprise as our culture and economy haven’t embraced this idea.

Dictionary.com defines Sustainability as with being sustainable and rooted in the word “sustain”: To keep in existence; maintain; To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for; To support from below; keep from falling or sinking; prop; To support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of; encourage; To bear up under; withstand: can't sustain the blistering heat; To experience or suffer; To affirm the validity of; To prove or corroborate; confirm; To keep up (a joke or assumed role, for example) competently.

clip_image002Applied to society, sustainable suggests continuity over time, that is a society can be said to be sustainable if its structure and properties allow it to continue over the long-term. What is long term to a society? Suffice it to say that the U.S. hasn’t lasted long enough to claim that it is or can be sustainable as of yet. In fact, the structure of our society is currently not sustainable, especially in its economic structures. Karl Marx had said that capitalism will eventually exhaust its supplies of cheap resources in its globalized search for profit. A continual search for profit is virtually impossible since resources are not inexhaustible! We have run out of cheap labor to exploit and cheap resources to fuel our economy. Our economic short-term focus on profit has helped created the global recession (depression?) of the late 2000s.

Sustainability is a term used by the environmental movement to call attention to our dismal practices and policies relating to our environment and the pollution we create. For example, sustainable packaging has resulted in CDs and DVDs wrapped in plastic rather than those huge plastic encasements they used to be sold in. We have more recycling bins and more ”green” awareness campaigns to get us out of our cars – not so easy here in Los Angeles – and onto trains, buses, and bicycles. In some settings, such actions are easy while in others, not so much. When your job is miles away from where you live, and not on a public transportation route, trains, buses, and bicycles won’t get you there, no matter how environmentally conscious you might become.

clip_image004Alternate power sources are part of the green sustainability movement. Since they are unlimited, wind and solar power are more attractive than fossil fuel sources of electricity. Nuclear and fuel cell power sources are also mentioned although their long-term sustainability is not fully clear and is often obscured. Nuclear power still produces tons of toxic radioactive waste that has to be stored somewhere for an inconceivable amount of time. Fuel cells are new and their safety has not yet been established.

Just as we must continually research and develop antibiotics to fight the ever-changing bacteria that plague us, we must continue the search for sustainable societal structures if we are to ensure our long-term survival as a nation. This is no easy task as our capitalist individualistic post-industrial society has raised us to be good competitive consumers. As a result, it is difficult for us to imagine our society without the pursuit of profit for profit’s sake. However, we must think more about how we can preserve our quality of life over the long term. Our sustainability depends upon it.

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Comments

It is obvious that America needs to move toward a more sustainable society, the problem is how can this be accomplished...

I believe that in order to move Americans toward a greener lifestyle, grassroots level changes need to be made. By this mean I mean new energy saving ideas need to be taught in the public school systems efficiently. If schools made it mandatory to teach new sustainable ways to young minds, the next generation will be more conscious of the damages being done to the Earth.

If this were done, schools would also need to practice what they preach. I'm not sure what percentage of the country's paper is used by public school systems, but I'm sure it is high. NPR did an interesting story about how a Penn State student discovered that the school could save over $70,000 each year in paper if every student just changed the margins on their word documents...

Just an idea...

This is just another example of why everyone in our society today needs to work hard at keeping our nation stable. This post expresses many points as to why our society may not be as stable as it should be. I have been learning about our post-industrial society in my socialogy class, and I have realized that we will need a more stable society in order to keep our nation going.

The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for circumstances they want , and if they cannot find them .they make them.

Just today I proposed a Sociology of Sustainability course at my college. However, my goal would be to help students to look at the "sustainability movement" through a critical lens and to understand the social forces leading to the modern environmentalist movement. We would examine the issue from the perspectives of the major sociological paradigms. An important element of the course would be the examination of the construction of the environmental crisis on a variety of levels and looking at the issues from perspectives across the globe.

Dear Sally, your interest in teaching a sociology class on sustainability would be very interesting. Your points on how society changes in very interesting. In my sociology class, we have just learned about different societies and how some things were emphasized more depending on the time period and what was occurring in the country. For example, the industrial society to the postindustrial society. I found your article very interesting and helpful to understand the change that occurs.

In our move from an industrial to postindustrial society, we open our eyes to the impacts of our actions. Surely, the machines that we have created must be improved and made cleanlier, but we as a societal whole must want to make that step. Capitalism is not an evil polluter, it is just an incentive system. Eventually, the people will demand that this be eco-friendly, or that, and to make profit companies will clean this, or that.

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