Environment and Society Pt. 1

Chapter 2: Population and Scarcity

Malthusian population theory: Population grows exponentially while our food base stays essentially the same. Diseases, wars, famines etc. help to keep population in check, and helping the poor is counterproductive to managing population. As population grows proportionally too large for the amount of resources, it will decline. Theses cycles repeat.

Problems with Malthusian theory:

  • Doesn’t take into account the amount of resources that some people use compared to others (IPAT).
  • Blames the poor for societal deficiencies and justifies leaving them to fend for themselves.
  • Doesn’t consider how more humans could possibly mean more resources (ingenuity through necessity).

What do you think of the idea that higher populations could lead to an increase in the carrying capacity of an area of land?

Environmental Kuznets Curve: environmental impacts rise during development, and then fall once the economy reaches a stable/mature state.

Do you agree with this idea?

Demographic transistion model: predicts decline in death rates as modernization occurs, and then a decline in birth rates due to industrializatoin and urbanization.

The role of women’s rights and education in lowering birth rates: In some places, birth rates have fallen even without modernization or urbanization occurring. In many cases, this correlates with women’s education, literacy and availability of contraceptives and appropriate health care.

What are some of the challenges that come from having a birth rate that is too low?

Chapter 3: Markets and Commodities

Can human population growth be good for both nature and society?

In some cases, increased population can be good: more people = more good ideas, increased demand incentivizes increased efficiency.

Market Response Model: predicts that scarcity of a resource will lead to either increased supply or decreased demand (or both), as a result of higher prices.

Faith in the market can work, but sometimes leads to market failures. Failures can stem from situations of monopoly, monopsony (many sellers and one buyer), or a range of other inefficient situations.

What do you think of the idea of trusting the market to regulate sustainable, democratic practices? What role should the government play in regulating these practices?

Chapter 4: Institutions and “The Commons”

“For many environmental problems, costs are often borne collectively, while benefits accrue to individuals; on the other hand, individual costs may lead to collective benefits.”

The Tragedy of the Commons (1968): when everyone acts in their own interests, what was previously there for all to use is ruined. The way to solve this is either through tyranny, or through the creation of private property (this way, the impacts of bad decisions are only felt by the owner of that property). Hardin supports the latter.

Contrary to this theory, there are examples of resource management governed neither by tyranny nor private property. In these cases, it was institutions (“rules and norms governing collective action”) that helped to keep the actions of people in order.

What examples can you think of in your day-to-day life in which people generally obey the rules, even when they could get away with not doing so? Why is this?

Problems with the institutional approach: situations in which race, gender, or class etc. create disproportionate ability to decide on the rules can cause conflict.

Can this approach work on a global level?

Chapter 5: Environmental Ethics

“These factory farms are, after all, run more like factories than farms.”

Environmental justice: argument for equitable distribution of environmental goods and environmental bads regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity etc.

We have touched on this already this semester, but what do you think about the role that Christianity has played in the idea that humans are separate from nature and should have dominion over all of it? Or has utilitarianism played a larger role in the onset of the anthropocene?

How can beliefs about natuer be changed to be more ecocentric?

Pinchot vs. Muir vs. Leopold

Pinchot: Conservationist, utilitarian perspective of nature

Muir: Preservationist

Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends ot preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.”

What do you think of these differing persepctives? Does Leopold’s statement above potentially justify letting poor people die in order to avoid overpopulation?


Liberation for Animals: “How is it that we have broadened our moral horizon to those populations who have historically had few or no rights without similarly extending beyond the human species to include animals as well?”

What about pets in this situation?

Chapter 6: Risks and Hazards

Risk: the known (or estimated) probability that a hazard-related event will have a negative consequence.

When dealing with environmental systems, the risk of a hazard occurring is never completely certain, due to their unpredictability.

Risk perception can also play a role in people being unprepared for hazards – people may think that the probability (risk) of being negatively affected by severe weather is smaller than it actually is.

Cultural theory: individual perceptions (of risk, in this case) are reinforced by group social dynamics.

Based on general opinion about climate change, what is our general perception of environmental risk? Are there other environmental risks that we take more seriously?

  • For ordinary people to be able to make informed decisions about environmental risk, it is necessary for them to have the correct information about such risk.
  • If we look at the case of Flint, what could the people have done even if they had known for sure that the water had high levels of lead? Many people complained about the quality of the water even before it came out, and nothing was done about it. In this case, instances of irreversible damage have been done to the citizens of Flint.

Chapter 7: Political Economy

Thoughts on Lawrence Summers’ idea of “under-pollution?”

Means of production: infrastructure and equipment necessary to produce goods to be sold on the market.

Conditions of production: Natural raw materials necessary for production of goods.

Surplus value: the monetary difference between the value of the labor and the amount that the laborer is paid. This surplus is the owner’s profit.

Primitive accumulation: appropriation of land and resources from people who previously held them.

Overview of Marxist theory: Labor is sold on a market, allowing for the accumulation of capital by a small number of individuals. Over time, with the competition inherent in capitalism, wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of an ever-diminshing minority. Marx argued that this system is unsustainable, and would eventually collapse because consumers (workers) would eventually not have enough money to buy the goods being produced.

Like Malthus, Marx also argued that sustained overexploitation of natural resources would eventually lead to a lack of resources, and a subsequent crisis.

Do you agree that capitalism, either as a result of underproduction or lack of resources, is prone to crisis?

Neil Smith: there inherent contradiction in the commodification of nature. While we view these natural objects as separate from us, we still think of ourselves as part of nature and subject to its laws.

Spatial fix: the tendency of capitalism to find new markets and/or resources as a way of avoiding crisis.

Eco-feminism: theories critical of the role of patriarchy in society for degrading the natural environment and potential for gender equality.

Do you think patriarchy is responsible for the degradation of the natural environment? In a capitalist world with gender equality (if that is possible) could the same kind of degradation have occurred?

Chapter 8: Social Construction of Nature

Many of our notions of nature, as well as areas we consider to be natural, are socially constructed.

  1. Is this claim or concept natural, inevitable, timeless, and universal?
  2. I not, at what point was it invented? Under what conditions?
  3. What are the social, political, or environmental effects of believing that this claim or concept is true, natural, or inevitable?
  4. Would we be better off doing awat with the concept altogether, or rethinking it in a fundamental way?




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: