Introduction to Environment & Society Forum

Martin Eiermann

What happens at the intersection of social life and the natural environment? Three essays – on the politics of climate change, California’s water crisis, and the economy of food waste – seek to provide answers and extend our analytical leverage.

Sociology has always been a project of denaturalization – an attempt to cast seemingly self-evident truths about the world as contingencies, and to regard them as historically and culturally specific social facts. Increasingly, this project includes studies of the natural environment itself: By framing events like the Chicago heatwave of 1995 or Hurricane Katrina as social disasters rather than environmental catastrophes, sociologists have drawn attention to social structures that expose particular communities to the risks of heat and flooding, mitigate the impact of weather events, and shape collective responses.

Direct transformations of the natural environment—the damming of rivers, the raising of levees, the digging of mines, and the clearing of forests—constitute some of the most overt attempts to render nature useful to, and compatible with, the demands of modern industrial societies. Yet the intersection of the social world and the natural environment is frequently more discreet. In their article on global warming and environmental politics, John Foran and Summer Gray argue that responses to climate change are necessarily inflected with political agendas. Perhaps this is especially evident in the Maldives, one of the world’s countries most affected by climate change, where the struggle for sustainability is directly linked to the struggle for democracy. It remains an uphill battle: Despite the urgency of positive change, democratic and environmental reform efforts are constantly—and sometimes violently—thwarted. As the case of the Maldives illustrates, different relationships to the natural environment are rendered possible, or foreclosed, within the political realm.

Caleb Scoville brings another perspective to his analysis of water politics in California. While years of drought have left much of the state with severe water shortages and have pitted farmers, fishermen, environmentalists and suburban residents against each other, Scoville seeks to locate the roots of the current controversy at a much deeper level. As he argues, water politics in California is historically rooted in religiously infused discourses about the civilization of “untamed nature”. By tracing the paradigm of “reclamation” throughout California’s history, he illustrates the extent to which our inherited relationship with water permeates contemporary conceptions of what is possible, desirable, and natural. It is one thing, Scoville argues, to debate the proper distribution of natural resources, but another thing to question the discourses that underpin their organized extraction.

This is where Marie Mourad’s article picks up the thread. More than one third of food in the United States currently goes to waste even as more and more families suffer from inadequate access to food. According to Mourad, common responses have thus far focused on the consumer’s responsibility to recycle and, to a lesser degree, on companies’ duties to redistribute excess food. Often exempt from critical analysis is the system of over-production that is motivated by commitments to fully stocked shelves and year-round availability of seasonal products and sustained through government subsidies. By questioning these underlying commitments, Mourad opens up a critique of capitalist systems of agricultural production that impose a market logic on our relationship to the natural environment.

These three articles push us to reconsider commonsensical conceptions of “nature”, and to rethink the intersection of social life and the natural environment.