Climate Change, Sociological Theory and Paradigm Shift

a paper for the Canadian Sociology Association Meetings, 2007
by Lynn McDonald, PhD.
Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Guelph

Sociologists have found the concept of paradigm shift useful since  Thomas Kuhn’s publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  in 1962. His observation that paradigms do not in fact shift until  their adherents are replaced with a new generation, however, is a  daunting prospect. Now, with climate change, everything changes, and  we do not have a generation to wait for adherents of the old paradigm to die off. Rather, experts warn us that climate breakdown has begun,  and if we do not act swiftly and seriously the consequences will be  far worse than if we do act now.

Humankind faces this urgent need to confront global heating,  moreover, at the same time as conventional sources of fossil fuels,  i.e., relatively available and efficient oil and gas, are almost at  their end. (Let’s ignore arguments over when “peak oil” might occur or  did occur--a reasonable estimate is some 65 million years ago).

As citizens of the world and inhabitants of planet Earth we need to  do many things to reduce our excessive use of resources (especially  non-renewable fossil fuels) and to tread more lightly on the earth.  Here I will explore how we sociologists need to re-look at underlying  social theory, the ideas that shape our approaches to political and  economic decision making.

Sociologists, given our training in core social science concepts,  theory and methodology, should be able to help in understanding the  scope and direction of the changes needed. We could usefully begin by  looking at the paradigm shift that brought our own discipline of  sociology into being, beginning with the broader framework of “social  science,” the term used (also moral philosophy and social philosophy)  before “sociology” came into use in the late 19th century. “Social  science,” sometimes the “political and moral sciences,” dates from the  18th century Enlightenment, in the audacious proposal of Condorcet  (probably) that we need a social science to ground the social art--the  social art meaning better ways of governing society.

The Enlightenment vision of universalism, liberty and sovereignty of  the people would be realized over time, replacing the conventional  wisdom of an earlier day with its hierarchical society, the divine right of kings, duties not rights for the lower order, and sympathy  limited to one’s own narrow circle. Movements for women’s education, the freeing of slaves, religious toleration, civil liberties and the  right of national self-determination all grew from these great  Enlightenment principles. All were considered impossible if not  subversive at the time. Their advocates were variously treated as  dangerous radicals, to be exiled or imprisoned, their books burned.

The early concerns of sociologists were practical reforms, the  solving of social problems using the tools of natural and social  science: poverty, ignorance, illness, injustice and oppression were  prime subjects for research. The early journals of our discipline  unashamedly mixed up theory and application. Social work, social  reform, even socialism were all concerns of the early generations of  sociologists (who only later became squeamish at applied work).

Instead of throwing out these foundational works of our discipline,  however, I suggest that we review them in the light of current needs,  see what guidance they--certainly some of them--can give, and consider  how some modest adaptations might help. From the Enlightenment let us  look at Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Catharine Macaulay (1731-91),  from the nineteenth century John Stuart Mill (1806-73) and co-author  Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).

To Bentham we owe the mature articulation of utility theory, for “the  greatest good of the greatest number” is an essential principle for  democracy and human rights. Bentham suggested that our sympathy could  be broad or narrow, to include:

  • Certain individuals
  • Any subordinate class of individuals
  • The whole nation
  • Humankind in general
  • The whole sensitive creation (in An Introduction to the Principles  of Morals and Legislation). Now, with climate change another is needed: future generations.

Feminist author Catharine Macaulay, in Letters on Education, built on  this conceptualization, both to argue for education for women (all  humankind) and to emphasize greater consideration for non-human  species (the whole sensitive creation).

John Stuart Mill is typically treated as an anthropocentric political  writer, acknowledged at least for his inclusion of women. He was also  a field naturalist, advocate of biodiversity and opponent of  monoculture and cruelty to animals. His influential essay, “On  Liberty,” was co-written with his feminist wife. While it stresses  human rights, surely much needed in their time, especially for women,  the principles it cites can take us further.

The Mills started with the Enlightenment bias for liberty, to be  restricted only for cause. Mme Roland (1754-93) ably described it at  the time of the French Revolution:

Political liberty, for each individual of a society, consists in doing  everything that he judges proper for his own happiness, but which does  not injure others. It is the power of being happy without doing harm  to anyone.

The Mills similarly held that there was one simple principle  governing infringements to liberty:
That the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or  collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of  their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power  can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community,  against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either  physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” (CW 18:11)

But in their longer work, Principles of Political Economy, they set  out the criteria for exceptions, the justification for limits.  “Laissez-faire” was still “the general practice,” and “every departure  from it, unless required by some great good is a certain evil.” But  their exemptions are quite substantial, taking into account the need  to protect those who could not act for themselves:

  • child protection
  • education of children
  • protection of animals
  • measures against fraud
  • labour laws
  • public health laws
  • some welfare provisions

Liberty must be accorded “for all tastes and pursuits,” they held, so  long as what we do does not harm our “fellow creatures.” Fellow  creatures can be taken a long way, and, as for Bentham we would want  to add “future generations,” who obviously cannot speak for  themselves. The understanding of harm must now take into account the  problems caused by environmental deterioration and climate breakdown,  not just immediate social and economic injustices.

Florence Nightingale’s methodological work is also useful here. She  was influenced by the Belgian statistician L.A.J. Quetelet,  particularly on the importance of unintended consequences. Benevolent  intentions could have the reverse effect of what was intended, for  example a foundling hospital intended to save unwanted babies having a  high mortality rate.

Nightingale early in her social reform career discovered that  hospitals could be deadly places, and she had to end a training  program for midwifery nurses, surely a good thing given the mortality  rate from childbirth, on account of a high maternal death rate in the  training institution. She was exceptional in her day in taking a  broad, environmental approach. For example, in considering famine  prevention in India in the 1870s she warned about the consequences of  forest destruction for soil erosion, flooding and famine. She urged  scientific forest management and re-forestation.

It is not too much to say that with tree planting properly carried out  there would be equalized rainfall. We are so stupid...we go on cutting  down wood without replacing it, and for a great part of the year the  heavens become as brass....Then the rain...destroys everything. 1879  (CWFN vol. 10)

Climate change is surely the greatest of the unintended consequences  of the industrial era. No one constructing railroads or factories in  the nineteenth century had any notion that rising global temperatures,  storms, drought, deforestation, polar ice melting and rising oceans  could be the result of their enterprise.

Our discipline was established in industrial Britain and western  Europe, to expand greatly in the growing United States. Sociology’s  mental environment was the “age of exuberance,” as rural sociologists,  the first “environmental sociologists,” began pointing out in the  1970s. Our professional assumptions and preoccupations still reflect  that era.

Saint-Simon was the “prophet of industrialization” and an influence  on Karl Marx, and why not? Industry then, fueled by coal-based steam  engines, increased production, brought cheap goods to market and  increased the standard of living and life expectancy of millions of  ordinary people. The prospect of climate breakdown was not a matter of  concern.

The warnings on global heating go back a long time, but not that long. The Swedish scientist Svante  Arrhenius published On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon  the Temperature of the Ground in 1895. George P. Marsh’s classic, more  general warning about environmental deterioration, but not climate  change, appeared in 1864: Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as  Modified by Human Agency.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857), often considered the ”founder of  sociology,” although not by me, was dead before these serious warnings  were issued. His massive Cours de philosophie positive, with volumes  first on progress in the natural sciences, finally on to the social  sciences, demonstrates thorough confidence in the ability of science  to provide answers. “Order and progress” were his slogans, to be  achieved by the application of the positive method, meaning actual  research (although he did not himself do anything we would call “research,” as opposed to literature studies or meta studies). Again,  Comte saw, as had Saint-Simon (1760-1825), for whom he earlier worked  as secretary, great progress under way.

The harsh, negative side of the industrial revolution could of course  be seen in urban blight and pollution. Indeed the first environmental  laws date from the 1860s (again, after the time of Saint-Simon and  Comte, let alone Adam Smith). Marx and Engels recognized the blight of  pollution, but looked to change in ownership of the means of  production as the solution. (Environmentalists would say that Marxist  materialism was not materialistic enough.)

Positivism, in its original sense of research in the real world, is  still a good thing, I would argue. But we must be cautious, modest in  our expectations, giving full regard to the potential for unintended  consequences. Nightingale, again, is a good model, arguing always to  start new programs small, and evaluate their results--their actual  results. She pioneered “evidence-based health care” in 1860, and  throughout her career, whether for hospital care for the poor in  Britain or nursing in India, urged pilot projects--one hospital first.

The Roman Catholic philosopher and environmentalist Thomas Berry, in  The Great Work: Our Way into the Future calls for something akin to  paradigm shift:
The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of  consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the  human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on the  humans.

He argued for a recognition of rights for trees, insects and  mountains, pointing out quite reasonably that when the American  Constitution was written (and it was the prototype democratic  constitution), such matters were not under discussion. He, however,  called for law schools to promote this rethinking, calling for an  expanded jurisprudence, requiring humans to respect others’ rights,  that the order of the universe as a whole must be the criterion,  not the rights of one part of it, us.

In my view sociologists have no less of a responsibility to stimulate  and facilitate this rethinking. Academic lawyers are certainly  essential to the drafting of alternative laws, and amendments to  constitutions and charters of rights, but we have much to contribute  as to the framing of that thought, our understanding of society.

The Canadian constitution (the British North America Act of 1867) of  course is much later than the American, and our Charter of Rights  (1982), just this year twenty-five years old. Environmental blight was  well evident at least by the time of the Charter, but its crucial  period of formulation, 1980, just preceded broad scientific acceptance  of the carbon-climate change connection. It was the vision of  Pierre-Elliot Trudeau and reflects the best of Enlightenment thinking,  For all its merits (and it does have equal rights for women) it is  hopeless for dealing with environmental problems generally and climate  change more particularly. Its drastic revision is an urgent issue, as  indeed is a major rehaul of legislation, tax policies, government  procurement and all of our lifestyles. Canada’s 1867 constitution  obviously predates the greatest part of the carbon era, and of course  the entire oil-use part of that period.

Sociologists are urged to contribute their knowledge and abilities to  this next great paradigm change.

Lynn McDonald is University Professor Emerita at the University of  Guelph