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