March 6 , 2012
Sociology of Environment and Technology
• Final Exam Schedule
• Paradox of Technology
• Risk Society
• Environmental Degradation
• Social Construction of Environmental Problems
• It affects us all...but not equally
• Research Proposals
Final Exam and Midterms
• The Final Exam will be held on Tuesday April 24 at 2:00pm. The location will be
announced later in the term.
• You can pick up the short answer portion of your midterms any class now, during the
Environment & Technology
• The environment and technology are two big areas of sociology.
• Environmental movement – a very diverse social movement concerned with a whole
plethora of environmental issues.
o Environmental Movements are fairly new, however they get more attention on a
daily basis than many other movements that have been around for decades.
o It involves how technology affects the environment.
• Key focus is sustainability of the planet’s resources. o Are we using resources too quickly? Are we using resources that we do not have
a lot of, and should be conserving?
• With the rise of technology, there is an associated growing stress to the environment.
• In the 1980s/1990s, acid rain, caused by air pollution such as car and factory emission,
was a huge concern for the world. Now in the 2000s, although it is still a huge concern, it
is not looked at nearly as much as it used to be.
• In the 2000s/2010s, global warming, caused by pollution heating up the earth and
making the polar ice caps melt, is now a huge concern, even more so than acid rain. It is
interesting to see how concerns change over time, and what is seen as important.
• See textbook reading “A Planet Under Stress”.
Paradox of Technology
• Technology plays a paradoxical role in society (Bauman).
• Technology (for example, in manufacturing, medical, transportation, and communication
fields) brings a vast richness of possibilities and progress to our lives and yet
simultaneously has various negative impacts.
o Technology makes the lives of humans easier and reduces the gap between
each individual person with things such as instant messaging and cell phones,
however it also had negative effects too that cannot be ignored.
o Ex. Medical field advancements = Positive
o Ex. Nuclear weapon advancements = Negative
• Technology is both seen as the future and in some instances as our savior and yet
technology is also the cause of some of the biggest dangers and makes the future risky.
• An example is the destruction of the ecological and climatic equilibrium of the planet.
o The natural resources of the earth are depleted in the pursuit of profit, but there
is nothing inherent in such pursuit that operates as a check upon such behaviour.
o With technology however, we as people act as the check and balance because
we choose things with as little negative effects as possible.
• Industrial organizations/businesses which bring us many pieces of technology are the
biggest polluters of the air and water. • The explosion of private cars and motorways, airports and aircraft that was once
expected to resolve the problem of mobility and transportation, now creates traffic jams,
air and noise pollution, and destroys whole areas of human settlement.
• Nowadays we hear, time and again, heated debates about who should pay for, say,
polluting the supplies of fresh water, disposing of toxic waste, or the damage caused to
the landscape by new opencast mines or motorways.
o Businesses: They do not want to pay the extra money, so they will just move
elsewhere, to another place that is more “business-friendly”.
o Consumers: Consumers do not want to pay the extra money on top of what they
are already spending for the product.
o Government: The government does not want to pay for this disposal because
they are already paying for many other things and feel this is not a priority for
them to fix.
• No one seems to assume responsibility for their existence and consequences.
Costs of Technological Process
• There is no doubt that modern times have given rise to spectacular achievements.
Denying those is not the issue. The issue is that we are now facing not only the benefits,
but also the costs of technological progress.
• These are not restricted to small enclaves of order, as they affect our entire futures.
What is now required is some understanding of the weaknesses, as well as strengths, of
the ways in which we view each other, our ways of thinking and acting and the
environments that we all inhabit.
• Overall, North Americans value science and technology highly.
• Awareness that technological advance is not always beneficial and not even always
benign is important. The negative however is hard to get through to consumers.
• A sign that the negative is getting through however, whether we choose to accept it or
not, is the rise of recycling and composting services in many residential areas around
• The term “normal accident” was introduced by Perrow in 1980s and refers to accidents
that occur inevitably - though unpredictably - because of the very complexity of modern
technologies. o An example of this would be someone who always puts their glass of water on
the edge of the table. It may not be knocked over the first hundred times, but
eventually it is inevitably going to happen.
• There are an inevitable number of accidents that will take place when it comes to
o Ex. Oil spills, such as the one that happened in British Columbia.
Technology and “Risk Society”
• Beck coined the term “risk society”. It is a postmodern society defined by way in which
risk is distributed as a side effect of technology.
• Technology distributes danger among all categories of the population, with some
categories more exposed to technological dangers than others.
o Ex. Pollution is more prevalent in Ottawa than in rural areas. All of us are affected
by the damage that pollution does to the air and water.
• There is danger not just from technology, but from mounting environmental threats as
• Risks are outcomes and side-effects that are difficult/impossible to calculate and define.
• It cannot be calculated because we do not know all the repercussions of our interactions
with the environment and technology.
o Ex. Pills have side-effects that are listed on the side of the bottle, but if there was
a way to make sure there were no side-effects at all, there wouldn’t need to be a
list. We do not, however, know everything, which is why there are always side-
• Genetically modified (GM) food, for example: The debate revolves around uncertainty in
terms of not knowing the price that will be paid in the future for current decisions.
o The decisions we make about food and crops today may be detrimental to our
food and crops of the future.
Globalization and Risk
• Globalization is taken to be a process which no one controls. This is often invoked as a
reason for inaction in the face of what are seen as overwhelming and abstract forces.
• Government policies can and do mediate, dilute and ameliorate these effects. • Risks are the kinds of dangers we do not see or hear coming and of which we may not
be fully aware. We do not experience directly – see, hear, touch and smell –
• If there is something dangerous going on outside the house beside you, it does not fit
this category. The danger has to be unseen.
• Examples of this would be:
o The rising carbon dioxide in the air we breathe.
o The slow yet relentless warming up of the planet.
o The chemical substances used to fatten up the meat we eat.
• Technology – Techne (craft)/Opoly (study)
• The study of:
o Craft (techne)
o Everything from Tools to Know-How
Fire, Wheel, Printing Press, Telephone, Satellite
• Technopoly however is different.
• Technopoly: Form of social organization in which technology compels people to try to
solve all problems by using technical rather than moral criteria, even though technology
is often the source of the problems.
o Ex. If there is a problem with an IPhone Application, we use more technology to
fix the problem that the technology caused in the first place.
• Postman (1992) refers to United States as a technopoly and argues United States is the
first country in which technology has taken control of culture.
Economic Incentives and Research
• Many researchers now influenced by the following:
o Large research grants.
o Well-paying jobs. o Access to expensive state-of-the-art equipment.
o Possibility of winning patents and achieving commercial success.
• A lot of misgivings of researchers that spring from consideration of optimum benefits for
humanity or possibility for harm of military (and corporation) funded research are quieted
at prospect of doing cutting-edge research.
• The problem is that the market says the product needs to be out in the next couple of
weeks, but the product itself would be ten-times better in a year or two.
Environmental Degradation: Global Warming
• The side effect of technology most troublesome for many is environmental degradation.
• Our increased dependence on fossil fuel burning since the Industrial Revolution has
contributed to global warming (the gradual worldwide increase in average surface
• Global warming has the most attention of any other environmental concern.
• There is concern global warming is responsible for serious climatic change that is fueling
o Extreme meteorological events.
o Partial melting of polar ice caps.
o Rising sea level.
• There is also concern about potential for rising ocean levels flooding some heavily
populated regions throughout world.
Environmental Degradation: Industrial Pollution
• Industrial pollution is emission of various impurities into the air, water, and soil through
industrial processes (ex. Factories). It is different than global warming.
• In Canada, most pollutants are especially highly concentrated in southern Ontario and
southern Quebec because they are the hearts of manufacturing in Canada.
• Acid rain is a result of industrial pollution. It is still a concern; however it is now ignored
because of global warming.
• Pollutants affect us both directly and indirectly: o Directly, by seeping into our drinking water and air we breathe and causing a
variety of ailments ranging from asthma to cancer (particularly among the young
o Indirectly, by coal-burning power plants, pulp-and-paper mills, and motor-vehicle
exhaust emitting sulphur dioxide and other gases that then form acid rain.
Acid rain is form of precipitation whose acidity eats away at, and
eventually destroys, forests and ecosystems of lakes.
• Pollutants also indirectly affect us through CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which once were
widely used in industry and by consumers (Ex. In refrigeration equipment).
• CFCs contain chlorine, which is responsible for depletion of ozone layer, 8 kilometres to
40 kilometres above earth’s surface. This is talked about all the time.
• Depletion of the ozone layer allows more u