Sociology 3321F/G Lecture Notes - Individualism, Planned Obsolescence, Conspicuous Consumption

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1 Feb 2013
Cultural Sources of U.S. Environmental Problems
• The dominant ideologies of U.S. society have tended to legitimize or at least account for the
wastefulness of Americans and their acceptance of pollution:
1) The Cornucopia View of Nature Most Americans conceive of nature as a vast storehouse waiting
only to be used by people. They regard the natural world as a bountiful preserve available to serve
human needs. In this view, nature is something to be used; it is free and inexhaustible.
- Americans have disproportionately consumed the resources of the world. For example, although they
constitute 4.6 percent of the world’s population, people in the U.S. use 25 percent of the world’s oil
output each year. This is because we own 200 million cars and trucks and drive about 1.6 trillion miles
annually, almost as much as the rest of the world.
2) Faith in Technology Most Americans regard human beings as having mastery over nature. Rather
than accepting the environment as given, they have sought to change and conquer it (e.g., damning
rivers, cutting down timber, digging tunnels, plowing up prairie land, conquering space). Most
Americans view nature as something to be subdued and used.
- From this logic proceeds a faith in technology; a proper application for scientific knowledge can meet
any challenge. If the air and water are polluted, then science will save us. We will find a substitute for
the internal combustion engine, find new sources of energy, and develop new methods for extracting
minerals. We are beginning to realize, however, that technology may not be the solution and may even
be the source of the problem. While scientific breakthroughs have solved some problems, new
technologies create unanticipated problems.
3) Growth Ethic The American value of progress (typically defined to mean either growth or new
technology) has had a negative effect on contemporary U.S. life. The logic of capitalism is that each
company needs to increase its profits from year to year. It is presumed that we all benefit if the gross
national product increases each year. For these things to grow, there needs to be a concomitant
increase in population, products (and the use of natural resources), electricity, highways, and waste.
Continued growth will inevitably throw the tight ecological system out of balance, for there are limited
supplies of air, water, and places to dump waste materials, and these supplies diminish as the
population increases.
4) Materialism The U.S. belief in progress is translated at the individual level into consumption of
material things as evidence of one’s success. If the population is more or less stable, then growth can
only be accomplished through increased consumption by individuals. The function of the advertising
industry is to create a need in individuals to buy a product that they would not buy otherwise.
Consumption is also increased if products must be thrown away or if they do not last very long. The
policy of planned obsolescence (i.e., when existing products are given superficial changes and marketed
as new, making the previous product out of date) by many U.S. companies accomplishes this goal of
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