Author Archives: Nathan Palmer
Environmental sustainability is a growing concern around the world. Issues like global climate change and the loss of biodiversity have grabbed our attention and brought the topic of sustainability into an international discussion. In this post Nathan Palmer takes a hard look at how we are thinking about sustainability and asks us to think about what we hope to sustain in the sustainable future we envision.
Sustainability is a big buzz word right now. Seems everyone, especially on college campuses, is concerned about becoming sustainable. Before we go any further let me say, as an environmental sociologist I think it’s a good thing that we are concerned about the impact human actions are having on the planet. But with that said, let me ask you a question. What is the goal of sustainability? That is, what are we hoping to sustain indefinitely?
Do you mean that we want to sustain every living thing from single cell organisms to mammals? If this is the case, then we may need to reduce our human population a little. I mean, to support the 7 billion humans currently in our population we have to destroy ecosystems and species of animals almost everyday. So, if you’re for sustainability, then you wouldn’t mind a government policy limiting how many children you can have, right? If you’re like most people, you find the idea of limiting human reproduction horrible and oppressive. But what this little thought experiment shows us is, when we say sustainability what we mean is human sustainability. The great fear of sustainability is that human actions will change the ecosystems we depend on so greatly (either through pollution, consumption of natural resources, global climate change, etc.) that we will not be able to survive. Or simply put, sustainability is a movement to prevent humans from committing ecological suicide.
Anthropocentrism, Sustainability, and Nature
So what? What does it matter if humans are concerned with human sustainability? I mean that does seem completely rational, right? I think the answer to this question can be found in a quote often credited to Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Ever read a news story about a killer bear or a “man eating” shark? They almost always end with an announcement that the bear/shark was found and killed by authorities. In this post Nathan Palmer says that if he’s eaten by a bear he’d like you to let it live and then he uses the theory of the treadmill of production to illustrate how all of us are in a constant flow with nature.
If a bear is eating me, please don’t kill it. I mean if it’s got my hand in its mouth, shoot that sucker dead, but if it’s eating my throat or brains, just let it finish. While this might sound bizarre/horrific to you, it only seems fair to me. In my years as a meat eater I’ve left a trail of dead animals so massive it would have astounded my ancestors. So with that in mind, turn about seems like fair play. Also, the idea of turning into bear poop sounds awesome to me. So… are you confused, grossed out, or disturbed yet? Give me a second to tell you about the environmental sociology theory called the Treadmill of Production and I think it will all make sense.
Withdrawals, Additions, and Humans
The Treadmill of Production theory was coined by Allan Schnaiberg in the book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. The idea at the base of the theory is humans are dependent upon a constant flow of energy from nature and that each of us is in a constant state of interaction with the world around us. We are constantly taking in the natural world through food, water, air, etc. and likewise constantly releasing it back into the ecosystem (e.g. via feces, urine, exhaled breath, etc.). In this process humans create withdrawals, which are the extractions of raw materials from nature, and similarly create additions, which are the waste and by products created through the production of human consumed goods. Many additions like nuclear waste, toxic chemicals, and greenhouse gasses create profound ecological disruptions.
Welfare (i.e. government monies going to the poor) can really make people mad. Critics of welfare say that the poor are dangerous free loaders who are very different from those who do not receive welfare. They’d have us believe that poor folks are parasites that will suck the life out of our society if we let them. In this post Nathan Palmer explains why this criticism is overblown and most likely hypocritical.
Hey, before we start I want to ask you a question. Do you receive any financial aid from the government? Alright, got the answer? Let’s go.
Moochers, free loaders, drains on the system, good for nothings. We have many harsh names for people who receive aid from the government (i.e. welfare). For whatever reason, in the U.S. we shame and stigmatize people who are dependent upon government aid. Today I want to show you who relies on government social programs and ask you to think about why many of us are so critical of welfare recipients.
The Aid Recipients are Parasites Argument
Most of the arguments against welfare suggest that welfare recipients are people of low character, who abuse social systems. In other words, they are people who will suck resources out of the rest of society like a parasite because they don’t know any better or they are lazy or they are otherwise rotten people. For instance, in 2010 Lt. Governor of South Carolina Andre Bauer said,
- “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”
If you can believe it, Bauer said this as an argument against giving free and reduced meals to school children. His logic is clear, poor people are intellectually inferior to the people who can afford to pay for their children’s lunches. Poor people are also ravenous consumers of resources who will “breed” and eat through the resources of a community if they aren’t stopped.
[Read this with the movie trailer voice in your head] In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality? [Now read this with nerdy sociologist voice] In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.
My Mom’s Phone Voice
Voice & The Performance of Gender
We have talked extensively on SociologyInFocus about how gender is a performance. That is, we “do gender”. Right now if you wanted to act feminine or to act masculine you could change your clothing, how you move, how you sit, the facial expressions you use, but arguably the first thing you would change is your voice. Gender is a performance and like any performance there are costumes, lines, mannerisms, etc. that you embody to perform the role. The rules of gender performance are so clear and present throughout society that even my 5 year old can recite them:
Patriarchy, Cultural Symbols, and In A World
As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World:
You are a strange person living in a strange world. It’s just that you are so much like all the people around you and each day is so much like the next that you slowly come to think of yourself and the world around you as normal. However, part of being a good sociologist is remembering just how strange our everyday world is. In this piece Nathan Palmer goes to the Pitchfork Music Festival to show us how different things look when we “see the familiar as strange”.
Do you know how you can spot a tourist from a local? Tourists look up, taking in the scenery, but locals stay heads down until they get to where they’re going. I am in Chicago this weekend for the Pitchfork Music Festival, so the tourist/local divide is as clear as ever for me. Every time I stop to marvel at some landscape, or look at a sculpture, or especially when I snap a picture, the locals who I share the sidewalk with either roll their eyes or give me a strange look. To the locals there is nothing remarkable- nothing worth looking at, because they’ve seen it a thousand times before. Locals may have more insider knowledge of the area than anyone, but so much of the world they live in has become so familiar that it is now unremarkable and just normal.
Seeing The Familiar As Strange
Sociology asks you to look at your life, your community, your world again for the first time. As a discipline we urge you to “see the familiar as strange”. Become a tourist in your own life, and notice all of the little details that have faded into the background. In many ways sociology is the study of human patterns of behavior. Put another way sociology is the study of the (often boring) routines of life.
The lessons that sociology has to teach you and the answers that sociological methods can provide you lie in the things you’ve always known were true, the assumptions you didn’t even know you were making, and the questions you never thought to ask. This isn’t a mantra or Chicken Soup For The Sociologist’s Soul it’s an approach and an opportunity for you to more deeply understand the world around you.
Seeing The Pitchfork Music Festival As Strange
I thought I’d take you along with me as I roamed the music festival this weekend and show you how I “see the familiar as strange”. Now mind you, a concert is not an everyday thing, but it is highly routinized. Walking around Pitchfork I saw many things that would be familiar to anyone who’s been to a concert before. There were far too many things to sociologically analyze, but I want to at least tell you about three of them.
Moshing & Crowd Surfing:
In any other place, running head long into someone else is called assault. At a concert it’s called fun. Continue reading