Social Roots of Environmental Problems

Social Roots of Environmental Problems:
Institutional and Cultural Factors

Matthew Howard
Northern Arizona University

SOC 333: Environment and Society
April 6, 2013


Environmental sociologists explore the institutional and cultural forces that shape environmental problems, including social structures, belief systems, and questions of social justice that overlap our environment’s worst disasters. Janine Schipper brings this perspective to bear on the problem of urban sprawl in Phoenix, Arizona. By understanding our cultural values that drive urban expansion, she hopes to fully understand the roots of the problem. In response, she proposes a land ethic that reframes land not as property to own or product to consume, but as a member of our community.
Keywords: Environmental Sociology, Land, Culture, Phoenix, Sprawl, Janine Schipper

The Perspective of Environmental Sociology

Environmental sociologists explore the institutional and cultural forces that shape environmental problems. Many of these are wider social concerns such as “inequality, culture, power and politics, the relationship between government and economy” (McCarthy, 2009, p.2). Economic competition, for example, made a mess of the so-called “Green Revolution” in food production in the 20th century. It yielded a massive increase in the use of toxic pesticides and the destruction of family farms across the globe who failed to keep up with the market economy needed to buy the pesticides (ibid).

Environmental sociologists examine our social structures to discover, behind many of our worst environmental disasters, the “identifiable managerial steps, collection of beliefs, set of regulations, or other social structures” that lead to catastrophe (ibid, p.3). Environmental disasters link to exploitation of labor, disregard of safety regulations, destruction of ecosystems by urbanization, and design errors in urban planning. Most of these stem from our tendency for “maximizing profits rather than social welfare” (ibid). Sociologists also find links to questions of social justice such as “poverty, inequality, racism, lack of democracy, and the increasing concentration of power in corporations” (ibid). They explore “religious world views, advertising, philosophy,” and other aspects of our culture where our beliefs about our identities and the world meet (p. 4).

The Problem of Urban Sprawl

Janine Schipper offers a sociological perspective on urban sprawl in her 2008 book Disappearing Desert. “Sprawl” generally refers to the encroachment of growing urban areas onto existing open land, forests, and farmlands. It may take the form of suburban sprawl, “low density development into undeveloped land and the consequent expansion of metropolitan areas” (p. 7). For humans, sprawl brings with it the monolithic culture of “cookie cutter subdivisions, strip malls, pollution… and a legion of highways often jammed with traffic” (ibid). The degradation of wilderness areas often means the death of local flora and fauna, and ecological upsets from soil erosion to toxification of local water sources. On a larger scale, even the seemingly barren desert plays an important role in regulating the climate of the planet. Its wide open spaces absorb radiation during the day and release it at night, a regulatory thermal process interrupted when subdivisions replace open land (p. 9-10).

Although Schipper mostly concerns herself with ideological drivers of sprawl, she also identifies the structural factors. The dominant paradigm of Weberian bureaucracy emphasizes “rationality, efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control” (p. 26). Our social apparatus can convert the commodity of open land into developed product with ruthless efficiency, and doing so seems consistent with our value system. We see the linear, hierarchical way of thinking play itself out in the tight grids of newly built suburbs and the mechanical divisions of plat maps. The land is flattened, stripped, and parceled into boxes – a rational system imposed on and completely disregarding land.

Schipper views this aspect of society as both the product and embodiment of a mix of cultural values we have inherited. She points out the Judeo-Christian paradigm of our dominant culture, with its biblical edict to subdue the earth and populate it at will (p. 31). She combines this with the Cartesian and Newtonian roots of our rational, scientific way of thinking. Modern western philosophy arises from Descartes and Newton with a dualistic view of our world: the duality of subject and object, the duality of man and nature, the duality of mind and body. We believe ourselves to be fundamentally split, separate from nature and the land, disembodied minds moving through brute and senseless “stuff” of the universe (p. 33-4).

Schipper further criticizes what seems to be uniquely American thinking, the value that the “freedom to consume” is a fundamental right, a belief that if it is possible to consume then it is good to consume (p. 80-4). For this drive to consume, the desert becomes merely another product. In fact, what the advertisers really sell in the new developments in the desert is what Schipper identifies as “the desert lifestyle:” nature redesigned into some ad agency’s idea of the American dream, processed, and packaged for quick sale (p. 84-7).

A Question of Values

Some of these cultural ideas are so ingrained, so internalized, that it’s easy to be unaware of them. Social scientists concern themselves with these aspects of our inner lives, examining “sociological variables (such as values, norms, and roles)” (Babbie, 2013, p. 50). Sociologists believe we need to understand these underlying aspects of our belief systems and values to really solve environmental problems.

Understanding the underlying causes does not necessarily generate a solution. It does, however, demonstrate why some solutions don’t work as well as intended. Schipper discusses the failures of “responsible, sustainable, and green” development to solve the problem of sprawl. The paradigm of using the land as a resource has not changed. It has only become the more conservative brand of environmentalism concerned with “wise use” of resources. It doesn’t question whether they should be used in the first place.

To counter this “manifest destiny” ideology of perpetual expansion, Schipper proposes a “‘land ethic” for our culture, including land as a member of our community like other people, or family. With this belonging comes a responsibility to care for that community member, not wantonly exploit its resources.

Here she does not concern herself with economic and structural challenges but instead our perception of the land and our relationship to it. This may, in fact, be a crucial weakness of her approach. Any change she proposes will necessarily confront the massive inertia of our bureaucratic social structure, a structure which tends to “act as a brake on innovation and change” (Tompkins, 2005, p. 55). Schipper’s land ethic, however, represents innovative thinking and requires deep change. Henry Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and many environmentalists have argued for such a land ethic for hundreds of years. They challenged the idea of property rights that drive sprawl and urbanization. Basic microeconomic theory states that property rights create good stewardship of the land, because once it belongs to someone legally, they care for it better. Schipper argues that our concept of property – of the land as a commodity to be owned – contributes to sprawl and loss of wilderness. Schipper views nature not as a commodity traded on the free market, but a member of our community – one of us.


Nurturing a cultural value centered on our relationship with the land may inform a solution to sprawl and other environmental problems. But does this approach differ widely enough from the norm to make a difference? It still posits the land as something other than man, something separate, to be related to. Sociologists, write McCarthy and King, “assume, first and foremost, that humans are part of the environment and that the environment and society can only be fully understood in relation to each other” (p. 1). But this assumption, though well-intended, remains locked in the same pattern of dualistic, rationalized thinking that allow us to exploit the land as an object.

This duality lies at the core of our cultural problem with the environment, and it has no easy fix. To see the land as ourselves, to see the earth as our body, and to see the havoc we wreak upon her as havoc we unleash upon ourselves – these require a major shift in thinking that calls into question nearly the whole of western philosophy. Perhaps the problems of overly rationalized thinking cannot be solved by merely rational means, but must appeal to the irrational side of human nature: our intuition and feeling, our senses. Until we can feel that we are the land and it is us, a truly transformative cultural solution to environmental degradation may remain beyond our grasp.


Babbie, E. (2013). Social research counts. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning: Belmont, CA.

McCarthy, D., and King, L. (2009). Environmental problems require social solutions. In McCarthy, D., and King, L. , Eds., Environmental sociology: from analysis to action (second edition). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Schipper, J. (2008). Disappearing desert: the growth of Phoenix and the culture of sprawl. University of Oklahoma Press.

Tompkins, J. R. (2005). Organization theory and public management. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

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