Sociology for Survival: a view from the Global South

If humanity is to survive, the future will be organized along eco-feminist-socialist lines. In this future, an altered relationship between society and nature will be a central characteristic.

Photo: Climate March in Durban, Oxfam, CC BY-NC-DC 2.0

Re-visioning ‘Nature’

My starting point is that we are part of nature in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. However ‘nature’, as Raymond Williams has suggested, is “perhaps the most complex word in the (English) language”. Its meanings are always unstable and contested. It is variously understood as “natural capital”(as in the extreme version of the green economy) or as a repository of rights, as in the indigenous Andean perspective in which nature is valued for itself, or as simply a store of resources. But a consensus is emerging that the nature –society relation is in crisis: that we have reached the limit of using nature as a sink for our waste products and simply as a source of raw materials for economic activity. Continue reading

Green Transition? Just Transition?

Photo: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What is the role of workers and unions in the green transition? Over the last few years Nora Rathzell and David Uzell have brought together activists and analysts from around the world demonstrating that the question is both relevant and timely. Projects in various countries, such as Austria and Canada, explicitly seek to understand the agency of workers in this process. As one looks at these efforts it becomes apparent that there are lineages of thought and practice that we need to reclaim and that the role of workers and unions in the green transition is as pressing as it is contested.

Looking into the past may reflect a certain degree of nostalgia for a period of time when emancipatory futures seemed more possible. But there are also practical reasons for doing so. In immediate terms, we can learn that the issue of work and the environment has been with us far longer than we may think, albeit without using those terms. By the 1970s the relationship between the two was on the agenda of some unions and some environmentalists in terms that we all now recognize and during the 1990s sociotechnical systems served as the core analytic of a US project on work and the environment, green jobs were an important issue in Australia, and greening industrial relations was the subject of an international project in the European Union.

But we can also learn a great deal by examining labor’s record with respect to transitions involving gender, ethnicity and race. Continue reading

Labor-Environment Relations: An Enduring Conflict or Transformative Alliance?

The relationship between workers and environmentalists is often described as an “enduring conflict” in which workers’ jobs are pitted against the ecological concerns of environmental activists. The presumed trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection contributes to a jobs versus the environment rhetoric that is dominant in media and political debates over environmental regulations.

Photo: M H, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Divisions between unions and environmentalists are related to differences in economic interests and social class as well as cultural, social and generational dynamics of the different groups. Unions have often prioritized jobs and economic growth, particularly in heavily polluting industries, while the mainstream environmental movement has historically neglected working class and economic issues. In the U.S. these conflicts have played out around logging versus protection of endangered species, and air pollution regulations on power plants. Workers have pushed against conservation and pollution-reduction when these policies are perceived as threatening their livelihoods. Continue reading