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The Role of Social Science

While natural science is a main driver of unsustainable patterns of industrial development, it also acts as a catalyst for public awareness and political action to address the concomitant sustainability crisis (e.g. climate science). Social science, by contrast, more often than not plays a sedative role. For example, this is seen in energy studies where mainstream economists have largely defined away the problem of scarcity. Mainstream economists staunchly believe that the price mechanism invariably translates demand into supply. If a resource becomes more expensive, more of it will be produced—period. This axiomatic assumption is incompatible with the idea that there are physical limits to industrial growth.[1]

Even social scientific fields explicitly dedicated to environmental issues have a poor record when it comes to preparing the world for the possible demise of industrial civilization. For example, environmental sociology develops policy suggestions for mainstream environmental policy rather than addressing the fundamental unsustainability of industrial society. Similarly, the literature on ecological modernization and green growth pretends that industrial society can be made environmentally viable by technological innovation and incremental social and political reforms, while playing down the dreadful fact that the “treadmill of production” is going round and round while the planet is hopelessly in overshoot. [2]

Even worse, social scientists have been complicit in subverting the notion of sustainability. Originally, sustainability was about socio-political and socioeconomic regimes that are viable in the long run because they do not overstrain the environment. This is a vague regulative ideal that leaves many questions open, but it does imply that political and economic considerations ought to be subordinated to ecological concerns. But then the Brundtland Report introduced the notion of sustainable development, based on the optimistic assumption that sustainability and development go together rather than contradicting each other (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). This has led some social scientists to claim that sustainability has three pillars: environmental, economic, and social (Littig and Grießler 2005).[3] The implication is that, insofar as any economic or social retrenchment is anathema to markets and citizens, suggestions for environmental sustainability that are not palatable to markets and societies must be seen as incompatible with the imperative of economic and social sustainability. This is exactly what the public and political decision makers like to hear, but as a result the original idea of environmental sustainability was turned on its head.

In principle, critical social scientists unsatisfied with the system-stabilizing role of mainstream social science can help us gain a better understanding of the current sustainability crisis and elucidate the moral dilemmas that make it so hard to address it. This does not automatically imply that the crisis can be overcome, but a better understanding of the predicament would be valuable in and of itself. Unfortunately, however, this is not how most critical social scientists are (re)acting. Instead, many have gone post-positivist. Rather than providing any guidance about the precise nature of the crisis and how it might be addressed, they develop sophisticated accounts of how industrial society engages in collective self-delusion (for a survey, see Blühdorn 2010). There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, but it cannot replace a direct focus on the problems themselves.

  • [1] Following pioneers such as Karl William Kapp, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and E. F. Schumacher, proponents of ecological economics such as Herman Daly, Kenneth Boulding, Robert Costanza, H.T. Odum, and David Pimentel have not been able to pose a significant challenge to mainstream economics. But note the important textbook by Ayres and Warr (2009)
  • [2] On ecological modernization, see Mol and Jänicke (2009); for a critical survey, see Warner (2010); on green growth, see Ekins (2000); on the treadmill of production, see Gould et al. (2004); see also Mol (2002)
  • [3] For an ambitious (and upbeat) attempt by a physicist-turned-development-economist to translate this into practice, see Munasinghe (2009)
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