how can sociologists face the climate crisis? an “all-of-sociology” approach

The following is a guest post by Abigail Andrews and Ariana Thompson-Lastad.

When we began writing this piece, it was August 2020, and the skies in California were thick with smoke. As we breathed the toxic air with our preschool-aged children, we felt the climate crisis anew. The feeling intensified our agony about what we should do – as activists, as white people, as women, and as sociologists. We try to read the latest science and learn about what we can do. We’re making lifestyle shifts, like flying less and re-using bags. And we use our spare time to press lawmakers for pro-climate policy. But as parents of little ones, we don’t have much spare time. We wanted to make changes that cut more to the core of our work. Was sociology just the wrong field? (Why didn’t we study biology?!) Ariana studies healthcare and health equity, and Abigail studies gender and migration. Should we drop our current research and focus on environmental sociology? Either of those answers seemed to obscure the scope of the changes upon us.

The climate emergency is our existential disaster. The social costs are here: pandemics, toxic air and water, violence, mass migration, and grief, among many others. The devastation is terrifying, and it’s going to get worse. In the face of great fear, how do we find hope – for ourselves, our students, our children, and all the world’s children? How do we manage the rapid transformation of society with creativity, intelligence, and grace? And how do we come together (especially amidst a pandemic and ongoing racism and anti-Blackness), instead of hunkering down to protect the few?

We started talking about the tools sociology could give us for this kind of effort and about how we – and all sociologists – could transform our scholarship to face the climate crisis. What we need, we realized, was an “all-of-sociology” approach, just as the Biden administration has promised the involvement of “all-of-government.” Here are some early thoughts, with examples from our work:

1) Be explicit about how climate permeates society. We can no longer relegate environmental sociology to a subfield. The climate crisis is triggering massive social upheaval and transforming our world. Figuring out how to manage these challenges and evolve must be central to sociology as a whole. Climate should be like intersectionality and anti-racism – a central feature of our understanding of all elements of social life. Migration is one example. The rising sea level (let alone fire, drought, drastic weather events, etc.) has already begun to displace millions of people from their homes. Though the sociology of migration remains relatively siloed from environmental sociology, contemporary human movement is deeply interwoven with the climate crisis and climate-triggered social unrest.

2) Bring climate to the core of our teaching. The climate crisis can no longer be relegated to separate courses or a single week on a syllabus. Like intersectionality, it needs to wind throughout our sociological thinking. Changing the old reading lists demands some creativity. Abigail tried to do so this year when she taught sociology of immigration: At each stage of the course, she asked students to evaluate how climate change reshaped current theories of migration. Many college students are already well-informed about or involved in climate work, and it helps to invite their ideas and suggestions. While teaching crisis, it’s also important to make space for optimism and action. Visions like the Just Transition framework, can be useful across subfields.

3) Study spaces of hope. Sociology has a tendency to show us the world is screwed. We scholars are good at identifying structures that reinforce inequality (and, in this space, climate injustice). Rather than “documenting damage” over and over again, however, education scholar Eve Tuck urges researchers to focus on people’s hopes and desires for the future. Another way we can avoid the usual dire predictions and analyses is to look for what Erik Olin Wright called “real utopias.” In the midst of disaster, where and how are people building safer communities, rebuilding in health-promoting ways, and healing from trauma? Comparative research can help reveal which structural conditions facilitate climate justice. As health researcher Rachel Hardeman puts it, “Knowing what’s possible means we can create that for everyone.” For instance, Ariana wrote her dissertation about group medical visits. To understand what kinds of collective care could support both patients and healthcare staff, she selected sites where programs were working. We can do that with climate, too. Examples and stories of climate resilience can prime our imaginations.

4) Use the research process itself to build strong communities. If sociology tells us anything, it’s that good social networks help in most situations. Connecting people is important in both sudden and long-term disasters. We should think about the research process – not just the products – as tools to help build relationships. For instance, in Ariana’s research on group medical visits, patients shared health education and peer support in a room together. In some cases, these groups evolved into communities in and of themselves. Traditional sociological interviews can also offer opportunities to pose big questions, exchange resources, and brainstorm possible answers. We can look to participatory and community-engaged research for models. For instance, in their 2019 book Decolonizing Ethnography, Carolina Alonso Bejarono et al. turned in-depth interviews into spaces of consciousness-raising dialogue for both the undocumented workers they were writing about and the scholars themselves.

5) Consider how traditional approaches to research may obscure the importance of climate. Consider Central American migration to the US. In Abigail’s current research, when she and her students interviewmigrants from Central America about their lives, they mostly talk about the effects of social crises, such as intensified violence and poverty. While listening to respondents is critical in sociology, respondents may not recognize the compounding role of climate. We know from non-interview studies that climate-related changes like hurricanes and longer droughts are deeply interwoven with the current exodus out of Central America. To understand how climate changes interact with people’s experiences, we must look for climate and find new ways to identify its impact. It will help to collaborate across disciplines and use a range of sociological tools, such as historical analysis, multi-sited research, and mixed methods scholarship, to see problems in different ways.

6) Set agendas for our sub-fields, naming the kinds of research we need to confront climate crisis and build a just transition. For instance, Abigail might write a manifesto calling for migration researchers to explicitly name how their work informs climate justice – including not onlyclimate-based triggers for migration (to date, this has been the main area of overlap) but also the ways we expect migration to change in the coming decades, the possibilities for rebuilding in spaces of displacement, and the implications of different ways of managing mass human exodus. We might study the concatenation of climate vulnerability across place, as, for instance, people leave dried up farms in Central America and move to areas with terrible air pollution, like the Central Valley of California. We can also look for hope, such as by watching and imagining how vibrant immigrants’ rights movements intersect with struggles for climate justice.

7) Connect our scholarship to climate, even if the links are not obvious. For instance, Abigail has been reading and thinking a lot about trauma and researchers’ roles in situations of trauma. She had not imagined this as a “climate” study. Yet the climate crisis (and related social transformations) will surely cause trauma. To start, there is the shared grief of losing (destroying) places we love, as well as the social order we have come to rely on. More concretely and immediately, there are people losing their homes, the places they have lived their whole lives, and watching their family members die in climate events. Writing about trauma has important implications for how we all heal and evolve.

8) Build our own communities of hope. Finally, as scholars, we can begin to connect with the people nearby, whether other scholars dedicated to bringing this crisis to the core of their work, parents at the playground, or others who make up our worlds. We can use our privilege (money, status, racial privilege, etc.) to lift up the people around the globe who are fearlessly taking a stand for future generations and the preservation of human life on earth. Maybe, just maybe, those stories and networks can give us some hope.

This is the beginning of a long journey, and we welcome ideas and comments.Please reach out to us if you’d like to talk more. Abigail: alandrews@ucsd.edu, Ariana: Ariana.Thompson-Lastad@ucsf.edu.

Abigail Andrews is Associate Professor of Sociology at UCSD.

Ariana Thompson-Lastad is Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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