The sociological analysis of environmental issues is relatively recent, but it has gained a lot of visibility due to the multiplication of alarms concerning the reproduction of natural resources. Fifty years ago, the environmental object hardly existed in science and society; today it is absolutely central in our daily lives and environmental studies matter for social scientists. However, this does not mean that the threat against natural resources and the survival of humanity are fully acknowledged. They are still hugely controversial, as the recent decisions of the Trump administration clearly show in the United States. Albeit deeply disturbing, this fact constitutes a major interest for social scientists: the evidence of major risks does not necessarily lead to their identification and treatment. More than that, risks are frequently the object of pure denial. Fifteen years ago, the Minister of Higher Education in France, himself a geologist of great reputation (he was awarded the highest distinction in his discipline, the Crafoord prize) claimed that there was no climate change since he did not wear short pants in January. Environment is thus a highly controversial object. It is also a multi-disciplinary endeavor, at the crossroads of anthropology, history, sociology, biology and physics. It combines a thorough critique of the excesses of science and technology, but it requires a renewed form of scientific expertise. For all those paradoxes, the environment is a very exciting sociological field, as it forces us to question our own usual tools, that were not constructed to deal with the connection nature/society. Perhaps the connection has to be rethought in radically new terms, blurring the lines between social constructs and natural facts. Anthropology and sociology have been deeply affected by the rise of environment as a major issue.
As other topics in the social sciences, environment is simultaneously a conceptual and political topic. People disagree about the existence of problems: they may engage into movements, largely grassroots, to defend their point of view or develop conservative forms of denial, dismissing the “catastrophism” of environmental scholars and activists.
The course aims to provide the students with an overview of the main environmental issues, going as far as possible into the identification of how it invites us to radically reconsider our sociological practice. Starting from the definition of a new object, we will move to the philosophical consequences of its emergence in anthropology and sociology. This will enable us to assess major concepts: “risk society” and “ecological modernization” mainly. Environment is usually associated with the changing of lifestyles, from ostentatious consumption to frugality: this affects class, gender and status, as the will to self-reform is unequally distributed in society. Environment is a wonderful object for the study of politicization, but also of uncertainty: we must make hard decisions out of highly controversial data. A growing issue concerns environmental justice: it is becoming a major legal object. Physical, biological, sociological and finally legal: environment is a clear “total social fact” in the sense of Marcel Mauss.