Social movements to change the world

Andrew Szasz

It will take major generational shifts rather than individual consumer choice.

Prof Andrew Szasz is a thought leader in environmental sociology. Professor and Chair in Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, he has written Shopping Our Way to Safety and EcoPopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice.

We begin this conversation with his coming to America after starting his life in Hungary. Whether the streets were paved with gold, it wasn’t long before he was engaged in student social activism…

Talking points

I went to very first earth day…my vision of what to fight for in terms of improving American society, changed from anti-war and social poverty, justice issues to encompass a more environmental focus as well.

I didn’t grow up with nature – my parents were much more comfortable in a coffee house than the great outdoors…I didn’t connect the environment with the troubles in society until that (first Earth) day

Later, I travelled to the spectacular National Parks and really fell in love with the outdoors, that really cemented my interest – I became a sociologist and discovered a group of people, environmental sociologists.

I read an article that became the foundation document of environmental sociology, that said sociologists had neglected nature and were reproducing an exceptionalism that exists in the general culture that separates us from nature.

There was a general discussion (amongst my classmates) about what is the relationship between all this political activity, anti-war and so on, and how we are being prepared to work on individual psychological issues? A time of much broader questioning…so it wasn’t a great leap to what is this other dimension that we haven’t really considered yet?

I was drawn to sociology as one of the few places in academia where one could have a radical critique of society

I don’t think I ever wanted to become just an ecologist, a biological scientist, it was always about social change.

It was revelation to me, the race issues that were going on.

Moment where federal government was vastly expanding the regulatory state…the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act…the Environmental Protection Agency…a rapid expansion of regulatory apparatus putting controls on the private economy for the sake of worker’s health and for the general environment, for the sake of the population not being exposed to dirty air, dirty water. (But is was a) two directional movement, formation of regulation, and the mounting of counter attack, a backlash.

I’ve been interested in the role of non-social movement institutions, or entities who are not into climate denial but are quite powerful – who could then be the foundation of a climate change coalition – the insurance industry, the churches, and the military.

There’s a part of the national political elite that is in deep denial, and militantly so, and these are the same people who really like the whole military apparatus and are hawks in terms of foreign policy. But they don’t listen when the army, and the navy and the CIA come to them and say “hey, this is trouble and we’ve got to do something about it now”.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. Places in the world that are already having trouble feeding themselves, getting enough potable water – that’s going to get worse. There are going to be failed states, civil wars, potentially hundreds of millions of climate refugees. That’s a national security issue.

(you can’t build a wall against climate change) You can’t build a wall against anything.

(Green consumption isn’t going to get us there) Does green consuming have a politicising effect? Are your lightbulbs and your Prius materially decreasing the collective trouble. And then there’s the ideological or political effect, if you start thinking about your life in that way, is it radicalising? Do you broadly become an environmental activist? My argument is that it does the opposite (you’ve ticked that box), right, and there’s so many other things you have to worry about – your health, your family, ageing parents…and if you think you’ve protected your family by creating this green bubble, why do anything more? Other people have argued that it’s a first step, you go and make those changes and it sensitises you, next you’re going to the local farmers market and so on..

Consuming green has to do with consumer choice, you go to the market and there are pesticide apples and non-pesticide apples, but so much of our consumption is constrained. When you buy a house, you don’t design your own house, you go onto the housing market. The social geography is already in place and in many places in America this requires you to own your own car because public transportation is really weak and cities have sprawled out…so you can buy a car with higher mileage (but the big decisions are already taken). It will take major generational shifts rather than individual consumer choice.

There’s something going on in the younger generation that Bernie has revealed. We always knew that the younger generation was socially more progressive…we hadn’t realised that they may be also economically progressive.

(will it take a revolution?) I see some positive movements…(but) I think it will take a series of major catastrophes to focus the world’s attention, I hate to say that.

America’s a growth of irrational weird culture. Bizarre developments

(Superpower) Transition to non-polluting energy. We have to respect the desire of millions of poor people around the world for a stable society and lifestyle, and if you’re not going to kill off most humanity, seven billion people, then they’ve got feel secure and they’ve got to eat and you have to do that in a way that doesn’t cook the planet

(Success): Books I’ve written, and planning to write, try to foster a reassessment of climate change

(Activist) I do, First of all, I’m a teacher.

Every environmental sociology class I teach is divided half and half between making the students upset and depressed by telling them how awful their world is about to become and then spending the second half teaching them about the history of the environmental, worker and community based movements

I want my students to feel knowledgable but not hopeless.

People have in the past been able to clean up the cities, win the ten hour day, win the eight hour day, achieve safer workplaces…social movements really have had successes.

I want to leave my students feeling hopeful that collectively they can do something.

(Motivation) Understanding how things work and a sense of empathy for the rest of creation…and a sense of fighting for justice.

(Challenges) trying to change Sociology 1. Changing the textbooks, that’s the challenge we’re working on.

(Miracle): The disappearance of climate denial