Tag Archives: environment/nature

A Sociology of Dirt and Disorder

Flashback Friday.

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In the classic book, Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas points to the social construction of dirt. She writes:

There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder.

If dirt and dirtiness is socially constructed, what do things we identify as dirt, filth, rubbish, and refuse have in common?

Douglas suggests that dirt is really a matter of disorganization. Literally, that a thing becomes dirt or garbage when it is out-of-place. “Dirt,” she writes, “offends against order.”

Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment.

I chose the images above to try and illustrate this idea. Hair in the drain, like dirt on our hands, is out-of-place. It doesn’t belong there. In both cases, our reaction is disgust. Hair on the head, in contrast, is beautiful and becoming, while dirt outside is life-giving soil and part of the beauty of nature.

Images royalty free from Getty. Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Where Americans’ 2014 Tax Dollars Went

Every year the National Priorities Project helps Americans understand how the money they paid in federal taxes was spent. Here’s the data for 2014:

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Since the 1940s, individual Americans have paid 40-50% of the federal government’s bills through taxes on income and investment. Another chunk (about 1/3rd today) is paid in the form of payroll taxes for things like social security and medicare. This year, corporate taxes made up only about 11% of the federal government’s revenue; this is way down from a historic high of almost 40% in 1943.

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Visit the National Priorities Project here and find out where state tax dollars went, how each state benefits from federal tax dollars, and who gets the biggest tax breaks. Or fiddle around with how you would organize American priorities.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Industry’s Influence on Trade Policy

President Obama continues to press for a form of fast track approval to ensure Congressional support for two major trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership Agreement (with 11 other countries) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (with the entire European Union).

Both agreements, based on leaks of current negotiating positions, have been structured to promote business interests and will have negative consequences for working people relative to their wages and working conditions, access to public services, and the environment.

These agreements are being negotiated in secret: even members of Congress are locked out of the negotiating process.  The only people that know what is happening and are in a position to shape the end result are the U.S. trade representative and a select group of 566 advisory group members selected by the U.S. trade representative.

Thanks to a recent Washington Post post we can see who these advisory group members are and, by extension, whose interests are served by the negotiations.  According to the blog post, 480 or 85% of the members are from either industry or trade association groups.  The remaining 15% are academics or members of unions, civil society organizations, or government committees.  The blog post includes actual names and affiliations.

Here we can see the general picture of corporate domination of U.S. trade policy as illustrated by the Washington Post.
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In short, corporate interests are well placed to directly shape our trade policies.  No wonder drafts of these treaties include chapters that, among other things, lengthen patent protection for drugs, promote capital mobility and privatization of public enterprises, and allow corporations to sue governments in supra-national secret tribunals if public policies reduce expected profits.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front and Pacific Standard.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Renaming Unpopular Fish Gets Them To Your Plate

Flashback Friday.

In an NPR segment, Professor Daniel Pauly discussed overfishing of the world’s oceans. In particular, populations of popular fish such as cod and bluefin tuna have dropped significantly (the increased global desire for sushi having a major impact on tuna).

So what’s a fishing industry to do as it becomes harder to find fish? Of course, they can go farther out into the ocean, or fish deeper into it, looking for populations of popular fish that haven’t been overharvested yet, and they did that. The other option? Switch to species of fish that haven’t been heavily fished yet, usually because they weren’t popular.

As a result, Pauly points out that in the past decade we’ve seen a number of formerly unpopular fish rebranded in an effort to make them seem more palatable.

So, for instance, the “slimehead”…

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…becomes the “orange roughy.”

And the “Patagonian toothfish”…

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…is now the “Chilean sea bass” (which was subsequently depleted).

It’s a great example of rebranding; what’s especially interesting to me is that the reason for it is the collapse of so many popular fish populations. The fishing industry has to convince people to eat fish that were previously unappealing because it has largely destroyed the basis of its own existence.

Originally posted in 2009. For a different example of rebranding fish, see our post on PETA’s Sea Kitten campaign.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Republicans to Democrats: Keep Your Walkable Communities!

Urban planning is a partisan issue. The graph below, produced by the Pew Research Center, shows that the American public are evenly split between small, walkable communities (48%) and sprawling suburbs with McMansions (49%), but that split is strongly partisan.

77% of consistent liberals want to live in neighborhoods where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.” In contrast, 75% of consistent conservatives prefer it when “houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.”

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Relatedly, Americans are about evenly split between those who prefer to live in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, but there is a clear partisan divide.

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And everyone seems to agree that they want to be near family, good schools, and the outdoors, but liberals are significantly more likely to care if they’re near art museums and theaters.

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I’m familiar with the idea of the urban liberal and the rural conservative, but I’m still surprised by the strength of these correlations. If the preferences hold true in real life, it means that there is significant partisan residential segregation. That would translate into fewer friendships between people on different sides of the political spectrum, fewer conversations that help them see the others’ point of view, and more cross-group animosity.

In fact, that’s exactly what we see: a strongly partisan population that doesn’t talk to each other very much.

H/t Conrad Hackett. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Environmental Costs of Valentine’s Day Roses

Flashback Friday.

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An article at Scientific American draws attention to the environmental cost of the commodification of flowers as a symbol of love.  Carolyn Wheelan writes:

[Roses] are… fragile and almost always flown to the U.S. from warmer climes in South America, where roughly 80 percent of our roses take root; to warm the hearts of European sweethearts, they are most often imported from Africa. They are then hauled in temperature-controlled trucks across the U.S. or the Continent and locked up overnight in cold boxes before their onward journey to the florists of the world… sending the roughly 100 million roses of a typical Valentine’s Day produces some 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from field to U.S. florist.

When flowers aren’t shipped in to cooler climates, they must be grown in greenhouses, like the Yuzhny Greenhouse Farm in Russia pictured above.  Some flower farms take the form of vast arrays of greenhouses that use energy to maintain a microclimate out of synch with the climate in which they are situated.

The SciAm article does a good job of pointing out that not all flower farms are equal and there are lots of more and less environmentally- and socially-conscious choices.Fair trade, worker-conscious, organic, and otherwise environmentally-friendly flower companies claim to offer an alternative.  Florverde, for example, advertises its flowers as “for the earth, for the workers, for you”:

Originally posted in 2009. h/t Jezebel.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How the Bird Hat Craze Almost Killed the Dinosaurs

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At the turn of the 19th century in the U.S. and Europe, it became wildly popular — and that’s an understatement — for ladies to wear feathers and whole taxidermied birds on their hats. One ornithologist reported taking two walks in Manhattan in 1886 and counting 700 hats; 525 of which were topped by feathers or birds. Buzzfeed has a collection of vintage hats featuring birds; here are some of the ones that were most stunning to me:

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At the time, not many people thought much of killing the birds. Europeans and their American cousins “didn’t believe they could put a dent in an animal’s population.” Birds seemed to be an “abundant, even inexhaustible” natural resource.  So take they did.  Millions of birds all over the world were harvested for hat makers for years. The Fashioning Feathers blog offers this example:

A single 1892 order of feathers by a London dealer… included 6,000 bird of paradise, 40,000 hummingbird and 360,000 various East Indian bird feathers. In 1902 an auction in London sold 1,608 30 ounce packages of heron… plumes. Each ounce of plume required the use of four herons, therefore each package used the plumes of 120 herons, for a grand total of 192, 960 herons killed.

Ornithologists started to sit up and take notice. One estimated that 67 types of birds — often including all of their sub-species — were at risk for extinction.  Not only were birds killed for their feathers, they were killed when their feathers were at their most resplendent. This meant killing them during mating season, interrupting their reproductive cycle and often leaving baby birds orphaned.

A campaign to end the practice began. In Europe the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds targeted women. They launched a sexist campaign accusing women of supporting the heartless slaughter of birds. Fashioning Feathers includes this image from a pamphlet titled “Feathered Women” in which the president of the Society calls them a “bird-enemy.”

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Virginia Woolf went for the jugular, pointing out that — even though the image shows a woman swooping down to kill a bird — it was largely men who did the dirty work of murder and they were also the ones profiting from the industry.

Ironically, middle class women were at the forefront of the bird preservation movement. They were the rank and file and, thanks in part to their work, in the U.S. the movement led to the formation of the first Audubon societies.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society organized a feather boycott, angering hat makers who called them “extremists” and “sentimentalists.” Politicians worried out loud about the loss of jobs. Missouri Senator James Reed complained:

Why there should be any sympathy or sentiment about a long-legged, long-beaked, long-necked bird that lives in swamps and eats tadpoles.

Ultimately the Massachusetts Audubon Society succeeded in pushing through the first federal-level conservation legislation in the U.S., the Lacey Act of 1900.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What Does “Organic” Look Like?

Flashback Friday.

When I was in grad school studying sociology of agriculture, one thing we talked about was organic agriculture and the difference between “organic” and “sustainable.” Most consumers think of these words interchangeably.  So, when many people think of an organic dairy farm they imagine something along the lines of these images, the top results for an image search of “organic dairy farm”:

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So happy! So content! And, we assume, raised on a small family farm in a way that is humane and environmentally responsible. Those, are, after all, two of the things we expect when something is defined as “sustainable”: it is environmentally benign and humane. We also usually assume that workers would be treated decently as well.

But there is no reason that those elements considered essential to sustainability have to have much to do with organic agriculture. Depending on who is doing the defining, being “organic” can involve very little difference from conventional agriculture. Having an organic dairy mostly just requires that the cows not have antibiotics or homones used on them, eat organic feed, and have access to grass a certain number of days per year. In and of itself, organic certifications don’t guarantee long-term environmental sustainability or overall humane treatment of livestock.

A great illustration of how little the modes of production on organic farms may differ from conventional agriculture is the Vander Eyk dairy. It is an operation in California with over 10,000 dairy cows. Here are some images (found here and here):

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As the caption to the last image makes clear, the Vander Eyk dairy had two herds on the same property, but segregated from one another: the majority of the herd produced conventional milk, while 3,500 cows produced organic milk for sale under the Horizon brand:

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In 2007 the Vander Eyk dairy lost its organic certification for violating the requirement that organic dairy cows spend a certain amount of time on pasture. They had cows on pasture, but they were non-milking heifers, not cows that were being milked at the time. What we see here is that the label “organic” doesn’t guarantee most of the things we associate with the idea of organic or sustainable agriculture (and in cases like Vander Eyk, may not even guarantee the things the label is supposed to cover).

This isn’t just in the dairy industry. As Julie Guthman explains in her book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, many types of organic agriculture include things you might not expect. For instance, organic producers in California joined with other producers to oppose making the short-handled hoe illegal — the bane of agricultural workers everywhere (and most infamously associated with sharecropping in the South in the early 20th century) — because they want workers to do lots of close weeding to make up for not spraying crops with pesticides. So, though we often assume organic farmers would be labor-friendly, in that case they opposed a change that agricultural workers supported.

Many organic crops are grown on farms that are the equivalent of the Vander Eyk dairy; most of the land is in conventional production, but a certain number of acres are used to grow organic versions of the same thing. Often the producer, which may be an individual farmer or a corporation such as Dole, isn’t very committed to organics; if a pest infestation threatens to ruin a crop, they’ll just spray it and then sell it on the conventional market rather than lose it. They may then have to have the land re-certified as “in transition,” meaning it hasn’t been pesticide-free long enough to be declared completely organic, but many consumers don’t pay too much attention to such distinctions.

The Vander Eyk dairy — and lots more examples of large containment-facility operations selling to Horizon and other brands at the Cornucopia Institute’s photo gallery — are interesting examples of how terms like “organic,” “green,” and “eco-friendly” don’t necessarily mean that the item is produced according to any of the standards we often assume they imply.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.