Tag Archives: environment/nature

Why Do Firefighters Take Such Risky Jobs?

Re-posted in honor of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives in Arizona yesterday. Cross-posted at BlogHer and The Huffington Post.

Firefighters put their lives on the line to protect other people’s property and lives.  Why do they choose to take such dangerous work?  Sociologist Matthew Desmond asks this question in his book, On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, and the answer is truly surprising.

Desmond, who put himself through college fighting fires in Arizona, returned to his old job as a graduate student in order to study his fellow firefighters.  When he asked them why they were willing to put their lives at risk to fight fires, the firefighters responded, “Risk? What risk?”

It turned out that the firefighters didn’t think that their work was dangerous.  How is this possible?

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Desmond explains that most of the firefighters were working-class men from the country who had been working with nature all of their lives.  They raised cattle and rode horses; they cut down trees, chopped firewood, and built fences; they hunted and fished as often as they could.  They were at home in nature.  They felt that they knew nature.  And they had been manipulating nature all their lives.   Desmond wrote:  “…my crewmembers are much more than confident on the fireline.  They are comfortable.”

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To these men, fire was just another part of nature.  They believed that if you understood the forest, respected fire, and paid attention, then you could keep yourself safe.  Period. Fire wasn’t dangerous.  One of the firefighters put it like this:

Cause, personally, I don’t consider my life in danger.  I think that the people I work with and with the knowledge I know, my life isn’t in danger… If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you.  But if you know, if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.

When these men were called “heroes,” they laughed.  Desmond wrote: “The thought of dying on the fireline is so distant from firefighters’ imaginations that they find the idea comedic.”

When a fellow firefighter did tragically die on the fireline during Desmond’s study, he discovered just how deep this went.  Unwilling to consider the possibility that fire was dangerous (at least in front of each other), the only way to make sense of the death was to find fault in an individual, or even blame the dead firefighter for being “stupid.”  Desmond recounts this conversation:

“That sucks,” J.J. said.

“Someone fucked up,” Donald responded, immediately.  “I’ll tell you what happened:  Someone fucked up…”

Heads nodded.

Craig Neilson, the Fire Prevention Officer, added, “Their communications might have been fucked. . . . The fire was under them and burned up.”

“They probably weren’t paying attention,” Donald said…

“They’re probably stupid.  Probably weren’t talking to their crew,” Peter guessed.

“Yep.  They’re fuckin’ stupid, not talking to anyone.  They should’ve known better than to build a helispot on top of the fire,” said Donald.

Heads continued to nod…

Desmond’s answer to why firefighters take such a risky job — because they don’t think it’s risky — was a fabulous counterpoint to dominant theories of risk taking at the time, which tended to suggest that men who did risky things were trying to prove their masculinity or seek adoration as a hero.

It’s easy to conclude that the firefighters are delusional for thinking that fire isn’t risky, but Desmond does a wonderful job of showing that their denial of risk is mundane.  We do it every day that we jump into a car and approach 70 miles per hour on the freeway.  If we are worried about our safety, it’s usually because we are concerned about the skills and attention of other drivers.  Most of us think that we, personally, are pretty decent, even great drivers.  The firefighters tend to feel the same about fire.

Today’s deaths remind us that fire is dangerous.  We should also remember that risky jobs are disproportionately filled by the least powerful members of our society.  Wildland firefighters are typically low income men from rural backgrounds; in Desmond’s study, they were also disproportionately Latino and American Indian.  As Desmond wrote: “Certain bodies, deemed precious, are protected, while others, deemed expendable, protect.”  Let’s take a moment to remember the 19 who lost their lives yesterday, as well as the other men and women who do the dangerous work of America.  And be careful everybody.

Note for Instructors: I teach this book in Soc 101, with great success.  I wrote a review in Teaching Sociology and you can download my lecture notes here.

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.

Environmentalists for a Path to Citizenship: A Lesson on Discourse

In April The Sierra Club announced that it was endorsing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  They argued that a preponderance of disempowered workers in some of the most polluted industries in the country was bad for the environment:

To protect clean air and water and prevent the disruption of our climate, we must ensure that those who are most disenfranchised and most threatened by pollution within our borders have the voice to fight polluters and advocate for climate solutions without fear.

This position nicely brings together one lefty political concern (the environment) with another (concern for undocumented immigrants).  This is probably entirely genuine, but it is also very convenient from a discursive perspective.

I tortured my Sociology 101 students this semester with the phrase “discursive opportunity structure,” which I introduce as “the arrangement of ideas in a society that constrain and enable communication and thought.”  For example, the connection between pink and femininity is automatic in our minds whether we want it to be or not, just as the letters C-A-T conjure up a cat and we couldn’t stop it if we tried.  So ideas aren’t just free floating in our collective minds, they’re built into a relationship with each other, and those relationships are part of our cognition.

Sociologist Leslie King has shown how this constrains how environmentalists can talk about immigration and how anti-immigration activists can talk about the environment.  She considers “population stabilization” activists, a group that believes that immigration is harmful to the environment (paper here, two examples here).

1King argues that the population stabilization movement has struggled largely because the two positions they bring together — pro-environment and anti-immigration — disrupt the discursive opportunity structure.  First, it’s harder for us to get our minds around the argument because it means bringing together a lefty political message and a right one.  Second, insofar as our identity categories depend on the discursive opportunity structure, it requires us to fragment them. Can one be both anti-immigration (on the right) and pro-environment (on the left)?  It takes cognitive work to think that through.

The position announced by The Sierra Club last month, however, neatly fits into our thought patterns.  Most fans of the environmental organization are on the left, so when the press release calls for a path for citizenship, it slips neatly into the political identities and cognitive structures of their audience.  That likely facilitates the likelihood that their position will be both heard and influential.

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.

Marijuana: A Short History of Changes in Law and Public Opinion

A guiding principle driving the sociological understanding and analysis of deviance is the recognition that behaviors themselves are not inherently deviant; rather it is the social perceptions and reactions to a behavior that makes a particular behavior deviant.  This explains why opinions and attitudes towards different forms of supposedly deviant behaviors regularly change.  A notable change in one type of deviance, using marijuana, is revealed in a report compiled by the Pew Research Center.

According to David F. Musto, a century ago marijuana was an obscure drug used almost exclusively by Hispanics in the Southwest.  Its limited association with this ethnic group is largely why marijuana initially became illegal.  With the onset of the Great Depression, both federal and state governments sought ways to expel nonwhites from the country as their cheap labor was no longer necessary.  Making one of this group’s pastimes illegal was a way to stigmatize Hispanics and rally public support for a population transfer.  With a populace stirred into a moral panic by racism, nativism and propaganda movies like Reefer Madness, there was little resistance to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which effectively made cannibas illegal.

In the 1960s marijuana experienced a cultural comeback when it became the drug of choice for baby-boomers who saw the drug as a safer alternative to the alcohol and methamphetamine that plagued their parents’ generation.  Marijuana was even legal for a brief period after the Supreme Court found the 1937 marijuana act unconstitutional.  However, because of widespread concern that drugs were corrupting the moral fabric of America’s youth, in 1970 marijuana was one of many drugs outlawed by President Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  Interestingly, marijuana was the only drug targeted by this act that did not include a medical exception.  In the 1980s, President Reagan increased penalties for breaking drug laws, and subsequently the prison population in the United States swelled to a size seemingly unimaginable in a wealthy democracy.

The graph below from PEW’s report captures how federal action came during times of heightened public support to make marijuana illegal.

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Yet, the graph also captures how in the early 1990s, support for the legalization of marijuana started to increase.  According to the PEW report, around this time California pioneered using the drug for medicinal purposes; seventeen other states (including D.C.) have since followed California’s lead while six other states decriminalized possession of small amounts.  In 2012, citizens in Colorado and Oregon voted to completely legalize marijuana despite federal law.  This relaxing and even elimination of marijuana laws mirrors favorable opinions of marijuana and growing support for its legalization.

It is difficult to tell if legalization, medical or otherwise, drives public opinion or vice-versa.  Regardless, an especially noteworthy finding of the PEW report is that right now, more than half of the United States’ citizens think marijuana should be legal.  Sociologists always take interest when trend lines cross in public opinion polls because the threshold is especially important in a majority-rule democracy; and the PEW report finds for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority of U.S. citizens support marijuana legalization.

This historical research data on opinions about marijuana reveals how definitions of deviance, and in many cases the ways those definitions are incorporated into the legal system, grow out of shared social perceptions.  Although there have been some notable genetic and cultivation advances, marijuana has changed relatively little in the last forty years; yet our perceptions of this drug (and therefore its definitions of use as deviant) regularly evolve and we can expect opinions, and therefore our laws, to further change in the future.

Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.

Animal Abuse, Oil Leaks, and the Freedom of the Press

Cross-posted at PolicyMic and The Huffington Post.

2We all-too-often take for granted that photographs like this one, revealing the impact of an oil pipeline leak on Mayflower, Arkansas, will be able to inform us about the state of the world. In fact, such images are taken by actual human photojournalists whose rights of access are protected by the First Amendment establishing the freedom of the press.

This is a real thorn in the side of both corporations and governments that might prefer to control media’s access to embarrassing or illegal activities.  So, often they try to strong arm journalists, co-opt local officials, or pass (likely illegal) legislation designed to protect them from the free press’ gaze.  Here are two current examples.

First, Mother Jones reports that Exxon officials are making efforts to limit reporter access to the oil pipeline leak in Mayflower, Arkansas.  This is happening in at least two ways.  First, Exxon representatives and local law enforcement are blocking journalists from accessing the spill site, threatening  “arrest for criminal trespass.”  Second, BoingBoing reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has instituted a temporary “no-fly zone” in the area of the spill.  Here’s a screenshot from the FAA’s website:

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Second, in the last two years Americans have shuddered in response to the release of undercover video revealing the abuse of animals on industrial farms and the torture of Tennessee Walking horses.  These have resulted in convictions, but they’ve also raised the hackles of the agricultural industry.  The New York Times reports that, in an effort to limit their risk, they’ve sponsored bills (proposed or enacted in about a dozen state legislatures) making it illegal to videotape animals on their property without their permission and requiring all prospective employees to reveal associations with animal rights groups.

These examples remind us how important it is that journalists have the freedom to do their job.  They also remind us that we must vigilantly protect that freedom.  Corporations, and governments too, have an incentive to limit the freedom of the press.  These are powerful entities, often in cahoots, that can and will ignore the First Amendment when they can get away with it.

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 Austerity Agenda and Public Employment

While some austerity advocates really fear (although incorrectly) the consequences of deficit spending, the strongest proponents are actually only concerned with slashing government programs or the use of public employees to provide them.  In other words their aim is to weaken public programs and/or convert them into opportunities for private profit. One measure of their success has been the steady decline in public employment.  Floyd Norris, writing in the New York Times notes:

For jobs, the past four years have been a wash.

The December jobs figures out today indicate that there were 725,000 more jobs in the private sector than at the end of 2008 — and 697,000 fewer government jobs. That works into a private-sector gain of 0.6 percent, and a government sector decline of 3.1 percent.

In total, the number of people with jobs is up by 28,000, or 0.02 percent.

How does that compare? It is by far the largest four-year decline in government employment since the 1944-48 term. That decline was caused by the end of World War II; this one was caused largely by budget limitations.

The chart below, taken from the same post, also reveals just how weak private sector job creation has been over the past 12 years (compare the top three rows — the presidencies of Obama and Bush — w job changes This graphic from the New York Times highlights just how significant the decline in public employment has been in this business cycle compared with past ones.  Each line shows the percentage change in public sector employment for specified months after the start of a recession.  Our recent recession began December 2007 and ended June 2009.   As you can see, what is happening now is far from usual.

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It is also worth noting that despite claims that most Americans want to see cuts in major federal government programs, the survey data show the opposite.  For example, see the following graphic from Catherine Rampell’s blog post. economix-22pewwhattocut-blog480 As Rampell explains:

In every category except for “aid to world’s needy,” more than half of the respondents wanted either to keep spending levels the same or to increase them. In the “aid to world’s needy” category, less than half wanted to cut spending.

Not surprisingly, this assault on government spending and employment will have real consequences for the economy and job creation. All of this takes us back to the starting point — we are talking policy here.  Whose interests are served by these trends?

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

Purity and Danger: Partisan Politics and Persuasion

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

You’re not going to persuade a conservative by appealing to liberal moral principles.  Tell a Tea Party type that industrial waste harms the environment and should be regulated, you won’t get very far.  But if you appeal to conservative moral principles, the story goes, you might have more luck.

I’ve been skeptical about Jonathan Haidt’s conservative moral principles — group loyalty, purity, and authority — mostly because they are used to justify practices I find wrong or immoral.  Things like anti-gay legislation, torture, assassination, terrorism, etc.

But a recent experimental study by UC Berkeley’s Robb Willer shows that the right kind of persuasion can make conservatives a bit more leftist on the environment.  In his study, participants read a pro-environmental message that was based either on “Harm/Care” (liberal logic) or on “Purity/Sanctity”(conservative logic) along with photos that matched the appeal.

  • Harm/Care: A destroyed forest of tree stumps, a barren coral reef, and cracked land suffering from drought.
  • Purity/Sanctity: A cloud of pollution looming over a city, a person drinking contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage.

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There was also a Neutral condition: “an apolitical message on the history of neckties.” (Willer has a fine sense of humor.)

Participants were then asked questions to determine their support for pro-environmental legislation.

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For people who identified themselves as liberal, the type of material they saw — Harm, Purity, or Necktie — made no difference in their environmental position.  Conservatives, as expected, were generally cooler to environmental legislation, but only in the Neutral and Harm conditions.  Once they were shown the Purity materials, conservatives were as pro-environment as the liberals.

Other aspects of the conservative mind-set seem to go along with this emphasis on purity:  simplicity rather than complexity and a lower tolerance of ambiguity.  It’s a view that sees the need for clearly marked and rigidly enforced boundaries — the boundaries of the nation, the boundaries of the individual, the boundaries of cognitive categories.

Ultimately, the findings suggest that common ground between liberals and conservatives may not be as impossible to find as it may seem.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Greenwashing Water Use in Vegas

Greenwashing refers to efforts to present products or practices as environmentally friendly while making only minimal efforts to really reduce negative environmental impacts.

I saw a great example of this last weekend at a shopping center here in Vegas. As I was walking by a pond and water fountain, I noticed this sign:

It has several elements of classic greenwashing. The organization “cares about the environment and the community” — a vague, general claim that commits them to nothing specific. And their supposedly eco-friendly behavior is dubious and hard to evaluate. With Lake Mead (Vegas’s main drinking water source) depleted from a decade of drought, certainly any efforts to reduce demands on it are welcome.

But that seems like a rather superficial definition of what it means to care about the environment. The imported water comes from somewhere — an aquifer? another water shed? thousands of bottles of Perrier? — and it seems it would require energy to get it from there to here. The focus on not using a local water source sidesteps the larger question of whether it is environmentally responsible to build ponds and fountains (and grass-based lawns, for that matter) in the desert, regardless of where the water originates.

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

Reconnecting with Waste through Social Media

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

Humans produce waste. A lot of waste—much of which comes from our very bodies. Indeed, the average American produces 7 pounds of organic waste per day, largely made up of feces and urine. Cities have to somehow manage this waste, manage these now expelled parts of human bodies, manage that which we produce, drop, leave, and conscientiously ignore. Such management is typically engaged by an underclass of workers, the sanitation department, waste management employees, septic cleaners. When all goes well, waste remains invisible. Unsmelled. Unseen. Silently moved through underground systems and channeled out in ambiguous ways. This is a process to which most producers of bodily waste remain blissfully ignorant.

Sometimes, however, this waste management becomes a problem, and when it does, our expelled and forgotten matter spills back up into human view, reconnecting humans with the ways in which their own bodies must be managed through external structures; reminding humans of the dirty reality of organic embodiment. Such is the case in the New York City sewer system. High water levels, coupled with high waste levels, can lead to sewer overflows, flushing raw human waste into the city’s waterways — including the East River and the Hudson. Nothing reminds humans of their own embodiment like literal consumption of expelled matter. Nothing reconnects humans to an otherwise hidden process than their own shit floating down the river.

A recent solution to this problem of waste re-emergence comes from an unlikely place: social media. Leif Percifield recently introduced a social media tool called DontFlushMe, which allows New Yorkers to keep track of water levels and make waste management decisions accordingly — that is, decisions about whether or not to flush. The system works through sensors within the sewers, which notify users of high water levels via text message, Twitter, a call-in number, or by a website. When water levels get too high, users will ostensibly “let it mellow,” reducing the influx of waste into the sewer systems, and preserving the waterways.

The role of social media here is particularly interesting. Here we have a social tool, a communication medium necessarily removed from the body and physicality, working to reconnect the user to hir body, and reconnect the body to the architectures and structures in which it dwells. This form of mediated communication thins the mediating line between personal actions and public good, between expelling and consuming, between individuals and infrastructures. This tool makes invisible processes visible, and turns everyone into stewards of the shared land.

Such reconnection — between humans and their bodies; between individuals and infrastructures — is facilitated by a tool so often accused of causing disembodiment and disconnection. Social media republicizes and disseminates responsibility for that which was previously relegated out of sight, smell, and mind. This “new” technology, ironically, brings us back to an earlier time of chamber pots and smelly streets, in which bodily awareness was a communal necessity.

*Special thanks to James Chouinard for bringing this social media tool to my attention, and for sharing his vast knowledge on the Sociology of Dirt.

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Jenny Davis is a postdoctoral researcher in the social psychology lab at Texas A&M University. Follow Jenny on twitter @Jup83.