environment/nature

For years now, expecting parents have been popping balloons and cutting colorful cakes to announce the sex of their babies. These “gender reveal parties” can be a fun new take on the baby shower, but they also show just how much we invest in the gender identities of children. In a world where gender inequality persists and gender identities can be in flux, cultural traditions like this can lock people into rigid thinking that separates boys and girls.

Photo Credit: Peter Mai, Flickr CC

Of course, point this out at the wrong time and you’ll usually get accused of raining on the parade. It’s just a cake after all, right? The tricky part is that social scientists often show how identities can turn into ideologies that have real stakes for human behavior.

For a dramatic example, last week the world got footage of the gender reveal party that sparked a massive 2017 wildfire in Arizona. These parents wanted to go big to announce their new baby boy—so big that it warranted explosions in the middle of dry grasslands.

It’s not that gender stereotyping directly caused this fire—even if we didn’t have a rigid gender binary, people would still start disasters with a stray campfire or sparkler. This case is still useful for thinking about gender, though, because what we celebrate and how we celebrate it shows a lot about where people learn to place their interest and effort. We don’t have massive parties for baby’s first steps or first conversation, and I can’t think of a time when a First Communion needed 800 fire fighters to come clean up afterwards.

 

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Recent news on climate change is deeply troubling, and people around the world are mobilizing to call for immediate action. This unique global problem means we all have to get better at understanding global inequality, but the first step to this might just be getting a more accurate view of the globe itself.

I love this classic clip from The West Wing about the problems with the Mercator Projection—the way we typically draw maps of the world.

About a month ago, data scientist Neil Kaye made a popular animation correcting the Mercator Projection to countries’ true sizes. Watch how dramatically the northern hemisphere shrinks, and the points from Cartographers for Social Equality seem even more serious.

One of the most striking parts of this animation for me is that many of the regions that are most vulnerable to extreme early changes don’t shrink much. If it is true that people attribute importance to size, these maps are an important reminder that we may not have the best mental pictures for thinking about both old trends in economic and political inequality and new trends in climate risk.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

This week Hurricane Florence is making landfall in the southeastern United States. Sociologists know that the impact of natural disasters isn’t equally distributed and often follows other patterns of inequality. Some people cannot flee, and those who do often don’t go very far from their homes in the evacuation area, but moving back after a storm hits is often a multi-step process while people wait out repairs.

We often hear that climate change is making these problems worse, but it can be hard for people to grasp the size of the threat. When we study social change, it is useful to think about alternatives to the world that is—to view a different future and ask what social forces can make that future possible. Simulation studies are especially helpful for this, because they can give us a glimpse of how things may turn out under different conditions and make that thinking a little easier.

This is why I was struck by a map created by researchers in the Climate Extremes Modeling Group at Stony Brook University. In their report, the first of its kind, Kevin Reed, Alyssa Stansfield, Michael Wehner, and Colin Zarzycki mapped the forecast for Hurricane Florence and placed it side-by-side with a second forecast that adjusted air temperature, specific humidity, and sea surface temperature to conditions without the effects of human induced climate change. It’s still a hurricane, but the difference in the size and severity is striking:

Reports like this are an important reminder that the effects of climate change are here, not off in the future. It is also interesting to think about how reports like these could change the way we talk about all kinds of social issues. Sociologists know that narratives are powerful tools that can change minds, and projects like this show us where simulation can make for more powerful storytelling for advocacy and social change.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

In Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality, Joane Nagel looks at how these characteristics are used to create new national identities and frame colonial expansion. In particular, White female sexuality, presented as modest and appropriate, was often contrasted with the sexuality of colonized women, who were often depicted as promiscuous or immodest.

This 1860s advertisement for Peter Lorillard Snuff & Tobacco illustrates these differences. According to Toby and Will Musgrave, writing in An Empire of Plants, the ad drew on a purported Huron legend of a beautiful white spirit bringing them tobacco.

There are a few interesting things going on here. We have the association of femininity with a benign nature: the women are surrounded by various animals (monkeys, a fox and a rabbit, among others) who appear to pose no threat to the women or to one another. The background is lush and productive.

Racialized hierarchies are embedded in the personification of the “white spirit” as a White woman, descending from above to provide a precious gift to Native Americans, similar to imagery drawing on the idea of the “white man’s burden.”

And as often occurred (particularly as we entered the Victorian Era), there was a willingness to put non-White women’s bodies more obviously on display than the bodies of White women. The White woman above is actually less clothed than the American Indian woman, yet her arm and the white cloth are strategically placed to hide her breasts and crotch. On the other hand, the Native American woman’s breasts are fully displayed.

So, the ad provides a nice illustration of the personification of nations with women’s bodies, essentialized as close to nature, but arranged hierarchically according to race and perceived purity.

Originally posted in 2010.

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

Originally posted at There’s Research on That!

With a group of coal miners standing behind him, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first 100 days reversing Obama-era climate change policies, claiming that he would bring back coal while putting miners to work. Yet, can or will coal mining jobs come back, and will this lead to economic and social development in places like Appalachia?

Probably not.

Much research has shown that the loss of mining jobs in the U.S. is largely due to mechanization and labor-cutting management practices — not environmental protections. Thus, placing the blame on climate change policies is unfounded. Instead, it’s used to scapegoat environmentalists and draw our attention away from corporations and changes in the global economy.

Even if Trump’s executive order could bring back the jobs, it might not have the effects coal miners are hoping for. Researchers find that mining does not always lead to economic growth and well-being. Thus, keeping coal mines open does not guarantee economic prosperity and well-being. A study found that in West Virginia the counties with coal mines have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates compared to surrounding counties without active mines.

Moreover, sociologist William Freudenberg argues that economies based solely around mining are prone to booms and busts, subject to the whims of the industry. Towns in Appalachian coal country and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota become “addicted” to extraction. But dependence on fossil fuel industries is economically precarious.

Why don’t these facts change miners’ deep ties to mining as a way of life? Because many have strong cultural connections to mining, often coming from multiple generations of miners. Through her experiences working in a coal mine, anthropologist Jessica Smith Roylston saw how the miner identity connects with masculine ideals of hard work and providing for one’s family.

Photo by nottsexminer; flickr creative commons.

Industry has tapped into these sentiments to generate public support and weave the industry into the fabric of community life. Mining companies, particularly in Appalachia, have actively worked to create a positive image through public relations and other cultural and political tactics, such as sponsoring high school football tournaments and billboard ads.

These corporate strategies place the blame on outsiders and environmentalists, provide a cover for environmentally destructive and job-cutting industry practices, and keep coal politically relevant.

Erik Kojola is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota interested in the environment, labor, social movements and political economy.

Originally posted at Work in Progress.

Why do people sometimes resist remediation of pollution in their own backyards? Conventional academic wisdom suggests that it is because they are afraid of losing their jobs, but my recent research in La Oroya, Peru, questions this dominant framework.

Photo by Pamela Neumann.

Since 1922, La Oroya has been home to three refineries for processing lead, copper, and zinc, and a lead smelter owned until recently by a company called Doe Run Peru. In the late ’90s, several scientific studies demonstrated dangerously high lead levels among the town’s children.

The findings drew extensive attention from the media, but not the kind that some residents appreciated. Tania, a local schoolteacher told me, “In the media there are these ideas that we are nothing but a bunch of slow, sick, contaminated people, but they don’t pay any attention to how some students are very high performing.” Elena, a 45-year old shop owner, agreed, saying: “Of course there are sick children everywhere, slow children, just like in your country [referring to the United States]. But we have children who are doing well, we have professionals, professors.”

School teachers and principals took pride in the achievements of their students, which they felt were ignored in the rush to paint La Oroya as nothing more than a town full of “mongolicos” (a local term for people who have Down’s syndrome or are disabled). In seeking to defend their town’s identity against a barrage of negative media coverage, some residents denied that the contamination was a problem at all. “Look at all the awards we’ve won,” one principal told me, pointing to a row of trophies on the wall. “We couldn’t have done this if the contamination was really a problem.”

In response to the media portrayals, many residents became reluctant to protest against the pervasive lead contamination because doing so affirmed negative stories about their town’s identity. Residents weren’t protective of their jobs, they were protective of their town and of their own reputation as “normal” and “good,” not a place full of “mongolicos.”

These findings suggest that heavy-handed exposes of polluted cities and towns might do harm as well as good. Environmental activists might be better served to find a balance between condemning pollution and uplifting the places and people who are its victims.

Pamela Neumann, PhD is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University. A longer version of this post can be found at Work in Progress.

1Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:

Flickr creative commons James Marvin Phelps.

So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

2 (1)

It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Flashback Friday.

Electric clothes dryers are among the most energy-greedy appliances in the home, accounting for between 6% and 15% percent of home energy use. In contrast, drying clothes outside is both environmentally friendly and free. Yet, according to the New York Times, many homeowners associations insist that they are “…an eyesore, not unlike storing junk cars in driveways, and a marker of poverty that lowers property values.” In the documentary Drying for Freedom, laundry activists claim that bans on clotheslines affect 50 million households, requiring people to buy electric clothes dryers or hang their clothes inside their home.

Homeowners associations require many things intended to increase the “curb appeal” and property value of homes.  Many of these things specifically function to make the home and yard appear decorative instead of functional. Rules prohibit visible vegetable gardens, parking cars in the driveway overnight, allowing your cat outside (lest they poop), and failing to clean oil stains left by leaky vehicles.  They turn driveways, curbs, front yards, and porches into communal space designed to advertise the luxury of having non-functional spaces.  They say, in effect, “This is a lovely neighborhood where we can afford to curate flowers instead of vegetables and preserve pristine concrete by taking our cars to Jiffy Lube.”

All of this supposedly protects home values by preserving the notion that the neighborhood includes only middle- and upper-class people who can afford to avoid (dirty) work by consuming services.  Not being able to afford to dry your clothes electrically apparently appears, well, trashy.

Drying for Freedom is trying to interrupt this narrative, but instead of fighting the classist reasoning behind the clothesline bans, they are trying a different social movement strategy: re-framing. They are suggesting that using clotheslines isn’t a sign of poverty, but one of good global citizenship and, thus, a sign of responsible living. It seems to be working, too. As of 2016, 19 states ban clothesline bans, which is a start. Laundry activists hope the trend will go nation-wide, and then global, and that someday drying one’s clothes in a dryer will be the “trashy” thing to do.

Trailer :

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.