May 30, 2011

"Bringing Nature Back In" to Social Science

The influence of nature on society was once a subject of detailed investigation by philosophers, social scientists, and historians, but it was almost entirely displaced in post World War II social science. Social outcomes had social causes, the received wisdom went. These were the only independent variables that theory need consider. The effect, as Daniel Deudney has argued, was to denature social science, leading to “the expulsion of nature from social science in general, and from political science in particular.”[i]   

Surprisingly, notes Deudney, the history profession moved in a direction opposite to political science. There were two notable developments. One was the partial displacement of “actor-centered history as the narrative of leaders, great events, and peoples” by “bottom-up history.” A second was the tendency of historians of “wide ranges of space and time,” such as Fernand Braudel, William McNeill, and Geoffrey Barraclough, to emphasize the role of material variables in historical change. The central theme in such historiography, Barraclough observed, “is man’s conflict with his environment.” History, too, readily accommodated the work of environmental historians, like the superbly accomplished (but recently victimized) William Cronon.[ii]

Deudney identifies climate, arable land, mineral resources, population, and topography as the top five “natural independent variables” explored by Aristotle, Montesquieu, and other thinkers in this tradition. “To bring nature back in” to social science theories means to be alive to the ways in which such factors, and their modern equivalents, influence social outcomes. “While it is not determined that people will make a particular response or adaptation to a particular material environment, it is inevitable that they will bear the consequences of not making an appropriate response. Human institutions are not passive before nature, the puppets of nature, or parts of nature, but it is nature and not humanity that significantly determines whether human actions achieve their goals.” Nature is permissive, it would appear, but seeks retribution. [iii]

There are various ways in which nature can figure in social science explanations, which Deudney investigates in detail. He rejects “analogic naturalisms,” which hold “that the logic of human social systems can be understood as analogous to the operation of natural ones. . . . The biological sciences have a rich language and diverse set of examples, but biological analogies can never be more than interesting suggestions for understanding politics.” Instead, he calls for a return to “functional-materialist” theory, which sees political institutions as “congealed functional practices—solution sets” to meet recurring needs in the context imposed by geography, climate, and technology. 

Whereas there is a lot of precedent for a “natural social science” (that is, one which identifies natural causes for social outcomes), there is little precedent for a "social natural science" (that is, one that makes human activity central to earth processes). Yet such is the extraordinary novelty in the idea of an Anthropocene, of "human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth." It would not have occurred to Aristotle or Montesequieu, but it is one of the central propositions on the table today. Notes the Economist: "The term paradigm shift is bandied around with promiscuous ease. But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real. For centuries, science has progressed by making people peripheral. In the 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus moved the Earth from its privileged position at the centre of the universe. In the 18th James Hutton opened up depths of geological time that dwarf the narrow now. In the 19th Charles Darwin fitted humans onto a single twig of the evolving tree of life. As Simon Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, points out, embracing the Anthropocene as an idea means reversing this trend. It means treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings, elemental in their force."

The specter of technology that is of human invention but that has essentially escaped human control, to be sure, is not a new one; the environmental fear of today is similar in that respect to the antinuclear fear of the Cold War, or even to the Erasmian revulsion to war in early modern Europe. In all there is the vision of human technology run amok, of human prowess inventing the instruments of its own destruction. Apparently, we have a lot to be thankful for, and a lot to be fearful of--only more so.

The energy problem shows an intensive interaction between natural constraints and social objectives. The nub of the “peak oil” case, as of other pleas for depletion, is that natural geologic restraints will press upon even the most enterprising and efficient; we will “hit the wall” after having digested the low hanging fruit. The opposing view, favored by neoclassical economics, is that with the right social arrangements (a free market that rewards ingenuity and responds to price signals) such constraints will be readily overcome.This in turn is met by the environmentalist objection that the higher we fly, the harder we will fall, as the consequences in nature of our very success at resource extraction become apparent.

Liberalism started out, whether in Hugo Grotius or John Locke, postulating an economy of abundance. The “Promethean ambition” of harnessing the forces of nature “for the relief of man’s estate,” in Francis Bacon’s phrase, is a defining aspect of modernity. Whether anything resembling the old liberalism can survive an age of energy scarcity is an important question. In the 1970s, Malthusian projections of immense scarcity in food or fuel were invariably paired with predictions that it would encourage political despotism.

One of Deudney's key points in his 1999 essay is to show the limitations of social constructivism. He offered, in contrast, a non-Marxist New Materialism. He gives a concise statement of the imperious forces of nature as against these "worlds of our own making":  

[S]ocial practices rise and fall and are valued or rejected not solely—or even primarily—because of socially constructed criteria, but rather because of their ability to function successfully in meeting enduring human needs in material contexts that are both diverse and shifting. Social constructions inevitably shape how nature is perceived and acted upon, but nature itself is not socially constructed, and any social science that assumes so will inevitably be blind to important aspects of human life. Nature constitutes a structuring reality for human beings that is not socially constructed.


[i]  Daniel H. Deudney, “Bringing Nature Back In : Geopolitical Theory from the Greeks to the Global Era,” in Deudney and Richard A. Matthew, eds., Contested Grounds: Security and Conflict in the New Environmental Politics (1999).  Among post World War II writers, Raymond Aron gave these questions extensive examination in his Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (New York, 1966).  Aron, however, was definitely an exception; such approaches were peripheral to, if not nonexistent in, the leading U.S. thinkers. (Aron’s treatment of these factors in Part III of Peace and War was taken out in the abridged American edition published later.) Deudney explores these issues further in Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (Princeton, 2007).

[ii] In re William Cronon: The State demands to see all of your emails because you wrote an article critical of us!

Cronon's "Seasons of Want and Plenty" (1983), whose principal theme is the shifting relation of New England Indians with their environment, revolving around the wheel of the seasons, is reprinted in Bill McKibben, ed., American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (Library of America, 2008). Cronon does not neglect the importance of social practices, as the following anecdote well illustrates:
To the colonists, only Indian women appeared to do legitimate work; the men idled away their time in hunting, fishing, and wantonly burning the woods, none of which seemed like genuinely productive activities to Europeans. English observers often commented about how hard Indian women worked. "It is almost incredible," Williams wrote, "what burthens the poore women carry of Corne, of Fish, of Beans, of Mats, and a child besides." The criticism of Indian males in such remarks was usually explicit. "Their wives are their slaves," wrote Christopher Levett, "and do all the work; the men will do nothing but kill beasts, fish, etc." For their part, Indian men seemed to acknowledge that their wives were a principal source of wealth and mocked Englishmen for not working their wives harder. According to the lawyer Thomas Lechford, "They say, Englishman much foole, for spoiling good working creatures, meaning women: And when they see any of our English women sewing with their needles, or working coifes, or such things, they will cry out, Lazie squaes."
[iii] Recalling Dickson G. Watts: "Don't fool with Nature: she 'strikes back.'"

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