Climate Change as Large-Scale Social Transformation

Hillary Angelo, UC Santa Cruz

There is a continual refrain that sociology—due to its neglect of the natural world—is not well-suited for thinking about the climate crisis, and that new paradigms that incorporate environment and ecology into theories of social life are needed. While it is certainly true that the discipline would benefit from developing more robustly “socionatural” theory and research, this paper argues that in other ways sociology is extremely well-suited for thinking about the climate crisis: its history as the ‘science of modernity,’ and its strength in conceptualizing large-scale social transformation, in particular. Sociology was birthed out of the effort to understand a comparably transformative moment of social life, as racial capitalism, colonialism, industrialization, and urbanization created new forms of social, spatial, and environmental relations. Many features of the contemporary world (e.g., infrastructure, epistemology, built form) that classical sociologists strove to understand while still nascent are legacies of that moment; in addition to substantive continuities, classical sociological theories offer resources for conceptualizing social change of this magnitude. This paper argues that climate change can be productively understood as a moment of large-scale social transformation, and that—though it appears paradoxical—it is to classical sociology that we should turn for resources for understanding the present and for formulating questions about the future.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 88. Environment, Society and Social Theory: Critical Conversations in Historical Sociology