Theoretically, as many proposals exist for tackling the origin of the phenomena of environmental degradation as do different views on how to define it. First, this plethora of theoretical approaches always begins with an interest in identifying certain variables suitable for strategic policies of intercession, that is, environmental amelioration. Thus, the very question of how to define environmental degradation is contentious because it innately promotes particular policies and de-legitimizes others.
Second, besides having raw politics determine environmental degradation policy first and then popularize a theory to justify such policy afterward, the definition of environmental degradation also wrestles with difficulties in the organization of Western institutionalized divisions in academia. Particular methodological cultures compete against one another to reduce environmental degradation to their discipline instead of working together on defining environmental degradation. The topic of environmental degradation thus became divided across separate disciplines of biology, physical sciences, and social sciences (social sciences itself divided across sociology, political science, economics, and anthropological divisions of methodology). Thus the topic of environmental degradation tends to mirror reductionisms inherent in this disciplinary division, with each providing a reductionist construct on most occasions.
In short, what has passed historically for analysis of much environmental degradation has been a series of cultural filters and viewpoints that influenced approaches to its treatment. The environmental degradation construct historically determined what should be done—if anything—to ameliorate environmental degradation. What is being reacted to, in many cases, is this environmental degradation construct.
However, taking the question of the definition of environmental degradation into account as a historical issue of change in the construct, a pattern emerges of moving from arguments about philosophical primacy of a single factor of population—with monotonic, monocausal, ahistorical, and quantitative/mathematical requirements of timeless “unalterable” issues— toward explanations of environmental degradation more multivariate (multiple variables without any of them being reducible to another), historical, strategic, and highly interdisciplinary. Arguably, as multiple variables enter the definition, the robustness of the model improves toward relational and interscientific definitions of environmental degradation. With multiple variables involved in modeling environmental degradation, the areas or variables to deal with expand. Instead of only one recognizable venue of intercession, a far more problematized, political, relational, and interscientific model of environmental degradation with multiple areas for intercession comes to the fore—demoting previous reductionist attempts to link environmental degradation to philosophical conjecture about only one factor of population and its preeminence instead of its relation with other factors.
Early Reductionist Constructs
Though many other literate cultures throughout world history left records observing environmental degradation and theoretical state approaches to alleviate it, with European imperialism and scientific culture having such a wide effect on the world in the past 500 years, it is impossible to ignore the importance of the freshly minted and highly acclaimed culture around— and even substitutionary religious status for— quantification. Quantification was popularized within Europe as a more reliable method of thought for establishing “stable, timeless, true” knowledge in the wake of mutual Protestant and Catholic disenchantment of the Wars of Religion conducted in Europe over the period of the French Wars of Religion (1550s-1598) into the generalized European Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Nevertheless, the selected factors that came to be measured in the model were still subjective.
The Venetian lapsed-Camaldolese monk and mathematical philosopher Giammaria Ortes (1713-1790) was the first to take quantification of population and apply it to political philosophical issues and “social science.” Ortes provided the first mathematical theory of what he considered the penultimate variable for environmental degradation: population. Why was it so? Because to Ortes, population was imminently quantifiable and could be fitted to methods he wanted to utilize. To be sure, Giovanno Botero (c. 1544-1617), in On the Greatness of Cities of1588, foreshadowed the dynamic Ortes describes, though he was writing before European popularized mathematized arguments were framed as static, inescapable, counterbalanced, zero sum game equations imported with great status into political argument. By the 1750s, Ortes published the first instance of a mathematized argument implying exponential population growth versus arithmetic food resources leading to both starvation/poverty on one side and wealth consolidation on the other. He argued that geometric population growth “had to,” by logic of his mathematical models, outstrip the assumed slower arithmetic progress of food production. In the last year of his life, 1790, Ortes published Reflections on the
Population of Nations in Relation to National Economy, setting an unalterable construct of an upper limit for the world’s human population at 3 billion—after moving through a series of mathematical arguments and tables. Ortes is the first to employ the term carrying capacity as well. Thus, Ortes is the father of “overpopulation” theory.
Due to high political Venetian-English political alliances and other points unmentioned for lack of space, it is certain that Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), himself a cleric with a greater interest in mathematics, plagiarized ideas of mathematic ex-monk Ortes. In Rev. Malthus’s famous work, An Essay on the Principle of Population of 1798, he makes identical religio-moral mathemetized arguments as “proof” about population outstripping food as inevitably decreasing food per capita. Without any intrusion of other variables, Malthus, like Ortes, claims this inevitably leads to famine, environmental degradation, and social and moral degradation. Malthus even calculated his own Ortesian “carrying capacity,” which was to be broached sometime in the mid-19th century. Like Ortes, Malthus proposed that late marriage and abstinence should be state policies as a check on “geometric” population growth. The larger context is that while all other major continental states in Europe, like Colbertian France, Linnaean Sweden, and Frederick the Great’s Prussia, were cameralist (meaning, among other points, supporting population growth politically as the means to make a state wealthy), the maritime empires of Venice and England—without comparable political economic situations linking their larger transoceanic empires’ elite wealth to the well-being of their territorial inhabitants—took to anti-cameralist arguments against their continental cameralist enemies. Hired in 1805 as the first chair of political economy in Britain soon after his essay was published, Rev. Malthus worked until his death at the Haileybury school, created by the British East India Company (BEIC) to indoctrinate its corporate management staff in the business of running a global anti-cameralist empire, with such management ideologies continuing into the British Raj. In short, Rev. Malthus’s construct of environmental degradation as a populationist idea of “natural timeless famines” and as a nonpolitical check on population encouraging wealth conservation was applied as the main anti-cameralist policy justification for the global BEIC/British Empire’s food, poverty, population growth, and famine response (or lack thereof) from Ireland, to India, to China, to Africa.
Though most social scientists no longer seriously consider single-variable causal model solutions of social problems, construct environmental degradation as populationism continues to have considerable political policy influence regardless of the fact that rarely any “calculations” came true over the past 200 years showing population as a direct variable of environmental degradation. The common application and thread in this population policy-based construct of environmental degradation is as a useful anti-cameral-ist policy for maintaining a global corporate state empire from the 1700s to the present. However, even the United Nations, long maintaining such anti-cameralist constructs concerning environmental degradation/ population, by 2002 moved toward more multivariate models to make sense of the reality of negative population growth evident across many countries since the 1990s. Charitably, population as a proxy for environmental degradation has been, at most, an indirect relationship even if government workers acted upon construct populationism.
The earliest, more sociological, models of environmental degradation are elaborations of direct inexorable populationist arguments, however sociologically adapted—namely, the work of Ehrlich, O’Connor, the Club of Rome group, Schnaiberg/ Gould, or Catton.
More multivariate models of environmental degradation and intercession have been aired since the 1970s. These include a plethora of other proposed direct variables of environmental degradation which are equal pressure points for environmental intercessions. This entry proposes a relational and interscientific definition of environmental degradation to encapsulate these many variables. Regardless of the theoretical-methodological approach to the construct of environmental degradation, any statement of environmental degradation must include issues of the organization of human consumption and pollution. The devil has always been in the multivariate details, however. This is despite a long history of attempts to popularize environmental degradation strictly, with population-ism being politically paramount instead of being just one factor among many. The tendency of many sociological theories of the environment has been to ignore multivariate aspects and ignore case-specific issues, that is, to aim toward a grand theory. Grand theories or plans typically fall apart in the analysis of particular cases or applications to real-world issues. A multi-variate appreciation of environmental degradation is more appropriate, particularly in summing all the different variables analyzed in environmental degradation as well as toward applications of environmental amelioration.
Summarizing much of the literature that talks at cross-purposes, it will be noted that the empirically multivariate issue of human consumption shows we are (1) populations that consume (2) choices of physical and biological materials through which we have (3) chosen to create particular pollution wastes, in (4) social networks via mostly (5) institutionalized and habitual frameworks (6) contentiously legitimated or delegitimated among ourselves, employing (7) choices of available knowledge and choices of technological interfaces, influenced by the (8) history of (9) politics and (10) weather/geographic pattern changes. In the political variable concerning environmental degradation, it is particularly clear how formal institutions and formal policy change to respond to, or to shore off response to, the aforementioned variables. As a result, in the past decades scholars have moved toward more (11) infrastructural views on environmental degradation, as well as, in turn, more infra-structural views of human consumption. This requires changing many basic epistemological views, particularly how we define and analyze commodities, commodity choice, socioeconomic change, the origins of technological change, and environmental degradation as politically contentious developmental issues instead of as neutral economic presuppositions and methods employed in these areas.
None of these numbered intercessions that influence environmental degradation can be reducible to another. All are, to various degrees, independent sites of intercession and are relational. They are politically negotiated, problematic, and historically iterative in their effects instead of timelessly stable or given. All have been aired—either together or separately, either as direct or indirect variables involved in environmental degradation. A simpler statement is that human population is always mediated through these organizational factors of consumption, making such organizational issues of consumption direct variables of environmental degradation and intercession, whereas population scale/reduction is, at best, an indirect variable. It is quite possible, in other words, to reduce or expand population and to have little or zero change in the institutionalized patterns of environmental degradation, because human consumption is mediated by many sociopolitical, cultural, and technological issues. Humans are networked and mediated creatures in their consumption across multiple ecologies; however, many attempts have been made to take 18th-century populationist models or 20th-century population ecology models and “plug in” human numbers.
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