Sociology of consumption

Sustainability and social justice (session 1 of 3)

June 28, 2021 15:00
June 28, 2021 16:30

Katia Vladimirova, Institute of Sociological Research, UNIGE; Johanna Huber, Institute of Citizenship, UNIGE; Marlyne Sahakian, Institute of Sociological Research, UNIGE


Irene Becci, University of Lausanne (Institute for the social scientific study of religion, FTSR)

Dr Chitra K P Assistant Professor Department of Social Work Central University of Tamil Nadu

Irène Courtin, doctorante, département de sociologie, Université de Genève

Aurore Flipo, LAET-ENTPE, University of Lyon; Nathalie Ortar, LAET-ENTPE, University of Lyon; Madeleine Sallustio, PACTE, University of Grenoble

The normative notion of ‘sustainability’ has social justice implications at its core. Environmental sustainability is often treated as a distributional issue, regarding how to better allocate the access to natural resources and how to assign responsibility for environmental impacts, and touches upon questions of procedural justice. Such perspectives shed light on who is involved in decisions regarding sustainability practices, processes and policies as well as who is excluded or included, and in what way. The questions of ‘by whom’ and ‘for whom’ sustainability applies also relate to how ‘sustainability’ is often considered to be an anthropogenic topic; more attention is needed on how humans and nonhumans are equally important actors in socio-ecological systems. Further, some of the solutions proposed for ‘sustainable’ change tend to involve the white upper-middle-class, and may lead to forms of elite environmentalism that render invisible or less significant the lower impact lifestyles of the world’s under-priviledged groups. Furthermore, movements proposing sustainable solutions may be blind to racial and economic barriers faced by certain groups to participate in these solutions (Alkon and Agyeman 2011). Thus, sustainability as a concept must also extend beyond its environmental dimension, to recognize the ways in which societal contexts support the reproduction of societal-and-nature relations. This relates to the normative goal of sustainable wellbeing (Gough 2017), or how sustainability must include a consideration for theories of human wellbeing, and the wellbeing of nonhumans. This paper session welcomes contributions on how sustainability relates to social justice, across systems of provision, and in relation to labor issues, moral markets, and consumption practices. More specifically, we are interested in debates around questions of inequalities and social justice, in relation to sustainability, but also examples of what (collective) sustainability initiatives are emerging, their transformative possibilities, and the role of critical theories in uncovering further opportunities for socially just and environmentally sustainable change.

Spiritual Valuation of Urban Nature and Its Discontents

Irene Becci, University of Lausanne (Institute for the social scientific study of religion, FTSR) 

This contribution intends to present parts of a research project aimed at mapping and analyzing the forms of caring for urban nature through eco-spiritual initiatives in Swiss cities. The project tackles such valuation processes both at a macro-institutional level (through the inclusion of directors of urban agriculture projects, botanical gardens, etc.) and at local and grass-roots level (community gardens, rituals in parks, etc.). A spatial approach will be central in order to consider how spiritualized urban natural space arises “from the activity of experiencing objects as relating to one another” (M. Löw, 2008: 26). The project hence approaches at various scales the material, practical, sensorial (K. Knott, 2015)., spatial and discursive dimensions of the processes through which urban nature is endowed with spirituality. It also takes the existence of a pre-social materiality, in particular plants, into account to build knowledge and representations. To consider the specific contribution of non-human elements in social situations offers the opportunity of a new insight into the urban “spiritual turn”.

More precisely, I aim at discussing one particular aspect of such caring or valuation practices, that of the ambivalence they contain through references to holism and the analogic thinking (for instance through metaphors such as mother earth). Holistic views are widespread nowadays among environmental activists. Even the Marxist and feminist thinker Silvia Friderici (2018) concludes that, since capitalism – which she sees as the cause of the ecological, economic and cultural impoverishment of humanity – has divided our relation with nature, there is a need to re-enchant the world through re-gaining a sense of wholeness in ones live. Referring to Mary Douglas’ warning about the implicit capacity of analogies to reinforce and naturalize socially constructed distinctions and hierarchies, I shall pay a particular attention to processes of institutionalization. It will ask what order is actually institutionalized or maintained through eco-spiritual urban practices? Spiritual semantics do in fact take their force from the capacity to link very intimate dimensions of human experience (the senses, emotions) to very large, elementary – cosmological – ones: the sun, the wind, the water, often through analogies. With worldwide media attention given to environmentalist activists from Western Europe such as Greta Thunberg, ecological issues are often framed as global and affecting societies universally. When German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1986) held the argument that ‘Smog is democratic’ suggesting that traditional social divisions such as race, class, ethnicity or gender, may be secondary, he provoked a series of critiques and responses from anthropologists working on Eastern and Southern contexts in particular. Research has shown that a certain framing for environmental issues can reinforce existing lines of racial, social and economic inequalities. The project asks how the observed eco-spiritual urban activities relate to race, class, and gender issues in their utopian view of life.

Keywords: care for natural urban space, holism, eco-activism, greening, valuation, eco-spirituality  

Development and Environmental Inequality in India: Towards a Sustainable Green Governance Model

Dr Chitra K P Assistant Professor Department of Social Work Central University of Tamil Nadu

Environmental crisis is a grave reality affecting populations across the globe, but the adverse impacts of the crisis in the form of loss of access to natural resources, loss of property and life due to climate change induced natural disasters, dispossession, forced migration, human rights violations etc. are mostly experienced by the marginalised communities. The populations who are already socially excluded due to structural inequities caused by the social dynamics of race, caste, ethnicity, gender etc. are more prone to the risk factors generated by environmental destruction. This susceptibility to environment burden due to the intersection of social, territorial and political ecology dimensions results in the continuous experiencing of environmental inequalities by the marginalised groups. The situation is no different in India and the existing structural inequities further the experiencing of environmental inequalities by marginalised and underprivileged communities across the country.  While the exposure to ecological devastation and alienation is observed across the populations, the concomitant risks related to crisis in livelihood, health sectors etc is seen to accumulate at the bottom class or the marginalised communities. Differential access to environmental resources, unequal contribution of the people to environmental problems, differential exposure to environmental impacts, differences in the capacity of the people to influence environmental decision making, unequal effects of state policies etc contribute to generation and sustenance of environmental inequality. Poor environmental governance can also further environmental inequality since environmental decision making is very crucial for social and ecological justice.

In this context, the objective of the paper is to do a critical review of the phenomena of environmental inequality in India arising from the current developmental framework of the country. Indiscriminate land acquisition for development projects without considering the ecological and social value of the land being acquired has been continuing in India from colonial times and has resulted in large-scale ecological devastation, displacement and loss of livelihood especially among the marginalised communities. The corporate land grabs facilitated by the state alienate traditional and agricultural lands from indigenous communities which affect inclusive development and violate constitutional rights. The paper will explore the intersections of structural factors like caste, ethnicity, gender, class etc. in relation to land acquisition for development and consequent generation and sustenance of social and environmental injustice with case references from Indian context. A critical analysis of the legislative framework for land acquisition in India will be undertaken in the paper.  The paper will further look into the significance of developing a sustainable green governance model in India for addressing environmental inequalities and the characteristic features of the model.  The material for the paper will be drawn from case studies, research articles, reports as well as policy and legislative briefs.

Keywords: Environmental Inequality, Intersectionality, Environment Policy, Sustainable Green Governance, India  

Prefiguration and social justice in abolitionist animal advocacy: the case of French-speaking Switzerland

Irène Courtin, doctorante, département de sociologie, Université de Genève

Vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise, and although vegetarians and vegans are still a minority, food prescriptions are evolving toward less meat for both health and environmental reasons (Godin et al 2019). Veganism in particular has gained substantial media coverage. It is a lifestyle, but can also be understood as a political, social movement (Giroux et Larue, 2018; Véron 2016) turned towards social justice for both humans and non-humans. Veganism is closely tied with animal advocacy – an heterogeneous movement with regards to aims, strategies and ideological commitments. Among the debates around veganism and animal advocacy lies the question of political consumption as a relevant way toward social change: is this kind of engagement sufficient? Does it have to be combined with forms of collective experimentation, or with more classical repertoires of protest? Or, more critically, does it have to be criticized as a depoliticized engagement, even complicit with a capitalist food industry?

The concepts of prefiguration and prefigurative politics (Yates, 2015) invite us to go further by overcoming a strict divide between lifestyle and everyday life on the one hand, and collective action and contentious politics on the other hand.  Rather, the dialectic of those relations within a social movement is revealed, as there is always a latent side to social movements (Melucci, 1996) less visible and more embedded in individual and collective everyday life. Regarding veganism and animal advocacy, these notions may evoke individual commitments through lifestyle, but also the collective engagement in alternative modes of production and consumption, and modes of living with non-humans. Building on the first results from a survey, this presentation discusses the relevance of prefigurative politics to analyze the diversity of practices in abolitionist animal movements and the various objectives behind them. Practices such as volunteering in an animal sanctuary (or creating and managing one), promoting a vegan lifestyle or engaging in political lobbying will be examined, among others, along with the articulations between them. 

Preliminary results show that participation in these different practices has evolved in recent years in French-speaking Switzerland. The vegan lifestyle still occupies an important place in the lives of activists, but some of the most active collectives seek to bring about political change by addressing a wider audience. There has also been a partial reorientation: active engagement in illegal civil disobedience has resulted in strong repression, which may have contributed to the redirection of militant energy towards the construction of alternative spaces and political lobbying. Sanctuaries in particular are not only a means of saving animals, but above all an opportunity to experiment with other forms of coexistence, to develop forms of pedagogy or to host militant events. Based on (participant) observations, many activists are engaged in (or sensitive to) other causes, and thus the space for animal struggles overlaps with other struggles for social and environmental justice. 

Keywords: veganism, animal advocacy, political consumption, prefigurative politics  

Sustainability, Social Justice and Spatial Justice: A Stakeholder Approach on Mobility Justice

Aurore Flipo, LAET-ENTPE, University of Lyon; Nathalie Ortar, LAET-ENTPE, University of Lyon; Madeleine Sallustio, PACTE, University of Grenoble

Sustainable mobility issues in rural areas have so far been poorly covered in the French and European public debate, despite accessibility and mobility issues being determining factors in territorial inequalities, regional development and ecological transition. 30% of France’s population lives in rural areas [1]. They face increasing scarcity and remoteness of everyday services, as well as employment areas that expand further than ever before [2,3]. As car-solo is the main travel mode, they are more likely to be in a situation of energy vulnerability [4] due to poor energy-efficient equipment and increasing energy costs [5].

Although daily mobility has long been included in debates on sustainable cities [8], until now, public policies on mobility in rural areas focused primarily on the issues of economic development and connection to urban areas [9,10]. The search for alternatives to the car is fairly recent and has been initially driven by social actors involved in the fight against isolation and social exclusion, for populations with difficulties in gaining access to a car, particularly the young, the unemployed, and the elderly [11–14]. Rural mobility has remained largely absent from politics as well as from social science research, despite it being a rising social demand. Indeed, several social movements and grassroots initiatives have appeared in the last 5 years on the issue of mobility in rural areas. Multiple new actors have emerged, including local authorities that have developed experimentations of alternatives to the car, encouraged by national funding schemes and agencies and by local advocacy networks. In this paper, we interrogate the nexus between sustainable mobility and social justice through the lens of local actors involved in the field of sustainable mobility.

This paper is based on preliminary findings of qualitative socio-anthropological fieldwork carried out in two rural departments of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region: Drôme and Ardèche. Our objective is to question how the issue of sustainable mobility is discussed, transformed, constructed and also contested by multiple stakeholders at the local level. We argue here that analyzing stakeholders’ strategies and discourses is key to understanding the social justice implications of the transition towards a more sustainable mobility in rural areas. In order to do so, we will build on the analysis of the discourses and strategies of multiple examples of local mobility actors (associations, local authorities, advocacy networks…), the conflicts and collaborations they have and the competing economic and social matters they put forward.

Keywords: territorial governance; sustainable mobility; rural areas; transportation; regional development; mobility justice; France