Toward a Sociological Theory of Biodiversity Loss

Besek, Jordan Fox and Richard York. “Towards a Sociology of Biodiversity Loss.” Social Currents. (forthcoming).  

Social processes are setting in motion a crisis of global biodiversity loss, yet those who study social processes are largely absent from discussions about this crisis. Recognizing that developing a single general sociological theory of the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss is infeasible, the purpose of this article is to simply engage a wide array of sociological traditions that, whether or not they have thus far incorporated environmental problems, focus on theoretical issues that we believe must be confronted if a sociological conversation about the global crisis of biodiversity is to take place. These traditions include those in environmental sociology, relational sociology, the sociology and geography of scale, and historical sociology. We, where necessary, re-direct aspects of these traditions to incorporate non-human actors, more general biophysical processes, and the longue durée of evolutionary time. We then illustrate our perspective by detailing the spread of Kudzu, an invasive species that is having a significant impact on biodiversity in the American southeast. Our overall goal is to initiate a broad sociological exploration, one unhampered by sub-disciplinary boundaries, into why and how human social processes are setting in motion an increasing rate of global biodiversity loss.

Neoliberal Niagara?

Besek, Jordan Fox.  “Neoliberal Niagara? The Political History of Fish Consumption Advisories in New York State.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33 (2): 281-295.


Fish consumption advisories (FCAs), or voluntary state recommendations for foraging and consuming fish from compromised waters, place the onus of negotiating contaminated environments squarely upon individuals who consume local fish. As a result, peoples who eat fish caught from local waters for reasons of food insecurity, cultural practice, or religious practice are ignored, producing environmental inequalities. This paper examines the political history of FCAs in a specific geographical context, New York State, in order to assess the explicit environmental governance frameworks through which these inequalities are generated. It demonstrates that FCA policy is principally an outgrowth of a conservation movement geared towards support for recreational anglers and not those who fish for subsistence. However, conservationism is not the only governance framework at work, as this paper also demonstrates that commercialized processes of neoliberal environmental governance substantially mediate scientific data that inform FCA recommendations. In this way this study illustrates how multiple frameworks—conservationist, neoliberal, or other—can, and often do, intertwine to construct environmental policies.

The Impacts of Technology...

McGee, Julius Alexander; Matthew Thomas Clement and Jordan Fox Besek. The Impacts of Technology: A Reevaluation of the STIRPAT model.” Environmental Sociology 2: 81-91.


The STochastic Impacts by Regression on Population, Affluence and Technology (STIRPAT) model has become a widely employed methodological approach within social science research, largely used to understand the complex relationships between human social systems and the non-human environment. The general assumption of the model is that anthropogenic environmental impacts are a multiplicative function of population, affluence, and technology. While previous STIRPAT research has examined the impact of technology in terms of urbanization, estimating the specific effect of urban population, we argue that this measure is better understood as a proxy for modernization. As an alternative, we frame urbanization as a multidimensional driver of environmental change, and we operationalize the technology dimension through cross-national data on impervious surface area, or what we call ‘terrestrial technology’. To demonstrate the potential of this example for environmental sociology, we draw from political economy to show how operationalizing technology offers a stronger, more nuanced understanding of the socioeconomic drivers of environmental degradation. Analytically, we employ a spatial regression model that estimates the effect of terrestrial technology on total carbon emissions for 173 countries. Our results show that impervious surface area is positively related to total carbon output and thus should be considered an operational measure of technology in future STIRPAT analyses.

Introducing the Ecological Explosion...

Besek, Jordan Fox and Julius Alexander McGee. “Introducing the Ecological Explosion: A Cross-National Analysis of Invasive Species and Economic Development.” International Journal of Sociology 44 (1): 75-93. 

Despite the social forces behind the introduction of invasive species as well as their immense environmental and economic impacts, scholars of animals and society and environmental sociology have so far largely ignored ecological invasions. This study is intended to address this lacuna through a cross-national empirical analysis of invasive species and economic development in 186 nations. We contextualize this study within appropriate historical, ecological, and social literature and integrate this analysis into the long-standing and important debate in environmental sociology between treadmill of production theory and ecological modernization theory. We develop a negative binomial regression model to examine the relationship between population, per capita gross domestic product, urban development, and the presence of invasive species taxa in nations. Our findings support treadmill of production theory, showing that economic development contributes to the establishment of invasive species.

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

Besek, Jordan Fox. “Review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” Human Ecology Review 20 (2) 185-188.

In the autumn of 2009, Johan Rockström and colleagues published a feature report in Nature titled “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity”. The objective of the piece was to quantify the global status of 10 key physical processes, including ocean acidification and land-use change, as well as how far each could be pushed before drastic and irreversible environmental change was set in motion. According to the report, seven of these processes have yet to breach their limits. Of the three that already have—the nitrogen cycle, biodiversity loss, and global warming—biodiversity loss is without doubt in the worst shape. Indeed, according to Rockström et al. (2009), global biodiversity loss is occurring at a rate up to 1,000 times greater than it would be without human influence.

Considering this dire state of global biodiversity, as well as the obvious fact that human social processes are squarely responsible for such a state, it is surprising that environmental sociologists and other social scientists concerned with such unacceptable degradation have yet to seriously confront the matter. Perhaps the jolt needed to take on such an academic project will come from an unlikely source—a trade book. New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, published by Henry Holt and Co., does well to make the case that the dramatic escalation in biodiversity loss is without doubt worth our attention.

For those familiar with Kolbert’s New Yorker oeuvre, it should come as no surprise that The Sixth Extinction is a lively, well-written book. As in her New Yorker pieces, we join her as she restlessly hops around both history and the planet in order to examine the current fortune of a certain threatened or extinct species; the fate of which, we are rightly assured, may well serve as a harbinger of many more. For example, we visit remote Panama to learn about the unexpected near disappearance of the once-ubiquitous Panamanian yellow frog, the victim of a novel African species of chytrid fungi rapidly spreading through international trade and leaving hosts of dead amphibians in its global wake. In a typical move, Kolbert uses the fate of this Panamanian amphibian as an opportunity to relay an important point about biodiversity loss—this time to explain how contemporary ecological changes are moving with such unprecedented alacrity that, for many species, characteristics that once helped them operate in certain ecologies are no longer useful, thus making them more vulnerable. To bolster this point she consults a whirlwind of paleontologists, veterinary pathologists, mycologists, herpetologists, various other “experts,” the marine fossil record of the past 600 million years, and even a local open-air market selling “what must be the largest selection of golden-frog figurines.” All this in little more than 15 pages. We never stay anywhere too long, however, as we are soon whisked off to an office in Paris that was once home to Georges Cuvier. There we learn about mastodons, how Cuvier introduced the concept of extinction to western science, about the scientific debates in which he was involved, and even his eating habits. From there, onward to Iceland. In total she travels to a dozen locations and introduces as many species in order to weave narratives on climate change, the extinction of the dinosaurs, invasive species, the contemporary status of bats in New England (it’s not good), ocean acidification, graptolites, and more. All to make the necessarily urgent point that human activities, now the principal driver of ecological change, have pushed biodiversity beyond the brink.

If some of these stories sound familiar, that may be for two reasons. First, over the past several years, roughly one-fifth of them have appeared in the New Yorker in almost the same form they are found here (while the ones that have not read as if they could have). Second, her style and, especially, the historical narratives she employs, are well worn. While not explicitly but certainly understandably, Kolbert draws heavily from previous work by the best communicators of evolutionary and scientific history; people such as Loren Eiseley (e.g., 1958), Donald Worster (e.g., 1994), Richard Lewontin (e.g., 1992), Richard Levins (e.g., 1996), Richard Leakey (e.g., Leaky & Lewin, 1995) and Steven Jay Gould (e.g., 2001). As such, for those familiar with these writers, neither the history of science she provides nor her explanation of physical processes will be new. This is especially salient for those familiar with Leakey, who less than two decades ago published a book on the same topic that even bears the same title as Kolbert’s.

This is not to say the book is redundant. For, unlike these other writers, Kolbert is not a trained scientist nor historian, but rather an accomplished journalist. She therefore provides a slightly different perspective as, instead of being told from on high how specific ecologies operate or why Darwin sided with Lyell in the catastrophism/gradualism debates, we learn as she does and share with her in the excitement of discovering novel ecological processes as well as the horror of their implications. Indeed, Kolbert is reflexive about her own naivety and does well to carefully incorporate the most current science while never coming down too hard on either side of an open debate. She is also generally successful in capturing the historical contingency of ecological processes, and when she does relay technical information she does so in an approachable manner. Additionally, to state the obvious but still important point, Kolbert’s work is more current as many of these forebears have passed on or are in the twilight of their careers.

Though, perhaps because of this admitted naivety, essential elements of this earlier work are missing. For example, Kolbert does not possess the theoretical depth of Gould, the historical scope of Eiseley or Worster, nor the political urgency of Lewontin and Levins. She never questions how contemporary ecological knowledge is built, nor does she take an in-depth look at the social processes that are setting in motion such abrupt ecological degradation.

These key limitations demonstrate the need for a current, more robust social science of biodiversity loss. For in order to find some sort of social explanation for why we human beings are undercutting our own ability to survive, not to mention the survival of many more beings, Kolbert does not seek any cultural, political, or economic (or political–economic for that matter) origins. Instead, she unfortunately turns to an ill-defined notion of human nature for explanation. The result is that, according to The Sixth Extinction, the blame for the biodiversity crisis lies in the ostensible fact that human beings can’t help themselves but push the limits of the ecological world. It is simply in our genes to be so restless, to discover, to erase boundaries, and to destroy. Sticking to this logic, the only hope Kolbert can then find is that our better angels save ourselves from ourselves (and everything else) before it is too late.

Certainly environmental sociology and social science more broadly can develop a better explanation for the social drivers of biodiversity loss than this? We already have a host of macrohistorical explanations for coupled social and ecological change, but few have been robustly explored in terms of biodiversity loss. Even considering this book’s faults, it will hopefully inspire some of us to take on this question. Ultimately, we cannot disagree with the eloquent urgency in these pages and we should commend Kolbert for bringing such urgency to a wider audience. Let us just make sure we do more than listen, but join the conversation.


Eiseley, L. C. (1958). Darwin’s century: Evolution and the men who discovered it. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Gould, S. J. (2001). Bully for brontosaurus: Reflections in natural history. London: Vintage.

Leakey, R. E., & Lewin, R. (1995). The sixth extinction: Patterns of life and the future of humankind. New York: Doubleday.

Levins, R. (1996). Ten propositions on science and antiscience. Social Text, 14, 101.

Lewontin, R. C. (1992). Biology as ideology: The doctrine of DNA. New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., … Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475.

Worster, D. (1994). Nature’s economy: A history of ecological ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.