Transcending Human Exemptionalism:
Freudenburg’s Sociology in Which Nature Matters
University of Ottawa, Canada
Oklahoma State University, USA
1978 Dunlap and Catton
Sociology as if Nature Did Not Matter
methodologically suspending nature in sociology
The social construction of everything (nature, danger,
deafness, illness, etc.)
Nature has ended, is dead, or has been abolished by humans
= confusion between discourse about nature and the referents
of these words, as well as between pristine nature and
nature’s dynamics in a broader sense.
Humans are sensory, embodied beings embedded in dynamic
Sociology in which nature matters
national studies of environmental problems,
Freudenburg group usurps the deepest foundations of
sociologies that restrict themselves to the sociocultural:
conjoint constitution of cultural orientations by the biophysical
as well as the sociocultural.
Key publication examined for this presentation
Freudenburg, William R. and Gramling, Robert. 1993.
“Socioenvironmental Factors and Development Policy: Understanding
Opposition and Support for Offshore Oil”.
Freudenburg, William R. and Gramling, Robert. 1994.
Oil in Troubled
Waters: Perceptions, Politics and the Battle Over Offshore Drilling.
Freudenburg, William R., Frickel, Scott, and Gramling, Robert. 1995.
“Beyond the Nature/Society Divide: Learning to Think about a
Gramling, Robert, and Freudenburg, William R. 1996. “Crude,
Coppertone, and the coast: Developmental channelization and the
constraint of alternative development opportunities”.
Molotch, Harvey, William Freudenburg, and Krista E. Paulsen. 2000.
“History Repeats Itself, But How? City Character, Urban Tradition,
and the Accomplishment of Place”.
American Sociological Review
The Sociology of William Freudenburg
Transcending the nature/society divide
Difficulties (Freudenburg and Gramling)
Humans have unique capacities to evade environmental
Humans incorporate the biophysical environment into
their culture by an automatic process, hence it is taken for
granted and ignored by the population and by sociologists.
Very few models of how to do sociological research across
the nature/society divide.
Freudenburg’s group provides a methodology to transcend
= sociocultural and biophysical comparison in time and space
Conjoint Constitution by the Social and the Physical
“what we take to be” a mountain (Freudenburg, Frickel, and
Meaning of the mountain was also influenced by its physical
features: high not flat, covered by trees not water,
containing iron not just rock, and its phosphorous content
Conjoint constitution of natural resources and technology
Natural resources are not just natural. They become valuable
assets by virtue of economic, technical, and demographic
Technology is not just a social construction. It is also
constituted by the biophysical properties of the elements
that are recombined and redeployed to make it function.
Disconnect between culture and nature.
Erroneously exuberant social definition of inexhaustible
resources results in perverse material consequences
Timber defined as inexhaustible led to high rate of harvesting
“within a few years of having become the logging capital of
the world, the region was effectively ‘logged out’”
(Freudenburg, Frickel, and Gramling).
Need to distinguish plausibility of discourse from its accuracy,
and let hindsight findings foster foresight.
Nature’s constructions are not just constraints
but also prompts for social constructions
Freudenburg, Frickel and Gramling
correct errors about nature
Affirming that nature ‘acts’ or ‘constructs’ does not imply
that nature has intentions: “we do not impute any volition
or will to the biophysical environment”
They refute those who assert that nature is constant and
can be ignored: “nothing in nature is more constant than
Why is offshore oil extraction welcomed in Louisiana
but rejected in California and Florida?
Freudenburg and Gramling use historical and comparative
methodology to document their explanation based on
(Gramling and Freudenburg 1996)
California / Florida comparison
Santa Barbara / Ventura comparison
= “rolling inertia” (Molotch, Freudenburg, and Paulsen)
“a given course of development can also be pursued so
intensively as to bring about its demise”
BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig
unleashed an underwater oil volcano
2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill
i) 2010 spill was the result of a rogue well drilled by a
reckless company (BP) with high reliability theory
applying to all other drillers, or
ii) normal accident theory applies to all drillers operating
at such dangerous depths with more spills forthcoming.
Louisiana’s deep attachment to drilling, hence one
disrupting disaster failed to disrupt
Confirms the conclusions of the Fruedenburg group
Generalization of “developmental channelization”
and “rolling inertia”
Deepwater oil drilling accepted in Newfoundland, but
rejected in British Columbia
Hydraulic fracturing of shale accepted in Pennsylvania but
rejected in New York State and Quebec.
Pipelines accepted in Oklahoma but resisted in Nebraska.
Disconnect across culture/nature divide is true more
Inexhaustible timber on Iron Mountain
Inexhaustible cod on Grand Banks of Newfoundland
Inexhaustible oil in tar sands of Alberta
Earth = huge planet with inexhaustible resources and
substitutes always available
Inexhaustibility discourse promotes practices that lead to
exhaustion of resources.
Toward a Freudenburgian Analysis of Global Warming
“Why does continuity happen?”
= why does change not happen when needed?
Difficulties in mitigating global warming in all societies.
1) Automatic everyday incorporation of present benign
climate into cultural expectations through experience of
sensory embodied humans.
2) Science has previously produced some means to avoid
danger, which leads to a magical faith in science to adapt to
any climate change.
Hence confirmation bias favoring wishful thinking.
Therefore IPCC warnings become back
worry, not incentive to change practices.
Societal differences in mitigating global warming
Northern Europe leads in renewable energy, carbon taxes,
trade mechanisms, and promoting international
framework agreements to mitigate GHG emissions.
North America is in a rut of continuity of high GHG
emissions and opposition to all the above.
The answer is to be found using the Freudenburg
methodology (comparative and historic) and the concepts
of the Freudenburg group (developmental channelization
and rolling mobility).
Developmental channelization and rolling inertia I
North America: cities developed after deployment of fossil
fueled automobile, hence urban sprawl and rolling inertia
into developing exurbia. Huge resistance against
increasing the price of gas to mitigate GHG emissions.
Europe developed prior to automobile, hence urban
densification occurred by transportation necessity. Little
oil, hence carbon taxes implemented to achieve energy
security. Accidental GHG mitigation.
Developmental channelization and rolling inertia II
Northern Europe: social democratic channel = high taxes and
strong government. Extend this channel to government
initiated market solutions to environmental problems, eg.,
in tarifs, carbon taxes, cap
international framework agreements.
USA: development channel based on market free of
government regulation; rolling inertia along anti
fueled development channel begun long
ago. Hence rejection of Kyoto Protocol, of carbon taxes,
and of cap
trade. ‘Yes we can’ aspiration for change
confronts ‘Hell no, you can’t’ rejoinder.
Source: Legatum Institute, 2010.
Conjoint constitution of carbon economy continuity
Historically engendered physical infrastructures and cultural
habitus (predispositions) of different developmental
channels and rolling inertia explain why Northern Europe
leads and North America lags in mitigating global
Mitigation of GHG emissions constitutes a
Northern Europe’s developmental channel whereas for
North America mitigation requires a
The comparative, historical methodology and concepts of the
Freudenburg group are very promising for comprehending
both similarities and differences in societal responses to
major environmental problems like global warming.