Gary Bowden – Feature Profile

We introduce you to:

Dr. Gary Bowden, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of New Brunswick-Fredericton BA (Honours, Anthropology), Western Washington University; MA (Anthropology), PhD (Sociology), University of Calgary Blog: http://ecologicalsociology.blogspot.ca/

How did you become interested in environmental sociology?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the natural world. I grew up in Yakima, Washington in a family that hiked, camped and climbed throughout the Cascades, the Goat Rocks and the Olympics. But two events, in particular, shaped my interests and orientation. The emergence of OPEC and its impact on gasoline supply and prices in the late 70s and early 80s led to an ongoing interest in energy issues and policy. Then, on May 18, 1980 Mt. St. Helens erupted. The summit on which I had stood, along with a kilometer of the mountain’s elevation, disappeared in a matter of seconds. As tons of ash rained down on my parent’s house, I feared it would be years before things were back to normal. My fascination with dramatic change, a recognition of the fallibility of human perception (things went back to normal in Yakima much quicker than I expected), and a respect for the resilience of the biosphere resulted. So, once I became a professional sociologist, the environment was an obvious focus.

What are your research interests?

Substantively speaking, my research falls into three broad areas within environmental sociology. First, I’m interested in energy issues generally, and fossil fuels specifically. My early research focused on geologists’ perceptions of petroleum supply and what subsequently became known as the ‘peak oil debate.’ Second, I’m interested in climate change policy and, in particular, the social dynamics of action/inaction on the issue. At the present time I’m looking at both a) the utility of using Douglas and Wildavsky’s cultural theory of risk to explain climate denial and b) the social reasons behind the resurrection of geoengineering as a policy option. Third, at a macro level, I’m fascinated by the long term historical role of the natural world in relation to the rise and collapse of entire societies. I’ve written a number of articles about Norse Greenland and will be working on a book about the topic during my forthcoming sabbatical. Theoretically, I’m interested in the use of complex adaptive systems theory to understand the historical evolution of conjoined socio-ecological systems and the implications this has for the discipline. Specifically, I think that ‘environmental sociology’ as currently practiced (i.e., as an approach conceptually rooted in sociology) will need to reformulate itself as ‘ecological sociology’ (i.e., as an approach that draws equally from both sociology and ecology / earth systems science).

What are some of your more interesting findings that you would like to share with us?

Jared Diamond and others have discussed the story of the Greenland Norse as an example of societal collapse. The Norse experience, however, actually represents a much rarer phenomena — cultural death. As the medieval climate got colder and the sea lanes to Europe became impassable due to ice, the Greenland Norse tenaciously clung to their sedentary pastoral lifestyle rather than adopt the nomadic ways of Greenland’s other occupant (the Inuit) and, as a result, died. Simply put, they chose to die as Norse rather than live as Inuit. This story, with its emphasis on the role of social structure in creating path dependency and precluding certain forms of societal adaptation even when the options were widely known, displays an uncanny similarity to certain aspects of our contemporary situation (e.g., our culture’s inability to give up on the premise of infinite economic growth).

What is your favourite place?

I’ve been one place on earth, the rim of the Rano Raraku volcanic crater on Easter Island, which perfectly captures the central features of our socio-ecological existence. Easter Island is thousands of kilometers from other land and its residents lived in isolation for centuries. Symbolically, it closely approximated a closed system and can be seen as a metaphor for the entire planet. Standing on the rim and looking toward the coast one sees the monumental statues of Ahu Tongariki, representing the majestic and occasionally mysterious accomplishments of human civilization. Looking into the crater one sees a lake that served as a precious source of water; without it the civilization would not have existed. The volcano itself served as a quarry for the moai and on the rim, half way between nature (the lake) and culture (the statues), you can find an incompletely carved statue still embedded in the rock. In addition to its role as the world’s most majestic picnic table, the statue exemplifies both the incomplete and fragile nature of the human project and the fundamental reliance of that project on the earth’s material resources.

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