Raymond Murphy – Feature Profile

We introduce you to:

Dr. Raymond Murphy, Emeritus Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada Personal webpage: http://www.socialsciences.uottawa.ca/soc/eng/profdetails.asp?id=292

How did you become interested in environmental sociology?

My interest developed gradually with many twists and turns.  I did my PhD thesis in the sociology of education at the University of Toronto.   My first book Sociological Theories of Education stimulated an interest in theory.  At a World Congress of Sociology plenary session in Toronto, a presentation by British sociologist Frank Parkin on Weber’s work inspired me to write articles and a book entitled Social Closure.  Weber’s idea that rationalization was the key concept for analyzing the development of the modern world was intriguing, especially his argument that the intensification of rationality led paradoxically to the magnification of irrationalities.  It seemed that economic and technological rationalization leading to ecological irrationalities is a case worth investigating, which led me to write articles and a book entitled Rationality and Nature to develop a Weberian environmental sociology.  By this time, social constructionism was popular in sociology, but there were sociologists who argued convincingly that it was becoming a ‘social construction of everything’ fad.  Discourse about nature and manipulations of nature are indeed social constructions, but reducing nature to a social construction misled readers into ignoring nature’s autonomous constructions that interact (either beneficially or harmfully) with social constructions.  As part of that debate, I wrote articles and a book entitled Sociology and Nature that did a reflexive critique of my discipline of sociology, as well as contributed to the development of critical realism from a Weberian perspective.  Next I was on the lookout for a research project where the interaction of social constructions and nature’s constructions could be investigated.  One day in early January 1998 my graduate course on environmental sociology at the University of Ottawa was interrupted by an announcement that the city had declared a state of emergency because of freezing rain and that all classes were to be immediately cancelled and we were to go home.  Having grown up in this area, I was aware that it has freezing rain about 12 times a year.  My first thought was that we moderns have become wimps compared to our hardy ancestors.  But I was wrong and the city was right.  The freezing rain lasted five days, was intense, and fell over a huge territory in Canada and the Northeastern United States.  The 1998 ice storm remains the most expensive disaster affecting the most people in Canadian history.  My research project had literally fallen from the sky.  Nature’s construction of freezing rain had crushed the social construction of electrical grids upon which modern societies have become dependent.  Interviewing political and emergency management leaders in Canada and the USA who had to manage this extreme weather disaster was a fascinating experience, and became the empirical documentation for my book Leadership in Disaster: Learning for a Future with Global Climate Change.

What are your research interests?

Global climate change, risk making and risk management, differences in societal responses to environmental problems.

What research are you currently working on?

A comparison of North America and Northern Europe about causing or mitigating anthropogenic climate change.  This comparison is instructive because such climate change is a wicked problem getting worse and because North America is basing its economy on fossil fuels thereby increasing its greenhouse-gas emissions whereas Northern Europe is reducing its emissions by using energy more efficiently and developing renewable energy sources.

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

While developing renewable energy sources and reducing emissions, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany have prospered and, unlike Southern Europe, have come through the recession better than the USA and Canada despite the latter’s massive exports of oil.  Norway has found ways i) to avoid the Dutch curse of oil profits inflating the currency and undermining the manufacturing sector, ii) to accumulate a huge sovereignty fund for future generations when the non-renewable resource of oil runs out, iii) to create a prospering national state oil company Statoil, and iv) to offset its emissions.  The value spheres of the environment and the economy can be reconciled and a balance between them created if a society makes the attempt.  The evidence suggests that social democratic, relatively egalitarian societies are more effective at managing the risk of climate change than more inegalitarian societies which seek to minimize the role of government and maximize market forces and immediate private profits.

What would you like to pursue with your research in the future?

Time needs to be taken into account in social science analysis, such as discounting risk for the future and distant locations, the rapid pace of exploiting non-renewable resources that prevents mitigating environmental problems, short-term gain that results in long-term pain, etc.  Limited liability laws for risk-making corporations and their underestimation of risk also need to be investigated concerning high impact risk, as shown by the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.

What is your favourite place in Canada to spend time?

There are many because Canada has a beautiful and diverse natural setting.  I would like to see more of the Rocky Mountains and Newfoundland.  Vancouver is a wonderful city nestled between the mountains and the ocean where urban sprawl seems to be more controlled than most Canadian cities.  Quebec City, Montreal, and even small towns in Quebec have a marvelous outdoor café walkabout life, and English Canada is starting to develop it as well.  In my area of Ottawa-Gatineau, we have within the metropolitan area Canada’s two languages English and French, three rivers, two waterfalls, a historic canal, cliffs, and abundant majestic urban trees.  One of my favorite spots is Pink Lake in the Gatineau Park, a rare meromictic lake.  The name also reminds us to think critically and never take for granted the referent for a word: Pink Lake is green and was given its name by early settlers from the Pink family.  The banks of the Ottawa River are wonderful for walking, jogging, cycling, or cross-country skiing, giving the feeling of being out of the city while remaining not far from its centre.

Is there a particular Canadian situation that concerns you as a social scientist or impacts your research with respect to the social-environment relationship?

Canada has many socio-environmental problems.  Its poor record on greenhouse-gas emissions is just the tip of the iceberg.  The country seems to be regressing from the high technology, knowledege-based, value-added economy that was developing in the nineties back to relying on the sale of resources.  Worse still, unlike renewable staples (lumber, beaver pelts) that constituted the economy of the past, Canada’s economy is now becoming dependent on exporting non-renewable resources such as oil.  This creates fabulous wealth for oil companies, but drives up the value of the currency which in turn decimates the manufacturing sector.  In most countries, resources are controlled and benefits shared nationally, but in Canada they are controlled provincially.  Hence sale of massive amounts of oil in one province harms manufacturing in other provinces and sectors because of the inflated currency. Unlike Norway, Canada has not kept its currency from artificially increasing by investing sovereign oil funds outside the country nor has it been a hard bargainer with foreign oil companies in order to maximize benefits for citizens (except perhaps for Danny Williams in Newfoundland).  Urban sprawl is another major problem in Canada.  Sprawl requires a massive infrastructure, far-flung services, and it locks cities into high greenhouse-gas emissions and high taxes.  Canadians delude themselves when they assume that Canada is a green country with environmentally friendly cities.  Cities like Zurich, Stockholm, and Seoul are environmental cities as well as low-tax cities because they have high population densities and therefore have affordable public transport and services, a walkable city, a vibrant outdoor café life, and do not pave over the surrounding countryside.

What are your professional affiliations?

I am a long-time member of the Canadian Sociology Association and participate regularly in its annual meetings.  For the last fifteen years, I have been a member of the International Sociological Association and have been especially active there, being voted President of its Environment and Society Research Committee and helping to organize its World Congresses.  I have been an off-and-on member of the American Sociological Association and have frequently given papers at its annual meetings.  At times I have been a member of the European Sociological Association and presented papers at its meetings.

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