In environmental sociology, the use of different perspectives allows the analysis of environmental and social issues from different angles. A single perspective is usually insufficient to cover the various aspects of current problems such as flooding in urban areas like Metro Manila. Using different perspectives will enable us to create solutions that can cover as much ground as possible.
In the case of flooding in Metro Manila, scientists and social scientists have agreed that the problem of vulnerability to floods does not stem only from the geophysical characteristics of where people live (Bankoff 2003, Porio 2011). We also need to consider, for instance, social vulnerabilities due to weak social networks in the community; economic vulnerabilities due to low household incomes; and health vulnerabilities that stem from the lack of access to basic health services. The reality of multiple vulnerabilities strengthens the need to adapt combined perspectives in handling such an issue.
In this paper, I will be looking at three theoretical perspectives that are often used in environmental sociology – materialist, constructivist, and idealist. I will show how each of these perspectives compare and contrast with one another in terms of their focus areas and the possible solutions they offer for the issue at hand.
The Materialist Perspective
One key concept of this perspective is the investigation of human consumption patterns. This perspective argues that consumption patterns are affected by way individuals are socialized, and by how capitalists produce more products that encourage more consumption, which in turn, gives them greater profit.
Consumers may have different reasons for choosing to purchase one good over the other. It may be quite challenging to describe the choices that a large group, such as the residents of Metro Manila, makes. But even if we are unable to study the front of the process, namely the choosing and the purchasing itself, we can still study the pattern from the other end – the disposal of consumed items. In short, we can look at the kind of solid waste generated by households in the city.
Based on actual observation, there seems to be a proliferation of goods that are not aimed at long-term durability. This conclusion is derived from observations of the abundance of items that are disposable in nature, such as plastic home wares. Most, if not all of these items, are made in the same Asian country known for its ability for mass production and cheap labor.
If you visit stores that sell these items, they are usually the least-priced items – and many buy them. These items seem to be the substitute of the less wealthy to items that our society dictates as important parts of a “complete and comfortable home.” However, since the majority of these items are not very durable, they need to be replaced often. This leads to more buying that creates profits for the capitalists who make them. People do not seem to mind the products’ short life-spans because they feel that for the amount spent on the items, they were able to get their money’s worth (sulit). But how about the disposed items, where do they go? They end up in the waterways, which then get clogged, worsening the flooding situation.
A possible contribution of this perspective is change on two fronts: the consumption and waste-generation behavior of people. There is a call to consume less and dispose less. There will be an emphasis on product quality and durability to lessen waste production. Aside from reduction on these two fronts, society must also put incentives for recycling and reusing. Though well-made and durable items cost more, measures such as subsidies and tax breaks will help make their prices more competitive compared to their disposable counterparts.
The Constructivist Perspective
This perspective asserts that our behaviors are based on the social meanings that we attach to the things we make and do. Furthermore, reality, as we know it, is a product of a common agreement among people who are part of a particular society. Our perception of our reality then affects our beliefs, values, and behaviors.
Using this perspective in looking at the issue of flooding in Metro Manila, we can explore the relationship of Metro Manila residents to bodies of water around them. There seems to be a shift on how people have treated waterways in the city over the years. Let us take for example, the case of Pasig River, one of the major waterways in the city. Throughout history, the river has always been a necessity for the people who live in the area. It is tied to their way of life. People fished from the river, crossed the river in boats, and swam in it. It is therefore in their best interest to keep the water quality in good condition. The river was valuable to them and was held in high regard.
When alternative modes of food sourcing, transportation, and recreation developed, people found a different use for the river, which included waste disposal. This changed the way people valued the river and a new relationship was formed between people and the river.
The Idealist Perspective
In the idealist perspective, there is an emphasis on nature as having agency. The actions of nature can change history, culture, behavior, and belief systems. Flooding and other forms of natural disaster are sometimes believed to be concrete expressions of nature’s response to the way people treat it. Though science may not stand by this proposition, flooding in particular seems to show such agency.
Consider for example, the role of improper solid waste disposal in the flooding problem. When people throw their garbage in waterways, these waterways get clogged, leading to flooding. Floodwaters bring all the garbage from the different waterways in Metro Manila back to the homes of those who threw them out. In some ways, nature is just returning to us what we are not supposed to throw at it.
Which perspective then?
From my experience and observation, I believe it is time for us to look at the problem of flooding from the idealist perspective. Though the materialist and constructivist perspectives may provide us with some tangible solutions to the problem, most of our difficulties in dealing with environmental issues stems from the kind of mindset that we have. As simple as it may sound, it is very difficult to change an individual’s or a group’s mindset.
If we look at the issue from the idealist perspective, we will be forced to treat nature as a co-equal, sharing the same agency that we people have. We should thus be able to delineate a set of rights for nature, in the same way that we humans have rights. Suffice to say that if we afford ourselves the right to live in a clean, healthy, and peaceful environment, then nature must be able to make the same choice.
Furthermore, the idealist perspective gives people some form of accountability for their actions. Recognizing that nature can respond to us, we need to think twice before abusing it, because nature’s response can be devastating. Some indigenous groups have long recognized this and have been aligning their behavior to the natural cycles of nature to reduce their impact on the environment.
Solutions and Conclusions
The main avenue for changing mindsets lies in the educational system. Through school activities and lessons, we will be able to socialize children into ideas on how to relate to nature.
The integration of environmental topics in different subject areas for students may be most beneficial in the lower grades (elementary school). As we move towards our K-12 system, there is a greater chance for creating these changes. However, I would like to assert that the discussion of such topics should not just happen within the four walls of the classroom. The discovery of issues should not just happen through books. Students must be given opportunities for field study for them to have tangible experiences of the environmental issue at hand. Through this approach, we might be able to help change the mindsets of our future citizens and instill in them environment-friendly attitudes and behavior that will last well into adulthood.
This paper has shown the role of the different lenses in looking at environmental management issues. None of them are more superior to others. Ultimately, the choice of perspective depends on the social context of the people we are trying to manage. Certain contexts call for certain approaches in dealing with people who have a tendency to take the environment for granted. For this particular context, I subscribe to the idealist perspective as it promotes the idea of recognizing the agency of nature and affording it the same protection that we people give ourselves.
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