By Sarah O'Neill '10 BS

As an environmental sociologist, Dr. Alexander Stoner looks at the severe issues facing our climate through a social lens, studying the relationship between modern society and the natural environment, a union that in the past 250 years has proven to be a tumultuous one. Stoner is head of NMU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department, with research expertise in environmental sociology, social theory and political economy. When it comes to our environment, Stoner believes there is an intimate link between social problems, social inequality and climate change.

“Everything is social when you get down to it. Yet, we do not generally understand the societies and cultures that we ourselves have created. Just because we live in a society does not mean we know anything about it. Similarly, we often put forth solutions to social problems like crime in terms of the problem itself, in large part because the underlying social dynamics are either ignored or poorly understood,” Stoner said. “The deeper social dynamic, which I would argue is the fundamental cause of today’s most pressing problems, is not addressed and not engaged and then it’s no wonder that the problem gets worse. You have a similar sort of thing with climate change and environmental issues.”

In 2015 Stoner co-authored a book titled Freedom in the Anthropocene: Twentieth-Century Helplessness in the Face of Climate Change. The Anthropocene is a proposed unit of geological time, from the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 18th century to the present, based on overwhelming evidence that Earth system processes are now altered by humans. The term was popularized by Paul Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995. Although not yet an official epoch, scientists are researching a “golden spike” associated with the Anthropocene, which represents big global changes that indicate something significant has happened on the planet. Scientists are currently looking at the global impact of radionuclides from thermos-nuclear bomb testing in the 1950s as representing a potential cause of the spike.

Stoner’s main interest in the Anthropocene is the fact that we have known about these impacts on our environment for quite some time, but as a society have not done anything significant about it.

“That’s the problem, that’s the puzzle that I am interested in as an environmental sociologist, and that is what was behind the book project,” Stoner said. “There is a disconnect between our knowledge of the problem and what we are doing to rectify it...what we are doing is not matching the scale of the problem.”

In his research for the book, and in subsequent research, Stoner has found an overarching theme he refers to as the “environmental society problematic.” This includes two parallel dynamics starting at the end of World War II. The first is increasing environmental degradation and the second is increasing environmental attention and concern. The paradox, according to Stoner, is that these two things are happening simultaneously.

“If we’re paying more attention...spending more money, energy and effort trying to figure out how to reduce problems of climate change, for example...why is the problem not only increasing but accelerating?” Stoner said. In fact, throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, environmental problems have compounded in relation to our knowledge of them.

One example of this is recycling. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has data on rates of recycling and municipal solid waste starting in 1960 to about 2017. In that time, there has been about a 30% increase in recycling rates, and in that same time period municipal solid waste has increased 300%. The environmental impact of recycling relative to the increase in production of waste is relatively insignificant.

As Stoner sees it, social issues and inequality are at the heart of Earth’s environmental crisis. Climate change is a global issue with the impacts being unevenly distributed around the globe. Those affected most by climate change are the nation states closest to the equator, including Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia, Chad, and the Sahel region of Africa. These also happen to be some of the poorest areas in the world, which means they will not only be hit the hardest by climate change, but they lack economic resources to adapt to the changes.

In sociology, the study of causes and consequences of social inequality is called social stratification, which has been an enduring concern within the discipline of sociology for over 200 years. With the study of social injustice being such a mainstay of sociology, and related interest in social justice reform increasing throughout the world, NMU is implementing a social justice concentration within the sociology major. “If I were to pick a handful of things everyone should know about the environment, it’s the connection to social problems and social inequality in particular,” Stoner said.

So, what can we as individuals do to help slow the effects of climate change? Stoner emphasizes how essential it is to support the arts and humanities. He points out that the world’s top climatologists are not saying more natural science is needed to solve Earth’s environmental problems. Experts recognize that it is social-political issues preventing more meaningful and effective action on climate change. Among Stoner’s current research is a project examining the linkage between climate change and higher education. The project is informed by an educational term called “world readiness,” which goes beyond “workplace readiness” to empower students and prepare them for “citizenship in an age of daunting challenges in need of world-embracing solutions.” Stoner argues that world readiness is essential when educating young people to tackle large issues like climate change. He specifically mentioned the humanities and programs like sociology, anthropology, history and Native American studies.

Stoner’s most recent publication is Freedom and Heteronomy in the Anthropocene. Heteronomy is defined as “action that is influenced by a force outside the individual.” Stoner defines the term freedom in both titles as “self-consciously taking control and using what we know about societally induced environmental destruction and acting in a more rational way.”

“When people think about the Anthropocene it’s like this impending catastrophe which is almost the opposite of freedom. The Anthropocene is associated with the sixth mass extinction; it’s not associated with the flourishing of life. That’s really the puzzle I’m trying to figure out and think through throughout most of my work.”

Smokestacks from a power plant releasing smoke

“Seldom do we have conversations about exponential growth or the production of waste, and those are the sorts of conversations we would need to have to really think about and address issues like climate change and the things that Anthropocene scientists are talking about, in a more meaningful and effective way.”

Dr. Alexander Stoner

Read an excerpt from Dr. Alexander Stoner's Freedom in the Anthropocene below