EN/ENVS 2000.03


Winter 2000

General Description

The course maps the theoretical perspectives, theories and approaches encountered in environmental studies. The basic paradigms (broad theoretical orientations or perspectives) in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities disciplines, are considered, along with integrating paradigms. The relationship of concepts to theories and to methods of inquiry will be explored.

Prerequisite none

Course Director Adrian Ivakhiv        Email ai@yorku.ca

Consultations  337 Lumbers Bldg.       Office hrs  TUE 2:00-3:00, FRI 1:30-2:00
To arrange a consultation outside of these office hours, please see me during the lecture break or email me, specifying ‘ENVS2000’ in the Subject line of the email

Lectures   FRI 2:30-4:30 pm  Curtis Lecture Hall F

Tutorials  #1  WED 11:30-1:00 SC 223     #5  FRI 11:30-1:00 SC 220
                   #2  THUR 11:30-1:00 SC 220    #6  FRI 11:30 -1:00 BC 325
                   #3  WED 1:00 -2:30 BC 325     #7  FRI 12:30-2:00 R-S612
                   #4  THUR 4:30-6:00 SC 221     #8  FRI 12:30-2:00 R-S623
Consultation hours and locations for the tutorial leaders will be announced by each of them in their respective tutorials.

Registration in tutorials

The Tutorial Leaders have been directed not to accept students into a tutorial unless they have formally registered in that section. Any changes required must be made formally, with the approval of the course director.

Course management

The lectures are central to the course. They will be supported by readings and tutorials which will serve to reiterate, further clarify, extend and apply the ideas presented in the lectures. It is crucial for you to do the readings at the time when they are taken up in the lectures and the tutorials.

The weekly cycle concerning the readings, lectures and tutorials will be as follows:

1. The Friday lecture will introduce the new topic and the readings for it.

2. The readings and reading log on this topic will then be done before the following tutorial.

3. The topic will be the subject for discussion in the tutorial.

4. The first part of the next lecture will recapitulate and expand on the topic; the second part of the lecture will introduce the subsequent topic.

While responsibility for the course rests with the course director, the tutorial leaders contribute to the course (i) by directing your tutorial, (ii) by evaluating your work, and (iii) by advising the course director on problems and solutions, both with respect to the course as a whole and individual students. Any problems that you have you should therefore be taken up in the first instance with your tutorial leader.

Purpose and objectives of the course

This course focuses on different approaches to the explanation of socio-environmental problems. The relation of such problems to the societal context will be emphasized. Explanatory generalizations or theories will also be related to value positions.

More specifically, the course is expected to help you:

1. to recognize explanatory theory in environmental and social analysis, especially where it is hidden, and to understand why we cannot avoid it;

2. to understand how controversies about practical issues can arise from different theoretical approaches;

3. to recognize the core ideas used in the explanations of various schools of thought, ideologies and disciplines that environmental studies draws on, with special emphasis on the scientific method and on challenges to it;

4. to apply these core ideas to environmental and social problems;

5. to recognize the implications of different explanatory theories for methods of inquiry; and

6. to relate explanatory theories to moral values and ideologies.

Organization of the course

In recognition of the tendency for the presentation of theory to become dry abstraction, theory in this course will be discussed in the context of applied issues. These issues will be both (i) in the form of problems, specifically, environmental degradation, poverty and famines, and violent conflict (over matters including the environment), and (ii) in the form of societal action, e.g. the implications for good government and for popular efforts to promote social change.

The course begins with a brief exploration of the scientific method, the different ways in which reliable 'knowledge' is arrived at in the natural and social sciences, and the role of science in environmental problem-solving and action (week 1). Over the next five weeks we examine the causal-explanatory paradigm, the predominant paradigm according to which such knowledge has been sought, especially in the natural sciences. We compare and assess competing theoretical perspectives in the social sciences which have been used to study the relations between society and the natural environment. We examine the core assumptions of each, and their implications for diagnosing problems and for remedying them. Respectively, we examine:

(i) the rational-choice perspective, which analyzes society by assuming that individuals are rational egoists, as is done in contemporary economics (week 2);

(ii) the social-cohesion perspective, which emphasizes the social rules and expectations that bind individuals together in social structures and the social processes that maintain social structures (exemplified by structural and functionalist perspectives in sociology and anthropology, with parallel notions in biology) (week 3);

(iii) the domination (or conflict) perspective, which sees domination between opposing groups as the central explanatory force in the organization of society (e.g. Marxist historical materialism, radical feminism, and some forms of radical environmentalism) (week 4).

We then compare and contrast these three perspectives (week 5), and look at the different ways in which they map out the interaction between human society and the natural world. As part of this last topic (and transitional to the second half of the course), we examine theories which conceptualize social-natural interaction in terms of complex and coevolving systems (week 6).

In the second half of the course, we explore alternatives to the exclusive reliance on causal explanations. We begin with the interpretive paradigm, which attempts to understand social situations from the perspective of the actors involved, the meanings they ascribe to these situations, and the 'social construction' of social as well as environmental issues and 'realities' (weeks 7 and 8). Next, we consider the role of social values and ethical argumentation within the moral philosophy paradigm, with a focus on environmental philosophy and ethics (week 9). In week 10, we examine the relationship between theories and ideologies, and examine environmentalism/ecologism and feminism as sociopolitical ideologies (week 10). This is followed by an introduction to the emancipatory paradigm, which integrates causal explanation with interpretative approaches, with the aim of changing society; here we examine critical social science, critical postmodernism/poststructuralism, and popular education (week 11). We conclude with a review and synthesis of the course themes (week 12).

The structure of topics (arranged by weeks) is as follows:

1. Introduction. Causal explanation and the scientific method in the natural and social sciences.

2. The causal-explanatory paradigm (I): the rational-choice perspective.

3. The causal-explanatory paradigm (II): the social-cohesion perspective.

4. The causal-explanatory paradigm (III): the domination perspective.

5. Illustrating and contrasting the three causal-explanatory perspectives on environment and society.

6. Competing perspectives on the interaction of human society and the natural world. The coevolving systems perspective.

7. The interpretive paradigm (I): 'understanding' and social action.

8. The interpretive paradigm (II): the social constructionist perspective.

9. The moral-philosophy paradigm and environmental philosophy.

10. Ideologies: combining explanations and values.

11. The emancipatory paradigm: critical social theory, postmodernism, and popular education.

12. Review.


The distribution of grades among the different activities in the course will be as follows:





(1) Weekly reading logs

A short weekly reading log will be required. As preparation for the tutorial discussion, you are expected to do the readings prior to the tutorial in which they are to be discussed and to complete your reading log on those readings by that time.

(i) Content: The reading logs should be at least equivalent to a typed 3/4 page (single-spaced) in length, and should be divided into summary (min. 1/2 page) and reflections (min. 1/4 page). The reflections may consist of, among other things, points that you are puzzled by, evaluative comments (i.e. whether you agree with the basic points of the reading material and what your reasons for the position you are taking are), and possible applications of the ideas contained in the readings. As the course progresses, there will be an increasing expectation for you to take evaluative positions on the reading material. The logs serve as notes for you and should be written such that they will be useful to you in writing the two course assignments. (N.B. Reading logs are not private diaries. They are required respect contemporary standards of public discourse; e.g. 'locker-room talk' and hate language are not acceptable.)

(ii) Submission and grade: The reading logs are to be submitted to the tutorial leader. You will receive one point towards your grade for each reading log, but only if it is submitted on time and if it meets the format requirements. There are 10 reading logs for a maximum total of 10 points towards your grade. In addition, a further grade, again out of 10, will be awarded for the overall quality of the reading logs. They will be assessed for their organization, for the extent to which you have put the ideas of the readings into your own words, have represented them correctly and have indicated reasonable depth in understanding, and for thoughtfulness and sophistication in your reflections.

(2) Tutorial and participation

The participation grade will be based on

(i) the intellectual quality of your contribution to tutorial discussion, i.e. on how your participation reflects your knowledge of the reading material, your familiarity with issues raised in the lectures, and your ability to apply the ideas of the course to real-world issues, to make connections between the different ideas, and to critically reflect on them, and on

(ii) your contribution to the social dynamic of the discussion, i.e. listening, respecting the opinions of others, helping shy students to feel safe about expressing themselves, etc. The grade will be assigned by your Tutorial Leader on the basis of a discretionary assessment in terms of these criteria.

(3) Mid-term assignment

The mid-term assignment will be a take-home examination. It will deal with scientific reasoning as employed in the competing causal-explanatory approaches to socio-environmental explanation. The format will be essay questions, with choice provided from among several questions. The assignment instructions will be handed out in the fourth lecture (Jan. 29) and the assignment will be due Feb. 12 at the lecture. The grade will be communicated to each student no later than Mar. 5, which is the day before the last day for withdrawing from the course.

(4) Final examination

The final examination will be a sit-down exam taking place during the formal exam period. It will cover all the material in the course, but especially the topics from the second half of the course (weeks 6 through 12). The format will be essay questions, with a short section of short-answer or multiple-choice questions. You will be provided with a list of possible essay questions in the final lecture (Apr. 9); a selection of these, from which you will have some choice, will appear on the final exam.


All required readings are in a Course Reading Kit, available for purchase from Beta Reproductions in York Lanes.

Supplementary background reading

The following books provide useful background material to many of the topics and perspectives we will cover:

John S. Dryzek's The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses (Oxford, 1997)

Though this book classifies 'paradigms' in a different way than we will in this course (a way that is more appropriate to studying environmental politics), the scope of the book overlaps to a great degree with the perspectives we will cover, and it is recommended in its entirety.

I. G. Simmons' Interpreting Nature: Cultural Constructions of the Environment (Routledge, 1993)

This book provides a useful general overview of perspectives from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities; it will be cross-referenced as 'supplementary reading' in the syllabus below.



Please note that this schedule is subject to change


Week 1 (January 7)

Making sense of the world: Scientific reasoning, theory, and knowledge

Introduction: the diagnosis and treatment of environmental problems. Environmental problems as social and as scientific problems: causal explanation and its alternatives; comparing the natural sciences and the social sciences. Science and scientific reasoning: induction, logic and deductive reasoning, the role of theory and hypothesis. The role of science in environmental action.

  1. R. Dunbar, 'What is this thing called science?', in The Trouble With Science, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 12-33.
  2. D. Chiras, 'Thinking critically about environmental issues and solutions,' in Environmental Science: A Systems Approach to Sustainable Development, 5th ed., Wadsworth, 1998, pp. 17-24.
  3. D. B. Botkin and E. A. Keller, 'Should minke whales be hunted?' Environmental science: earth as a living planet, John Wiley & Sons, 1995, p. 26.

Simmons, Interpreting Nature, ch. 1 'Introduction' & ch. 2 'The natural sciences & technology.'




Week 2 (January 14)

The rational choice perspective: A world of rational egoists

Rational choice diagnosis and treatment: the 'tragedy of the commons' and appropriate incentives. The basic idea of the rational choice perspective: society as a collection of rational egoists. Economics: rational egoists and markets. Market failure, environmental degradation, and green taxes. Rational choice explanations of poverty and famine. Strategic interaction, war, and social learning.

  1. P. H. Raven, L. Berg, and G. B. Johnson, 'The tragedy of the commons,' Environment, Saunders College Publishing, 1993, p. 34.
  2. D. Little, 'Rational-choice theory,' in Varieties of Social Explanation: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Social Science, Westview Press, 1991, pp. 39-41.
  3. H. E. Daly and J. B. Cobb, Jr., 'Misplaced concreteness: the market,' in For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, Beacon Press, 1989, pp. 44-7.
  4. L. R. Brown, C. Flavin and S. Postel, 'Green taxes,' in Saving the Planet: How to Shape an Environmentally Sustainable Global Economy, Norton, 1991.
5. B. C. Field, 'What is environmental economics?' Environmental Economics: An Introduction, McGraw-Hill, 1994, pp. 3-12.

6. M. Spencer, 'Security through trust or threat: the fatal dilemma,' Foundations of Modern Sociology, 5th ed., Prentice-Hall Canada, 1982/90, pp. 506-11.


Simmons, Interpreting Nature, ch. 3 'Society and environment,' pp. 43-6.


Week 3 (January 21)

The social cohesion perspective: A world of social structures, rules and norms

Social cohesion diagnosis and treatment: the environmental crisis as societal maladjustments, and the need for value reform. Sociology and anthropology: society as a cohesive system. Environmental protection and traditional practices. The state and the environment: the state as 'doctor' and as 'patient'. Green values and the consensus orientation. The consensus orientation and poverty. Two approaches to socio-economic development: modernization theory and cultural traditionalism.

  1. M. Knuttila, sections on 'Culture' (pp. 36-48), 'Social structure and the language of sociology' (49-67), 'Emile Durkheim' (133-7), and 'The structural functionalist perspective' (144-51), in Sociology Revisited: Basic Concepts and Perspectives, McClelland & Stewart, 1993.
  2. M. Spencer, 'Modernization,' Foundations of Modern Sociology, 5th ed., Prentice-Hall Canada, 1982/90, pp. 602-3.
  3. J. H. Bodley, ed., Introduction to 'Quality of tribal life,' Tribal Peoples and Development Issues: A Global Overview, Mayfield Publishing Co., 1988, pp. 9-10.
  4. T. G. Verhelst, from 'Culture: the forgotten dimension', No Life Without Roots: Culture and Development, Zed Books, 1987/90, pp. 17-20.

Simmons, Interpreting Nature, ch. 3 'Society and environment' covers next 4 weeks.


Week 4 (January 28)

The domination (conflict) perspective: A world where some dominate others

A diagnosis of the environmental crisis in terms of the power of privileged interests. Society as a system of domination. The basic elements of Marxist political economy. The domination perspective and the environment. Poverty, exploitation, and oppression. The domination perspective on international development. Domination, violence, and revolution. Non-Marxist forms of domination theory: Third World anti-colonialism, radical feminism, radical environmentalism.

  1. K. Hoover, 'Marxism,' ch. 6 in Ideology and Political Life, Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., 1987, pp. 80-104.
  2. K. Marx, 'The commodity' (from Capital vol. 1), in M. A. Cahn and R. O'Brien, ed., Thinking About the Environment: Readings on Politics, Property, and the Physical World, M. E. Sharpe, 1996, pp. 87-95.
  3. K. Marx, Extract from Preface, Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, International Publishers, 1859/1970, pp. 20-21.
  4. The Ecologist, 'Development as enclosure' (excerpts, pp. 21-2, 27-8, 47) and 'Power' (74-87) in Whose Common Future?, New Society Publishers, 1994.


Week 5 (February 4)

Comparing the causal-explanatory perspectives on environment and society

Overview of the three causal-explanatory perspectives on environment and society. Case study: the population growth debate. Other examples and applications (desertification, popular action to address environmental degradation and conflict). Dimensions for classifying theoretical perspectives: descriptive/normative, individualist/holist, consensus/conflict, idealist/materialist, positivist/interpretive. Comparison and evaluation of the three causal-explanatory perspectives.

  1. T. Campbell, 'Comparing and assessing theories', ch. 2 in Seven Theories of Human Society, Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 25-50.
  2. G. Hardin, 'Is more always better?', and J. Simon, 'The case for more people,' in D. D. Chiras, ed., Environmental Science: A Systems Approach to Sustainable Development, 5th ed., Wadsworth, 1998, pp. 134-5.
  3. F. M. Lappé and R. Schurman, The population debate,' in J. Kirkby, P. O'Keefe and L. Timberlake, eds., The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Development, Earthscan, 1995, pp. 103-8.
  4. F. M. Lappé and R. Schurman, 'A power-structures perspective', n Taking Population Seriously, Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1988/90, pp. 17-33.

Week 6 (February 11)

What about nature? Competing perspectives on the interaction of nature and society; human ecology and the dialectical/coevolving systems perspective

The 'nature-nurture' debate. Competing perspectives on social-natural interaction and their relationship to the causal-explanatory perspectives: (a) biological determinism: evolutionary theory, sociobiology, and the 'selfish gene'; (b) environmental determinism: the adaptationist perspective in anthropology, geography, and environmental science; (c) cultural determinism and social/cultural constructivism. Systems perspectives in ecological science, human ecology, and ecological economics. Coevolutionary and dialectical systems perspectives.

  1. D. D. Chiras, 'Evolution,' Environmental Science: A Systems Approach to Sustainable Development, 5th ed., Wadsworth, 1998, pp. 108-10.
  2. H. F. Judson, 'An imperial presence: Has sociobiology won the war?' The Sciences 23: 3, 1983, pp. 20-3.
  3. R. C. Lewontin, 'There is no 'environment',' in K. Peacock, ed., Living with the Earth, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991/96, pp. 156-63.
  4. R. B. Norgaard, 'Change as a coevolutionary process' (pp. 23-8), 'A coevolutionary environmental history' (pp. 32-7), and 'Coevolutionary lessons from history' (pp. 46-8), in Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future, Routledge, 1994.






Week 7 (February 25)

The interpretive paradigm: Worlds of meaningful action

The limitations of causal-explanatory science. Basic elements of the interpretive paradigm; relationship to the causal-explanatory paradigm. Interpretive perspectives on society, conflict, and deprivation. The interpretive perspective on nature/environment: (a) attitudes and understandings of nature/environment; (b) the phenomenology of biological life-worlds. Methods of interpretive analysis.

  1. M. Hollis and S. Smith, 'Inside and outside,' Explaining and Understanding International Relations, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 1-7.
  2. D. Little, 'Interpretation theory,' in Varieties of Social Explanation: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Social Science, Westview Press, 1991, pp. 68-87.
  3. S. Bowerbank, 'Telling stories about places,' Alternatives 23 (1), 1997, pp. 28-33.

Simmons, Interpreting Nature, ch.4, 'The lifeworld.'


Week 8 (March 3)

The social constructivist perspective on the environment

The social construction of knowledge and reality. 'Strong' and 'weak' constructivism. Environmental issues, problems, and controversies as social constructions. The role of scientists, media, and environmental actors in the social construction of environmental issues. Case studies: the Romantic tradition and the social construction of 'wilderness'; biodiversity.

  1. W. Cronon, 'The trouble with wilderness: Getting back to the wrong nature,' in Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, Norton & Co., 1995, pp. 69-90.
  2. A. Hannigan, Introduction (pp. 1-4), excerpts from 'Social construction of environmental problems' (pp. 32-7, 41-52, 54-6), and 'Biodiversity loss: The successful "career" of an environmental problem' (pp. 146-61), in Environmental Sociology: A Social Constructionist Perspective, Routledge, 1995.

Week 9 (March 10)

The moral philosophy paradigm and environmental ethics: How should we live?

Relationship of the moral philosophy paradigm to causal-explanatory and interpretive paradigms. Ethical and political values. Traditional political value theories and environmental policy. Environmental ethics: anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric ethical theories.

  1. P. Singer, 'About ethics,' Practical Ethics, 2d ed., Cambridge U. P., 1979/93, pp. 1-15.
  2. J. Connelly and G. Smith, 'Environmental philosophy,' in Politics and the Environment, Routledge, 1999, pp. 7-32.

Simmons, Interpreting Nature, ch. 5, 'Normative behaviour.'


Week 10 (March 17)

Ideologies and social movements: Radical environmentalism and feminism

Ideologies as ways of integrating explanations and values to prescribe action. Traditional ideologies. Social movements: engaging in popular action to address environmental degradation, deprivation and conflict. Radical environmentalism and ecopolitical thought. Feminism and eco-feminism.

  1. R. Gibbons and L. Youngman, 'The Nature of ideologies,' in Mindscapes: Political Ideologies Towards the 21st Century, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1996, pp. 1-24.
  2. J. Connelly and G. Smith, 'Green ideology,' in Politics and the Environment, Routledge, 1999, pp. 39-55.
  3. G. di Chiro, 'A feminist perspective' and 'A feminist analysis of environment,' from 'Environmental education and the question of gender: A feminist critique,' in I. Robottom, ed., Environmental Education: Practice and Possibility, Deakin Univ. Press, 1987, pp. 26-33.

Week 11 (March 24)

The emancipatory paradigm: Critical social science, critical postmodernism/poststructuralism, popular education & environmental justice

The basic idea of the emancipatory paradigm: learning for liberation from domination. Critical social science (critical theory) as a universalist emancipatory perspective. The postmodernist critique of 'universal reason'; 'power/knowledge' and resistance. 'Situated knowledge' and popular education in local struggles.

  1. B. Fay, 'The basic scheme of critical social science,' in Critical Social Science: Liberation and its Limits, Cornell U. P., 1987, pp. 27-41.
  2. D. Barndt, 'Tracing the trail of Tomasita the tomato: Popular education around globalization,' Alternatives 22: 1, 1996, pp. 24-9.
  3. b. hooks, 'Marginality as site of resistance,' in R. Ferguson, et al., eds., Out There, MIT Press/New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990, pp. 341-3.
  4. A. Escobar, from 'Constructing nature: elements for a poststructural political ecology,' in R. Peet and M. Watts, eds., Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements, Routledge, 1996, pp. 46-54.

Week 12 (March 31)

Review and synthesis: theory and action in a world of conflicting interpretations.

Explanation, understanding, values and action in relation to social and natural processes. Choosing a perspective and combining perspectives. Paradigmatic pluralism and the need for dialogue.


Final Examination: Date TBA



The grading scheme for ENVS courses conform to the 9-point system used in other undergraduate programs at York. Assignments and tests will bear either a letter grade designation (e.g., A, B, C+, etc.) or an equivalent percentage grade.  (See detailed descriptions in the FES Regulations or in the BES Supplementary Calendar.) The final grade for the course will be calculated using the weighting formula established above for this course.
 Proper academic performance depends on students doing their work not only well, but on time.  Accordingly, the assignments for ENVS courses must be received by your tutorial leader on the due date specified for the assignment. Assignments received later than the due date will be penalized one-half grade point per day that they are late.  Exceptions to the lateness penalty for valid reasons such as illness, compassionate grounds, etc. will be considered only when supported by written documentation (e.g., a doctor’s letter).


York students are subject to policies regarding academic honesty as set out by the Senate of York University and by the Faculty of Environmental Studies.  Please read the Senate Policy on Academic Honesty (which can be found as ‘Appendix One’ of the Academic Regulations of the Faculty of Environmental Studies or in the ‘University Policies and Regulations’ section of the York University Undergraduate Programmes Calendar).


Students and instructors are expected to maintain a professional relationship characterized by courtesy and mutual respect and to refrain from actions disruptive to such a relationship.  Moreover, it is the responsibility of the instructor to maintain an appropriate academic atmosphere in the classroom, and the responsibility of the student to cooperate in that endeavour.  Further, the instructor is the best person to decide, in the first instance, whether such an atmosphere is present in the class.  (York University Policy and Procedures to Deal with Disruptive and/or Harassing Behaviour by Students in Academic Situations.)


York University is committed to respecting the religious beliefs and practices of all members of the community, and making accommodations for observances of special significance to adherents. Should any of the dates specified in this syllabus for in-class test or examinations pose such a conflict for you, contact the Course Director within the first three weeks of class. Similarly, should lab, practica, workshop, etc., assignments scheduled later in the term pose such a conflict, contact the Course Director immediately. Please note that to arrange an alternative date or time for an examination scheduled in the formal examination periods (December and April/May), students must complete an Examination Accommodation Form, which can be obtained from the Registrar's Office.


Students who feel that there are extenuating circumstances which may interfere with the successful completion of the course requirements are encouraged to discuss the matter with the Course Director as soon as possible. Students with physical, learning or psychiatric disabilities who require reasonable accommodations in teaching style or evaluation methods should discuss this with the Course Director early in the term so that appropriate arrangements can be made.