Allan Schnaiberg: The Treadmill of Production & Environmental Sociology

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the environmental sociologist Allan Schnaiberg. We'll go over his major contributions to the subfield of environmental sociologist and discuss his idea of a treadmill of production.

Allan Schnaiberg

Allan Schnaiberg was a highly influential sociologist from Northwestern University. During his long and successful career, he made a number of contributions to the discipline of sociology. He wrote many books and articles and is considered a founder of the field of environmental sociology. Schnaiberg passed away in 2009, but his legacy in sociology remains. Let's talk in more detail about his extremely influential work on the relationship between humans and our environment.

The late Allan Schnaiberg
Schnaiberg; Treadmill of Production

Environmental Sociology

Environmental sociology is kind of an umbrella term to describe a wide range of research which sociologists do to understand the relationship between humans and the environment. Schnaiberg is considered one of the founders of environmental sociology, which is a subfield of sociology more broadly. His work from the 1970s and 1980s created a foundation for future working environmental sociology. Let's talk in more detail about what, exactly, his contributions were.

One extremely important contribution Schnaiberg made to the field was the idea of a societal-environmental dialectic. Let's break that down! Basically, Schnaiberg was creating a framework through which we could understand the relationship between things humans do and things in the environment. (As an aside, in social theory, dialectic is really just a fancy way of saying debate).

In particular, Schnaiberg was interested in how economic processes impact the environment. He observed that as society grows and expands, we see more extraction, or overuse of our natural resources. This leads to some pretty serious ecological consequences, like using up finite resources. Ultimately, this abuse of the environment will make further economic development difficult.

Schnaiberg saw modern capitalist societies as privileging economic activities over the environment. There were very few environmental protections in place when Schnaiberg was writing in the 1970s. Basically, he saw industry ignoring the consequences of rapidly depleting our natural resources. Schnaiberg saw economic growth as the major goal of modern society and that ecological destruction was simply a by-product of this.

So, now that we know a little bit about what interested Schnaiberg about the environment, let's talk about one of his key ideas, known as the treadmill of production.

Treadmill of Production

The treadmill of production was a theory of economic exchange that argues that rapid economic development and growth after World War II led to a huge demand for natural resources and new technologies required more and more energy use. Every time new investments were made or new industries popped up, we used more and more natural resources. Every time this happened, environmental degradation got worse.

So, what's the treadmill part in all of this? Basically, Schnaiberg saw society as running in place, never really getting anywhere. Imagine yourself on a treadmill: you keep running and running and running, but when you stop you're still at the gym! It might be helpful to breakdown this treadmill logic into a few stages.

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