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The social causes of the California wild fires

The California Wild Fires are typically reported as being caused by a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental factors. Mainstream news reports tend to focus on how a conflation of a lack of rain, humid conditions, and fierce winds results in these dramatic, and unpredictable fires.

California wild fires certainly appear to be newsworthy, in that they tick many of the news values used by news agencies to determine what should be aired. California fires are dramatic, visual, involve an elite nation, and are often personable: if they’re not threatening a town, we can always focus on the brave bush firemen.

Challenging the envirocentric narrative 

However, I think we need to challenge the mainstream narrative that California wild fires are purely natural events.

If we dig a little deeper, we find that this ‘environment centric’ view is misleading as human social factors are just as much a cause.

Gegory L Simon argues that wildfires in California are just as much a result of reckless human development decisions as they are due to environmental conditions.

Authorities all around California have agreed permission for development to take place on areas they new were high fire risk. He further argues that authorities turn a blind eye to the fire risks because of the huge profits to be made from building houses in California.

Evidence for this lies in the simple fact of the increasing costs of dealing with fires in California…

One would have thought it sensible to stop developing in areas where there appears to be an increasing fire risk. Or if not, at the very least, we could be more honest about the fact that there is a human cause’ to these fires, rather than it just being purely down to environmental factors!

Then again, I guess deluding ourselves with the later explanation is more comforting.

This post will also be published to the steem blockchain.

Sources

If you want to explore this issue further, I suggest reading the following two critical articles

The Conversation – Don’t Blame California Wild Fires on a Perfect Storm of Weather Events

The Atlantic – Power Lines are Burning the West

Federal Fire Fighting Costs 

Image Source 

 

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Sociological Perspectives on Identity (1)

A brief summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Identity’ – Chapter One – Stories, Memories, Identities

Introduction: living lives and telling stories

‘We endlessly tell stories, both about ourselves and others, and it is through these stories that we make sense of ourselves.’

This chapter explores the perspective which sees people engaged in a creative process of producing identities through assembling various memories, experiences and episodes within narrative. From this perspective, identities are not seen as ‘fake’ in any way, but as creatively produced by selecting from an enormous range of raw materials.

Paul Ricouer identifies three things as crucial to narrative – characters, action and plot. The plot is what brings together everything into a meaningful whole, and both narrator and audience take part in emplotment – through a shared cultural understanding that these events have a place in this narrative.

A sense of time is crucial to understanding our identities – narratives link events in sequence through time – thus we come to understand ourselves as developing from a certain point and moving forwards to a future point, this is crucially a process which involves interpretation, and thus is creative.

However, the narrative cannot stand alone, in order for it to make sense it must stand in relation to broader cultural frames of reference.

Sociological thinking about narratives

Stanley and Morgan (1993) identify five trends which have led to an increasing focus on narrative within sociology –

1. A turn to textuality – where texts are increasingly seen as products rather than reflecting reality

2. A questioning of the distinction between structure and agency

3. An examination of referentiality and lives – attention to the relationship between representations of lives and the lives themselves

4. An increasing attention to time

5. A turn to intertextuality – we increasingly draw on other texts to tell our stories

What is a narrative?

A narrative is a synthesis of heterogeneous elements brought together through the interpretive process of emplotment.

According to Paul Ricouer, there are three main forms of synthesis at work in emplotment:

– between many events and one story

– between dissonance and concordance

– between open time and time as something which is over with.

Through the process of emplotment, we turn events into episodes, but this is an interpretive processes, because by looking back at the past self, we have no more direct access to that person than any one else.

Narrative and identity

Emplotment configures a self which appears as the inevitable outcome and actualisation of the episodes which constitute a life. The self is understood as unfolding through episodes which both express and constitute that self. Identity is constituted over time and through narrative, and the whole processes is profoundly social.

Identity is not something foundational, but it is something produced through all of the above processes.

In narrating stories, we interpret memories, but these memories are themselves interpretations.

Evidence for this lies in an experiment carried out by Frederic Bartlett in 1932: white north American college students were asked to read a Native American legend and then recall the events as accurately as possible. Bartlett found that students tended to forget those parts of the story which did not fit their cultural framework or expectations.

We engage in what Ian Hacking calls ‘memero-politics’ – we reinterpret past events in light of present knowledge. Thus (according to Ricouer) the process of constructing a narrative is teleological – the story we tell is that we are who we are because of past events, but in ‘reality’ the events we select to explain how we got here are selected because they seam meaningful now.

As Kiekergaard said ‘live is lived forwards, but understood backwards’ – but it might be better to understand life as being both lived and understood both forward and backward – in a spiral movement of constant interpretation and reinterpretation.

Self and other

A focus on narrative challenges the concept of the atomised individual and replaces it with a concept of a person enmeshed in and produced within webs of social relations – this is for two major reasons – first because life stories must always contain the stories of others and second because the social world can itself be seen as storied.

Two early ways this happens are through the teaching of literature and history in school – the former encourages us to identify with characters and reflect on our inner selves, and the later offers us a way to understand our own personal history in relation to the social world.

Identifying with the subjects of pain

Carol Steedman argues that identifying with the pain and suffering of others is a common way of developing self-understanding. This has been the case since the 18th century, identification with someone worse off than we are is common place.

This may go some way to helping us understand the current fascination with trauma narratives – such as those who suffered abusive childhoods.

Identifying with victims of suffering is one way in which those in power can obtain authority – however, this can only ever be imagined and it can backfire dramatically. There are limits on the stories we can borrow from.

Nb – I’m not convinced that this is that significant – the powerful only choose to identify with certain types of suffering others (not the poor, disabled or refugees for example) and I’m sure there’s more of an identification with those who are self-made despite social disadvantage?

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Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – in 14 bullet points

A brief post covering the relationship between self and society in late-modernity according to Anthony Giddens, covering concepts such as Globalisation, abstract systems, ontological security, manufactured risks, narcissism and fundamentalism.

This is very much my own reading of Giddens’ text – Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age.

Giddens Self Identity and Society

Gidden’s Key Ideas about Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Taken from Modernity and Self Identity – And Against Post Modernism)

  1. There is a global structure – e.g. it’s Capitalist and Nation States remain powerful, but it’s dynamic, constantly changing, and not predictable.

  2. Institutions (political and economic) are ‘reflexive’ – they try to ‘steer’ events in the future in the light of existing and continually updating (imperfect) knowledge.

  3. There are significant global problems (manufactured risks) which we all face and none of us can escape – e.g. Global Warming. These are real, objectively existing problems, not hyperreal, and they bind us together, even if many of us fail to accept this.

  4. The increased pace of change and Uncertainty are a fundamental part of late-modernity.

  5. Globalisation penetrates our lifeworlds through abstract Systems (money, clock time, expert systems, especially science).

  6. The media is more important and influential in late-modern society, but Giddens rejects the concept of hyperreality – the main significance of the media is that it makes us more aware of diversity and of the fact that there are many different ways of living.

  7. In Late Modern (not Post-modern) Society, there is what Giddens calls a ‘duality of structure’ – social structures both empower us and constrain us (differentially, and broadly along the lines of class, gender and ethnicity, although not perfectly) – people are not just ‘free’ to do whatever they want – their freedom comes from existing structures – think of your typicaly fashion blogger on YouTube for example – you may think of them as ‘free’, but they are fundamentally dependent on global capitalism, a monetary system, and the infrastructure of media technology.

  8. In terms of the self – Identity is no longer a given – we no longer have a pre-existing identity based on our gender, class, family or locality, everything is open to questionand we are forced to contunally look at ourselves and continuously ask the question ‘who am I’ – identity becomes a task, something we must do for ourselves, and nearly every aspect of our lives becomes something we need to reflect on as a result.

  9. It is for this reason that we become concerned with constructing a ‘Narrative of Self’ – A coherent life story, so that we can convince ourselves that we have a stable identity through time. Constructing a self-identity takes a lot of time and effort.

  10. Therapy emerges as a new expert system to help people in the process of continual identity reconstruction – especially useful at epochal moments like divorce.

  11. The construction and expression of the self becomes the new norm – there are many ways we can do this – mainly through consumption (buying and doing stuff), through relationships, and through developing bodily regimes (health regimes).

  12. An unfortunate consequence of this focus on the self is the rise of Narcissism, with very few people asking moral and existential questions about existence.

  13. However, this process is dialectical and New Social Movements (e.g. the Green Movement) which do consider moral and existential issues – in which people attempt to incorporate moral and existential questions into the construction of their ‘political’ identities.

  14. Late Modernity produces various ‘Generic’ Types of Identity – The Narcissist, the Fundamentalist, both are extreme expressions of the same social system.

Related Posts

Giddens – Modernity and Self Identity – A summary of the introduction and chapter 1.

What is the purpose of Sociology according to Giddens? – A very brief summary