Collective Agency, Non-Human Causality and Environmental Social Movements: A Case Study of the Australian 'Landcare Movement'

Article excerpt

The motivation for this article stems from a belief that the ways in which social movements are conceptualized in both popular and academic discourses are of tremendous political and environmental significance. It will be obvious to most readers that the notion of 'the environment movement' is used just as frequently to stereotype and dismiss environmental activists as extremists and outsiders as it is to rally would-be activists around a sense of common purpose and identity. In the wake of postmodern social theory, the obvious conceptual move here is to embrace a more differentiated and contingent understanding of movements; to abandon heroic accounts of the environment movement in favour of more localized explorations of the many environment movements. Indeed, as the overt focus of environmental politics moves beyond 'wilderness' preservation and pollution prevention (Di Chiro, 1998; Pepper, 1984) to embrace ideas such as environmental justice, livelihood preservation, environmental racism, food safety and traditional intellectual property rights (Agarwal, 1992; Faber, 1998; Low and Gleeson, 1998; Novomy, 1998; Pinderhughes, 1996; Shiva, 1998), such a move seems essential. The question is, does this take us far enough? Does an abandonment of grand narratives of universalistic movements provide us, as sociologists, with the tools and insights to engage with contemporary environmental politics?

As arguably the most prominent sociological response to environmentalism, social movement theory has allowed sociologists to engage with contemporary environmentalism while remaining firmly embedded in one of the most basic assumptions of sociology; that 'social facts' should always be explained by other 'social facts' (Durkheim, 1938). Social movements have been conceptualized in terms of social processes and causes ranging through macro-social structural change, contradictions within the capitalist mode of production, the inability of existing political institutions to adapt to change, conflict over access to resources, newly emerging political opportunities and individual motivations. The environment figures within these explanations as a passive entity on to which human action and conflict are superimposed. This ontological distinction, however, between human society as the centre of agency and nature as the 'other' is fundamentally at odds with the biopolitics of contemporary environmental conflict (Goodman, 1999). Biopolitical campaigns on issues ranging from environmental justice to genetic engineering have promoted globally the inseparability and co-evolution of the human and non-human (Goodman, 1999; Sutton, 1999). As Goodman (1999) argues, a sociology that fails to problematize the Cartesian dualism between society and nature is likely to be a sociology that is increasingly irrelevant to biopolitical struggle.

It is not the intention of this article either to dismiss social movement theory or to develop a new theory of social movements. Rather, it is to explore the relevance of recent work in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), or actor-network theory, to out understanding of those social phenomena recognized in popular and academic discourses as social movements. While SSK does not represent the only sociological attempt other than social movement theory to incorporate nature within social theory, its particular relevance here derives from the explicit attempt that is made to dissolve society-nature dualisms. However, SSK also calls into question dichotomies between 'micro' and 'macro'-levels of social action, 'agency' and 'structure', and so on. Not only does this raise the prospect of engaging more directly with the biopolitical struggle of contemporary environmental movements, it also has major implications for the attribution of agency to a collective subject and conceptualization of collective action. This exploration will be contextualized within a case study of the Australian 'landcare movement'; a movement that both fails to comply with many of the features of social movements and conditions for mobilization identified in the social movement literature, and presages significant contestation and change in the socio-environmental networks of rural Australia. …