By Laura Schmidt, Office of Sustainability
Sociology professor Andrew Jorgenson makes daily choices that fit into the “typical” sustainability lifestyle – eating vegan meals and making smart food decisions with his family, living near work, walking or biking when possible, taking public transit, etc.
But his research is anything but typical. Unless you consider examining the intersection between economic development, environmental degradation and social inequality as typical.
As one of his areas of research, Jorgenson investigates the ecological impacts of the world’s national militaries. The ecological and environmental degradation during wartime is obvious; however, Jorgenson also considers the amount of energy and resources required for the maintenance and upkeep of the world’s national militaries. Jorgenson and collaborators conclude that “as the world’s national militaries get more technologically advanced, they continue to be more resource intensive, especially in terms of fossil fuel consumption … contributing to anthropogenic carbon emissions and other types of air pollution.” Additionally, Jorgenson notes that there are enormous amounts of nonrenewable, natural resources that go into building and maintaining individual base infrastructures, as well as the development of new technologies.
“In order for militaries to remain competitive and strong, they have to be making more and more powerful and sophisticated machineries for warfare,” says Jorgenson. Drones, for example, “may be small compared to planes that were used in warfare for WWII but the amount of resources that go into designing, building, and maintaining drones is pretty extraordinary.” And that is just one type of warfare technology. The research by Jorgenson and his colleagues shows that the expansion and maintenance of bases worldwide and the use of different military technologies is having “observable effects on the environment.” The phenomenon of growing ecological devastation by national militaries has been termed the “treadmill of destruction” in sociology literature. (See, for example: “The Treadmill of Destruction and the Environmental Impacts of Militaries”)
However, a contradiction is growing: Militaries are increasingly becoming more “concerned about the environment from a security point of view,” Jorgenson says. As an example, he explains that the U.S. military has been open about climate change for a number of years “from a national security point of view.” He adds, “Global and regional ecological disruptions can, and do, pose all sorts of security issues.” To some extent, Jorgenson says, the U.S. military is “greening” itself through technological innovation, such as through the use of solar energy. Yet, these technological advances are pitted against the dynamics of increasing military growth and complexity. “What does it mean for national militaries on one hand to be greening, but simultaneously also on their own kind of treadmill?” he asks.
Jorgenson considers himself a “social and environmental inequality scholar” who conducts research at a macro-level using quantitative methods and longitudinal analyses. Jorgenson says he is interested in issues concerning “coupled human and natural systems,” such as the ecological and environmental impacts of world’s national militaries. He examines the “relationships between people and the environment. And, not just how people affect the environment, but how the environment or ecosystems at multiple scales, to some extent, affect people. … These relationships between people and the environment, at multiple scales, are dynamic.”
Jorgenson’s has two current areas of interest. One project is looking at relationships between economic development, environmental change through time, and regional-level differences between the two. Jorgenson explains that he and colleagues use the “carbon-intensity of well-being,” which is the “amount of anthropogenic carbon emissions emitted into the atmosphere per unit of well-being.” Jorgenson suggests that as societies reach a certain level of development, that the “amount of resources that have to be used to maintain a high-level of well-being should plateau and go down as societies become more modern.” Although, he says that “development in most parts of the world, in unique ways that vary by region, is not leading to reduction in the carbon-intensity of well-being.” This leaves Jorgenson with the question: “If economic development isn’t the pathway to sustainable development, then what is?” He says he will continue to study the regulatory conditions in various parts of the world as well as the “role in civil society in areas of the world where there is stronger presence of environmental groups.”
Additionally, Jorgenson is involved in a collaborative project that involves data on more than 20,000 power plants worldwide and their emission levels. Together, Jorgenson says he and collaborators are “interested in plant-level characteristics that explain variation in emissions, but also more broadly what are the contextual factors that might influence higher or lower levels of emissions, like existing regulatory capacity of states, nation states, or regions within nation states.” Jorgenson says that the goal of this project is to find effective policies and strategies to help reduce emissions. “We know that emissions from the energy sector are one of the primary contributors to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.
Jorgenson knows that complex, dynamic problems require complex, dynamic solutions, and acknowledges the importance of environmental social scientists focusing on solutions-based research. “Environmental problems are tied to social and human problems in very complex ways,” says Jorgenson. Solutions to sustainability problems are multi-faceted, and are “partly technologically based, behavioral based, and structurally based.”
Jorgenson publishes his work in a variety of policy venues. He adds his work to the “Scholar Strategy Network”, an organization committed to tying research to policy in favor of more democratic solutions. Jorgenson says that the network helps bridge the divide between elected officials and researchers.
Jorgenson also publishes in interdisciplinary scholarly journals and says he has accepted invitations from community groups that request for him to vocalize and openly support initiatives that “are consistent with (his) concerns about sustainability issues.”
Jorgenson says that the motivation for his lifestyle choices and his research comes from his children. He is also inspired by students in the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program because of their dedication, levels of engagement, and enthusiasm, as well as by graduate students and his colleagues. “We tend not to give each other kudos as much as we should. I think faculty could do a better job of letting students know that students inspire us,” he says. “This is the best job in the world. It’s a very privileged position to be in, and it’s important not to forget that.”
Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.