I engage foundational perspectives in environmental sociology to assess the extent to which the relationship between the environment and development changes through time. Ecological modernization theory posits that even though economic development harms the environment, the magnitude of the harmful link decreases over the course of development, leading to the environment decoupling from economic development. In contrast, treadmill of production theory argues that the strong relationship between environmental harms and economic development will remain constant or possibly increase through time, and this should hold for both developed and less-developed countries. Findings for panel analyses of national-level anthropogenic carbon emissions provide modest support for treadmill of production theory. The effect of development on carbon emissions remains large and stable through time for a sample of developed nations, but increases from low to moderate levels through time for a sample of less-developed nations. I briefly discuss how world economic factors and processes partially shape these unsustainable environment and development relationships. I then draw from other bodies of sociological theory, most notably world polity theory, to better identify situations in which a decoupling between carbon emissions and economic development is more likely to occur. Tentative panel analyses suggest that nations more integrated in the world polity are more likely to experience a reduction in the environmental impacts of economic development through time. The results highlight the potential for future theoretical integrations and research that more effectively pinpoints the mechanisms that lead to such environmentally beneficial outcomes. I conclude by introducing a new approach that bridges environment and development and human well-being and development traditions. This work, which initially focuses on economic development and the carbon intensity of human well-being, is an important step in advancing research that takes a more holistic approach to the study of sustainable development.
Andrew Jorgenson is Professor of Sociology and Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the University of Utah. The primary area of his research is coupled human and natural systems, with a focus on the political economy and human ecology of global environmental change. Andrew’s work appears in such scholarly journals as American Journal of Sociology, Social Problems, Social Forces, Social Science Research, Global Environmental Politics, Ecological Economics, Energy Policy, Nature Climate Change, Organization & Environment, and Population & Environment.