Environmental (ecological) Disorganization


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Environmental disorganization is a radical ecological concepts developed in the work of Allan Schnaiberg (1980) in reference to his treadmill of production theory (see entry in this dictionary on treadmill of production theory). This idea is also sometimes referred to by related terms such as “ecosystem disorganization” and “ecological disorganization.” While quite radical, the concept also develops from well accepted scientific explanations in the physical sciences that connect energy in systems to the process of entropy and to the first and second laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics notes that energy cannot be created nor destroyed with respect to the total energy represented in a system. In this view, energy can only change form. The second law of physics states that over time, entropy or disorder in a system increases, especially as energy is converted from one form to another. Thus, scientifically speaking, the general premise of environmental disorganization is not controversial at all, but, as will be noted later in this entry, becomes controversial in its application to environmental systems due to the implications of that application.

As noted, the concept of environmental disorganization adapts applications of laws from physics to frame the discussion of environmental disorganization. In the physical sciences, a system exhibits entropy over time when stored energy in that system is converted into work or applied energy, thus shifting the balance of energy in the system. In its initial state with all energy stored, the system is said to be organized. Over time, however, as energy is transformed from the state of stable, stored energy to work and the production of heat energy, the kinds of energy in the system change, and the system becomes more unstable or disorganized. Thus, the more stored energy that is converted into work/heat energy, the greater the system’s disorganization.

The process of environmental or ecological disorganization follows a similar idea. In its stable state, the ecological system is balanced and energy is stored in stable conditions where it is not released in the form of work. The stable state of nature involves chemical processes that transfer energy between stable and unstable states, and an undisturbed ecological system such as the Earth converts external or exogenous energy inputs such as sunlight into work and stores the energy used in that process in various ways that maintain the stability of the system. This process includes, for example, the sequestration of chemical such as carbon and other gases that might be released into the atmosphere in non-reactive forms that prevent those chemical from disturbing the system’s equilibrium. This is a well-designed system that that tends toward equilibrium and stability and functions appropriately to maintain the long-term stability of the system with respect to stored energy and temperature stability in the absence of external inputs into the system. These external shocks can change the system from one where the global temperature increases or cools.

The evolution and expansion of the human population plays an important role with respect to the stability of the ecosystem, and the effect of human development produces ecological instability as an external input into the system. This affect increases over time as humans increasingly convert and consume more stored energy into work.

In terms of treadmill of production theory, environmental disorganization expands as humans accelerate the withdrawal of ecological resources from nature, convert those resources into work and commodities, and add ecological additions or pollution to the ecosystem. The effects of ecological withdrawals and ecological additions becomes a particular problem for ecosystem stability and environmental disorganization with the emergence of capitalism, and is accelerated significantly following World War II and the transformation of the treadmill of production.

Humans cause environmental disorganization as their consumption of ecological resources expands. In treadmill of production theory, this effect is intensified following changes in production that emerged after WW II. Theoretically and empirically, this change should be evident in the balance between human consumption and ecological reproduction. Empirically, for example, this effect would be evident in a change in the ecological footprint (see entry in this dictionary). That is, over time, the human ecological footprint should accelerate. From the perspective of treadmill of production theory, that acceleration in ecological consumption is caused by the expansion of economic production and the promotion of consumption values and growth bases as opposed to zero-growth economic organization. Thus, the more production grows, the more of the ecosystem is consumed, and the greater environmental disorganization becomes.

The growth in ecological/environmental disorganization is also related to expanded production through the generation of ecological additions or pollution. In this sense, economic production changes the state in which chemical present in the ecosystem appear as the state of those chemical is reorganized and disorganized by production. In this sense, production transforms and concentrates available chemicals, and produces new chemical states. Those new chemical states take the form of pollutants emitted into the ecosystem.

As noted above, empirically, we can see the effect of accelerating ecological withdrawals and ecological additions in the expansion of the human ecological footprint. The human ecological footprint includes measures that relate to both the ecological withdrawal of resources and the addition of pollutants to the ecosystem. Since the mid-1980s, the humans ecological footprint has crossed an important threshold measure – 1.0. When the human ecological footprint is 1.0, that indicates that the human withdrawal of ecological resources and ecological addition of pollution are in exact equilibrium with nature’s ability to reproduce stable ecological conditions. Since the mid-1980s, however, the human footprint has grown, and today the human ecological footprint is 1.5 indicating that in one year’s time human’s consume 1.5 years of nature’s reproductive labor through ecological additions and withdrawals.

In more radical terms, Schnaiberg specifically linked the acceleration of environmental disorganization to the development and expansion of the capitalist treadmill of production following WW II. It is this link between environmental disorganization and capitalism that give this idea its more radical content. As later researchers noted, the implication of this argument is that capitalism causes the rapid acceleration of ecological disorganization, and that, therefore, it is necessary to move beyond capitalism to solve the problem of ecological disorganization.

Following Schnaiberg, the capitalist treadmill of production is a specific form of organization of capitalist production that emerged following WW II. During this treadmill of production phase, the capitalist system of production is altered by increasingly modifying production techniques by adding fossil fuel and chemical energy to the production and ecological withdrawal processes. This modification of production is employed to expand production in an effort to expand the generation of profit. In that sense, fossil fuel and chemical labor intensifies labor and makes production more efficient while replacing human labor and causing a relative decline in the use of labor over time as fossil fuel and chemical energy consumption expands.

With respect to the concept of environmental disorganization, capitalism’s inherent tendency toward expansion to facilitate the production of profit promotes the use of fossil fuels and chemically assisted production in ways that accelerate environmental disorganization that can be described in relation to the physical properties of the system. That is to say, the increased extraction and burning of fossil fuels, for example, must cause increased ecological disorganization because they accelerate entropy. The same can be said for the expanded use of chemical energy, and as an increasing quantity of chemicals are extracted and consumed and converted from stable stored states to work and heat, system instability and disorganization increases.

Again, what makes the concept of environmental disorganization radical is its attachment to political economic theory concerning the structure and practice of capitalism. While science describes the process of disorganization, Schnaiberg’s view of environmental disorganization applies that idea to the environmental system noting how capitalism drives environmental disorganization through its expansionary tendencies. A related idea is the radical concept of metabolic rift found in this dictionary. In both views, we can say that capitalism drives environmental disorganization and must do so, and thus that the solution to environmental disorganization must be sought outside of capitalism.

Recent work in green criminology has employed the concept of environmental/ecological disorganization to examine the nature of current ecological problems as found in the following works: Long et al., 2012; Lynch, Long, Barrett and Stretesky, 2014; Stretesky, Long and Lynch, 2014; 2013a; 2013b; Stretesky and Lynch, 2011.
Further Reading


Long, Michael A., Paul B. Stretesky, Michael J. Lynch and Emily Fenwick. 2012. “Crime in the Coal Industry: Implications for Green Criminology and Treadmill of Production.” Organization & Environment 25,3: 328-346.

Lynch, Michael J., Michael A. Long, Kimberly L. Barrett and Paul B. Stretesky. (2013). Is it a Crime to Produce Ecological Disorganization? Why Green Criminology and Political Economy Matter in the Analysis of Global Ecological Harms. British Journal of Criminology 55, 3; 997-1016.

Schnaiberg, Alan. (1980). The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Stretesky, Paul B., Michael A. Long and Michael J. Lynch. (2014). “The Treadmill of Production, Planetary Boundaries and Green Criminology.” In T. Sapiens, Rob White and M. Kluin’s (eds), Environmental Crime and Its Victims. Devon, UK: Ashgate.

Stretesky, Paul B., Michael A. Long and Michael J. Lynch. (2013a). The Treadmill of Crime: Political Economy and Green Criminology. UK: Routledge.

Stretesky, Paul B., Michael A. Long and Michael J. Lynch. (2013b) “Does environmental enforcement slow the treadmill of production? The relationship between large monetary penalties, ecological disorganization and toxic releases within offending corporations.” Journal of Crime and Justice 36, 2: 235-249.

Stretesky, Paul B., and Michael J. Lynch. 2011. “Coal Strip Mining, Mountain Top Removal and the Distribution of Environmental Violations Across the United States, 2002-2008.” Landscape Research 36,2: 209-230.

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