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Unformatted text preview: The treadmill theory of production - Allan Schnaiberg Introduction In his seminal work, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (1980), Allan Schnaiberg came up with the term "treadmill of production" (ToP) to elucidate the interplay between capitalism, the state, and the environment. It investigates the nature and origins of the conflicting relationships between economic expansion and environmental damage, inspired by neoWeberian sociology as well as Marxist political economy and focuses on how the political economy of environmental issues and policies are arranged within the modern industrial society's structure, which is referred to as "treadmill of production" by Schnaiberg. This theory was proposed to investigate the factors contributing to growing environmental degradation in the United States following World War II. He notes that the US experienced an economic boom, resulting in a significant increase in production levels, during this period. Consequently, the demand for natural resources also increased. As capitalism grew stronger and competition became more fierce, more technical interventions began to take the place of labour in order to maximise profit. These new technologies consumed more energy which in turn harmed the environment. Besides, unlike the earlier use of labour, ‘these new technologies represented forms of sunk capital’ (Gould, Pellow, & Schnaiberg, 2004, p. 296) i.e., can only be put to a single use. The treadmill theory, thus, has implications for both natural resource extraction as well as political representation of labour and environmental concerns. It synthesized both changes in the forces of production, and the relations of production and further integrated these changes with the creation of ecosystem disruptions due to the changing scale and form of societal production. This proves its utility for both ecological and social analysis. I. ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION OF THE TREADMILL THEORY Theoretical Structure Schnaiberg claims that the treadmill of production comprises two elements: stakeholders and shareholders, using a Marxist lens. Workers and citizens make up the former, while investors and management constitute the latter. The shareholders benefit from the treadmill structure because they may persuade government and labour unions to endorse further investments and actions that serve their interests. The shareholders' political power gradually grows, resulting in increased political backing for treadmill development. Increased capital investment leads to greater demand for natural resources, which undermines workers' employment situation and worsens conditions of the environment. Thus, the treadmill theory conjures up an image of a society running in a place, making no progress. The efficiency of the productive system reduces as a result of this process, which allows for greater resource extraction and environmental damage. Here, it is important to note that economic expansion does not imply social progress. Furthermore, politicians and the state are staunch supporters of the treadmill of production, according to Schnaiberg. It also receives great support from investor-managerial groups, therefore the State backs it up. It has the support of both shareholders and stakeholders. The primary goal of the shareholder is to maximise profit, which can be accomplished by investing in labour-saving technologies. On the contrary, stakeholders are unwittingly promoting the rise of capital-intensive production as they are forced to believe that this is the only way for social progress. Any opposition to the treadmill is branded by its economic and political representatives as antediluvian, Luddite, old-fashioned, reactionary, and doomed to failure. Beyond the core logic of the treadmill, this model generally encourages analysts to take into account a range of factors that produce environmental insults as well as understanding how these factors make environmental policy making so complex. The treadmill model underscores the importance of paying attention to dialectics and contradictions in the behaviors of individuals, groups, the state, and industry while simultaneously highlighting the importance of social inequality, power, and conflict as underlying environmental behavior. Although the majority of U.S. workers would like to live and work in safer, cleaner environments, they are either unable and/or unwilling to take direct action to achieve these realities. Elected officials must maintain their legitimacy with the voting public and secure the “monopoly” powers of the state (Tilly 1978). But they routinely make decisions that erode state power and public legitimacy. Ratifying free trade agreements, which undermine the ability of nation-states and subsidiary forms of government to exercise social control starkly illustrates this contradiction. Given the focus by many scholars on environmental attitudes and concern, the treadmill offered not simply an analysis of what people thought about the environment, but what was actually occurring with respect to how institutions were impacting the natural world. The Focus on Production Rather Than Consumption While it may appear that consumption has a direct impact on environmental degradation, Schnaiberg argues that production occurs first, and individuals can only consume what is produced. The shareholders make the key decisions about technology allocation. Consumers can choose not to consume certain items, but they have no control over capital and production technology distribution. Similarly, in many regions, consumers purchase some products owing to the sheer lack of substitutes. Though it may be claimed that supply responds to demand, the producer ultimately decides what to offer. As a result, the first interaction between social systems and ecosystems occurs during the production process. This is a direct relationship, whereas the one between consumption and ecosystems is indirect. The treadmill theory identifies the relationship ‘between economic structure and political power and contextualizes the role of consumer decisions within the material parameters of politicaleconomic contexts’ (Gould, Pellow, & Schnaiberg, 2004, p.301). It propounds that consumer decisions are influenced by prior production decisions, economic distribution, and the allocation of policy and decision-making authority. Consumer behavior is contoured through advertisements and internet campaigns, as opposed to the classical and neo-classical theories that argue that consumer preferences shape the markets. Consumer boycotts often generate awareness and raise social consciousness about the adverse effects of products. They are, however, mostly ineffective. Only a few products have been withdrawn from the market as a result of consumer’s choice or movements organised by pressure groups. The well-known grape boycott, for instance, only succeeded in raising social consciousness about the appalling working conditions of farm labourers, but was an economic and political failure, overall. Furthermore, treadmill elites who have accumulated a great deal of wealth continue to make decisions about alternate forms of production. That is why the treadmill of production promotes collective action above individual choices/efforts and concentrates on the role of non-elite people and employees rather than consumers. Non-elite actors, in Schnaiberg's opinion, can influence the system-ecosystem interaction by pushing policymakers to adopt pro-environmental legislation. For example, in post world war America, most of the pro-environmental legislation was the result of agitation initiated by nonelites. Moreover, consumerist approaches are unproductive and do not focus on the treadmill's deceleration because they do not examine how much consumers purchase. Instead, they safeguard consumer rights. Besides, democratic ownership and control of production can more effectively address social and environmental issues, rather than limiting consumption rates or influencing consumer choices. The treadmill model indicates that the political economy needs to be restructured. Its proponents think that changing aspects of the political economy is the key to success, and that this can only be achieved by direct or indirect political battle with the State and treadmill elites. Despite the fact that the theory focuses on production, it might equally be seen as addressing how producers/stakeholders consume the environment. This interpretation transforms the way we think about consumption. Production Treadmill - A Dialectical or Linear Change Theory? One of the critiques of treadmill theory is that it appears to be a theory of linear change. Schnaiberg responds by presenting two different aspects of the theory. To begin with, the treadmill's original premise was a historical mode of changes that occurred in the United States and other industrial societies. He also advocated a number of political-economic alternatives to the treadmill's socio environmental effects and projected that governmental activities would stifle and limit the treadmill's growing impact. Schnaiberg, while writing his initial work, discusses the dialectical features of growth, where social forces that benefit from it clash with others who are harmed by it. He outlined three syntheses—‘an economic, a planned scarcity, and an ecological synthesis’(Gould, Pellow, & Schnaiberg, 2004, p. 305). He believes that the treadmill was originally an economic synthesis. However, as a result of pro-environmental legislation, it turned into planned scarcity between 1975 and 1980. At the other end of the spectrum is ecological synthesis, which would require the State to maintain control over ecosystems while profit margins are neglected and treadmill institutions undergo structural changes. Also, he assumed that the treadmill model's publication would lead to significant hostility to the treadmill. Despite the state laws, it is difficult to prove that the treadmill has shrunk empirically. In the United States and other industrial societies, there have been tiny triumphs in terms of pollution reduction and productivity efficiency over the last few decades. More social theories about ecological modernization as a sort of reflective modernity are emerging. Nonetheless, globalisation has transported the treadmill to the most remote parts of society. As the global political economy evolved, it became vital to recognise and accommodate the treadmill's transnational features. At the same time, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992) and the South Commission raised awareness of growing global inequality and ecological damage. In 1994, Schnaiberg and Gould published Environment and Society, which contextualised the production treadmill in global history and economy as a response. They depicted the Global South as shifting from scarcity to greater scarcity and accentuated the Global North's reliance on the Global South for resources, labour, markets, and waste sinks, while emphasizing on the global distribution of the ecological costs and economic benefits. Small localities were pushed to compete with one another and grew more vulnerable as shareholders had a greater capacity to invest on a global scale. Taking political action on a local level became consequently difficult. As globalisation sped the treadmill of production, the treadmill theory also evolved to handle the shift from national to transnational political-economic structures. II. APPLICATION OF THE TREADMILL THEORY Empirical Evaluation Schnaiberg first proposed the theory without conducting any rigorous empirical research. The authors evaluated how well the hypothesis fit social production trends in the decades between 1980 and 2004. They conducted a variety of analyses, including work on Great Lakes water pollution, wetland preservation efforts, global environmental treaties, and so on, to determine whether social reforms have resulted in more eco-friendly production. However, no evidence of treadmill structural deceleration was found in the experiments. Ecological modernisation, on the other hand, is a competing theory that claims that the design, performance, and evaluation of production processes are based on both ecological and economic criteria. It asserts that the world has entered a new industrial revolution that has resulted in an ecological reorganisation of the production process. It does, however, have certain methodological and theoretical limitations. While evaluating the ecological modernization theory, York and Rosa (2003) looked at a diverse array of case studies, including the Thai pulp industry, coal industry, Dutch chemical industry, etc., and came to the conclusion that there was stronger evidence favouring the treadmill of production than the ecological modernization theory. Forces That Limited the Treadmill Diffusion in Environmental Sociology Ronal Regan was elected President of the United States in the 1980s, bringing with him the neoconservative agenda of state deregulation and neoliberalism. His political agenda accelerated the treadmill and made resistance to the treadmill even more difficult. Civil society's resistance waned over time, and environmental movements became more conservative. Many treadmillalternative projects around the world were stymied by the Southern debt crisis of the 1980s. Support for ‘mixed economies’ and social welfare governments has also dwindled from an ideological standpoint. The disintegration of the socialist economies of the Eastern bloc, and their replacement with ‘shock therapy,’ at the start of the 1990s, eliminated the remaining worldwide support for the treadmill's opponents. These international and domestic politicaleconomic shifts, as well as the treadmill's subsequent acceleration, empirically validated the predictions of this model. Even if the treadmill was successful in examining the outcomes, causes, and options to environmental degradation, its political viability was impaired. Thus, socio-environmental scholars were deterred from criticizing the State. Other scholars integrated Third Wave environmentalism into sociological theory, while some retreated into intellectual abstraction and found professions in constructionist models, presenting no risks to the power holders. The Treadmill model also attracts criticism due to its ability to invalidate commonly advocated and nonstructural environmental solutions. As a result, it is widely perceived as anti-capitalist and anti-environmentalist. III. RELEVANCE AND THE FUTURE ROLE OF THE TREADMILL THEORY Conclusion Young scholars are increasingly employing the treadmill model to examine ecological issues. Environmental battles have gotten increasingly more heated, nuanced, and pervasive in recent years. Experts are no longer the only ones who can protect the environment. The treadmill of production is not only beneficial for ecological analysis, but it is also used for social analysis. It stands out as a realistic model, particularly for academics who are willing to embrace the likelihood that environmental protection may be minimal at best. It establishes a more plausible and useful theoretical link between environmental sociology and other subfields of sociology, allowing sociologists to incorporate environmental elements into their epistemological, methodological, and theoretical frameworks with greater ease. One can see how environmental politics is contoured by both social/human and ecological/natural factors through the treadmill lens. ...
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