Environment, Technology & Sustainability

Environment and Society Lab

Sociologists at WSU study interactions between society and the environment with an eye to identifying and evaluating solutions to ecological problems. Our areas of expertise are in environmental movements, local food movements, sustainable consumption, sustainable energy provision, rural livelihoods, and environmental concern.

Our department has an active and productive lab for scholars interested in environmental sociology and related fields. It is at once a professional development resource—we practice conference talks, review each other’s research, and conduct workshops on a wide range of subjects—and an opportunity to stay current on cutting edge research. The lab also supports talks from scholars both within and outside the University. The Environment and Society Lab is a terrific resource to help graduate students stay engaged, grow as scholars, and collaborate with colleagues.

Examples of Faculty Research

Climate Protest and Its Effects

Does climate change protest really work? As part of a long-term project, Dylan Bugden is exploring the intersection of protest, partisan polarization, and public opinion. Using nationwide survey experiments, this project identifies how the politicization of climate activism shapes how protest works to change public opinion, but also how protest deepens partisan polarization.

Energy Consumption and the Electricity Grid

Modernizing the electric grid to incorporate renewable energy while maintaining reliability is key to societal sustainability. Christine Horne is working on an NSF-funded project to assess the implications of increased dependence on information and communication technology for the resilience of the electric grid. Additionally, Horne is collaborating with WSU engineers and computer scientists to identify factors that motivate consumer engagement with the energy delivery system.

Environmental Crime

Before 1970, routine industrial activity regularly dumped toxic wastes directly into air, water, and/or unlined pits, and no one was held accountable. Today, the Environmental Crimes Section at the U.S. Department of Justice employs dozens of full-time prosecutors, yet scholars know surprisingly little about environmental crimes.

WSU sociologists Erik Johnson and Jennifer Schwartz examine the population of criminally prosecuted environmental offenses from 1983-2010. Their research seeks to define serious environmental criminal acts and delves into the characteristics of offenders and how they have changed over time. Johnson and Schwartz also study  how relevant cases compare to more commonly studied administrative and civil environmental violations and other types of white collar crimes.

Local Impacts of Digital Industrial Technologies

Cryptocurrency has emerged as a controversial technology, both for its capacity (or not) to disrupt industry, but also for its potential climate impacts. But it is just one of a new suite of digital technological innovations that require the support of large-scale industrial development. Others include blockchain and massive data centers that support any number of web-based applications. Very little research, however, has identified how this form of energy-intensive industrial development impacts local communities. Dylan Bugden, in collaboration with Pierce Greenberg at Creighton University (’18 PhD), builds on decades of research on “extractive communities” to understand how this new industry is shaping communities around the world.

Rural-urban Conflicts in Energy Transitions

Transitions to renewable energy will most deeply impact rural communities. Rural places will become sites of land use transformation as agriculture, energy production, and emerging carbon sequestration technologies transform to reduce greenhouse has emissions. However, rural places are not uniformly open to all possible technologies, and longstanding urban-rural divisions are likely to exacerbate rural opposition. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in conjunction with researchers at Cornell University, Dylan Bugden is exploring how the characteristics of rural-urban divisions can act as both barrier and bridge to a national energy transition.

Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production

Understanding how and why people make decisions to produce food in low-impact, sustainable ways is key to influencing transitions away from large-scale, pesticide-intensive production. Jennifer Sherman works with a team of multidisciplinary researchers to understand pesticide use decisions in agriculture.