Basic sociological question: “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”

Big questions about society can be great for Introduction to Sociology courses. Here is are the sorts of questions that I think could work quite well:

So, what sort of machines do you need to create an industrial civilization—kind of like the ones we have now, but more sensibly sourced. I remember taking a sociology course years ago where we started out with a similar question, although we conceived the question more broadly—what does civilization as we know it rely on? The answer then (decades ago, before the impact of The Whole Earth Catalog had been felt) was something along the lines of “technology.” But this is a much better question.

If we stuck with the second question here, “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”, I could imagine a class could generate a lot of answers:

1. The Internet. In the vast scope of human history, this may seem silly. But for people raised in the Internet era, it would be pretty hard to imagine life without it.

2. Electricity. This makes all sorts of things possible.

3. The steam engine. This helped give rise to the Industrial Revolution.

And so on. But these are all technological changes that could go back to the plow and the wheel and illustrate the human capacity to create and utilize tools. We just happen to live in an era where such technological change is rapid and our daily lives are full of machines. But what about more cultural or sociological phenomena?

1. Language. The ability to communicate in formalized ways gave rise to oral traditions, writing, etc.

2. Government. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean the big bureaucracies of today that impressed Max Weber. But just a form of ruling or authority that helped bring about communities.

3. Sustained agriculture. This has been the traditional answer to how humans were able to create more complex societies in the Fertile Crescent. This is now being challenged by a new argument based on evidence of early religion in Turkey.

I’ll have to think about using these questions in class. They seem particularly good for helping students consider the basic building blocks of human social life before diving into specific sociological phenomena.

The wood-burning fireplace is on the way out, not green enough

Wood-burning fireplaces are more decoration than heating apparatuses in modern homes. But the New York Times reports that even its decorative or symbolic value may not be enough to counter the arguments against their use:

Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy, particularly in a city like New York — is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses…

Organizations like the American Lung Association are issuing warnings as well: the group recommends that consumers avoid wood fires altogether, citing research that names wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.

Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children…

Perhaps not coincidentally, sales of wood-burning appliances dropped to 235,000 in 2009 from 800,000 in 1999, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Fireplaces are akin to McMansions? I would be curious to know how much effect a wood-burning fireplace has on the average person or how much pollution wood-burning fireplaces across the US release into the air. Then some comparisons could be made between the polluting effect of fireplaces and other objects (like McMansions or bottled water). In addition to the pollution, we could also consider how much wood is burned yearly in fireplaces and where this wood typically comes from.

Beyond the ideas about health and being green, the article fails to discuss several ways to keep a fireplace without burning wood. One option: have a gas fireplace. This may not be too green as well – it does burn gas. But you wouldn’t then have the release of particles into the air. The second option, which seems to be gaining in popularity: purchase an electric heater that looks like a fireplace. I see numerous advertisements for these all the time. Lots of benefits here: you still get the heat, nothing is burning (wood or gas), they are relatively cheap, you don’t have to worry about a chimney and keeping that clean, and you can move the “fireplace” around fairly easily depending on where you want it. There are some electricity costs but you can still retain the decorative or symbolic value without burning wood.