When you fill out a career pushing the limits of knowledge, rising to “pioneer in your field” status, things are bound to get pretty technical.
Gene Rosa, environmental sociologist, lived that reality, penning papers with terms like “biosociology,” “post-normal risk,” and acronym-rich analytical tools like STIRPAT. In spite of the technical thickets of his work, say friends and colleagues, Rosa kept his eye on the increasingly threatened natural environment and the people in it.
“Gene was not just interested in the environment for its own sake, but rather he had a deep desire to see a better world, one with greater quality of life and well-being, and fewer environmental impacts,” says Kyle Knight, ’08 MA, ’12 PhD, a Rosa student and now assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Rosa died last February at 71, prompting an outpouring of praise for an influential scholar who deftly bridged the social, ecological, and physical sciences.
One of Rosa’s first publications, written with his Syracuse University doctoral advisor Allan Mazur, looked at reducing environmental demands without sacrificing people’s quality of life, says Knight. He returned to the topic repeatedly, writing several articles on ways to improve human well-being with a smaller environmental footprint.
Rosa also looked at the effect of modernization on the environment and the question of whether new technologies harm the environment or fix its problems.
“A common theme of Gene’s career was critiquing the techno-fix optimism,” says Richard York ’02 PhD, another Rosa student and collaborator who is now a sociology professor at the University of Oregon.
Rosa, he says, took the view that, “we as a society tend to overly conceive our problems as principally technical in nature when a lot of them really have social, political dimensions. So, it’s not so much the technology itself per se that creates problems or ameliorates problems. It’s how [it’s] used in a social context.”
In some situations, we not only lack the technology to fix problems, we lack the ability to see problems to begin with. Rosa gave voice to this in one of his favorite papers: “Metatheoretical foundations for post-normal risk.”
“Normal risk,” says York, involves things we can gather data about, like cigarette smoking or air travel. But there are other risks that we are trying to figure out in a scientific way, but can’t. They’re so new, we don’t have data on them, putting us into a gray area where science matters but lacks the information to make a clear answer. This is called “post-normal.”
“Recognizing those post-normal situations,” says York, “you really are in a case where experts do not necessarily have better judgment or better knowledge than lay people.”
Late in his career, Rosa led more than a dozen scientists in a piece for the journal Science urgingthe White House to make more room for public opinion in how it disposes of nuclear waste. The approach ran counter to the world of experts who will work to solve a problem in technical terms and view the public as an annoyance.
“Gene was saying we have to recognize those as political, social struggles,” says York, “and we have to take that into account as real phenomena and address them in social terms.”