We revisit and recast two prominent theories of environmental degradation: the treadmill of production and the treadmill of destruction. This recasting is guided by critical realism, focused on theorizing generative mechanisms that produce and shape empirical events. Our theorization is informed by Marxist and Weberian insights into environmental sociology contributions. In this critical realist recasting, the treadmill of production and the treadmill of destruction are conceived of as generative mechanisms. A treadmill refers to a process in which powerful organizations appropriate nature to amass power and capital. These organizations degrade the environment, and they suppress and distort information about the environmental damage they cause. The macrosocial context, the organizations at the center of them, and the elites that command these organizations make these treadmills distinct. A treadmill spans the biophysical and the social/cultural realms. Whereas the biophysical is necessary for the social/cultural realm to exist, it exists independent of human knowledge of this realm. As such, historical contingency and social change are at the center of analysis when studying the waxing, waning, transformation, and demise of treadmills. Adopting a critical realist stance, future theorization and research can and should engage a wide range of theories advanced in environmental sociology. The goal is not to establish the single best unitary theory, but to identify and gain insight into the generative mechanisms that shape and constrain human interactions with the environment.

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