This post is the seventh and final in a seven part series on the state of introductory environmental politics literature.
Pathways of Change
The environmental politics subfields consider our current environmental situation through different lenses. Ultimately, the lenses frame what kind of actions we must then take—what are the pathways of success that humanity can take? I have developed a flowchart which shows the division of crisis conception and response outlined by various authors across the subfields. This framework could be traced to classify any of the readings conducted in an environmental politics introductory course or more advanced syllabus. The figure, pictured below, has two primary points of divergence that still result in seven distinct pathways.
Figure 1: Pathways of Change among Environmental Politics Literature
We begin at our current situation—the current problem. This phrase is chosen, as it addresses the assumption scholars share that we are undergoing a fundamental shift in our relationship with nature and climate and bio-diversity challenges resulting from our interactions. If there were no situational problem, there would be no field. From the current problem we come to our first divergence—does an author consider humanity’s response to our current situation to be urgent or gradual? In other words, if the author conceptualizes humanity’s current situation to be dire and threatening both to its own survival and Earth’s wider Biosystems, they will urge immediate and significant action—the path of urgency. These authors include Young (1998) and Mies sna Shiva (1993). The alternative to the Path of Urgency is the Path of Gradual Change. These authors consider humanity’s relationship with the environment to be unsustainable, but change may be undertaken in a series of building steps. While humanity may face challenges, it is too ambitious and unrealistic to conduct a complete overhaul of behavior and expectations. Scholars falling into this camp include Wackernagel and Rees (1996) and O’Riordan and Jordan (1995).
The second divergence is marked by what the scholars consider the primary vehicle of change. Regardless of whether the pathways out of our current environmental crisis are gradual or urgent, there are specific actors whom the scholars believe most significantly impact the direction and degree we address our current environmental challenges. These are the drivers of change among the pathways of response. I briefly go over the various drivers below.
Along the path of Gradual Change some scholars find the driving force to be individual compulsion. Compulsion comes from an intrinsic or innate drive or recognition of the value of nature or biodiversity. Humes (2010) and Schor (1999) find some kind of natural drive or recognition among individual members to drive environmental politics. When individuals in power are able to either enact environmental politics or shift public opinion they are able to use their individual compulsions to enact significant change.
Along the Path of Urgency, compulsion encourages immediate action and drastic upheavals in the way one lives their life or considers their lifestyle. When individuals see significant challenges or threats ahead, they will have motivation to alter their behavior or priorities.
Most of the Eco-Capitalism readings fall within this category. Here, markets lead political and social change. Market change may arise one of two ways: either consumer preferences feed into market structures and which products are created, or markets enact pressure on political institutions to change market conditions. These conditions can result in stricter standards for products, the banning of materials, an expansion of markets or regulation of labels and certifications (e.g. fair trade or natural). The danger with both of these pathways is that while markets drive change, the change can be either positive or negative (Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Dauvergne and Listner 2013). If consumers prefer products with short life cycles (e.g. H&M’s ‘flash fashions’) or those that contribute to environmental degradation (Hummers), those will be the items produced and sold. Conversely, if there are market incentives to produce sustainable products, or re-direct purchasing power to reused items, then the market will encourage policies that support these markets.
States drive environmental policy direction in two ways. First, their domestic politics have significant impact on global conditions. States which encourage green technologies through subsidies and R&D can impact emission levels. Second, state participation in environmental regimes can have significant impact on emissions and global environmental conditions. States that participate in regimes have the potential to organize state response among either a path of urgency—such as Young’s conception of states in Arctic regimes (1998)—or among a path of gradual change toward more sustainable energies through carbon credit trading and investment (Lovins and Cohen 2011).
Unique to the Path of Gradual Change, social-driven change originates from social movements and general social preferences. Shadows in the Forest illustrates the way social organization and customs can drive interactions with nature. While East Asian socities are not inherently exploiting of nature, Dauvergne illustrates the way social interactions create obligations that must be fulfilled through business maneuvers (1997). To continue to fulfill the obligations of being a client in a patron/client relationship, individuals engage in exploitive timber practices. Similarly, social culture can affect indigenous relationships with nature. Many scholars have written on a shift to Western priorities has resulted in a loss of traditional environmental knowledge and adoption of new social engagements. Some of these social engagements, such as consumerism, can result in altered relationships with nature (Dove 2006; Nuttall 2000). Changing social preferences or traditional relationships could be a potential drive to alter engagement with the environment (Dauvergne 1997).
The direction of future research in the broad field of environmental politics depends on what subfield, and what pathways of change, current scholars find both convincing and implementable. I anticipate continued calls for change, however, a point of discussion and divergence will be who leads the change; will it be states, markets, or social movements? There has been a definite shift in the past ten years toward market-driven policy and consumer change. Yet impacting this decision is how urgent scholars perceive our current crises to be.
We must consider how the readings and subfields fit within pathways of response. In our flowchart, we see how the pathways of response depend on the conception of the problem and who is best suited to make significant change. At the gradual path we see calls to shift habits, especially among the eco-capitalist writers. Conversely, the more individually-driven path of writers within the Path of Urgency tend toward a complete upheaval of man’s way of life. This is especially the case in Voluntary Simplicity (Elgin 2000).
Ultimately, there is a consensus among introductory readings that we as a global community of states and individuals are experiencing an environmental change as never before. The rapid and drastic changes are resulting in an environmental crisis that we must respond to on individual, society, state, and international levels. The way through which theses scholars respond to our current crisis the primary point of divergence, though. When scholars consider our current crisis immediately threatening and imminently irreversible to current ecology, they will advocate a Path of Urgency. At this point, whether responses are driven by the state, markets, society or individual compulsions, they require immediate changes and more drastic shifts in purchasing patterns, consumption levels, interactions with nature, and personal habits.
When scholars consider our current situation to be concerning, but slowly changeable, they are more likely to advocate a Path of Graduate Change. These writers encourage steps be taken to reduce state consumption and individual purchasing patterns. Alternatively, markets can gradually used as tools to refocus purchasing patterns and influence government policies.
While future research may find agreement with either school of thought, it is important to note that both are legitimate ways of organizing pathways toward success based on the assumptions and conceptions of our recent environmental history and current environmental reality.
A final question we may ask as we consider the role directions of pathways toward success, regards optimism. Is optimism a strong focus on contemporary literature? It is much more the case in the past 10 years of literature than before—it appears of the fear-as-motivation of the 1990s and early 2000s has given way to a greater ownership of individuals and groups and greater optimism of our capabilities for change (Humes 2010; Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Dauvergne and Listner 2013; Berkes 2012). It appears fear is not sustainable for sustainability. A focus on change as an inevitable action, whether sudden or slowly, colors the current state of the environmental politics field, as well as the subfields within.