This post is the sixth in a seven part series on the state of introductory environmental politics literature. 

The Future of the Environment

After examining the development of environmental politics as a shifting focus along thematic lines, we end with a theme that has persisted from the dawn of environmental politics scholarship to the present, and will continue to remain pertinent: the future of the environment. At all stages of environmental political development, scholars have wondered about and attempted to predict the future. How does humanity’s current actions color the future of states and their relationship to nature? Interestingly, the same challenges nations faced in resource management and cooperation at the beginning of the 1900s—things such as cooperation agreements and tragedy of the commons—cycle through the emerging era of environmental politics, the 1970s, and today (Hardin 1968; Raustiala and Victor 1996; Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2004).

Nations face challenges in resource management and cooperation. This occurred in the beginning of the 1900s in state commitment to soft and hard agreements. In either case defection occurs, regardless of the level of formal binding at the state level. Studying cooperation and compliance are crucial and yet-debated themes in international relations that permeate subfields, especially environmental politics (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2004). Additionally, the role of developed and Western states continues to remain disproportionate to population and size. Developed states, especially among the United Nations and European Union, have greater potential to cheat in a commons dilemma, but they are often the states pitted against each other in determining who must bear the brunt on leadership and transaction costs (Young 1998).

Despite an incomplete domestic consensus, businesses, states, and even regimes accept environmental challenges as a given when forming policies and negotiating burdens (Young 1998). This has the potential to positively affect policy formation and keep the ‘undetermined’ states from holding back progress or spoiling current efforts in regime formation (Hardin 1968).

The scholars focusing on the future of the environment focus on a return to recognizing the conception of life having intrinsic value. Biodiversity will play a key role in the future of state and individual relationships with nature (Raustiala and Victor 1996). Without humanity’s constraint, we may feel the effects of a loss of biodiversity relatively soon. The effects will only become exacerbated after that loss. While a threat of species loss does tend to trigger concern and calls for constrained behavior, there is uncertainty about whether this is an appeal to an intrinsic recognition of nature’s value. I believe the future of environmental politics links heavily to the behavior of business from the Eco-Capitalism theme. We are seeing an increase of semi-soft power, economics, in directing international relations and institution creation and compliance. Perhaps these business models can begin to reflect the importance of biodiversity and intrinsic value of life (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2004).

Connections among Themes


Through the four themes of literature, I see clear assumption lines drawn between Man’s Relationship with Nature and The Future of the Environment. The first assumption rises from the development of mainstream environmentalism. Eco-Capitalism tends to be more optimistic about how we have reached where we are—while there are significant challenges for sustainability in our consumerist mindsets and contemporary practices for achieving satisfaction, there is a general level of optimism about our ability to use capitalism as a mechanism for redirecting counterproductive ecological practices. Man’s Relationship with Nature literature, on the other hand, is rather disparaging of the environmental policy and activism of the 1960s and 70s.

While some authors address the debt we owe to the efforts and struggles of these early policymakers (Guha 2000; Lovins and Cohen 2011; Porter, Brown, and Chasek 2000; Sand 2001), others largely attribute our lack of significant progress today to the unwillingness to compromise on carbon and consumption policies (Mies and Shiva 1993; Downes Rocke, and Barsoom 1998; Hardin 1968; Raustiala and Victor 1996). While determinedness and stubbornness were valuable traits for these trailblazers, it seems that by being unable to tolerate a partial loss, they were unable to gain partial wins. However, regardless of the framing used to portray environmentalism in the 1970s, we are more aware of diversity and ecosystems today.

A second assumption that the subfields draw from varies in importance depending on the theme. This assumption is this the significance of cognitive dissonance; when do we as humans separate ourselves from ‘the environmental problem,’ and to what degree do we do so? The answer to this question shapes how we consider our current environmental situation (is it a crisis or not), and how does the environmental politics field organize itself in response to this crisis?

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