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

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).

Future Research

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.

‘State of the Field’ Environmental Politics Review

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?

‘State of the Field’ Environmental Politics Review

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

Sustainability Through Eco-Capitalism

This rapidly emerging subfield addresses the belief that companies can be founded on sets of business ethics, not just profits. This challenges the assumption that business ethics in a mission statement can be more than ‘afterthought ethics,’ statements that are tacked on to a business to make it appear more sustainable (Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Humes 2010). The question is raised of ‘can businesses be truly eco-ethical and sustainable intuitions?’ Are businesses fated to always hold tension between their moral stances and business missions? In other words, is sustainability antithetical to making a profit (Dauvergene and Listor 2013; Schor 1999)?

Eco-capitalism, also referred to as ‘green consumerism’ is the first step to developing a different mindset on buying and money allocation. Businesses practicing eco-capitalism and sustainable manufacturing affect consumer’s purchasing power by directing it away from wasteful materials or packaging, or products with a short life (Schor 1999; Wackernagel and Rees 1996). Unfortunately, while consumers may purchase used items, or items repaired or designed to have a long product life (such as Patagonia products), they are still entrenched in a consumer pattern. Redirecting purchasing patterns only goes so far—eco-capitalism must address broader patterns of purchase and materialism.

Many of the companies discussed appear to find company sustainability culture to rest on the leadership of the businesses’ early CEOS. Humes in particular analyzes the way a CEO’s individual growth and development can later shape business culture, even after the individual leaves the position (2010). A critical focus for later eco-capitalism works is the potential and durability of leadership ethics to persist in a business after the individuals leave the company. Moreover, is it possible for an econbusiness to arise without an individual champion, or a small group of founders? Is it possible for a focus on sustainability to arise organically within an existing company culture? So far, scholars suggest not (Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Dauvergene and Lister 2013; Humes 2010).

A further question we must ask is how can consumers keep their eyes open for false ecobusinesses—those who tack unregulated sustainability claims on products for profit’s sake? Some scholars find this duplicity a real threat to the emergence of eco-sustainability as a climate change dampener (Dauvergene and Lister 2013). Others believe that there will be greater regulation in the long term, in both material product and ‘experience’ purchases (Holden 2016). This connects to the discussion on the growing political power of businesses.

Most scholars recognize the growing power of industries, interest groups, and businesses in shaping trends and tastes. Most authors agree on the growing potential of ecobusinesses to sway both consumer preferences and politics; however, they vary on whether this swaying power is good or bad. Those to consider eco-capitalism as a tool to reshape consumer preferences in a more sustainable manner find this growth of influence a definite boon (Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Dauvergene and Lister 2013). Conversely, those who see businesses are more profit driven, who will use ecobusiness tactics and labels to simply sway a consumer base, will find the influence of businesses to hold distinct dangers (Schor 1999; Humes 2010). Schor also tends to look at the wealthy individuals who head businesses, rather than the comprehensive business. This recognizes the influence leadershiphas in engaging in controversial decisions, such as engagement and conservation in Chile (1999; Humes 2010).

Ultimately, there is a clear political trend in the way businesses engage with consumers, shareholders, stakeholders, and the environment they conduct businesses in (Dauvergene and Lister 2013). Businesses have clear strengths and sway in a consumer society, and those who attempt to manipulate the ecobusiness signals indicate there is value behind these signals in attracting consumers. Businesses see value in emphasizing their sustainability, whether they are actual or supposed (Dauvergene and Lister 2013).

‘State of the Field’ Environmental Politics Review

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

International Environmental Politics

Once the environment has been politicized states begin to stake claims, claiming resources and pushing responsibilities. Much of the current framing of environmental politics on the global stage is deeply rooted in our concept of state sovereignty. Sovereignty necessitates control over territory and natural resources, requirements entrenched in our conception of society and state. Proposed solutions to problems of the commons and resource use fit within this sovereignty mindset (Young 1998; Steinberg 1997; Sand 2001; Carothers 2011; Heininen 2010; Nadelmann 1990). Sand, in particular, illustrates the development and prevalence of this state-centered mindset over the past ten years (2011). The division of success between hard agreements—those that are formally binding—and soft agreements—those that suggest without enforcers—is significant. Many pollution policies, such as the Kyoto Protocol, result in widespread agreement, but not necessarily widespread compliance.

A prime example of state decision making being pigeonholed to the most developed states appears in Arctic environmental politics. Arctic resources are nestled outside state territories, with the exception of the Bering Sea divide. Additionally, the global implications of environmental segregation and melting of the Arctic ice affect the global community. Despite the global effects, responsibility—and thus, opportunity—has been sized by the ‘big five’ Arctic nations (Russia, United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark). This serves as an extension of the Politicization of the Environment subfield, where developed states have both higher expectations of global commitment and norm-compliant behavior, but also greater control in decision making (Nadelmann 1990; Downs, Rocke, and Barsoom 1998; Young 1998; Rabe 2000).

I also see connections to the Man-Nature Relationship norm through its assumptions that man holds stewardship over the environment. This norm has become incredibly pervasive in the Western world (Downs, Rocke, and Barsoom 1998; Rosenbaum 2000; Vogel 2000). Yet we must remember that with responsibility, action must be taken multilaterally. There is increasing recognition that while several powerful green states can shape environmental policy direction, one state alone cannot change environmental norms (Sand 2001). This appears to be built on a sense of what is a acceptable to global norms rather than being built on a sense of pragmatism. Ultimately, the reality is a strong liberal-Western lead in international environmental norm creation and policy implementation.

Currently there is an integration of indigenous peoples as both stakeholders and decision makers in global environmental politics. This is moving to address a gap wherein nonstate forces are overlooked as environmental stakeholders. Carothers and Heininen recognize that while indigenous groups have little domestic power, unless they cooperate with the state and ‘take what they can get’ they have little more than swaying or suggestive power (2010; Young 1998). As permanent observers of various institutions, indigenous groups’ capabilities and powers are not shown or discussed. A greater understanding of nonstate groups’ roles in decision making is needed to get a fuller picture of the Arctic. Simultaneously, indigenous group importance goes beyond the Arctic. Many developing states have significant challenges in indigenous rights and development that will need to address to create environmentally and politically sustainable policies (Holden 2016). The conception of environmental politics here is certainly portrayed less of a crisis of biosphere as a crisis of cooperation. Given the non-urgency of soft issues, the authors tend to portray the international community’s path as that of gradual change.

‘State of the Field’ Environmental Politics Review

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

The Politicization of the Environment

From a relationship between humankind and nature, I move to the politicization of the natural environment. The two subfields link well through the common themes of subjugation and management. Despite the authors’ desires to implement a benevolent management, a consensus among the global community is required to implement effective change. Noncompliance from even a few members—indeed, even one extremely noncompliant member—results in failure to achieve goals of sustainability and lowered pollution. Subjugation appears in two realms: the continued notion that humans must regulate the environment, and the implications that developing states are subject to the international policy preferences of developed states (O’Riordan and Jordan 1995; San 2001).

The challenge with consensus is that it is difficult. Whole volumes of literature have been dedicated to the challenges states face in facilitating cooperation and coordinating actions. Cooperation issues can occur among a group of states or at a sub-national level. Issues that struggle with cooperation and consensus at the international level include public policy, the precautionary principle, and carbon credits (Guha 2000, Chaturvedi 2000; Steinberg 1997; Lovins and Cohen 2011). National level consensus is challenged through determining EPA policy and capabilities, implementing product and business regulations, and runoff politics (Guha 2000; Rosenbaum 2000). Sub-national issues facing consensus challenges include how to construct the inclusion of science in policy and finding consensus on the legitimacy of conservation and climate change (Chaturvedi 2000; Gua 2000).

Another theme consistent through this subfield is the recognition that both our current political conceptions of nature and systems we use to manage our relationship with the environment must be altered to create a more sustainable form of environmental politics. Most scholars of this subfield do not believe we need a significant upheaval in our politicization of the environment (Porter, Brown, and Chasek 2000; Rosenbaum 2000; Lovins and Cohen 2011; O’Riordan and Jordan 1995). As we move into the subfield of Eco-Capitalism we will deeper calls for change, yet this is directed toward a change of habits, rather than political framing or organization. Other scholars from the Future of Environmentalism field have a deeper focus on changing societies assumptions and mindsets about the state-environment relationship, yet these authors tend toward ‘realistic’ (i.e. manageable) strategies.

This subfield offers a question of cultural influence. How do the authors, especially those in environmental anthologies) focus on different environmental aspects given the environmental and social assumptions of their background? Immediately we see non-Western authors in Chaturvedi and Guha’s anthologies tend to focus on the non-Western roots of nature/spiritual connections and nature/gender connections (2000; 2000). Moreover, the view of economic management of the environment has Western European roots. This especially is the case when we examine two realms of environmental management: carbon regulation systems and Arctic management (O’Riordan and Jordan 1995; Young 1998; Nuttall 2000; Heininen and Southcott 2010). Both realms have seen developed, Western states direct the course of resource and environmental management, and seldom veer from the assumption that these states are the most capable of directing policy.

O’Riordan and Jordan do not emphasize a political North-South subjugation, following the model of Sand (2001). Yet this assumption is implied in who they consider as primary participants in crafting carbon credit agreements. Moreover, they point to the connection between policy contribution and verbal criticism. States that participated the most in credit policy formation had fewer criticisms on burden distribution at the implementation stage—and developing states most frequently brought forward criticisms (1995).

‘The duty of all,’ is a mindset often adopted on global-level environmental politics, but there is a strong focus on the terms of environmental politicization being set by developing countries. While there is still discussion on developing state critiques, it is considered their duty to still contribute despite objections (Jasanoff 1996; O’Riordan and Jordan 1995; Porter, Brown, and Chasek 2000; Rosenbaum 2000; Guha 2000). A significant gap in this literature is the failure to address the inherent unsustainability of politics based the concept of a ‘duty of all, designed by some.’