‘State of the Field’ Environmental Politics Review

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

Thematic Breakdown

Man’s Relationship with Nature

The writings of this theme are tied together by a conception of the interworking relationship between mankind and the world around him. Nature is considered not only nonhuman life, but also non-sentient life. Through the past several decades, primarily since the 1960s, there has been a changing notion about what is considered alive. Some more contemporary writings find agreement with earlier works that there is not—and should not be—a distinction or hierarchy between sentient and inanimate life forms (Mies and Shiva 1993; Nuttall 2000). This view regards all life as equally intrinsic in value and importance to biodiversity. This literature recognizes the challenges that come from establishing a flat value based system, rather than a hierarchy. This equal-footing theme tends to be most common in ecofeminism writings (Mies and Shiva 1993). Indeed, later writings tend to move away from this flat consideration as a development from an increase in trade-offs of well-being have been made. Most of mankind engaged in priority systems when given a choice between the life or well-being of a human and the life and well-being of an animal. The priority towards sentience is made even clearer when prioritizing animal over plant life.

Rather than building upon the non-distinction, much of the environmental literature following Mies and Shiva recognizes that man will tend to self-prioritize in the game of all living things. Consequently, efforts to frame the relationship between humans and nature have focused on the situation that while humans may shape nature at the top of earth’s hierarchy, they are still part of the system. They are not apart from the system, even if they consider themselves at the top. All forms of life are contained within our closed biosphere.

It is well worth noting that conceptions of humankind’s position at the top of the living hierarchy tend to be culturally rooted. On one hand, Western states and societies tend to develop management style environmental policies. Conceptions of hierarchy are therefore quite prominent in Europe and the United States (Sand 2001). There is a strong and continued sense of obligation among individual states and regimes. This sense of responsibility over nature is a cross-cutting theme among the several environmental subfields. In addition to having cultural roots, exogenous events can trigger the development and expansion of man-nature hierarchy and categorization. The rapid loss of forests in Eastern Asia has resulted in some states implementing strict logging limits and reforestation efforts (Dauvergne 1997). The melting of Arctic ice results in regime formation and emergency management teams (Young 1998).

The concept of culturally-rooted preference for hierarchy is taken further by Nuttall. Contrasting Western state and indigenous group interactions, he demonstrates support for the concept that a man-made nature hierarchy can be rooted in social values and cultural practices. Indigenous and state plans for the Arctic often differ greatly. Melting of northern ice in Alaska and Canada can have vastly different implications for state and industry oil collections and indigenous populations. Yet critics do state that indigenous connections to nature may not be intentionally sustainable, or at least more hierarchical than scholars have traditionally thought (Dove 2006). Dauvergne seems to challenge the notion that some societies may have greater inclination to prioritize themselves over nature, yet from an Eastern context. Within the timber industries in East Asia, it appears that Japanese society does not necessarily frame itself superior to nature, but instead forms a man-made hierarchy: patron-client relationships (1997). These relationships serve as the intermediary which uses nature (timber purchases) as a tool to fulfil human-to-human obligations of hierarchy.

The concept of stewardship is developed by Sand (2001). This also falls within the sense of hierarchy in nature. While stewardship contains obligations to protect and monitor nature, this does not challenge the sense of hierarchy, and even falls into its sphere. Stewardship suggests man has a responsibility to maintain nature—that it is incapable of self-correcting. It appears me must go back in time to find literature that expressly moves away from the hierarchy so prominent today. Mies and Shiva point to the need to move away from a hierarchy by claiming that second-tier citizens through history have consisted not only of animals and plants, but also women. Therefore, the idea of subjugation should be especially unappealing to at least half the human population. It is critical to note that this does not demonstrate moving forward toward equal footing among all forms of life, given it came earlier and the stance was not repeated. We must then ask: are we moving away from a sense of one-ness with nature, content to accept a ‘responsible hierarchy’?

Finally, as we examine the concept of man-nature hierarchy, there is a large state and regime level emphasis. Given Dauvergne, Wackernagel and Rees’ state and society level actions and policy, there is little emphasis on individual actions and responsibility (1997; 1996). Indeed, there is surprisingly little emphasis on for a sub-theme focusing on the man-nature relationship. This indicates there exists a broader conception of a ‘mankind-nature’ relationship.

‘State of the Field’ Environmental Politics Comparative Literature Review

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

Photo credit to the Center for Environmental Politics, University of Washington

Within an Introduction to Environmental Politics syllabus, one is likely to find a series of books and articles addressing the development of environmental policy and challenges over time, usually from the surge of activism in the 1960s to the present. Yet while these readings do an excellent job recapping the development of the field and drawing from a wide array of topics, they oftentimes lack an evaluation on their content. While informing, they fall short of an analysis of assumptions and development of specific themes as we move both chronologically though the environmental politics field and cross-cut through subfields.

With this in mind, I ask the reader to consider this review a ‘state of the field’ report on environmental politics. There are traditional ways scholars tend to look at ecology and the environment. In addition to addressing the features of each subfield of environmental politics, I place importance on the way the readings are organized. Given how we conceive the field and the assumptions we hold, how do we organize our thoughts at this time? Ultimately, how, where, and why are we experiencing an environmental crisis? Furthermore, how does the environmental politics field at this time organize our pathways of success in this crisis?

I believe the readings from this evaluation connect and converge on five main themes, each holding its own assumptions, strengths, and gaps.  These are Man’s Relationship with Nature, The Politicization of the Environment, International Environmental Politics, Sustainability through Eco-Capitalism, and the Future of the Environment. Some of the literature has cross-cutting themes, responding too and addressing other writings. Through this series, I will move through the major themes, showing the evolution of environmental political thought through major global events and the passage of time, providing an overview of the state of environmental politics as a field, the shared assumptions and changing mindsets. In particular, I focus on two general questions that address assumptions and mindsets: First, what is lacking from this particular subfield at the time in the way we consider our global environmental challenges? Second, who is moving to fulfill this gap, or who is framing a pathway of success?

The readings that will be addressed through this series are as follows:


  • Carothers, C. 2011. “Equity and Access to Fishing Rights: Exploring the Community Quota Program in the Gulf of Alaska.” Human Organization 70(3): 213-223.
  • Chaturvedi, Sanjay. 2000. “Arctic Geopolitics Then and Now.” In The Arctic: Environment, people, policies. M. Nuttall & T. Callaghan, Eds. Pp. 441-458.
  • Chouinard, Yvon, and Stanley, Vincent. 2012. The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years. Colombia: Deckle Edge.
  • Dauvergene, Peter. 1997. Shadows in the Forest: Japan and the Politics of Timber in Southeast Asia. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Dauvergne, Peter, and Lister, Jane. 2013. Econbusiness: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Dove, Michael R. 2006. “Indigenous People and Environmental Politics.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35:191-208.
  • Downs, George W, David M. Rocke, and Peter N. Barsoom. 1998. “Managing the Evolution of Multilateralism.” International Organization 52(2): 397-419.
  • Elgin, Duane. 2010. Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Guha, Ramachandra. 2000. Environmentalism: A Global History. New York: Longman.
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science (162):1243-124.
  • Heininen, Lassi., and Southcott, Chris. 2010. Globalization and the Circumpolar North. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
  • Holden, Andrew. 2016. Environment and Tourism. 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge.
  • Humes, Edward. 2010. Eco Barons: The New Heroes of Environmental Activism. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Jasanoff, S. “Is Science Socially Constructed – And Can It Still Inform Public Policy?” Science and Engineering Ethics 2(3):263-276 (1996).
  • Lovins, Hunter, and Cohen, Boyd. 2011. Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change. New York City: Hill and Wang.
  • Nadelmann, Ethan A. 1990. “Global Prohibition Regimes: the Evolution of Norms in International Society.” International Organization 44(4): 479-526.
  • Nuttall, Mark. 2000. “Indigenous Peoples, Self-determination and the Arctic Environment.” In The Arctic: Environment, people, policies. M. Nuttall & T. Callaghan, Eds. Pp. 377-409.
  • Mies, Maria, and Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Ecofeminism. New Jersey: Zed Books.
  • O’Riordan T, and Jordan, A. 1995. “The Precautionary Principle in Contemporary Environmental Politics.” Environmental Values (4):191-212.
  • Porter, Garth, Janet Welsh Brown, and Pamela S. Chasek. 2000. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Rabe, Barry. 2000. “Power to the States: The Promise and Pitfalls of Decentralization,” in Environmental Policy: New Directions for the 21st Century. 34-56.
  • Raustiala, Kal and David G. Victor. 1996. “Biodiversity Since Rio: The Future of the Convention on Biological Diversity.” Environment 38(4): 16-20.
  • Rosenbaum, Walter. 2000. “Improving Environmental Regulation at the EPA: The Challenge in Balancing Politics, Policy, and Science,” in Environmental Policy: New Directions for the 21st Century. 169-192.
  • Steinberg, Richard H. 1997. “Trade-Environment Negotiations in the EU, NAFTA, and WTO: Regional Trajectories of Rule Development.” The American Journal of International Law, Vol 91, 2: 231-267.
  • Sand, Peter. 2001. “A Century of Green Lessons: The Contribution of Nature Conservation Regimes to Global Governance.” International Environmental Agreements 1: 33-72
  • Schor, Juliet. 1999. “What’s Wrong with Consumer Society?: Competitive spending and the ‘New Consumerism,” in Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington: Island Press.
  • Shellenberger, M. and Nordhaus, T. 2004. “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.”
  • Vogel, David. 2000. “International Trade and Environmental Regulation,” in Environmental Policy: New Directions for the 21st Century. 354-373.
  • Wackernagel, Mathis, and Rees, Williams. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.
  • Young, Oran. 1998. Creating Regimes: Arctic Accords and International Governance. Ithica: Cornell University Press.


Arctic Security and Environmentalism

To provide an introduction for undergraduates and peers interested in learning more on the Arctic, I have created an overview of an issue developing in the Far North: the perceived tension between state security and commitment to sustainability.

As the Arctic ice melts and the Far North region opens, the Arctic states feel increasing pressure to expand, both to establish trade routes and ensure military security in this region. As security becomes a concern for states, their dialogue portrays security gains as mutually exclusive to sustainability commitment. Yet is this truly the case? After framing security v. environmentalism attitudes, I maintain that these two goals need not be in opposition, but instead environmental cooperation among Arctic states can mitigate tensions that come from military expansion.

The video can be viewed on YouTube through the following link (opens in a new tab):

Arctic Institutions: Security v. Environmentalism in the Far North