Environmentalism explained (part 1)

August 16, 2010

By David L. Levy

I was asked recently to write a short essay on environmentalism to be published in a book on ‘Key Concepts in Critical Management Studies’ to be published by Sage later in 2010. I hope it’s useful for those who want a little bit of history and critical understanding of environmentalist as a concept and a movement. It’s not directly about climate change, but my thinking about climate change is certainly influenced by these frameworks. The references should also prove useful to anyone who wants to follow up further. A bit academic in terms of style, but accessible, nonetheless!

Environmentalism refers to a social movement and associated body of thought that expresses concern for the state of the natural environment and seeks to limit the impact of human activities on the environment.

Environmentalism has grown out of concerns that the natural environment and human health are adversely affected by the rapid growth of urbanization, industrialization, population and consumption in the modern era. These processes are associated with loss of natural habitats and endangerment of species, land degradation, natural resource depletion, and pollution of air, land, and water due to waste products. Environmental concerns have shifted over time and vary by location (Guha, 2000). Urbanization and industrialization created expressions of environmentalism directed toward urban effluent and hazardous factory wastes. Wilderness conservation and species protection have played a key role in the United States, through the national parks system and private land trusts.

North American environmentalism has traditionally highlighted the intrinsic, experiential, and recreational value of nature for humans. In Europe, where high population density and industrialization largely preceded the rise of environmentalism, efforts have focused more on managing industrial pollution and waste, protecting human health from toxics and nuclear risks, and energy efficiency. More recently, attention has shifted to transboundary regional and global issues such as acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change. In developing countries, priority has been given to desertification, water resources, soil erosion and degradation.

Economists regard environmental pollution and resource depletion as negative externalities, costs that are imposed on society and not taken into account by private firms in their decision making. The ability of firms to externalize environmental costs while appropriating profits from production generates incentives for firms to overproduce goods with harmful environmental impacts and under-invest in measures to reduce these impacts (Stavins, 1989). The standard economic solution is to force firms to internalize the environmental costs by taxing environmentally harmful products or processes, enabling legal processes for damages, or direct regulation (Portney, 2000).  

It is therefore not surprising that business has traditionally viewed environmental concerns as a threat to profitability and managerial autonomy. Business has generally opposed new environmental regulations and the establishment of regulatory authorities, frequently contesting the scientific basis for understanding harmful impacts and pointing to high compliance costs.

The wave of environmental activism in the 1960s and 1970s, originating with the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, led to the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and similar agencies in other countries. Business acquiesced partly to assuage key stakeholders, including consumers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies, and partly because federal regulation would preempt an expensive patchwork of varied and sometimes stricter state laws.

Business opposition to environmental regulation grew during subsequent decades as standards became more extensive and stringent. Business perceived that environmental risks were not balanced against compliance costs, and that direct regulation was an inefficient and blunt tool to address environmental concerns. During the 1990s, regulatory authorities began to experiment with market-based measures, such as the trading system for SO2, and industries launched self-regulation initiatives such as the US chemical industry’s Responsible Care program. Business, NGOs, and governmental agencies experimented with partnerships and voluntary agreements as part of the increasingly complex field of societal environmental governance (Prakash & Potoski, 2006). The decade also saw the rise of a “win-win” discourse of corporate environmentalism that framed environmental and economic goals as potentially complementary, and the emergence of environmental management as an academic field (Hoffman & Ventresca, 2002).

Paradigms of Environmentalism

Egri and Pinfield (1996), in a review of the literature on organization theory and the environment, identify three paradigms for understanding the relationship between environment, society, and economy. The dominant social paradigm is anthropocentric and neoliberal, encompassing assumptions that human welfare is aligned with the maximization of economic growth, personal consumption, and corporate pursuit of profits. Unlimited economic growth is assumed to flow from exploiting infinite natural resources, technological innovation, the primacy of markets, and a minimal role for government. The environment, in this paradigm, is regarded as an instrumental economic input, perhaps a constraint, but its sole purpose is the generation of economic value for humans.

Radical environmentalism, by contrast, is biocentric, emphasizing the intrinsic value of nature and the dependence of human economic and social life within larger dynamic ecosystems. In this paradigm, environmentalism derives less from concerns about resource depletion or harmful toxics, but more from respect for other species and appreciation of the interconnected complexity and fragility of ecosystems. Various schools of radical environmentalism have different points of departure (Merchant, 1992). Neo-Marxist variants emphasize production for profit under capitalism and the political power of corporate elites (Pepper, 1993). Deep ecologists also critique modern industrialism but focus on cultural and normative anthropocentrism, in which humankind is distinct from and superior to nature, entitled to control and subdue it (Naess, 1989).

These “red-green” debates raise significant theoretical issues. Neo-Marxists accuse deep ecologists of lacking an analysis of class and power, and view the cultural infatuation with consumption and technology as part of the ideological superstructure of capitalism. Deep ecologists accuse neo-Marxists of harboring modernist anthropocentric ambitions to harness nature for human benefit. Neo-Marxists reply that ecocentrism is both undesirable in its potential for misanthropism and misguided in its efforts to assign intrinsic value and moral consideration to nature. Ecofeminists share this critique of anthropocentrism but point to patriarchy as the ideological underpinning of the construction of nature as feminine and its subjugation by industry, technology, and the military (Salleh, 1992).

(continued in part 2, which looks at corporate environmentalism, an expression of ‘reform environmentalism’)

One Response to “Environmentalism explained (part 1)”

  1. Incredible introduction to environmentalism, gives a great overview using sophisticated language however still remains relatable and understandable.