Environmentalism explained (part 2)

September 5, 2010

Here is part 2, continued from the last post. This part focuses on corporate, or reform environmentalism. Apologies for the academic style, but it’s all part of the job!

Reform environmentalism, a third paradigm, is a more pragmatic approach that recognizes the limits of natural systems and attempts to address them within the parameters of the existing order. Reform environmentalism has roots in various theoretical traditions, including systems theory, which emphasizes the interdependence of the economy and the environment, and the stakeholder perspective, which points to corporate obligations toward, and dependence on, groups other than shareholders, including consumers, the community, and government. Axiomatic for reform environmentalism is the reconciliation of environmental and economic goals, expressed in the concept of “sustainable development,”defined by the Brundtland Commission as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Ecological modernization, or eco-modernism (Hajer, 1995) is an optimistic expression of reform environmentalism that places considerable faith in technology, entrepreneurship, and markets in the efficient use of environmental resources and the pursuit of sustainable development. Rather than view economic growth as the source of negative environmental externalities, it posits that growth enables the investment to address environmental issues, giving the Kuznets bell-curve relationship between pollution and national income. Simultaneously, growth and modernization lower population pressures on the environment.

Environmental Management

Ecological modernization theory has provided fertile ground for the rapid growth since the mid-1990s of environmental management as an academic field and as managerial practice. Gladwin, Kennelly, and Krause (1995), for example, proposed a “sustaincentric” synthesis of traditional and ecocentric paradigms, which would privilege humans as intelligent stewards of the environment, embraces innovation, and offers a managerialist approach to prevent business activity from exceeding ecosystem constraints. Environmental management proponents argue that successful firms proactively seek profitable “win-win” opportunities to reduce pollution or develop new green product markets. Environmental management is held to offer the prospect of lower costs for energy, materials, waste disposal, and litigation, and the potential for higher sales stemming from green product differentiation.

Implicit in the field of environmental management are a number of ideological assumptions that are rarely articulated and problematic (Levy, 1997). One is that the environment can and should be managed at industrial scale, a second is that win-win opportunities give corporate managers the financial motivation to do so, a third is that corporations are the best equipped societal organizations, in their possession of financial and technical resources, to accomplish this task, and a fourth is that existing disciplines of management are readily adaptable to the cause. A larger question is whether  environmental management efforts at the level of individual firms addresses sustainability efforts at the macro-level of the economy-ecosystem interface.

Hajer (1997: 34) asks whether ecological modernization is “the first step on a bridge that leads towards a new sort of sustainable modern society” or whether it is a “rhetorical ploy that tries to reconcile the irreconcilable [environment and development] only to take the wind out of the sails of ‘real’ environmentalists.” Ecological modernization and environmental management can better be understood as a Gramscian accommodation between business and environmental concerns, in which environmentalist pressures are assimilated with modest adjustments to the economic systems. It is not empty rhetoric, or “greenwash”, as it demands a degree of compromise and practical steps to address more egregious environmental harms, especially those that threaten the resource base and political legitimacy of capitalist production. In mobilizing the language and practices of environmentalism, leading business sectors can sustain their hegemonic position, construct alliances with key environmental groups in civil society, and marginalize radical environmentalists calling for deeper structural and cultural transformation in the social and economic order.


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