Information and (random) thoughts on environmental governance
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Environmentalism explained

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By David L. Levy / Climate Inc.

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).

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.


Egri, C. P., & Pinfield, L. 1996. Organizations and the biosphere: ecologies and environments. In S. R. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of organization studies. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Gladwin, T. N., Kennelly, J. J., & Krause, T.-S. 1995. Shifting paradigms for sustainable development: Implications for management theory and research. Academy of Management Review, 20(4): 874-907.

Guha, R. 2000. Environmentalism: A global history. New York: Longman.

Hajer, M. A. 1995. The politics of environmental discourse: ecological modernization and the policy process. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hoffman, A. J., & Ventresca, M. J. 2002. Organizations, policy and the natural environment : institutional and strategic perspectives. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Levy, D. L. 1997. Environmental management as political sustainability. Organization and Environment, 10(2): 126-147.

Merchant, C. 1992. Radical ecology. New York: Routledge.

Naess, A. 1989. Ecology, community, and lifestyle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pepper, D. 1993. Eco-socialism. London: Routledge.

Portney, P. S., Robert N.  . 2000. Public policies for environmental protection. Washington DC: RFF Press.

Prakash, A., & Potoski, M. 2006. The Voluntary Environmentalists: Green Clubs, ISO 14001, and Voluntary Environmental Regulations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Salleh, A. 1992. The ecofeminism/deep ecology debate: a reply to patriarchal reason. Environmental Ethics, 14: 195-216.


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