On April 22nd, 1992, Bill Clinton was at Drexel University. It was Earth Day, and with the 1992 US presidential campaign in full swing, Clinton took the opportunity to outline his vision for new environmental politics.
‘In today’s economy,’ Clinton said, ‘there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between growth and environmental protection because we have the tools and the need to choose both.’
For Clinton, the fundamental ‘tool’ of this new environmental politics was the market, not what he calls the “command and control” regulatory approaches that told firms what to do.
He saw the market as the source for new forms of green growth and ecologically sound development.
As Clinton made clear, it was ‘... time for a new era in environmental protection, which uses the market to help us get our environment back on track — to recognize that Adam Smith’s invisible hand can have a green thumb’. For Clinton such an approach offered a resolution to the ‘jobs v environment’ debate (White, 1996). As Clinton concluded in his typical pithy fashion: ‘You don’t have to sacrifice environmental protection to promote economic growth. Sustainable development is more than a slogan.’
Clinton’s speech reflected the emergence of what Steven Bernstein (2001) has described as ‘liberal environmentalism’— an approach to environmental governance that seeks to secure environmental protection and economic growth through maintenance and extension of international liberal political and economic relations.
‘Liberal environmentalism’ is premised fundamentally on the belief that the key ‘principles’ of neo/liberalism— individual freedom, free markets, private property rights, and a State whose role is defined in terms of protecting these rights — provide the means through which to both regulate environmental protection and facilitate economic growth. For its advocates, ‘liberal environmentalism’ is a win-win strategy.
In some ways, the consolidation of ‘liberal environmental’ ideologies in the early 1990s spoke to a belief in Fukuyama’s controversial argument that the end of the Cold War had signalled ‘the end of history…’The end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’. (1989) Or, as the quote, variously attributed to Jameson and Zizek, goes, ‘it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism’. That argument is easily exaggerated, but the extent to which the norms of ‘liberal environmentalism’ have underpinned environmental governance at both the national and international level since the 1990s is remarkable.
From the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to recent efforts to value and establish markets for a range of ecosystem services (Robertson 2012; Dempsey 2014) and to attempts to regulate common pool resources such as fisheries (Mansfield 2004), ‘liberal environmentalism’ has undergirded the ways in which global environmental problems are understood and addressed for the last three decades.
For Steven Bernstein (2001), ‘liberal environmentalism’ embodies a compromise between the need for environmental protection and liberal capitalist imperatives for continued economic growth and expansion. In this sense, ‘liberal environmentalism’ marks a significant departure from the ‘Small is Beautiful’ style of environmental politics and ethics— what Leigh Philips (2015) calls ‘ecological austerity’— that developed in the Global North over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, as Clinton’s speech makes clear, the consolidation of liberal environmentalism in the early 1990s was largely a reaction against the ‘limits to growth’ discourses that characterised much of the environmental politics that came out of the crises of the 1960s and 1970s.
Associated with the texts like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Kenneth Galbraith’s The Economics of the Coming Spaceship (1966), Barbara Ward’s Spaceship Earth (1966), Herman Daly’s Steady State Economics (1977), Ernst F. Schumacker’s Small is Beautiful (1973), and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972), this environmentalism saw limits as ‘a problem of both scarcity and excess: scarcity, on the one hand, of energy supplies, and excess on the other of uncontrollable environmental externalities, namely pollution and spectacular disasters’ (Nelson 2015: 466).
Frequently shot through with Malthusian racial anxieties regarding population growth (see in particular Paul and Anne Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968)), this environmentalism was often operationalised through a critique of affluence (Huber, 2018). During the post-war boom the industrial societies of the Global North had, so the argument went, been living high on the hog.
The affluence and culture of consumption enabled by the unprecedented post-War economic growth in North America, Europe, and Japan had resulted in human resource use overshooting the Earth’s natural limits. Combined with population growth in what was then called the Third World, such affluence seemed destined to result in global ecological and social collapse. As the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth put it in 1972, if the global political economic system was to be maintained and sustained, ‘…man must…take account of the limited dimensions of his planet’. (191)
It was with the aim of taking these limitations into account that the 1972 United Nations Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm was organised. Chaired by Canadian diplomat and former “oil man” Maurice Strong, the Stockholm Conference was a watershed moment in the history of international environmental governance. Bringing together representatives from 113 states, 19 intergovernmental agencies and about 400 NGOs in a parallel Environment Forum, it was one of the first international efforts to articulate an explicitly and self-consciously ‘global’ response to what the Limits to Growth report termed the “world problematique”. (A notable absence was the USSR, which had boycotted the event in protest over East Germany being excluded).
It was also at the 1972 Stockholm Conference that the origins of the ‘compromise of liberal environmentalism’ can be found (Bernstein 2001). The conference was characterised by a significant tension between representatives from the North, concerned primarily with conservation , resource scarcity, and pollution abatement, and Southern representatives concerned with the inequality of the international economic order, poverty, and economic growth. As Iris Borowy (2014) notes, many in the Global South interpreted the environmentalism typified in studies like Limits to Growth as an argument against their industrial and economic development.
Both in the lead up to and during the Stockholm Conference, representatives from the Global South pushed back against the Northern narrow interpretation of overconsumption and overshoot (Mickelson, 2015). In the South, the argument went, environmental problems were of a different kind. They were not wrought by industrialisation, but poverty.
As Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, asked of the Conference attendees: ‘Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? ...The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty. Nor can poverty be eradicated without the use of science and technology.’ (quoted in Mickelson 2015: 116)
The 1972 Conference was thus characterised by confrontation between two fundamentally different perspectives on development and the environment. The first emerged from broadly understood ‘Northern’ environmentalism motivated by the need for pollution control, ecological conservation, and the ‘small is beautiful’ environmental ethic that sought to develop human society within the limits of ‘Spaceship Earth’. The second came from a newly post-colonial, non-aligned Global South that sought to secure environmental and economic justice through poverty eradication, industrialisation, and the struggle for a new international economic order.
As Bernstein notes, it was ‘[f]rom this confrontation, [that] new thinking developed that attempted to link environment and development into a single framework…’ (2001: 29).
In the wake of the Stockholm Conference, efforts to integrate environmental and development thinking took diverging paths which corresponded very roughly with the Northern and Southern perspectives at the conference. As Bernstein notes, in the North these efforts were oriented toward developing guidelines and economic mechanisms through which to ‘internalise the externalities’ (ex. the Polluter Pays Principle and the development of tradable pollution permits).
In the South, efforts were directed at formulating a vision for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and the preparation of what became the Cocoyoc Declaration (1974). Both the NIEO and the Cocoyoc Declaration called for a radical re-organisation of the global political economic order. The NIEO was a set of proposals that were developed over the course of the 1970s during what Mickelson describes as a period ‘…of Southern optimism regarding the possibility of bringing about fundamental change in the international system’ (2015: 119). Influenced by theories of dependency and neo-colonialism, the NIEO called for a radical re-organisation of the international system based on ‘equitable distribution of world industrial production, a restructuring of international markets, increased financial support, and the establishment of new international governance structures’ (Mickelson 2015: 120).
The Cocoyoc Declaration set out similar goals. The Declaration was the product of the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Symposium on Patterns of Resource Use, Environment, and Development Strategies. Held in Cocoyoc, Mexico in 1974, amidst the global energy crisis and economic recession, the Symposium brought together an international group of economists, natural scientists and social scientists to discuss historic patterns of resource use, development strategies, environment, and the contemporary crisis. These discussions set out a radical vision of development that not only challenged the structure of the international political economic order, and primacy of ‘the market’, but also called into question conventional understandings of what development meant. As the Declaration noted:
‘We believe that thirty years of experience with the hope that rapid economic growth benefiting the few will ‘‘trickle down’’ to the mass of the people has proved to be illusory. We therefore reject the idea of ‘‘growth first, justice in the distribution of benefits later’… ‘We reject the unilinear view which sees development essentially and inevitably as the effort to initiate the historical model of the countries that for various reasons happen to be rich today’ (1981: 113-114).
At the same time the Declaration sought to recast concerns over environmental limits in terms of international economic inequality. In doing so, it advocated for a mode of global environmental and economic management based on the principles of resource sovereignty, self-reliance, and cooperation, and redistribution (UNEP, 1981).
In the early 1980s the United Nations Environment Program would again take up the problematique of environment and development through the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), better known as the Brundtland Commission.
Chaired by Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Commission’s final report Our Common Future, and in particular its approach to ‘sustainable development’, was to play a major role in the consolidation of ‘liberal environmentalist’ approaches.
While the term sustainable development had been in use in the late 1970s, the publication of Our Common Future in 1987 catapulted it into public consciousness. The Commission’s definition of the concept—'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’—remains one of the most influential.
The Brundtland Commission’s articulation of ‘Sustainable development’ cemented the linkages between environment and development. It was through the concept of sustainable development that Our Common Future sought to build on the insights and considerations of the NIEO and the Cocoyoc Declaration. But it was also through the concept of sustainable development that Our Common Future would strip them of much of their radical content. Indeed, while the NIEO proposals and the Cocoyoc Declaration challenged the norms and structures of the international political economic order, offered substantial critiques of the conventional approaches of ‘growth and development’, and called for the redistribution of resources and global wealth, Our Common Future’s intervention was far tamer.
Working against the backdrop of the spiralling Latin American debt crisis and the IMF and World Bank mandated structural adjustment programs, the Commission did echo the NIEO’s and Cocoyoc Declaration’s calls for ‘vigorous redistribution policies’ and more equitable financial and trade relations; however, it saw a revival of sustained economic growth as the solution to interlocked issues of environment and development. ‘What is needed now’ the Commission suggested ‘is a new era of economic growth—growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable’ (WCED 1987: 7). Its vision of what this growth would look like was squarely tethered to the imperatives of liberal capitalism: growth and trade liberalisation. In sketching out a vision of ‘sustainable development’ as a sort of ‘Green Keynesian bargain’ that incorporated elements of ‘command and control’ style regulation with market-based/economic incentives, the Brundtland Commission rejected the idea that environmental protection and liberalised economic development were at odds (Paterson 2008). Rather, the Commission argued that the two were not only complementary, but necessary for each other.
By integrating economics and environment in decision-making in this way, the Brundtland Commission had ‘legitimated a trend toward liberal environmentalism’ (Bernstein 2001: 69). Indeed, over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, sustainable development was incorporated as a fundamental organising concept for an emerging ‘liberal environmentalism’. As Bernstein notes the Brundtland Commission ‘…acted as a catalyst for a series of initiatives and research projects by those who wanted to develop the means to link what they saw as sound economic thinking with environmental protection’ (2001: 74).
The World Bank’s 1992 World Development Report offers a good example of how this was done. In it, the World Bank argued that market liberalisation could provide a ‘win-win’ strategy in which economic growth and environmental sustainability could be achieved simultaneously. Concluding that ‘Market-based instruments are best in principle and often in practice,’ to change environmentally damaging behaviour, the Bank proposed a ‘sustained development’ program which would involve ‘removing subsidies that encourage excessive use of fossil fuels, irrigation water, and pesticides and excessive logging’ and ‘clarifying rights to manage and own land, forests, and fisheries’ (quoted in Bernstein 2001: 76).
Two months after his Earth Day speech at Drexel University, Clinton’s vision of a new era in environmental politics would be echoed in the Rio Declaration, one of the primary documents to emerge from the historic 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro. Organised around the concept of sustainable development, the Rio Declaration, like Clinton’s speech, outlined an approach to global environmental governance that sought to reconcile environmental protection and economic growth through the institutions of the liberal capitalist state and markets. As Principle 12 of the Rio Declaration noted: ‘States should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to economic growth and sustainable development in all countries, to better address the problems of environmental degradation.’
By the 1990s, then, the core elements of ‘liberal environmentalism’ had been consolidated into the concept of ‘sustainable development’: environmental protection and neoliberal economic development could go hand in hand. ‘Liberal environmentalism’ is still very much with us. It undergirds many of our approaches to the environmental and climate crises that we currently face. From our 2020 vantage point, hindsight tells us that the entrenchment of liberal environmentalism over the 1970s, ‘80s, and ’90s shut out other possible paths that might have radically reorganised global socioecological and political-economic relations.
Our task today is to keep Fukuyama’s prediction of the end of history from being a foregone conclusion: there are alternatives. The brief intellectual history that I outline above indicates that the tenets of liberal environmentalism served to foreclose the possibility of radical alternatives over the past five decades. Confronting this history might help us to imagine – or indeed re-discover – new, alternative futures.
Bernstein, Steven. The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
Borowy, Iris. Defining Sustainable Development for Our Common Future: A History of the the World Commission on Environement and Development (Brundtland Commission). (New York: Routledge, 2014).
Collard, R.C., J. Dempsey, and J..K. Rowe. Neoliberal environments. In K Birch, J. MacLeavy, and S. Springer (eds.)The handbook of neoliberalism (London and New York: Routledge, 2016): 468-479.
Dempsey, Jess. Enterprising Nature: Economics, Markets, and Finance in Global Biodiversity Politics. Wiley, Blackwell: Oxford, 2014.
Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History? The National Interest (Summer 1989).
Huber, Matt T. Ecological politics for the working class. Catalyst 3,1 (2019): 7-46.
Mansfield, Becky. Neoliberalism in the oceans: rationalization, property rights, and the commons question. Geoforum 35, 3 (2004): 313–326.
Mickelson, Karen. The Stockholm Conference and the creation of the South–North divide in International Environmental Law and Policy. In S. Alam, S. Atapattu, C. G. Gonzalez, and J. Razzaque (eds.) International Environmental Law and the Global South. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 109-129.
Nelson, Sara. Beyond The Limits to Growth: Ecology and the neoliberal counterrevolution. Antipode 47, 2 (2015): 461-480.
Paterson, Mathew. Global governance for sustainable capitalism? In N. Adger and A. Jordan (eds.) Governing sustainability (London: Cambridge University Press, 2008):99-122.
Phillips, Leigh. Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts (London: Zero Books, 2015).
Robertson, Morgan. Measurement and alienation: making a world of eco-system services. Transactions o the Institute for British Geographers 37(2012): 386–401.
UNEP. In Defence of the Earth: The Basic Texts on Environment. (Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, 1981).
WCED. Our Common Future. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987).
White, Richard. Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living? Work and nature. in W. Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996): 171–186.