With my paper (essentially) finished and successfully defended, and my presentation at the Festival of Scholars to be done tomorrow, it has truly begun to feel like the end of college and my undergraduate major in Environmental Studies. As part of this coda, my senior thesis class is reading the same book as the Environmental Studies Intro course (ENVS 160), Who Rules the Earth?: How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives, by Paul Steinberg. We will be discussing it and the major at large with ENVS 160 next week. As part of this process, we have also been instructed to read through the ENVS 160 students’ posts on what they’ve learned from the course and takeaways from Who Rules the Earth? The book is intended for a popular audience, communicating insights from social science research about how important social rules and institutions (laws, customs, and governance structures) are in shaping environmental outcomes.
Steinberg argues that, while individual actions (i.e. lifestyle environmentalism) may be morally laudable, we must change the institutions that govern behavior to actually create meaningful and lasting change. He further argues the institutions that govern governance, setting the structure for how decisions are made—the “super rules”—are particularly important. Other important points focus on an emphasis on scale—how the local scale is not inherently good and how activists need to engage with multiple levels of governance (which he terms “vertical thinking”), paying attention to the most relevant institutional scale for each environmental issue and context. I chafed a little at Steinberg’s optimistic emphasis on the potential for win-win solutions—the book contains few insights for how opposing interests are and should be balanced. I found faults in his sometimes shallow presentation/understanding of the political economy. Steinberg certainly isn’t a Marxist—you won’t find any mention of the contradictions of capitalism in Who Rules the Earth?, and a discussion of how capitalist markets operate as institutions is conspicuously absent (excepting his discussion of emerging/proposed markets for pollution). He represents the problems of capitalism as accidental or circumstantial, rather than arising from its internal logic. These objections to the specifics of Who Rules the Earth? aside, I wholly agree with the broad thrust of Steinberg’s argument.
After four years of Environmental Studies and related courses, the notion that nature is socially constructed and that institutional action is the only real way to change the world is thoroughly ingrained in my consciousness. Overall, little in the book was conceptually new to me, besides the argument that regulations are a significant driver of technological innovation. It is hard for me to remember a time before I thought this way and I don’t think I was ever nearly as wedded to lifestyle environmentalism as many of the 160 students seem to have been (and, in some cases, still are). Nevertheless, regardless of how receptive I may have been to critiques of lifestyle environmentalism and the nature-culture dichotomy, they are ideas which I have really only been extensively exposed to through my college education. In their individual reflection posts, many of the 160 students expressed some degree of dismay and confusion as a result of the Intro course, feeling that everything they thought they knew about the environment and environmental studies had been thrown into question. Many entered expecting some mixture of learning scientific information about environmental problems and activism to promote straightforward solutions. Instead, ENVS challenges these conceptual foundations.
To any 160 students reading this: don’t worry, it will get easier. If you stick with the major, you’ll end up accepting most of the precepts of contemporary environmentalism, carve out a niche in which you can actually learn and develop expertise about something, and won’t just be dealing with Jim asking you to be more precise with word usage. You won’t just be spending all your time deconstructing your own theoretical constructs about nature—you’ll start deconstructing everyone else’s (though if you still expect it to be an environmental science major, you should probably look into biology). One final point: you aren’t going to come to a eureka moment in which you’ve understood all the nuances and sides of an issue and suddenly are equipped to offer The Solution. Solutions don’t simply emerge from a full investigation of the problem; they are political, bringing unforeseen consequences and bestowing costs and benefits that are both unequally-distributed and difficult to assess. Keep in mind the idea of the risk society—that contemporary problems are the result of solutions to previous problems.