Environment in Western Europe Research Paper

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The study of social and political aspects of the natural environment in  Western  Europe  has  been  a  major growth  area since the early 1970s. All social science, disciplines, in particular history, geography,  economics, psychology,  sociology, and  political  science, have  seen the  development  of major  environmental research  fields,  although the  relative  importance of each discipline has varied between countries and over time. Cross-national variances are generally the result of specific disciplinary traditions; variations  over time are mainly the outcome  of changes in the importance of particular environmental discourses.

There are important differences in the conception of ‘the  environment’   between  different   social  science disciplines.  While  the  interaction  between   human society  and   the  natural  environment is  the  most common   element,  many  approaches,  in  particular within geography and environmental psychology, also include the entire physical (e.g., the built environment) and social environment.

The terms used to delineate this field of activity have also reflected major social and political changes. The label ‘environmental’  to  define an  area  of policy or politics first came into use in the 1960s in the USA and subsequently also became popular in Western Europe. Radical   critiques   of  environmentalism  led  to   in-creased references  to ‘ecology,’ ‘ecological,’ and  less frequently,  ‘ecologism.’ Since the success of the German   Green   Party   on   an   anti-nuclear,  ecological platform  in the early 1980s, the term ‘green’ has come to be used in a wide variety of settings,  in the 1990s referring to virtually any activity that  had previously been labeled ‘environmental.’

The great variety and scope of social science work in this   field  escapes  easy  compartmentalization and makes  it  difficult  to  do  justice  to  all  approaches involved. There are four broad  areas of research that are crucial to the agenda  of environmental sociology and  political  science,  but  that  can  also  be  used  to discuss the contribution of other disciplines: environmental philosophy and political theory, environmental attitudes and  behavior,  social movements  and  green parties, and environmental policy.

1.    Environmental Philosophy And Political Theory

Political theorists took a relatively long time to take up the challenge of modern environmental politics. Up to the  late  1970s, ‘ecological thought’  had  barely  been recognized as a subdiscipline of political thought and philosophy.  Ecological  ‘thinkers’  mainly  came from outside academia, or at least from outside the realm of political theory and philosophy.  However, this period of relative neglect was followed by a major expansion in the 1990s when ecological political thought became a major area of academic activity in Western Europe, particularly in the UK and The Netherlands. The aim was to establish a theoretical  basis for ecologism as a separate political theory with a distinct identity rather than as an extension of established  traditions such as liberalism, anarchism, or socialism. One of the major inspirations was the work  on deep ecology and  ecocentrism that had emanated from North America and Australia. Among its important European antecedents were the writings of the Norwegian  philosopher Arne Naess (Dobson  2000).

The main challengers of ecocentric political theory in Western  Europe  are  various  approaches broadly associated  with a libertarian vision of socialism; anarchism, and  more recently, liberalism  also play a role.  Following  on  from  the  politics  of the  student movement, a revival of interest in Marxist thinking in the 1970s also extended  to ecological questions.  The ideas of the Frankfurt School, anarchist approaches as well as  more  traditional Marxist   views  dominated continental theoretical debates in the 1970s and 1980s. Continental theoretical  discourses  gave more prominence to sociological theories rather than environmental ethics. The work of Ulrich Beck and his theory of the Risk Society (Beck 1986) was particularly influential.  However,  the  resonance  of Niklas  Luhmann’s (1986) equally sweeping, if rather  more pessimistic, attempt  to employ systems theory  to devise a theory  of ecological communication was mainly limited to the German-speaking academic world.

Apart  from the formulation of a green theory informing current political practice, the history of ecological  thought is  a  major  research  area.  West European historians,  philosophers, economists,  and sociologists have devoted considerable attention to the study of environmental aspects of the work of philosophers,   scientists,   economists,   social  theorists,   and other  writers  preceding  the arrival  of ‘modern’  ecological  thinking  (Pepper  1984, Wall  1994). In  particular, from the perspective of the ‘sociology of science,’ the history of ecology as a scientific discipline has been of great  interest,  involving also the role of scientific ‘ecologists’ in the definition  of research and political  agendas.   The  link  between  ‘ecology’  and other political ideologies has been another major focus of debate.  Among  the most contentious topics is the analysis of the history and current development of ecological  thought in  the  context   of  authoritarian political traditions, including the ideology of the German  Nazis (Bramwell 1989, Ferry 1992).

However, rather  underdeveloped is the political sociology of environmental ideology and knowledge, analyzing,  for  example,  why  particular theories  or knowledge claims have greater resonance  than others in certain countries and specific historical periods. Among   the  few  studies  addressing   these  issues  is Jamison   et  al.’s  (1990)  analysis   of  the   changing ‘knowledge interests’ of environmental groups.

2.    Environmental Attitudes  And Behavior

Environmental attitude  research  started  as a serious academic  activity  in  the  1970s.  The  first  wave  of studies   was   mainly   policy   oriented,   intended   to measure  the  degree  of  environmental concern  and support  for environmental policies that had started to be  formulated and  implemented  in  most  European countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sociologists were  at  first  mainly  interested   in  the  socio-demographic  background and  political  orientation of ‘environmentalists.’ Most of the political analysis of environmental concern in the late 1970s and 1980s was inspired by Ronald  Inglehart’s  theory of ‘postmaterialist value change.’ This analysis interpreted the rise of environmental concern as part of a far broader ‘silent revolution’ that was producing  a new political agenda dominated by ‘left-libertarian’ issues (Lowe and Rudig 1986).

The 1980s and early 1990s saw a major expansion of environmental  attitude   research.   With  the  rise  of global environmental issues and  green consumerism, research  priorities  focused  on  the  multidimensional nature  of public attitudes, the role of ‘environmental knowledge,’ the conditions  for behavioral  change  to save the environment, and  the acceptance  of specific environmental policies.  In  particular, the  perceived gap between expressed environmental concern and the reluctance  of  the  public  to  engage  more  deeply  in environmental  behavior   or  to  accept  stronger   environmental policy measures,  such  as higher  energy prices, became a key topic.  In theoretical  terms,  the role of post-materialism as a guiding concern waned, and  other  approaches, in particular rational  choice theory,  became more important. More attention also began  to  be paid  to  public  discourses  and  personal narratives   of  environmental  questions,   with  focus groups   and   qualitative   studies   becoming   a  more popular research  tool  (Diekmann and  Jaeger  1996, Macnaghten and Urry 1998).

Research  about   environmental attitudes  and  behavior  has  also  played  a major  role  in other  social science disciplines. Within environmental psychology, a wholly separate research tradition on environmental attitudes was established, grounded in a more holistic approach to human interaction with the socio-physical environment, with  particularly interesting  contributions  to  the  analysis  of  the  perception  of  different environmental problems  and the barriers  of environ-mental consumer  behavior  (Pol 1993).

A key research focus for sociologists, psychologists, and   other   social  science  disciplines  has  been  the concept of risk. ‘Risk perception’ and ‘public attitudes to  technology’  became  major  research  topics  in the wake of environmental protest  against nuclear power and other ‘big’ technologies, particularly in Germany. Following on from the analysis of public perception of risk  was  the  development   of  ‘risk  communication’ strategies,  aimed  at  increasing  public  acceptance  of specific technologies (Renn and Zwick 1997).

Also  in  the  economic   sciences,  the  analysis   of environmental attitudes and  behavior  has played  an important role, in particular in cost–benefit  analysis based  on  the  allocation   of  monetary values  to  environmental goods. This is done with surveys asking hypothetical questions  about  the public’s willingness to pay for particular goods, as well as the analysis of existing behavior to elicit ‘revealed preferences’ about trade-offs  between  environmental and  other  goods. Such contingent  valuation  methods  became  particularly influential in UK policy discourses in the 1990s, but they also attracted strong criticism on ethical and methodological grounds  (Foster  1997).

Social science research  on environmental attitudes and  behavior  has attracted other  controversies.  Research on risk perception and risk communication has been attacked  for its instrumentalization to manipulate public opinion to increase the public acceptance of particular technologies.  The rise of relativist,  ‘social constructionist’ approaches in the environmental social sciences has offered contradictory opportunities to  use research  results  to  influence  political  debate. For example, a ‘cultural theory’ of environmentalism which  sees environmental concern  as a response  to cultural  change  rather  than  to  ‘real’ environmental problems could be seen as undermining the legitimacy of environmental groups.  Other approaches, particularly from the sociology of science, have targeted  the claims of science in legitimating public policy, seeking to establish the credibility of lay persons facing environmental threats  to  make  relevant  knowledge claims (Lash et al. 1996, Redclift and Benton 1994).

3.    Social Movements And Green Parties

Environmental concern and green consumer behavior do not  directly engage the individual  in the political process.  This is different  where people  support  particular pressure groups and parties,  or join in protest activity, to campaign  for specific environmental policies or for a general green worldview. The analysis of environmental politics  thus  includes  environmental political  behavior  at the individual  level, but  it also focuses on the behavior  of groups and parties.

The  politicization of the  environment in Western Europe  was chiefly the  role of a new generation  of protest  movements  that  started  to emerge in force in the 1970s. This new phenomenon attracted the academic attention of a fairly wide range of social scientists. At first, descriptive  case studies of specific incidents of protest or environmental conflict were the main  approach.  But  by  the  late  1970s  and   early 1980s, the notion  of ‘new social movements’ had emerged  as the dominant paradigm. The 1980s and 1990s saw a very substantial development of this field. The   cross-national  comparison  of   environmental social movements became a major focus; the reception of key elements of US social movement theory, in particular the ‘Resource Mobilization’ approach, led to more sophisticated research designs and theoretically informed  empirical studies.

Methodologically, the  study  of protest  events became  a  very  influential   approach,  particularly for cross-national comparisons. Another  key feature  of empirical research was the study of individual  movement  participants and  group  members,  their  social backgrounds and motivations. Studies of environmental  groups  as organizations, based  on  national  and cross-national surveys of such groups,  focused  inter alia on network formation and interrelationships with other   political  actors  (Dalton and  Kuechler   1990, Della  Porta   and  Diani  1999,  Rootes   1999,  Rucht 1991).

One of the most significant aspects of the politicization  of the environment is the rise of ecological and green parties. After party formation in the 1970s and 1980s, such parties  entered  parliament in most West European countries  during  the 1980s and  1990s (the main exceptions being Norway, Denmark, and Spain); by the late 1990s, green parties  had entered  national government  in Italy, Finland, France,  Germany, and Belgium.

Green  parties  have  attracted  substantial  research efforts, both in the form of major national  case studies and  cross-national comparisons. Much  of the cross- national   analysis  has  focused  on  the  influence  of aggregate  factors  such as electoral  systems and  economic conditions  on the green parties’ development. There is also a wealth of empirical national  and cross- national  studies on green ideology, the internal  structure of green parties, their members and activists, and green  voting  (Delwit  and  De  Waele 1999, Kitschelt 1989, Richardson and Rootes  1995).

4.    Environmental Policy

The social sciences continue  to play a fairly marginal role  in  the  general  academic  literature   on  environmental policy, with approaches from the natural sciences and technical disciplines dominating the field. Within  the  social sciences, most  of the  publications addressing  questions  of  environmental policy  come from geography, economics, and the legal professions, while  sociology  and  political  science  play  a  more minor role.

In Western Europe, environmental policy started to become an important research topic in the early 1970s. The policy optimism of the early years was often disappointed, and one important research theme was the  question  of the  implementation deficit that  prevented policies being as successful as intended.  Also popular  were  cross-national  comparisons  between ‘leaders’ and ‘laggards’ in environmental policy innovation, often involving the USA and one or more European countries,  or, somewhat  later, the UK and Germany.

The 1970s and  1980s also saw increasing  environmental  policy  activism  within  the  European Union (EU), and the study of policy development and implementation of EU policy became a major growth area. With the rise of global environmental issues and the creation of international environmental regimes in the 1980s and 1990s, the international level became an important focus of policy research, with international relations approaches playing a more influential role in the literature.

The 1980s and  1990s brought a major  shift in the debate  about  policy  instruments, away  from  traditional  ‘command-and-control’ regulation  to new economic  instruments. Policy discourses  became  increasingly  dominated by  economic  ideas.  With  the 1992 Earth  Summit,  the idea of ‘sustainable  development’  was placed  firmly  on  the  policy  agenda,  and many European countries played a lead role in furthering this debate at local, national, and EU levels (Rudig 1999).

Environmental policy research in Western Europe is well established but there remain many key challenges to be addressed.  One of the them is the lack of interdisciplinary work, with public policy specialists, international relations  experts,  sociologists  of science, and many other  social science disciplines researching in parallel without  taking  much notice of each other. Some of the shortcomings of research are related directly to this failure to break down disciplinary boundaries. One  such  area  that  has  received  comparatively little attention is issue-making and agenda building processes. The application of discourse analysis to public policy research  is likely to play an important role in future  research  (Fischer and  Hajer 1999), as are  studies  of social movements.  The  role of science and  the  media  could  make  an  important contribution toward  improving  the understanding of the formation of environmental policy agendas.

With  the  increasing  role  of  European and  international environmental policy processes, the interlinkages  between  the  international,  EU,  and  national policy processes is a major research challenge. In the past, the study of international relations,  EU politics, and national public policies has been addressed by separate academic communities;  in the environmental field,  major  attempts have  been  made  to  combine international and national  processes—for example, in research on the effectiveness of international environmental regimes. In Western Europe, in particular, environmental policy is a ‘multilevel’ process, and the study of the interlinkages between EU and national  as well as  subnational policy  processes  has  become  a major research area (Weale et al. 2000).

Finally, the question of the impact of environmental policy has to be addressed. In Western Europe, there is a large body  of empirical  material  on  differences in policy approaches in different European countries (Hanf  and  Jansen  1998, Janicke  and  Weidner  1997). Comparative environmental policy impact  studies in Western Europe  suggest that  economically  successful nations  also  had  successful  environmental  policies. The  only  institutional element  associated   with  environmental policy success is a general feature of economic policy making—neo-corporatism. There is, however, no firm evidence so far on the relative effectiveness of particular environmental institutions and policy instruments (Rudig 1999).

5.    Conclusions

Social science research on environmental issues is thus well established  in Western  Europe.  In terms  of the wider  political  discourse,  environmental  economics and  other  ‘policy’ oriented  approaches have had  the most impact.  Within  a purely academic  ambit,  green political theory has been the most outstanding success story.  Environmental sociology and  political  science have established  very strong  research  traditions, but have tended to struggle to be recognized as ‘relevant’ knowledge  producers  by environmental activists and policy makers alike. In an area defined increasingly by highly  technical,   ‘scientific’  policy  discourses,   the social  sciences  face  a  stark   choice  between  either leaving the  field to  other  disciplines,  or  successfully challenging the legitimacy of rival knowledge producers, thus establishing the reflection about the social and political premises of environmental thought and action  as a key element in the protection of environmental public interests.


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