Understanding Environmentalism as a Political Philosophy

Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics, Robert C. Paehlke, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 325 pp.


Justifying aspirations; politics; grassroots organization; of general applicability to environmental problems; written for first and third party participants.


Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics is about environmentalism as politics. The author seeks to develop environmentalism as a political ideology, comparable to conservativism or socialism, and to articulate "a consistent and clear environmental position on a full range of important political and social issues."

Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics will be of interest to those who seek a comprehensive environmentalist approach to social and political issues. This work is divided into ten chapters in three parts. The first chapter introduces the author's project. The similarities between environmentalism and liberal and socialist politics is explored. The author suggests that environmentalism may be seen as a "third wave of progressivism."

Part One traces the evolution of environmentalism in North America, and articulates it central concerns. The rise of environmentalism was fueled by the issues of conservation and pollution. Chapter Two recounts this history. Chapter Three explores the issues of population and resources, and the impact of Malthusian theories on environmentalism. Such theories identify three basic causes of environmental damage: technology, affluence, and overpopulation. An environmentalist political ideology will seek to manage each of these factors. This section ends with an analysis of the effect of the energy crisis of 1973-9 on environmental attitudes. The energy crisis prompted investigation of the "soft energy path" (SEP), emphasizing diverse, simple, renewable sources of energy. The SEP approach provides an optimistic alternative to Malthusian conclusions, and enhances the general appeal of environmentalism. This chapter also discusses environmentalist stances toward nuclear power.

Part Two begins to articulate a "distinctly and consistently environmentalist basis" for responding to the concerns discussed in Part One. Chapter Five begins by arguing that environmentalism must better integrate the social sciences and natural sciences. Specifically, fields such as economics must incorporate environmental limits and values into their analyses, to describe a genuinely environmentalist political economy. Environmentalism represents a revolution in social values. Chapter Six describes the environmentalist value system. The author distills thirteen points which have been consistently emphasized in contemporary environmentalist writing. These values include humility, love of natural beauty, simplicity, revulsion toward waste, emphasis on self-esteem, participation, sustainability, and adoption of a long term, global perspective. Finally, the author attempts to locate this emerging picture of environmentalism within the existing ideological spectrum.

Part Three applies this environmental ideology to contemporary political issues. Chapter Eight discusses the potential of environmentalism to be an effective response to the current neoconservativist political climate. It explores the factors supporting conservativism, and areas of congruence between these two ideologies. Chapter Nine describes how environmentalism might play a role in the restoration of a moderate progressive politics in the medium- to long-term future. The author proposes to link environmentalism with various moderately progressive ideas in an attempt to build a strong majority consensus. To this end he offers a prioritized list of ten specific proposals. In the final chapter of this book, Paehlke considers the implications of the environmentalist emphasis on participatory, decentralized environmental administration for politics. Its emphasis on participation and local action is perhaps its greatest source of appeal, extending even to some neoconservatives, and enhancing the potential for strategic coalitions.

Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics presents a political environmentalist manifesto, a long range vision of an environmentally oriented politics with a practical agenda for achieving that vision.

T. A. O'Lonergan