Growing green

The Global Environment and World Politics. First edition - The Politics of the Environment
November 29, 2002

More than just about any other contemporary issue, the politics of "the environment" is extremely difficult to squeeze into an average-sized undergraduate textbook.

The first difficulty is the sheer breadth of the subject matter. Einstein famously defined "the environment" as "everything that isn't me". Although many would argue that this greatly underplays the important role played by the individual, it powerfully demonstrates the diffuseness of the environment as a political topic. There are, of course, obvious interfaces with energy, agriculture, trade and transport policy, but equally importantly, connections with fields as diverse as education, foreign and welfare policy.

The other complicating factor is the speed with which the literature has developed since the dawn of modern environmentalism in the late 1960s. A good textbook must somehow capture the rich variety of this material, which spans philosophy, ethics, public-policy analysis and international relations, in addition to all the standard aspects of political science, without making the analysis shallow and simplistic.

Neil Carter's The Politics of the Environment tries to overcome these problems by focusing on three critical aspects of environmental politics: the theories and ideologies that underpin modern environmentalism and its contemporary variant, sustainability; the political parties and pressure groups that these beliefs stimulate; and the constellation of policy problems that constitute environmental politics.

This typology is logical and provides the book with a strong analytical spine. Each chapter is written with enviable clarity and attention to detail. Second and third-year undergraduates will appreciate the obvious effort that has gone into producing the eye-catching side bars, boxed definitions and case studies that populate the text. Sample questions, generous reading lists and a meaty bibliography make this a fine and extremely user-friendly pedagogical tool.

The Global Environment and World Politics sets itself the much less ambitious task of examining the international political aspects of environmental problems. As Elizabeth DeSombre makes clear in the opening chapter, the key problem from which international politics springs eternal, is the "dissociation" between the integrated functioning of natural ecosystems and the fragmented network of international political organisations that have been established to manage them. There is a genuine gap in the market for an undergraduate-level primer on this topic, so at least in terms of marketing the author is on to a winner.

Sadly, the rest of the introduction fails to provide the reader with a clear route map. The theoretical sections try to cover too much ground, where a more succinct treatment of the environmental aspects of mainstream international relations theories would have sufficed. There are informative case studies on ozone depletion, whaling and biodiversity, but the author does not do enough to view them through the lens of the theories.

Whereas Carter uses his conclusion to review the wider place of the environment in modern politics, DeSombre's four-and-a-half-page final chapter reads as though it were an afterthought.

Use DeSombre as a supporting teaching text at undergraduate level, but read (and possibly buy) Carter as a valuable device to teach, as well as research, the rapidly expanding field of environmental political science.

Andrew Jordan is a manager of the ESRC programme on environmental decision-making, University of East Anglia.

The Global Environment and World Politics. First edition

Author - Elizabeth R. DeSombre
ISBN - 0 8264 5665 0 and 5666 9
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £65.00 and £19.99
Pages - 248

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