Globalization and the Environment: Capitalism, Ecology and Power

Book Review

Reviewer: Kacper Szulecki (Hertie School of Governance, Berlin)

Publisher: Polity Press 2012 ISBN: 9780745647234
Author's page: Peter Newell

Globalization and the Environment: Capitalism, Ecology and Power

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Global environmental deterioration is commonly acknowledged and yet, ‘despite rapid advances in human development, economic progress and […] technology,’ as well as the existence of a vast institutional setup for governing the environment, things ‘appear to be getting worse’ (p. 1). Why is that? The nexus of socio-economic and political conditions commonly termed “capitalism” is to blame; argues Peter Newell. Is ‘the very idea of sustainable development in a context of globalization an oxymoron?’ (p. 3).
Although slightly inconclusive and set on a priori judgments, this is definitely a distinguished and an important book. It puts together a wide array of problems, juggles an impressive amount of empirical evidence, and brings many significant theoretical insights, the last aspect perhaps the most important strength of the volume.

Before conducting the empirical analysis, Newell prepares the theoretical groundwork in the first three chapters. Having made the general introduction, he moves on to a ‘political ecology of globalization’ (Chapter 2). This chapter tackles both the ‘benefits of resource extraction’ and the ‘burdens of human-induced environmental change’ (p. 17), and their global distribution according to not only space/geography, but also class, race and gender. Newell thus attempts ‘to “read” ecologically and socially’ the organisation of the global political economy. In order to do that, he commences with a much needed calibration of the concepts, like globalisation. This section also provides a literature review on the various aspects of nature-economy interactions that include energy policy and climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as the continuing ‘marketisation of environmental governance’ (p. 26).

After a brief introduction into the theoretical tradition of political ecology, Newell moves provides a meticulous analysis of environmental governance itself (Chapter 3).  His approach to the institutional setup explicitly labelled “environmental” is rather sceptical. Are these ‘existing structures of global environmental governance’ – he asks – ‘capable of re-shaping the global economy and steering it onto more sustainable footing’ or rather ‘their role is simply to advance and deepen existing forms of capitalist globalization?’ (p. 17). While Newell’s reply is not unequivocal, he seems pessimistic about the degree of impact these “regimes” may have, and at the same time, emphasises that environmental governance is far from being solely the domain of environmental institutions. He is explicitly critical of the dominant regime-theory approach to global environmental governance, focused on institutions and law, depicting it (so bluntly that it becomes a caricature) as just ‘global attempts to construct law around specific trans-border effects of production’ (p. 19). In the face of an apparent lack of a sound approach to global environmental governance either in IR or its International Political Economy (IPE) sibling, Newell proposes his own; a critical political economy. Borrowing from the Gramscian tradition, he indicates the possibly malign role that the idea of “sustainable development” can play. A ‘sustainable development historic bloc’ (p. 45), is said to distance global capitalism from the sources of environmental problems, not allowing the inherent connection between capitalism and the environmental crisis to be addressed.

In this work, environmental governance institutions are the result of power relations rather than independent variables in the policy process; and non-environmental regimes such as trade and finance are ‘critical to the possibilities of effective environmental governance’ (p. 46). A serious and valuable analysis of globalisation and the environment must then not only adopt a broader focus on environmental governance, but a broader notion of governance as such. However, while Newell emphasises the need to include private/market actors and civil society organisations beyond IOs, he firmly echoes Ken Conca’s insistence on the centrality of states as the site of legitimacy and political power (p. 51).

With the theoretical foundations in place, Newell moves to his empirical analysis (Chapters 4-6). Newell takes on the grand, yet obscure, concepts of “globalisation” and “capitalism,” dissecting them into more tangible parts. Trade, production and finance are subsequently analysed in terms of their political ecologies, governance (who governs, what is governed and further – what remains un-governed?), and the sources and engines of their political contestation. Although early in the book Newell acknowledges the ‘exponential increase in mass consumption’ (p. 24) as a factor impacting on the global environment, he does not address this issue in the form of a separate case study. While part of it falls under production, part under trade, the different drivers of individual consumption with both their material and cultural rooting, constitute a visible lacuna in the overall analysis. One supposes that their omission is due to the structure-oriented historical materialist (or Marxist) theoretical lens, treating consumerism as merely a “superstructure” on a particular material base.

The sections on respective political ecologies are challenging, as the author attempts – in only a handful of pages – to leap from the typical micro-focus of existing political ecological writings to his critical global perspective. He succeeds in making these passages both highly readable and theoretically grounded. Newell’s take on the governance of trade, production and finance certainly expands the mainstream IR approach and provides a fascinating argument on the way formally non-environmental institutions such as the WTO and the World Bank, as well as private investors and transnational corporations influence the core of environmental policy. Finally, the sections on contestation combine insights from civil society and social movements’ studies with the literatures on political economy and governance.

The latter sections form the book’s conclusions. These however – when Newell insists that ‘civil society will be key’ to the reform of global governance (p. 150) – come across as somewhat naïve, especially in light of the entire, pessimistic and strongly materialist, argument of Newell’s work. Perhaps more interesting is the attempt to answer the book’s driving question: why are things not getting better, but worse? Newell points at the entrenched interests of powerful economic actors and the general difficulty of reforming an overarching system like capitalism from within (p. 147). This point was perhaps expected; knowing the intellectual tradition with which the author is affiliated, but Globalization and the Environment provides a coherent argument against many of the “powers that be;” one that will not be easy to dismiss. Finally, Newell’s theoretical framework, which gathers insights from a number of earlier articles, should definitely be of interest to students and scholars of environmental politics and is likely to influence a large body of work in the near future.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 3