Building the Environmental State: What the History of Social Welfare Tells Us about the Future of Environmental Policy

By Meadowcroft, James | Alternatives Journal, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Building the Environmental State: What the History of Social Welfare Tells Us about the Future of Environmental Policy


Meadowcroft, James, Alternatives Journal


ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES are once again the stuff of headlines. According to the pollsters, Canadians now rank the environment at the top of their political concerns. In large part, this is due to scepticism over successive governments' (mis)management of the climate change file. In this context, where the environment has for the moment become high politics, it is worth reflecting on the longer-term evolution of government engagement with environmental issues. The discussion will be divided into three parts. The first presents a brief history of environmental governance in industrialized countries. The second considers how this history is to be interpreted. And the third explores implications for the current debate about Canada's climate policy.

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The birth of modern environmental governance goes back little more than three and a half decades. In one sense, governments have always been environmental actors, because their laws, policies and expenditures have influenced the way societies interact with their natural surroundings. Specific measures to prevent pollution and to protect resources became more common as the 20th century advanced. But it was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that national governments moved to establish the environment as a significant area of activity. More comprehensive measures were introduced to control emissions to air and water, and in the space of just a few years (1968-1972) environmental agencies and ministries were set up across the developed world.

It is possible to divide the period since this birth into two broad phases according to the prevailing understanding of the environmental policy realm. During the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, the primary focus was on establishing systems of national regulation to manage the environmental side effects of industrial production. Most politicians and officials assumed environmental problems could be more or less easily brought under control with appropriate regulation. The focus was pollution abatement and clean up. Environment ministries set standards for the introduction of end-of-pipe pollution control technologies. In this way, society could establish a more sound balance between economic growth and environmental conservation.

Difficulties with domestic regulatory systems soon became apparent. In the first place, new environmental problems continued to emerge (acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change), and these seemed to demand greater international collaboration. Substance-by-substance regulation looked increasingly impractical because there were always more substances with ever more complex impacts. Rules based on specific media were also problematic since pollution could be displaced across media, moving between air, water and land. Moreover, the initiatives of environmental ministries were consistently undermined by the growth-oriented priorities of other ministries.

So, from the beginning of the 1990s, a new paradigm came to dominate the environmental policy domain. Here, the environment was recognized as a more or less permanent problem for contemporary society. Emphasis was put on integrated pollution control, and on modifying production processes and even consumption patterns in order to avoid environmental problems. It was suggested that growth and environment were not necessarily contradictory--what was needed was to change the quality of growth. Furthermore, environmental concerns, it was believed, should be integrated into decision routines across government rather than reside in one ministry. To deal with more complex issues, a wider range of policy instruments would be required. Moreover, government could not do it alone: business, consumers and other stakeholders would be expected to do their share. And international collaboration was seen to be increasingly important.

Many of these changes were integrated with the idea of "sustainable development," which was propelled onto the international stage by Our Common Future, the report of the Brundtland Commission in 1987, and was endorsed by world leaders at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. …

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