Political and Social Foundations for Environmental Sustainability

By Whitford, Andrew B.; Wong, Karen | Political Research Quarterly, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Political and Social Foundations for Environmental Sustainability


Whitford, Andrew B., Wong, Karen, Political Research Quarterly


This article quantitatively investigates several possible foundations for environmental sustainability, as measured across countries with varying geography, development patterns, social customs, and political arrangements. Two central hypotheses about the roles of democracy and federalism, as well as other hypotheses about economic development, religion, and demographics, are tested. The study provides moderate evidence that sustainability levels depend on democratization, but little evidence that it depends on the presence of federalism. In addition, it is found that the effects of environmental interests, development paths, and religious orientations vary across different measures of sustainability.

Keywords: sustainability; environmental policy; democracy; federalism

Numerous recent studies have offered solutions to the problem of achieving environmental sustainability-the long-term preservation of our environment for the future. Scholars have offered any number of principles for development (e.g., Dresner 2002), design approaches (e.g., Birkland 2002), leadership lessons (e.g., Fullan 2004), measurement strategies (e.g., Bell and Morse 2003), production ethics (e.g., McDonough and Braungart 2002), and change strategies (e.g., Doppelt 2003; Edwards and Orr 2005) to guide societies away from older forms of engagement with the environment to new (and presumably better) ways of doing things. Many policy analysts see technological change and development as spurring the search for growth patterns that balance the economy and quality of life while maintaining the environment. Of course, it is difficult to find a conclusive combination of factors that describe a country's level of sustainability. Moreover, there is no clear understanding of what factors underpin sustainability. Which political systems and social arrangements lead to greater sustainability?

The purpose of this article is to quantitatively investigate several possible foundations for environmental sustainability, as measured across countries with varying geography, development patterns, social customs, and political arrangements. We are primarily concerned with testing two central hypotheses about political institutions. First, does democratization increase sustainability? While numerous recent studies argue that democracy causes nation-states to shift their patterns of social benefit preservation, no study has assessed how democracy contributes to the protection of the environment at the levels this article addresses (see York, Rosa, and Dietz 2003; Jorgenson 2006; Shandra et al. 2004). Second, does federalism reduce environmental sustainability? Studies argue that environmental protection is lower when states within a given country compete for capital in-flows by reducing regulation. Our study asks whether federations experience lower levels of sustainability. We test these hypotheses in a setting where we account for other potential causes of environmental sustainability. We also assess the roles of groups representing different kinds of environmental interests, development paths, and religious orientations. We discuss specific hypotheses about these other potential causes below.

Environmental sustainability is value based, and because values change over time there is no one measure of environmental sustainability. We conpare the effect of democratization and federalism in different contexts. First, we compare their effects for several dependent variables from the 2002 Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) that measure aspects of sustainability (ESI 2002). The ESI approach quantifies whether countries safeguard their resources effectively, using sixty-eight data sets to construct a global index of sustainability and five components of the index; we first use the global index and three components-environmental systems, reducing environmental stresses, and reducing human vulnerability. This comparison allows us to disentangle the effects of two components that are included in the global index: the fourth (societal and institutional capacity) and fifth (global stewardship) measures include attributes of countries that are potentially causally connected to the first three (York, Rosa, and Dietz 2003; Jorgenson 2006). …

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