Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment

Reviewed by: David B. Brooks
Paths to a Green World book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Paths to a Green World \ Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne

Professors Clapp and Dauvergne are among the few academics that recognize that the best approach to both analysis of and advocacy for environmental issues lies with political economy, or public policy designed by the application of economic concepts. Their book is a demonstration of that thesis, which they undertake by defining four perspectives or “worldviews” on what society should do in order to create “a green world.” The four types are represented by Market Liberals, Institutionalists, Bioenvironmentalists and Social Greens. Though few people will fit exclusively into a single category, these four encapsulate the positions found in everything from radio call-in shows to professional writing.

Paths to a Green World begins with an introduction that presents the four perspectives. This is followed by three chapters about modern environmental problems: the ecological consequences of globalization, the impact of globalization on environmentalism, and the gaps which separate economic growth in richer and poorer areas. In each chapter, the causes and consequences of the problems are then “explained” as they are seen by each of the four perspectives. These explanations are followed by another three chapters which indicate what positions each perspective takes with respect to global trade and the environment, global investment and the environment, and global financing and the environment. The book also offers the most easily understandable distinction between environmental and ecological economics that I have found (see especially page 107).

Each of the first seven chapters end with a section entitled “Conclusion,” and then a final chapter serves as a summary conclusion. The use of the singular rather than the plural must be taken as intentional, and it is my sole major complaint about the book. The authors are explicit that their goal is to present the four perspectives so that readers can find their own way among the positions and the resulting policy proposals. Good for them.

However, in my view, they carry neutrality too far. It is hard to find anyone – regardless of their worldview – who does not recognize population growth as contributing to, though not necessarily the source of today’s environmental problems. There is a near-consensus among analysts that subsidies which encourage higher rates of natural resources use are anti-environmental. (Admittedly, certain political parties in Canada seem to be oblivious to this analytical conclusion.) In short, I would have liked the last chapter to be less a conclusion than a source for multiple conclusions, and suggestions indicating why parts of each worldview are highly questionable (if not just plain wrong).

I have two other non-quibbles. First, the word “value” appears only rarely in the book. One can infer, but it is never stated, that each of the four perspectives is based on personal values, and those values are really the root for the different and indeed incompatible policy positions. All political choice ultimately comes back to values.

Second, the authors do an injustice to the concept of sustainable development by emphasizing its inconsistent use by the 1972 Brundtland Commission. Simply put, the Commission did not recognize the strength of the baby it had brought up. As a result, many institutions that should (and perhaps did) know better decided to treat sustainable development as little more than modified business-as-usual. Meanwhile, others have recognized its truly radical nature as a challenge to both the quality and the quantity of economic growth.

Despite these complaints, Clapp (who teaches at the University of Waterloo) and Dauvergne (UBC) deserve enormous thanks for clarifying the underlying perspectives that lead to such divergent advice for coping with what are now widely recognized are global environmental issues. Paths to a Green World may be used as a textbook, but it is also accessible to anyone who can read the editorial and op-ed pages of a daily paper.

Paths to a Green World, Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2011, 384 pages

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Reviewer Information

David B. Brooks is a natural-resource economist and a member of Alternatives’ editorial board. He was a founding director of Canada's Office of Energy Conservation, director of the Ottawa Office of Energy Probe, and, for the last 14 years of his formal professional career, associate director for environment and natural resource studies at Canada's International Development Research Centre. When he is not in a canoe, he identifies ways to conserve fresh water. 

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