Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Sociology, Environmentalism, Globalization

Steven Yearley
London: Sage Publications
ISBN: 0 8039 7517 1
£12.95 (pb)
x + 161 pp.

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The primary objective of Steven Yearley's new book is to apply globalization theory to the environment. At first glance, it appears a perfect match. Objectively, environmental degradation has occurred on an increasingly vast scale - in some cases because of a rise in problems with global impacts (such as ozone depletion) and in some cases because of a worldwide spread of problems with local impacts (such as habitat loss). Subjectively, environmental awareness has both deepened and broadened, such that more and more people are sensitive to their planet's overarching biogeophysical interconnections. Here is globalization in a nutshell: world compression both in fact and in consciousness.

But first glances are deceiving, and Yearley devotes the majority of this book to showing that only in a partial sense has the environment truly been "globalized." In physical effects, even the most extensive of environmental problems turn out to have variable regional implications. Global warming, for example, poses a much greater threat to low-lying coastal areas (which could be inundated by water from melting icecaps) than it does to mountainous zones. Thus, nation-state's have varying degrees of commitment to various kinds of environmental reform policies.

Likewise, parochial interests appear among those responsible for globalizing environmental consciousness. Nation-states are interested in the losses or profits to be derived from particular international policies: all may gain legitimacy from ratifying a biodiversity convention, for example, but the direct costs of protection fall more heavily on equatorial states than others. Environmental pressure groups are also interested parties: they may seek to minimize regional and maximize worldwide solidarities, since their support base is broadest if they represent themselves as friends of the whole Earth. Transnational corporations, intergovernmental organizations, and local officials, similarly, are interested stakeholders, and their strategies reflect this reality.

More fundamentally, and more provocatively, Yearley argues that even the so-called universal discourses, such as science, that are used to analyze environmental problems may be interest laden. Their impartiality is at least suspect. To take only the most famous example, resources may be scarce, and this may be a scientific fact, but are resources scarce because of overpopulation or because of overconsumption? If it is the former, then action must be taken in the Southern hemisphere countries, where birthrates (in general) are highest. If it is the latter, then action must be taken in the North, where consumption is highest. Science may be able to establish the facts, but it cannot determine which of the facts should serve as guideposts to policy.

In short, the central argument is that "global environmentalism", as an analysis of current environmental problems, policy, and consciousness, glosses all kinds of lower - especially national - level differences. And it does so at the peril of the poorer, the weaker, and the more peripheral in the world.

This is a useful perspective, but it bears remarking that it is only news due to the phenomenal success of the globalization literature. After only a few years of existence, globalization has become so orthodox that it is now path-breaking to recall that the world is filled with self-interested actors, especially nation-states. A short time ago, this would have been the only conceivable view. Now it appears innovative.

Otherwise, the book is limited by that fact that Yearley reifies nation-states: when discussing sub-global differences in environmental problems or consciousness, he nearly always refers to differences among nation-states. This is realistic: nation-states are the authoritative actors in world society. But the approach ignores the extent to which nation-states are imagined entities, just as the globe is an imagined entity. The key point is not whether, in fact, the United Kingdom emits more greenhouse gases than Morocco. The point is whether that difference is rendered as meaningful. After all, London emits more greenhouse gases than Surrey, but that fact is typically elided, because nation-states are agreed to be real and unitary entities. Now, as the "world" is also agreed to be a real and unitary entity, and increasingly so, we might expect sub- global differences to also lose their salience.

On its own terms, the book is worthwhile. It is clearly written, and it provides a useful engagement of the globalization and environment literatures. And the fundamental critique - that global phenomenon are strafed with interests - is plausible and well stated.

David Frank
Harvard University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996