The politics of environmental narratives

Umberto Sconfienza

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    What makes environmental conflicts complex and difficult to solve? This question is increasingly important because, more and more, environmental problems are going to shape local, national, regional, and international politics. Not surprisingly, this question has generated a lot of scholarship. Most of the time, however, it has been approached through the lens of a global, macro normative theory. By normative, I intend a theory that explains how certain conflicts should be solved or certain social relations should be governed; by macro, I intend a theory that departs from certain normative principles and from there illuminates a number of practical consequences; finally, by global, I intend a theory that looks at environmental problems through the lens of what people and state across to the globe owe to each other.
    In this thesis, I argue that such standard approach is useful only in limited cases and seldom can explain environmental conflicts which are characterised by different understandings of what an environmental problem ultimately is, by competing views on market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, and where different actors hold opposing positions of what should be done to solve the problem. In Chapter I, I introduce a case-study to show how the standard approach can sometimes hide the complexity of a specific environmental conflict over the appropriate use of natural resources. In particular, I introduce the reader to the Yasunì-ITT Initiative of Ecuador. The Initiative proposed to relinquish oil profits from one of the country’s largest oil reserves (20% of its proven reserves) in the Amazonian Yasuní National Park in exchange for donations, equal to half of the opportunity costs lost, from the international community, to be paid to Ecuadorians to keep the oil underground. I then argue that the international debate that this Initiative has generated in terms of whether it was, or not, a case of environmental blackmail has framed the environmental conflict around the proper ways in which developing states can make use of their natural resources in terms of an international struggle between Correa and the prospective international donors in a way that has hidden the complex demands of the Ecuadorean population which had brought the Initiative on the international stage in the first place. As a consequence, I argue that to do justice to the practical and theoretical difficulties that these types of policy raise, and the enduring conflicts they create, a 'macro' account of environmental policies must give way to a 'meso-level' analysis which is responsive to contextual considerations
    The meso-level approach developed in my dissertation identifies the analysis of narratives as a better instrument to explain the complexity of environmental conflicts and to understand which ideas animate the different actors on the opposing sides of a conflict. In my dissertation, I introduce three environmental narratives - ecological modernization, civic environmentalism, and radical environmentalism - and I analyze them through the organising work of two different sets of categories (matrices).
    Ecological modernization is a narrative which promotes market solutions to environmental problems on the ground that there are still many unexploited synergies between economic growth and environmental protection. Civic environmentalism is a narrative which sees the role of the public and the stakeholders in general as important for environmental protection on the ground that those who are personally affected by a problem should have a say in devising solutions which relate to them. Radical environmentalism is a narrative which remains deeply skeptical both about the promise that market mechanism could provide viable solutions to environmental degradation and about the promise that institutions through which stakeholder governance is channeled could redress the inequalities produced by the employment of market mechanisms.
    The first matrix seeks to understand the normative presuppositions underlying the three matrices in terms of arguments on the ground of efficiency and arguments on the ground of justice. The second matrix seeks to uncover the clashes, the hidden continuities, and the blind spots of the normative presuppositions identified through the first matrix. Clashes refer to the elements which uniquely characterise each narrative. Continuities refer to shared fundamental assumptions which are then interpreted in different ways; blind spots refer to normative concerns which are sidelined in one narrative but not in others. In my reconstruction of three narratives, I portray ecological modernization as the attempt to assimilate justice to efficiency in environmental policy; civic environmentalism as the attempt to subsume efficiency under a broader conception of political justice; and radical environmentalism as the attempt to reject both the paradigms of efficiency and political justice in favour of a largely non-anthropocentric conception of justice.
    In light of this analysis, in the conclusion, I go back to the Yasunì-ITT Initiative, I associate each narrative to a set of positions held by the various actors in Ecuadorean politics and I briefly review the policy implications of my analysis.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Tilburg University
    • Lindahl, Hans, Promotor
    • Pavlakos, Georgios, Promotor, External person
    • Augenstein, Daniel, Co-promotor
    Award date5 Dec 2017
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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