Book of the Week: The Green State (1)

The Australian professor Robyn Eckersley has published a very important book on the contours of a green democratic state, which would have legitimate coercive power for environmental protection. As Robyn argues: “To fixate on the coercive power of the state is to fail to grasp the crucial difference between untamed or arbitrary power and democratically directed public power.”

The book’s theme has been introduced by Bill Matheson, see below.

A good introduction is the essay Green Governance in the New Millennium: Towards the Green Democratic State, published in Ecopolitics: Thought and Action, 2002 and available via the author at [email protected] See the second excerpt for a summary of that essay.

In this essay, which I recommend reading in full she identifies three conditions for such a state, implicit in the demands of the green and sustainability movements and for having the potential to defend biospheric integrity in a democratic fashion. This is our third excerpt. We will follow this up by an excerpt summarizing the specific environmental characteristics of such a state.

1. Introduction to the book

“For most of us “the state” is the main source of power and structure in our lives. The state creates and enforces laws, participates on our behalf in issues of global governance, and is subject to a measure of democratic accountability. While more and more people are also getting involved in local and regional governance, big decisions — especially significant environmental decisions — are usually made the state level. For this as well as other reasons the state is often the focus of conversations about green governance.

I want to look at the idea of the state through the lens of a book titled The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, by Australian academic Robyn Eckersley (2004).

From an environmental perspective the nation-state seems to create a number of problems, as environmental crises do not respect national boundaries. This might be a simple as a polluted river flowing from one country to another, or as complex as global climate change. Because we divide ourselves into nation-states, we end up competing for resources in a process that seems to actively encourage ecological destruction. When the consequences of this present themselves we cannot respond to them effectively because we cannot decide who is responsible.

From a social justice perspective the nation-state also seems to create a number of problems. In many parts of the world national boundaries are legacies of European expansion and conquest during the colonial period. The kind of territorial authority embodied by these borders underpins many of the ethnic conflicts in recent history. Regional and local assertions of independence and self-rule are often suppressed by central state governments, and cultural minorities dispersed within or between nations often struggle to get adequate representation at the national level.

While Eckersley acknowledges both these perspectives, she also pragmatically argues that the state is still the primary political institution we have to address our environmental and social problems. She describes nation-states as key players in maintaining global order.

The Green State explores how we might create a green democratic state as an alternative to the present liberal democratic state.”

2. Introduction to the essay

“My argument will proceed in three parts. First, I address the basic reasons why the green movement has been so wary of the state as a site of concentrated power. Next I argue that these problems make it even more urgent that greens turn to the state for reform as part of their political strategy, since it is impossible substantially to transform the global order behind the backs of states. Finally, I present my vision of the green state and identify the key strategic areas of reform that are necessary if we are to move towards this goal.”

3. Necessary characteristics of a green state

“Here we can identify three basic, interrelated notions about the state implicit in the environmental demands for more/better/stricter environmental regulation and environmental justice.

The first plea is for a ‘good state’, in the sense of an ‘ethical’ and democratically responsible/responsive state that upholds public rather than private interests and values, and acts as a vehicle for justice rather than power, or ‘right’ rather than ‘might’. That the state should be ‘good’ arises from the assumption that the state is the most legitimate (and not just the most powerful) social institution to assume the role of ‘public ecological guardian’, reining in and disciplining investment, production and consumption in order to protect genuinely public goods such as life-support services, public amenity, public transport, biodiversity and so on.

The second plea is for a ‘strong’ or effective state that is able to deploy effective regulatory and fiscal steering mechanisms to ensure that the economy and society respect the integrity of the ecosystems in which they are embedded in order to minimise the consumption of energy and resources, reduce pollution and protect life-support services and biodiversity. The state should also have the capacity to redistribute resources and otherwise influence life opportunities to ensure that the move towards a more sustainable society is not a socially regressive one – a very real prospect if environmental goals are not properly integrated with social justice goals. In short, the appeal of the state is that it stands as the most overarching source of political and legal authority within modern, plural societies. It must be emphasises that this appeal to the ‘strong/effective’ state is not an entirely instrumental appeal – otherwise there would be no reason in principle for environmentalists not to hire private mercenaries to discipline society along more ecologically sustainable lines, assuming the necessary resources could be mustered.

The third plea is for a cosmopolitan state since there is an implicit expectation that a green democratic state would not only act as a ‘good ecological guardian’ over its own people and territory but also act as a good international citizen in the society of states, actively promoting collective action in defence of green values and goals while also taking responsibility (both unilaterally and multilaterally) to avoid the externalization of social and ecological costs beyond its own territory and into the future.”

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