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The Politics of Environmental DiscourseEcological Modernization and the Policy Process$

Maarten A. Hajer

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780198293330

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/019829333X.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
The Politics of Environmental Discourse

Maarten A. Hajer (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Over the past few years ‘the ecological crisis’ has come to occupy a permanent place on the public agenda. It has become an issue whose importance goes without saying. One only has to refer to ‘the ecological crisis’ and everybody nods meaningfully as if one knows what is being referred to. The ecological crisis, so the consensus seems to be, has to be faced. Yet somehow cracks are beginning to emerge in the picture of a new ecological consensus. Here the UN Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 played a role of great symbolic importance. The global conference was meant to be the culmination of the integrative effort and was to mark the start of a new ecological era for which Agenda 21 was to point the way. As many commentators have pointed out since then, if anything Rio in actual fact showed the many conceptual holes and political ambivalences that had slumbered beneath the consensus over the need to arrive at some sort of sustainable development. Over time these differences have only become more obvious. This comes out in the struggle over the meaning of the notion of the term ‘sustainable development’, which functioned as the linchpin in the creation of the new consensus. As Brooks (1992: 408) has pointed out, since the Brundtland Report (re‐) introduced the concept in 1987, at least forty working definitions of sustainable development have appeared. Consequently many different projects are furthered under the flag of sustainable development and quarrels have started to emerge about what sustainable development really is.

Most analyses embark on an explanation of the political interests that stand in the way of a real ‘ecological turn’. This book aims to enhance our insight into environmental politics by raising a different sort of question. It argues that, if examined closely, environmental discourse is fragmented and contradictory. Environmental discourse is an astonishing collection of claims and concerns brought together by a great variety of actors. Yet somehow we distil seemingly coherent problems out of this jamboree of (p.2) claims and concerns. How does this work? How do problems get defined and what sort of political consequences does this have?

To analyse this process we draw on the methodology of discourse analysis. This does not simply refer to the analysis of the discussion of the ecological crisis but examines all those factors that influence the way in which we conceive of the environmental problematique. It will be argued that the developments in environmental politics critically depend on the specific social construction of environmental problems. We do not simply analyse what is being said, but also include the institutional context in which this is done and which co‐determines what can be said meaningfully.

Special focus is on the domain of environmental policy‐making. The analysis of policy‐making usually has a rather instrumental orientation, whereby the goal of improving the quality of the policy output guides the analytical effort. In actual fact policy‐making deserves our attention as a social phenomenon in its own right. Policy‐making is not just a matter of finding acceptable solutions for preconceived problems. It is also the dominant way in which modern societies regulate latent social conflicts. Yet in this policy‐making involves much more than merely dreaming up clever ways of creating solutions. It requires first of all the redefinition of a given social phenomenon in such a way that one can also find solutions for them. Experts of all sorts are called upon to define the problem and its parameters. Within what domain do we have to find our solutions? What institutional commitments have to be respected? Which social conditions are malleable, which ones are fixed?

This book investigates environmental policy‐making as the socially accepted set of practices through which we try to face what has become known as the ecological crisis. In so doing we seek to shed new light on the dynamics of environmental conflict in modern societies. Here much conceptual work needs to be done. The environmental conflict simply has too many component parts to be understandable if one delimits oneself to one of the many established academic domains. For instance, in order to understand the regulation of the conflict over acid rain in the 1980s, one has to open up for insights and ideas from an array of disciplines including the sociology of science, sociology of risk, policy analysis, human geography, anthropology, and political science.

(p.3) Throughout the book we try to come to grips with the way in which something as big and potentially explosive as the ecological crisis is being managed through environmental policy‐making. Here the ecological crisis is seen as a major challenge to the institutions of modern society. As the German sociologist Ulrich Beck reminds us, incidents like Chernobyl or Bhopal are not merely physically explosive, but are potentially socially explosive as well. As we will discuss in Chapter 1, they raise questions over the very functioning of some of the central institutions of modern societies. We should therefore seek to keep an eye on the way in which the practices of policy‐making not only facilitate the regulation of a physical problem but can be seen to fulfil a much broader role in regulating the latent social conflict that is inherent in ecological matters.

The historical argument, in brief, is that a new way of conceiving environmental problems has emerged since the late 1970s. This policy discourse of ecological modernization recognizes the ecological crisis as evidence of a fundamental omission in the workings of the institutions of modern society. Yet, unlike the radical environmental movements of the 1970s, it suggests that environmental problems can be solved in accordance with the workings of the main institutional arrangements of society. Environmental management is seen as a positive‐sum game: pollution prevention pays.

It is easy to see why ecological modernization would quickly conquer the hearts of politicians and policy‐makers. Yet one may, of course, question some of its assumptions. On a theoretical level one can show the kind of issues and uncertainties that ecological modernization leaves unaddressed. Yet it is only through empirical work that we can come to an assessment of the effects of ecological modernization on the regulation of the environmental conflict. For that purpose this study analyses the influence of ecological modernization on the regulation of the problem of acid rain in Great Britain and the Netherlands. It reconstructs so‐called discourse‐coalitions that could be seen shaping up around this problem. In so doing this book seeks to show how social constructivism and discourse analysis add essential insights to our analysis of contemporary environmental politics. These insights are of great importance to the question of how society should seek to come to terms with today's ecological dilemma.

(p.4) An Outline of the Book

The thesis of this book is that whether or not environmental problems appear as anomalies to the existing institutional arrangements depends first of all on the way in which these problems are framed and defined. That is what the environmental conflict is about. In this context the emergence of ecological modernization as the new dominant way of conceptualizing environmental problems becomes an important topic of analysis. It raises a long list of compelling questions: What can be thought within its structures? Where does it hit its conceptual limits? In what sense does it open up solidified relations of power? Is ecological modernization to be understood as the materialization of the original ideas of the environmental debate in its early stages, or does it signify the collapse of critical discourse? To what extent does it facilitate a more reflexive form of modernization?

Such questions cannot be answered in the abstract. To be able to come to grips with the effects of this conceptual innovation one will need to examine how the emergence and acceptance of such a conceptual language was taken up in actual practice and what sort of institutional innovations it brought about. For this reason this book contains a larger empirical section which presents a discourse analysis of the emergence of ecological modernization in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Discourse analysis has been employed in a great many ways, but the operationalization of the work of authors like Michel Foucault or Rom Harré for purpose of the analysis of contemporary policymaking is rather rare. Chapter 2 seeks to use it in this way. It draws on the distinct discourse‐theoretical perspectives developed by Michel Foucault and by a group of social‐psychologists such as Harré and Billig. Out of the confrontation of these perspectives we derive a discourse‐analytical framework for the study of contemporary public policy. To show the conceptual innovations for the study of policy‐making this ‘argumentative’ approach is then compared with the received work on ‘policy‐oriented learning’ of Paul Sabatier.

Chapter 3 presents an analysis of the historical circumstances out of which ecological modernization emerged. This chapter seeks to present an institutional analysis out of which the dominant position of ecological modernization might be explained. So, rather (p.5) than giving yet another review of the various ideological positions that can be found in contemporary environmental politics since 1972, it seeks to present a first institutional genealogy that shows where the eco‐modernist concepts were first developed and explains how they were able to gain so much in influence in the mid‐1980s.

The second part of the book contains case‐studies of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. They serve to give insights into the way in which ecological modernization affected environmental policy‐making. For this purpose it examines the regulation of the acid rain controversies in the two countries. They should illuminate the new practices where environmental politics is being made. The case‐studies do not focus on the parliamentary debates (although they are obviously part of the analysis) but identify various other fields of practice in the environmental domain where ‘subpolitical processes’ develop.

Acid rain was not picked at random. There are essentially two reasons for a detailed investigation. First, acid rain is a fine example of what are defined in Chapter 1 as the emblems of environmental discourse. This refers to issues that stand out in a particular period and dominate public and political attention. These issues can be shown to function as a ‘metaphor’ for the environmental problematique at large. That is to say, people understand the bigger problem of the ecological crisis through the example of certain emblems.

Second, acid rain has played a key role in the emergence of ecological modernization over the last twenty years, both in Europe and North America.1 As is well known, acid rain was the issue that led the Swedish government to call for an international conference on the environment which eventually became the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference. The emission of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and ammonia (NH3) was alleged to cause the death of lakes and trees and was also held responsible for the corrosion of buildings and sculptures. After a period of relative silence in the 1970s, acid rain became widely accepted as being one of the major environmental hazards of Europe and North (p.6) America during the 1980s.2 It was defined as an example of the new generation of environmental hazards that started to dominate the environmental agenda in the 1980s. Like the greenhouse effect and the diminishing ozone layer, acid rain is an international form of pollution, by nature more or less invisible yet cumulative in its effects. As an example of the new generation of environmental issues, acid rain served as one of the prime anomalies to the then prevailing ad hoc approach to environmental regulation. It was one of the central issues in the context of which the concepts of ecological modernization, like critical loads, multiple stress, or internalization of pollution prevention were first introduced and developed.

Acid rain is a nice case since it has always been beset with uncertainties. Many environmental issues receive political attention following a pollution incident (like urban air pollution after the notorious London fog of 1952). Yet as a creeping and cumulative form of pollution acid rain was a typical example of the new generation of environmental issues that, more than their predecessors, depend on their discursive creation. Furthermore acid rain is a problem for which there are many different solutions that all depend on a specific creation of the problem. Hence it is an issue that illustrates the crucial importance of recognizing multiple problems and multiple definitions in a debate.

However, if the new environmental conflict really is socially constructed we should also allow for international variation. This book is therefore conceptualized as a comparative case‐study on the regulation of the problem of acid rain in two OECD countries, the UK and the Netherlands, between 1972 and 1990. Both the UK and the Netherlands were, right from the start, drawn into the heart of the European debate. Yet Britain was always seen as the prime culprit in relation to the acidification of the environment in southern Scandinavia, while the Netherlands was seen internationally as one of the countries that was most committed to helping to find a solution to the international acid‐rain problem. Interestingly, the received knowledge of the policy styles of the two countries suggests widely different traditions, which makes the comparative study interesting from the point of view of the (p.7) potential unifying influence of the emergence of an international policy discourse like ecological modernization.

So far the Anglo‐Saxon literature on the Dutch policy planning approach that was developed during the 1980s is still rather limited. The presentation of the Dutch model is nearly always based on the description of the elaborate Dutch Policy Plans but is rarely supported by an analysis of the actual practical achievements of this approach. The comparative study of the UK and the Netherlands hopes to contribute to a more sophisticated understanding of Dutch environmental politics.

Finally, Chapter 6 discusses the contribution of the social constructivist analysis of environmental policy‐making and politics. It argues that the strength of social constructivism and discourse analysis is not limited to the demystification of what previously appeared as rational. Social constructivism should not only be concerned with the opening of ‘black boxes’ but should also help to see how new ‘reflexive’ institutional arrangements may be developed, and should assess to what extent one can expect such institutional arrangements to overcome the fundamental contradictions that the ecological dilemma conceals. The chapter posits global environmental problems as the emblems of the 1990s, and puts them next to acid rain as emblematic of the 1980s. It analyses the way in which the politics of environmental discourse influences the institutional repercussions of ecological modernization. The book ends with a discussion of how institutional reflexivity could be enhanced. On the basis of the empirical findings it argues for an appreciation of the merits of a public domain to accommodate the social conflict over the ecological dilemma. It discusses several possible institutional innovations that would enhance the reflexivity of our way of dealing with the ecological dilemma and concludes with two concrete suggestions: the introduction of a ‘societal inquiry’ and the system of ‘discursive law’. It is argued that a strong public domain is the appropriate response to an anti‐realist understanding of the environmental problematique. It should not be seen as a dysfunctional suggestion but as a way to enhance the institutional capacity to cope with the many different, and indeed often contradictory problem definitions that are characteristic for environmental discourse of modern society.


(1) Cf. Schmandt et al. 1988; Regens and Rycroft 1988 for early studies on the American controversies; Boehmer‐Christiansen and Skea 1991 for a comparative study on the European controversies; and Cowling 1982 and Wetstone 1987 for a treatment of the history of the issue.

(2) WCED 1987: 178. Cf. also Wetstone 1987.