Globalization and environmental politics

Globalization and Environmental Social Movements

Environmental social movements include protest movements and lobbying groups, generally started by ordinary citizens, that work to preserve and protect the natural environment in local communities, and at national and international levels. Such groups have a history dating back to the conservation and preservation societies (such as the Audobon Society) of the late 19th century. Many more environmental social movements, such as Greenpeace, were founded in the 1960s and 1970s. Many analysts argue that environmental groups like Greenpeace represent a new, "globalized" form of politics (e.g. Wapner 1996). Globalization has indeed altered the landscape in which environmental social movements operate. Thus the purpose of this article is to briefly summarize major perspectives on how globalization—including economic, political, and cultural globalization—has shaped environmental social movements in countries around the world.

Economic Dependency

Beginning with the pioneering work of Wallerstein (e.g. 1974), social scientists have argued that social and political issues within nations must be understood in the context of a global economic system. Dependency theory is premised on the idea that less developed countries are exploited by over-consumptive countries who seek to enhance economic growth. In an effort for exploited nations (whose economies are generally less commodified) to enhance their own economic growth, exploited nations offer natural resources and labor at prices much lower than those available in the markets of the exploiting countries. In turn, the exploiting countries support policies that maintain an economy based on exploitation of natural resources and the local labor market. Within this paradigm, environmental activism within a nation is seen as a response to the ecological damages brought about by global economic liberalization and industrialization. In dependency arguments, environmental movements in developing countries are seen as opposed to the encroaches of multinational corporations, abetted by national governments, into local, communitarian settings.

Cultural Diffusion

Cultural diffusion is generally known as the process by which ideas, values, and courses of action are spread from one society to another. Globalization generally promotes indirect diffusion, which results in cultural changes that become embedded within societies even when two cultures do not have direct geographical contact. From a cultural diffusion perspective, environmental social movements, especially those in developing countries, are thought to mimic environmental movements in more developed countries, while at the same time the issues raised as a priority in developed countries may originate in developing nations. This is partly because public awareness of environmental problems is in large measure a product of global communications technology. Images of environmental damage, from footage of strip-mined mountain ranges and oil-soaked beaches and wildlife, to renderings of the ozone hole and greenhouse effect, are routinely broadcast worldwide by satellite television and the Internet. It has become routine for people who have never set foot in Eastern Europe, China, or a rainforest to be aware of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, the ecological and social costs of the Three Gorges Dam project, and the loss of tropical biodiversity. In this way, global environmentalism is a result of the “cultural power” of both the global media and international nongovernmental organizations. Cultural arguments tend to treat instances of “indigenous” anti-globalization environmental activism with skepticism. Instead, instances of environmental activism in developing countries are argued to result from flows of information radiating from global center to periphery. Through the global media, global networks of nongovernmental organizations, and even multinational corporations, environmental politics in the developing world is seen as being influenced by the politics of the developed world as much as by local grievances and interests.

Globalization as Hybridization

Hybridization is premised on the idea that when cultures mix, ideas and values are shared to result in the evolution of a new culture, which is often some form of a synthesis of the ideas and values of the originating cultures. This hybridization perspective sees globalization as leading not only to economic and cultural uniformity, but as creating new opportunities for identity politics within nations. This perspective focuses on how globalization weakens traditional state power as new social and political infrastructure appears, often via the following processes:

  1. economic globalization erodes states’ sovereignty over economic policy
  2. media liberalization and global communications technology erodes states' media hegemony
  3. media globalization weakens public faith in large state-sponsored development projects, because faults with such projects are given immediate national and global exposure (e.g. the Chernobyl episode)
  4. accelerating flows of people (such as migrants and tourists) and capital across national borders creates new resources and opportunities for identity politics within nations
  5. global civil society works to protect minority rights within nations

These five processes have weakened states' power and hegemony, have created opportunities for sub-state actors, and have led to new, "hybrid" forms of environmental politics. Examples include environmental justice groups, religious environmental groups, and highly organized local and regional groups that combine indigenous cultural traditions with environmental causes and concerns. Groups such as these are organized more at local and global levels than at the level of the nation-state.

Further Reading

  • Frank, David, Schofer, Evan, and Hironaka, Ann. 2000a. "The Nation-State and the Natural Environment" American Sociological Review 65 (1): 96-116.
  • Garcia-Johnson, Ronie. 2000. Exporting Environmentalism: U.S. Multinational Chemical Corporations in Brazil and Mexico. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Guha, Ramachandra, and Juan Martinez-Alier. 1997. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. London: Earthscan.
  • Hoffman, Andrew. 2001. From Heresy to Dogma: An Institutional History of Corporate Environmentalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Hoffman, Andrew and Marc Ventresca. 2002. Organizations, Policy and the Natural Environment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Jorgenson, Andrew K., and Edward L. Kick. 2003. "Globalization and the Environment." Journal of World-System Research 9(2): 195-203.
  • Roberts, J. Timmons and Nikki Demetria Thanos. 2003. Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crises in Latin America. London: Routledge.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World System. New York: Academic Press.
  • Wapner, Paul. 1996. Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Yearley, Steven. 1996. Sociology, Environmentalism, Globalization: Reinventing the Globe. London: Sage.


Ignatow, G. (2007). Globalization and environmental politics. Retrieved from


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