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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


June 2007

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A Greener Revolution in the Making? Environmental Governance in the 21st Century

Our ways of governing the environment are undergoing a revolution. The most salient feature of this revolution is that the primary actor that had been responsible for governing the environment for much of the post-World War II period—the state—is steadily becoming less important. In many instances, it is even being completely sidelined. This revolution is likely to gather steam as environmental problems become more urgent, connect in unforeseen ways, and create unexpected impacts. The profound implications of ongoing transformations require more careful, systematic, and thoughtful consideration than they have received in the past.

The importance of the state has declined for three big reasons. The most general reason is captured well in the notion of the “shrinking state” that is characteristic of the rise of neoliberal economic reforms and the associated prescriptions of tax cuts, smaller government, and privatization. The collective effect of these prescriptions has been retrenched bureaucracies and lower state revenues. They have also led to lower budgetary and human resources to implement and enforce environmental policies. In less developed countries, budgetary crises can be particularly costly to environmental protection because they affect state capacity while they increase the motivation to accelerate the extraction of natural resources to support growth.

Many new actors, decisionmakers, and partnerships have come to play increasingly important roles in what happens to the planet’s climate and to the water, forests, wildlife, air, and soils: in short, to everything that is meant by the word “environment.” At the same time, there is an entirely new universe of ways to regulate the environment. These new strategies of regulation are replacing and supplementing older strategies of control that were typically based on laws and fines.

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