The Political Economy of the Environment

The Political Economy of the Environment

James K. Boyce

In a provocative and original analysis, James K. Boyce examines the dynamics of environmental degradation in terms of the balances of power between the winners and the losers. He provides evidence that inequalities of power and wealth affect not only the distribution of environmental costs, but also their overall magnitude: greater inequalities result in more environmental degradation. Democratization – movement toward a more equitable distribution of power – therefore is not only a worthwhile objective in its own right, but also an important means toward the social goals of environmental protection and sustainable development.

Chapter 1: Stealing the Commons

James K. Boyce

Subjects: economics and finance, environmental economics, environment, environmental economics, environmental politics and policy, politics and public policy, environmental politics and policy, european politics and policy

Extract

The law doth punish man or woman that steals the goose from off the common, but lets the greater felon loose who steals the common from the goose. – Anonymous Nature underpins human livelihoods both as a source of raw materials and as a sink for the disposal of our wastes. The quality of the natural environment can be profoundly affected, however, by how we distribute power and wealth among ourselves. The Earth is the home and common heritage of all humankind, but some people claim more of its bounty than others. Access to ‘natural capital’ – a phrase lately in vogue among economists – is filtered through our political and economic institutions. Those people who are relatively wealthy and powerful generally reap more of the benefits from uses of the environment, and bear fewer of the costs from its abuse, than do those who are relatively poor and powerless. Disparities of power and wealth influence not only how nature’s pie is sliced, but also its overall magnitude. When disparities are great, those at top of the political and economic ladder can more easily pollute the air and water and deplete the natural resource base of those at the bottom. When disparities are small, those on the bottom rungs of the shorter ladder are better able to defend themselves. A democratic distribution of power and an equitable distribution of wealth, therefore, can help to protect the environment. Conversely, an oligarchic distribution of power and an inequitable distribution of wealth can exacerbate...