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 4: Inequality as a Cause of Environmental Degradation

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


We can’t see how the authorities can say they defend the ecological system, while at the same time deploying police to protect those who are destroying the forest. Brazilian rubber tappers union leader Chico Mendes (1989:60), shortly before his assassination INTRODUCTION Economic activities that degrade the environment generally yield winners and losers. Without winners – people who derive net benefit from the activity, or at least think that they do – the environmentally degrading activities would not occur. Without losers – people who bear net costs – they would not matter in terms of human well-being.1 In analyzing an environmentally degrading economic activity, therefore, we can pose three basic questions, as noted in Chapter 3: ● ● ● Who are the winners? Who are the losers? Why are the winners able to impose costs on the losers? The last question has three possible answers. One is that the losers do not yet exist. They belong to future generations, and so are not here to defend themselves. The second possibility is that the losers already exist, but they do not know it; they lack information about the costs of environmental degradation. The third possibility is that the losers exist and know it, but they lack the power to prevent the winners from imposing costs on them. This chapter addresses mainly, though not exclusively, the last case.2 Traditional microeconomic analysis treats the external costs of environmental degradation as an impersonal by-product of economic activity. The identities of those who produce negative externalities, and of those on the...

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