The Political Economy of the Environment
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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.
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Chapter 9: Democratizing Environmental Ownership

James K. Boyce


A central theme in this book has been the intimate connection between how people treat each other and how they treat the environment. One way in which people wield power over others is by imposing environmental costs on them. To be sure, this is not normally done for its own sake. In most cases – with the notable exception of warfare – poisoning other people’s air or water and diminishing their natural resource base is not an end in itself, but simply a side-effect of the pursuit of the usual economic aims of production and consumption at the least cost. The costs that producers and consumers seek to minimize, however, are not total costs, but only the internal costs they bear themselves. The ability of economic actors to impose external costs on others, thereby reducing their own internal costs, depends on the relative power of those who generate pollution and resource depletion vis-à-vis those on the receiving end of these costs. When the power disparity between them is wide, we can expect more environmental degradation than when the disparity is narrow. This link, between the power to abuse other people and the power to abuse the environment, suggests that democratization, in the broad sense of movement toward a more equal distribution of power, can promote environmental protection. This is not to say that democracy offers a panacea for environmental ills, or that the strength of environmental policy depends only on the strength of democracy. The values and preferences of citizens matter,...

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