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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

Sociology, Environmentalism, Globalization, by Steven Yearley. London: SAGE Publications (1996) 161 pages.


Reviewed by Peter S. Wenz, Professor of Philosophy, University of Illinois at Springfield

This book discusses the sociology of globalization, which concerns the extent of globalization, as well as its causes and effects, in many areas of social life, such as business, entertainment, and banking. The focus here is environmental issues. Yearley claims that the global nature of many environmental issues is overstated, that science and economics cannot provide value-neutral descriptions of problems and prescriptions for solutions, and that many global organizations and interest groups have a Northern bias. His theses are important, his writing is clear, and his reasoning is convincing.

Yearly argues persuasively in Chapter 1 that we live in an era of unprecedented globalization. Subjectively "people are increasingly viewing themselves as participants in a globalized world." Objectively, there is "the rise to prominence of more and more global processes·." (p. 1). Thus, "there are good grounds for taking the idea of globalization seriously" (p. 23). Yearley discusses the idea under five headings: finance, communications, culture, business, and politics. 

Sociologists tend to under-emphasize globalization because the discipline arose during the hegemony of the nation-state, whose supposedly separate societies became the focus of sociological attention. But nation-states are relatively recent phenomena and are so far from being natural that the consciousness of belonging to such a nation must continually be reinforced in people's minds through public education and distinctive flags, uniforms, license plates, and telephone booths. On the other hand, sociologists of globalization, who have transcended any narrow concern with nation-state societies, have not yet provided satisfactory accounts of global society. Perhaps, Yearley opines, the truths that will apply to the entire globe are those from the disciplines of mathematics, science, and ethics, because they claim truly universal validity.

Chapter 2 deals with the sociology of globalizing environmental concerns. Claims to global status for any issue tends to raise its profile in public consciousness and legitimate the objectives of concerned parties. If an issue, such as global warming or biodiversity loss, is perceived as global, it is assumed to affect everyone. It thus has a better chance than local, regional, or national issues of attracting widespread attention. People concerned about solving global problems are easily perceived as acting on behalf of everyone, so their goals seem legitimate. For these reasons environmental organizations reflect global concern in their names, such as Earth First and World Wide Fund for Nature, and promote the global status of the issues they confront.

However, the claim to global status is often weak. Yearley illustrates this by means of a helpful inventory, and succinct accounts, of major problems of pollution and resource depletion. He finds that "some forms of pollution appear to be inherently global (greenhouse gas pollution for example) while most other 'global' problems are rendered global by the effects of international trade and the world-wide spread of industrialization" (p. 42). For example, "air pollution from vehicles and land contamination are predominantly local. The dust, noise and loss of visual amenities associated with quarries are regionally concentrated. The effects of discharges from chemical works are usually felt only locally" (p. 60). 

Even inherently global problems do not inherently unite the world for their solution. First, problems such as global warming and ozone depletion affect different parts of the world differently. People living nearer the poles, for example, have more reason than others to worry about ozone depletion, and those living in low-lying coastal areas have more reason for concern about global warming (and consequent raising of sea levels). In short, we are not really all in the same boat (pp. 78-79), so people claiming to speak for global concerns may actually be defending more parochial interests. 

This is the main theme in the rest of the book. The representations of environmental problems by supposedly worldwide organizations tend to reflect a First World (North) viewpoint that differs significantly from a Third World (South) perspective. This bias is evident in the supposedly objective, value-neutral, and universal disciplines of science and economics. So indisputably global environmental problems and, even more, indisputably universal solutions to such problems, are hard to find.

To the North, for example, overpopulation in the South is an environmental problem. The earth can support only so many people. To the South, on the other hand,

Population is not of itself an environmental problem. The 'real' environmental harm associated with human populations is related both to their size and the amount they consume·. The average Northern citizen is twelve times as environmentally damaging as the average person from the South. [So] population reduction programmes are, in effect, a ploy by the North to maintain the prodigal lifestyles of its citizens, required ö in turn ö by its economies (p. 53).

Another major concern of the North related to overpopulation is the tendency of people to migrate from South to North. This also endangers Northerners' material standards of living. Concern about overpopulation is thus not neutrally global. Claims of neutral globality mask the interest of the North in maintaining unequal distributions of wealth between North and South.

Neutral solutions to global problems are also elusive. Addressing global warming requires reducing worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide. The problem was created by Northern industrial economies in the process of their development. (See pages 80-83.) The solution preferred in the North is that everyone stabilize and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The South points out that this would leave them in a position of permanent industrial under-development. They should be given a chance to develop industrially, even if this requires increasing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Science cannot step in as a neutral arbiter because "values and value-laden assumptions enter into the formulation of the issue before the 'facts' are even established" by science (p. 119). Again, consider carbon dioxide emissions. "In 1990 the World Resources Institute (WRI), a prestigious Washington-based think-tank, sought to produce figures indicating each country's CO2 emissions and thus their contribution to global warming for 1987" (p. 103). They calculated net emissions, subtracting increases in carbon dioxide sinks, such as forest growth, from each country's raw emissions. Half of the top ten emitting countries were in the Third World.

Indian researchers at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi objected to the WRI's calculations regarding sinks. "According to WRI and CSE over 56 per cent of humanly produced carbon dioxide is absorbed by environmental sinks" (p. 104). The WRI subtracted this from raw emissions for each country. There is a 56 percent discount for every liter of carbon dioxide that a country produces. The CSE claimed, however, that it was more appropriate to regard the earth's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide as "something like the global entitlement of the human race. On this approach one might wish to add up the absorptive capacity of all the natural sinks and then divide them equally between the global population. One could then allocate 'shares' to the various countries according to the size of their populations" (p. 104). Because India's population is so large, it has a great deal of the earth's carbon dioxide absorptive capacity allocated to it, and this is deducted from their raw emissions. Calculating net contributions to global warming this way shows India's carbon dioxide impact on global warming to be only a fourteenth of the United States' impact, and one ninth the German and British impacts. India is far from the top ten polluters.

Yearley gives other, excellent examples regarding carbon dioxide, ozone destroying chemicals, and biodiversity. He concludes: "Though, at first sight, science might be thought to be clearly universal and thus incontestably applicable to global problems, in practice its universality can be deconstructed and undermined" (p. 124).

He then shows that economics is the same. It purports to be value-neutral. But its insistence that monetary values be placed on all factors, and that these values be derived from what people are, or say they would be, willing to pay for things, contains a huge and contested assumption. Yearley quotes John O'Neill. The economist's "procedure treats all preferences as identical save in the 'intensity' with which they are held. It is blind to the reasons and arguments that individuals have for or against different proposals·. Preferences grounded in aesthetic, scientific or historical judgements · are treated on a par with preferences for flavour of ice-cream" (pp. 129-130). Yearly agrees that "preferences based on good reasons are better than ill-informed preferences," especially because so many "are known to be open to change and possibly manipulation through advertising, lobbying and so on" (p. 130). In sum, "environmental economics faces grave difficulties of principle and practice" (p. 130). 

Yearley goes on to show that the goal of "sustainable development" fails to provide an uncontested, universal discourse, because the very concept is difficult to define and contested. He concludes that there are no neutral criteria for identifying global environmental problems or for judging proposed solutions. We must recognize the necessity of a flexible, political approach that involves listening to a variety of voices. "A decisive element in improving our ability to deal with global environmental issues will be the shaking off of modernist assumptions about the ability of expertise to stand impartially for all. Such change will need to be accompanied by the transformation of major transnational institutions into far more reflexive bodies (p. 151).

Yearley's accounts are well written, comprehensive, and succinct. He makes some errors in Chapter 1 regarding philosophy, confusing, for example, a principle's generality with its universality. But those sections are not central to his thesis and so do not detract from it. The index is poor. In general, however, this book is an excellent aid to understanding important aspects of environmental issues.