This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on April 20, 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Agency, Democracy and Nature by Robert J. Brulle, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2000), x, 347 pp.


Reviewed by Kelly D. Alley, Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, Auburn University.


The environmental movement in the United States is a pluralistic and polyphonic one. The intention of Robert J. Brulle’s new book, Agency, Democracy and Nature is to bring to light the multiplicity of discourses and organizational structures at play in American environmentalism. Using Habermas’ ideal of a purely open and rational public sphere, Brulle aims to analyze the discursive frames and historical and structural components of American environmental organizations to suggest ways that American environmentalism can be transformed in the future. Although the book does not achieve the goal of tying Habermas to the analysis of the data in a heuristic way, it does present the reader with a series of interesting historical and analytical discussions that appreciate the varied legacies and expressions of contemporary environmentalism(s).

The author opens the book with an outline of our current ecological crisis. He states that a "quantum increase in the rate of social change" is required to avert the worst of the projected ecological consequences of the modern age (p. 12). Resurrecting critical theory from what he calls a "deadening scholasticism" (p. 10), Brulle aims to build a basis for using it to examine the social causes of ecological degradation. Yet without fully defining what ecological goals are possible in an ideal public sphere, he assumes that readers see the environmental crisis in the same way. This ends up working against the very idea his data reveal­that the public sphere is occupied by a multiplicity of perspectives on what nature and the environment mean.

Brulle reviews scientific approaches advanced in the 1980s that have explained the causes of ecological degradation. He appears to do this as a way to find a new model for understanding the social origins of ecological degradation and a new model for using theory to create a movement for social and ecological change. For this, he turns to Jurgen Habermas and reviews his model of communicative action, pointing to his movement from the everyday use of language to the formation of discourse and institutional organization (p. 23).

But not long into the text Habermas’ model begins to look a bit simplistic in view of the task at hand. First, Habermas considers that communicative action should ideally move toward a situation in which "participants harmonize their individual plans of action." Mutual agreement based in communication forms the basis for joint action. By adopting Habermas' neat prescription, Brulle closes himself off to the possibility that action to halt ecological degradation might proceed without "harmonized plans of action" or without agreement between parties "based on reasoned argument" (p. 24).

Brulle aims to analyze discourses in relation to data on the size and wealth of their corresponding organizations. Unfortunately, Brulle begins with a rather neat definition of discourse (p. 25-26). For him, discourse occurs when cumulative languages form a stable definition of the situation. Citing Teymur, he adds that discourse is "a formation constituted by all that is said, written or thought in a determinate field" (p. 25). Discourse is a commonly held stock of practical social know-how and using its pre-given image of social reality, members have a basis for acting together in an organized manner (p. 25). Organizations result from the development and instantiation of a discourse as a legitimate reality in a bounded network of action. For Brulle, a discourse provides the cultural basis from which stable behavioral expectations originate, joint action is undertaken and organizations are formed. This is just too neat.

Brulle also warns, following Habermas, that institutionalized communicative action reduces the burden on communicative action, creates stable organizational routines, and leads to the development of specialized knowledges over time. This communicative action ensures the reproduction of knowledge needed for social legitimation and for the socialization of adult personalities. This is Brulle’s way of saying that his analysis will be used to identify strengths to enhance and weaknesses to avoid in the building of a new public sphere of communicative action.

It is here that Brulle’s discussion of Habermas becomes long winded. He spends too much time reviewing Habermas’ model and not enough explaining how a new model can be constructed from the bedrock of Habermas. Although it is clear where the author is taking the discussion, he takes too long to get there. There is not yet a clear relation of Habermas to the problematic ahead. Moreover, Habermas is overplayed when Brulle writes that his model of communicative ethics can provide a model of justice, a standard for the creation of a moral and rational society, and a model from which a coherent worldview of current western society can be constructed (p. 42).

Again in Chapter 3, Brulle takes the reader through a rather long discussion of other approaches to human-environment interactions before beginning his sketch of a model. While this discussion is interesting it really belongs in a review article, not in a place where the author means to move decisively toward a model for analyzing his own collection of data. Again, he advocates for communicative action theory in order to counter the failure of market and state decision makers to take ecological knowledge into account. While many would agree that this is the case, there is a huge gap between the analyzed condition and the ideal way an eco ethics develops in public spheres outside domination by the market and state. What is required, he claims, is a fundamental restructuring of social order with democracy as the key component, civil society and voluntary associations at the seat of change, and alternative discourses flourishing. The ideal to bring about the social movement needed to prevent further ecological degradation is a long way away from the analysis at hand.

In Chapter 4, Brulle hones in on the need to study environmental organizations to understand social learning conditions and identify capabilities that can be enhanced to achieve the goals he has set out. He proposes to use discursive frame analysis, resource mobilization, and historical analysis to look at many environmental organizations. Unfortunately Brulle fails to connect these theoretical tools to the greater goal of using Habermas. In fact, he mixes the soup by introducing another definition of discourse, called the discursive frame, and taking the reader into another set of approaches. Finally at the end of the chapter, Brulle arrives at his tasks: first, to measure the environmental movement’s resource-mobilization capacity; second, to identify the discourses on which the components of the environmental movement are based; and third, to analyze the organizational practices that each discourse enables. This will shed light on the conditions that either foster or inhibit a movement organization’s ability to communicate the concerns of its members to the public sphere (p. 99).

In Chapter 5, Brulle uses tax data to describe various national environmental organizations by membership and staff size, income and income sources. In this way, a “movement” is measured in terms of membership size and income. But Brulle is fair to add that membership size does not mean strength in the field of communicative action. Members are permitted various levels of control and expression vis-ŕ-vis the interests of their Boards. In Chapter 6, Brulle scrolls through several American cultural discourses since Manifest Destiny, outlining their main principles and proponents. Beginning with the creation of national forests, he makes a series of historical traverses through national forest construction and protests over federal land and grazing policy and links these discourses to the expansion of government environmental programs in the western United States. The historical review is interesting. However, it does not flesh out these movement discourses in terms of the voices of those involved and thus makes for a rather weak reading of what a discourse is (in terms of "all that is said, written, or thought in a determinable field"). Save a few quotes and statements conveying organizational principles and objectives and a handful of poems, the analysis is based on events and other organizational data. It does not elaborate the terms and expressions used by group members or the way they become the everyday language of discourses that instantiate organizational structures.

In Chapter 7, Brulle turns to the early development of the environmental movement, discussing game protection, hunting and wildlife groups. This important historical discussion traces how environmentalism as an ideology derives from managerial interests. The discussion then rolls into the development of wildlife management organizations before returning to the historical account of conservation and preservation organizations. This chapter includes a great deal of interesting information but it is presented to the reader in a series of historical traverses through what the author is calling discursive frames. This means that one goes back and forth through time in several rounds, tracing out a few components of the discourse’s principles and key objectives, and linking them to institutional growth and change. This leaves the reader with a rather schizophrenic perspective, not with a clear way to understand these discourses in relation to each other or to their own organizational structures.

Chapter 8 looks at reform environmentalism, what the author calls the most dominant environmental discourse today. Again there is an interesting discussion of the origins of reform environmentalism in the miasma theory of nineteenth century Britain, in Malthus’ writings, in the Sanitary movement and in other moments in time. But when the discussion ends with an outline of the current income sources for reform environmental organizations as an aggregate, it fails to make the connections between the legacies of the past and the task of assessing the composition and agendas of contemporary organizations. Brulle finds that reform environmentalism fosters the development of oligarchic organizations that in turn keep them isolated from the members they represent. But, unfortunately he does not work out the way in which the discourses he has outlined are substantiated to create these organizational structures. Rather, discourses are extrapolated from data on membership, income sources and historical reviews.

Chapter 9 reviews the alternate discourses of deep ecology, environmental justice, eco-feminism, and eco-theology. Again the historical discussions of these trajectories are interesting but the author ends up using structural data to make an argument about discourse. The author uses chapter ten to sum up the environmental movement, confusing further what this collectivity means. His substantive chapters summarized separate but often cross-cutting discourses over time, but this chapter assumes a contemporary movement, divides various environmental organizations, and looks at organizational categories (net worth, membership, political structure, and accountability to the membership and the wider public).

In the final chapter, Brulle brings the discussion back to his starting point in critical theory but only to conclude with an ideal. The ideal is to democratize environmental organizations, make them more responsive to member participation and increase the range of voices that are considered legitimate players in the public sphere. While the reader may agree with the goal, there is no clear path for getting there set out in this book, and though inclusive in focus and insightful in parts, no clear way to understand how it is that communicative action can halt ecological degradation.