League tables and liberal environmentalism

You may be interested in this recently produced league table of air pollution that has been reported in Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2011/10/01/worlds-most-dangerous-places-to-breath/. In many ways league tables like this fit perfectly with the logic of what Bernstein (2000) has described as liberal environmentalism: create a  competitive landscape for environmental innovation and the places that produce the best quality environment will benefit as people vote with their feet and move to them. These arguments have recently been articulated in Matthew E. Kahn’s liberal environmental manifesto Climatopolis: How Cities will Thrive in a Hotter Future (Basic Books, 2010). According to Kahn (a direct descendent of the Chicago School of Economics) climate change represents not so much a threat, but a new competitive landscape upon which “green entrepreneurs” can carve out a new ecological circuit of capital accumulation (presumably to ease the crisis ridden primary and second circuits associated with consumable goods and property respectively). This cornucopian vision of the environmental future necessitates a global market place (to ensure that investment can flow en masse to the most environmentally innovative places) and continued economic growth (to ensure that the incentive for innovation is secured by the promise of wealth).

There are clear problems with the liberal environmentalism embodied in the work of Kahn and expressed in environmental league tables. At one level, they say little of who is able to move between places (largely a group of what Cresswell calls the “Kinetic Elite”), or of how wealthy communities tend to displace polluting activities downstream, downwind and increasingly off-shore. They are also based upon the assumption that technologies can/will solve our current environmental problems. It is not that I don’t believe in the power of technological innovation, but rarely are technological developments produced in direct response to socio-ecological needs or wielded by those who most need them. In a recent article for the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Hodson and Marvin (2009) describe the emergence of a new era of Urban Ecological Security. Urban Ecological Security describes the processes in and through which already powerful places (like New York, London, and Tokyo) are using their wealth to create enclaves of security within which they can ward-off the worst effects of climatic threats and energy insecurities. It seems to me that liberal environmentalism is much more likely to lead to the production of an  archipelago of environmental privilege than a promised land of ecological security for all. Liberal environmentalism is built upon the necessary abandonment of certain (often disadvantaged) places as part of the uneven development of a new ecological circuit of capital accumulation.

Hodson, M & Marvin, S 2009, ‘Urban Ecological Security: A New Paradigm?’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research33(1), pp.193-215.


About Mark J Whitehead

Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University
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