Conceptual Distinctions

"State" and "society" are concepts at the heart of the social sciences. As abstractions they denote, in the case of the state, the political system (to most, the "government"), the organized and integrated system of institutions, relationships, and rules able to imperatively command behavior. The "society," on the other hand, represents virtually everything else—the marketplace, religious organizations and communities, ethnic groups (families, tribes, clans), voluntary associations (from civic and social service organizations to sports, recreation and cultural organizations), social relationships, and spontaneously arising social movements.

Social contract theorists, beginning with the publication of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan in 1651 during the playing out of the English Civil War and Locke's writing of the Two Treatises of Civil Government in 1688, were the first to conceive of "society" as potentially free-standing and a counterpoise to the state. Their conception of an autonomous society was critical to the development of governments based on individual consent and the rise of democratic thought in the West. The model of an autonomous society provided a safe haven for the individual oppressed by the state, and thus seemed a limit to arbitrary state power. It is from this concept that some western societies derive their principles of constitutionalism, limited government, individual rights and liberties.

The state-society dichotomy, thus conceived, has played an important part in debates over environmental policy. For example, U.S. political culture tends to resist extensive government regulation of the environmental impacts of private actions (economic and otherwise). Reflecting a libertarian tradition derived from Locke, in debates over environmental policy, U.S. policy-makers often dichotomize these differences as free-market or voluntary solutions versus "command-and-control" or coercive solutions. Many Western European and developing states, basing state-society relations on social-democratic or Marxian traditions, see the state as both a guarantor and protector of human interests. These political cultures, many of which are also democratic, tend to be more amenable to regulatory policies as a means of providing for the public or general good. The assumption of the former is that markets self-regulate, distributing values of all kinds more efficiently and equitably than any political agency. The assumption of the latter is that the social forces embedded in free markets do not always distribute the costs and benefits of economic activities equitably but can be corrected through democratic political processes.

These distinctions and relationships between state and society are of particular importance for understanding environmental politics. Throughout the world, environmental politics has tended to originate as societal reactions to the negative and presumably unintended effects of economic activities (i.e., negative externalities) and government policies (ranging from fiscal and regulatory policies, to development projects, to war). Whether arising as "new social movements" or taking the form of conventional interest group or political party activities, environmentalism has become an important component of an independent and voluntary realm of political activity—what democratic theorists refer to as "civil society." States have also reacted to external pressures from other states, international organizations and international environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs—see chapter 3) by creating new environmental protection institutions and policies. In many cases international ENGOs become influential not only by pressuring governments directly, but through the establishment of information and support networks that raise awareness of environmental issues and provide political resources for domestic civil society organizations in their own attempts to influence national policy.1 Additionally, environmentalism has generated or revived interest in forms of democratic decision making that take place outside of the formal organs of the state authority such as deliberative, participatory and direct democracy at the community level. Theorists focusing on these latter developments have argued that environmentalism may both revitalize established, liberal democracies (as in the United States or Western Europe) and contribute to the weakening of authoritarian regimes (as in Mexico and the Soviet Union).2

We will be comparing the patterns of state-society relations cross-nationally, based on the available published literature, in the belief that these patterns offer insight into nation-state responses to domestic and global environmental events. This area of investigation also is historically contingent, and it stresses path dependency—that is, decisions made in the past impede or enhance the likelihood of similar decisions (or decision processes) in the present.3

This chapter considers four aspects of state-society relationships: traditional attitudes and values toward the environment; economic development and social change; development of a "new" environmental paradigm; and social organization and state decision-making.

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