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Below is the introduction to a 15,000 essay I just completed, summing up the theoretical and historical basis for my critique of UN environmental discourse, particularly the UNCED documents. This was completed for a graduate social theory course, and will be used in different sections of my thesis. I have only provided the first 3 of 61 pages here. People who wish to discuss these points more specifically may email me, and will send the entire document for further discussion.


Abstract: The industrialized world is in the midst of a paradigm shift.  Involved in this development is the placement of ecological concerns in the center of human affairs.  In this paper, I investigate this shift by examining the discourse of the United Nations, particularly the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and the Rio Declaration, which influenced the voluminous Agenda 21.  The United Nations represents a strategic site in the global arena where states, non-governmental organizations and transnational corporations are responding to growing demands for development and environmental sustainability.  The demand for environmentally sustainable policy comes from a shared knowledge from both citizens’ groups and UNCED participants of both the principles and findings of ecological sciences and of the perception of an existing or pending ecological crises rooted in past modes of development, production and consumption.  This discourse is an indicator of emerging worldview, which reflects ecology as a core value in the commitment to global development, a phenomena I refer to as the greening of globalism.  My research involves a characterization of the new green globalism as committed to growth, corporatism, and technological-advancement, while accounting for – and, when possible, limiting – environmental impacts.  Additionally the social constructionist perspective helps to explain the role of green globalism in defining and prioritizing environmental issues.  Finally, the efficacy of green globalism is critically evaluated, suggesting that global development and sustainability may indeed be mutually exclusive, and that the emerging paradigm shift offers critical opportunities to transform society to a more sustainable one.


On October 27, 2009, Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Imhofe found himself alone among senators from both parties in his denial of anthropogenic climate change during a Senate environment committee meeting. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), negotiated with Democrat leaders on a compromise to respond to climate change and reduce carbon emissions. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) admitted that “eleven academies in industrialized countries say that climate change is real; humans have caused most of the recent warming.” Industrial-state Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) proclaimed that global warming “is a serious and complex issue that deserves our full attention,” and oil-state Senator David Vitter (R-La) admitted his desire to help “get us beyond high-carbon fuels” and “focus on conservation, nuclear, natural gas and new technologies like electric cars” (Milbank, “A Senator in a Hostile Climate”).

The topic at hand is a characterization of an emerging paradigm shift, foremost represented in discourse, of which this incident is one of many indicators. This paradigm shift is occurring throughout the industrialized world, in which people are rapidly placing ecological concerns at the center of their discourse. While there is much reason to doubt the veracity and effectiveness of these senators’ concerns, or similar sentiments offered by other government or industry officials, such is not my aim herein. Further, I will not discuss the degree or existence of anthropogenic contributions to climate change. What is perhaps most crucial to note is that discourse indicating this paradigm shift is becoming more prominent among figures in government and industry, and in the missions and statements of entire governmental structures which expressly mitigate the interests of both capitalist expansion and ecological imperatives. In the first section of this paper, I investigate the paradigm from which we are leaving, and characterize the new paradigm that we see emerging, with particularly attention to the global level.

The typical response from critics of capitalism and globalism, as well as defenders of the environment, is that all that any discourse among elites which prioritizes environmental concerns only adds up to public relations, or empty words. With a historic perspective, however, we see that in a matter of a few decades, the responses of large corporations and governments have altered dramatically. More importantly, this discourse emerged in the midst of a burgeoning environmental movement, responding to mounting perceptions of environmental problems of catastrophic nature. In the second section of this paper, I will place the emergence of ecological discourse within a broader cultural and global context, and in the third section offer several explanations for the change.

Even while the environmental movement was in its infancy, the United Nations (UN) placed ecological concerns on their agenda in 1972. In the fourth section, I will provide a brief history of the structural and textual development of the UN’s environmental programs. What we see here is a growing concern for sustainability in the development programs of this primary global governing body. Knowledge that the industrialized world had exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth, coupled with the demand for further development led to new structures, new dialogue and the synthesis of sustainable development through the greening of globalism.

In the next section, we examine the UN itself and the publications of declarations by the UN as a strategic site for the investigation of an emerging globalist worldview in which ecology was increasingly present. We see the functional role of the UN’s environmental and development initiatives a global corporatist government that facilitates trade and manages risk (cf Hardt & Negri, 2001, 4-6). The primary purpose of this paper, generally, and in the fifth section of this paper, specifically, is to grapple with a refined ideological and operational definition of sustainable development as constructed by the UN. In this section, we will characterize the greening of globalism as best typified by the UN’s “Rio Declaration” and Agenda 21. Later research will delve much deeper into the concepts we touch on here, utilizing quantitative and qualitative data gathered using textual content analysis of these documents. This paper will provide a basic explanation of green globalism based on critical reviews of these texts by this author and others.

In the following sections we look at green globalism critically. The sixth section considers the poverty of ideological and operational critiques offered by radical ecological theories and movements. I offer some historical and theoretical explanations for their inadequacies, and some suggestions for evolving radical ecological theories to meet contemporary demands. The seventh section problematizes sustainable development and green globalism, looking at key areas expounded upon by the UN in the “Rio Declaration” and Agenda 21. Finally, in the last section, we look at the opportunity accorded to us by the emerging paradigm shift, to create a truly sustainable world.

Some quotes:

(pages 16-17):

Small businesses are increasingly searching for eco-friendly options in their operations and production (see Barrett 2009), and large corporations are developing “environmental innovation [strategies] … influenced by significant environmental pressures, including government environmental regulation, perceived importance of stakeholder pressures, and managerial environmental concerns” (Fiadat et al 2007, 131).  “The Obama administration has pledged more than $100 billion for sustainable technologies; China plans to spend $200 billion, and the G-20 industrialized nations some $400 billion. Venture capitalists around the world have pumped in excess of $20 billion into clean-tech companies since 2005” (Johnson and Suskewicz 2009, 53).

These developments reflect a paradigm shift rooted not only in the changing demands of policy and the growing awareness of the profitability of “natural capitalism” (see Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 2008), but also in ecological imperatives and post-materialism, discussed later.  Many of these changes are still exceptional, but the trends and the demands that created them suggest that they will soon become the rule.  The paradigm is shifting, not only as represented by the discourse of capitalists, but also in their behavior and investments.

Just as the world was awakening to the destruction caused by industrial production and overconsumption in the modernized world, a political structure was reaching its final stages, complete with global institutions to manage trade through neocorporatist infrastructures and manage rising social concerns through pluralist mechanisms.  In 1978, Immanuel Wallerstein wrote that “by the late nineteenth century, the capitalist world-economy included virtually the whole inhabited earth, and it is presently striving to overcome the technological limits to cultivating the remaining corners: the deserts, the jungles, the seas, and indeed the other planets of the solar system” (6).   The global structures – the UN, World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others – have managed the political and material technologies to straddle those hurdles, and, indeed, “today there is only one social system and therefore only one mode of production extant, the capitalist world-economy” (Wallerstein, 1978, 7).

(pages 19-20):

Environmental issues and the discourse thereof is mitigated through a complex web of social and cultural occurrences, and intrinsically linked with power relationships. The UN is responding to a fading paradigm by synthesizing new ideas and building new structures to manage, monitor and facilitate “sustainable development.” In a post-industrial world, the material and ecological dictates render equating development and traditional industrial production an outdated arithmetic: “modernization has come to an end … industrial production is no longer expanding its dominance over other economic forms and social phenomena” (Hardt and Negri 2000, 285). In the old paradigm, both capitalism and communism embraced an unbridled industrialism (see Hannigan 1995, 22). But the postmodern informatization of production and the environmental destruction wrought by industrial production have contributed to the postmodernization of the global economy. This “does not mean that industrial production will be done away with or even that it will cease to play an important role,” however, “just as industrialization transformed agriculture and made it more productive, so too the informational revolution will transform industry by redefining and rejuvenating manufacturing processes” (Hardt and Negri 2000, 285). Three decades ago, the symbol often used by the environmental movement to represent capitalist overproduction – the smokestack – was quite appropriate. Today, a more apt symbol might be the cell phone or the personal computer.

Hannigan argues “from time to time, the state finds it necessary to engage in a limited degree of environmental intervention in order to stop natural resources from being exploited with abandon and to enhance its legitimacy with the public” (1995, 20). What we will likely see in this emerging paradigm is that this intervention will be continuous and unlimited, where before it was occasional and limited. The UN facilitates free trade mitigated by concerns for achieving greater balance between market demands and the capacity of the Earth. In doing so, the UNCED provided the groundwork for a global corporatist structure. The most important voices were those of the richest nations and of transnational corporations. However, NGOs representing interest groups and representatives of poorer nations were also heard, and transnational corporations were intimately involved not only in the discussions, but in directly drafting policy (see Finger 2002). This corporatist structure has a distinctively pluralist flair, whereby crises of human rights or environmental degradation are not managed by regulations but through discourse and juridical declarations. However, global production and consumption requires not only the liberalization of trade restrictions, but also the active facilitation by the UN and finance of other bodies working in concert with the UN (i.e. IMF).

(pages 22-23):

Of Chamberlin’s cultural narratives discussed above, “Denial” is becoming a less popular response every day. “Since 1970, concern about the degradation of the global environment has mounted rapidly throughout the world. Both the media and the public in the United States seem to have accepted the not implausible idea that a dire global ‘crisis’ of the environment is upon us” (Marx 1992, 449).

It is not within the scope of this paper to list and evaluate the most pressing of environmental concerns according to public discourse or environmental scientists. Regardless of the degree of immediacy of the threats of ecological catastrophe, the popular perception is that there are indeed a number of serious environmental problems, and many or most of them require immediate remedy. This is the essence of the paradigm shift. Either there is an environmental crisis or there is not. The “Deniers” believe there not to be one. Many of them, like Sen. Imhofe, are regarded as lunatics or heretics, if not motivated by direct, personal profit. “Deniers” may very well stand to lose material or social privileges if the response to the perceived crisis is swift and significant. What is more compelling is the rising numbers of people and businesses who stand to lose at least some profits, yet stand up in recognition of the dire ecological circumstances with which we are presented. The seeming consensus among the capitalist class is that there is indeed an environmental crisis coming or currently among us.

If there is a mounting crisis, and that crisis has at least something to do with human causation – anthropogenic effects – then it follows, since we depend on our ecosystem for our survival, that there is some obligation to prevent at least some of those causes. Some environmentalists believe that the entire capitalist class is either completely motivated by immediate profits or stupid. These people believe either that they possess some secret or hidden knowledge about the environmental crisis, or that the crisis does not present a significant enough of a threat to damage the power base of the capitalist class. If the latter is true, then the situation is clearly not catastrophic. And since most research regarding climate change and other environmental problems are funded by and clearly known to the ruling class, we know the former to not be the case. The ecological imperative felt by environmentalists is understandably, then, motivating some reforms among the capitalist class and global institutions, however grudgingly.

(page 51):

…New traditions in liberal environmental thought show that at least this branch of ecological social and political thought is evolving with the new paradigm. Unfortunately, radical environmentalism has been slow or resistant to evolve. Marxists, anarchists, eco-primitivists and anti-civilization writers and activists have yet to even acknowledge green globalism. In disregarding the paradigm shift, or dismissing it as greenwashing, the powerful tradition of radical environmentalism is losing a major battle in the resistance to a world order of unprecedented power. Anti-capitalist critiques that have central to their argument that capitalism operates on purely material terms and environmentalist critiques that demand ever-increasing ecological destruction may seem ridiculous as more post-material values come to play more frequently and ecological destruction is lessened by governments and corporations. Conflict theories that frame change as being shaped purely by antagonisms between two classes of human actors are missing the key function of ecological imperatives, as carrying capacity is exceeded, forcing changes in global capitalism.

(pages 53-57):

“The subtext of all the major documents, based on reform environmentalism, is that an increasing population of humans will ‘sustainably’ use increasing amounts of ‘natural resources’ by efficiently using evolving technologies such as biotechnology, computer technology, nanotechnology, and energy technology” (Devall 2001, 28). Beder describes the role of technology in development:

There is a great reliance on technology to solve environmental problems around the world today, because of an almost universal reluctance by governments and those who advise them to make the social and political changes that would be necessary to reduce growth in production and consumption. Yet the sorts of technological changes that would be necessary to keep up with and counteract the growing environmental damage caused by increases in production and consumption would have to be fairly dramatic. The technological fixes of the past will not do … At the heart of the debate over the potential effectiveness of sustainable development is the question of whether technological change, even if it can be achieved, can reduce the impact of economic development sufficiently to ensure other types of change will not be necessary (Beder 2000, 230).

She refers to Johan Schot, explaining “that radical technological change can only occur if the social context also changes” (ibid., 234). There are two issues present in this characterization of the role of technology in development. The first is capability: can technology develop fast enough to meet the rapid development and increasing consumption in the world? The second is social change: technological change demands social change; what kinds of changes would be entailed?

New technologies are developing rapidly, however, not as rapidly as the populations of the developing world are increasing consumptive patterns through modernization. Bright green environmentalists, transnational corporations and the UN seem to be absolutely faithful that technological advancement will magically hasten, as development is moving forward full bore, and consumptive patterns in the industrialized world are changing only minimally.
Assuming the magic of modern technological development solves the critical problems of increasing development and production in an ecologically safe manner, we must question what this would involve on financial, social and political levels. By placing the fate of the ecosystems upon which we rely for survival in new technologies, we give the ultimate power to technologists. Surely this will come at great expense and create the most powerful global industry humanity has ever witnessed. Regardless of whether the developing world or industrialized nations foot the bill, the bill will be paid to corporations who hold the lives of the world’s population in their hands. Technologies are typically fragile requiring maintenance and continued investment to the machines and devices and the infrastructures which house them, all of which will certainly come at a significant price. To surrender our desire for ever-increasing consumption of ever-useless objects and to trade sustainable ways of life for ones that requires constant technological modification, wraps up the entire world in this system, assuring that increasing development – which may or may not be sustainable – will certainly be technocratic in the most totalitarian sense.

The critique of technology and industrialism as necessary for the level of destruction of the environment and exploitation of resources and labor is not an essential component of the paradigm shift, but a frequent theme, both among civil society and in UN discourse. However, the result of this criticism, namely the proposals for solutions, represents a clear fracture. One side sees the need to reform production methods and to develop cleaner technological applications, while the other sees advanced technology and industrialism as entirely problematic, regardless of the degree of ecological concern and wisdom injected into their management.

Historically, deep ecologists and other radical segments of the environmental movement have focused much attention on directly challenging and subverting destructive environmental practices in production. As the world is waking up to the cataclysmic urgency of our environmental problems, and as governments and corporations are waking up to the critical need for reform in the face of impending collapse, radicals should prioritize challenging the movement to increase dependence of global institutions and technologies.

That humanity is gravely threatened by past modes of production is beginning to be a universal assumption. Certainly the discourse of the UN generally fits into this new paradigm. We have seen, above, a few reasons why the response is lacking. What would another response look like? If a totalitarian and genocidal regime, bent on colonial expansion were in possession of nuclear weapons and espousing rhetoric of a willingness to use them, the UN Security Counsel would likely respond by facilitating a coalition to invade, disarm and occupy this nation. What if the continuing mode of development threatens even more lives than past dictators whom the UN has helped mobilize against? What if the Earth is extended beyond its carrying capacity (a presumption generally agreed upon) and technologies to rectify the problem are too slow to keep up? Thus far, all evidence points to accelerating problems and failures of solutions (Catton 2009). One response would be to treat a polluting factory like a storage facility for weapons of mass destruction – it wouldn’t be such a stretch to define many current systems of production as such weapons, ones that causes destruction to human and nonhuman life that rivals any atomic device. Some indigenous people, who wish to resist development and maintain their primitive ways of life, oppose the continuation of these modes of production and the efforts of the UN to spread development into undeveloped parts of the world (Survival International 2007). Development is not seen as freedom, but as death and destruction.

Perhaps a global body, which authentically views ecological destruction as a national or global security risk, would respond by creating standards of sustainability tied to the carrying capacity of a land base and existing solutions to manage them. Extending beyond this carrying capacity would be responded to as an immediate and future threat to human and nonhuman safety, excesses halted by any necessary means and further development beyond the capacities of land bases would be prevented. If the assurance of sustainability is the goal of the UN, such an approach may be the only way to assure the survival of the majority of humankind (see Catton 1980 and 2009).

2 Responses to “Characterizing a paradigm shift: The UN discourse on sustainable development as the greening of globalism”

  1. Amanda Mill

    Hey Ben,

    Being that the majority of your writing I have been exposed to thus far has been limited to brief postings on Facebook, I am thoroughly impressed. Please do send me the final product, as both globalism and environmentalism are of interest to me.

    As far as specifics go, I absolutely love this line:

    This corporatist structure has a distinctively pluralist flair, whereby crises of human rights or environmental degradation are not managed by regulations but through discourse and juridical declarations.

    Your succinct statement gives heed to the pressing need for regulatory measures to address global industrial expansion and its environmental impacts. Because I am not familiar with the UNCED, I would like to see more discussion in regard to the UNCED’s discourse or lack of discourse surrounding regulation and any proposed consequences for violations. Also, I would be interested in how much discourse is proactive versus reactionary.

    I found the final section to be the most compelling. I agree it is a foolish, yet common, assumption that we will develop the technology to solve the impending environmental crisis before it’s too late. Your point about how much power would accompany the proprietor of such a technology (whether it be a nation, corporation, etc) could have major implications, especially in respect to how dire the situation is at the time of its development. Has this issue been addressed at all?

    Hope my comments have been somewhat helpful. Sorry it has taken me so long to read/respond- been doing a lot of overtime at work!

  2. Michael Barker

    Today I have just published a related article that critiques the United Nations role in promoting corporate environmentalism, see

    Taking Strong Action for Capitalist-Led Environmental Destruction, Swans Commentary, January 11, 2010. (Critique of the United Nations, the Stockholm Conference, and the Earth Summit.)

    http://www.swans.com/library/art16/barker40.html

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