The Environmental Trilemma

Dr. Umberto Mario Sconfienza

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts: 01/2018 – 12/2019

Environmental politics is dominated by a narrative which portrays the three policy goals of economic growth, enduring enjoyment of political freedoms - along the lines of liberal democracies -, and environmental protection as simultaneously attainable. Credits for naming and providing the first building blocks of this compelling and long-lasting narrative go to Gro Harlem Brundtland and her colleagues, who authored the report Our Common Future. The purpose of my project is threefold: first, to propose a new theoretical framework to describe current global environmental politics which does away with the notion of sustainable development; second, to heuristically use this framework to analyse and criticise current approaches to environmental politics; and third, to explore alternatives approaches. Concerning the first part, I will introduce what I call the Environmental Trilemma (ET). This is the idea that the three policy goals of (i) economic growth, (ii) enduring enjoyment of political freedoms, and (iii) environmental protection cannot be simultaneously attained. Only two of these three policy goals can be attained at any one time. The second part of the project will analyse the three possible combinations of ET:
(a) business as usual: economic growth + political freedoms (without environmental protection).  It characterizes the short-termism of capitalist democracies and the belief that environmental protection could be achieved through technology.
(b) post-growth approaches: political freedoms + environmental protection (without economic growth). These approaches deny that individual freedoms should be realized through the satisfaction of growing material desires and instead try to explore how needs can be met and human flourishing achieved without economic growth.
(c) environmental authoritarianism: economic growth + environmental protection (without political freedoms). It represents the position that a strong and undemocratic central authority might assume in order to protect the environment while continuing to pursue economic growth, which is considered a proxy for political power in international relations, as well as domestically necessary to alleviate poverty.
Finally, I aim to question whether and under what conditions ET truly stands. ET assumes that at least two policy goals can always be obtained. This is, in itself, a debatable, and debated, claim. In this sense, ET, as a description of current approaches to environmental politics, might be considered an over-optimistic framework. These considerations open up a space to argue that, given the set of policy possibilities offered by ET, more radical conclusions - such as radical degrowth, radical decentralisation or, even, uncivilisation - might follow.

The project is located in research area 3 “the plurality of normative orders: competition, overlapping, connection”. It explores current conflicts over what counts as equitable environmental protection; the three combinations of the trilemma are, in every way, three competing normative orders within which current and future environmental politics is thought and made thinkable.

In carrying out this project, I will depart from the hypothesis that the trilemma provides a framework of alternative possibilities in the domain of environmental politics. Then, through literature review, I will describe those alternative possibilities. I will then proceed in reconstructing the normative presuppositions undergirding the three different approaches. This part of the research will mainly draw on political theory. Finally, I will provide a comparison and an evaluation of these approaches.

The central aim of the project is thus to show that the wider architecture of the choices policy-makers will have to make in the future is more complex and wicked than commonly understood. Citizens have been shocked by the fluidity of politics in the last couple of years and they are now willing to question the standard assumptions upon which policy choices are made, e.g. the tenability of endless economic growth. This creates a context in which the reassessment of environmental politics I propose is particularly germane and could be highly impactful.


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