The Future of ‘Environmental’ Policy: Time for a Paradigm Shift

Updated: Apr 30

Over the last fifty years the notion of ‘environmental’ policy has become a mainstay in public and academic discourse. And yet, in today’s global crisis of climate change, biodiversity depletion, global land degradation and even threats of ‘climate engineering’, the traditional notion of ‘environmental policy’ has lost its lustre.

In a 2021 article in Environmental Politics, I have put forward a fundamental critique of what I call the mainstream ‘environmental policy’ paradigm, and I have questioned its continued relevance. I define this paradigm there as a traditionally widely shared belief that a definable ‘environment’ exists outside the human sphere that needs to be protected by humans and their political institutions; and that ‘environmental’ institutions and policies are the right way of dealing with such challenges, as entities distinct from economic, health, food or agricultural institutions.

I argue that this mainstream ‘environmental policy’ paradigm, shaped in the 1970s and 1980s, falls short when dealing with the novel challenges of the Anthropocene. It still operates from a dichotomy of ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ that is outdated. It is incompatible with innovative approaches that seek to overcome the human-environment dichotomy, from planetary boundaries to the circular economy. With its inherent focus on narrow problem-solving and policy effectiveness, it deemphasizes questions of planetary justice and global democracy, and it does not provide conceptual guidance to address novel normative challenges of the Anthropocene. Politically, framing earth system transformations such as climate change as ‘environmental problems’ might have harmed their standing in the policy system, which, for example, the new discourses of ‘climate emergency’ seek to address.

This does not mean, I also argue, that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The environmental policy paradigm has shaped and created over half a century a vast array of institutions, policies and actor networks across the globe, and it is pointless and risky to argue for the total replacement of such institutions through new types of ‘Anthropocene institutions’.

Yet at the same time, major reforms in discursive framings, institutional arrangements and policy approaches are needed to cope with the novel challenges of earth system transformation. We need novel approaches in science and assessment; better integration of sectoral policies that follow an earth-systems approach; new approaches to deal with the injustices of our economic system and the challenges to our democracies that come with global change and earth system transformation; and institutional realignments to prepare for the worst impacts of earth system transformations that we cannot stop.

Read my full article here.