Globalization and Environment Essay

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The term globalization refers to the increased interconnectedness of people and environments around the world through the transfer and exchange of capital, ideas, money, labor, and commodities. Globalization encompasses global integration through investment and capital flows between nations; the emergence of new political territories; the diffusion of information and technologies; and the movement of cultural identities and practices around the globe.

Globalization therefore describes a transformation in the spatial organization of social, political, and economic relations between global actors. The term globalization is also a rhetorical tool used in public discussions about the state of global economic, social, and environmental conditions. The term is used by a variety of ideological positions including both pro-globalization and alter-globalization (oftentimes labeled anti-globalization) activists. Globalization is thus a set of distinct material patterns and processes as well as a debated ideological perspective on world affairs-including the changing relationship between humans and the environment.

The interface between globalization and the environment is multifaceted, and can be viewed as how the process of globalization-most prominently global economic development-affects natural environments and the social groups who use them; and the dramatic globalization of environmentalism-particularly manifest in the context of regional and global political governance.

Impacts on the Environment

One of the major events precipitating economic globalization was the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, where number of institutions were formed that would eventually change the face of global trade, finance, and production. Perhaps the most important legacy from the Bretton Woods conference was the formation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which eventually led to the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the subsequent lowering of barriers to trade between nations. Other important agencies created to manage global financial transactions and development projects include the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Freetrade policies, increased privatization of social services, and reduced government regulation comprise neoliberal economic policy reforms. The opposite of protectionism, economic liberalization paves the way for corporations and governments to conduct business throughout free trade regions with minimal tariffs and government intervention.

Companies participating in free trade are often referred to as transnational corporations (TNCs) with headquarters, production, manufacturing, and resource extraction facilities spread horizontally around the world. Many private companies seek to establish comparative advantages with competitors by pursuing sourcing efficiencies. Raw materials, labor, and capital are efficiently “sourced” by moving assembly abroad to developing nations through foreign direct investment and the offshoring of jobs. Production costs are reduced primarily through offshore conditions characterized by cheaper labor inputs, less severe tax regimes, and lower environmental corporate performance standards-including less stringent noncompliance penalties. The process by which corporations, spurred by competition with other firms, seek to increase profit margins through the pursuit of ever-cheaper labor and less costly environmental standards has been labeled as downward harmonization or “raceto-the-bottom” economics.

Some groups suggest that globalization and responsible environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive. The WTO clearly states this position in the Doha Ministerial Declaration of 2001, “We are convinced that the aims of upholding and safeguarding an open and nondiscriminatory multilateral trading system, and acting for the protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development can and must be mutually supportive.” The WTO and other free trade advocate positions include:

Development and free trade bring wealth, which is a necessary ingredient for alleviating poverty and protecting the environment.

Private and market interests are more likely to curb environmental degradation than cumbersome and oftentimes corrupt state-run enterprises.

Globalization generates international pressures for reform through transboundary information sharing, leading to the formation of an increased scientific and global environmental awareness.

Globalization will diffuse product standards, capital, and technologies from nations with high environmental regulations to those with low regulations. NAFTA, and other free trade agreements, will lead to “upward harmonization” or the rise of environmental standards to the highest common denominator.

Advocates of free trade point to Mexico’s ability to formulate substantive environmental laws and effective implementing regulations, standards, and institutional infrastructure since the inception of NAFTA. Supporters also refer to the 2001 Sustainability Index released at the World Economic Forum to show how the top-ranking countries such as the United States, European Union (EU) nations, and Canada contain liberalized trade policies. According to this index, nations like Libya and Saudi Arabia that rank near the bottom of the sustainability index tended to be those who isolated themselves economically through trade restrictions.

Global Environmentalism

Many environmental issues are international because of their geographical scope. Just as investments and information travel between political boundaries, so too do natural systems such as water, air, and migratory wildlife. Environmental issues such as global warming are truly international in scope. The burning of fossil fuels, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in one nation can, as numerous predictive simulation models suggest, “force” climatic shifts in other regions of the planet.

Other environmental issues, while not necessarily global in scope, encompass a set of international actors. Acid rain in Canada resulting from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides pollution in the United States Midwest is a transboundary, international environmental issue. So too is the impact of water diversions on the upper Mekong River in China upon lower Mekong basin nations such as Cambodia and Vietnam. These cases illustrate how many environmental issues cross national boundaries due to the spatial reach of the natural system and social causes and consequences in question.

While the scale of the environmental system in question is a useful way to measure its international status, it is perhaps more instructive to measure the relationship between globalization and the environment in terms of how the environment is researched and managed in an increasingly global format. Today numerous international organizations, accords, and protocols on the environment exemplify the globalization of environmentalism in scientific, managerial, and activist capacities. Some environmental problems are endemic to local or regional environments-including isolated cases of water security, infectious diseases, and species extinction. Yet because of the globalization of environmentalism these have become issues of global concern. Environmental governance has broadened over the past 35 years in the form of multiregional and international organizations and commissions to bring awareness and action to diverse environmental issues.

International Governance

International environmental governance occurs in a variety of overlapping categories: stipulations in international free trade agreements; international accords, frameworks, and agendas, also referred to as multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), resulting from global conferences or “summits;” intergovernmental organizations; and the dealings of transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Regional and global governance has led to the diffusion of various environmental ethics, principles, and management strategies that uphold various discourses including sustainability, ecological modernization, and conservation.

Free trade is organized within formally agreedupon regional economic blocks such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the common market of the EU, and Mercosur (Mercado Comun del Sur or the Southern Common Market), the latter of which enables free trade between various South American nations. These economic policy arrangements signify a new form of governance where the nation-state is no longer the paramount broker of economic affairs, instead deferring to the authority of international governing bodies. Regional economic blocks contain a number of important policy dimensions, one of which is how to address environmental concerns in the face of transforming economic relations. The diminishing role of traditional political entities like the nation-state to govern environmental affairs represents a form of political deterritorialization, while NAFTA, the EU, and Mercosur mark the reterritorialization of new regional, political entities.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, through the formation of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), contains provisions for enhancing compliance with environmental laws and regulations and evaluating the environmental effects of NAFTA. The EU and Mercosur also contain transnational governing bodies similar to that of the CEC. For example, under the EU, the European Environment Agency serves as a clearinghouse for scientific information and policy recommendations. Mercosur also contains internal environmental protocols as part of the Treaty of Asuncion. These wide-ranging protocols include frameworks for regional, sustainable, and cooperative management of shared ecosystems and the provision of mechanisms to enhance enforcement and participation.

Environmental stipulations associated with free trade agreements usually remain subordinate to MEAs. Principle 12 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that international agreement is preferable to national programs when tackling transboundary or global environmental issues. Significant MEAs include accords that manage wildlife issues and biodiversity. Examples include the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling; the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance; the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); and the 1979 Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species. A number of other MEAs are intended to protect atmospheric resources. These agreements include the 1979 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution; the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, leading to the 1987 Montreal Protocol; and the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, leading to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Issues pertaining to marine environments, chemical use, waste management, desertification, and forest conservation are all addressed by a variety of MEAs. Together these agreements create an international framework for governing specific activities that influence regional and global environments.

Other MEAs

Other MEAs are formulated as part of global conferences or “summits.” The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro (commonly referred to as the Earth Summit) was a watershed in the formulation of a global environmental consciousness among international delegates. The summit also advanced an international movement to manage the global environment by linking environmental degradation, poverty, and excess consumption around the world. Using the common language of sustainable development, 172 governments produced a number of important international frameworks for governing the environment, including Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

Some MEAs are not binding or enforceable and instead represent a collectively agreed-upon set of ethics and best practices. The Brundtland Commission report “Our Common Future” advocating sustainable development and the 1992 Earth Charter declaring a unified set of environment, global justice, peace, and democracy principles both articulate and prescribe global environmental ideologies. Each represents an attempt to organize the core ethics and principles of environmentalism along global lines.

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) help facilitate the organization and enforcement of MEAs. Perhaps the most prominent IGO is the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). UNEP coordinates environmental activities and encourages sustainable development through a series of protocols and conferences around the world. For example, UNEP worked with the World Meteorological Society to create the International Panel on Climate Change. UNEP also played a crucial role in the organization of the 1992 Earth Summit and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainability.

NGO Involvement and Criticisms

Many environmental movements and management plans are initiated by transnational NGOs such as Greenpeace, Worldwatch Institute, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Earth. While the headquarters of these NGOs are typically based in a single locale, transnational NGOs are usually comprised of a complex network of subheadquarters located around the world. By definition, these organizations keep government money at arm’s length in order to maintain a consistent institutional agenda and serve as a counterbalance to government action.

Over the past 20 years, transnational environmental NGOs have increased their level of involvement in global-scale accords and protocols. For example, the Earth Summit on sustainable development included the active involvement of over 2,400 NGOs in both monitoring and consulting capacities. These organizations also serve as advocacy groups for particular ideological positions on the environment-often participating in public demonstrations or “counter conferences” to protest and draw public attention to perceived government or IGO misconduct.

The environmental movement has used a variety of icons and slogans to capture the connection between societies and environments around the world. The formation of an international Earth Day, the effective use of global imagery in environmental advertising, the metaphor of “Spaceship Earth,” and the slogan “think globally, act locally” are all examples of how environmental discourse has been advanced through an appeal to a shared global environmental consciousness.

Despite the popularity of these images and slogans, they are subject to critiques, especially from those questioning the role of power in representing the global environmental movement. For example, critics ask, who speaks for the globe and who defines a global problem? Others argue that the picture of earth seen from outer space obscures and in effect erases the uneven terrain of poverty-induced social and environmental disharmony around the world. Still others have argued that global images used to appeal to the public are deeply misleading. For example, representations of third world environments found in first world brochures and advertisements misinform the public because they present so-called “pristine” areas as devoid of people, even when those areas contain a long history of settlement and land use by indigenous and other local populations.

Others have critiqued the role of power in shaping the actions of the global environmental movement. These critiques suggest that global environmental governance is at best a way of ordering the world and prioritizing behavior in ways consistent with the concerns and expertise of powerful nations. At worst, the globalization of environmentalism is a form of neo-imperialism that gives developed countries an open passport to intervene and manage resources around the world for their own benefit.


  1. John Dryzek, The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses (Oxford University Press, 1997);
  2. David Held, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt, and Jonathan Perraton Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture (Stanford University Press, 1999);
  3. Mathew Sparke, The Blackwell Dictionary of Globalization (Blackwell, 2006);
  4. Mathew Sparke, Introduction to Globalization: The Ties That Bind (Blackwell, 2006);

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