Defenders and Destroyers: Identifying the Collective Actors in the Environmental Degradation Discourse*

“The continuous destruction to the environment had already become a world-wide predicament.” (Picture taken from

            The continuous destruction to the environment had already become a world-wide predicament. On the other side of the pendulum, a plethora of voices are calling for environmental protection and sustainable development, while on the other side, a group of profit-oriented and anthropocentric entities are promoting, if not advocating, the exploitation of the environment for its interests’ sake. It can be said that everyone is being propelled to exploit natural resources as requisites for one’s subsistence and survival but that does not conclusively account for the prevalent denudation of the environment. More so, the flourishing of capitalism, which in reality makes environmental degradation thrive, must also be brought into the context. The prevalence of this phenomenon has undeniably emboldened various actors to affect policy makers and public perception to the environmental issue. This section will identify three collective actors which are involved in this issue and, also, strategies and stances which these actors have adopted will also be evaluated.

NGOs: The Advocates

            Lindborg (as cited in Yearley, 1996) defines non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as “non-profit political organizations, including groups such as environment and development, youth, indigenous groups, consumers and the religious [sector]” (p. 90). Organizations of industry, trade unions, parliamentarians, academicians and local authorities will not be considered as NGOs.
            For years, the NGOs have been a force to reckon with when it comes to promoting environmental conservation, rousing public awareness to environmental concerns and shaping policy outcomes concerning the preservation of the environment. With the continuous exhaustion of prized natural resources which entirely leads to denudation, most of the NGOs are driven by the ideas of the “oneness of the planet” and the humanity’s supposed common interest when it comes to preserving the planet’s well-being. As the threats of the industrialization loom, the determination to pursue their organized interests makes the NGOs stand on their mandate which is to further environmental protection and halt the activities of some institutions which can bring severe ecological damage (Yearley, 1996).
            But as the environmental threats have become global and transnational, the thrust of the NGOs in addressing the issue has shifted from the domestic scene to the global scene. It made them realize that they must also address the issues of their neighboring countries. Such has been the case since 1980s which made Thiele (1999) conclude that truly, the NGOs play a crucial role in global affairs, more particularly in shaping the tides of environmental policies. This has been further attested by the creation of a new United Nations (UN) body, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which is tasked to serve as a liaison with the NGOs. The significance of the NGOs in this affair was again underscored in the 1937 UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) which dubbed the strengthening of the NGOs for the purpose of environmental policy as a “high priority”. Moreover, Parson (1993, as cited in Yearley, 1996) claims that the NGOs, in the early years of the worldwide struggle against environmental degradation, play only a very minor role in the international negotiations and discussions over the international policies such as the regulation of ozone-depleting chemicals, while the firms and industries have had the monopoly of control in shaping environmental policy outcomes. But as the NGOs employed effective strategies to obtain public participation, the support of the governments and the representation of international policy-making bodies, the voice of the NGOs began to be heard while consequently, the voice of the industries gradually diminished. With their role so well-established now and their official recognition augmented, the NGOs, as Yearley (1996) maintains, “have been provided the opportunity to exert pressure in the direction of international negotiations” (p. 89).
            As effective tools to stimulate public consciousness and media interest, the NGOs have been thought as the ones who are in the best position to pursue global approach to environmental care. This can also be attributed to the notion that the NGOs are unlike the tenured government officials who only formulate short-term solutions to the persisting problem. Encouraged by their efforts to promote the “planetary good,” the NGOs advance the long-term interests of the society as they are driven by their transnational mandates, assuring them that their global policies will be affecting more people as they operate in a global scale (Thiele, 1999; Yearley, 1996).
            It is interesting to note that most of the NGOs who operate for the protection of the environment, as Yearley (1996) and Rosenbaum (1977) identify, are coming form the affluent countries such as the USA and UK. The more prominent of these so-called “Green NGOs” include the following: (1) Friends of the Earth – a hard-line preservationist organization founded by David Brower in 1969 who is vigorously political in its approach to environmental issues; (2) Greenpeace – an independent global campaigning organization that acts to change attitudes and behaviour to the environment; (3) The Sierra Club – a politically militant and aggressive militant group founded in the USA which historically defeated an effort to place dams across the Colorado River and halted attempts to commercialize wilderness areas; (4) The Environmental Defense Fund – a coalition of lawyers, scientists and environmentalists who seek to protect public rights to a safe environment; and (5) The National Wildlife Federation – a federation of state councils which is generally considered as the only effective and militant sportsmen’s group, among others.
            It is also worth noting that the aforesaid institutions have become successful in their advocacy of environmental protection in their home countries. To cite a case, the Environmental Defense Fund had succeeded in getting DDT prohibited in some US states and is suppressing the Alaskan pipeline until careful environmental researches could be conducted. Also, in 1995, Greenpeace activists spearheaded a campaign to halt the dispersal of the Royal Dutch /Shell Brent Spar oil storage rig in the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, the Royal Dutch/Shell’s action has been questioned and criticized by many environmentalists and eventually, this has been brought up to the authorities (Rosenbaum, 1977; Thiele, 1999). As environmental degradation went transnational, the NGOs in the North have decided to advance their interests in the South where the case of environmental degradation is thrice the more compared to the Northern countries. Greenpeace (1991, as cited in Thiele, 1999) envisions this by stating that:

As we grow more global in the scope of issues we address and increasingly come to grips with social justice issues, we can no longer afford to be just an environmental organization for the predominantly white…As Greenpeace increases its work in communities of color and in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Eastern bloc, we are simultaneously pledging that this world be led and carried out by Latinos, Asians, Africans and Eastern Europeans. (p. 133).

             With another objective in mind, the NGOs are employing ways to forge local global linkages through organizing grassroots institutions, inculcating citizen awareness and empowering locals, more especially in the underdeveloped countries, to manage their own growth and development. Through these ways, the NGOs are initiating efforts to address the environmental problems which make global sensibility necessary (Thiele, 1999).           

             In relation with the transnationality of the environmental problems which was previously discussed in the preceding section, the emergence of what Yearley (1996) calls the “double standards” have become an impetus for environmental movements and protests. That is to say, the more developed countries make the underdeveloped ones bear the risks which the former will no longer accept. For instance, Western industries and firms dump their wastes in some parts of Asia and Africa in exchange of a small waste-handling fee which, unfortunately, cannot compensate for the risks which will be induced from the wastes (Yearley, 1996).

             The perceived awareness to these “double standards” has elicited an immediate response not only to Southern NGOs but also their Northern counterparts. It ignited an all-new battle which must be fought by the conjoined forces of the Southern and Northern NGOs. This can be viewed in a positive light since the Southern NGOs can coordinate with the Northern NGOs to protest the “double standards” of some private companies and environmentally-threatening policies of international monetary organizations. Also, Northern NGOs play an essential role in advocating the international bodies and by pressuring their home governments to uphold the environmental standards when dealing with the Third World countries (Yealery, 1996; Kelley, Stunkel & Wescott, 1976).
            The NGOs are now transcending national borders to defend the environmental integrity. But as the succeeding section will discuss, another collective actor will be placing itself into the side opposite to where the NGOs stand. As environmental destruction reaches its infamy, firms and private industries will be wearing a new mask to create an image which is, in the first place, not inherently theirs.

Firms and Private Industries: The Antagonists

            Much has already been said about the environmental degradation as mainly caused by various economic activities. The firms were long considered as the nature’s antagonists or, as Rosenbaum (1977) puts it, they are viewed as “the source of environmental ills and often as the villain in environmental politics” (p. 82). That default mode of thinking when it comes to firms was a consequence of the common perception that the firms are individualistic and anthropocentric in their dealings with the environment. But when the issue of environmental destruction has surfaced into the national consciousness, the role of the firms to such predicament has once again been underlined. Private industries, feeling anxious to demonstrate that they are being downgraded by the environmentalists (as this might destroy their reputation in the economic market), began to change their outlooks and strategies in gaining public trust. They just have made themselves as the “advocates of environmental integrity” (Yearley, 1996; Rosenbaum, 1977).
            When the global warming became a subject of academic inquiries, the gas industry has responded in a creative way. As the gas outperforms other fossil fuels in these regards, most of the people then utilize the said resource in their day-to-day activities. However, the global warming is an environmental issue which are now affecting people in a global scale, and therefore, one just cannot simply throw the issue into oblivion. The fossil fuels such as the gas have become blameworthy in the occurrence of this phenomenon. This threatened the gas industry because it might tarnish the product’s marketability and, somehow, its reputation. Thus, the introduction of a mythical “climate-friendly” gas resource has become inevitable to serve as the saving grace for the gas industry’s promotion of its “environmental interests” (Yearley, 1996).
            Rosenbaum (1977) affirms that the private industries “tend to adopt a common stance toward most regulatory measures (p. 83). He continues by saying that contention often characterizes the relationship between the business and its regulators. More often than not, firms complain that the environmental policies which engender regulation are too harsh as these impose heavy costs to firms; or in some other ways, firms argue that an environmental problem is being treated with exaggeration by the environmentalists. As reports pertaining to the problem come out, firms contest that the data and evidences supporting the report are unreliable. To illustrate this point, Rosenbaum (1977) gave four instances in the United States where this circumstance has become recurrent:

(1)     Industrial spokesmen at a national conference for moratorium on the “imposition of any new environmental standards” because new standards will “use up money that business could invest to increase output and thus hold down inflation.”
(2)     The leading car manufacturers requested Congress to declare a “five-year moratorium on the new safety and emission standards.”
(3)     The President of the International Paper Company declared that the goals of federal water pollution legislation “will drastically change the competitive posture of many of the major basic industries in the US.”
(4)     In response to federal warnings that the fluorocarbons in propellants used in spray may damage the earth’s ozone layer, the Aerosol Education Bureau responded: “Without experimental evidence, it would be an injustice if a few claims – without even critics agree our hypotheses – used to be the basis of regulatory or consumer reactions” (p. 83).

            Although the firms profess its commitment to abide with the principles of environmental development, their actions still prove otherwise. But as the passage of time allowed, the private industries have gradually learned how to “play the game.” As a number of companies are already advocating environmental standards and beginning to have a commercial interest in harmonizing regulations, the firms have acquired the image of a “pressure group”, concomitant to their aim of shaping the environmental agenda well-suited for their own interests. It must be emphasized that the adherence to environmental standards will not always be propelled by their heartfelt submission to the laws of the environment and the responsibility to take care for it. Rather, and in reality, it is motivated by their own interests which are predominantly profit-oriented as opposed to being cause-oriented. Yearley (1996) posits that as firms can now more exercise pressure for more rigid and looser environmental policies, they have obtained the ability to be present at major environmental conferences and to organize bodies in lobbying for shaping the ‘global environment agenda” (p. 93).
            To call itself as conscientious environmental guardians with impressive accomplishments is indeed an effective strategy to create public good will that may be “tapped and directed to industry’s advantage in policy struggles” (Rosenbaum, 1977, p.85). At the same time, it can serve as deterrence in achieving greater control of environmental policies by diminishing public support. Should the pseudo-ecological conscience be transformed into an authentic one, competition and individualistic interests which enliven firms will be rendered obsolete. As environmental degradation is being attributed to them, one just cannot say that they are the lone cause of destruction. In the succeeding section, the role of the states and supranational organization in this issue will be probed and evaluated.
States and Supranational Organizations: The Agents

            It has been reported that the widespread damage to the forests of Sweden which has been attributed to the acid rain stemming from British power stations has already alarmed the Swedish government.  It seems that the call to intensify environmental conservation efforts has become a rule of thumb for the Swedish government. But as the root cause of the destruction in not being addressed, the efforts of the Swedish populace will, more likely, just be thrown into futility.
            But as exemplified by the situation above, states are now becoming more aware that environmental degradation has now gone far beyond borders. It is true that local governments must deal much more in its own ecological problems but, to reiterate once more, the transnationality of the environmental problems (which have long been though as domestic issue only) has gained much prevalence in the present. Thus, the governments must now review and analyzed what must be done and elicit the appropriate responses to such transnational challenges. Albeit a particular environmental ideal implies that the governments must “think national, act national,” it will not just be sufficient to thick “along the boundaries.” Governments must also need to worry about their neighboring country’s policies. As this critical juncture, the government’s environmental concern must be brought into the worldwide scale and be rendered through a broader perspective of employing solutions while involving states for such endeavor. As Falk (as cited in Kelley, Stunkel & Wescott, 1976) reveals, “…wars of mass destruction, pollution and the depletion of resources [have] a cumulative effect. A problem in one area renders it more difficult to solve the problems in any other area” (pp.2-3).
            In their study, Kelley, Stunkel & Wescott (1976) claim that the affluent nation-states, more particularly the economic superpowers, contribute much to the environmental crises which the world experiences. The active competition with one another for resources and energy results to severe degradation and exploitation of natural resources. To begin with, the economic superpowers are naturally growth-oriented more especially in the area of economic expansion. Furthermore, they spend millions to secure prodigious energy consumption and production which consequently becomes a definitive gauge of modernization, industrialization, sophisticated technology, high Gross National Product (GNP) and the like. Encumbered by their “great nationalist tradition,” political and economic influence is being perceived as a hallmark of a great nation. Thus, natural resources must be exhausted to translate them to wealth and power ( Kelley, Stunkel & Wescott, 1976).
            Undeniably, the industrialized countries are the ones who control the scheme of things in relation to the less developed countries. They are indeed the economic and industrial masters of this technocratic era. Their influence in the world order seems to legitimize their unwillingness to control their “appetites and wastes”. Indeed, to work only for the sole recompense of their personal interests is to garner and receive eternal grandeur. With the superpowers’ lack of consumer discipline and energy conservations, lesser nations are being put into dilemma of whether not the efforts to preserve the environment are worth their while. Nevertheless, developing nations will still be obliged to defend what is truly theirs, regardless of how antagonistic the scenario might be ( Kelley, Stunkel & Wescott, 1976; Thiele, 1999).
            As a consequence, this situation has paved the way for intergovernmental cooperation among countries to establish bodies granted with powers to propose common policies. The present political sphere has become conducive to the outgrowth of intergovernmental organizations aimed to foster environmental quality to some particular areas concerned. For instance, in 1975, the bordering states on the MediterraneanOcean (numbering around 20) have developed concern managing the environmental quality of the Mediterranean. The ocean is useful to the states in various ways – from leisure and tourism to fishing and trade. However, most dup human sewage into the ocean and pollute it to some extent by agricultural and industrial practices. Most of the bordering countries are affluent countries and members of the European Union (EU), while some are relatively poorer countries (e.g. Lebanon and Egypt). But regardless of economic standing, the countries are one in their goal to maintain the placidity of the MediterraneanOcean. Thus, as a pact among governments, the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) has been created and, eventually, has become successful in forging agreements for the purpose of protecting the ocean from human destruction (Yearley, 1996).
            This cooperative effort has served as a stimulus to augment the influence of international bodies such as the EU and UN in the environmental issues. The entree of supranational action in what was considered as an agreement among governments has provided a leeway for the supranational organizations to “fasten on to environmental problems as a way in which they can act for the ‘common good’” (Yearley, 1996, p. 96). As the issue has been tagged as inherently international and a public interest issue, supranational organizations have easily involved themselves to the matter and gained recognition afterwards. This can be viewed affirmatively because the UN, for instance, plays a key role in which issues can be voiced and also in introducing the conceptual tools for the development of environmental policy (Yearley, 1996).
            It might be said that states can be for or against the environment, depending upon the context. As previously tackled, the NGOs, as well as the firms, play salient roles in delineating the multifarious outcomes of this issue. As the succeeding section will recount specific cases where environmental degradation transcend geographical borderlines, the role of these collective actors will again be evaluated, with an emphasis on how the issues will be analyzed in various perspectives.


  • Kelley, D., Stunkel, K. & Wescott, R. (1976). The Economic Superpowers and the Environment: The United States, the Soviet Union and Japan. USA: W. H. Freeman and Company
  • Rosenbaum, W. (1977). The Politics of Environmental Concern. USA: Prager Publishers
  • Thiele, L. P. (1999). Environmentalism for a New Millennium: The Challenge of Coevolution. NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  • Yearley, S. (1996). Sociology, Environmentalism, Globalization. UK: Cromwell Press, Inc.

*Paper presented during our Political Science 182 (International Politics) class, circa 2012, University of the Philippines Manila.

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