Global Environmental Change 21(3): 771-775, August 2011

"Social Theory and the Environment in the New World (dis)Order"

David A. Sonnenfeld and Arthur P.J. Mol

© 2011 Elsevier

1. Introduction

On January 29, 1991, US President George H.W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, invoked a vision of 'a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law' (Bush 1991). The immediate point of reference for President Bush's speech was the commencement, just days before, of an American-led joint air strike against Iraqi occupying forces in Kuwait – the onset of what has since been referred to as the 'Persian Gulf War' or the 'first Iraq war'. His talk took place within months of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the fall of the Berlin wall, invoking the reunification of Germany, arguably even more central events in the re-structuring of global political and economic order. With the demise of the Soviet Union, came also the end of the Cold War, half a century of polarisation of the world into two camps, the so-called First and Second Worlds. At this juncture, historian Frances Fukuyama (1992) famously declared 'the end of history', anticipating the rise of a stable, new world order based on liberal democracy and market principles.

The idea of a new world order in the making resounded widely in circles of politicians and academics in the late years of the 20th century. But such a notion is not restricted to that moment in time: history has entailed a constant flow of ideas, interpretations, visions and analyses of a new (world) order, whether analyzed and envisioned by Francis Bacon (early 17th century), Adam Smith (late 18th century), or Karl Marx (mid- to late 19th century), to name but a few. In the 20th century, scholars hypothesised the existence of regular cycles of social-structural change and re-ordering (e.g. the so-called Kondratieff waves;  and Schumpeter's, 1961, thesis of 'creative destruction'). At century's end, we encountered ideas of the coming of a new world order presented in terms of, among others, post-modernism, post-structuralism, the information society, and globalisation, as well as the systemic critiques of millennial movements. More than incidentally, all of these calls for and analyses of a new world order were paralleled by feelings of uncertainty; warnings of the dangers and drawbacks of new ordering principles, practices and institutions; and outlooks of social disorder, or even despair, rather than stability.

And so it continues... In 2009, in the face of urgent calls from the scientific community and environmental advocates for the world's nations to address global environmental and climate change, and with newly elected US President Barak Obama just months in office, there was great anticipation in the lead up to the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen, for development of a follow-up agreement to the expiring Kyoto Protocol. Those hopes promptly were dashed by great turmoil and disarray (see Roberts, 2011). Twenty years after G.H.W. Bush's 1991 address, 'petro-violence' (Watts, 2001) persists, energy prices and supplies rise and fall, the institutions of 'peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law' falter, ever-increasing global emissions of greenhouse gasses and depletion of conventional petroleum reserves continue… Are we any closer to a 'new world order', including with respect to environmental governance (see Sonnenfeld, 2008)? Or does continuing or even  increasing disorder dominate our lives?  How must visions of and architectures for new forms and institutions of global environmental governance take into account or even address such underlying social and institutional disarray?

In our view, current discussions and debates on a new world order differ from earlier ones, in at least three important ways: First, previous ideas of a new world order, or the threat of disorder, were mostly centred in particular places and regions around the globe. Irrespective the early World-Systems analyses of Braudel (1979) and Wallerstein (1974) and their arguments that the world was globalised long before 'globalisation' became fashionable, it is only during the last two decades that ideas of a new world order/ disorder are really involving the entire world (be it not to a similar extent and in an equal and identical way in all places). Second, the pace and acceleration of change, and the rapid succession of apparently critical events that come to us almost instantaneously via multiple media seem unprecedented. While earlier civilisations experienced wide-reaching change and even collapse, contemporary world citizens experience an apparently ever-increasing, rapid succession of major global changes and crises, especially via electronic media. Such dynamics have broadly intensified feelings of insecurity, crises, and a new world (dis)order in the making. Third, while earlier crises and near-crises were triggered mostly by economic, military and political events, today dramatic changes in the planet's biophysical environment add new, critically important dimensions to global insecurity (as for instance the US Pentagon and NATO have claimed) and calls for a new world order. It is such developments that catalysed the organisation and development of this scholarly symposium on "Social Theory and the Environment in the New World (dis)Order". In our view, the environmental profile of a new world (dis)order can be understood only in close connection with its non-environmental dimensions, for instance where that new world order witnesses new frontiers of security, as conventional borders within and between hostile nations/ countries are replaced by mobile and diffuse frontiers within one country, across a region or beyond, whether via popular uprisings, non-state warfare, cyber crimes, financial market collapse, or environmental insecurities. Governance, including of the global environment, is necessarily multi-dimensional, arguably working best with stable institutions, clearly defined 'stakeholders' and other participants, and with reference to known territories, rules and roles, conditions and risks. With political and institutional instability, extreme weather and geological events, structural uncertainty, and accelerated social dynamism, it becomes exponentially more challenging.

2. Environmental change and the new world (dis)order

Part and parcel of the current notion of a rapidly changing world order is anthropogenic, global environmental change. While the environment was a peripheral issue in scientific studies of (accelerated) social change as recently as two decades ago, now it is at the centre of most social studies into a rapidly changing world order. Climate change has significantly contributed to that, but also, among other issues, notions of peak oil; the 'race' to buy up fertile agricultural land across the planet (often referred to as land grabbing); the competition for new and old precious minerals (such as rare earths, phosphate), in turn strongly linked to the growing demand from China and the other rapidly industrializing countries (see Mol, 2011); accelerated deforestation especially in tropical regions (see O'Connor, 2008); and the rapid exploitation and threat of extinction of many commercial fisheries including those of various cod and tuna species. These signs of environmental crises are more and more interpreted as being global and interdependent in nature, for instance where land grabbing by China and Saudi Arabia in sub-Saharan Africa is directly related to biofuel production as an answer to peak oil, leading to growing phosphate use in remaining, more intensively cultivated, agricultural lands, in turn contributing to further climate change.

As much as this 'apocalyptic' horizon of global environmental change (Mol and Spaargaren, 1993) contributes to feelings and interpretations of a changing world order, so too do changes in the social, economic and political constellations, institutions and practices that (have to) deal with these environmental threats. The social architecture related to (handling) environmental change is in rapid flux: the globalisation of extractive industries; the (growing) incapability of national ministries of the environment and other environmental protection agencies in mitigating environmental problems; the escalating number of poorly integrated multilateral environmental agreements and regimes, and their incongruence with the global trade regime; the changing political, economic and military hegemony in the world (see Mol, 2011; Roberts, 2011); the proliferation of non-governmental environmental governance regimes, around for instance various certification schemes; the growing 'debates' and disenchantment with(in) science, scientists and scientific facts; the commoditization of nature, for instance around carbon credits (see Pellizzoni, 2001; McMichael, 2011); and new scales, roles and constituencies of environmental NGOs; to name but a few examples. This changing institutional and cultural architecture results in uncertainty about how (best) to address the new global environmental challenges. Initially, with the emergence of sustainability on the global agendas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many thought that sustainable development could supersede the old ideologies of socialism, conservatism and liberalism, and develop into a new storyline that could bind people together and give meaning to a common project for a future world society. The idea of sustainable development currently has too many definitions and interpretations, though, and as such has – at least for now – lost its binding character for many and is insufficient inspiration for people around the globe to reimagine and motivate the institutional and behavioural changes necessary for establishing a more liveable world.

Growing disenchantment with institutions that in recent decades have shouldered the burden of responsibility for addressing and mitigating environmental problems is one of the most disconcerting changes leaving citizens with feelings of global disorder. While markets and transnational companies have never gained high trust as institutions for environmental management, recently these are joined by discomfort in the institutions of science and scientists, especially since what has become known as 'climate-gate' (Nerlich 2010); the nation-state and the intergovernmental system of nation states as collective management institutions of common goods, most strongly emphasized by a continuing failure to renew the global climate change regime before the expiration of the Kyoto protocol in 2012; and environmental NGOs, particularly since Greenpeace's campaign around Shell Oil's planned offshore disposal of the obsolete Brent Spar oil storage buoy. These disenchantments are not limited to environmental institutions alone, but involve other institutions also related in one way or another to the global environmental crisis, such as financial markets; the 'mainstream media' of newspapers, television, radio and even the Internet; the European Union; the once so powerful World Trade Organization; and even the Vatican/ Catholic Church. Yet it seems that there are few alternatives to these institutions, and thus the only way forward is to reform them, be it in a reflexive mode. This is what is happening with the news media, for instance, that collectively continue to play a critical role in defining environmental problems and celebrating or discrediting solutions; or, freely after the Thomas theorem (Thomas and Thomas 1928: 572): 'if the media defines situations as real they are real in their consequences'. But today, the reputation and capacity of the Fourth Estate is under severe assault by, among others, heavily-financed 'point of view' news shaping, and the new social media. It has become clear that the Fourth Estate, with its powerful media conglomerates and conventional journalists as gate keepers, is under reconstruction. However, the contours of a new, more reflexive media architecture that provides re-legitimised information and communication from which citizens and stakeholders draw their informed participation in environmental governance, are yet far from clear.

What we see with respect to the news media, we see even more broadly related to the contemporary institutions that aim to mitigate global environmental change. Although these institutions are frequently and forcefully questioned with respect to their authority, legitimacy, accountability and effectiveness in coping with global environmental change, few scholars are ready to relegate them to the waste dump. Academics and environmental advocates aim to understand why and how these institutions have lost their power in mitigating environmental challenges, and in what ways and directions they need to be redesigned for greater environmental effectiveness in a new world order. And what new roles do various actors have to take up? Hence we witness widespread debates on the respective roles in mitigating global environmental change of nation-states (particularly of rising powers such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the so-called BRICS countries), multilateral environmental agreements and their secretariats (see with respect to climate change negotiations, Roberts, 2011), science and scientists (from Beck's Risk Society [1986] onwards), local and transnational environmental NGOs, transnational companies, citizen-consumers (Spaargaren, 2011), and the like.

Questions on the new roles of these actors in facing environmental challenges, on the new institutional forms and processes that are needed, and on the legitimacy of the conventional actors and institutions in the current world order at stake, bring significant uncertainty, as conventional interpretation schemes and conventional mitigation strategies are no longer self-evident and taken for granted. Social theorists have long been interpreters of social realities (Bauman, 1987), and today many are wrestling with the current world (dis)order, trying to make sense of it, including how environmental governance and reform are and should be included. The development of theory to understand and explain current environmental challenges and reforms is closely linked with, and can thus build upon, wider developments in social theory. The contributions in this special issue provide ample evidence of that: World-Systems theories, political economy models, structuration theory, theories of consumption, globalisation theories, and others are used to (re)interpret environmental challenges and reform in our rapidly changing world order.

3. New social theory for a new world order

This symposium aims to advance understanding of a 'world order in accelerated change'; of possible institutional reforms for effectively and justly addressing dramatic, global environmental change; and of innovations in socio-environmental theory essential in the early decades of the 21st century. Making sense of the new world (dis)order even as it continues to emerge necessitates constant interpretation and re-interpretation of social (and biophysical) reality. Social theory helps us in that respect, as it forms a lens through which human dimensions of such changes can be understood. To the extent that those changes are fundamental, existing theories become inadequate, requiring reformulation.

As a result of new and newly-understood developments and dynamics of global environmental and institutional change, conventional schemes and social theories that were helpful even a few decades ago now are up for (drastic) revision and sometimes replacement. The theories and explanatory models that were so helpful in analysing and understanding the environmental profile of the world in the 1970s and '80s now show their limitations, also with respect to understanding the environmental profile of neoliberalism as Pellizzoni (2011) underlines. It is not that conceptual models such as I=PAT[1], and theoretical approaches such as neo-Malthusianism, neo-Marxism, World-Systems (see Mol, 2011), and (post)industrialism have become completely useless; population, profit and production forces remain relevant factors in understanding environmental change. But these traditions are of limited value in fully understanding current environmental crises and related institutional challenges. Contemporary social theory needs to be adapted to reflect the new social, economic and political architecture underlying both causes of and solutions for today's environmental challenges. The growing understanding of (a sense of) a new, planetary world (dis)order has stimulated social theorists to begin to fundamentally adapt conventional schemes as well as develop new interpretative frameworks. This is reflected in our own work as well as that of others. Taking a look back, the volume, Ecological Modernisation Around the World, written and compiled a decade ago (Mol and Sonnenfeld, 2000), now could be said to be in need of revision. As with other perspectives, ecological modernisation theories need reformulation to contribute necessary understanding for effective environmental reform in the current world order (see also Mol and Spaargaren, 2005; Spaargaren, Mol, and Sonnenfeld, 2009). Arguably, the contribution of Sassen and Dotan (2011) to this symposium can also be interpreted as an adaptation to Ecological Modernisation thought to the conditions of the new world order, as much as it is a revision of urban political ecology.

Sometimes, these adaptations and reformulations of existing interpretation schemes and models are so ‘radical’ that they result in new approaches and theories to make sense of current developments. Hence, we can witness new theoretical approaches and models being developed to understand how various actors in the current world (dis)order wrestle with material sustenance issues. Most of these new approaches struggle with the tension between order and disorder, and with global complexity. Here, without trying to be complete, we would like to give two examples of such new scholarship. For a couple of decades at least, there has been growing interest in complexity theories, including within the field of environment and society. Studies on complex adaptive systems, resilience, 'tipping points', and adaptive governance all refer back to the proposition that we cannot and should not oversimplify the complexity of socio-ecological systems in attempting to understand the functioning of these systems (e.g. Norberg and Cumming, 2008; Sassen and Dotan, 2011). The Stockholm Resilience Centre, established in 2007, is a focal point in developing this line. Some scholars aim to develop a universal language and theory for understanding complexity in natural and social systems and how processes of change should be understood (cf. Scheffer, 2009); others are less convinced of the similarities but acknowledge complexity in interactions within and between both types of systems, and the need for new schemes of interpretation. A second example can be found in emerging theories of socio-environmental networks, flows and fluids. Building on the acknowledgement that states and societies are no longer always the best units of analysis, scholars working from this new approach put networks and flows at the core of their theories (e.g. Mol and Law, 1994; Castells, 1996/1997; Urry, 2000 and 2003; Beck, 2005; Spaargaren, Mol, and Buttel, 2006; Sassen 2008). Flows of persons, goods, capital, information, materials and the like, and the networks that institutionalise these flows are key to interpreting the current world order. The complexity of the new world order is a starting point, but interpreted in different ways. Relevant studies include those on automobile and personal mobility, new financial markets and instruments, informational flows, but also environmental pollution and nature conservation (Van Koppen, 2006; Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Bush and Oosterveer, 2008; O'Connor, 2008; Urry, 2008; Mol, 2010).

It is far from taken for granted that such innovations in social theory on the environment are necessary, helpful and adequate. Both the new theories and approaches as well as the adaptations of existing interpretation schemes to fit current global socio-environmental conditions are in full discussion and debate. Both groups are challenged by the scientific community and others for their usefulness, internal coherence, conceptual rigor, explanatory power, and empirical validation. This should comfort rather than surprise us, as it is the way that social science and theory progress. And progress we need, in order  to make sense of a rapidly changing world, not least with respect to society-environment interactions, relations and patterns.

4. This symposium

As suggested above, one feature for many in the new world (dis)order is the hyper-acceleration and reverberation across cyberspace of breaking news of the day, hour and even minute. Thoughtful reflection and empirical verification of important features and dynamics in and of our socio-biophysical world give way to scrolling headlines and tweets. It is as challenging as ever to find solid conceptual ground and perspective in the midst of this continuous, global flood and flow of information. Daily seeing conflict, wreckage and devastation, of both anthropogenic and natural origins, it can be difficult to not get carried off with that sensory and informational flood, or to grasp on to something which turns out to be bobbing on the surface, like everything else. But it is exactly that challenge that social theorists, including of human relations with the natural environment, take up.

This symposium on 'Social Theory and the Environment in the New World (dis)Order' has its roots in an invited panel convened by the Research Committee on Environment and Society (RC24) of the International Sociological Association, at the XVIIth World Congress of Sociology, in Göteborg, Sweden, July 2010. The contributions to this symposium are arranged in what we hope readers will find to be a logical order and flow, proceeding from the most topical and global, back and forth through more densely theoretical, to reflexively 'micro-structural' and experimental. In their final form, we believe that all papers in this symposium will prove to be enduring theoretical contributions, in several cases, provocations, to the understanding of human dimensions of global environmental change. All were developed from the beginning with a broad audience in mind, beyond our own disciplinary 'corridors'. The contributions are addressed to those interested in making better sense of the world that we live in, as well as to those involved in the more practical or applied realms of environmental policy and governance, (human) environmental behaviour, and environmental planning and design. Briefly synopsised, the six contributions are as follows:

In his contribution (Roberts, 2011), world-systems and climate justice scholar, J. Timmons Roberts,  takes the highly promoted but largely failed international climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 as the focus of his exploration of growing 'Multipolarity in the New World (dis)Order'. He finds the work of world-systems scholars Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver (2001) to be particularly helpful in making sense of the dizzying, dynamic (dis)array of coalitions involved in the climate talks.

One of the key actors in the emerging multipolar world-system is the focus of the second contribution (Mol, 2011), where environmental sociologist Arthur P.J. Mol, engages with World-Systems Theory in analysing China's role in Africa today. His contribution explores the perception that China's impacts on the environment, natural resources, and society are growing in Africa and elsewhere in the world as it rises as a new economic superpower, though not always in ways promoted in the popular news media and in World-Systems Theory’s account of contemporary neo-liberalism.

In the next contribution (Pellizzoni, 2011), social theorist and environmental sociologist, Luigi Pellizzoni further takes up the encounter with neoliberalism, confronting it with several social-theoretical perspectives on the environment. The expansion of rights in intellectual property and marketisation of the building-blocks of life through biotechnology and genetic engineering provide the 'battleground' for his analysis and critique of how ecological modernisation, neo-Marxist, and post-structuralist theories of the human-environment relationship interpret and respond to contemporary champions of the market.

Influenced and informed by both World-Systems Theory and critiques of neoliberalism, in his contribution (McMichael, 2011), Philip McMichael takes a critical political economy perspective in examining implications of the new world (dis)order for global agro-food governance. What he characterises as the neoliberal, 'multifunctionality' approach to sustainable agro-food systems, including, for example, payments to farmers for ecosystem services, is contrasted to an oppositional movement for 'food sovereignty', that would (re)establish agro-food governance in the realm of civil society rather than market-based institutions.

Widely known for his contributions to social theory of sustainable consumption Gert Spaargaren, offers a major, new theoretical framework for the understanding and governance of social practices of consumption. Drawing on the work of social theorist Randall Collins (2004), Spaargaren finds meaning and utility in Collins' concepts of 'situations' and 'interaction rituals', for a deeper understanding of the social processes involved in the establishment and change of practices of consumption in everyday life. Such an understanding, he argues, is critical to successful intervention in human behaviour for greater sustainability.

In perhaps the most experimental contribution to this symposium (Sassen and Dotan, 2011), social theorist Saskia Sassen  and Natan Dotan  utilise an integrative systems-ecology approach to explore possibilities for 'Delegating to the Biosphere' some of the key functions – and problems – of contemporary urban living. In this new, urban era, it is not enough in their view to 'simply' be more sustainable; it is possible, even necessary, for humans to make positive contributions to the biosphere, through intelligent, scientifically-informed (re)alignment with and taking advantage of natural systems and process.

Taken together, these contributions to 'Social Theory and the Environment in the New World (dis)Order' provoke us to rethink some of our basic assumptions about how the contemporary world works, our respective places in it, and the magnitude of challenges and possibilities for environmental governance and sustainability in that world. Interdisciplinary, practice-oriented social theory does not always come easily; but its potential rewards are considerable.


The guest editors of this symposium would like to acknowledge support for this collection from the beginning by the editors of Global Environmental Change, and the consistent helpfulness of Neil Jennings, the journal's assistant editor. Also critical to the successful development of this symposium were multiple sets of thoughtful and incisive peer reviews by a small platoon of bright and accomplished scholars around the world; they shall remain nameless here, but are greatly appreciated. Finally, the editors would like to thank the contributors to this symposium for their discipline, dedication, good humour, and ultimate accomplishments over the two-year course of development of this effort.


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[1] Environmental Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology. Many variations of this equation have been made with an attempt to further refine it; but all remain in the same 'simple modernity' fashion.


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