Politics and the Environment: Risk and the Role of Government and Industry , by Michael Howes . Published by Allen and Unwin , Crows Nest, Australia , 2005 , pp . xxxiv + 218 , ISBN 9781741142167 ( pbk), $39.95

Michael Howes’ book on Politics and the Environment is clear, accessible and has something of interest for wide range of audiences. For those new to the field of environmental management – including students – it provides well-written and well-referenced summaries of major environmental issues and players over the past 30 years. For those interested in how social choices are made under uncertainty, it provides a detailed case study using the example of environmental risk. For environmental managers and economists, the book is probably most interesting because it views their work through the lens of social theory, providing a conceptual framework for understanding the conflicts and opposition that they often encounter.

Acknowledging that environmental risk is an impossibly broad topic for one book, Howes restricts his attention to environmental risks generated by industry, as opposed to those generated by individuals as householders or consumers. Howes’ focus on the role of industry rather than on individuals is tightly linked to the premises and conceptual framework underlying the book. Howes briefly surveys the main schools of thought on the origins of today’s environmental problems, including eco-socialists, eco-anarchists, eco-feminists and deep ecologists, and concludes that they all place the blame on some aspect of ‘modernisation’– be it patriarchy, industrialisation, scientific rationalism or market-based capitalism. Thus, Howes sees modernisation as the root of environmental risk, and the rise of industry as central to the process of modernisation.

A focus on industry rather than individuals is also important to the book’s theoretical framework. Compared to individuals, industry can much more easily be assigned a generic position of downplaying environmental risks and opposing government attempts to reduce these risks. Referring to the work of Foucault and Dryzek, Howes labels such a position, with its associated constructed knowledge, a ‘discourse’. Differing discourses from industry, government and the environment movement are a central theoretical tool used in the book to understand conflict on environmental risks and management.

Interestingly for economists, Howes follows Dryzek in labelling the main discourse of industry as ‘neo-liberalism’, or alternatively ‘economic rationalism’ or ‘market liberalism’. In describing this discourse, Howes says:

Here risks are constructed as minor problems that can be easily managed by the market. Competition is assumed to be the natural relationship between people, institutions and species, while firms assert the right to use the environment as both a resource and a waste disposal system. It is assumed that all actors are self interested and that this naturally produces the greatest public good…Neoliberalism is supported by a closely related discourse…that denies the seriousness of environmental risks, is critical of the state and environmentalists and portrays nature as bountiful.

Thus Howes makes a formal academic association between some of the assumptions of neo-classical economics with, essentially, anti-environmentalism. This serves to remind economists of the preconceptions that must be overcome in order to gain public support for economic approaches to environmental management.

Howes’ definition of risk is ‘a perceived hazard’, where a hazard is an objective thing that has the potential to cause harm, and perception is the way that thinking beings interpret and respond to a hazard. Thus different discourses, in affecting the way we interpret hazards, lead to widely differing positions on environmental risk taken by industry, government and the environment movement.

Howes (p. 8) divides environmental risks into two categories: individual incidents with acute and immediately observable impacts, and ongoing risks with more diffuse impacts. He identifies the major ongoing risks as climate change, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss and pollution, and gives a brief historical overview of the mainstream understanding of these risks. He then discusses the debate regarding the reality and severity of environmental risks, paying particular attention to the work of Bjorn Lomborg.

In concluding Part A of the book, Howes (p. 22) uses economic concepts to argue that: “Even if humanity cannot know for sure, society should at least behave as though environmental risks and their potential impacts are real.” Primarily, he bases his argument on the economic risk-management principle of minimizing the maximum cost: where the outcome of ‘inaction in the face of real environmental risks’ is the one associated with the largest potential social costs. He further argues with reference to game theory, that unless there are renewed efforts, this worst-case outcome is also the most likely one.

Parts B and C of the book take as their starting point the conclusion from Part A – that there is a need for more action to minimise environmental risks. Part B documents how government has responded to environmental risks, with reference to international agreements as well as the national governments of Australia, the UK and the USA. Howes begins with a brief description of the political systems in these three states as it pertains to environmental governance. He then sketches the history of the evolution of the peak national environmental agencies in each country and compares their institutional goals and structure. Citing a lack of explicit blame being placed on industry, and stated reservations regarding the possible negative economic impacts of regulation, Howes argues that private industry has evidently had a powerful influence on the responses of all three governments to environmental risk.

Part B continues with an accessible overview of government restrictions, regulations and economic incentives for environmental management, with plenty of interesting examples included. These examples also highlight the resistance of industry to such initiatives, as well as cases where resistance has turned to cooperation and both economic and environmental gains have been achieved. Howes also highlights the importance of knowledge in achieving good environmental management. In Chapter 5 he focuses on the role of knowledge and the use of environmental assessment procedures and pollution inventories in all three countries.

Knowledge-based interventions such as pollution inventories are an excellent case-study for some of the main social theories which Howes discusses in Part A of the book. First, they are a good example of Foucault’s ‘governmentality’, which entails a belief that risks can be managed by government experts through quantifying and measuring, through the identification of risky firms, surveillance, discipline and normalisation mechanisms (p. 104). Secondly, knowledge-based interventions are an example of Beck’s ‘reflexive modernisation’ in which the serious environmental risks spread by industrial production lead political struggles to be fought over the distribution of ‘bads’, rather than the traditional distribution of goods (p. 103). Finally, by allowing NGOs to directly confront industry, knowledge-based interventions open up the political and economic system to more direct public participation. In doing so, they are a step in the direction of the ‘ecological modernisation’ advocated by Howes.

Howes finishes off Part B of the book with a discussion of the sustainable development agenda. Part C then addresses the question of progress using various measures of the success of government efforts to reduce environmental risks, as well as an examination of trends in industry behaviour.

Overall Howes concludes that environmental risks are real and that society needs to take action to reduce them. He believes that over the last 30 years we have made progress in this regard, but that much more needs to be done. He is supportive of the concept of ecological modernisation whereby economic growth is decoupled from increased resource use and waste by developing better technology and alternative decision-making routines (p. 29). Key components of the brand of ecological modernisation that Howes advocates are better and more widely available information, as well as opening up of the political process to groups such as NGOs. Howes can be congratulated on a broad thinking and well researched application of modern social theory to the issue of environmental governance.