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Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65

Ecological modernization as social theory

F.H. Buttel
Department of Rural Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1450 Linden Drive, Madison, WI 53706, USA
Received 5 November 1998; in revised form 12 August 1999

In this paper I examine some of the reasons for and implications of the ascendance of ecological modernization thought. I stress
that its rapid rise to prominence is not because it is a well-developed and highly-codi®ed social theory, but rather because it accords
particularly well with a number of intellectual and broader political±economic factors, many of which lie outside the realms of
sociology and environmental sociology. I suggest that while ecological modernization is indistinct as a social theory its basic logic
suggests two points. First, the most sophisticated versions of ecological modernization revolve around the notion that political
processes and practices are particularly critical in enabling ecological phenomena to be `` Ômoved intoÕ the modernization process''
(Mol, A.P.J., 1995. The Re®nement of Production. Van Arkel, Utrecht, p. 28). Thus, a full-blown theory of ecological modern-
ization must ultimately be a theory of politics and the state. Second, the logic of ecological modernization theory suggests that it has
very close anities to several related literatures ± particularly embedded autonomy, civil society, and state-society synergy theories
in political sociology ± which have not yet been incorporated into the ecological modernization literature. I conclude by arguing that
ecological modernization can bene®t by bringing these related ± and, for that matter, more powerful ± theories into its fold. Ó 2000
Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction ronmental sociology (e.g., SchnaibergÕs (1980) notion of

``treadmill of production'', and Catton and DunlapÕs
The rise of ecological modernization as a perspective (1980) notions of Human Exemptionalist and New En-
in environmental social science1 has been as meteoric as vironmental Paradigms (see also Dunlap and Catton,
it has been unexpected. Ecological modernization was 1994). Over the past two years it has come to be virtually
unknown to virtually all North American environmental obligatory for professional meetings of environmental
social scientists half a dozen years ago, save for a small social scientists to have one or more sessions devoted
handful of comparative politics specialists who were speci®cally to ecological modernization. Further, while
familiar with JanickeÕs (1990) work on ``state failure'', or there has been a surprising degree of acceptance of
environmental studies scholars who had read SimonisÕ ecological modernization as one of the mainstream en-
(1989) paper in the International Social Science Journal. vironmental±sociological perspectives, the pervasiveness
Now ecological modernization has come to be regarded of ecological modernization can be gauged by the fact
as being on a virtual par with some of the most long- that a broad range of environmental social scientists
standing and in¯uential ideas and perspectives in envi- have found it necessary to address ± even if only to
critically respond to ± the rising in¯uence of this per-
spective (see, e.g., Benton, 1997; Harvey, 1996; Schnai-
berg et al., 1999; Redclift and Woodgate, 1997a,b; also
see Mol and Spaargaren, 2000; Mol, 1999; Cohen, 1997,
E-mail address: fhbuttel@facsta€ (F.H. Buttel).
In this paper the expression environmental social science will be
for summaries of this critical literature and for responses
understood to pertain to the social science disciplines in which to the major criticisms that have been raised). Ecological
ecological modernization perspectives currently play a major role. modernization has already become featured as an es-
Ecological modernization has become quite in¯uential within envi- tablished perspective in the most recent environmental
ronmental sociology, and to a lesser degree within geography and sociology undergraduate textbooks (Harper, 1996; Bell,
political science. Because such a large share of the ecological
modernization literature (in English) has been authored by sociolo-
1998) and has become a particularly popular topic in
gists, the discussion in this paper will occasionally refer speci®cally to the journal, Environmental Politics. The publication of
the (environmental) sociological literature. the present special issue of Geoforum testi®es to the

0016-7185/00/$ - see front matter Ó 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 0 1 6 - 7 1 8 5 ( 9 9 ) 0 0 0 4 4 - 5
58 F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65

tremendous interest that ecological modernization has 2. The ecological modernization concept and perspective
stimulated within geography.
A particularly important indicator of the extent to Nearly as remarkable as ecological modernizationÕs
which ecological modernization thought has became rising visibility and in¯uence has been the diversity of
in¯uential in the environmental social sciences is the the meanings and usages of this concept. Ecological
prominence given to MolÕs (1997) paper in the recent modernization is now employed in at least four di€erent
and widely circulated International Handbook of Envi- ways. First, there is an identi®able school of ecological
ronmental Sociology (Redclift and Woodgate, 1997a,b). modernizationist/sociological thought.2 From a North
MolÕs (1997) paper is one of a handful in the Redclift± American and British perspective Arthur Mol and Gert
Woodgate anthology devoted to a particular theoretical Spaargaren are now generally recognized as the key
perspective. Not only has ecological modernization very ®gures in the ®eld, though in Germany, the Netherlands,
rapidly gained a foothold in environmental sociology and elsewhere on the Continent ecological moderniza-
and environmental studies, but it has even made some tion is still very closely associated with the work of
inroads into general sociological scholarship. Perhaps scholars such as Joseph Huber and Martin Janicke.
the most telling indicator of the rising in¯uence of eco- Nonetheless, Mol and SpaargarenÕs sole- and jointly-
logical modernization is the fact that Giddens (1998), authored works (Spaargaren and Mol, 1992; Mol and
arguably the most well-known Anglophone social the- Spaargaren, 2000; Spaargaren et al., 1999; Mol and
orist of the late 20th century and a scholar interested in Spaargaren, 1993; Spaargaren, 1996; Mol, 1995, 1997),
environmental issues and their sociological signi®cance, as well as those of close associates and colleagues (e.g.,
has devoted 10 pages of his The Third Way to ecological Cohen, 1997; Leroy and van Tatenhove, 1999), consti-
modernization thought. tute what can be thought of as the core literature of the
This paper will focus on some of the reasons for and ecological modernization perspective. In this paper I will
implications of the extraordinary ascendance of eco- primarily build from Mol and SpaargarenÕs works be-
logical modernization thought. I will stress that its rapid cause of all the scholars and researchers in this tradition
rise to prominence is due less to ecological moderniza- (at least as far as the literature in English is concerned)
tion having been a well-developed and highly-codi®ed they have done the most to articulate a distinctive the-
social theory, but rather because of how ecological oretical argument.
modernization accorded particularly well with a number A second respect in which ecological modernization is
of intellectual and broader political±economic factors, employed is as a notion for depicting prevailing
many of which lay outside the realms of sociology and discourses of environmental policy. The major ®gure
environmental sociology. I will suggest that while eco- associated with the political-discursive and social-con-
logical modernization is indistinct as a social theory, structionist perspective on ecological modernization is
ecological modernizationÕs basic logic suggests two Hajer (1995). For Hajer (1995), ecological moderniza-
points. First, the most sophisticated and persuasive tion is not so much a prediction of strong tendencies to
versions of ecological modernization revolve around the industrial±ecological progress as it is a category for de-
notion that political processes and practices are partic- scribing the dominant discourses of the environmental
ularly critical in enabling ecological phenomena to be policy arenas of the advanced countries. In addition to
``Ômoved intoÕ the modernization process'' (Mol, 1995, p. HajerÕs constructionism being in stark contrast with the
28). Thus, a full-blown theory of ecological modern- objectivism of the core literature in ecological modern-
ization must ultimately be a theory of politics and the ization, HajerÕs view is that ecological-modernizationist
state ± that is, a theory of the changes in the state and
political practices (and a theory of the antecedents of
these changes) which tend to give rise to private eco- 2
Note that I use the expression ecological-modernizationist
eciencies and overall environmental reforms. Second, ``thought'' or ``perspective'', rather than theory, at this point in the
the logic of ecological modernization theory suggests paper because of the fact that, at least as far as the literature in English
that it has very close anities to several related litera- is concerned, ecological modernization is not yet a clearly-codi®ed
tures ± particularly embedded autonomy, civil society, theory. The lack of codi®cation has given rise to the fact that
and state-society synergy theories in political sociology ± ecological modernization has been used in so many di€erent ways by
social scientists. As an example, Redclift and Woodgate (1997a,b) take
which have not yet been incorporated into the ecological the core notion of ecological modernization to be the claim that
modernization literature. I will conclude by arguing that economic growth is compatible with environmental protection, and
ecological modernization can bene®t by bringing these they equate the perspective primarily with the literature on industrial
related ± and, for that matter, more powerful ± theories ecology and ``industrial metabolism''. While one might say that
into its fold. Further, and perhaps most important, Redclift and Woodgate have simply misinterpreted ecological mod-
ernization, one can say that this type of confusion would be very
ecological modernization could well succeed or fail as unlikely to occur when environmental social scientists discuss Schnai-
social theory depending on the sturdiness of the bridges bergÕs (1980) notion of treadmill of production or OÕConnorÕs (1994)
that can be built to these parallel theories. notion of the second contradiction of capital.
F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65 59

environmental±political discourse may even serve to lated to the fact that the rise of the ecological modern-
dilute the political impulse for environmental reforms by ization perspective was not due only or even primarily to
obscuring the degree to which economic expansion, the clarity of its theoretical arguments. Indeed, the rise
growth of consumption, and capital-intensive techno- of ecological modernization as a concept has had to do
logical change compromise the ability of states to ensure more with the fact that ecological modernization was an
a quality environment. Thus, for many observers (in- e€ective response to a variety of circumstances or im-
cluding some in the core tradition of ecological mod- peratives regarding social±ecological thought in the
ernization) HajerÕs social-constructionist work is often 1990s. First, the renewal of the environmental move-
thought of as lying outside of ± or even being hostile to ment during the 1980s, on the grounds of global envi-
or incompatible with ± the ecological modernization ronmental change and growing recognition of ecological
perspective per se. and technological risks, suggested to many in the envi-
Third, ecological modernization is often used as a ronmental and ecological communities that very radical
synonym for strategic environmental management, in- steps ± signi®cant decreases in fossil energy usage, re-
dustrial ecology, eco-restructuring, and so on (see versal of tropical forest destruction and biodiversity
Hawken, 1993; Ayes, 1998). Indeed, the core literature loss, increasingly strict regulation of industry, the lo-
on ecological modernization has tended to give primary calization and decentralization [rather than globaliza-
emphasis to environmental improvements in the private tion] of economic activity and social regulation, and so
sector, particularly in relation to manufacturing indus- on ± were necessary to address the processes of de-
try and associated sectors (e.g., waste recycling). Social struction of the biosphere. These impulses arguably
scientists from a variety of theoretical persuasions (e.g., helped to catalyze the rise of radical environmental
Schnaiberg et al., 1998; Andersen, 1994) now use the movements in Northern Europe.3 The rise of these en-
notion of ecological modernization to pertain to private vironmental movements stimulated scholars such as
sector behaviors and conduct that simultaneously in- Beck (1992) to see radical environmentalism as an en-
crease eciency and minimize pollution and waste. Fi- during feature of advanced industrial politics. The
nally, there are some scholars who use the notion of growth of these counterhegemonic social±environmental
ecological modernization to pertain to almost any en- views, many of the most in¯uential of which were given
vironmental policy innovation or environmental im- visibility through publication in The Ecologist in the
provement. Murphy (1997), for example, refers to state UK, led to a growing imperative to address whether
policies that make possible the internalization of envi- they were scienti®cally sound or robust relative to the
ronmental externalities as being instances of ecological more managerial variants of environmental science (e.g.,
modernization. of the sort analyzed in Hajer, 1995). The rise of radical
In addition, Mol (1999) has recently felt the need to environmental movements also increasingly set the
distinguish between the ®rst-generation of ecological agenda for sociological theory and research as sizable
modernization literature (which includes, in particular, groups of social scientists began to grapple with phe-
the 1980s and early 1990s studies by German and Dutch nomena such as new social movements (NSMs), ``the
scholars summarized in Mol, 1995) and the second- risk society'', identity politics, subpolitics, and so on
generation literature that has appeared in the late 1990s. (Scott, 1991; Goldblatt, 1996; Martell, 1994). It thus
The ®rst-generation literature was based on the over- became increasingly incumbent upon social scientists to
arching hypotheses that capitalist liberal democracy has respond to the rise and growing in¯uence of radical
the institutional capacity to reform its impact on the environmental movements, especially in terms of
natural environment, and that one can predict that the whether radical environmentalism (and radical NSMs in
further development (``modernization'') of capitalist
liberal democracy would tend to result in improve-
ment in ecological outcomes. The second-generation 3
Mol (1997, p. 33, 58), for example, portrays radical environmen-
ecological modernization literature, by contrast, has talism in terms of eco-centric ideologies which are deployed in pursuit
increasingly revolved around identifying the speci®c of ``de-industrialization'' agendas, and mentions the ``deep ecology''
sociopolitical processes through which the further movement as being the prototypical radical environmental movement.
modernization of capitalist liberal democracies leads to While Mol acknowledges respect for radical environmentalism for its
e€orts to legitimize notions of ecological rationality, he suggests that
(or blocks) bene®cial ecological outcomes. The most the radical environmental position is not a realistic one to the degree
recent ecological modernization literature has been more that it insists that ecological rationality must be substituted for (rather
concerned with comparative perspectives, including but than being balanced with or weighed against) private economic
not limited to the ways in which globalization processes rationality. It should also be noted that Joseph HuberÕs original
might catalyze ecological modernization processes in contributions to ecological modernization thought were reactions to
the anti-modernist views of key (``fundamentalist'') ®gures such as
countries in the South. Bahro (1984). Ecological modernization has thus been closely identi-
Nonetheless, the range of meanings associated with ®ed with the realist wing within the fundamentalist±realist divide
the notion of ecological modernization arguably is re- within the German Green Party.
60 F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65

general) would be an ascendant social force and would environmental movements by avoiding their romantic-
be a necessary precursor to e€ective environmental im- ization, and by appreciating the particularly funda-
provement and reform. Accordingly, the growing at- mental roles that science, technology, capital, and state
tention to ecological modernization in German social might play in the processes of environmental improve-
scienti®c circles in the 1980s had as much with to do ment.
with issues that arose from the environmental sciences In particular, by the mid-1990s it had become in-
and from the political realm as it did with considerations creasingly apparent that North American environmen-
from the realm of social theory per se. tal±sociological scholarship needed to take better into
Second, despite the very considerable enthusiasm and account the considerable environmental progress that
innovation which had occurred in social-scienti®c countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and
thought and practical policy work as a result of the more Switzerland had made ± at least relative to the far more
widespread use of the concepts of sustainability and modest environmental progress which had been
sustainable development, it was becoming increasingly achieved in North America. Northern European envi-
apparent that sustainability and sustainable develop- ronmental progress had not been con®ned to pollution
ment had real shortcomings in providing guidance and abatement and control, but also extended to eco-e-
vision for future evolution of environmental policy. ciency improvements which had been made in manu-
Both of these sustainability notions had originally been facturing industry (Simonis, 1989; Hawken, 1993,
developed with regard to policy toward the South, and Chapter 4).4 But by the early 1990s these developments
in addition the various notions of sustainability had had remained largely ignored in mainstream North
been derived from experiences involving the primary- American environmental±sociological literature. Eco-
renewable sectors in nonmetropolitan or rural places in logical modernization provided a way to understand
the South. Ecological modernization provided a tem- these eco-industrial improvements while doing so in a
plate for new thinking about the problems and their way more satisfying than the ecological microeconomics
solutions that are most urgent to address in the trans- of Hawken (1993) and the more mainstream environ-
formative sectors of metropolitan regions of the advanced mental economists.
industrial nations. The growing embrace of ecological modernization
Third, it had become increasingly apparent that thought by the global environmental±sociological com-
North American dominance of environmental±socio- munity thus ful®lled a wide variety of needs and ®lled
logical theory had led to certain biases and blinders. The several gaps in social±environmental thought. Even so,
rise of ecological modernization can be seen as a re- this embrace has remained relatively super®cial, being
sponse to a particularly crucial shortcoming of North con®ned mainly to acceptance of the notion that sub-
American environmental sociology. While North stantial eco-eciency gains can be made through further
American environmental sociology was quite diverse, (or ``super-'') industrialization within capitalism. Thus,
most of its major theoretical works had converged on for example, Schnaiberg et al. (1998) have felt quite
the notion that environmental degradation was intrin- comfortable appropriating the notion of ecological
sically a product of the key social dynamics (be they the modernization to depict successful instances of post-
treadmill of production, the ``growth machine'', the consumer waste recycling, while at the same time re-
persistence of the dominant social paradigm or of an- taining the concept of treadmill of production (which
thropocentric values, and so on) of 20th century capi- Mol, 1995, sees as an example of deterministic neo-
talist-industrial civilization. In straining to account Marxist environmental sociology) as their main ex-
theoretically for why the US and other advanced in-
dustrial societies were inexorably tending toward envi-
ronmental crisis, North American environmental 4
I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer who stressed that it is
sociology found itself in an increasingly awkward posi- useful to recognize that there are two related, but quite separate
tion: environmental sociologists had so overtheorized streams of research and practice which are typically subsumed under
the intrinsic tendency to environmental disruption and the more general category of eco-eciency. The ®rst, which has been
degradation so that there was little room for recognizing actively promoted by the World Business Council for Sustainable
that environmental improvements might be forthcom- Development áwww.wbcsd.chñ and is increasingly gaining attention
among management consultants, is that of ``strategic environmental
ing. And the only way out of the ``iron cage'' of envi- management''. Strategic environmental management is primarily
ronmental despair was a rather idealistic ± if not utopian concerned with achieving fewer externalities, greater eco- or environ-
± view of environmental movements as the only recourse mental eciencies, and ``green marketing'' advantages within the
for environmental salvation (Buttel, 1996, 1997). Eco- context of existing plant and equipment. By contrast, ``industrial
logical modernization not only provided a way for ecology'' refers to a more ambitious agenda of fundamental redesign of
industrial structures and processes (including industrial relocations
environmental sociologists to more directly conceptu- and production synergies) aimed at achieving the dematerialization of
alize environmental improvement; ecological modern- production, and ultimately the dematerialization of society (see Ayres,
ization also provided a fresh perspective on the role of 1998).
F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65 61

planatory device. Most observers of the ecological environments that are made possible through the re-
modernization perspective ± be they proponents, critics, structuring (or ``modernization'') of the state. Thus, in
or those interested in exploring the potentials of this MolÕs (1995, pp. 46±47) words:
perspective ± have tended to evaluate it in terms of the
third and fourth uses of the notion of ecological mod- The ecological modernization theory has identi®ed
ernization noted above. Speci®cally, the questions most two options for strategies to overcome the de®cien-
often asked are, ``Is ecological modernization actually cies of the traditional bureaucratic state in environ-
occurring?'' or ``Is there good reason to believe that we mental policymaking. . . First, a transformation of
can expect trends toward ecological modernization in a state environmental policy is necessary: from cura-
signi®cant number of economic sectors and world na- tive and reactive to preventive, from exclusive to
tions?'' participatory policy-making, from centralized to
The next section of the paper will be based on the decentralized wherever possible, and from domi-
notion that the ®rst meaning of ecological moderniza- neering, over-regulated environmental policy to a
tion ± that of a distinctive, though incipient social theory policy which creates favorable conditions and con-
with the potential to create a coherent literature through texts for environmentally sound practices and be-
hypothesis testing ± is the more fundamental and useful havior on the part of producers and consumers.
one. Thus, while the environmental-economic and en- The state will have to widen the competence of civil
vironmental-engineering conceptions of ecological law in environmental policy, focus more on steering
modernization have tended to predominate in socio- via economic mechanisms and change in its man-
logical usage of the notion of ecological modernization, agement strategy by introducing collective self-obli-
I would suggest that the following are the more impor- gations for economic sectors via discursive interest
tant postulates of a distinctive and coherent ecological mediation. The second, related, option includes a
modernization perspective. An ecological modernization transfer of responsibilities, incentives, and tasks
perspective hypothesizes that while the most challenging from the state to the market. This will advance
environmental problems of this century and the next and accelerate the ecological transformation pro-
have (or will have) been caused by modernization and cess, mainly because the market is considered to
industrialization, their solutions must necessary lie in be a more ecient and e€ective mechanism for co-
more ± rather than less ± modernization and ``superin- ordinating the tackling of environmental problems
dustrialization''. Put somewhat di€erently, it is hy- than the state. . . The central idea is not a withering
pothesized that not only is capitalism suciently ¯exible away of the state in environmental management,
institutionally to permit movement in the direction of but rather a transformation in the relation between
``sustainable capitalism'' (to turn OÕConnorÕs, 1994 no- state and society and di€erent accents on the steer-
tion on its head), but its imperative of competition ing role of the state. The state provides the condi-
among capitals can ± under certain political conditions ± tions and stimulates social Ôself-regulationÕ, either
be harnessed to achieve pollution-prevention eco-e- via economic mechanisms and dynamics or via
ciencies within the production process, and ultimately the public sphere of citizen groups, environmental
within consumption processes as well (Spaargaren, NGOs and consumer organizations.
1996). Thus, second, social theory must recognize and
directly theorize the role that capitalist eco-eciency
and rationalization can play in environmental reform (as
well as recognize their limits and the degree to which 3. Ecological modernization as prospective social theory
they can or must be induced by the state). Third, eco-
logical modernization is in some sense a critical response As successful as ecological modernization has been as
to ± if not a decisive critique of ± radical environmen- a school of environmental±sociological thought, it is at
talism (or ``countermodernity''). As Mol (1995, p. 48) risk of ultimately su€ering the same fate as its prede-
notes, ``the role of the environmental movement will cessor sister concept, sustainable development (SD).
shift from that of a critical commentator outside societal Though proponents of the SD notion bene®ted by
developments to that of a critical ± and still independent having the imprimatur of SD being endorsed by an
± participant in developments aimed at ecological impressive range of institutions and international orga-
transformation''. Fourth, an ecological modernization nizations (e.g., the United Nations and UNCED, the
perspective views the environment as in potentiality or World Bank, the European Union), SD has slowly but
in practice being an increasingly autonomous (or ``dis- surely begun to recede from the social-scienti®c radar
embedded'') arena of decision-making (what Mol refers screen. This has in large part been because of the fact
to as the ``emancipation of ecology''). that the SD concept could not overcome being seen as a
Fifth, and perhaps most fundamental, is that eco- nebulous knowledge claim which was too imprecise to
logical modernization processes are a re¯ection of policy generate a coherent set of hypotheses and body of
62 F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65

research. Perhaps recognizing this, some of ecological These similarities between ecological modernization
modernizationÕs most innovative thinkers, particularly and BeckÕs theories of re¯exive modernization and risk
Mol (1995) and Spaargaren (1996), have devoted con- society notwithstanding, there are several reasons why I
siderable e€ort with the aim of anchoring ecological believe that ecological modernization cannot rest its
modernization within extant social theory. main theoretical case on re¯exive modernization ± or, in
Mol and SpaargarenÕs e€orts at theoretical buttress- other words, on notions that derive directly or indirectly
ing of ecological modernization have yielded certain (e.g., via Giddens (see Beck et al., 1994; Giddens, 1994))
successes. Mol and Spaargaren have noted that ecolog- from Ulrich Beck. There are some very considerable
ical modernization has parallels to a variety of classical inconsistencies between ecological modernization and
theorists and in¯uential theories (e.g., SchumpeterÕs and BeckÕs notions of re¯exive modernization and risk so-
Kondratie€Õs notions of long cycles, Polanyi, 1957 no- ciety ± many of which Mol (1995) and others readily
tion of ``disembedding'', and Giddens, 1994 four di- acknowledge. Among the more salient of these di€er-
mensions of modernity). Arguably, however, they have ences are the following. While Mol and Spaargaren
tended to link ecological modernization most closely to place relatively little emphasis on the role of radical
the work of Ulrich Beck, particularly his well-known environmental groups or new social movements (NSMs)
writings on re¯exive modernization and risk society in making possible ecological modernization processes,
(Beck, 1992; Beck et al., 1994). the lynchpin of BeckÕs work is the increasingly impor-
There are some good reasons why Mol and Spaarg- tant role being played by NSMs and subpolitics in the
aren would choose to link ecological modernization with restructuring of the state and political discourses. The
the work of Beck. The Netherlands and Germany (the arenas of environmental mobilization and reform em-
countries of greatest interest to Mol±Spaargaren and phasized by Mol and Spaargaren also bear little simi-
Beck, respectively) have a number of structural simi- larity to those such as anti-nuclear and anti-
larities. While their political systems exhibit major dif- biotechnology protests that are of particular concern to
ferences (e.g., the Dutch state is highly centralized while Beck. The very concept of ``risk society'' conjures up an
state governments play a major role in Germany), both adherence to matters of identity politics and extra-sci-
are parliamentary democracies within which environ- enti®c policymaking that contrasts with the image of
mental ideologies are ®rmly established within their environmental improvement stressed by Mol and Spa-
national political cultures. Beck is among the most in- argaren. And while Beck points to a sharp distinction
¯uential and visible social theorists in Northern Europe, between ``industrial society'' and ``risk society'', the
and linking ecological modernization to BeckÕs thought thrust of core ecological modernization thought is that
would no doubt be a plus in the mainstreaming of eco-eciency gains can be achieved without radical
ecological modernization thought within European so- structural changes in state and civil society. In addition
ciological circles. Not only was Beck an in¯uential to these areas of incompatibility between Mol±Spaarg-
general sociological theorist in the 1980s, but by the arenÕs ecological modernization perspective and BeckÕs
early 1990s Beck was arguably beginning to displace theory of risk society, it is also worth noting that BeckÕs
Schnaiberg, Dunlap, Catton and other North Ameri- work has become somewhat passe in the late 1990s, and
cans as the most in¯uential environmental±sociological has generated very little interest in North America, so
theorist in Europe. Thus, linking ecological modern- there is even less reason to anchor ecological modern-
ization with BeckÕs work would create legitimacy and an ization thought in the work of Beck (and of GiddensÕ
entree for this new perspective within environmental forays into re¯exive modernization).
sociology and sociology at large. If ecological modernization has conceptual appeal
In some ways ecological modernization can be but requires more social-theoretical foundations, which
thought of as an instance of BeckÕs (1992) notion of way to turn? I would argue that guidance on this score
re¯exive modernization ± through which modernization can be derived from Mol and SpaargarenÕs own work ±
can be ``turned back on to itself'' in order to address the namely, from the stress they have placed on the types of
problems which it has itself created. There is also a sense state structures, policy networks, and policy cultures
in which Mol and Spaargaren share BeckÕs skepticism which are required to propel forward processes of eco-
about the ecacy of radical environmentalism. There logical modernization. Their (or at least MolÕs) thinking
are additional similarities in their views about how the on this score is indicated quite clearly in the lengthy
role of states in advanced capitalism is changing (in quote from Mol (1995) The Re®nement of Production
particular, the shift toward less bureaucratization and earlier in the paper. This lengthy quoted passage, I
centralization). Perhaps most fundamentally, Mol± would argue, is strikingly compatible with the works of
Spaargaren and Beck agree that solutions to the prob- scholars such as Evans (1995, 1996, 1997) who have
lems caused by modernization, industrialization, and developed a set of interrelated notions of embedded
science can only be solved through more modernization, autonomy and state-society synergy. In particular,
industrialization, and science. Evans (1995) and the core thinkers of ecological
F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65 63

modernization share very similar ideas about state ef- be the ultimate indicator of state e€ectiveness,6 Evans
fectiveness and state-civil society ties. Mol (1995) and has increasingly seen ``sustainability'' (particularly ``ur-
Leroy and van Tatenhove (1999), for example, place a ban sustainability'' or ``livability'') as being as or more
great deal of stress on the role that advocacy-coalition- important as a dimension of state e€ectiveness (see Ev-
type relations among state ocials, corporate managers, ans, 1997; Buttel, 1998).
and environmental NGOs play in making possible eco- It is also worth noting that many of the concerns of
logical modernization processes. Evans and other theorists of embedded autonomy and
Evans (1995) work can perhaps best be character- state-society synergy (see especially the works by EvansÕ
ized as a neo-Weberian perspective on the state which colleagues in his 1997 collection) were in some sense
at the same time is distanced from much of late 20th anticipated by Janicke (1990) ± a political scientist and
century neo-Weberian political sociology (as well as one of the German founders of ecological moderniza-
structuralist Marxism) through its critique of ``state- tion ± in his work on ``state failure''. Not only does
centeredness'' or state autonomy being primarily Janicke (1990) stress the theme of the need for closer
properties of the state itself. Prior to publication of state-society ties in a manner similar to Evans, but
EvansÕ Embedded Autonomy, there had been a strong Janicke stresses the fact that environmental policy is
consensus among ``theorists of the state'' (including among the arenas in which these ties are particularly
both Weberian proponents of state-centeredness as well crucial in order to achieve policy e€ectiveness (or, in
as neo-Marxist structuralists) that large centralized other words to overcome state failure). Thus, not only is
states that are relatively autonomous from groups and neo-Weberian embedded autonomy theory highly con-
classes in civil society are best able to formulate and sistent with ecological modernization, but one of its
implement coherent and authoritative policies. In Ev- founders ± Martin Janicke ± has written in a parallel
ansÕ (1995, p. 22) book he argued instead that while the vein, albeit at a lower level of abstraction than achieved
organization of the state does a€ect the capacity of by Evans.
states to ``construct markets and promote growth''
state e€ectiveness derives equally from the nature and
quality of its relations with (rather than its autonomy
or insulation from) groups in civil society. Evans (1995, 4. Concluding remarks
Chapter 2) thus de®nes embedded autonomy as a state
structure which combines ``corporate coherence''5 on Ecological modernization has tended to be appro-
one hand, and connectedness of, and social ties be- priated by environmental sociologists, geographers, and
tween, state agencies and ocials and various groups political scientists mainly because of its provocative and
in civil society on the other. challenging views about the malleability of the institu-
Evans in his Embedded Autonomy (1995) aims to de- tions and technological capabilities of industrial capi-
velop evidence that the ``developmental states'' in the talism, and because of its observations from
South which were successful in achieving rapid indus- environmental science and engineering ± that eco-e-
trial development in the 1970s and 1980s tended to have ciencies can fairly readily be achieved within the
embedded-autonomous structures, involving both cor- framework of continued modernization of capitalism
porate coherence and connectedness to groups in civil and the application of modern experimental science.
society. In EvansÕ subsequent work (1996, 1997) on Ecological modernization is a new, and in many ways in
state-society synergy, which he conceptualizes as a par- improved, synonym for sustainable development. At the
ticularly important form of embedded autonomy, he same time ecological modernization is more useful than
focuses on how the development of concrete sets of so- sustainable development as a macro or overarching
cial ties between states and groups in society create framework for thinking about the environmental prob-
``synergies''; on one hand, these ties between states and lems of metropolitan transformative industry in the
societies help make states more e€ective, and on the North. As much as any of these factors, perhaps, eco-
other hand these ties help various groups in civil society logical modernization has become attractive as a con-
to better meet their goals. It is worth noting that while cept because it provides alternatives to the pessimistic
EvansÕ (1995) early work on embedded autonomy con- connotations of frameworks such as the treadmill
sidered economic growth and industrial development to of production and the growth machine. Ecological

Evans (1995) initial work on embedded autonomy and develop-
Evans means ``corporate coherence'' in the Weberian (legal-rational mentalist states stressed state ties with what he called ``developmental
authority) sense ± that is, the cohesion among state ocials which elites'', while in EvansÕ (1996, 1997) more recent work on state-society
re¯ects commitment to the state and its goals, which in turn is made synergy and urban sustainability in the South he gives more stress to
possible by meritocratic recruitment and a long-term career reward community and neighborhood (including shantytown) leaders and
structure. activists.
64 F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65

modernization expresses hope, and makes it more ever, that this perspective has some important short-
readily possible to identify and appreciate the signi®- comings that need to be squarely addressed. These
cance of environmental success stories. include the perspectiveÕs (Northern) Eurocentricity (the
Ecological modernization thought, however, has not fact that its theoretical roots and empirical examples are
developed to a point where one can say that it shares an largely taken from a set of Northern European countries
identi®able set of postulates and exhibits agreement on that are distinctive by world standards), the excessive
research hypotheses and research agenda in the same stress on transformative industry, the preoccupation
way that one can do so for a theory such as the treadmill with eciency and pollution control over broader con-
of production. In large part this is because ecological cerns about aggregate resource consumption and its
modernization did not develop primarily from a pre- environmental impacts, the potentially uncritical stance
existing body of social-theoretical thought ± as, for ex- toward the transformative potentials of modern capi-
ample, was the case with the treadmill of production talism, and the fact that very fundamental questions
(Schnaiberg, 1980) having been largely derived from raised about modernizationism within the development
OÕConnorÕs (1973) in¯uential theory of the accumula- studies literature (e.g., Hoogvelt, 1987; Pred and Watts,
tion and legitimation functions of the state and how 1992) have not been addressed within ecological mod-
their contradictions tend to become manifest in state ernization theory.
®scal crisis. Instead, ecological modernization thought It should also be noted that while we can agree with
has been more strongly driven by extra-theoretical the ecological modernizationists that radical environ-
challenges and concerns (e.g., about how to respond mentalism may not be directly responsible for many of
politically to radical environmentalism and how to the environmental gains achieved in Northern Europe
conceptualize eco-eciency improvements that are cur- and elsewhere, these nonmainstream ecology groups
rently linked to new management practices and techni- arguably play a signi®cant role in pushing mainstream
cal-spatial restructuring of production). Ecological environmental groups and their allies in the state and
modernization has essentially been an environmental private industry to advance a more forceful ecological
science and environmental policy concept which has viewpoint. Thus, radical environmental groups, by
subsequently been buttressed with a number of citations providing alternative vocabularies and ``frames'' of
to social-theoretical literatures, some of which are mu- environmentalism, stressing issues often ignored within
tually quite contradictory (compare Beck vs. Janicke, mainstream environmentalism, and providing new loci
for example). of personal identity for citizens, will tend to strengthen
While Beck and related theorists of re¯exive mod- the movement as a whole, and thus indirectly con-
ernization (especially Giddens) have been cited most tribute to ecological modernization processes. It is
often within the core ecological modernization literature worth noting, in fact, that in the US the environmental
as theoretical exemplars, there are a number of reasons groups that are most concerned about toxics and
why Beck, and his notions of risk society, subpolitics, chemicals ± the primary preoccupation of ecological
and so on, are unlikely to be sturdy theoretical foun- modernizationists ± are not the mainstream environ-
dations for ecological modernization. I would argue that mental groups, but rather local (particularly ``envi-
ecological modernization is ultimately a political±socio- ronmental justice'' ± oriented) groups which are most
logical perspective, for reasons that are made clear in the radical and often thought as being out of the move-
lengthy quote from Mol (1995) earlier in the paper. And ment mainstream (Gottlieb, 1993). In sum, as the so-
the political±sociological theory which it has closest cial science community moves rapidly to explore the
potential relations ± and, in some sense, which re¯ects its new ecological modernizationist viewpoint, it should
own origins in the work of J anicke ± is the neo-We- do so with awareness of both its strengths and weak-
berian tradition of embedded autonomy and state-soci- nesses.
ety synergy. I would argue that the way forward for
ecological modernization is not to emphasize empirical
debates over the potentials and limits of environmental
engineering and industrial ecology, but rather to deepen Acknowledgements
the links to political±sociological literatures which will
suggest new research problems and hypotheses. Em- A previous version of this paper was presented at the
bedded autonomy and state-society theorizing, while School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE),
they are not without problems (Buttel, 1998), are par- University of Michigan, October 1998. The author
ticularly well suited to comparative analysis, which is a would like to thank the SNRE faculty and graduate
particularly exciting research frontier for ecological students, William Freudenburg, two anonymous Geo-
modernization research. Forum reviewers, Jenny Robinson, and Joseph Murphy
Current or prospective enthusiasts for ecological for their comments and suggestions on previous versions
modernization-driven inquiry should recognize, how- of this paper.
F.H. Buttel / Geoforum 31 (2000) 57±65 65

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