Ecological modernisation theory and the challenge to radical green politics

English Green Party candidate and Keele University politics professor Andrew Dobson has written that “the belief that our finite earth places limits on industrial growth” is “the foundation stone of radical green politics” (Dobson, 1995, p.72). For many radical greens, this view still holds today: there is understood to be a strong causal relationship between economic growth and ecological degradation, and it follows that, for the sake of the planet and all the species that inhabit it, including our own, we must put an end to quantitative economic growth.

The view that growth drives ecological degradation has strong roots in New Zealand. The New Zealand Values Party’s election manifesto of 1975, “Beyond Tomorrow“, a founding document of global green politics, opens with the words “Infinite growth is impossible” and goes on to say that “the growth mentality … must be altered.” The alternative put forward is described as a “stable-state society.” Nevertheless, beyond the radical green movement, even among environmentally concerned citizens, this has always been and still is a very much a marginalised view.

How to have your cake and eat it too


Environmentalists in the (conservative) National Party of New Zealand, the ‘Bluegreens’, state that “Economic growth and improving the environment can and must go hand in hand.” The policy of the (social democratic) New Zealand Labour Party is very similar: “a clean and healthy environment sits alongside economic growth and social opportunity as the keys to an improved quality of life for all New Zealanders.” Thus, in mainstream political circles, while details may differ, there is a broad consensus on environmental issues which argues that growth and environmental protection are not only compatible, but are in fact mutually beneficial.

It is quite a neat trick: a complete inversion of the green perspective. Hey presto! The ecological threat is turned on its head – the problem of continued economic growth is now the solution. The label usually applied to this solution is ‘sustainable development.’

The view of the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment is on the same lines: “sustainability is not environmentalism in disguise and does not mean suppressing business innovation, or reining in economic growth.” Much of the business community in New Zealand is on the same page as well. The Sustainable Business Network, defines sustainable business “as the integration of economic growth, social equity and environmental management, both for now and for the future.”

There is nothing unique about New Zealand’s conception of sustainability. This same understanding is reproduced around the world, though there is a good case to argue that the term has been thoroughly co-opted since it came into common use in the late 1980s. In academic circles, this reprogrammed version of sustainability often goes by the name of ‘ecological modernisation theory.’ So, what is ecological modernisation?

Ecological modernisation and the discourse of reassurance


Maarten Hajer (1995) has described an OECD international environment conference in 1984 as a key moment in the development of ecological modernisation. The conference concluded that “the environment and the economy, if properly managed, are mutually reinforcing; and are supportive of and supported by technological innovation” (p.99).

This foundational statement remains the key to ecological modernisation theory. It accepts the observations about the degraded state of the natural world that drive green politics – that first stage of the environmentalists’ battle is now largely won, and it is important to recognise that. But ecological modernisation theory rejects the green analysis of the crisis and the radical solutions that have been prescribed by greens. The solutions to the environmental crisis promoted by ecological modernisation therefore assume:

that “existing political, economic and social institutions can internalize care for the environment” (Hajer, 1995, p.25);

that there is in a synergy between environmental protection and economic growth (Baker, 2007); and

that “the only possible way out of the ecological crisis is by going further into the process of modernization” (Mol, 1995, cited in York and Rosa, 2003, p.274).

What does this mean in policy and in practice? As befits a child of the neoliberal era, ecological modernisation theory rejects the 70s-style interventions of government regulation and subsidy. Susan Baker (2007) describes how ecological modernisation requires the development of new environmental policy tools such as market based instruments (ranging from tradeable permits to eco-taxes), eco-labels, environmental management systems, negotiated voluntary agreements and codes of practice. Ecological modernisation is also implemented in more practical terms through the invention and diffusion of new technology and new industrial techniques. This is very much the ‘sustainable development’ we know today: market based policy instruments and eco-efficiency.

The nature of the break with radical green politics is thus made clear. Evidently, the theory is seriously at odds with Dobson’s ‘foundational’ belief of green politics. In fact, ecocentric thinking is off the agenda altogether, and the natural environment is reduced to the status of just another factor of production.

This conception of sustainability has a deeply seductive appeal for governments. The suggestion that a focus on the technocratic/institutional solutions efficiency and innovation will resolve environmental problems maintains the legitimacy of the state because it obviates the need for any significant social and cultural change. And, because sustainability is framed in this way, it also delivers a comforting answer for citizens of the wealthy nations of the west. It says we won’t have to live much differently because the ‘experts’ will fix things for us. As a result, ecological modernisation has been described as a “discourse of reassurance” (Dryzek, 1997, p.146).

Are greens among the reassured? Do greens really accept the version of sustainability outlined by ecological modernisation theorists? As I have described previously, research in Australia shows that many in the environmental movement seem to accept the dominant institutional discourse of sustainable development (ie, the prescriptions of ecological modernisation theory) without question. If this is so, then perhaps the most significant consequence of these theorists’ work will have been to bring green politics itself under institutional control.

Critiquing ecological modernisation


Fortunately, some critics have failed to be reassured by the dominant sustainability discourse. Richard York and Eugene Rosa (2003) suggest that the logic, methodology and evidence supporting ecological modernisation theory are rather doubtful to say the least. Their critique focuses on four issues:


Institutional efficacy: This refers to the important distinction – and frequently large gap – that exists between policy and practice. It means that academics enamoured of the ecological modernisation theory must be very wary of political spin since an “appearance of environmental commitment” by a state agency or business organisation cannot necessarily be assumed to “correspond with ecologically sustainable outcomes without further evidence” (p.282).

Case study evidence: While case studies represent a very convenient and therefore popular research methodology, the generalisability of such studies must always be considered very carefully. Cases maybe highly unusual ‘outliers’ that are remote from normal practice, and until it is proven otherwise by some statistical evidence, they cannot be considered to provide convincing proof of a mass movement towards sustainable development. So we must ask, how representative are the positive case studies that support ecological modernisation? Basically, no-one knows.

Units of analysis: York and Rosa question whether observations of ecological modernisation are being made at the appropriate level, because “organizations and economic sectors are not independent of one another.” If we only focus on individual firms, how do we know that increased eco-efficiency in one organization does not in fact necessitate increases in resource and energy use somewhere else. This is, effectively, another critique of the case study methodology.

Pace of eco-efficiency: Increased efficiency can lead to increased consumption. Observations of increased eco-efficiency per unit of production sound wonderful, but such efficiencies do not necessarily lead to sustainability, or alter the trajectory of ecological destruction. If production increases because of the lower unit cost, absolute consumption (ie, the total number of units produced) may well rise, and total energy and materials consumed may also rise. This is the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate that I have discussed previously. Therefore, the focus on efficiency maybe somewhat misplaced when what is actually needed is an absolute reduction in energy and material resource use.


In playing such an important role in negating radical green proposals for dealing with the ecological crisis, ecological modernisation theory carries a heavy burden. But the theory goes largely unquestioned because it delivers reassuring answers. Greens must not be seduced by trite reassurances. Richard York and Eugene Rosa caution against the “uncritical commitment” to ecological modernisation theory and the idea that the only way out of the ecological crisis is to go further into modernity. Indeed, as they put it, such uncritical thinking may “blind us to other options that may have greater potential for bringing about ecological sustainability” (p.283). Let’s open our eyes and our minds again, and rethink sustainability as a concept that has a green philosophy at its heart.



Susan Baker (2007) Sustainable development as symbolic commitment. Environmental Politics 16(2), 297-317.

Andrew Dobson (1995) Green political thought (second ed). London: Routledge.

John Dryzek (1997) The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses.

Maarten Hajer (1995) The politics of environmental discourse: Ecological modernisation and the policy process.

Richard York and Eugene Rosa (2003) Key challenges to ecological modernization theory. Organization & Environment 16(3), 273-288.

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