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Ecological Progress Kinda Sorta



The great sociological debate about environmental issues centers about one great issue. Is humankind going to destroy itself through ever-increasing production and ever-increasing ecological destruction? Or are people going to see the errors of their ways, put in ecological reforms and keep the anthropogenic destruction of the earth from happening? The upbeat “don’t worry, environmental repair is coming” approach is called ecological modernization. It claims that humans are not suicidal; they are capable of recognizing environmental threats; they are capable of finding social or engineering solutions to environmental threats when these occur. Whether or not ecological modernization actually occurs is a very live debate.


My own take is that ecological modernization is very real. However, it is an on-again off-again process. Some problems get dealt with and dealt with very well. Some don’t get dealt with at all. Some get dealt with in a half-assed way.


Most of the world has banned DDT. Once upon a time, DDT was sprayed all over neighborhoods, and little children ran behind the DDT truck to play in the vapor. We have all learned that that was a mistake.


Reducing energy consumption and deforestation in order to stop global warming looks like it is not going to happen. Hang on to your hat, because in the next hurricane, it may blow off.


Saving the world’s fish supply has only been partially successful. Some northern hemisphere fish banks have been protected; the bans of fishing there are generally enforced. In the southern hemisphere, limits on fishing are usually wishful thinking.


For a sophisticated and nuanced portrait of what partial ecological reform looks like, I recommend to you Grant Burrier and Philip Hultquist’s article in the December 2019 issue of World Development “Temples, Travesties or Something Else? The Developmental State, Ecological Modernization and Hydroelectric Dam Construction in India.” This article is absolutely first rate. However, bring your coffee when you read it. It is densely written. It packs large amounts of information, complex political analyses and multiple propositions into its short and efficient length. Blink and you will miss an important argument.


This is an important paper. However, if you are not going to go to World Development to read the piece in the original, here is a listing of some key high points.

1. The world is reducing its use of hydroelectric dams. Dams were once seen as ecological modernization, because waterpower is a renewable resource. Oil and gas can be depleted. Nuclear leaves radioactive waste. That said, dams are now understood to be much more ecologically destructive than was originally supposed. The dams displace huge numbers of people. They also wreck the ecosystems of the places that they flood and the ecosystems of the places below the dam that are now starved for water.

2. India used to be big on giant dams because everyone loved them – farmers who wanted water and industrialists who wanted construction jobs and electricity. The environment and displaced people got short shrift. The only force slowing down dams was infighting between rival bureaucracies and rival states. Procedural battles could go on and on and on. But ultimately most dams got built.

3. The Bhopal disaster (a giant leak of toxic gas in a major city) jumpstarted ecological modernization in India. However, the pro-dam ministries had all the power. Environmental agencies had hearings and procedures but no real clout.

4. Democracy, robust elections and citizen concerns (notably from people about to be displaced) produced more procedural checks on dam building. This just meant more delays followed by payoffs to the displaced citizens. Payoffs were too low to compensate for the losses local populations experienced.

5. The World Bank pulls the plug on big dam projects worldwide – after new studies show the devastating environmental impact of dams. No money forces India’s hand and big dam projects get slowed or cancelled. Three cheers for the World Bank.

6. Recently, the World Bank has had a surplus of lending funds and is paying for dams again. Take back those three cheers for the World Bank.

7. Ever increasing payoffs to displaced people and frustration with endless hearings and procedural delays finally bring reform to the dam builders. They start looking for easier-to-complete less contentious projects. This means designing more efficient dams with smaller footprints that flood less terrain and are located in less populated areas. Energy yields stay high, but environmental losses from flooding are reduced. Fewer people are displaced as well. This represents genuine ecological reform. Newer dams are smaller and greener than the old ones.

8. Closer examination shows that the new dams are still not especially eco-friendly. They do continue to do lots of damage both in the flood areas and downstream. Fish who are often a major food source for downstream populations suffer from reduced waterflow posing subsistence issues. Biodiversity takes a large hit as well.

9. The new dams displace fewer people and reduce the cash payments required to compensate relocated residents. This is progress. Since dam companies rarely have to pay for ecological damage per se, the record on ecosystem preservation is much worse than the record on paying human victims.

10. The environmental review process is especially corrupt. Consultants are paid to do fanboy environmental assessments that use questionable data to claim the dams are ecologically sustainable. As a result, environmental reviews merely add delays and construction costs to projects without providing any real protection.

Bottom line: The ecological modernization that is observable in the use of smaller more efficient dams is actually not driven by ecological reform at all. For all of the time spent on getting environmental impact statements and putting green remedies into proposals, little of what is implemented from this process provides much protection for natural ecosystems at all. The two driving forces on the extent and form of dam construction is how much money will international development banks provide for dams of one sort or another, and how much legal remediation will have to be paid for the human victims of displacement.


Ecological modernization in this case is not any kind of dialogic societal engagement to actually save natural habitats or resources. Whatever progress comes, is generated from the on-again off-again commitment of the international banking community to ecological preservation, and the vulnerability of the dam companies to lawsuits and reparation payments.


Some environmental reform discussions do go on in the offices of the World Bank. So, at the transnational level, ecological modernization is occurring. And sometimes, ecological reform can come as a happy byproduct of lawyers seeking damages for their clients. 


Sadly, Burrier and Hultquist’s picture is one of environmental review processes that are ritualistic rather than substantive. Still, half-assed reform is better than no reform at all.

Dam - Nagarjuna Sagar.jpg

For More Information

Here are selections from the environmental reading list in my graduate course in the Sociology of Development. I have kept the items that are easier to read.

In Hooks, Gregory, Handbook of Development Sociology. “Strengthening the Ties Between Environmental Sociology and the Sociology of Development.” By Jennifer Givens, Brett Clark and Andrew Jorgensen. Boring but provides a clear and simple review of the field.

In that same book. “Land Use and the Great Acceleration in Human Activities: Political and Economic Dynamics.” By Thomas Rudel.

Schnaiberg, Allan. 1980. Environment. New York, Oxford. Treadmill of Production.

Mol, Arthur et. al. (eds.) 2010. Ecological Modernization Reader. New York, Routledge.

Moore, Jason and Raj Patel. History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet. Berkeley, California.

Adams, W. M. 2009. Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World. 3rd Ed. London and New York: Routledge. (Read pages 59–138, 171–199)

Luke, Timothy W. 2005. “Neither Sustainable nor Development: Reconsidering Sustainability in Development.” Sustainable Development 13: 228–238.

Redclift, Michael. 1987. Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions. Routledge: London.

Roosa, Stephen A. 2010. Sustainable development handbook. 2nd Ed. Lilburn, GA: The Fairmont Press, Inc.

Islam, Md Saidul. 2014. Confronting the Blue Revolution: Industrial Aquaculture and Sustainability in the Global South. Toronto, Toronto. Read this and eating fish will make you depressed.

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