Sugaring off: enduring insights from long-term research on environmental governance

Abstract

This article presents the results of an effort to identify the most important contributions I have been able to make in the course of a lifetime of thinking about the roles that social institutions play in governing human–environment relations. Some of the resultant propositions are general in the sense that they apply to environmental governance at all levels of social organization. Others are specific to the international level or to what we generally think of as international environmental governance. The basic message is that institutions are important determinants of human–environment relations but that they typically operate in conjunction with a variety of other drivers in a pattern best described as complex causation. As we move deeper into the Anthropocene, an era characterized by human domination of biophysical systems, the need to improve our understanding of environmental governance has become increasingly urgent.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Consensus within the research community regarding such matters is also a worthy goal. But my main point here concerns the importance of precision and consistency.

  2. 2.

    Of course, there is typically a gap between the ideal and the actual with regard to the performance of governance systems. Governance failures, like market failures, are common occurrences.

  3. 3.

    Some analysts use the term resource regime to refer to situations involving natural resources, reserving the term environmental regime to apply to situations featuring environmental protection. But there is no consensus regarding this usage. I use the phrase environmental and resource regimes to cover all arrangements relating to the governance of human–environment relations.

  4. 4.

    In cases where the parties do not share a common understanding of the problem(s) to be solved or regime formation is a political gesture that has little to do with problem-solving, this conception of effectiveness will not apply. Properly speaking, therefore, my focus on effectiveness applies to a subset of the overall category of environmental and resource regimes.

  5. 5.

    There are cases in which an actor may choose to opt out of the social group to which an institution applies. This is one reason why some individuals choose to emigrate from their countries of origin and some states refuse to sign or ratify international agreements.

  6. 6.

    An important theme in regime analysis concerns the roles that collective entities (e.g., states) play as leaders and laggards in the formation and implementation of regimes. This has not been a focus of my work in this field.

  7. 7.

    This distinction bears a resemblance to what March and Olsen describe as the logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness (March and Olsen 1998).

  8. 8.

    For skeptical views regarding the significance of institutions, see Strange (1983) and Mearsheimer (1994/1995).

  9. 9.

    A notable trend in a field long dominated by qualitative analysis is the emergence of a stream of quantitative studies of environmental regimes (Miles et al. 2002; Breitmeier et al. 2006, 2011).

  10. 10.

    I chaired the Scientific Steering Committee of the project on the Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, and I chaired the Scientific Committee of the International Human Dimensions Programme during the development of the Earth System Governance Project.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Ronald Mitchell and two anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts of this article; the final product is substantially stronger than it would have been without their input.

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Correspondence to Oran R. Young.

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Young, O.R. Sugaring off: enduring insights from long-term research on environmental governance. Int Environ Agreements 13, 87–105 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-012-9204-z

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Keywords

  • Effectiveness
  • Governance
  • Human–environment relations
  • Institution
  • Regime