Politics and the Environment

  • Robert J. Brulle
Part of the Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research book series (HSSR)

For nearly 150 years, environmental concerns have been part of the U.S. political agenda. As early as 1864, the U.S. Congress debated the proper use of national lands and, motivated by press accounts of the logging of Giant Sequoia trees, decided to protect Yosemite Valley for aesthetic reasons (Brulle 2000). Since then, as industrialization and environmental impacts have risen in tandem, environmental politics has expanded its range over an increasingly wide spectrum of political action, ranging from local level land use decisions to global controls over CO2 emissions. Thus, the study of environmental politics encompasses a range of issues across virtually all political arenas. As the range of environmental politics has expanded, so too has the scholarship on this topic. Using a wide variety of intellectual tools, ranging from legal studies to geospatial analysis, the literature on environmental politics has expanded into an immense field.

In this essay, I seek to summarize the key theoretical approaches that define this academic subfield and some of the leading research topics in environmental politics. It is important to realize that there is not one universal definition of environmentalism. Rather, environmentalism is defined by numerous discursive frames that define distinct policy fields. Thus, environmental politics is carried out in distinct communities, each focused on a particular aspect of environmental concerns. Thus, this essay begins with a discussion of the multiple frames that define environmentalism. Secondly, there are several intellectual frameworks that define the causes and cures to environmental problems. In the second part of this essay, I describe the major models regarding the causes of environmental degradation, and how these models inform different approaches to their solution. In the third section, I summarize the analysis of the drivers that are unique to the development of environmental policy. Here, I focus on specific applications of standard approaches to understanding environmental politics; (1) Changes in the political opportunity structure, (2) Movement activities, (3) Development and promulgation of new cultural belief systems, and (4) Condition of the natural environment, including major environmental disasters. This section concludes with a review of the literature on the dynamics of environmental policy.


Environmental Policy Social Movement Environmental Degradation Environmental Politics Environmental Kuznets Curve 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This research is supported by a research grant from the National Science Foundation, Sociology Program Grant NSF 0455195 for the project “Civil Society and the Environment: The Mobilization of the U.S. Environmental Movement0, 1900–2000”.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert J. Brulle
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Culture and CommunicationsDrexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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