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  • Freedom and the Environment
  • Rodger A. Payne (bio)

Since Kant, liberals have argued that a world filled with democracies would suffer fewer wars. Remarkably, a growing body of historical scholarship confirms that democratic states have not fought one another. 1 A burgeoning literature now seeks to explain why this peace results. The present essay explores a different, though related, theme by asking whether democratization portends still other unforeseen but propitious consequences for the community of nations. Specifically, do democratic states take better care of the environment?

In articulating their support for global democratization, U.S. political leaders have linked democracy and the environment. For example, then-candidate Bill Clinton boasted during the 1992 presidential campaign that democracies, among their other virtues, “are more likely to . . . protect the global environment.” In his 1992 bestseller Earth in the Balance, Clinton’s running mate Albert Gore, Jr., claimed that the spread of democracy is a prerequisite for the achievement of better environmental policies. Even before the extent and intensity of ecological damage in the former Soviet bloc became widely known, the scholar H.J. McCloskey agreed with the politicians. As he wrote in 1983:

Many of the important ecological measures that are being implemented are being implemented in democracies. . . . By contrast, if we consider actual totalitarian states, China, Chile, the USSR, Argentina, the dictatorships of Africa and the Arab world, we find that they are far from ecologically minded. . . . China and the USSR are among the worst ecological offenders. 2 [End Page 41]

Views such as McCloskey’s represented something of a departure from the dominant thinking of the 1970s, when many prominent environmentalists and economists were skeptical about democracy and thought that authoritarianism might be needed to cope with “limits to growth.” Scholars and activists such as William Ophuls, Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin, and Robert L. Heilbroner argued that liberal democracy’s stress on individual liberty promotes ecological catastrophe. They lamented the freedom of individuals to pollute, consume, and procreate; the inability of limited government to control the “tragedy of the commons”; and the tendency of the United States (the world’s leading democracy) to equate economic development with food aid. 3 Although these critics’ arguments were speculative and are rarely heard today, their warnings helped to spark environmental movements and legislation.

Another contemporary charge is that democracies fail to protect the environment because of strong business interests and, more broadly, a massive societal stake in continued economic growth. Business has vast political and economic resources, clout that is often mobilized on behalf of growth and against environmentalism. Indeed, some commentators have concluded that the strong and durable position of business within democratic societies leaves environmental causes little chance of success. 4 Clearly, this is a serious issue that must be confronted.

At present, there is little direct empirical research on the possible affinities between democracy and ecology. Previous research consists mainly of case studies of one or a few developed democracies (nondemocratic and nondeveloped states tend to be overlooked altogether). The prospects for more broadly based research are poor. Neither scholars nor governments nor international organizations have as yet fully assessed environmental conditions and policies across a wide range of nation-states. The key barrier is lack of data—no one really knows the quality of environmental conditions in most nations, especially outside North America and Western Europe. 5

Given the absence of better data, the best empirical evidence about the link between regime type and ecology comes from fairly recent case studies of nondemocratic systems. Specifically, the most interesting work focuses on the poor environmental records of former East bloc states and China. Many scholars agree that the inferior ecological record of the Soviet Union and its satellites owed much to the closed nature of communist societies. By contrast, environmentalism initially gained strength in Russia after Mikhail Gorbachev instituted glasnost’ and democratization allowed greater expression of ecological concerns. 6

Five Arguments for Democracy

Scholarly work done over the course of the last several decades in the fields of political science, economics, and ecology suggests five [End Page 42] reasons why democracies do a better job of safeguarding (and, when necessary, repairing) the environment:

1) Individual rights and the open marketplace...

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