In Search of a Political Environment

Daniel Judt

Nature, Action and the Future: Political Thought and the Environment, edited by Katrina Forrester and Sophie Smith, Cambridge University Press, 240 pp., $77.09

 The Environment: A History of the Idea, by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin, John’s Hopkins University Press, 256 pp., $29.95 

Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future, by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Verso, 207 pp., $18.32


The 24th annual United Nations Climate Conference, or COP24, concluded on December 15th with a tepid agreement that will do little to address our global climate crisis – or perhaps nothing at all, if nations continue to ignore the emissions reductions pledges that they made three years ago in Paris. I attended the first week of the COP, which was held in Katowice, the polluted heart of Poland’s coal country. (There was much fighting over what the location symbolized.)[1] What struck me was not that the conference ended with a middling accord desperately hashed out over a sleepless final weekend – we have come to expect little more from these international gatherings – but that all the delegates and diplomats in attendance seemed to know exactly what would stymie the negotiations before they even started. There was, they all insisted, one stubborn missing ingredient: “political will.”

Over the past few years, “political will” has become commonplace in environmental politics – a byword for some mysterious missing resource that would, were we to harness it, unleash a wave of global action to stop climate change.[2] In Katowice, I heard “political will” invoked often enough to make for an excellent drinking game. The call came from the press: “Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible – if there is political will,” ran a Guardian headline; “Countries struggle to muster political will to tackle climate crisis,” wrote the Climate Action Network. From activists and academics: “The main difference between possibility and impossibility is just political will,” pronounced Chris Weber of the World Wildlife Fund; “The final tick box is political will,” said Jim Skea, a prominent climate scientist. And from UN officials, most frequently UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who raced from conference room to conference room extolling “leadership and ambition … the political will to fight climate change … a firm political will,” as if by repeating the words over and over he could somehow coax such a will into existence.

Why this fixation on political will? In part because all of the other necessary conditions for climate action are, at this point, present and accounted for. Gina McCarthy, the former head of the now-gutted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently remarked, “We have the scientific knowledge, we have the financial capacity, and we have the technical capacity to be able to address this. What we’re essentially lacking is political will.”

McCarthy is right. Scientific knowledge: COP24 came on the heels of the latest (and grimmest) report from the IPCC, the international authority on climate science, which documented the catastrophic effects of even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels and concluded that, to avoid those effects, we would need to halve our global emissions in the next twelve years. Financial capacity: a rapid transition to a zero-emissions world would be financially difficult but by no means impossible, and it would certainly save jobs and money compared to the alternative. (According to a recent U.S. government report that the Trump Administration tried to bury by releasing it on Black Friday, a business-as-usual approach to climate policy would slice 10% off America’s GDP by 2100.) Technical capacity: renewable energy is readily available and easily scalable – it has been for quite some time. Environmental science, environmental economics, and environmental technology are soldiers ready for deployment, waiting for an order from their commander-in-chief: politics.[3]

And yet the desperate search for political will, even when all these other elements stand at the ready, indicates that somewhere along the line a grave misstep has occurred. For decades, the modern environmental movement has operated with an implicit assumption that if the science were unanimous, the technology available, and the economics sound – and if we could convince everyone of those evident truths – then good environmental politics would follow. This equation has now proven itself false many times over. Today, most Americans do believe that climate change is real: according to the Yale Climate Opinion Map for 2018, 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, 77 percent support regulating carbon dioxide emissions, and 79 percent believe schools should teach about global warming. We have all the sufficient conditions, but the politics have not followed.[4]

So the question then becomes: why is it that the modern environmental political movement has been unable to generate political will? Three explanations are often proposed. Journalists, who tend to search for proximate causes, have shown how self-interested and often corrupt industries – energy producers, Big Agra, car manufacturers – have lobbied against environmental regulation with a success unrivalled in modern times (except, perhaps, by cigarette companies). Historians have focused on how the environmental movements have confronted those industries, and why those confrontations have failed. And political theorists, their philosophically-inclined confrères, have homed in on our ethical assumptions about what we, as carbon-producing citizens of developed nations, owe to our fellow humans.[5]

Although each of these explanations is true, the three books under review point to a deeper and perhaps more fundamental problem with environmental politics. Their methodological approach is to focus on the evolution of the words and concepts that have shaped our environmental concerns. Taken together, they offer an intellectual history – inevitably incomplete and sometimes scattershot, but nonetheless crucial and enlightening – of some five-hundred years of Western ideas of nature and their relationship to politics. To survey that history is to realize just how absent concerns about the natural world have been in our political traditions. And it is also to realize that when the environment did become political, it carried with it an intellectual genealogy that has hamstrung the modern environmental movement to this day.


We might begin with the unfortunate truth that for much of Western history the natural world was not just outside the political realm; “nature” and “politics” were antithetical to one another. That is the main theme of Nature, Action and the Future, a collection of essays assembled by Katrina Forrester and Sophie Smith. Though both Forrester and Smith now teach political theory (at Harvard and Oxford, respectively), both studied history at Cambridge, and Nature, Action and the Future is a welcome attempt to bridge those two disciplines by “showing how the history of political thought can be used to address environmental problems.” (Quentin Skinner, the godfather of the Cambridge school of intellectual history, which emphasizes the importance of always locating ideas in their precise historical moments, contributes an afterword to the collection.) In order to “place environmental ideas into a wider political, economic, and philosophical context,” Forrester and Smith have assembled a group of historians of Western political thought—who are not experts on environmental history—and have asked them to consider how the thinkers they study conceived of the relationship between politics and the natural world.

In response to that prompt, many of the essays in this book simply and convincingly deny the premise: there is no way to understand environmental ideas in a political context, because for much of Western history, the natural world was defined as that which was outside the political. Annabel Brett’s essay, which is the first in the collection and focuses on early modern Europe, argues that this distinction between “nature” and “the political” lies at the core of the modern Western political tradition. With few exceptions, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European intellectuals defined politics as “centrally concerned with relations between human beings, not between human beings and anything else.” Animals could have “natural rights,” but never political ones; the same went for land. This was because admission into the political realm required agency – the ability to articulate and to act on decisions. These “strong conditions on agency,” Brett concludes, “mean that conceptions of the land as an agent or partner in [political] community…are very hard to find.”

The only way that nature could take on a political meaning was through the idea of a homeland, or patria. Brett cites Henning Arnisaeus and Alberico Gentili, two seventeenth-century political scientists who argued that one’s “native soil” played an important role in determining one’s political community. Arnisaeus used this idea of patria to argue against dual-citizenship. Gentili, writing of the Roman destruction of Carthage, proposed that our native land, “the region to which our eyes have become accustomed,” not only gave us a distinct nationality but also shaped the way we see the world – and so one’s political affinities become tethered to one’s location. But, as Brett acknowledges, the kind of politics that patria provides – narrowly local and often nationalistic – is not a desirable tradition for the modern environmental movement to take up. And it remains an exception to the rule: for early modern Europeans, the natural world had no place in politics.

This anti-political idea of nature remains baked into the more recent concept of “the environment.” As Paul de Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sorlin (all environmental historians) demonstrate in The Environment: A History of the Idea, the term only entered the English lexicon in the mid-1820s. In 1827, British reactionary Thomas Carlyle borrowed the word from the French environs – “surroundings” – and used it to describe the circumstances that shaped great men. This definition of “environment” as “those extrinsic conditions that shape the real object of the study or story” remained dominant in Europe for most of the nineteenth century. The environment changed us, affected the way we act – but it was never a protagonist, and thus always peripheral to the (human) world of politics. When sociologists such as Herbert Spencer and early ecologists began to narrow the term to mean natural surroundings, this anti-political sense continued to hold. The environment could influence political actors, but it was itself a stable, agentless force. The idea of “environmental politics” in Carlyle’s time would be an oxymoron. Slowly, in fits and starts over the course of the nineteenth and early twenty centuries, “environmental politics” began to make sense – not because our idea of “the environment” moved closer to the political realm, but because politicizing the natural world became a useful tool for the state.

The historical essays in Nature, Action and the Future trace this development across multiple European countries. In Germany, resource management – especially of wood and forested land – offered a welcome avenue for the state to extend its control into local politics (as local as a single farm) that were previously beyond its boundaries. Thus one finds nineteenth-century German politicians calling for a coordinated effort to regulate the timber industry and forest management, an effort that, in the words of one German forester, “only the state can manage.” Likewise in England, where prominent naturalists like James Hutton argued that the safeguarding of woodlands and prudent husbandry of soils required “the wisdom of the legislature” to guard against self-interested landowners who might exhaust the nation’s resources. The environment had become political, but only as a means for government expansion. It was not (yet) an end unto itself.

Resource management meant extending politics into nature. But it also had the effect of granting the environment that key political quality – agency – that it formerly lacked. Malcolm Bull, in his fascinating essay on the idea of idleness in mid-20th century environmental economics, offers this telling quotation from a 1926 speech by Gifford Pinchot, head of the US Forest Service and later the Governor of Pennsylvania:

We have vast stretches of idle forest land. It brings no good to anyone. It pays little or no taxes, keeps willing hands out of work, builds no roads, supports no industries, kills railroads, depopulates towns, creates a migratory population, all of which work against a good and stable citizenship. Idle forest serves no one well. It is a menace to our normal national life.

Pinchot personifies the land, but not in a traditional (or biblical) Mother-Nature way. Here the idle forest is the idle citizen, a deadbeat who forfeits her obligations – her political duties – to her community. In other words, it had become possible to speak of nature as a truly political entity, an agent in a symbiotic relationship with human beings. This language stuck: in 1961 another head of the Forest Service, Edward Cliff, another head of the Forest Service, echoed Pinchot when he declared that “nonproductive, misused and idle woodlands will add nothing to the economic and cultural foundation upon which our future as a nation and a civilization depend.” As Bull notes, the idea of having “full employment” of natural resources – and the notion that the natural world could, by remaining idle, shirk its civic duties – meant that there was no meaningful distinction between the idleness of men and the idleness of nature. Both were political concerns. (The idea that the state should correct for economic idleness in its citizens is a development in political economy that we ought to scrutinize outside of its environmental implications – though that is perhaps beyond the scope of these books, and certainly beyond the scope of this review.)

This remarkable conceptual shift marks the beginning of the modern history of “the environment.” It is also where Nature, Action and the Future hands off its historical account to The Environment. Though Warde, Robin and Sorlin begin their history of the environment in the mid-1800s with Carlyle, they date the modern environmental era to 1948, a year in which two bestselling polemics that warned of a coming environmental apocalypse – William Vogt’s Road to Survival and Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet – signaled the inauguration of a new way of thinking about our relationship to nature. The modern concept of “environment” was shaped, the authors argue, by four political fixations of the postwar era: an urge to make predictions (often apocalyptic ones) about the future of our planet; a deference to scientific expertise to judge those predictions; a faith in the numbers and models that constituted that expertise; and a tendency to expand the scope of those models to a global level, and so transform “the environment” from a term about local circumstances to a “truly global issue, which could be scaled to any nation and locality, and [which] no nation could treat … in isolation.” Warde, Robin and Sorlin set out to document how that transformation occurred.

To do this, they make an explicit shift away from the tendency in intellectual history to trace the development of an idea by scrutinizing the scribblings of a lineage (often quite an arbitrary one) of famous political thinkers. “Ideas are not just shaped by lone people,” they write, “but just as much in conference halls and laboratories.” Our modern concept of the environment, in particular, “became the aggregate of techniques and institutions that shaped the idea more than individuals.” That, incidentally, is a criticism that we might direct at Smith and Forrester’s collection, whose essays tend to focus on precisely the elite theory and lone scribblers that The Environment wants to eschew.

This shift in focus from the individual to the institutional is one of the great strengths of The Environment. But if Smith and Forrester perhaps lean too heavily on a small group of writers who come to represent all of political thought, Warde, Robin and Sorlin suffer from the opposite problem. Their approach invites a frustrating, vague passivity: while it may be true that “the environment was nobody’s intention,” readers do need a story to hold onto, and Warde, Robin and Sorlin refuse to settle for a clear cast of historical actors.

In chapters on the study of population growth, ecology and climate change, The Environment builds toward its central claim: that the modern history of “the environment” is that of an ever-ballooning concept under which local concerns swelled into “global objects.” In the 1960s, a group of neo-Malthusian population theorists – led by Paul Ehrlich and his bestselling work The Population Bomb – popularized a view of the world which “saw resources as a finite part of a global system.” The idea of a resource-limited, interconnected Earth also seeped into ecology, a field once concerned with localized studies of conservation techniques that rapidly turned its attention in the 1970s to models of a global ecosystem in which even the smallest of local shifts could have planet-wide effects. And with the widespread recognition of climate change that began in the 1980s, “the environment” came to represent not only a global natural world, but also a global civilization. If the environment “encompassed the whole planet,” and if our (local) actions were shaping its character, then we needed a global forum to figure out how to act. By the late 1980s, “the environment” had become “an expertise that created a new global politics.”

Which brings us to what we have today: a global politics of the environment that places a premium on predictions, models, expertise, and a sense of interconnectedness. Every year we receive the latest round of climate forecasts from the IPCC, a body that commands respect in international climate politics precisely because it is apolitical: an international group of scientists who evaluate thousands of papers and models and condense them into one set of objective forecasts for policymakers. Those policymakers then attend a series of UN-hosted conferences – like COP24 this past December – at which the IPCC scientists present their report and try to convince all the world’s nations to turn their science into politics. More often than not, those attempts fail. But what we do get are more reports – more models, predictions, and deference to experts – from a host of acronymed international bodies like UNEP, UNFCCC and IEA. And so this cycle, which produces what Warde, Robin and Sorlin call “an internationally active and restlessly conferencing alliance of scientists” but fails to translate that international science into international politics, continues.

Warde, Robin and Sorlin argue that this history underscores the main problem with our current state of affairs: our idea of “the environment” is now global, but our politics are not. We have proven ourselves capable of conceiving of nature as a single interconnected ecosystem – that is the intellectual journey traced in The Environment. But we cannot yet do the same for politics. (“The Earth Is One but the World Is Not,” they title one of their chapters.) The politics that take place inside our global environmental institutions remain “stubbornly local.” They conclude that “Environmental politics has been, in large part, a history of trying to build political institutions that could match the scope and ambition of the concept.”

What we have, then, is a history in which our idea of nature has remained out of sync with our idea of the political, the one forever circling the other as though in gimbal lock. Where once “the environment” was a concept trying to catch up to the requirements of politics, now our understanding of “the political” is struggling to catch up to the requirements of “the environment.” That is the history – and the present dilemma – that these two books offer us.


When we do reach a coherent form of environmental politics – when the scope of the political aligns with the scope of “the environment” – what will that look like? That is the opening question in Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of our Planetary Future. Like many of the contributors to Nature, Action and the Future, Mann and Wainwright are not specialists in environmental politics, and their primary academic interests – in political economy and critiques of liberal capitalism – guide their foray into climate change. Unlike those contributors, though, Mann and Wainwright don’t want to plumb the genealogies of our current environmental concepts. Theirs is a “speculative mode” styled after Hobbes (whence the title) and Marx, two thinkers who wrote during moments of acute political crisis where an old order seemed to be fading and a new one had yet to come into view. Though this self-conscious emulation feels overblown (this book is no Communist Manifesto), it does allow Mann and Wainwright to adopt a more biting polemical tone. Climate Leviathan is a helpful reminder that political theorists should offer something more ambitious than the dry thought experiments – what Clifford Geertz called “the little stories Oxford philosophers like to make up for themselves” – that have overrun the field.

Climate Leviathan takes as its premise the conclusion to which Nature, Action and the Future and The Environment have led us. “Our technical understanding of the physical processes driving climate change has run far ahead of our explanations of the social and political processes driving these physical processes,” write Mann and Wainwright. They want to know what will happen when our conception of political processes catches up to our idea of environmental ones. They assume that our modern idea of the environment and our idea of politics are, by virtue of climate change, bound to collide within the next few decades. One will change to accommodate the other.

According to Mann and Wainwright, that alignment could play out in four “formations” that fall along two different axes: capitalist or non-capitalist, and “planetary sovereignty” or “anti-planetary sovereignty.” A capitalist and planetary regime – which they believe to be the most likely response to climate change – they call “Climate Leviathan.” (Think the UN, but with more power.) A capitalist and anti-planetary order leaves us with “Climate Behemoth,” where each nation regulates its own environment and the idea of a global system is scuttled— something like Trumpism. “Climate Mao” would mean a non-capitalist but planetary system: authoritarian, but appealing because it might yield quick action against carbon emitters. And a non-capitalist, anti-planetary sovereignty system – which would require a political economy that is neither communist nor capitalist, national nor global – they label “Climate X.”

Although Climate X is what Mann and Wainwright want us to move toward, they fail to provide any meaningful description of what an anti-capitalist, anti-planetary politics would look like. To “glimpse” Climate X, they urge us to “bundle together the most radical strategies of the climate justice movement – mass boycott, divestment, strike, blockade, reciprocity.” But it is difficult to imagine that bundle as anything more than a jumble of angry voices, and Climate Leviathan’s appeal to “Climate X” never manages to transcend the understandable but unhelpful stage of protest that cries “down with the system!” over and over again.

Mann and Wainwright’s valuable focus on economics and their discussion of Climate Leviathan make their book far more interesting than the other two under review here. “Any substantial attempt to come to grips with climate change must contend with capitalism,” they write. And their contention is that capitalism, with its insatiable drive for growth and progress and its proclivity to encourage vast inequality, has stymied and will continue to stymie humane environmental politics at every turn. The “liberal, capitalist order” is what makes our idea of politics incompatible with care for the environment. “Capitalism may not be the only problem” facing the environmental movement, they concede. “But it is surely one of the big ones.”

The idea that the modern environmental movement has been undermined by global capitalism is not new. Naomi Klein, a journalist and academic whose 2014 bestseller This Changes Everything made her the darling of environmental activists the world over, has argued that environmental politics began in earnest at the precise moment (1988, she says) that liberal capitalism triumphed over communism and economic globalization took off. This confluence was, Klein suggests, the ultimate roadblock to climate action. She memorably termed it a case of “epic bad timing.”

But the history of our idea of the environment sketched by these three books suggests that the simultaneous rise of the modern idea of “the environment” and the kind of liberal, capitalist, global economy that Climate Leviathan condemns is not simply a case of “bad timing.” Rather, our conception of a global capitalist economy and our conception of “the environment” share several striking similarities. The four dimensions that shaped the modern idea of “the environment” – predictive; scientific; modellable; and almost infinitely scalable – could just as well apply to a globalized capitalist economy.

Though Mann and Wainwright never make this connection explicit, reading Climate Leviathan with these two other histories in the background makes it difficult to ignore. Perhaps this is part of why we have such trouble aligning “the environment” with the political – not because our idea of the natural world lies beyond the bounds of what counts in politics, but because our contemporary idea of the environment relies on the same conceptual tools as does our current political economy. If this is indeed true, it would force environmentalists to confront an uncomfortable paradox. Our modern idea of “the environment,” which we so often invoke to summon our fellow citizens to climate action, is part of the same intellectual history – the same family tree – as the global capitalist politics that, if we buy Mann and Wainwright’s argument, is antithetical to climate action.



In his infamous 1969 essay, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” Quentin Skinner ruthlessly scolded historians and political theorists for deriving “dateless wisdom” and “universal ideas” from historical texts. This search for “perennial questions” was, he asserted, poor scholarship. And it was also a very narrow-minded way of learning from the past. Historians of political thought ought not to rummage through history in search of old answers to our current political questions. Rather, Skinner argued, the point of documenting how ideas change over time is to discover questions and concepts that are not familiar to us today. We can use the past as a way to imagine a different future – to realize that “we may be freer than we sometimes suppose.” Annabel Brett, who studied under Skinner, puts his mantra well in a more recent essay: “In trying to unravel the mental worlds of the past, we give ourselves the opportunity to re-weave our own.”[6]

Can these histories of our idea of “the environment” and its intersection (or lack thereof) with political thought give us the tools to re-weave our contemporary idea of environmental politics? In his afterword to Nature Action and the Future, Skinner backs away from his normally-hopeful stance that intellectual history can free us in the present. He strikes a much more despondent tone. “We are ill-equipped by our inherited traditions of thinking about the natural world to deal adequately with our current predicament,” he writes. “The more one contemplates the disjunction between what is scientifically necessary and what is politically possible, the more it seems hard to end on anything but a deeply pessimistic note.”

It is true that after reading these three books that document the way we have thought about the natural world across some five-hundred years of Western history, one might come away thinking that we are trapped. The way we think about nature is strongly rooted in a kind of anti-politics. And when our idea of “the environment” did make its way toward the political realm, it ended up overshooting the political entirely and gave us an environmental politics that is too global, too technical, and perhaps too reliant on the same intellectual structures that sustain the kind of political economy that seems only to exacerbate climate change. When delegates and diplomats paced the halls of the UN Climate Conference in Katowice this past month bemoaning (and contributing to) a lack of “political will,” perhaps they were getting at a more profound – and, we might fear, a more intractable – historical problem.

And yet Skinner’s pessimism undermines his own earlier argument about what the history of ideas can do for us in the present. Good intellectual history helps to reveal the origins of our current predicaments. A certain amount of fatalism is to be expected – the ideas that got us into this mess are unlikely to be the ones that will get us out. But the point of Skinner’s 1969 essay was to suggest that we could look to history, and especially the history of political thought, to find different ideas, long-forgotten and discarded, that could offer us a new way of thinking about a dilemma in the present.

With these three books, historians of political thought have done an excellent job of showing why our inherited traditions in the West have left us ill-prepared to face climate change – and why we have largely excluded the environment from our politics altogether. The task for those historians now is to shrug off late-Skinner’s pessimism and follow early-Skinner’s method. We must search for those past traditions which, precisely because they have not shaped our impotent idea of environmental politics in the present, might offer us some hope for the future.

[1] Shannon Osaka, “This Year’s UN Climate Talks – Brought to You by Coal?” Grist (4 December 2018):

[2] I draw on Bill McKibben’s language from a 2014 article in the New York Review of Books, in which he concluded that “the resource [that we need is] … political will, which is infinitely renewable. If we can get it going” (Bill McKibben, “Climate: Will We Lose the Endgame?” New York Review of Books [10 July 2014]:

[3] IPCC, “SR 1.5: Global Warming of 1.5 oC” (2018):; USGCRP, “Fourth National Climate Assessment” (2018):

[4] See

[5] There are of course far too many good texts of environmental journalism, history, and political theory to cite here. But I will offer a representative (and recent) example from each field. For journalism, see Hiroko Tabuchi, “The Oil Industry’s Covert Campaign to Rewrite American Car Emissions Rules,” New York Times (13 December 2018):; for history, see Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016) and Thomas G. Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); for political theory, see Simon Caney’s numerous articles about climate justice: A notable exception to my (very rough) generalizations about how these three fields have approached environmental politics is the work of Jedediah Purdy, who has attempted the kind of intellectual history of the environment that is similar to that of the works discussed in this essay. See Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[6] Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” in Visions of Politics, Volume I: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 57-89; Annabel Brett, “What is intellectual history now?” in D. Cannadine ed., What is history now? (London: Palgrave Press, 2002), 128.