RESL is a student-centered, research-focused lab group that aims to generate actionable knowledge on questions of environment, nature, sustainability, and justice.

The Environmental State

One strand of RESL’s work focuses on the environmental state. Critical ecological problems like climate change and mass extinction do not respect political boundaries, but for better or for worse, nation-states remain the epicenter of environmental governance. States retain unique power to govern human action within their territorial boundaries and are the primary organizational means of implementing environmental protections, from local-level laws to international agreements. If we want to understand how environmental governance works and why it fails, we have to understand environmental states.

Theorizing the Environmental State

A sound research program on the environmental state cannot operate without theory to guide it. How should we define environmental states? What makes the environmental state distinct from the state as a whole? What do environmental states do? Where did they come from? What sorts of political, cultural, and organizational features shape the environmental state’s development and the ways it shapes human relationships with nature? In collaboration with the Frickel Lab at Brown University, RESL contributes to the collective scholarly endeavor of theorizing environmental states.

Sources of Strength and Weakness in the Environmental State

Social scientists appreciate that states are not unitary, cohesive units. Quite the opposite: they are a mess of ministries and agencies and bureaus only very loosely managed by elected leaders and a judiciary (especially in the United States). Appreciating that diversity and the problems it presents is essential for understanding how environmental states work. A core area of RESL’s work is focused on explaining how and why some elements of the environmental state flourish and grow while others languish, with direct implications for the strength and the failure of particular areas of environmental protection and governance.

Changes in spending and employemnt for the U.S. environmental state and its constituient elements since 1980.
(A) How the environmental state has changed in terms of spending and employment since 1980 relative to the U.S. federal bureaucracy as a whole. Note that the environmental state is the only major governmental sector to have eroded in terms of both spending and employment since 1980. (B) How all the constituent agencies within the environmental state have changed since 1980. Net trends in the environmental state as a whole mask incredible heterogeneity across agencies and bureaus, with implications for the strength and the weakness of different areas of environmental governance.

Firearms and the U.S. Environmental State

Most do not realize it, but the U.S. environmental state is deeply entangled in the politics of guns. That’s because much of the environmental state’s early development and contemporary work has focused on managing landscapes and species for recreational hunters, and because taxes on firearms help fund the environmental state. These fiscal linkages to the firearms industry are more than an historical oddity; they help explain how and why some elements of the environmental state retain bi-partisan support in a political context where pro-environmental attitudes are increasingly partisan. With collaborators at Texas A&M, RSEL is actively investigating these present and historical linkages and their implications for understanding environmental governance. We have written about this work in The Conversation and it has been discussed in the New York Times and Environmental Health News.

Political Contention and the Impact of Non-Profits and Firms

The environmental state does not operate in a vacuum. It is embedded in the broader field of environmental politics and conflict, where all sorts of interest groups and advocacy organizations try to shape the agenda and behavior of specific agencies and offices in the environmental state. The environmental state itself intervenes in that political world, too, by supporting extraction, for example, and by enforcing environmental protections. In the United States, one critical – and under-studied – dimension of this political conflict is environmental litigation. RESL is focused on developing a much more comprehensive understanding of how environmental-legal conflict shapes environmental governance and the environmental state itself.

Wins and losses for environmental civil suits in U.S. federal court districts by region and by plaintiff type. It turns out that the federal government uses the courts to enforce environmental law relatively uniformly across the country – and wins most of the cases it brings. Environmental advocacy groups, by contrast, focus their legal attention overwhelmingly in the West. Because these groups normally sue the government, this geographic maldistribution puts less enforcement pressure on the environmental state in other parts of the country.

Bureaucratic Capacity

Scholars of international development have developed a rich line of research around the notoriously slippery concept of “state capacity,” as an indicator of the state’s “capacity” to effectively govern and provide services to residents of its territory. Less work disaggregates this concept within a state, and no work (that RESL is aware of) attempts to understand how the environmental state’s capacity has changed over time or undertakes this effort in the U.S. context. RESL is working on developing robust and empirically grounded indicators of U.S. bureaucratic capacity that can be used to trace how the federal bureaucracy has changed through time, including the environmental state.