The Environmental State

If we want to understand how environmental governance works and why it fails, we have to understand the state organizations and institutions that structure environmental protection and regulation. Vast bodies of literature in the social sciences investigate welfare states, developmental states, and carceral states. And yet, social scientists – and sociologists in particular – have only scratched the surface of understanding environmental states.

Theoretical Foundations

A sound research program on environmental politics and national-level environmental governance cannot operate without theory to help guide empirical inquiry, stimulate scholarly debate, and drive ahead rigorous social scientific research. How should we define environmental states? What do environmental states do? Where did they come from? What makes the environmental state distinct from the state as a whole, or from other parts of the state? In collaboration with the Frickel Lab at Brown University, RESL contributes to the collective scholarly endeavor of theorizing environmental states.

The Politics of Environmental Welfare

If (social) welfare states look out for the public good by offering public goods like unemployment insurance and old-age pensions, then environmental states look out for the public good by attempting to provide safe and livable environments for present and future generations. But such governance prerogatives do not operate in isolation: they are shaped by a range of contradictory mandates, from militarism to developmentalism and economic growth – not to mention a wide range of environmental politics, ranging from the advocacy of environmental non-profits to the anti-regulatory lobbying of industry associations and climate skeptics. In this political mess, what determines which areas of environmental regulation and protection grow and become more robust, and which areas of environmental regulation and protection wither and decay? This is another core area of inquiry at RESL.

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.

Related Scholarship

in progress

Rea, Christopher M. “Fighting for Green: The Fiscal Sociology of Nature.” [email for in-progress draft]


Rea, Christopher M. and Scott Frickel “The Environmental State: Nature and the Politics of Environmental Protection.” Sociological Theory. 41(3), 255-281.


Frickel, Scott and Christopher M. Rea. “Drought, Hurricane, or Tornado? Assessing the Trump Administration’s Anti-Science Disaster.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 6, 66-75.