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date: 10 August 2020

Introducing Environmental Political Theory

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter offers an overview of the context, content, and history of environmental political theory (EPT) as a field of study within political science. It starts by differentiating EPT from both the subfield of political theory and other areas of sustainability and environmental studies, with its focus on the political nature of human/non-human relations. EPT’s development over the last twenty years is discussed, in terms of both substantive foci and maturation as a field. The chapter then turns to an overview of the structure and chapters of the Handbook, including chapters on EPT as a field of inquiry, the rethinking of nature and political subjects, the goals and ideals of EPT, various obstacles faced by environmental change, and the role of activism in environmental politics and thought.

Keywords: Environmental political theory, environmental politics, political theory, sustainability, environmental studies

What Is Environmental Political Theory?

What is “environmental political theory?” No doubt many readers begin this handbook reasonably confident that they have a sense of what the field addresses or entails. Yet for many others the contours of the field are likely quite opaque. In both cases, we are confident that the essays collected here will challenge and intrigue readers with their diverse subject matter, their fresh approaches to complex challenges related to the environment and sustainability, their insightful analyses, and their effective modeling of engaged and problem-centered political theorizing. Nonetheless, the question remains: what is environmental political theory (EPT)? We begin by sketching a preliminary answer, with the understanding that many of these points are developed more fully later in this introduction. Of course, the more adequate answer only unfolds throughout the handbook in its entirety.

As we and many contributors to this volume understand it, EPT is a broad field of inquiry in which some of the tools and techniques honed by political theorists—conceptual critique; normative analysis of structures of power; close reading of texts; nuanced and multifaceted understandings of political values including democracy, justice, and freedom; and eclectic methodologies drawing upon diverse disciplines—are utilized to develop insight into contemporary environmental challenges. EPT, then, is best understood as a broad field of inquiry rather than a rigid ideological position or a partisan allegiance to a particular political agenda. It is, however, (p. 4) characterized by the conviction that massive, often global concerns regarding climate change, species extinction, toxic pollution, and many others pose a broad and deep challenge to both political thinking and political communities, today and in the future.

At least since Aristotle, political theorists have paid normative and critical attention to the role that the non-human world plays in political community and political change (see the chapters in this handbook by Harlan Wilson and Peter Cannavò). Yet such attention has often remained at the periphery of their theories. Moreover, while some political theorists have attended to the human relationship with nature or the non-human, this relationship has by no means been consistently valued. EPT moves it to the center of its inquiry. Beyond this, it seems clear that although EPT theorists differ in their normative assessments, they are motivated not only to theorize about the human relationship to nature but also to theorize about ways to reverse, mitigate, and/or adapt to ecological threats and devastation.

Alongside its normative and critical attention to the non-human, environmental political theory also attends to structures of power within the human world. In this sense, EPT doesn’t simply ask what we should do to address human impacts on the non-human world. Such a question can posit an abstract “view from nowhere,” and, in neglecting to address explicitly how normative prescriptions can be adopted and implemented in society, can be read as presupposing that such prescriptions will be imposed by some sort of philosopher-king . . . or perhaps scientist-king. Work in EPT is often self-conscious in challenging this sort of presupposition. It explores how normative prescriptions become refracted through systems of power and privilege in political decision-making and in society (see, for example, Tim Luke’s chapter). Along these lines, EPT also often poses questions about the implications of the arguments and rhetoric advanced by activists and policymakers involved on all sides of contemporary political discourse about environmental concerns.

EPT follows the work of many other political theorists in attending to the nature and meaning of long-central—and contested—political concepts, including justice, democracy, and freedom (see, for example, the chapters by Steve Vanderheiden, Elisabeth Ellis, and Jason Lambacher, respectively). These concepts permeate political discourse surrounding environmental concerns, yet their meaning is often left curiously unexamined. Examining them now is especially crucial given that many of these political concepts were developed in very different environmental contexts. How, for example, might a conception of democracy be altered by the realization of the value of the non-human realm, or the qualities of individual non-human entities? Moreover, new terms and concepts, including the Anthropocene, biodiversity, and—perhaps most visibly and influentially—sustainability, have come to play an important role in relation to environmental concerns. These concepts, too, have become subject matter for inquiry in EPT (and are addressed, for example, in the chapters by Giovanna Di Chiro, David Schlosberg, and Ingolfur Blühdorn).

EPT can be described directly, but another way to appreciate its contours is to notice that which it seems positioned against. In all their diversity, environmental political theorists nonetheless share a critique of those who—explicitly or implicitly—view (p. 5) environmental challenges as something that can be contained in the box of a particular “issue area” for government policy and civil society action. And against the longstanding practice of political theorizing narrowly focused upon a rational, liberal, individual human, the field is also premised on the recognition that political action exists within an ecological context, and often articulates the need to recognize non-human as well as human agency (as, for instance, can be seen in the chapters by Rafi Youatt, Justin Williams, and Lisa Disch).

Finally, while it seems wholly compatible with the pursuit of EPT to make use of scientific work to identify, document, model, and predict the character of major challenges such as climate change, species extinction, and other manifestations of ecological devastation, EPT is positioned against the temptation to move beyond science to scientism. That is, it rejects the notion that scientists should not only provide empirical understanding but normative authority as well. In response to this move, EPT raises a red flag, drawing attention to the processes of interpretation, contestation, and value-based judgment that necessarily mediate between scientific insight and political authority. In other words, EPT sees science and scientists as necessary but not sufficient in the effort to address environmental challenges. As Mark B. Brown’s chapter in this handbook demonstrates, the precise character of the contribution by scientists (and science) makes all the difference.

The Emergence of Environmental Political Theory

As the discussion up to this point illustrates, to understand what EPT is, it is most important to understand its substantive interests and orientations. Yet one can also gain insight into both the contours and limitations of this field of inquiry by noticing its institutional and disciplinary locations. While work that might be labeled “environmental political theory” has been authored by scholars in philosophy, history, environmental studies, and other disciplines—as well as by authors from outside the academy—the field as such emerged in the 1980s and 1990s largely from the work of political theorists who were located within the discipline of political science. For those outside of this disciplinary location, a bit of explanation may be in order. For better or (and?) for worse, since at least the 1960s, political theory has been located in the discipline of political science, but has not been positioned as exactly part of this discipline. In part, this is a reflection of the tension between political theory’s normative approach and the largely empirical approach of the rest of the discipline. More particularly, it reflects political theory’s resistance to influential strands of the discipline that are committed to a positivist methodology. In an earlier generation this narrow methodological focus was manifest in a commitment to behaviorism; more recently this commitment has been superseded by the influence of rational choice theorizing (for further analysis of political theory’s relationship to political science, see the chapter by Kimberly Smith).

Regardless of the explanation, one consequence of the rather loose connection between political theory and political science has been a notable degree of freedom (p. 6) for political theorists. Michael Walzer has referred to this freedom as a political theory “license” that has allowed practitioners to transgress usual disciplinary boundaries and schools of thought (Walzer 2013). In the field of political theory in general, transgression has often meant drawing upon work and influences from other fields, including philosophy, intellectual history, and cultural studies. Yet EPT presses the interdisciplinary borrowings far more widely, drawing from ecological science, science and technology studies, geographic thought, environmental history, and many other fields that can inform our understanding of the relationship of humans to non-human and more-than-human phenomena.

EPT shares other conventions with contemporary political theory besides transgression. Holding relatively loose obligations to the discipline of political science, political theorists have often treated the history of Western political thought as a resource for critical engagement; theorists have been regarded as sources that might illuminate contemporary political dilemmas, offer critical distance on contemporary political conceptions, and provide context for understanding some of the silences and blind-spots in contemporary social and political discourse. Of course critical engagement with this tradition is quite distinct from normative embrace of it. Many environmental political theorists share the sense that contemporary dilemmas might be better understood by working through the ideas of long-dead Western thinkers, a sense that often distinguishes them from environmental writers emerging from other locations in or out of the academy. But EPT has also become much more than a reinterpretation of past thinkers.

The foundations for EPT as a self-aware field were laid in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the publication of works including John Dryzek’s Rational Ecology, Robyn Eckersley’s Environmentalism and Political Theory, Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, and Andrew Dobson’s Green Political Thought (Dryzek 1987; Dobson 1990; Eckersley 1992; Plumwood 1993). Of course, these works did not appear out of the blue. They emerged from an interest in making political theory relevant to a key and growing set of political concerns made evident by decades of fervent and diverse forms of environmental activism. This activism included the obvious efforts to protect wild places, endangered species, and habitats. But it also included movements against nuclear energy and for demilitarization, for more appropriate development paths in non-industrialized societies, for ecological restoration, for public health, and (by the 1990s) for environmental justice, among others.

EPT also emerged in the shadow of the institutionalization of new environmental policies in many industrialized societies during the 1970s. Both the promise and the performance of these institutions could thus be evaluated in the years that followed, and many people concluded that earlier hopes had proven hollow or gone unrealized. A variety of critics—both inside and outside the academy—began to develop bodies of explicitly normative environmental thought, including environmental ethics, eco-feminism, and so-called deep ecology. Strikingly, relatively few of the early works in these literatures focused on the significance of political structures and ideas. Among the exceptions were William Ophuls’ Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity and Murray Bookchin’s Ecology and (p. 7) Freedom, each of which was critically engaged by the environmental political theorists who followed (Ophuls 1977; Bookchin 1982).

It seems fair to say that, as it has emerged since these earlier decades, EPT as a specific field has been largely an Anglo-American academic dialogue. More precisely, it has been writers in and from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States who have been most visible in the construction of the field, though thinkers from continental Europe have also made important contributions. To be clear, though, this description of the field of EPT only refers to the primary centers of self-identified scholarship and teaching activity. Many of those involved draw upon the work and ideas of other scholars, intellectuals, and activists from the Global South and other parts of the world, though the latter do not—at least at present—usually characterize their work as EPT per se.

Having attempted to define and situate EPT in this introduction, we hasten to add that the field remains inchoate and its boundaries porous (for more developed accounts of EPT’s emergence and contours, see Meyer 2006 and Luke 2015). By no means would everyone whom we have identified as an environmental political theorist—including some contributors to this volume—self-consciously adopt the label for themselves.

Labeling the Field

Finally, no attempt to answer the question “what is environmental political theory?” can end without some consideration of the very name of the field (and hence the title of this volume!). A number of different labels have been—or might be—applied: among others, “green political thought,” “political ecology,” and “political theory of sustainability.” As editors of this handbook, we considered all of the above and more as potential titles. Yet in the end, despite the fact that EPT is far from a perfect name, no other title seemed to have the sort of broad acceptance necessary to supplant it.

“Green” political thought (or theory), widely used especially throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, is perhaps the most obvious alternative. Some have argued that “green” is a broader label than “environmental”: specifically, that it more effectively flags the field’s expansive interest in the intersection of environmental concerns with those of social justice, nonviolence, and the valuation of the non-human world for more than instrumental purposes. By contrast, according to this argument, “environmental” political theory appears to connote the mere application of already formed political theories to the “issue” of “the environment.” While this argument raises important criticisms, and a number of theorists have continued to use this moniker as a result, other theorists worry that the “green” label is too readily identified with green political parties, and that work in the field will thus be construed as necessarily aligned with these parties or their ideology. A more inclusive or less partisan label seems needed.

“Political ecology” might serve the purpose. The term “ecology” has the advantage of connoting a more holistic and interconnected system, whereas “environment” often just (p. 8) connotes our “surroundings.” Adding the adjective “political” to “ecology” could draw many elements of the field together. Yet there is an academic reason to shy away from this name, as it is already widely identified with the established work of a generation of scholars in anthropology, geography, and related fields, whose work often focuses upon the commons, resource use, and management issues, especially in rural communities. While work by these political ecologists has often greatly influenced that of environmental political theorists, it is in no way identical to it.

As with “green” and “ecology,” the term “sustainability” is also understood by many as a more encompassing term than “environmental.” Sustainability is often said to be premised on a foundational interconnection of three elements: the “3 Es” of ecology, economy, and equity. Thus, sustainability might be used to describe political theory in this area. The reality, however, is that relatively few have done so. In this handbook, we examine sustainability as a singular concept within a broader field of potential issues, interactions, and actors in the environmental space.

Our ambivalent conclusion, then, is that, despite its inelegance, “environmental political theory” is currently both the most recognizable, distinctive descriptor of this field and the least inadequate one. It is for these practical reasons more than any more principled ones that we have adopted it in the title, and throughout the contents, of this handbook.

The Vision for the Volume

As EPT has developed as a field of inquiry, so too have its practitioners developed as an academic community. Those interested in the intersection of political theory and the topic of environment aimed to differentiate their subject from both traditional foci within the field of political theory and the standard understanding of environmental politics as solely concerned with environmental policy. As is the case with many new cross-field efforts, this differentiation was initially difficult in the everyday life of political science conferences. While the main conferences of political scientists were not particularly receptive places for environmental theory (something that has begun to change in recent years), the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association (WPSA) in the United States, with its reputation for excellent panels and participants in both political theory and environmental politics, became a place where those interested in the intersection came together. The “Environmental Politics and Policy” section, with its growing panels in science and technology policy and theory, environmental movements, and, importantly, “New Books in Environmental Politics,” became a place for EPT and engagement with key books and authors. The WPSA has been supportive of the development of communities, as demonstrated by the various groups it has encouraged to host annual pre-conference workshops, including on feminist political theory and Latino/a politics. With this support, the EPT community grew. It began to host its own workshop in 2002, at (p. 9) times including over 60 scholars ranging from senior faculty to new Ph.D. students. And in 2004, EPT gained its own section in the Association’s annual conference; the section currently averages approximately 14 panels with some 50 papers presented each year.

When the idea of a handbook on EPT first came up in 2012, the possibility was presented to the attendees at the WPSA pre-conference workshop in Portland, Oregon, who discussed it as a group. The goal of the discussion was to collectively develop general categories and specific topics to cover, a basic structure for the endeavor, and a list of potential contributors and editors. Over 50 people participated in a lively conversation about the field and its representation, leading to an initial list of 60 potential topics to address. Looking back on that crowd-sourced listing of ideas, we are pleased to note that the current collection covers all but seven of those suggestions. This process of engagement with the EPT community allowed for a broader conception of the field than any small set of editors could provide, generating suggestions for chapters and topics broadly intersecting with both other political science subfields and environmental subfields of related disciplines, including sociology, geography, economics, women’s studies, and philosophy. At the conclusion of this discussion, the current team volunteered to serve as editors of the handbook.


Our primary goals in constructing this Handbook of Environmental Political Theory have been to respect past work in the field, represent the broad landscape of present concerns and scholarship, and point to new directions. Wherever possible, we have sought to be forward looking, engaging a variety of ideas about where the field may go in the coming years and even decades. Our task, as we see it, has not just been to identify foundational ideas and arguments in the field, but also to press outward to highlight key new ontologies, directions, foci, movements, pedagogies, and more.

We commissioned a number of chapters that illustrate these new directions, and explore areas not yet familiar to some—perhaps even many—who are familiar with the field of EPT. EPT has always been an inclusive endeavor, open to a wide range of approaches to the intersection of politics, theory, and the environment in which we are immersed. In this light, we have included a number of chapters from authors in disciplines other than political science whose work is nevertheless crucial to this mission; this includes philosophers such as Steven Vogel, Kyle Whyte, Paul Knights, and John O’Neill, and political economists such as Joan Martinez-Alier. We have also included many from political science who do not necessarily self-identify as environmental political theorists, though it is our conviction that their interests fit squarely within this field of inquiry; this includes Mark Beeson, Diana Coole, and Matthew Paterson. Overall, we believe the current collection represents how far the field has come, illustrates its broad base of material and appeal, and offers some sparks for new conversations—and, hopefully, some controversy. (p. 10)


Given the broad conceptual base of EPT, and as is evident in our wider than usual casting of the net for authors in a handbook of this type, we aim to appeal to an expansive readership. Clearly, one key audience is the range of existing scholars in the self-identified EPT community. Another key audience is students—both undergraduate and graduate—interested in learning about and potentially joining this engaged (and inviting) field. But we also hope to appeal to the growing number of political theorists and political scientists reflecting on the questions at the heart of our endeavor, perhaps as a result of frustration with the limits of attention to the non-human world in their own fields. And we aim to bring EPT to a range of environmental thinkers in other disciplines, and interdisciplinary fields such as environmental studies, who wish to explore a broader interdisciplinary conversation on the political change necessary to address the vast environmental challenges we face today.

The Organization of the Volume

Environmental Political Theory as a Field of Inquiry

While we understand the field of inquiry of EPT to be shaped by lively engagement with a broad and interdisciplinary array of scholarly work, we begin with a section that acknowledges EPT’s indebtedness to and deep roots in the field of political theory. With chapters dedicated to the traditions of liberalism, republicanism, and critical theory (by Piers Stephens, Peter Cannavò, and Andrew Biro, respectively), this section both explores Western political thought as a rich resource for environmental political theorists and probes its limits for understanding, unpacking, and explaining a host of current political problems related to nature, non-humans, and the environment. As Harlan Wilson explains in his opening chapter, through close readings of Western thinkers, environmental political theorists have both appropriated and critiqued the approaches, concepts, and logics of past political theorists so as to explicate the politics that have contributed to our current ecological crises and to imagine more just and sustainable alternatives. Complementing these chapters, Farah Godrej’s essay examines the potential of non-Western approaches for conceptualizing environmental issues. As a whole, the essays in this first section engage the past as a source for contemporary theorizing and revitalize our understandings of influential texts by considering how they respond to new orientations and concerns. Initiating a conversation that is sustained over the entire volume, they reflect on how we might best bring our normative commitments and critical theorizing to bear on contemporary material practices that, in many instances, threaten the future of humans and non-humans alike. The next set of essays turns to EPT’s place in the academy in order to distinguish EPT from adjacent fields such as (p. 11) political science and environmental ethics and to convey its unique contribution to emerging disciplines such as sustainability and environmental studies. Focusing on the student, these essays pull the reader into the classroom by detailing the role of experiential learning, action research, and practically engaged political theory in the pedagogy of many EPT courses (chapters by Romand Coles, and Seaton Tarrant and Leslie Thiele).

Rethinking Nature and Political Subjects

The chapters in this section address two fundamental questions: “What is the environment?” and “Who or what is included in the political community?” These chapters are positioned less directly with respect to the historical texts of political theory; instead, they engage more closely with a Euro-American lineage of environmental thinkers that includes conservationists, preservationists, social constructionists, and, most recently, new materialists. Essays under the subheading “Nature, Environment, and the Political” each draw out the implications of different conceptualizations of the environment for our ability to address large-scale socio-political-ecological problems such as global climate change, environmental management, and human–non-human relations. From Steven Vogel’s identification of the processes that tend to reify the built environment to Samantha Frost’s discussion of the challenges that posthumanism presents to the human/environment dualism, this section offers insights for how we might think more productively about environment. The next set of chapters, gathered under the subheading “Environment, Community, and Boundaries,” investigates questions of inclusion and exclusion as they inform our understandings of key political concepts such as sovereignty, power, justice, and obligation. The reach of these chapters is broad, including well-established topics such as cosmopolitanism in Simon Caney’s essay as well as much more recent areas of inquiry such as the sensory powers of plants in Catriona Sandilands’ essay. As a whole, the section demonstrates EPT’s interdisciplinary character through chapters that engage with scholarship in geography, philosophy, animal studies, feminist theory, science and technology studies, and postcolonialism. The section is populated by plants, buildings, humans, animals, nation-states, networks, global processes, and habitats . . . all toward the end of better understanding how already existing interspecies relations, biopolitics, and conceptions of the environment and political community inform our ability to address environmental challenges in the age of what some have come to call “the Anthropocene.”

Ends, Goals, Ideals

From the more phenomenologically minded section focused on who and what is explored in EPT, in this section we turn to the question of why. What values motivate both environmentalists and EPT scholarship? Echoing the concerns of many other political theorists, authors in this section illuminate core political ideals including justice (p. 12) (Giovanna Di Chiro), responsibility (Robyn Eckersley), and rights (Kerri Woods). But several of the chapters in this section also demonstrate EPT’s engagement with values inspired by environmental movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including sustainability and environmental justice, or reorient political concepts such as “limits” (Andrew Dobson) and “human flourishing” (Breena Holland and Amy Linch) to address the non-human as well. As a whole, these essays consider both how environmental political theorists have made use of traditional political ideals and norms such as justice and rights, and how environmental concerns have inspired re-conceptualizations of these ideals. At root, these chapters offer responses to the classic question of political theory, “What does the (or a) good life entail?,” while taking into consideration some combination of the major factors that characterize our time, including capitalist logics of growth (John Barry), climate change, the pleasures of consumer society, the practices of neo-liberal forms of governance, the pressures of population growth (Diana Coole), the structures of racial, gender, and class inequalities, and widespread and growing environmental degradation. Tensions proliferate within and across these essays as the authors grapple with the conflicts that emerge among and between environmental and political values, collective and individual ends, and contemporary needs that bump into long-standing discursive formulations and institutional structures.

Power, Structures, and Change

The final section of our volume, dedicated to the question of how we might move forward, encompasses a great deal of territory. The first seven chapters examine some of the primary structures that constrain and/or enable the institutionalization of environmental ends. Together these chapters question and reflect on current relations among the state, citizens, the environment, and the economy. They draw our attention to the discourses and concepts that inform our understandings of these roles and the mechanisms through which power is articulated. Adrian Parr’s analysis of neo-liberal forms of governance is followed by chapters that examine governmentality, the “green” state, scientific expertise, democratic action, authoritarianism, and global systems. They also parse contemporary systems of power to expose those affordances that might be amplified or reworked to produce positive environmental and social change. While most of these investigations revolve around the Western state, Mark Beeson’s chapter examines the emerging “environmental authoritarianism” of China and John Dryzek’s treats the larger system of global environmental governance. The final six chapters of this volume, collected under the subheading “Theorizing Citizenship, Movements, and Action,” consider two interrelated questions: First, how do organizations, activists, and other actors themselves represent or embody environmental theorizing, and second, how does EPT understand the range of methods for bringing about change, including social and political organizations, movements, and other strategies? In response to the first question, chapters by Joan Martinez-Alier, Kyle Whyte, and Sean Parson and Emily Ray offer analyses of the power of environmental movements to affect conceptual vocabulary and (p. 13) the function of governance institutions; in response to the second question, chapters by Cheryl Hall, Sherilyn MacGregor, and Lisa Disch offer varying perspectives on how we might both green and democratize political action. Demonstrating the prominent place of praxis in EPT, these chapters illuminate the confluence of discourse, framing, nudging, democratic space, and embodiment in political action. And they draw from diverse intellectual resources—including actor-network theory, feminist theory, Marxism, postcolonial studies, radical environmentalism, the environmentalisms of the poor, and indigenous environmental movements—to both expose the limitations of contemporary thinking and push toward more just and sustainable futures.

Challenges for the Future

In collections of this scope, there are always unforeseen circumstances that interfere with the realization of the ideal. The essays collected in this handbook reflect a wide and diverse range of topics, insights, and viewpoints within EPT today. We are proud of the final set, but we recognize that inevitably the handbook has not been able to include all things that it might, equally well. We thus end this introduction by noting a few areas where more needs to be said.

Not surprisingly, some of the limits of the volume—and future opportunities for exploration—are topics of interest that were raised in the initial discussion of this handbook at the EPT workshop but that we were unable to address in full. Some of these topics are issues deeply constitutive of the idea of environmental theory itself, such as a thorough engagement with the romantic or transcendentalist tradition—especially in the history of American environmental thought. While much of that tradition would be considered conservative in the current academic climate, there has also been an increasing interest in rethinking contemporary conservative justifications for environmental ethics, action, and politics; this, again, was identified at our initial session and yet we were unsuccessful in commissioning a piece on the issue. The largest absence, however, is the participation of scholars representing perspectives outside of the Anglo-American world, and especially those who approach these questions from a non-Western perspective. As noted earlier, EPT has to date been taken up as a distinct field of study in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, and is addressed by a range of contributors across Europe in numerous languages. But the field needs to reach out to audiences beyond these familiar academic geographic boundaries. Across Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa, scholars are addressing the human/ politics/environment intersection in engaging, creative, and productive ways. It will be a key task of the field to establish relationships with a new generation of environmental scholars, and to break down existing boundaries to establish a broader and more inclusive EPT community. We wrap up this handbook convinced that this cross-national, cross-cultural, and often cross-ontological engagement will be one of the key directions for future research, and relationships, in the field.


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