College of LAS « Illinois

Political Science

Politics Often Undermines Even the Best of Environmental Agreements

The outcome is ‘almost always biased against what is sustainable,’ professor says.

Robert Pahre's class

A caution to nature-lovers: At the intersection of politics and nature, politics usually wins, even over the best intentions.

“Politics screws up outcomes that everybody says they want,” says political scientist Robert Pahre, whose environmental research and teaching has focused on national parks and issues along their borders.

Agreements are made to maintain sustainable populations of wildlife, for example, “yet it’s almost never true that we get that result,” Pahre says. In combining the needs of biology with the realities of politics, the outcome is almost always biased against what is sustainable. For example, the complete failure in the international management of bluefin tuna, and similar failures, may result in many seafoods disappearing from dinner plates within two decades.

Likewise, even though the U.S. has set aside national parks, the needs of people almost always outweigh the needs of nature. In many cases, parks are too small to accommodate their animal populations, and predators have periodically been hunted down, he says. Scenic mountains and alpine habitats are set aside, but not many rivers and no tallgrass prairies. National forests and other federal lands are often managed with timber, mining, and grazing interests in mind.

Even in the renewed environmental interest in recent years, nature gets ironically little attention, Pahre says. Much of the environmental focus is ultimately about urban issues or energy, and is really about using resources more efficiently in ways that benefit humans.

“It just seems like an impoverished view of what the environment is or what the planet is,” he says, and maybe not as motivating as experience with nature to change attitudes about the environment.

Spring 2010