Environmental Citizenship and the Neoliberal State: Good Policy or Greenwash?

by Michelle Reiner,
Honours Graduate, School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University


Executive summary

  • The concept of the ‘good environmental citizen’ has, to some extent, begun to dominate public debate in Australia at the expense of sound environmental policy.
  • Liberal-democratic governments have encouraged and promoted the notion of environmental citizenship, which emphasises the ideal of personal responsibility.
  • This ideal concurrently allows governments to relinquish responsibility for environmental issues and relegate this responsibility to the private sphere.
  • The practise of liberal environmental citizenship, while conforming to the institutional requirements of the liberal-democratic state, does little to alter environmentally damaging practices.
  • Experience suggests that strong action by the state, rather than voluntary, piecemeal individual action, is required if environmental degradation is to be averted.
  • Such action would indeed adhere to the purpose of the liberal-democratic state, which is, among other things, to protect its citizens from harm and deprivation.


The concepts of environmental and ecological citizenship began to proliferate during the early 1990s, and emerged in direct response to the goals of the environment movement. While such discourses initially were confined to specific subsections of political theory (namely political ecology and citizenship studies), these ideas have begun to attain broad popular appeal. News stands and book shops abound with magazines and books about sustainable architecture, organic gardening and DIY books cajoling readers to ‘reduce your personal carbon footprint in five easy steps’. From green bags to solar panels through to low-flow showerheads and recycling, it appears that everyone is eager to ‘do their bit’ for the environment.

Considering the degree of public attention given to environmental issues, one would be forgiven for thinking that Australia was adequately protecting its ecosystems. A cursory glance at Australia’s record on the environment, however, reveals a different story. From freshwater depletion to greenhouse gas emissions, disposable plastics to private motor vehicle use, Australia has gone backwards on environmental issues in recent decades; and this is despite the proliferation of save-the-world books and magazines, reusable bags, water and energy saving devices, and increasing awareness of all things ‘eco-friendly’. Where have we gone wrong? And is it possible to rectify the ecological damage that continues to be perpetuated while almost everyone is ‘keen to be seen to be green’?

The Environment as an Issue: From the Fringes to the Mainstream

Concerns for the wellbeing of ‘nature’ and warnings about impending ecological crises have occurred sporadically over the course of human history, particularly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. These concerns, however, only became a political movement during the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), Meadows et al.’s The Limits to Growth (1972), and James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) were seminal publications in this burgeoning movement. The failure of many of the dire warnings predicted by these publications to materialise created a repertoire for critics of environmentalism. From a mainstream perspective, environmentalists were considered in a similar light to hippies, free-lovers, peaceniks, pot smokers, flower-power children and other elements of the 1960s counter culture. In the 1970s, however, things began to change. Scientists discovered that the earth’s protective ozone gases were depleting; oil shocks rocked the Western world; and the threat of nuclear war seemed palpable in light of the Cold War. While environmental issues were appearing on the public agenda sporadically, the term ‘greenie’ still was a term of derision.

From the mid-1970s, climate scientists began warning the public about the warming of the earth’s surface as a likely consequence of human activity. Such concern became popularised around the turn of the century, and, although debates about the existence (and causes) of global warming continue, public concerns about water shortages, fossil fuel depletion, climate change, pollution, salinity, fisheries depletion and so forth have propelled ‘the environment’ from sectional interest to the forefront of public agenda. This has led many commentators to claim that ‘we’re all greenies now’.

The Evolution of the ‘Good Environmental Citizen’

Concerns about ecological issues and renewed interest in citizenship coalesced in the early 1990s to produce the concepts of environmental and ecological citizenship. Broadly speaking, an emphasis on ecology engenders an emphasis on the intrinsic value of ecosystems and radical action, whereas an environmental focus prioritises human needs and purposes and emphasises reformism. Although the terms environmental and ecological citizenship often are used interchangeably, for the purpose of theoretical consistency this paper focuses on manifestations of environmental (reformist, human-centred) citizenship.

Before outlining the traversal of environmental citizenship into the public discourse, attention should first be drawn to the traditional distinction between liberal and civic republican citizenship. Broadly speaking, liberal notions of citizenship emphasise legal rights, voluntarism, individualism and the ‘privatisation of personality, commitment, and activity’. Inherent to liberalism is an emphasis on individual protection from coercion by the state and fellow citizens. Civic republican notions of citizenship, on the other hand, prioritise the common good, participation, public spiritedness and civic virtue. Liberal citizenship often has been described as a passive form of citizenship, which is oriented toward the private sphere, while civic republican citizenship refers to active participation in the public sphere.

Environmental activism such as protests, rallies, civil disobedience and public awareness campaigns can be described as civic republican forms of environmental citizenship. Many commentators (Peter Christoff and John Barry, for instance) have highlighted the effectiveness of these practices for creating public awareness and propelling environmental issues into the public domain. This assertion is not in question. Bearing in mind the distinction between activist, public good-oriented republican citizenship and individualist, private rights-oriented liberal citizenship, this paper concentrates on the advent of liberal environmental citizenship into Australian public discourse.

The discourses of environmental and ecological citizenship have emerged predominantly in the economically advanced nations. In the 1990s, numerous social and political theorists began to write about the phenomena of environmental and ecological citizenship, the attributes that such citizens would possess, and how these citizens might avert the ecological disasters that Western governments so far had failed to address. These ideas, particularly over the past decade, have begun to filter into public consciousness in numerous guises. Citizens of Western, liberal-democratic states are regularly implored to take shorter showers, switch off power sockets when not in use, separate recyclables, take ‘green’ bags to the supermarket, and install energy-saving light globes. Websites about global warming inform the reader of the ‘top 50 things to do to stop global warming’, all of which include the personalised, private actions described above. Bookshops abound with publications about the numerous ways in which you – the citizen – can help to save the planet without even leaving your front door.

A perusal of a popular local book shop is telling. With hundreds of shelves comprising numerous subjects covering two floors of the building, finding the ‘environment’ section at my local booksellers is a tour de force. After hunting down the lone column consisting of six rows of shelf space, I find that the budding environmentalist can ‘Calculate Your Carbon Footprint’, ‘Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World’, ‘Change the World for Ten Bucks’, and ‘Recue Our World: 52 Brilliant Little Ideas for Becoming an Eco-Hero’. The reader also is informed about ‘How to Live a Low Carbon Life’, ‘Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style’, and ‘200 Ideas to Make Your Life Greener in Every Way’. A stroll down the aisles at the local supermarket also reveals that ‘garden friendly’ detergents and cleaning products, organic groceries and recycled paper are alternatives among a plethora of ‘non-eco-friendly’ goods. Environmental citizenship, it seems, is a consumer product with commercial viability, and one exhibiting the qualities of a ‘market niche’ commodity at that.

Since the 1990s, citizenship theorists have been discussing a new dimension of citizenship that may be added to the three commonly accepted dimensions (civil, political and social) proposed by renowned citizenship theorist T. H. Marshall in the 1950s. The additional dimension proposed by contemporary theorists (such as Turner, Isin and Wood) is that of cultural or identity citizenship. This feature is developing, it is claimed, as a result of advanced capitalism and the accompanying phenomena of post-industrial society and postmodern culture. The notion of post-industrial society is one of a society that is assumed to have replaced the production of consumer goods with the production of knowledge and skills (the ‘knowledge-based economy’), while distinctive features of postmodern culture include the fragmentation, proliferation and autonomous creation of identities. The ‘market niche’ quality of eco-friendly products, and the dubious capacity of these to effect substantial environmental protection, impels one to consider that the concept and practice of liberal environmental citizenship may be more a form of identity citizenship than environmental politics.

Green Bags: Waste Reduction or Fashion Accessory?

Due to the detrimental effect that plastic bag pollution has on wildlife, Australian NGOs such as Planet Ark (and, more recently, state governments) have attempted to ban or tax single-use high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bags. Marine biologists find approximately 100,000 turtles, seals, whales, sea birds and platypi annually that have been choked, strangled or trapped by discarded HDPE bags. Tens of thousands of these deaths occur in Australian waters. The toxins in these bags, furthermore, are released from the deceased marine animals and are now entering the food chain. For this reason, countries as diverse as Israel, western India, Canada, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Taiwan and Singapore are moving toward the elimination of HDPE bags.

HDPE bags are made of polyethylene which, like all plastics, is composed of fossil-fuel oil. The ‘green’ bag is made of polypropylene, another by-product of oil refinement. While shopping bag re-use is preferable to single use, exchanging one type of non-biodegradable plastic for another seems to be a somewhat dubious exercise; especially when considering the amount of jet fuel required to import these bags from China. If the advent of the green shopping bag had significantly reduced HDPE bag usage, perhaps the creation and sale of ‘green’ bags would be justified. So far, however, voluntaristic use of this product has only marginally reduced, rather than eliminated, the use of HDPE shopping bags.

The ‘green’ shopping bag has become a de rigueur Australian fashion icon since 2002, and these items now feature in retail stores throughout Australia. Although cream-coloured calico bags had been available for sale from major supermarket chains for many years, the reusable bag’s surge in popularity only occurred after the arrival of the green polypropylene bag. Major retailers began selling ‘green’ bags after intense lobbying by the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) in order to prevent the banning or levying of HDPE bags. The reasoning behind this is clear: if disposable bags incurred a levy, or were banned, the phenomenon of ‘impulse shopping’ would be dramatically reduced; and this, in turn, would impede the profits of major retailers. The ARA introduced the ‘green’ bag as a means of both avoiding this reduction in sales and providing a new source of profit (albeit small) for retailers. In return, the ARA promised to reduce HDPE bag use by 50 per cent by December 2005, something which so far has failed to materialise.

Common sense dictates that a ban or levy on plastic bags is the only way to eliminate or substantially reduce their usage; so does history. Ireland began taxing HDPE bags in 2002, and has since incurred a 90 per cent reduction in their usage; China has saved 37 million barrels of oil annually since banning free HDPE bags; and the banning of free plastic bags in South Australia has foreshadowed a 90 per cent reduction in their usage since 2009. Bangladesh and Rwanda have banned the HDPE bag entirely, which presumably has reduced their usage to nil. This in no way, of course, accounts for the ever-increasing quantity of plastic packaging in which all of our groceries and food products are transported and sold. If Australia is serious about reducing the 4 billion single-use HDPE bags, and 77 kilograms of plastic used by every Australian annually, then government policy, rather than appeals to attractively coloured fashion accessories, should be prioritised.

The Ozone Layer: Filling the Hole with Protocol

One of the more pertinent examples of the way that concerted political action, rather than appeals to individual consumer choices, can benefit the environment occurred during the late 1980s. In 1974, scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which originally had been produced as refrigerants in the 1920s, had the ability to catalytically break down ozone. Measurements of ozone, which began in 1956, were first comprehensively measured by satellite in 1978. In the mid 1980s, scientists made the frightening discovery that global ozone cover was depleting, and ozone reduction over Antarctica was so profound that it amounted to a ‘hole’. Scientific predictions about the ozone-depleting capacity of CFCs had materialised, and to an alarming degree.

CFCs and other substances that contribute to the breakdown of ozone are referred to as ozone-depleting substances (ODS). The US entered into negotiations with Scandinavian-European countries in 1983 to phase out ODS, which resulted in the 1987 enactment of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The Montreal Protocol, which now has been signed by more than 95 per cent of the world’s ODS-producing nations, aims to phase out CFCs and related halocarbons by 2030.

It is interesting to note the progression of ozone fluctuations since the adoption and strengthening of the Montreal Protocol. Like greenhouse gases, chemicals already released into the atmosphere will continue to deplete ozone for many years. This may explain why the combined total of ODS in the troposphere peaked in 1994, but is now slowly declining. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) scientific assessment of 1998 confirmed the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol, and in 2005 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a summary claiming that the ‘global average amount of ozone depletion had stabilised’. The 2010 WMO/UNEP scientific assessment re-confirmed the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol. It seems fair to assume that this would not be the case had the signees of the Montreal Protocol simply implored their citizens to purchase products that did not contain CFCs while these products still were available on the market.

Private Rights and Public Goods

There are countless examples that indicate the requirement for sustained public policy, rather than piecemeal individual action, in order to sustain Australia’s ecosystems. Australia’s well-known water shortage provides another. While attracting the title of ‘driest continent on earth’, Australia comes a close second to the US regarding per capita usage of freshwater. When reservoir levels across Australia reach a point where drinking recycled sewage becomes a policy debate, and freshwater still is being used in manufacturing and flushed down the toilet at the rate of 9 litres per flush, something is clearly amiss. If freshwater resources are finite, why use this precious liquid in mining and manufacturing, domestic grey and black water systems, and the maintenance of European-style lawns?

Irrigation and drought often are listed as the primary causes of Australia’s freshwater depletion; so is water mismanagement and inefficiency. Despite governments and local councils across the country requesting that consumers use low-flow showerheads and taps, take shorter showers and water their gardens only at certain times of the day, the problem of Australia’s dwindling freshwater supplies appears no closer to being resolved.

Since the early 2000s, water boards in Victoria and New South Wales began to implement plans to recycle effluent and re-sell the treated waste to water-intensive industries. Water boards in Sydney and Melbourne currently are recycling approximately 20 per cent of effluent, and plan to increase the capacity of their respective water treatment facilities in the near future. While this has not yet occurred across the board, Sydney and Melbourne are on target with their water efficiency plans, which are predicted to save tens of billions of litres of fresh drinking water per annum. So far, the majority of this recycled water is being used for agricultural and industrial purposes. Research shows, however, that an estimated 73 to 82 per cent of water usage is domestic. Policymakers therefore should be seriously considering the means by which to transform domestic (and business) sewage systems so that freshwater is not being used for tasks that lower quality recycled water can perform.

Until recently, environmental factors have been conceived as a ‘special interest’ category, which to some extent continues in the present day. In the liberal democratic polity, ‘the environment’ constitutes one of many issues to be considered when forming public policy. Locating ‘the environment’ as a sectional interest only makes sense from a highly relativist pluralist perspective, which fails to take into account the necessity of ecological sustainability for human biological, social and economic wellbeing.

The founding philosophers of classical liberalism intended that individual freedom should not be impinged except when one’s actions hampered the rights or freedoms or another. Kant, one of the founding fathers of the Enlightenment, asserted that an individual’s freedom should not be curtailed unless one or more individuals would suffer harm as a consequence of that individual’s actions. Given what we now know about the necessity of environmental goods for human prosperity and survival, a truly liberal policy would locate environmental factors as fundamental to all good public policy. Australia’s ecosystems, as the foundation of our material wellbeing, deserve more than appeals to individual consumer choice and green sensibilities; they require concerted and sustained public policy that will guarantee their viability for present and future generations of Australians.

Selected Further Reading

Barry, J. 2006, ‘Resistance is Fertile: From Environmental to Sustainability Citizenship’, A. Dobson and D. Bell (ed.), Environmental Citizenship, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge MA and London: 21-48.

Bell, D. 2005, ‘Liberal Environmental Citizenship’, Environmental Politics, 14 (2): 179-194.

Byrne, A-M 2009, South Australian Plastic Bag Ban a Success, Planet Ark Plastic Bag Reduction, 05 Nov (accessed 07 Dec 2010) <http://plasticbags.planetark.org/news/display/91>

Christoff, P. 2000, ‘Environmental Citizenship’, Hudson and Kane (ed.), Rethinking Australian Citizenship, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 200-214.

Dagger, R. 2002, ‘Republican Citizenship’, E. F. Isin and B. S. Turner (ed.), Handbook of Citizenship Studies, Sage, London: 145-157.

Dobson, A. 2003, Citizenship and the Environment, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Fridell, G. 2006, ‘Fair Trade and the International Moral Economy: Within and Against the Market’, T. Shallowcross and J. Robinson (ed.), Global Citizenship and Environmental Justice, Rodopi, Amsterdam and New York: 81-94.

Isin, E. F. and Wood, P. K. 1999, Citizenship & Identity, Sage, London, California & New Delhi.

Karlsson, R. 2009, ‘Individual Guilt or Collective Progressive Action? Challenging the Strategic Potential of Environmental Citizenship Theory’, Paper presented at the International Studies Association’s 50th Annual Convention, New York, 15-18 Feb (accessed 01 June 2010) <http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/3/1/2/4/8/pages312487/p312487-1.php>

Kaye, T. 2004, ‘Solving Our Water Headache’, Solve, CSIRO, Issue 1, updated 11 Nov (accessed 07 Dec 2010) <http://www.solve.csiro.au/1104/article8.htm>

Lindblom, C. E. 1982, ‘The Market as Prison’, The Journal of Politics, 44 (2): 324-336.

Planet Ark 2009, Effects on Wildlife, Planet Ark Plastic Bag Reduction, updated 20 May (accessed 07 Dec 2010) <http://plasticbags.planetark.org/about/wildlife.cfm>

Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities 2009, Plastic Bags, updated 05 November (accessed 20 Dec 2010) <http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/waste/plastic-bags/index.html>

Scerri, A. 2009, ‘Paradoxes of Increased Individuation and Public Awareness of Environmental Issues’, Environmental Politics, 18 (4): 467-485.

Schuck, P. H. 2002, ‘Liberal Citizenship’, E. F. Isin and B. S. Turner (ed.), Handbook of Citizenship Studies, Sage, London: 131-144.

Sparling, B. 2001, Ozone Depletion, History and Politics, NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division (NAS), updated 30 May (accessed 07 Dec 2010) <http://www.nas.nasa.gov/About/Education/Ozone/history.html>

Taylor, R. 2005, ‘Water: A Fresh Approach’, Solve, CSIRO, Issue 4, updated 10 Aug (accessed 07 Dec 2010) <http://www.solve.csiro.au/0805/article11.htm>

Turner, B. S. 1994, ‘Postmodern Culture/Modern Citizens’, B. van Steenbergen (ed.), The Condition of Citizenship, Sage, London: 153-168.

United Nations System-Wide Earthwatch 2010, Atmosphere: Damage to Ozone Layer, UNEP/DEWA, updated 23 April (accessed 07 Dec 2010) <http://earthwatch.unep.ch/atmosphere/ozonedepletion.php>

Scientific Assessment Panel 2010, UNEP Ozone Secretariat (accessed 20 Dec 2010) <http://ozone.unep.org/Assessment_Panels/SAP/>

Wolf, J., Brown, K. and Conway, D. 2009, ‘Ecological Citizenship and Climate Change: Perceptions and Practice’, Environmental Politics, 18 (4): 503-521.

© APH Network and contributors 2010. All rights reserved.

Citation: : Michelle Reiner, Environmental Citizenship and the Neoliberal State: Good Policy or Greenwash? Australian Policy and History. February 2011.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/environmental-citizenship

Download a .PDF of this paper.

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/environmental-citizenship