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Toward the Neoliberal Turn: How Neoliberalism Might Influence Environmental History

Thu, March 30, 8:30 to 10:00am, The Drake Hotel, French

Session Submission Type: Roundtable


The past few years have witnessed a revived interest in the role of capitalism in environmental history. This turn toward examining the role of global markets and economic systems in explaining humans’ relationship to the environment and environmental change is exciting and is pushing the field in prosperous new directions. Is the focus on capitalism, however, coming at the expense of discounting other important developments in human social, cultural, and political structures in understanding the changing relationship between humans and nonhuman nature? How might changing political ideology in the West, for instance, shape the rules under which capitalism works?

One of the notable developments of the past half century in the West has been a shift from the welfare and New Deal liberalism of the first half of the twentieth century toward an emphasis on deregulation, laissez-faire economic principles, and smaller government embodied in neoliberalism. This transition has coincided with the rise of the modern environmental regulatory movement in the developed world and has had implications for government-directed environmental management efforts from the local to the global level including climate change. Market-based strategies have influenced efforts to curb carbon pollution and achieve sustainability and new environmental movements have formed in response to the perceived failure of government deregulation to manage public environmental goods, such as with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. While usually associated with politics and economics, neoliberal ideology also has cultural dimensions providing further insight into the changing relationship between humans and the environment. This roundtable will seek to add to the growing dialogue about the role of capitalism in environmental history by asking historians to reflect upon the relationship between the rise of neoliberalism and environmental history and ponder potential new directions for inquiry.

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