Unformatted text preview: The Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection
Evan Schofer, University of Minnesota
Ann Hironaka, University of Minnesota Abstract
The world environmental regime has encouraged nations to adopt new environmental
policies and laws worldwide. But, scholars question the impact on the environment,
suggesting that national policies may be ‘decoupled’ from outcomes. We fill a gap in neoinstitutional theory by specifying the circumstances in which institutions will affect
outcomes – namely, when institutions are: 1) highly structured; 2) when they penetrate
actors at multiple levels of the social system; and 3) when they are persistent over time. We
explore these ideas using the case of global environmentalism. Longitudinal world-level
analyses find that measures of structure, penetration, and persistence are associated with
lower levels of environmental degradation, as measured by global CO2 and CFC
emissions. Additionally, cross-national analyses find that penetration is associated with
improved outcomes. In this case, international institutions have generated substantive
social change. Introduction
An international environmental regime has emerged and expanded over the last half century,
urging nations to protect the natural environment (Haas 1992; Meyer et al. 1997a; Wapner
1995). This regime is composed of inter-governmental organizations, environmental treaties,
“epistemic communities” of environmental and scientific professionals, and large numbers
of international associations and social movement organizations. Together, these structures
are part of a world society (or world polity) that influences national agendas, providing policy
prescriptions and exerting pressure on a wide range of environmental issues (Meyer et al.
1997b). As a consequence, state responsibility for the natural environment has become
taken for granted, and states increasingly create national environmental policies, laws,
ministries and agencies (Frank et al 2000a).
However, Buttel (2000) identifies a critical issue in this line of research: Does this topdown, internationally-sponsored environmentalism produce the desired result? He questions
whether it has “any definite connections with actual environmental protection outcomes.”
(Buttel 2000:118) There is good reason to be skeptical. The track record of environmental
policy implementation is poor, particularly in developing nations (Ginger and Mohai 1993;
Hoffman and Ventresca 2002; Weale 1992; Wood 1995). Although states routinely sign
We wish to thank Al Bergesen, Elizabeth Boyle, David Frank, John W. Meyer, Chiqui Ramirez, Woody
Powell, Joachim Savelesberg, Marc Schneiberg, Marc Ventresca, several anonymous reviewers and the
members of the Stanford Comparative Workshop and the SCANCOR seminar for advice and help on
this project. Direct correspondence to Evan Schofer, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota,
909 Social Sciences, 267 19th Ave South, Minneapolis, MN 55455 ([email protected]) or to Ann
Hironaka, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota, 909 Social Sciences, 267 19th Ave. South,
Minneapolis, MN 55455. E-mail: [email protected]
© The University of North Carolina Press Social Forces, Volume 84, Number 1, September 2005 Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 27 26 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005
treaties and claim to support global environmental norms, conformity to external norms may
be ceremonial, offering environmental protection in form but not in substance (Meyer and
We extend neo-institutional theory to better address how, and under what circumstances,
global institutions generate social change. Then we bring empirical evidence to bear on the
central question: Do the pressures of the world environmental regime reduce environmental
degradation in the world? In addition to expanding neo-institutional theory, our study speaks
to ongoing debates within environmental sociology regarding the “treadmill of production”
and ecological modernization theory – namely, the extent to which pro-environmental policies
represent real structural change, rather than mere “window dressing.” (See Mol 2001 for an
extensive treatment.) Institutions and Decoupling of Policy and Outcome
The neo-institutional literature invokes the concept of ‘decoupling’ to make sense of the
frequent disjuncture between institutionalized policies and substantive outcomes. Decoupling
refers to disconnection between organizational policies and the actual organizational
practices “on the ground.”1 (Weick 1976). Neo-institutional and international regimes scholars
have found that the structure of the international system, which is decentralized and lacking
any overarching “world state” or centralized system of authority, tends to generate decoupling
between nation-state policy and outcomes (Krasner 1999; Meyer et al. 1997b). The empirical
literature appears to bear this out, identifying decoupling in a variety of contexts (Boyle et al.
2002; Hironaka and Schofer 2002; Drori et al. 2003). For example, Hironaka and Schofer
(2002) observe that environmental impact assessment requirements are poorly implemented
in many nations, yielding little direct impact on the environment.2 Nations face tremendous
pressure to ignore, avoid or subvert environmental protections that are displeasing to industry.
Moreover, adherence to international norms and agreements is typically not well monitored or
enforced, while states have great incentives to cheat – over-utilizing common-pool resources
such as fisheries, or polluting beyond allowable levels (Hardin 1993). According to most social
science theories – including the materialist “treadmill of production” views that have
historically dominated environmental sociology – un-enforced norms and treaties should have
little sway compared to the powerful political and economic interests in the world system
The basic decoupling imagery is summed up in Figure 1. An international regime might
create pressures and incentives for states to adopt a particular law or sign a particular treaty.
However, laws and policies may be poorly enforced or otherwise loosely coupled from the
outcome they are intended to produce. Given the strong pressures for decoupling in the case
of global environmentalism, the basic decoupling model suggests:
Hypothesis 1: Growth of the world environmental regime will not reduce environmental
degradation in the world, controlling for other factors. Decoupling vs. Broader ‘Institutional Effects’
The weakness of the basic decoupling model is that it focuses researchers narrowly on a
particular policy-outcome link, and thereby overlooks the broader impacts of international
institutions and culture. The issues that have dominated global discourse and culture – such
as gender equity, education, human rights, and of course environmentalism – are far broader Figure 1. Two Models of Neo-Institutional Effects
Basic Decoupling Model A Model of Broader ‘Institutional Effects’ Specific global treaty
or “norm” Institutional structure: Pro-environmental
organizations, cultural models, discourse, etc. Diffuse influence of
actors at all levels of
the social system
national law or
terms of a
specific outcome Multiple loosely-coupled changes:
• New state policies and laws
• Increased social movement activity
• New corporate standards
• Changed attitudes and values, etc. Uneven “drift” toward
improvement on many
environmental outcomes than any particular law or policy. Global discourses produce laws, but they also legitimate new
social movement activities, change governmental priorities broadly, and reshape people’s
attitudes and behaviors around the world (Frank et al. 2000a; Boyle et al. 2002; Ramirez et al.
1997; Meyer et al. 1992). Institutionalized culture, models and norms, produce diffuse and
indirect effects that can generate social change even within loosely coupled systems. By
focusing only on policies and laws, the simple decoupling model looks at a single tree and
misses the forest. Thus, we suggest that empirical studies should look for the broad impact
of institutions – i.e., institutional effects – rather than focusing on any single mediating factor.
For example, Meyer and Rowan (1978), in their analysis of the American educational
system, find that cultural models are diffusely available and can simultaneously permeate
multiple levels of an organizational system. New educational ideas and fads did not flow
“down the organizational chart” as predicted by traditional organizational theory, but rather
were taken up by advocates at all levels: government officials, educational administrators,
teachers and parents (Meyer and Rowan 1978). A teacher is as apt to champion a new
educational fad as a parent or administrator.3 Consequently, the entire system “drifts” toward
legitimated models with implementation sometimes preceding formal policies and other
times lagging behind (Meyer and Rowan 1978; also see Kelly and Dobbin 1999). Likewise, in
the 19th century the new notion of universal mass education diffused rapidly across the
American states, irrespective of state-level laws of compulsion (Soltow 1981). The sudden
ascendance of pro-education cultural views encouraged both the adoption of compulsory
education laws and increased enrollments. The result is social change at multiple levels within
the social system – even as the levels themselves remain loosely coupled.
The diffuse availability of highly valued cultural models at multiple levels of a social system
has major consequences: First, individuals or groups at all levels of the social system may
function as “receptor sites” and advocates on behalf of legitimated models (Frank et al. 2000a).
For example, Frank et al. (2000a, 2000b) find that global pro-environmental norms and pressures 28 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005
legitimate and support sub-national pro-environmental organizations. A city government, a firm
or interested individuals may take up a legitimate cause, such as starting a recycling program,
regardless of whether such an action is formally required by a national law or treaty.
Consequently, social change may occur throughout a social system – preceding, following or
occurring in a manner unrelated to the formal implementation of policies and laws.
Furthermore, diffuse and highly-valued cultural models set the stage for a whole host of
possible indirect and synergistic effects. A teacher pursuing a new educational fad is likely
to find allies at other levels of the social system – e.g., among parents, administrators, etc. –
to bring pressure for change. In the case of global environmentalism, local and international
social movements often coordinate to bring greater pressure on nations. As a result, the state
is “squeezed” from above and below.4 Also, synergies may emerge. For example,
environmental impact assessment laws are often quite ineffectual by themselves. However,
they create procedural opportunities for pro-environmental groups to intervene via the court
system (Hironaka and Schofer 2002). Likewise, treaties, laws and other formal commitments
increase the leverage of social movement groups and international environmental
organizations that can point out embarrassing failures and hypocrisies. This may lead to
tighter coupling of policies and predictability of outcomes over time. Complex multi-level
effects of this sort are most likely when actors at all levels of a social system are operating
within a common cognitive/cultural framework.
The simple decoupling model, with its orderly top-down flow, gives way to a more
dynamic imagery, in which actors at all levels of a social system may take cues from
exogenous norms and cultural models. Broad shifts in behavior or outcome resulting from the
institutional environment are what we refer to as institutional effects. Structure, Penetration and Persistence: Sources of ‘Institutional Effects’
To expand upon the basic decoupling model, we shift from focusing on particular laws and
policies (or other specific mechanisms) to a discussion of the general characteristics of the
institutional environment within which social actors are embedded, and the extent to which
the institutional/cultural environment affects multiple levels of the social system. Variation in
the institutional environment, as well as the degree of “penetration” into different levels of the
system, will have substantial impacts on outcomes – producing institutional effects that
operate via a wide array of more specific mechanisms.
We suggest three main dimensions characterizing institutional environments that have
implications for environmental outcomes: structure, penetration and persistence.5 Institutional
environments that are high on these dimensions are more likely to generate social change ‘on
the ground.’ This model of institutional effects represents an alternative to the basic decoupling
model, and is also shown in Figure 1. We discuss these three dimensions in turn.
1) Degree of structure.
Institutional structure – in the form of organizations, institutionalized treaties or laws,
epistemic communities of experts and professionals, and so on – sustains the cultural and
cognitive models of world society (Meyer et al. 1997b; Boli and Thomas 1999). Institutional
structure in any given domain may vary substantially over time.6 For example, rapid structuration
around the issue of education occurred in the period since 1945, generating isomorphism of
educational policy and rapid expansion of enrollments worldwide (Meyer et al. 1992, 1997b;
Schofer and Meyer 2004). A weakly structured institutional environment may contain only a
handful of organizations offering a few vague policy prescriptions that may be highly contested.
At the other extreme, a highly structured institutional environment or “regime” might consist of Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 29
thousands of organizations, dozens of binding treaties, and may sustain deeply taken-forgranted beliefs and elaborate policy regimes that guide behavior and action.
Research has shown that expansion of institutional structure speeds adoption of new
policies and laws by states (Frank et al. 2000a; Meyer et al. 1997b; Schofer 2003). In the short
term, structuration does not necessarily reduce decoupling. Indeed, rapid structuration often
leads to increased decoupling, as new policies are enacted faster than they can be
implemented. However, institutional structure sets the stage for widespread diffuse and
indirect effects, of the sort mentioned above.
Turning to the case of global environmentalism, massive increases in structure have been
observed. The level of pro-environmental activity, organization and resources in the
international sphere have been growing exponentially over the past several decades (Meyer
et al. 1997a; Frank et al. 1999, 2000a). There are now hundreds of international environmental
IGOs, NGOs and treaties, addressing nearly every conceivable topic from fisheries to air
pollution to desertification. Associational structure has expanded most rapidly, giving global
environmentalism a “civil society” or “social movement” character (Wapner 1995; Frank et
al. 1999). Treaties and governmental organizations have expanded at a more modest pace,
meaning that the more binding aspects of international institutions are less conspicuous that
the associational aspects – a common configuration in world society.
Accompanying organizational expansion, the ideas and cultural understandings of the
global environmental movement have become increasingly dominant and elaborated (Meyer
et al. 1997a). Environmental protection has become a taken-for-granted and highly legitimated
discourse, which virtually all firms, governments and international institutions now claim to
support. Scientifically-legitimated environmental ideals have profound impacts, in some cases
literally reshaping economic value and/or shifting collective goals away from pure economic
expansion and toward greater environmental protection (Schofer et al. 2000; Schofer and
Moreover, the legitimated models and discourses of global environmentalism have, to
varying degrees, infused other international institutions. Most notably, global environmental
mobilization affected the World Bank and other international economic and development
institutions. The World Bank faces increased resistance to large dam projects (Khagram
2004). More generally, scholars describe the “greening” of the World Bank in the 1990s, when
bank officials began to address environmental concerns in development planning (Haeuber
1992; Le Prestre 1989; Mol 2001). New environmental requirements have become an
increasingly common feature of development projects – further constraining dams and the
like (Hironaka and Schofer 2002). As one might expect in a loosely-coupled system, the World
Bank pursues forms of environmentalism that are at times distorted, decoupled and less than
ideal from the viewpoint of various environmentalists (Goldman 2005). Nevertheless, many of
the coercive pressures on nations to protect the environment operate via economic, trade and
development institutions – e.g., “debt-for-nature” swaps, environmental impact assessment
requirements for receiving development assistance, etc.
We expect the accumulation of international structure – which is accompanied by new
legitimate discourses and concomitant shifts in a variety of other international institutions – to
generate social change on a global scale. Thus, we argue:
Hypothesis 2: The increase in pro-environmental structures in world society will reduce
environmental degradation in the world.
2) Degree of Penetration (of actors at all levels of a social system)
One aspect of penetration is well known: the world polity strongly affects national
governments (Meyer et al. 1997b). Indeed, the principle finding of the neo-institutional literature 30 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005
is that central state actors are penetrated by their external environment, leading to the adoption
of taken-for-granted policies and scripts. This, alone, has the potential to generate improved
outcomes – though obviously decoupling may weaken or eliminate such effects.
In addition, however, institutional structures and culture directly influence actors at all levels
of a social system: such as the individuals, associations and firms within nations.7 When neoinstitutional models and culture penetrate throughout a system, outcomes often improve – in
part because actors at lower levels of the system are often directly responsible for
implementation. Boyle et al. (2002) show that when citizens are directly influenced by
international discourse, their behavior is more likely to change – even in cases where state
policies and laws were highly decoupled.
Many scholars have discussed the impact of world society penetration on central
government actors. (See Meyer et. al 1997b for a review.) Therefore, we focus our discussion
on the sub-units of nations, which have received less attention. World society norms, cognitive
models and pressures directly affect individuals, domestic NGOs and even firms via an array of
specific and diffuse mechanisms. It is increasingly fashionable for international organizations in
world society to bypass states entirely, instead focusing efforts on influencing and
“empowering” individuals or community groups directly. Many IGOs and INGOs fund subnational environmental protection efforts and pro-environmental social movement activity.
Frank et al. (2000b) show that nations strongly linked to world society experience growth in
domestic environmental social movement organizations. International NGOs like Greenpeace
employ well-developed social movement frames and discourse to galvanize domestic social
movement activity. The resulting local NGOs and social movements, in turn, propagate
environmentalism within nations. This sets the stage for indirect and synergistic effects, and
thus may amplify the impact of international norms.
Also, international organizations directly penetrate and influence firms. Environmental
INGOs employ social-movement tactics to pressure firms – ranging from protests marches and
boycotts to dramatic confrontations with whaling ships or logging companies. Less familiar but
extremely important, international organizations propagate new organizational practices and
standards that encourage the ‘greening’ of firms. For example, the International Standards
Organization sponsors ISO 14000, voluntary environmental management standards that have
been adopted by major forms worldwide (Mendel 2002). The ISO 14000 specifies
management strategies to improve a firm’s “environmental performance” and provides tools to
handle specific environmental problems – even down to the proper tests to monitor air, soil and
water quality. As of 2000, more than 22,000 firms worldwide were certified as ISO 14000
compliant. This presumably involves substantial decoupling, given the rapidity of the change
and strong incentives for firms to pollute. Nevertheless, widespread penetration of this sort
seems likely to generate some improvement in environmental outcomes.
Western-style education systems and scientific professionals are increasingly implicated
as “receptor sites” and carriers of world culture and norms, and their incorporation of proenvironmental views represents a key form of penetration (Drori et al. 2003; Frank et al.
2000a; Schofer and Meyer 2004).8 For example, pro-environmental views are written into
school curricula, which are then diffused globally. Even China has begun to implement
“environmental education,” creating new cohorts of environmentally aware citizens (Midling
1996). Over time this is likely to change individual behavior and generate improved aggregate
This discussion of sub-unit penetration is far from exhaustive. Presumably, the media,
tourism, the exchange of foreign students and many other vectors diffuse pro-environmental
cultural models – though evidence remains anecdotal. One of the difficulties of neoinstitutional analysis of world society is the sheer number of possible mechanisms involved.
Moreover, it is likely that various mechanisms interact and reinforce each other, increasing the Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 31
impact on outcomes. In any case, penetration of world culture to actors at multiple levels of
the social system is an overlooked process that is likely to result in changed behavior and
improved environmental protection outcomes. Thus, we expect:
Hypothesis 3: The penetration of world society norms and cultural models to actors at
multiple levels of the social system will reduce environmental degradation in the world.
3) Persistence of institutions
The persistence of institutional structures is a major source of their potency. The global
environmental regime brings persistent attention to environmental issues and keeps those
issues on national agendas for long periods of time. As scholars of organizations have shown,
agenda setting has a big impact on decisions and behaviors (March 1988). Even the most
doggedly anti-environmental regimes or leaders cannot outlast the international pressures.
And, when recalcitrant regimes eventually fall, pro-environmental INGOs sweep in and press
for new reforms. Beyond passively setting agendas, international organizations actively
strategize to develop better ways to prod and push nations toward improved environmental
protection. Thus, we argue: When institutional environments are persistent, outcomes are
likely to improve over time.
The international environmental regime has shown substantial persistence over time.
International environmental associations date back to the late 19th century, and some treaties
have been in force since the 1920s. However, an explosion of international environmental
activity occurred in the early 1970s with the Stockholm environmental conference in 1971 and
the foundation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972. The following
30 years have been typified by very high levels of global attention to environmental issues,
placing greater pressure on nations than ever before.
Additionally, over time pro-environmental actors have made substantial strategic
adaptations to intensify pressure on nations, developing much larger repertoires of social
movement strategies to achieve their goals. Environmental INGOs (and increasingly IGOs)
have learned that the seemingly impartial practice of “environmental monitoring” can be a
powerful tool to embarrass and motivate nations. Environmental NGOs seek out cases where
laws are not being enforced or where countries lag behind other nations and use socialmovement tactics to bring pressure to bear on those nations. The period since the founding
of UNEP has been a time of numerous tactical innovations and persistent attention, which has
put increased pressure on nations and firms to improve environmental outcomes.
Hypothesis 4: The persistence of international pro-environmental pressures will reduce
environmental degradation in the world.
In sum, the world environmental regime has expanded in terms of structure and penetration,
and it has been persistent over several decades. These factors enhance institutional effects,
yielding social change despite significant decoupling of particular policies and laws. We do
not naïvely believe that environmental degradation has been (or will be) halted. However, we
argue that this pace is likely to be significantly slower than if there were no global
We expect all nations to be affected by this expanding regime – but not equally. Most
affected are those actors that are strongly penetrated by world society (Schofer and
McEneaney 2003), such as European nations; these are more heavily influenced by
international pro-environmental organizations than are peripheral or autarkic nations such as
Somalia or North Korea. We would expect the latter to be more insulated from institutional
effects. Thus, as a direct corollary of our main arguments, we expect that: 32 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005
Hypothesis 5: Nations highly penetrated by the world environmental regime will experience
less environmental degradation. Research Strategy
Now we return to our main empirical question: Does the expansion of the world environmental
regime reduce global environmental degradation? We explore this issue with two
complementary strategies. 1) We examine longitudinal trends in worldwide environmental
degradation using time-series models to determine whether the rise of the world environmental
regime is associated with reduced global degradation. 2) We examine whether nations most
penetrated by the world environmental regime experience less degradation.
To develop fully specified models, we must address relevant processes that lead to
environmental degradation. The main factors thought to cause environmental degradation are
increased economic activity (production and consumption), population pressures, and trade
globalization (Rudel 1989; Schoenbaum 1992; Ehrhardt-Martinez 1998). Economic production
and consumption in modern capitalism consumes environmental resources (fuels, raw
materials, etc.) and generates environmentally harmful byproducts (pollution emissions, solid
waste, etc.). The level of economic consumption common in industrialized nations – where
people have large houses, cars, etc. – necessarily places large burdens on the environment.
In addition, population size places direct demands on the natural environment. Larger
populations require more agricultural land, fuels and consumer products – leading to habitat
destruction, increased consumption, increased pollution, etc. Finally, it has been argued that
trade and economic globalization puts pressures on nations to lower environmental standards
in order to compete in the world economy.
Also, our models must address processes that may reduce environmental degradation.
Sociologists such as Inglehart (1997) have argued that changing economic circumstances
may lead to pro-environmental values – which in turn may lead to greater environmental
protection. From this viewpoint, individuals in poor nations are more interested in meeting
basic needs (food, shelter, etc.), and may exhibit less concern for environmental issues such
as pollution or deforestation. Conversely, individuals in wealthy nations have the luxury of
addressing less-pressing issues such as protecting the environment.9 As a separate matter,
national wealth may also be associated with governmental capacity to successfully
implement and enforce environmental policies. Data and Methods
We separately analyze 1) longitudinal global trends in environmental degradation, and 2)
national-level differences in rates of degradation. Sources of cross-national and longitudinal
environmental data are extremely limited. Longitudinal analyses require world-level
environmental data from 30 years or more to provide a reasonable sample size. Cross-national
longitudinal analyses require high quality data at two time-points for a large sample of nations.
Our analyses reflect the best measures of environmental degradation we were able to find
that fit these requirements. Our global longitudinal model focuses on C02 and CFC emissions,
while our national-level models examine C02 emissions and deforestation. Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 33
layer) and global carbon dioxide (C02) emissions (a “greenhouse gas”). Both are widely regarded
as major pollutants, and international organizations have been actively working to reduce them.
We use a Cochrane-Orcutt time-series model with yearly data to determine the effects of
the world environmental regime on degradation outcomes from 1951 to 1989.10 The
Cochrane-Orcutt transformation corrects for serial correlation among our data points. Our
dependent variables measuring global environmental degradation are:
C02 Emissions, annual change: Annual change in global output of C02, measured in tons
(World Resources Institute 2000).
CFC Emissions, annual change: Annual change in global output of CFC compounds,
measured in tons (World Resources Institute 2000).
Independent variables in the time-series model include:
World Environmental Regime Structure: We measure structure in a manner consistent with
previous research, focusing on international treaties and organizational capacity in the
international sphere. We constructed an index of three measures: the total number of
international environmental treaties in the world, the number of inter-governmental
environmental organizations (environmental IGOs) in the world, and the number of
international environmental associations (environmental INGOs) in the world. Each indicator
captures an important form of global pro-environmental structure (Burhenne 1997; UIA 1997).
An index was created by using factor analysis to estimate the underlying variable.11
Penetration of the Global Environmentalism: Our penetration measure is a yearly assessment
of nation-state (and sub-national) participation in the structures of the world environmental
regime. It is one thing for a treaty or organization to exist, which is a form of structure. It is
another thing for nations to ratify treaties or individuals to join organizations at a given point in
time, which reflects penetration. We make an index based on penetration/participation in
three areas: The total number of government ratifications of environmental treaties across the
world; the total number of memberships in environmental inter-governmental environmental
organizations held by governments throughout the world; and the total number of
memberships in international environmental associations (Frank 1997; Frank et al. 2000a).
Note: Obviously, we would prefer a much richer array of sub-national measures of penetration
– e.g., historical patterns of environmental commitments and activities by individuals and
firms, presence of environmentalism in school curricula throughout the world, global trends
in individual pro-environmental attitudes, and so on. Such issues are of great interest to us,
but relevant measures are not available.
Persistence of the World Environmental Regime: We conceptualize persistence as the
temporal duration of global environmental norms and pressures. Scholars point to the
creation of UNEP in 1972 as the advent of the large-scale world environmental mobilization
(Wapner 1995; Frank et al. 2000a). Thus, we operationalize persistence at a given point in time
as the duration, in years, since the founding of UNEP
. Global Degradation Model World Environmental Regime Index: Structuration, Penetration and Persistence. We also
create an index that represents the combined influence of the world environmental regime.
Factor analysis is used to create an index based on the three previous measures. For our longitudinal models, we rely on data that atmospheric scientists have tracked over
recent decades: global chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions (a gas that degrades the ozone World Gross Domestic Product (GDP): A major source of degradation, world annual real GDP Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 35 34 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005
measures world economic production and thus the level of industrial activity and
consumption. The indicator is derived from the Penn World Tables version 5.5 (Summers and
World Population: Another potential source of degradation, world population is based on
World Bank data (World Bank 1999).
Previous Level of Degradation (1-year lag): In our time-series models we control for
degradation in the previous year, the lagged dependent variable. National Degradation Model
In addition, we examine national differences in rates of degradation. Data on deforestation,
the destruction of forest habitat, is available from approximately 1990 through 1995 for more
than 100 nations from the World Resources Institute (WRI) (WRI 2000). In addition, C02
emissions (a measure of air pollution and “greenhouse gas” emissions) is available for nearly
120 countries from 1980 to 1996 (WRI 2000). Other measures (e.g., water pollution,
particulate emissions) are now available, but only for about 50 countries and often only crosssectionally (World Bank 2000; WRI 2000). Thus, data limitations restrict our analysis to
deforestation and C02 emissions.
We employ panel regression models to assess the factors that affect a nation’s level of
national C02 emissions. We model C02 emissions in 1996, with independent variables
measured around 1980. Independent variables are lagged for two reasons: First, we want to
be certain that our model is not affected by reverse causality among our variables. Second,
independent variables may take years to affect degradation.12 In addition, we model
deforestation in 1995 (a change score), controlling for independent variables in 1990. We
focus on the 1990-95 period because data is available for large N in that period (WRI 2000).
Dependent and lagged-dependent variables are measured as follows: Note that we also developed a measure of persistence by estimating the number of years
that a nation was a member of a particular treaty or organization. In corollary models this
measure has effects similar to our penetration measure (and consistent with our
hypotheses). However, this measure is somewhat problematic because we only have data
on membership and treaty ratification at a few points in time. We do not know whether old
memberships continue or exactly when new ones begin. Thus, we treat our findings about
persistence at the national level as merely suggestive and do not present the models here.
National Wealth is measured by a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Per Capita,
logged. This variable controls for the level of economic activity, a major source of
degradation.14 Also, Inglehart argues that societal wealth fosters “post-materialist” values,
which may engender environmental protection.15
Population is measured by the natural log of a nation’s population (World Bank 1992).16
Industrial Activity is measured by the percentage of a nation’s GDP that is derived from the
industrial sector (World Bank 1992). We include this measure to account for the fact that
industrial activity (as opposed to agriculture or service sector activity) is particularly linked to
the degradation (esp. C02 production).
Trade Openness is calculated as total trade (imports plus exports) as a percentage of GDP
and captures the extent to which nations are integrated into the global economy (Summers
and Heston 1991).17 After the exclusion of cases due to missing data, the analysis of
deforestation is based on 113 countries and the analysis of C02 emissions is based on 110
countries. Descriptive statistics for all variables used in the analyses are in Appendix A. Results
C02 Emissions (Degradation) is measured by a nation’s C02 output in 1995. Initial C02
production is measured in thousands of tons per year in 1980 (World Resources Institute
2000). Deforestation is measured as percentage decrease of a nation’s forest area between
1990 and 1995. Positive values indicate deforestation, while negative values indicate that
nations increased in forest area between 1990 and 1995. Initial Forest Area is measured in
1000s of hectares in 1990 (World Resources Institute 2000).
Other independent variables are measured as follows:
National Penetration of the World Environmental Regime is measured by an index of national
participation in environmental inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), environmental
international non-governmental organizations (INGO), and environmental treaty ratifications
(the same variables used above to measure aggregate world trends in penetration). This index
captures overall penetration of the state (IGOs, treaties) and of individuals within nations
(INGOs). Coded by Frank et al. (2000a) from the Yearbook of International Organizations,
environmental IGO and NGO memberships reflect the raw number of membership links
between a country and environmental IGOs and NGOs, based on a sample of existing
environmental INGOs listed in the Yearbook of International Associations (UIA 1980, 1997).
National participation in treaties is coded from Burhenne (1997). Factor analyses are used to
combine these into an index.13 Again, we envision a much broader array of possible measures
of penetration – but our analysis is limited to the very few measures that are currently
available. World-Level Analyses
Table 1 reports the results of time-series models of global environmental degradation
measured in terms of CFC emissions (Models 1-4) and C02 emissions Models 5-8). In all
models negative signs indicate factors associated with less degradation, and thus improved
For CFC and C02 emissions, the initial level (lagged one year) has a negative effect on
annual growth. This is common for models in which the dependent variable is a change
score: the higher the initial level, the harder it is to grow rapidly. World population has a
positive effect on both CFC and C02 emissions, as one would expect. However, the
coefficients are not statistically significant at the .05 level, when GDP has been included in
the model. In the case of CFCs, population comes quite close to significance, with p-values
often below .2 (one-tailed test). With a larger sample size, we would expect significant
effects here. In the case of C02, however, population is not very close to significant –
suggesting that GDP is a more important predictor. Total world GDP also has a uniformly
positive effect on both CFC and C02 emissions. In the case of C02, this effect is consistently
significant. In the case of CFC emissions (which decline in the 1980s, and thus are poorly
correlated with world GDP), the coefficient for GDP is not significant at the .05 level.
Models in Table 1 successively include measures of structure, penetration and
persistence of the world environmental regime, testing our core arguments. Model 1 finds
a strong negative and significant effect of structure on environmental degradation as
measured by global CFC emissions. As the international environmental regime expands – Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 37 Adj. R-Square -.23
Constant Persistence of World
Regime ***p < .01 **p < .05 *p < .10, two-tailed test; +++p < .001 ++p < .01 +p < .05, one-tailed test.
Unstandardized coefficients, standard errors in parentheses -.02
.50 -0.15 ++
Penetration of World
Regime Structure of World Regime World GDP Emissions in Previous Year
World Population -.007
(.02) -.06 **
.25 -.004 +
(.002) -.04 +
(.02) Global CO2 Emissions, Annual Change
Global CFC Emissions, Annual Change
(.07) Table 1: Cochrane-Orcutt Time-Series Models: The Effects of GDP, Population, and the World Environmental Regime on World Environmental
Regime on World
Degradation, 1951-1989. Environmental Degradation, 1951-1989. Table 1: Cochrane-Orcutt Time-Series Models: The Effects of GDP, Population and the World Environmental 36 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005 generating ever more pro-environmental organization, discourse, international coordination
and the like – pollution emissions decline (controlling for other factors). Hypothesis 2 is
Model 2 finds a similar negative effect of penetration: As the international environmental
regime influences states or individuals around the world, CFC emissions are reduced. We
only have measures of very obvious forms of penetration such as a nation ratifying a treaty
or an individual joining a pro-environmental association, but we expect that a myriad of
penetration mechanisms contribute to social change and the reduction of environmental
degradation. Results support Hypothesis 3.
Model 3 examines the temporal dimension: persistence of the global environmental
regime. The longer the international pro-environmental regime brings pressure for change,
the less CFC emissions are observed, consistent with Hypothesis 4. Finally, Model 4 adds
the overall index of institutionalization of the world environmental regime. Our results
suggest that each facet of world institutionalization – structure, penetration and persistence
– has an independent effect on environmental outcomes. And, when combined together, the
net effect is very strongly negative and significant. Furthermore, the overall index generates
higher R-square values (R2 = .532 for CFCs, R2 = .255 for CO2) than do the individual
structure, penetration and persistence measures.18
Models 5 through 8, which examine C02 emissions, observe similar effects. Our
measures of structure, penetration and persistence are all associated with reduced pollution
emissions – alone and when combined in an index. In sum, Hypothesis 1 is not supported.
Rather, we find clear evidence in favor of Hypotheses 2, 3 and 4. The institutionalization of
the world environmental regime (structuration, penetration and persistence) leads to
improved environmental outcomes measured at the world level.
Interestingly, the coefficients of the environmental regime variables are greater in
magnitude in models of CFC emissions than for models of C02 emissions, suggesting that
world society has had more substantial effects on the former. This fits with historical
accounts, which characterize international mobilization against CFCs as particularly well
organized and effective (Bendick 1991). Indeed, CFC emissions decline in absolute levels,
whereas C02 measures do not. It remains to be seen whether world mobilization against
C02 emissions will eventually become as effective. One might speculate that limits on C02
are more costly and will be opposed more vehemently by industry. Alternately, it may be
simply that mobilization against CFC emissions began earlier and thus had a substantial
head start.19 National-Level Analyses
Second, we argue that penetration by the world environmental regime into nation-states
(and actors at lower levels of the system, such as individuals or firms) will help explain
national variation in environmental degradation.20 Table 2 reports OLS regression analyses of
national environmental degradation, measured by in two ways: C02 production and
Model 9 in Table 2 presents results examining national variation in C02 production. The
lagged dependent variable, C02 production in 1980, has a very large positive and significant
effect on the level of C02 production in 1996. As one would expect, the big polluters in 1980
continue to pollute a lot in 1996. Economic wealth (GDP per capita) and population have
positive and significant effects on national-level C02 emissions. In addition, we find some
evidence that globalization pressures harm the environment. The coefficient for trade
openness is positive and significant, indicating that countries that are particularly exposed to
the world economy become worse C02 polluters. Industrial activity has no effect on C02,
once overall GDP is controlled. Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 39 38 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005 Table 2: OLS Regression Models: National Environmental Degradation
Table 2: OLS Regression Models: Nation Environmental Degradation
Model 9 Deforestation
Model 10 Initial Level
Forest Area 1990) .70 +++
(.04) - .04
(.06) Population (logged) .55 +++
(.004) Economic Wealth (GDP p/cap, logged) 1.24 ***
(.007) - .01
(.01) .59 +
(.34) Trade Openness .02 +++
(.003) - .15
(.12) National Penetration by the World Environmental
Regime - .43 +
(.21) - .03 +++
(.008) - 14.26 ***
(2.28) - .01
(.07) Adjusted R-square .92 .22 N of Cases 110 113 subsequent effect. Trade openness also has no effect, suggesting that national exposure to
the world economy does not hasten deforestation.22
Finally, Model 10 shows that the measure of national penetration by the world
environmental regime has a strong negative and significant effect on deforestation. Nations
more deeply penetrated by world society experience lower levels of deforestation from 1990
to 1995. Hypothesis 5 is supported by both the analyses of deforestation and CO2
production. Corollary analyses also suggest that persistence has similar effects at the national
level, though measurement issues limit our exploration of the issue (see above). This provides
further evidence that the world environmental regime transforms nations more deeply than
the “ceremonial” adoption of laws.23 Variables Industrial Activity (% GDP) Constant ***p < .001 **p < .01 *p < .05, two-tailed test
+++p < .001 ++p < .01 +p < .05, one-tailed test
Unstandardized coefficients, standard errors in parentheses Also in Model 9 we see that the measure of national penetration of the world environmental
regime has a strong negative and significant effect on degradation, as measured by C02
production. Consistent with Hypothesis 5, we see that the international regime affects some
societies more than others. Specifically, greater penetration is associated with less overall
degradation in subsequent years.
Model 10 turns to the issue of national deforestation.21 The initial level of forest area has a
negative but insignificant effect on forest area change. Thus, there is no significant
relationship between a country’s initial forest area and the percentage of it that was cut down
from 1990 to 1995. Industrial activity (a percentage of GDP in the industrial sector) has the
largest positive and significant effect on deforestation. The more a nation’s economy is
focused on industry, the more quickly its forests are destroyed in this time period. Both
national wealth (GDP) and population have a positive effect on deforestation. However, once
we control for industrial activity, the effects are not significant. We suspect that this is
because many wealthy and populous nations denuded their forests long before the 19901995 period. Once we control for initial forest area (in 1990), population and wealth have little Discussion
The world environmental regime has encouraged the spread of state responsibility for the
environment, leading to the establishment of policies and laws worldwide. A number of
theoretical perspectives, however, are very skeptical that environmental outcomes will
change. Case studies showing ‘decoupling’ appear to support those views. Our study offers
a more systematic empirical examination of the issue. We find concrete evidence that the rise
of the international environmental regime is associated with reduced degradation of the
natural world. And, countries that are strongly penetrated by the environmental regime
experience less degradation. Environmental degradation is still occurring rapidly, but at a
slower pace than it would occur in the absence of a global pro-environmental regime.
What are the implications for the environment? In one sense, they are fairly modest.
Environmental degradation of many types continues to accelerate. At present, the
international environmental regime is insufficient to generate or enforce the kind of social
change needed to radically reduce environmental degradation. Nevertheless, secular trends
of increasing structure, penetration and persistence may portend larger effects in the future.
Moreover, our results are broadly consistent with recent work by ecological modernization
theorists, who argue that significant environmental restructuring is possible within the global
economy (Mol 2001).
It is important to realize that successful global movements such as the environmental
movement place ever-increasing demands on nations – far exceeding the capacity of nations
to address them. In the 1960s, the focus was on marine dumping, over fishing, etc. Now
nations are under pressure to address CFCs, greenhouse gasses, deforestation,
desertification, loss of biodiversity and many other issues. The process of implementation
cannot keep up with the new laws that nations are pressured to adopt, particularly in the
developing world. Higher standards of environmental protection, combined with many newly
discovered sources of degradation, mean that many nations will continue to lag behind
desired standards. In sum, successful movements generate decoupling as a primary
byproduct and therefore are continually viewed as “failing.” Yet, it is important to recognize
that some social change has taken place. Pro-environmental demands are being placed
squarely on national agendas; and this leads to real improvements in outcomes, despite
Our paper addresses a gap in neo-institutional theory by specifying characteristics of
institutional environments that lead to changed outcomes: structure, penetration and
persistence. Existing decoupling arguments are too simple – presuming that organizational
policies and laws are the main mechanism of social change. Social change may occur in the
absence of tightly coupled policy because the institutional environment penetrates broadly
throughout a social system – generating “institutional effects.” When institutional Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 41 40 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005
environments are characterized by structuration, penetration and persistence, we expect
outcomes to be affected, even though specific policies may be decoupled. Social change
may even occur in the total absence of formal policy adoption. Indeed, a nation without any
environmental laws might still experience substantial environmental improvement: individuals
may begin to recycle on their own; firms need to adopt environmentally sound practices to
meet import requirements of foreign markets; social movement groups may win concessions
from firms, and so on.
This has important implications for empirical research on outcomes and consequences
of institutions. Studies should not begin with strong assumptions about mechanisms –
namely, that formal policies drive outcomes. Institutional diffusion is a complex process
mediated by many mechanisms, some of which are quite diffuse. Arbitrarily focusing on
any one mechanism can be quite misleading. For instance, social norms and cognitive
models about smoking have changed dramatically in the United States in recent decades.
And, outcomes have changed – smoking rates have dropped. But, it would be hard to
trace this to any single anti-smoking law or educational campaign. Specific studies would
probably find decoupling – e.g., some restaurants flaunt laws, some students still get
addicted despite elaborate anti-smoking educational campaigns. But, the failure of
particular mechanisms does not imply the absence of large-scale social change. Thus,
institutional analyses should focus on characteristics of the institutional environment. For
example, is there an institutional environment that promotes anti-smoking cultural models
and discourse in the United States? Is it typified by structuration, penetration and
persistence? And, finally, does this environment lead to reduced rates of smoking over
time? This sort of macro research approach allows one to explore the broad and diffuse
sources of cultural and social change that derive from institutional environments. Conclusion
In this paper we have attempted to respond to two common criticisms of neo-institutional
theory. First, neo-institutional research looks at policies, but rarely at outcomes. Second,
that neo-institutional research doesn’t attend to mechanisms (e.g., Finnemore and Sikkink
1998). Our response to the first issue is to specify the structural conditions that are likely
to produce substantial change – when institutional environments exhibit a high degree of
structure, penetration and persistence – and to study the issue empirically. The second
point regarding mechanisms, we argue, is something of a red herring. Broad social
changes of the type commonly studied by neo-institutional theory (e.g., the global
expansion of environmentalism or education) necessarily involve numerous complex and
diffuse mechanisms, often working in conjunction with each other. In the case of CFC
emissions, there are many plausible (and reinforcing) mechanisms: treaties, social
movements against CFC-laden aerosol spray cans, authoritative stances taken by
influential scientists and professionals, changed discourses in the media, and so on. It
would be hard to enumerate all the relevant processes, much less isolate any single “key”
mechanism. Indeed, the particular dynamic leading to reduced pollution emissions might
vary from country to country. Often, the emergence of highly legitimated cultural models
and discourses – such as those associated with the world environmental regime –
produce a cascade of reinforcing dynamics. Yet, in any particular part of the world some of
these mechanisms might easily be viewed as “failing” or decoupled. And, overemphasis
on any particular mechanism may lead one to miss the big picture. To identify
institutionally-driven social change, one must look at the forest rather than the specific
mechanisms that might protect any given tree. Notes
1. This is a more narrow usage than the original idea by Weick (1976), which referred generally
to the circumstance in which organizational units come to operate independently from
each other (Orton and Weik 1990). Recent neo-institutional work on organizations, however,
tends to use the more narrow definition – looking only at the disconnect of policy and
2. However, indirect effects were observed. For example, environmental impact
assessment/reporting laws often create avenues for participation of pro-environmental
groups via public hearings or the court system. Environmentalists commonly seize upon
poorly-done environmental assessments as a way to block new development or other
environmentally harmful activities.
3. Of course, this applies to the American system, which was historically decentralized –
much like the contemporary world polity. Centralized institutional arrangements, e.g., in
France, produce different patterns of educational policymaking, with less decoupling.
4. This could be seen as a more top-down take on what Keck and Sikkink (1997) refer to as the
“boomerang effect” whereby local actors collude with international actors to increase
pressure on states.
5. Although we focus on nation-states, we expect these dimensions to apply to neoinstitutional analysis of organizations as well.
6. Social change may also result from new (or changed) discourses and cultural models within
a domain, even as the level of institutional structure is more or less constant. For example,
Chabbott (1999) examines the evolution of policy models pertaining to “development” over
time in world society. However, most of the dramatic changes in the world polity have
resulted from rapid expansion of structure in new domains.
7. In organizational analysis, individuals and departments within firms are the relevant subunits.
8. The media and popular culture/discourse probably also carries pro-environmental cultural
models around the world – though this has not been studied systematically.
9. Such notions, rooted in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, have been widely criticized. We
nevertheless mention the argument because it remains a common explanation for crossnational differences pro-environmental views.
10. We have also tried related models such as those using the Prais-Winston estimator and
Newey-West standard errors. Results were not affected. Models were estimated using
STATA 7.0. Missing data on critical independent variables limit the analyses to the period
prior to 1990.
11. Our results were quite robust, regardless of the specific method used to compute the
index for this and other measures (such as taking the sum of z-scored variables). Also, we
computed variations of our measures (e.g., focusing on organizations, but not treaties).
Again, results were not affected in this case, or for our other main variables of interest. 42 • Social Forces Volume 84, Number 1 • September 2005 Effects of World Society on Environmental Protection • 43 12. We also explored 5-, 10- and 15-year lags. Results were similar in all cases. References 13. As in world-level models, results were not affected by the method of combining measures
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World Level Longitudinal CFC and CO2 Emissions Analyses
Annual Change in World CO2
Level of CO2 Emission
Annual Change in World CFC
Level of CFC Emission
Structure of the World
Penetration of the World
Persistence of the World
Overall World Index: Structure,
Penetration, and Persistence Mean
3870.30 Standard Deviation
1375.02 3756.92 1372.70 413.69 Appendix B. OLS Regression Models: Nation Environmental
Degradation, Controlling for World System Position
Variables CO2 Emissions 1980-1996
Model B2 252.37 Initial Level
Forest Area 1990) .70 +++
(.04) .69 +++
(.04) - .04
(.06) - .05
(.06) 398.43 256.90 Population (logged) 3.06
.99 .50 +++
(.12) .52 +++
(.004) Economic Wealth
(GDP p/cap, logged) 1.16 ***
(.25) 1.19 ***
(.008) .03 .99 4.38 5.98 Industrial Activity
(% GDP) - .01
(.01) - .01
(.01) .58 +
(.35) .03 .99 Trade Openness .02 +++
(.003) .02 +++
(.003) - .14
(.12) - .14
(.12) National Penetration
by the World
Country - .36 +
(.21) - .46 +
(.21) - .03 +++
(.008) - .02 +++
(.008) National-level Deforestation Analyses
.04 Standard Deviation
.06 Forest Area 1990 .03 .09 Real GDP p/cap (log) 1990 7.78 1.07 Population (log) 1990 9.09 1.51 Industrial Activity (%GDP)
Trade Openness 1990 .03 .01 .07 .05 .27 1.06 Deforestation 1990-95 Penetration of World
Environmental Regime 1990 Deforestation 1990-95
Model B4 National-level CO2 Emissions Analyses
CO2 Production 1996
CO2 Production 1980
Real GDP p/cap (log) 1980
Population (log) 1980
Industrial Activity (%GDP) 1980
Trade Openness 1980
Penetration of World Environmental Regime 1980 Mean
.51 Standard Deviation
(.34) Peripheral Country
Constant - .01
(.37) - 13.27***
(.01) - 13.27 ***
(2.52) - .01
(.08) - .04
(.09) Adjusted R-square .92 .92 .23 .23 N of Cases 110 110 113 113 ***p < .001 **p < .01 *p < .05, two-tailed test
+++p < .001 ++p < .01 +p < .05, one-tailed test
Unstandardized coefficients, standard errors in parentheses ...
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