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Sustaining international law: history, nature, and the politics of global ordering

Wu, Aaron (2018) Sustaining international law: history, nature, and the politics of global ordering. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.jlgfycimt66y


This thesis investigates how the natural environment is conceptualised in international law. Environmental campaigners typically place great faith in the discipline’s ability to restrain the onset of growing ‘global’ problems: such as species extinctions, clearing of forests, pollution, and climate change. Law has traditionally been a key domain for efforts to regulate, and curb, these problems. While a vast body of existing literature assesses the effectiveness and adequacy of these initiatives, this dissertation takes a different approach. It explores particular visions of the natural environment that inform such initiatives. I will proceed from the premise that international law, rather than merely reflecting the natural environment, shapes how we perceive it. With this in mind, I will investigate a selection of stories that international law tells about the natural environment, and consider the different, competing stories it deprivileges. The key question is: what role has international law played in making certain ways of thinking about nature come to seem normal or intuitive, and how does this affect efforts to curb environmental harms? Adopting historical and philosophical approaches informed by critical approaches to law, I will show how dominant manifestations of nature are articulated—and sustained—with regard to ideas of mastery and resources, national economies and conservation, the (human) environment, sustainable development, the green economy, and natural capital. I will use insights from radical ecological and postcolonial theory to highlight the ramifications of such conceptualisations. My discussion will focus on a series of key episodes in the history of international environmental law, as well as on the work of prominent scholars and institutions in the field of international environmental law. I will argue that international law is constrained in its efforts to deal with environmental problems insofar as the discipline is itself complicit in the use, abuse, and subjugation of environments. Furthermore, I will contend that the idea of the environment is continually reconstructed and repositioned, in ways that sustain a certain relationship, or form of global ordering. As we shall observe, debates in international fora over the scope and meaning of the environment fostered anxieties about the degree to which it was being adequately protected. Yet, I will suggest, these were neutralised—or co-opted—in ways that reinforced dominant logics. Put simply, international law and institutions have sustained a narrow understanding—or framing—of the environment. Ultimately, it has confined the outcomes of environmental policies to a set of largely predetermined outcomes. This undermines international law’s contingency and potential dynamism. Added to this, is the implication that such framings are designed to preserve the power and privilege of a small minority of the world’s peoples.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2018 Aaron Wu
Library of Congress subject classification: K Law > K Law (General)
Sets: Departments > Law
Supervisor: Marks, Susan and Humphreys, Stephen

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