Visiting professor Paul Steinberg examines the difficulties faced by environmental reformers in states subject to chronic political turnover.
How can we govern the Earth’s resources sustainably when the institutions of governance are themselves subject to chronic turnover? Consider the life of a sea turtle hatchling born on a Caribbean beach in 1960. From the time that it first waddled precariously to the sea, to the day when it finally reached sexual maturity a half-century later, it had to navigate a succession of political and economic storms. During that period, the world saw more than 200 successful military coups. From 1946 to 2003, 229 armed conflicts took place in 148 nations. From 1970 to 2006, 39 countries experienced triple-digit annual inflation for more than one year. Changes such as these can affect whether sensitive beach habitat has protected status, whether tourist-based conservation strategies are able to thrive and whether fishermen respect the law. The environmental movements that have arisen throughout the world in recent decades often point to the need for change in our thinking, in our daily practices, and in our political institutions. Yet in societies subject to chronic political and economic upheaval, the associated churning of institutions threatens to undercut efforts at sustainable development.