|Conclusion – Social change in the era of neoliberalism
One of the weaknesses in much of the scholarship on neoliberalism is to see neoliberalism as not only ubiquitous, but also monolithic. In critiquing neoliberalism’s very real and problematic implications for social justice, distribution of resources and wealth, democracy, etc. many scholars implicitly reject all policies tainted with neoliberalism’s dirty fingers. Unfortunately, this can lead to an unsatisfactory analysis of politics and policies that, though they are operating within the constraints of a neoliberal framework, may have important benefits to people or the planet.
In this essay I have attempted to offer a more nuanced understanding of the importance of neoliberalism, especially in its relationship to environmental policy in the United States. In particular, I have argued that the changes in environmental policy and discourse that have accompanied neoliberalism have encouraged the rise and rapid proliferation of urban sustainability initiatives. These policies are important and have the potential to transform the relationship of the city to the natural world and reduce the ecological footprint of major urban areas. However, because these policies have been formulated within the context of neoliberalism, they are constrained by limitations of the market-oriented, urban entrepreneurial policy alternatives that are acceptable within the neoliberal global economy. As such the questions of social justice and equity that neoliberalism fails to answer remain equally problematic within green urban entrepreneurialism.
Furthermore, though urban sustainability projects in the United States are in many ways manifestations of “actually existing neoliberalism,” there is reason to believe that other factors also have an important influence on how and why cities embrace sustainability. Social movement pressure, growing public concern for environmental issues, and a genuine commitment by local officials to reduce their city’s environmental impact must also be considered. As Raco argues in his examination of British New Labour’s 2003 Sustainable Communities proposal and its implementation, urban sustainability programs are “not simply a neoliberal agenda that has been played out in a particular way. [They are] constituted from a number of rationalities, some of which can be defined as neoliberal, some of which are drawn from other intellectual, political, and ethical traditions.”101 In other words, sustainability projects may be hybrids of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, progressive attempts to tame the destructive tendencies of capitalist production and consumption, responses to calls for environmental justice, and part of a growing transmunicipal social movement to address pressing global issues. The extent to which any one of these is the predominant driving force in a city’s adoption of sustainability needs to be determined empirically, with an eye both to the constraints created by neoliberal globalization and the ways that social actors maintain agency within the framework of neoliberalism to shape their social and ecological surroundings.
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