William Ophuls

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William Ophuls, the pen name of Patrick Ophuls, (born 1934) is an American political scientist, ecologist, independent scholar and author. He is known for his pioneering role in the modern environmental movement. His work focuses on some of the ecological, social, and political implications of modern industrial civilization.[1][2][3]


Born in 1934, Ophuls obtained his AB in Oriental Studies from Princeton University in 1955. Eighteen years later, in 1973, he obtained his Ph.D in Political Science from Yale University.[4]

After his graduation from Princeton, Ophuls served in the U.S. Coast Guard as officer for four years. After his discharge from the military, he served for the next eight years in the United States Foreign Service at embassies in the Ivory Coast and Japan. After his graduation from Yale in 1973, he lectured at Northwestern University and Oberlin University for a short period. Afterwards, he settled in as an independent scholar and author.[4]

Ophuls was awarded the Sprout Prize from the International Studies Association for his 1977 book Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, in 1992, the latter work was published in a revised edition. This work received the Kammerer Award from the American Political Science Association.[4]


Role in modern environmental movement[edit]

Ophuls played some part in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. The precursor of this movement in the United States was the early 20th century conservation movement, associated with President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. This was the period in which U.S. Forest Service was formed, and that public concern for consumer protection began, epitomized by the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

1970s U.S. postage stamp block

The origins of the modern environmental movement took place in the United States with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which pointed out the perils of pesticide use and rallied concern for the environment in general. Carson argued that nature deserved human protection and referred to pesticides as the atomic bomb for insects. She stated that these pesticides would cycle through the environment hurting humans and nature and thought they should be used wisely. Carson's work played a big role in environment activism that was later to come.[5]

Along with critiques of the misuse of technology from figures such as William Ophuls, Barry Commoner, and Garrett Hardin, the ineffectiveness and criticism of the 1960s Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, gave a burgeoning momentum to the environmental movement.[6]

Leviathan or oblivion?, 1973[edit]

With the essay, entitled "Leviathan or oblivion?," Ophuls contributed to the influential 1973 anthology Toward a Steady-state Economy, edited by Herman Daly. Other writers and topics in the 1973 edition included:[7]

In his contribution, "Leviathan or oblivion?", Ophuls wrote on the political and economical implications of environmental problems. His main argument was that "because of the tragedy of the commons, environmental problems cannot be solved through cooperation... and the rationale for government with major coercive powers is overwhelming."[8] According to Ophuls "reforming a corrupt people is an herculean task," which only leaves us with the choice of Leviathan or oblivion.

Eckersley (1992) argued that

although Ophuls has since moderated his position by placing a greater emphasis on the need for self restraint than on the need for external coercion, he continues to maintain that the latter must be resorted to if calls for the former are unsuccessful.[9]

Democratic challenges to address environmental problems[edit]

In the 1970s, Ophuls commented on the role of liberal democracies in addressing environmental problems. The relation between politics and the environment is complex. Climate change is slow, relative to political cycles of leadership in electoral democracies, which impedes responses by politicians who are elected and re-elected on much shorter timescales.[10]

Effectively responding to global warming necessitates some form of international environmental governance to achieve shared targets related to energy consumption and environmental usage.[11] Climate change complicates political ideology and practice, affecting conceptions of responsibility for future societies as well as economic systems.[11] Material inequality between nations make technological solutions insufficient for climate change mitigation.[11] Rather, political solutions can navigate the particularities of various facets of environmental crisis. Climate change mitigation strategies can be at odds with democratic priorities of prosperity, progress, and state sovereignty, and instead underscore a collective relationship with the environment.

The international political community is presently based on liberal principles that prioritize individual freedoms and capitalist systems that make quick and ambitious climate responses difficult.[11] Interest-group liberalism is guided by individual human priorities.[12] Groups unable to voice their self-interest, such as minorities without suffrage, or non-humans, are not included in the political compromise. Addressing environmental crises can be impeded when citizens of liberal democracies do not see environmental problems as impacting their lives, or when they lack the education to evaluate the importance of the problem.[13] The human benefits from environmental exploitation and protection compete.[13] Considering the implications of ecological degradation for future human generations can give environmental concerns a basis in anthropocentric liberal democratic politics.

Ophuls (1977) posits that liberal democracies are unfit to address environmental problems, and that the prioritization of these challenges would involve a transition to more authoritarian forms of government.[14] Others counter this by pointing to the past successes of environmental reform movements to improve water and air quality in liberal societies.[12] In practice, environmentalism can improve democracy rather than necessitate its end, by expanding democratic participation and promoting political innovations.[15]

Ecology and the politics of scarcity, 1977[edit]

In the preface of his 1977 book Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, Ophuls declared the intention of his work:

This work is designed to show that American political values and institutions are grossly maladapted to the era of ecological scarcity that has already begun. It is thus almost entirely a critique. Of course, certain general political principles that will probably have to form the basis of our community life in this new era appear to emerge naturally from the critique, and the concluding chapter discusses these. Nevertheless, I make no systematic effort too provide institutional answers or to deal with the problem of implementing a radically different set of political values.[16]

Furthermore Ophuls argued, that

... virtually all the philosophies, values, and institutions typical of modern society are the luxuriant fruit of an era of apparently endless abundance. The return of scarcity in any guise therefore represents a serious challenge to the modern way of life.[17]

Ophuls is skeptical about the ability to anticipate a sustainable society, or steady state society. He claimed:

Our ability to achieve the requisite level of effectiveness in planning is especially doubtful. Already the complex systems that sustain industrial civilization are seen by some as perpetually hovering on the brink of breakdown; the computer and other panaceas for coping with complexity appear to have been vastly oversold; and current management styles - linear, hierarchical, economic - appear to be grossly ill adapted to the nature of the problem.... there are no technical solutions to the dilemmas of environmental management, and policy decisions about environmental problems must be made politically by prudent men, not by scientific administrators. This being the case, technology assessment, the remedy proposed for the general political problem of technological side effects, can never be the purely technical exercise many of its proponents seem to envision; instead, the planning process will come to resemble a power struggle between partisans of differing economic, social, and political values.[18]

Ophuls concludes that premature specificity of the steady-state society and its required institutions can be counterproductive:

... In short, excessive or premature specificity about the institutions of the steady-state society is either not very useful or a positive hindrance; again, metanoia is the key, for it will almost automatically engender concrete, practical arrangements that are congruent with it. Nevertheless, a general outline of a solution to the problems of ecological scarcity is implicit in the concept of the steady state. Let us therefore review the essential characteristics of a steady-state society.[19]

Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, 2011[edit]

In his 2011 book Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, Ophuls start with the premise that "sustainability is impossible". He argues that "we are on an industrial Titanic, fueled by rapidly depleting stocks of fossil hydrocarbons.... we are headed for a postindustrial future that, however technologically sophisticated, will resemble the pre-industrial past in many important respects."[20]

In the end, the work is a plea for "an essentially Platonic politics of consciousness dedicated to inner cultivation rather than outward expansion and the pursuit of perpetual growth. We would then achieve a way of life that is materially and institutionally simple but culturally and spiritually rich, one in which humanity flourishes in harmony with nature."[20]


In response to the 2011 publication of Plato's Revenge, Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote the following endorsement:

For decades, William Ophuls has been among the world's most original thinkers about the implications of our global ecological crisis for freedom, democracy, and political order. In Plato's Revenge, he goes to the essence of this crisis: the deep, tacit, and widespread beliefs that nature and society are nothing more than machines, that the state should play no role in cultivating citizens' virtue, and that self-interested individuals should rely solely on reason to guide their lives. Ophuls weaves together the ideas of some of history's greatest thinkers to argue that humankind's future lies in small, simple republics that cultivate their citizens' virtue through natural law. In doing so, he shreds conventional wisdom and invigorates our conversation about the kind of world we intend our grandchildren to inherit.[21]

In the same source, Robert Paehlke described Ophuls' work as attempt "to rethink how present and future societies might be organized given the array of environmental and sustainability challenges that we face."[21]

Selected publications[edit]

  • William Ophuls, Ecology and the politics of scarcity; prologue to a political theory of the steady state, W. H. Freeman & Co., 1977
  • William Ophuls, A. Stephen Boyan, Jr, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited; The Unraveling of the American Dream, 1992.
  • William Ophuls, Requiem for modern politics : the tragedy of the enlightenment and the challenge of the new millennium, 1997
  • William Ophuls, Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, MIT Press, 2011
  • William Ophuls, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, CreateSpace, 2012.
  • William Ophuls, Sane Polity: A Pattern Language, CreateSpace, 2013.


  1. ^ William Ophuls at ophuls.org. Accessed 27-05-2017
  2. ^ Thomas Homer-Dixon "On the threshold: environmental changes as causes of acute conflict." International security 16.2 (1991): 76-116.
  3. ^ John Dryzek, The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford university press, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c Ophuls (1992;383)
  5. ^ Hunt, Michael (2014). The World Transformed: 1945 to the present. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 215–216. ISBN 978-0-19-937102-0.
  6. ^ Dye, Thomas (2011). Understanding Public Policy. Boston: Longman. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-205-75742-8.
  7. ^ "Toward a steady-state economy - Details". WorldCat. OCLC.
  8. ^ Ophuls (1973, 228)
  9. ^ Robyn Eckersley. Environmentalism and Political Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach. 1992. p. 15
  10. ^ Guerrero, Alexander (2014). "Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative". Philosophy & Public Affairs.
  11. ^ a b c d Edmondson and Levy (2013). Climate Change and Order. pp. 50–60.
  12. ^ a b Baber and Bartlett (2005). Deliberative Environmental Politics.
  13. ^ a b Mathews, Freya (1991). "Democracy and the Ecological Crisis". Legal Service Bulletin.
  14. ^ Ophuls, William (1977). Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  15. ^ Paehlke, Robert (1988). "Democracy, Bureaucracy and Environmentalism". Journal of Environmental Ethics.
  16. ^ Ophuls (1977,xi)
  17. ^ Ophuls (1977, 9)
  18. ^ Ophuls (1977,120)
  19. ^ Ophuls (1977, 225)
  20. ^ a b Ophuls (2011) abstract
  21. ^ a b Thomas Homer-Dixon "[https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/platos-revenge Endorsement of "Plato's Revenge Politics in the Age of Ecology by William Ophuls," at mitpress.mit.edu. Accessed 27-05-2017.

External links[edit]