Interpretive Sign for Prescribed Burning. Photo: US Forest Service. 

By Shaunna Barnhart
This post is part of the Discard Studies Compendium, a keyword text.

Environmentality is a term used to describe an approach to understanding complex interplays of power in environmental governance of human-environment interactions. It builds on philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Governmentality argues that a governing body manages a complex web of people and objects with the purported intent to improve the welfare and condition of the population through changing the relationship between the governing body and those it governs, mediated through objects of concern such as waste.  This is achieved through scaled relationships of power, technologies of government, knowledge production, and discourse which results in individuals changing their thoughts and actions such that they then self-regulate and further the goals of the governing body (Foucault 1991).

Since the late 1990s environmentality, also labeled “environmental governmentality,” “eco-governmentality,” and “green governmentality,” has been applied to various environmental contexts, such as forestry and natural resource management (Agrawal 2005).  More recently, environmentality and governmentality have been used in discard studies to explore power dynamics and changing attitudes and actions regarding waste, waste disposal, and waste governance specifically (Leonard 2013; Moore 2012) and as a way to explore changing environmental identities and actions broadly, including those related to waste (Harris 2011).  The use of technologies of government (such as statistics, census data, or agencies that monitor disease), knowledge production and discourse (what is considered a legitimate source of knowledge and how is that knowledge framed in the public sphere), and interplays of power change the relationship between the governing body and the governed population as mediated through waste.  Power does not need to be repressive; it can move throughout all sectors of society and can be a productive force leading to positive outcomes (Foucault 1980).  These combined elements create “subjectivities,” which refers to individuals internalizing new ways of thinking that leads to new identities and actions (Agrawal 2005).  In so doing, they become the type of “subject” that furthers government aims (such as waste management) without necessarily being aware of their complicity in that objective – the individual becomes an instrument of government by self-regulating their behavior to further the objectives of the governing body.  Environmentality is the use of these tools to understand changing environmental actions and thoughts among individuals and communities which in turn serve the interests of a broader scale authority, such as the state or international entities.

Governmentality and environmentality can be applied to understanding how and why waste becomes a medium through which to understand power and changing human-waste interactions (Moore 2012; Leonard, Fagan and Doran 2009; Armiero and D’Alisa 2012).  It can enhance our understanding of how and why individuals and communities adopt certain waste related practices, perceptions, or oppositions.  However, rather than assume that waste begins as a problematic object of governance, approaching the issue through a governmentality perspective calls into question how waste and discard practices become objects of concern.  Waste and its governance involves knowledge production and discourse – who defines what constitutes waste, how is this communicated, and how is waste (and its handling) framed in/for the public sphere.  Technologies of government can be used to frame “waste” issues (disease, disposal management, etc.) and solutions (sanitation, recycling, etc.).  However, the theory of governmentality argues that power moves throughout all sectors of society, which means that grassroots movements can take up, contest, change, or modify those government and industry framings of waste and its accompanying solutions.  For example, environmental justice advocates can exercise non-sovereign power by calling attention to human and environmental health issues caused by exposure to certain wastes.  This can influence the public discourse on waste and its handling which in turn can lead to changing practices locally and in national contexts (Armiero and D’Alisa 2012).  Environmentality and governmentality can inform research in discard studies which seeks to investigate the nexus of scalar impacts of power, knowledge production and discourse, and the creation of discard-related subjectivities.


Armiero, M., & D’Alisa, G.  2012.  “Rights of resistance: The garbage struggles for environmental justice in Campania, Italy,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23(4): 52–68.

Agrawal, A.  2005.  Environmentality: Technologies of government and the making of subjects. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977.  New York: Pantheon Books.

———. 1991. “Politics and the study of discourse” and “Governmentality,” in The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality, edited by G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 53-72 and 87-104.

Harris, L. M.  2011.  “Neo(liberal) citizens of Europe:  Politics, scales, and visibilities of environmental citizenship in contemporary Turkey,” Citizenship Studies.  15(6-7): 837-859.

Leonard, L., Fagan, H., & Doran, P.  2009.  “A burning issue? Governance and anti-incinerator campaigns in Ireland, North and South,”  Environmental Politics. 18(6): 896–916.

Leonard, L.  2013.  “Ecomodern discourse and localized narratives:  Waste policy, community mobilization and governmentality in Ireland,” in Organizing waste in the city: International perspectives on narratives and practices, edited by M. J. Zapata Campos and C. M. Hall.  Chicago:  Policy Press.  181-200.

Moore, S. A. 2012.  “Garbage matters:  Concepts in new geographies of waste,” Progress in Human Geography.  36: 780-799.