A holistic systems approach to international environmental politics and IR theory: A case study of Brazil and Amazonia

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


International Studies

First Committee Member

Vendulka Kubalkova - Committee Chair


Amazonian deforestation in Brazil is arguably the most important environmental issue in international affairs. The Brazilian government, which had been directly and indirectly responsible for a majority of the deforestation in Amazonia, had largely discarded its past doctrine of "predatory" developmentalism at the end of the 1980s and adopted new strategies geared toward sustainable development and international cooperation. Factors and actors within Brazil and within the international system and the international community at large were all important sources of influence that led to the Brazilian government's broad reversals of policy.The approaches of inquiry traditionally used in the study of international environmental politics and in international relations (IR) theory are found to be inadequate for examining the unusually complex case of the international politics of the Amazonian issue in Brazil. Upon finding each approach only capable of providing partial explanations, this essay introduces a new and more comprehensive means of inquiry that incorporates various approaches and various levels of analysis into a cohesive framework. The new approach, called the holistic systems approach (HSA), was derived from the "structural realist" framework, originally depicted in The Logic of Anarchy. The HSA, like structural realism, is based on three major levels of analysis--structure, interaction, and unit--as well as various sub-levels. The HSA improves on the structural realist framework in a number of different ways and in particular by illustrating how it can be applied to an actual case of international relations and by illustrating the relationships between levels of analysis (as opposed to distinct impacts from each level of analysis).In applying this framework to the case of Brazil and Amazonia, it was necessary to "navigate" through the various levels of analysis to discover how the multitude of factors interacted with each other and how they ultimately brought about the fundamental shift in the policies of the Brazilian government. The HSA helped to show, among other things, that the broad structural conditions of the international system (i.e., bipolarity and multipolarity) were far more important to this case than previously understood in earlier essays on this issue.


History, Latin American; Sociology, Theory and Methods; Political Science, International Law and Relations; Environmental Sciences

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