2.1. Defining Island States
While island states have been defined as “states that are islands, part of an island or consist of islands and part of islands” [21
] (p. 702), we will refer to a stricter definition, that is, “a country with no land borders” [12
] (p. 36), since it assumes that a country’s government is responsible for taking care of the whole territory surrounded by water and is fully accountable for the environmental outcomes of the island. (The full list of island states analyzed in this paper is available in Appendix A
. Following the approach of Congdon–Fors [12
], we treat Cuba as an island state—though a small part of its border is constituted of Guantanamo Bay—and do not treat Australia as a country, but a continent.) To illustrate the implication of this definition, the Dominican Republic is not seen in this study as island state, since the situation on Hispaniola—the island the country is located on—is also determined by outcomes in Haiti, which shares the same land mass. Hence, it is not one polity alone that is responsible for the environmental health on that island. Having said that, we acknowledge that island states are not a homogenous category, but rather comprise a diversity of nations. For instance, they differ tremendously in political system, history, population, and size. They have different topography: some are coral islands, while others are volcanic; some of them are archipelagos, while others are single-island states. What unites them, however, is their isolation and vulnerability, dependency on foreign trade, and full accountability for environmental outcomes of their territories. Importantly, our focus is not on a rather broadly-defined category of small island developing states (SIDS), which also includes continental states, but rather on all independent states that have no land borders, which we define as islands.
2.2. Island States Characteristics
A rather large literature in geography and economics has argued that island states suffer from their smallness and isolation, two factors often characterizing such states (this is not to say that we only focus on small nations). For example, scholars have argued that a public goods provision has increasing returns to scale and, hence, small states suffer from higher per capita costs of public goods [22
]. Small states may also face disadvantages in terms of diversifying their production, having a limited labor force and facing difficulties in recruiting high-quality candidates [11
]. In addition, they are thought to suffer from their remoteness, having high transportation costs, small internal markets, and a high degree of vulnerability to economic shocks and natural disasters [27
However, recent studies largely turn these expectations on their head because, small states—and island states in particular—are shown to outperform continental states on a number of institutional indicators and collective-action-related outcomes. On average, they have both higher income and productivity levels. They perform well on indices of civil and political rights; they have provided bases for vibrant civil societies, compared to continental states [15
] and they tend to have stronger institutions in terms of democracy, plurality elections, and rule of law [10
]. How can this be understood? The literature, finding a positive effect from smallness, and “islandness” in particular, suggests a number of causal mechanisms producing such beneficial outcomes.
First, a common argument is that islands tend to be more ethnically and linguistically homogenous [30
]. Homogeneity is in turn said to facilitate collective action by giving citizens “a high degree of sympathetic identification with each other” and resulting in “a greater effort to feel others out” [31
] (p. 222). The sense of community and cohesiveness found in island nations is, consequently, held to reduce the risk of conflict and stimulates the development of exchange, high-quality institutions, and economic productivity. The shared interests, intimacy, and identity of island populations have also been interpreted in terms of social capital, in which islands are prone to foster a sense of national identity that is stronger than group identity. Accordingly, island states have a distinct sense of place which, in turn, may lead to a sense of unitarism and a better ability to accumulate national-level social capital as opposed to group-level social capital [32
] (p. 35). It should be noted that there are, in fact, striking examples contradicting such claims of heterogeneity. For example, the small island state Mauritius is one of the most ethnically heterogeneous states in the world and yet performs extraordinarily well in terms of economic and social development [33
The second mechanism said to work in favor of positive developments in island states is their distinct colonial history. Island states are, in this discussion, held to have experienced a comparatively deep penetration of colonialism, and British and Christian influences in particular. As claimed by some [30
], due to the fact that pre-imperial societies were less prevalent on most of the islands, this deep penetration was, in turn, not perceived as a foreign import challenging pre-existing values or established modes of political organization. Hence, the transplantation of institutions from the colonizer to the colony was much more effective and non-upsetting in island states. On islands democratic values have, thus, penetrated the citizenry to a larger extent than in continental colonies. Although colonialism brought slavery and oppression, as elsewhere in the world, the fact that the citizens of islands in many cases are descendants of slaves has also been argued to further stimulate such anti-authoritarian tendencies [34
]. Finally, the deep penetration of colonialism is said to have been facilitated by geographically-determined borders, which made the borders less contested [33
Third, the fact that the island borders are given by nature is also a commonly-maintained mechanism explaining island states’ outstanding performance in terms of political and social organization. More specifically, the natural barrier formed by the water surrounding islands has been said to reduce governments’ investments in security. The geographic features of islands imply both that the incentives for a ruler to expand its territory and the de facto
risk of getting invaded or embroiled in warfare are significantly reduced [12
]. Islands are, hence, argued to be sheltered from conflict and the resulting lack of incentives to build up a strong military facilitates the decentralization of power conducive to the development of high-quality institutions, accountability, and responsiveness [30
]. In addition, because of the small jurisdictions, the cost of internal conflicts is thought to be higher on islands than in continental states which, in turn, promotes the development of a basic consensus of values [35
]. Island inhabitants simply “must get along with each other” and for that reason develop “sophisticated modes of accommodation” [36
] (pp. 38–39), or strategies for “managed intimacy” ([37
] (p. 21); see also [33
The fourth mechanism is size. Islands tend to be relatively small in comparison to continental states—and the number of island states increases exponentially with decreasing land size. In several studies the small size of island states’ polity is said to bring a number of advantages. For example, smallness implies that there are more opportunities for interactions between the ruler and the ruled and such accessibility to the political system is generally perceived as encouraging citizen participation. Smallness per definition implies that there are fewer layers of political organization, and this, in turn, is expected to facilitate transparency and open channels of communication, which have positive effects on accountability and responsiveness on the part of governments [38
]. The leaders may also more easily acquire information about the preferences and needs of their citizens, leading to greater government efficiency and potentially a higher quality of government [12
]. Anckar also argues that while small units may be as categorically heterogeneous as larger polities, their citizens tend to develop uniformity in attitudes and values [38
]. This line of reasoning fleshes out Etro’s claim that the inhabitants of small countries tend to more easily agree on a higher provision of public goods [39
]. In sum, smallness is, according to this logic, expected to foster “highly personalized and transparent societies” [37
], (pp. 38–39). However, a small geographical area and a small population size not only affect the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, but they also facilitate interaction within the populace. That is, since small-scale social structures tend to be personal and informal, interactions on all levels have a comparatively cooperative character (we are, however, aware of the fact that not all island states are small.)
The fifth and final mechanism focuses on aspects interchangeably referred to as remoteness, peripherality, or isolation. Ott argues that island elites, in general, tend to be more cooperative in their interactions, while citizens, in their turn, tend to imitate this behavior [29
]. Remoteness, peripherality, and isolation are, hence, expected to play a unifying role as inhabitants of remote locations face special problems, shared by all members of the community, which are thought to result in a shared frame of reference; cf
]. Remoteness and isolation thus facilitate homogeneity and cooperation since the links between self-interest and the interests of the nation are more obvious [31
]. More specifically, the geographic precision of island states facilitates unitarism and forms a shared national identity, which can explain island states’ comparative success in terms of political and social development [40
Given the reviewed literature we identify five features that have been brought forward to explain why island states might perform better than continental states in collective-action-related outcomes. In sum, when answering our second research question regarding which are the major factors explaining small islands’ relative success in environmental performance, the following five factors will be included in the analysis:
2.3. Island States Characteristics and Environmental Performance of Island States
What bearing do these findings and arguments have on nations’ environmental performance? Partly contrary to popular belief and previous theoretical expectations, the reviewed literature essentially shows that island states have several comparative advantages that may promote cooperation and, ultimately, the achievement of social, political, and economic development. Due to similarities in inducements for collective action between different social goods it is, thus, reasonable to assume that (and investigate if) the same kind of logic being accounted for applies also to environmental performance. However, there are also critical reservations in this literature, pinpointing that certain characteristics of island states may, in fact, create disincentives for collective action that could have implications for environmental performance.
Theories about social, political, and economic development emphasize a number of collective-action-related factors and social dilemmas that are equally at the core of theories about environmental performance. For example, it is a well-known fact that sustainable management of natural resources depends fundamentally on the extent to which resource users expect other resource users to act sustainably. Intuitively, it would be in each citizen’s interest not to overuse natural resources. However, as deteriorating conditions of many resource systems indicate, natural resources have certain characteristics that make all resource users believe that others overharvest the resource, thus engaging in overuse themselves [41
]. This leads to the tragedy of the commons, also known as a collective action dilemma, prisoner’s dilemma, or a social trap [40
]. In such a situation “horizontal expectations that other resource users will embark on a non-cooperative path and free ride on conservation efforts make every individual reluctant to participate in conserving the collective good or employing a cooperative strategy themselves” [44
] (p. 618). Hence, theory suggests that social capital—the standard measure of people’s tendency to cooperate—should be beneficial for nations’ environmental performance [17
]. Several of the causal mechanisms analyzed in the literature on the islands’ performance have, in fact, been previously attributed as factors facilitating successful cooperation among individuals in natural resource management. For instance, the argument about size
(both of the country and of the population) has been brought up when discussing the impact of group size on collective action outcomes in cooperation over common-pool resources. Accordingly, smaller groups will, on average, be more prone to cooperate as this feature facilitates coordination [16
]. Similarly, heterogeneity
has been shown to be a complex, yet important, factor for determining the outcomes in cooperation over natural resources [18
]. As stated by Grafton and Knowles, “The greater the social divergence the lower is the opportunity for collective action that may help address environmental concerns” [17
] (p. 340).
However, the natural resource management literature within the social sciences does not only emphasize the role of horizontal expectations. It also underlines that in order to fully understand the causes of overexploitation and poor resource management, there is a need to address state capacity and the vertical relationship between the government and resource users [44
]. In addition to the analysis of local-level institutions, horizontal expectations and their effect on the behavioral strategy of resource users, it is necessary to pay attention to how these arrangements “interact with and (are) affected by the surrounding local and national institutions in which they are embedded or nested” ([44
] (p. 618), see also [48
]). As such, the issue of environmental performance can be considered an interesting exploration of further aspects of the performance of island states relative to continental states. The causal mechanisms reviewed earlier would certainly suggest an affirmative answer to such a query.
At the same time, however, there are probably reasons to be cautious about the causality and how the various mechanisms actually affect cooperative environmental behavior in the case of island states. From our point of view, one could equally twist the coin and argue that because of a number of other factors, we should rather expect negative outcomes when it comes to islands and environmental performance. For example, island states—and especially the SIDS—are often considered to be more vulnerable to economic, political, or environmental shocks [11
]. Such concerns have evoked plenty of response in international policy in high-level conferences, for instance in the Agenda 21 and in the Rio Declaration, but also through the Program of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States [52
]. As mentioned in the introduction, these discussions have recently focused explicitly on the rising threats to biodiversity in island states [13
]. As such, the year 2014 was named the “International Year of Small Island Developing States” by the United Nations, where one of the outspoken aims was to create awareness about the unique, and often vulnerable, environment on island states [15
]. In terms of the economy, island states are expected to suffer from greater output volatility and greater volatility in terms of trade, which might spur more intense resource exploitation. Overexploitation of resources may lead to severe and sometimes irreversible environmental damage, as the stories of Easter Island and Pitcairn show [52
]. It has also been pointed out that the lack of diversity in the productive base of island states’ economies can be assumed to have negative effects on their resilience to disasters [51
]. Moreover, from a political point of view, the flipside of the benefits from the personal and informal character of political interaction previously described is that small polities might also be more vulnerable to nepotism, cronyism, patronage, and political clientelism [29
], which can be expected to have clear-cut negative effects on environmental management. As recently shown by Veenendaal, a qualitative study of four microstates, three of which are islands, suggests that smallness can be detrimental for democracy [54
]. Finally, since islands tend to be located in geographic areas where hurricanes and typhoons are common, they can also be expected to be more vulnerable to environmental shocks in the form of natural disasters.
In light of possible negative consequences of being an island on collective-action-related outcomes, studying islands’ environmental performance in a comparative perspective is even more interesting. If any positive effects from our explanatory factors are found, their impact on environmental performance, in reality, must be even stronger to counteract the possible negative effects.
Bearing these critical reservations in mind, we now continue our exploratory endeavors of empirically investigating whether or not islands outperform continental states when it comes to the environment and if so, what may be the driving forces behind this. In the next section we account for the data and methods that we have used and how our dependent and independent variables are made operational.