Monday, October 30, 2006

Closing Thoughts on Environmentalism vs. Democracy

Complexity in the Field
By J.B. Ruhl

Here in Florida we have a November 7 general election ballot item that would amend our state constitution to require that all new constitutional amendments receive a 60 percent vote, rather than the current requirement of only a simple majority. The ad campaign for the amendment (which, ironically, will require only a simple majority to pass) advises voters to "Protect Our Constitution," whereas the campaign against the amendment urges voters to "Trust The Voters."

This about sums up the two themes that have emerged from the ongoing dialogue on "Environmentalism vs Democracy." Many commenters advise taking a "protect the environment" approach that relies on representative democracy, administrative agency expertise, and thus more distance between voters and matters of environmental policy. But about as many commenters adopt the "trust the voters" theme and focus on ways to improve citizen understanding of the complex environmental problems of the day so they will vote to "do the right thing."

Yet another set of commenters posited that the question is not unique to the environment--that "X vs. Democracy" questions are ubiquitous. Anyone would agree that democracy has shown its dark side in many contexts, but I do think the environment is different in that it involves more than law regulating humans in their relation to other humans. The third party involved in this field is not human. This raises value questions that don't often arise in other policy contexts--see, e.g., the Endangered Species Act. It also introduces an astounding level of complexity attributable to a system that extends far beyond what humans do to or with each other. Environmental law, in other words, is fundamentally different from, say, tax law or family law, making it even more important that we get it right, however we go about deciding what it is.

Of course, as with those other fields, the tension between "more" or "less" democracy is playing out in the case of the US in a context of relatively robust democratic institutions (I said relatively). None of the commenters proposed an environmental autocracy.

Hmmmmmm...why not? There are examples, after all, of top-down autocratic governance producing sustainable environmental policies (see Jared Diamond's account in Collapse of the history of Japan's forest management policy). But one commenter suggested the overall tenor of the dialogue in the assertion that "empirically, democracy seems to do a better job of addressing environmental problems than every other system of human governance that's been tried." True? Probably, but the case may not be as compelling as we'd like to think. As the World Resources Institute suggests in a recent study, it's not clear that nations enjoying more democratic institutions also necessarily enjoy better environmental management. WRI points out, for example, that democracy often correlates with wealth, which often correlates with consumption, which often correlates with environmental stress. Still, although democracy can be a mixed bag for the environment, I think most of us will take that over the alternative and ride out the roller coaster of "protect our environment" versus "trust the voters."

With that, I'll close my posts on the topic and enjoy the ride.


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