Thursday, October 12, 2006

Governing the Eco-Commons

Complexity in the Field
By J.B. Ruhl
October 11, 2006

One reason for my interest in complex systems is my field of interest for teaching and research: environmental law with a focus on ecosystem management governance, ecosystem services, and the specific resource issues of endangered species and wetlands. The challenge here is to use one complex system (law) to manage how another complex system (the economy) treats another complex system (the environment). Good luck to us!

One of the key inquiries, therefore, is how to design instruments and institutions that work. Toward that end, this post carries over a theme I recently raised on a listserve for environmental law professors and which has produced some illuminating observations. My plan is to summarize the listserve comments and any comments received on this blog (as well as on BioLaw) and post that in the near future.

So, with no further delay, here is the question I posed:

Environmentalism has never had a reputation for being particularly attached to democratic values. Perhaps in the early 1970s the two agendas matched up, but let’s face it, since then environmentalism has lost on the election front more than it has won. And it has a well-deserved reputation for being a fair-weather friend: when it looks like the courts won’t help out, by gosh the legislatures are the answer, and vice versa.

An example comes from Tallahassee, where we are trying to figure out our energy and environment future. On the table is an option to participate as a partner in a proposed new coal-fired power plant. When this proposal seemed like a live threat in terms of support on the city council, local environmental groups demanded a straw vote referendum. They got one, and they lost--the majority of voters favored participation as a partner in the new plant. To be sure, there are all sorts of post-mortems on the vote, all with more spin than Nadal can put on his kick serve, but the bottom line is that the majority of voters (who voted) said they want the plant. Nevertheless, local environmental groups--the ones that demanded the vote--now vow a fight to the death in court, prompting this comment in today's paper (we have an anonymous comment forum called “zing!”): “The people have already spoken in a referendum, and they said ‘yes’ to a coal power plant. Let democracy work, and get off your anti-coal high horses already.”

I realize few readers will have all the facts on this particular case, but what is the general take on the question of how environmentalism and democratic values are playing out in the U.S in the opening decade of the 21st century?

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My own opinion, to which everyone is entitled btw, is that there are fanatics and extremists of every sort, supporting and contesting every point of view. The founders of or country designed our country so that all of these were held in balance, without having to pit any particular group against the other.

So if you are a bit upset at the outcome of a question, that's O.K. Some where there are people extremely upset that the outcome did not go one way, amd more people extremely upset that it did not go more in favor of the other way.

10/12/2006 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Frank said...

I think it's a classic case of personal underestimation of low probability but high-cost risks. So the environment remains a low-salience issue.

I also think that promises of technological fixes are very strong in our culture now. People figure that virtually any problem can be cured via technology.

About the only thing I think could save the environment democratically is the sense of quasi-religious reverence that E.O. Wilson's been working to cultivate.

10/12/2006 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Boy, don't get me started.

I've been active in varying degrees in the environmental movement and causes (both the 'first' and 'second' movements, to use Robert Goodin's periodization), particularly those associated with social and deep ecology Greens. Even on the Left (generously defined), my experience was that many came to these issues with an ecological sensibility of some sort or another, yet often with little or no concrete political experience, and extremely ill-informed about democratic theory and praxis. Self-described social ecologists were different on this score, but the hold of Murray Bookchin's work and leadership often left them sectarian and strident, causing divisions in the ecology movement that in some respects continue to this day. While I was personally sympathetic to the motivations of 'deep ecologists,' they often lapsed into a wishy washy New Ageism that crowded out good science and democratic reflections. Often these well-meaning folk were what I would describe as Malthusian Social Darwinists for whom Garrett Hardin's 'lifeboat ethic' was gospel (the very same folks who are regressive and simple minded in the Sierra Club when it comes to immigration and population issues; Paul Ehrlich's work looms large here too). For them, population is the primary causal variable and the root evil, believing, therefore, that a severe reduction in same will have magical effects, ecologically speaking. Their argument was patiently picked apart by (among others) such luminous lights as William Murdoch (The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population, 1980) and Robert Paehlke (Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics, 1989). Those who came to environmentalism (and I'm thinking largely but not exclusively of 'activists' here, keeping in mind the ebb and flow of social movements...) from a strong Liberal or New Left background, have been more receptive to questions of democratic provenance. And, of late, there's been academic works that demonstrate political sophistication is compatible with an environmentalist orientation of a salutary sort:

Clapp, Jennifer and Peter Dauvergne. Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005)

Dasgupta, Partha. Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Eckersley, Robyn. The Green State: Rethinking Democracy andSovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004)

Jasanoff, Sheila and Marybeth Long Martello, eds. Earthly Politics: Local and Global in Environmental Governance (Cambrdge, MA: MIT Press, 2004)

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)

I do think 'eco-fascism' of a kind is an ever-present danger, especially if ecological issues take on an apocalyptic urgency and people seek out quick and simple solutions to the problems that ail them (there have been, after all, apocalyptic ecologists, and they've not helped matters). I'm of mixed feelings about the future in this regard. I do find it interesting, however, that an ecological/environmental ethos has begun to suffuse many of the worlds religions (cottage industry of conferences, journals, books...), and apart from, say, the 'wise use' and 'dominion theology' devotees (see Stephenie Hendricks' Divine Destruction, 2005), the individuals here are often quite intelligent and are not adverse to relying on democratic principles and practices. In the end, I suppose it's simply up to environmentalists to everywhere demonstrate their familiarity with, indeed strong commitment to, democratic principles and practices such that a wedge is never driven into the movement and its organizations that exploits popular prejudices and ignorance. More could be said, but this is just a comment...at a blog.

10/12/2006 7:26 PM  
Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I did not speak at all to the instant case, so if I may, I think the behavior of the environmentalists here is reprehensible, just the sort of political maneuvering that wins enemies not friends, that is self-defeating because self-righteous, meaning those involved should sit down at the local diner for a big slice of humble pie. This does give environmentalists a bad name, and deservedly so. The problem of course is that in the long term, the very things 'we' are fighting for will lose, not to mention our ability to motivate and persuade others. Environmentalists of this ilk need to be more collectively self-reflective and play politics fairly with everyone else. One often hears how environmentalists are 'elitists,' and I often found this charge without merit. But of course here it sticks. Which is not to say environmentalists should not look to the courts on occasion, but this seems to be a rather transparent instance when resort to the court was politically unwise, at the very least.

10/12/2006 9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, a livable environment is a precondition for democracy. When people start getting priced out of the market for, e.g., fresh water, you see how long democratic values last.

10/14/2006 8:59 PM  
Blogger J.B. Ruhl said...

I appreciate these comments and I hope soon to try to summarize the themes that have come up here and on the environmental law professors' listserver.

10/16/2006 10:50 AM  

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