Monday, October 23, 2006

Themes from "Environmentalism vs. Democracy"

Complexity in the Field
By J.B. Ruhl
October 23, 2006

Having culled through comments and e-mails prompted by my post on Governing the Ecocommons, which asked whether environmentalism and democratic values are in conflict, several overarching themes emerged as diagnoses of the condition and prescriptions for recovery. Below are some very quick summaries of factors commenters identified as contributing to disconnects between the two value sets. None of them is particularly new on its own, but collectively they strike me as quite consistent with the conception of the problem as being how to design one complex system (environmental law) to regulate the way another set of complex systems (economy and society) behaves toward yet another complex system (environment). They appear in no particular order:

Experts: A number of commenters observed that one barrier to matching environmental and democratic values is that the communication of environmental conditions to democratic institutions generally demands some level of involvement from experts, whereas those institutions may not always be receptive to either (a) listening to experts or (b) letting experts make the final decisions.

Scale: Transboundary effects abound in environmental settings, given that environmental conditions do not obey political boundaries. This opens up the probability that actors at one political scale (e.g., local) will reach decisions causing externalities or other problems at other scales (e.g., state). The fact that the decision may be derived from democratic processes and make perfect sense at the scale at which it is made does not avoid or mitigate the trans-scale effects.

Cumulative Effects: Many environmental issues involve the aggregation of discrete actions each of which has small effects, but which accumulate to have significant effects over larger geographic scales. This makes it difficult for the individual actor participating in democratic processes to appreciate that he/she/it is contributing to a significant and costly environmental degradation.

Short Term Bias: Many decisions about the environment are decisions about intertemporal choice requiring us to decide how and by how much to take into account long-term and next-generation interests. Unfortunately, few "rational actors" exist in reality to apply perfectly designed discount rates taking all possible future trajectories, costs, and benefits into account. If the idea is to achieve a sustainable ecological base into next generations, these commenters believe democratic institutions frequently are making poor intertemporal decisions.

Industry Power: Many commenters derided "industry" as seeding misinformation in democratic institutions and using their relative power (i.e., relative to environmental groups) to either influence outcomes in democratic processes or shield certain issues from such processes. Of course, one has to expect the interests that are targets of regulation to exhibit some "push back" in the coevolutionary process. The concern here seems to be that some interests have become quite successful at it.

Environmental Groups: Many commenters (frequently those who also derided industry) were critical of major national environmental groups as having "lost their way" in terms of putting fundraising above mission and engaging in scare tactics that have desensitized democratic institutions to their message.

People Just Don't Get It: Several commenters put much of the blame on a consumption-oriented society that just won't put its money where its mouth is. On the one hand, surveys show high levels of support for the environment and "government doing more" about the problems, but in terms of dollars and votes the environment often fades into the background. Citing Jared Diamond's Collapse (mentioned many times in my posts), they suggest we might be like the many other societies in the past that did not put two and two together on their environmental conditions before it was too late.

Next: A post summarizing the main themes regarding solutions.

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