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— Michael P. Nelson
— Markku Oksanen
1.1 The Old EPA Building
At first it just seemed to be a large, ugly building composed of cubes and rectangles piled side by side and one on top of another, architecturally typical of the worst buildings of the 1960s. It was the "old" Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters building in southwest Washington, which housed EPA federal headquarters from 1971 until the midnineties. Eventually the old building came to symbolize the many confusions and frustrations I experienced in trying to save the world.
This isn't really a book about bad architecture, nor one about my experiences at EPA. It's about constructively improving policy discourse by clarifying the meaning of the term sustainability and other related terms. This first chapter, however, starts with my experiences with EPA projects-and with the old building-because those experiences in that place have shaped this book by forcing upon me the questions the book sets out to answer. In this chapter I introduce those questions as they came to me, in the context of struggling to evaluate EPA policies and regulations. I hope this little bit of biography will help you to understand the perspective from which I write and the complexity of the problem of improving communication and understanding of environmental policy formation and implementation.
Although EPA's struggle to form a more coherent environmental policy provides an excellent entrée into the problems I wish to address, the quandaries I encountered at EPA are really only symptoms of deeper and broader problems, problems that go to the heart of environmental policy formation and implementation today. They are most basically problems of communication, the failure to develop effective vocabularies for relating the sciences to each other and to the broader context of social values and policy goals. So this is not an exposé of EPA-I do not mean to disparage the sincere good efforts of the people who work in that beleaguered agency. Rather, I use EPA as an example of the broader problems with environmental policy discourse and as a starting point for a constructive approach to an integrated environmental policy.
The story of how I hoped to reform the goals of EPA, and do my bit to save the world, begins with a few of my early visits-in the mideighties-to the old EPA building in Washington, DC. At first I thought EPA employees were remarkably hospitable and gracious people, because whenever I had a meeting at the old EPA building, even when I was meeting someone fairly high up in the administrative hierarchy, the person would tell me to wait at the main entrance. When I arrived, a receptionist called upstairs, and the EPA employee came down to meet me and led me to his or her office. Gracious, if not very efficient, I thought. Only later, when I was teaching courses in a graduate program for EPA employees, did I learn the real reason for this practice. The students in my class-this was, incidentally, as sharp and highly motivated a group of graduate students as I have encountered-were all EPA employees, and they were working in an executive degree program to obtain a masters degree in public affairs. Some of them invited me to one of their offices in the old EPA building after class one day; following some open-ended discussion, it was suggested that I might want to talk to another employee with common interests in another part of the building. After calling ahead, my host began to give directions and then stopped. He began again, and stopped again, exhibiting signs of frustration. Finally he said, "Come on. I'll lead you there." On the way to the nearest elevators, he explained that it was almost impossible to direct someone within the building, so we set out on a hike; I followed him through a warren of hallways and elevators, going down and up, and eventually-it seemed like fifteen minutes later-I was delivered to my appointment.
Rumor has it that the building was originally conceived as residential, and that it got its bizarre geography from an intention to create clusters of residential units, which might have made sense of the separate towers and clusters as smaller "communities" in the vast complex. In fact, I learned from talking to officials in the EPA real estate office-and the developer Charlie Bresler-that despite the plausible rumors, the building was from the beginning planned mainly for office space. The eccentric traffic patterns and inaccessible hallways were actually a result of the rapid, but Balkanized, growth of the agency itself. As I will develop in more detail presently, EPA grew as a result of separate legislation to protect air and water and manage toxics and solid waste. No organic act was ever completed, so the agency grew as fiefdoms. The government, in 1971, rented more than 525,000 square feet of almost completed office space in Waterside Mall and eventually moved the headquarters and central offices there. But that original contract was followed in quick succession by several expansions of the EPA mandate and by attendant, often desperate, cries for new blocks of office space. As new departments were added to EPA, new chunks of office space were requested. Given overlapping projects and other complications, the mall grew like the proverbial Topsy; towers were built around it, creating more and more disjointed workspaces. In addition to the Main Mall, there was a Northeast Mall and a Southeast Mall, some areas of which were devoted to EPA. These malls have mismatched floors and flank the Main Mall. The data center occupied a huge area that seemed to exist in another dimension, tucked in behind a large supermarket. Eventually, a west tower (with twelve floors) and an east tower (with twelve floors) were added as the developer responded to new requests for space, which came frequently during the 1970s and 1980s. Each of a series of locations was built up and out on the large property, and the chunkiness of the projects contributed to the creation of separate fiefdoms. The result was a building with towers sprouted around a core, just as EPA mandates to protect air and water quality, manage pesticides, and so forth, sprouted around a central agency composed of existing offices that had been uprooted from other departments and agencies. Each tower, it turned out, had its own elevators, and the connective tissue-which was to have been provided by the central mall-was simply inadequate to provide a reasonable traffic pattern connecting elements of the agency.
Therefore, "You can't get there from here" was too often the answer to a question about navigating the structure. At last I learned why administrators meet their guests at the building door: unescorted guests could get so lost that they would become missing persons and get discovered, days later, wandering shell-shocked through corridors that go mainly in circles. At some point in my relationship with EPA, after a Kafkaesque frustration dream in which I was struggling to get somewhere, I realized I was wandering a maze of hallways, circling the disconnected towers of Babel in the old EPA building. It was then that I realized that the old building was a perfect metaphor for the way environmental policy is discussed and made in the United States.
I had lived in Washington off and on during the early and middle eighties, on leave from my professorship and working at think tanks in the capital area, mainly on policy to protect biological resources. Since falling by good fortune into a wonderful project on the values and rationale behind the Endangered Species Act in the early 1980s, I had published a couple of books, and on this basis had become one voice in an emerging coherent and scientifically informed public discourse about the importance of protecting vulnerable species and biodiversity. Since I'd had some success analyzing and evaluating endangered species policy, I thought I might apply those insights more broadly to other policy problems. As the eighties progressed, I expanded the focus of my environmental policy studies and began to think seriously about whether EPA, the agency best poised to develop a comprehensive and rational national policy to protect the environment, was up to the task. Soon I had an excellent chance to explore this question; by the end of the decade, I was invited to join various EPA policy panels, and I gradually began to learn the ropes at EPA. It seemed clear, even from casual observation, that the agency lacked a central, unifying vision-indeed this was just as obvious to EPA employees and to the agency's strongest supporters. As an environmental philosopher, I really thought it would be possible to both help EPA develop a more coherent approach to evaluation of environmental change and bring those values to bear upon policy by strengthening the contribution of science to environmental decision making.
I admit I was naive-foolish, even-to think a philosopher might bring rationality to national environmental policy; perhaps I still am. But back then I was so naive that I thought I could work from within the agency, helping various parts of it to develop some new methods and a more coherent and comprehensive approach to evaluation. I guess I thought that a better method, once proposed, would catch on. So the story of my experiences at EPA, out of which I came to see the questions of environmental policy in the way that I do today, begins as a story of disillusionment. It tells how I came to believe that the solution to the environmental problems of the twenty-first century will require new ways of thinking as well as new organizational structures. In this book I recount the terms of my disillusionment-the reasons I finally saw that working to reform EPA from within was unlikely to work-but I also look more generally at environmental problems, and especially at the public discourse that passes for rational analysis of environmental problems in advanced industrial societies like ours. First, however, it will be helpful to know something about the internal barriers, both structural and conceptual-communicative barriers, that make it so difficult, at EPA, to get "there" from "here." I came to understand those barriers when I was an innocent philosopher accepting invitations to serve on committees to improve the analysis of environmental problems within EPA.
My timing, at least, was right. William Reilly, George Bush's choice to lead EPA, decided to broaden the focus of the agency and urged the Science Advisory Board (SAB), which had been formed in 1978 to provide the agency with "scientific and technical" guidance, to review and compare risks. EPA had become highly concentrated on human health-a strategy pursued especially in the Carter administration, one that survived until Reilly argued that EPA should focus equally on threats to human health and threats to ecological processes and natural systems. Reilly followed up the SAB report with action and directed the agency to develop a methodology for "ecological risk assessment," which led to lots of policy discussions in many of my meetings. Reilly favored expansion of the risk assessment methodology to broader areas, including risk to ecological systems and processes, because one of his personal priorities as administrator was to systematize information-gathering across the agency, and he considered the risk assessment/risk management (RA/RM) approach the one most likely to provide a comprehensive framework for collecting information and comparing risks to identify effective strategies for the agency.
So I came to the Science Advisory Board at a time when a lot was happening and deep questions about how to evaluate risks were to be debated in a highly charged political atmosphere. My strategy was to involve myself in as many policy-relevant panels and policy discussions at EPA as possible. Through good fortune and a handful of kind contacts who apparently thought EPA might benefit from a bit of philosophical input, I got my chances, over the decade of the nineties, to serve on a variety of EPA studies and panels. These studies were designed to integrate science into policy, to evaluate the success of given programs, and to recommend new courses of action. I met some wonderful friends, got an education in policy formation and development-in the kitchen, so to speak-and I even got paid a modest consulting fee. In the process I learned about a lot of good things that go on at EPA; but I also learned of problems. If I emphasize the negative in this chapter, it is because I am preparing to be more constructive in subsequent chapters. I found in these meetings that people with the best of intentions often spoke past each other; indeed I sometimes felt as if I were at a multilingual conference without translators. What worried me most was that people from different backgrounds and disciplines continued to interact, carry on conversations, and do their jobs, hardly noticing that they spoke languages without available translations. They, like unattended visitors at the EPA building, wandered into blind corridors and, when they asked how one might get to a more rational environmental policy, were too often told, "You can't get there from here."
In the early and middle 1990s, I served simultaneously on several EPA panels, panels that appeared to have very similar goals-to oversee the day-to-day application of science to EPA tasks and regulatory duties. These panels were all, to varying degrees, influenced by Reilly's attempt to broaden the agency purview, but they continued into the Clinton administration. I will rely heavily on these and subsequent experiences I had while consulting with EPA as I try to carefully characterize the problems of environmental discourse today. In this chapter, we concentrate on three such panels and committees. First, I served as a charter member of the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee (EEAC), a new addition to the SAB, which had been instituted in 1974 and was given a legislative mandate by Congress in 1978. I (the only noneconomist on the committee) and my colleagues struggled to understand how economic science was being used, and should be used, in the formation of agency policy. Not long after joining the SAB, I was also invited to work on the Risk Assessment Forum, an internal EPA initiative supported by another section of the EPA bureaucracy, which had the task of improving risk analysis and management, in this case by preparing scientific background papers for the first-ever protocols for "ecological risk assessment." The general assignment of the forum was to examine the scientific background of ecological risk; our subcommittee's specific task was to write a paper on how to determine the "ecological significance" of changes in ecological processes and systems. About this time, I was also serving in a less formal discussion group called the Ecosystem Valuation Forum, which brought together a panel of leading scholars and practitioners to discuss the problem of how to evaluate changes in ecological systems. More will be said about the Ecosystem Valuation Forum below. Let's start by comparing the discussions I participated in as a member of the EEAC with those I encountered in the Risk Assessment Forum. My experience on these two panels provided ideal laboratories for the analysis of communication at the nexus where science and social values intersect in the formation of policy, and it was on these panels that I learned the extent of the Balkanization, according to offices and according to disciplines, that occurs in the policy development process.
Excerpted from SUSTAINABILITY by Bryan G. Norton Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface : beyond ideology|
|A note to the busy reader : some shorter paths|
|Ch. 1||An innocent at EPA||1|
|Pt. I||Setting the stage for adaptive management|
|Ch. 2||Language as our environment||47|
|Ch. 3||Epistemology and adaptive management||88|
|Ch. 4||Interlude : removing barriers to integrative solutions||130|
|Pt. II||Value pluralism and cooperation|
|Ch. 5||Where we are and where we want to be||149|
|Ch. 6||Re-modeling nature as valued||193|
|Ch. 7||Environmental values as community commitments||232|
|Ch. 8||Sustainability and our obligations to future generations||304|
|Ch. 9||Environmental values and community goals||356|
|Pt. III||Integrated environmental action|
|Ch. 10||Improving the decision process||403|
|Ch. 11||Disciplinary stew||440|
|Ch. 12||Integrated environmental analysis and action||479|
|App||Justifying the method||519|