Democratic Dilemmas in the Age of Ecology: Trees and Toxics in the American West

Democratic Dilemmas in the Age of Ecology: Trees and Toxics in the American West

by Daniel Press

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Environmental problems present democratic dilemmas. The problems are so large and so often pit localities and interest groups against each other that they challenge basic democratic institutions, particularly the ideal of citizen participation in society’s choices. In this book, Daniel Press examines the conflict between environmental political thought and democratic theory and asks whether successful environmental protection is beyond the capabilities of democratic decisionmaking.
Press introduces the primary debate in this confrontation as a choice between political centralization and decentralization. Do citizens faced with environmental crises tend to look first to a centralized leadership for solutions or do they tend to respond at a more local and grassroots level? What is the role of technical expertise in this process and how does it effect public participation in these matters? Do confrontations over environmental issues increase support for a more fully democratic decisionmaking process? Representing social, political, and economic challenges to democracy, these and other questions are then investigated empirically through analyses of case studies. Focusing on two recent controversies in the western United States, ancient-forest logging in Oregon and California and hazardous waste management in California, and drawing on in-depth interviews with individuals involved, Press clarifies the relationship between environmentalism and democracy and explores the characteristics of "new" democratic forms of environmental policymaking.
Revealing a need for a more decentralized process and increased individual and collective action in response to environmental crises, Democratic Dilemmas in the Age of Ecology will be of interest to a wide range of audiences, from scholars concerned with applications of democratic theory, to activists and policymakers seeking to change or implement environmental policy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379140
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 321 KB

About the Author

Daniel Press is Assistant Professor of Applied Environmental Policy Analysis, Environmental Studies Board, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Read an Excerpt

Democratic Dilemmas in the Age of Ecology

Trees and Toxics in the American West

By Daniel Press

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7914-0


Environmentalism Returns to the Democratic Fold

I think human beings are capable of doing very stupid, very violent things, we can see that in any ethnic group, in any culture; we can see some awful things that mobs and individuals do. And what frightens me is that, as the ecological crisis becomes more severe, as the heat is turned up, as the pie we're all trying to split up becomes smaller, and more people are trying to get it, as people really begin to see that resources are not infinite, people are going to get very, very weird. —Dave Foreman

We are now in the Age of Ecology. Environmentalists exhort and pressure us to incorporate their concerns into nearly every major policy issue and arena, and policymakers are compelled to listen. Specific positions are bitterly contested as environmental lobbyists and their opponents swell the ranks of the Washington-based special interests. Thirty years ago, we might have guessed that environmentalism would simply become more raw material for the American machine of liberal democracy. Distributive or redistributive politics would more or less take care of the environmental problem in the usual ways.

But the Age of Ecology confronts us with new challenges and dilemmas. Environmental critiques of modern society go to the very heart of our political and economic organizations. Never before have we been confronted with such intractable problems, with threats that arise from with in our own practices, and with such profound uncertainties over how to proceed. Environmental protection and restoration are not technically overwhelming—we probably had less of the requisite know-how for putting a craft on the moon in the 1950s than we do for solving major environmental problems today. In our society, environmental problems are democratic dilemmas. The Age of Ecology requires us to build seemingly impossible bridges: somehow hundreds of millions of individual actors must learn the ecological consequences of their behavior, and somehow they must use their knowledge to choose wisely between painful trade-offs. We must bridge the gap between local control over unwanted land uses and state or national interests, weigh the long-term costs of resource depletion and degradation against short-term economic dislocations. All this must be achieved in a society that has grown so large and contentious as to be effectively gridlocked and often incapable of widespread, meaningful deliberation.

We have been warned of these challenges for at least the last 25 years. Economists, scientists, and other environmental analysts have written that society may be in store for a rude awakening if we continue to address large-scale environmental problems with our cautious, incremental style of politics and policy. Our predicament, they all seem to agree, is that we move to action too slowly, we know too little, and our environmental policies are hopeless palliatives. And even when we think we know what to do, good policies are blocked by some interest or another.

A "centralist" group of theorists writing about these dilemmas argues that we have one of two grim choices: we can continue business as usual and try to adapt to life in an impoverished environment, or we can abdicate democracy in favor of an all-powerful but ecologically enlightened Leviathan. "Decentralist" writers, on the other hand, urge us to devolve political power to small communities, where all could "think globally and act locally" and thereby preserve—even restore—democracy while saving the physical environment.

Thus, the appropriate balance between democracy and environmental protection is continually being sought; the questions it raises are not merely theoretical but in fact are being asked self-consciously by people struggling for political goals in environmental controversies across the United States. Examples of environmental conflicts that raise these questions as central features of their debates abound. William Boyer, a political reformer in Oregon, wanted to write into the state constitution basic "environmental rights." He proposed to create these democratically, through a 1992 proposition that, however, never got onto the state ballot. The proposition was ambitiously called "the Oregon Plan for Environmental Rights," and would have created a five-person elected "Commission for Environmental Enhancement and Protection" that would consolidate control over the state Environmental Quality Commission, the Energy Facility Siting Council, the Water Resources Commission, the Board of Forestry, and the Fish and Wildlife Commission. All the elements of the theoretical debate mentioned above are present: a move to centralize control, albeit through the electoral process, an effort to guarantee certain environmental outcomes, and a palpable frustration with technocratic inertia and its characteristic inability to coordinate natural resources management.

Clearly, Boyer's initiative defined social justice in environmental and procedural terms. He wanted not only to codify and protect "environmental rights" but also to flex the muscles of the electorate. Boyer believed that environmental rights can be voted into the state's constitution and trusted that, given the ability and opportunity to do so, Oregonians would insert into it important environmental values. Californians have also sought to adopt environmental initiatives in earnest; Proposition 65, "Big Green" (Proposition 128 of 1990), and many other policy initiatives have meshed grass-roots participatory rhetoric with environmentalism.

The well-known NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) syndrome exemplifies the struggle between local and centralized forces to manage environmental problems, especially in the hazardous waste arena. Centralists and decentralists agree that NIMBYism is a manifestation of both political frustration and the assumption that local control ("power to the people") can solve—or at least avoid—environmental dangers. Many community residents who are in the vanguard of NIMBYism assume that they would not have let toxics get so bad if they had played a role in the political process as equals with industry and government.

The 1986 "Tanner planning" process, named for AB 2948, a bill sponsored by California Assemblywoman Sally Tanner, attempted to address NIMBYism at both the county and state levels. The Tanner bill required all counties in California to indicate in a plan submitted to the state Department of Health Services how much hazardous waste treatment capacity that county would need to treat hazardous wastes in the future. Recognizing the volatility of facility siting conflicts, the bill also required counties to develop criteria for approving such facilities, and created a process for brokering agreements between facility sponsors, counties, local residents, and the state. Tanner planning has been perceived alternatively as a landmark in local, collaborative planning and as a vehicle for state preemption. Successful or not, the Tanner bill addresses issues of inclusion, jurisdiction, and centralized versus decentralized control over hazardous waste management.

Another toxics example displays yet again the battle over the appropriate locus of control for environmental management, this time in the San Gabriel Water Basin. This important source of groundwater in southern California became contaminated with toxics from the BKK Superfund site in West Covina and hundreds of industrial facilities. Local frustration with the slow pace at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was handling the San Gabriel Basin case prompted Congressman Esteban Torres to circumvent Superfund cleanup of the groundwater basin on the assumption that a local consortium could do the job better, faster, and with more consensus than the EPA . Whether local attempts to clean up the San Gabriel groundwater will be successful remains to be seen, but the interesting point is that local players are trying to bypass the large, powerful, centralized bureaucracy (EPA) precisely because of its inefficiency and undermanagement.

Northern California provides an excellent example of these topics in its attempt to reform (or, alternatively, to maintain the status quo on) timber practices. In 1990, a coalition of environmental groups and timber companies—the most visible members being the Sierra Club and Sierra Pacific Industries—hammered out an agreement subsequently dubbed the "Sierra accords." In light of other, unsuccessful environmentalist initiatives (especially the "Redwood Summer" protests and the "Forests Forever" and "Big Green" ballot initiatives of 1990), further curtailment of harvesting on behalf of the spotted owl's habitat, and mounting tensions in rural communities, these players were eager to avoid traditional arenas of conflict. The results of several months of collaborative policy meetings were four bills (later consolidated into one) submitted to Governor Pete Wilson for approval. He vetoed the legislation, claiming that the measure was too restrictive, hadn't considered his proposed amendments (he wanted the bill to incorporate over 80 changes), and, most important, had inappropriately attempted to treat the coastal forests and Sierra (inland) forests with the same rules.

Indeed, most of the coastal environmentalists and timber industries objected to the legislation, demonstrating both the fragility of participatory policymaking processes and the difficulties inherent in deciding appropriate jurisdictions for managing environmental dilemmas. In the end, the governor's own bill failed to pass a bitter and resentful legislature, and several rural northern counties reopened an old proposal to secede from the rest of the state!

While the legislature and governor wrestled with their misnamed "accords," local antagonists in California's north coast counties were trying to build understanding and consensus on forest management and watershed protection. Calling themselves "bioregional councils" in the Klamath Province, a loose network of advisory groups, residents, and traditional enemies began to seek—and sometimes received—authority over local natural resource decisions.

In large urban areas, public frustration with complex, interrelated problems such as transportation, air and water quality, park management, wetlands protection, and affordable housing has given support to new calls for regional government in urban areas. In northern California groups with names like Bay Vision 2020, the Bay Area Economic Forum, and Bioregionalists, have all urged the state legislature to consolidate transit districts, air and water quality control agencies, and numerous other functions of state and local governments. As of spring 1994, one major "regionalist" bill was working its way through the California state legislature. The new environmental superagency Cal-EPA has also called for regional management of its environmental review and permitting processes. Not surprisingly, no one is sure just how regionalism could help or hurt, and many municipalities are afraid of losing autonomy over the few issues that still remain in their jurisdiction. Above all, there is no consensus on what the appropriate locus of control for a particular problem might be.

Even the marketplace addresses some of these themes, in the form of "green consumerism," the ultimate in decentralized, individual environmental action. With companies like Working Assets offering telephone lobbying services along with "green investment," we see a move toward political empowerment pursued almost as much for its own sake as for the causes it serves. And in typologies of environmentalists, progressive companies like Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream or Working Assets don't seem to fit. These companies, and many others like them, attempt to make good on the potential of "voting with your dollars" in a way that maximizes personal involvement and successful environmental outcomes.

The examples cited all share some common democratic dilemmas: Who should rule? On what basis? What are the environmental implications of centralized rule or decentralized rule? Can citizen responsibility foster sufficient competence for people to make decisions that are in the public interest?

Whenever they address these questions, centralists and decentralists carry on their debate at an abstract, theoretical level, but their analyses are lacking in two important respects: First, almost no empirical work has been done to substantiate theoretical claims about the relationship of environmentalism to democracy. This is true largely because there has been hardly any dialogue between theorists writing on environmental politics and those focusing on the difficulties of maintaining democratic practices in large, complex nation-states. As a consequence, environmental political thought has been influenced more by economics, biology, and ecology than by political theory. This environmentalist political work tends to be long on ecological critiques and polemic and short on understanding of the political process. Democratic theorists, for their part, have missed an opportunity to place democratic dilemmas in a context where they are current and compelling. The merger of environmental political thought and democratic theory can yield testable propositions for the claims of these two respective literatures.

Second, the explanations of why democracy and environmentalism should be logically incompatible are few and incomplete. Most claims of such an incompatibility do not define the concepts that are purported to be in conflict. "Democracy" is alternatively representative democracy, interest group liberalism, peer democracy, participatory democracy, and so on. "Environmentalism" is sometimes a profound critique of nearly everything associated with industrialized economies (see Kassiola, 1990), and at other times a justification for adopting standard operating procedures (like writing environmental impact reports) easily accommodated by the existing administrative state.

Failures of "American-Style" Democracy: Six Hypotheses

A number of testable propositions or implications emerge from the centralist-decentralist debate. They are claims about the proper locus of authority, the value and need for institutional limits, the ability of citizens to manage and understand technology, and the trade-offs between economics and environmental protection. Six hypotheses emerge from centralist and decentralist claims:

1. Crisis Leadership: If people perceive that they are in an environmental crisis, they will seek centralized leadership.

2. Local Control equals Better Outcomes: People perceive that local control over environmental management results in more desirable environmental outcomes than central control (e.g., state and federal).

3. Outcome Determines Legitimacy: People who participate in the policy process over environmental dilemmas judge the value of their experience by what happens in the physical environment.

4. Participation Yields Control: People who participate intensively on environmental issues gain more control over environmental policy outcomes.

5. Technical Complexity Limits Participation: Technical complexity is used by experts to block or negate public participation on environmental issues. Similarly, non-experts affected by environmental controversies limit their own participation, because technical complexity intimidates them, and prevents them from identifying, and effectively advancing their goals.

6. Economics Limit Deliberation: Concerns over economic growth sharply constrain the scope and number of distinct environmental policy options that are seriously considered by participants in the environmental policy process.

This study addresses the empirical gap in environmental political theory by testing the hypotheses listed above through in-depth interviews with respondents in two environmental controversies—forest management and hazardous waste management. Testing the hypotheses involves two tasks: first, to clarify which elements of democracy (both the liberal and participatory traditions) and environmentalism appear to be in conflict. Pared down to their essential differences, three reasons emerge to explain why theorists have claimed that democracy conflicts with environmentalism. I call these the "challenges" to democracy: The challenge of social justice raises the possibility that environmental protection may be a just course for society even if it is taken undemocratically. The challenge of technocracy strains our ability to bridge the goal of participation with the perceived need for expertise. And the economic challenge consists of the constraints that economic activity places on political decisions.

A second task is to show how far theorists' analyses can go in explaining successes and failures (in effect, the limits) of democratic politics in two current environmental controversies. Testing theoretical claims requires asking how environmental problems pose a challenge for American democracy and how institutions of democratic governance are responding. Note that what is considered the dominant form of political organization is American-style interest group liberalism. It is further assumed that this form of political democracy will not change dramatically in the near future, but that there may be opportunities to transcend its shortcomings. A number of the theorists described in chapter 2 have argued for a radical change in political forms; while the findings reported here may contribute to such claims, the main purpose of this study is to show how existing structures fail and to explore the emergence of new environmental politics.

Using respondents' policy preferences to assess the future of democratic environmental politics is a deliberate methodological choice. Most theorists evaluate democratic political forms on structural grounds and thus confine themselves to discussions of the logical effects of adopting certain procedures, decision and inclusion rules, and safeguards against abuses of power. But writers like William Ophuls and David Orralso stress that attidunial and value changes ("metanoia") must precede the transition to environmentally successful political structures. Thus, a critical step along the way to an ecologically sustainable polity is the transformation of citizens' political habits and attitudes toward the environment.


Excerpted from Democratic Dilemmas in the Age of Ecology by Daniel Press. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

1. Environmentalism Returns to the Democratic Fold 1

2. Environmental Political Thought and Democratic Theory 12

3. The Challenges to Democratic Environmental Policy: Social Justice, Technocracy, and Economics 28

4. Empirical Study of the Centralist-Decentralist Debate 61

5. Trees and Toxics 79

6. Challenges to Democratic Environmental Policy-Making in Forest and Hazardous Waste management 108

7. Conclusion 123

Afterword: The Distant Democracy 136

Notes 139

Bibliography 153

Index 161

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