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About the Author
Kenneth J. Sim is currently employed as an analyst with STRATA, an energy and environment think-tank. Randy T Simmons is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute of Political Economy at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, and former Mayor of Providence, Utah. Professor Simmons’s books include the award-winning Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure, Aquanomics: Water Markets and the Environment and The Political Economy of Culture and Norms: Informal Solutions to the Commons Problem. Ryan M. Yonk is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Research Director for the Center for Public Lands and Rural Economics in the Department of Economics at Utah State University, and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southern Utah University.
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Bureaucracy vs. the Environment
By Randy T Simmons, Ryan M. Yonk, Kenneth J. Sim
The Independent InstituteCopyright © 2016 Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
Politics, Ecology, and Entrepreneurship
WHAT IF WHAT we think we know about ecology and environmental policy is just wrong? What if environmental laws often make things worse? What if the very idea of nature has been hijacked by politics? What if wilderness is something we create in our minds, as opposed to being an actual description of nature? Developing answers to these questions and developing implications of those answers are our purposes in this book. Two themes guide us — political ecology and political entrepreneurship. Combining these two concepts, which we develop in some detail, leads us to recognize that sometimes in their original design and certainly in their implementation, major U.S. environmental laws are more about opportunism and ideology than good management and environmental improvement.
A well-respected ecologist at Utah State University spent much of his academic life studying landscape changes in and around Yellowstone National Park. When we asked him what ought to be the correct policy for managing the park, anything ranging from actively managing nature to letting nature just happen, a policy known as natural regulation, he responded that he does not make policy recommendations; that is for the politicians and agency personnel.
We believe his answer is consistent with what many ecologists would say — their job is to study ecological processes, not to get involved in the politics of management. There is, they believe, somehow a separation between science and politics. Science may inform politics, but they are separate endeavors.
A major theme of this book is that a separation between science and politics is nearly as rare as unicorns. There is a politics of ecology, even though many ecologists refuse to participate in it, at least overtly. This political ecology is the politicization of ecology — not necessarily the science of ecology, although it often is — but beliefs about ecology held by the public, press, and policymakers. Those beliefs have become increasingly political. Political ecology underlies the foundational laws of U.S. environmental policy. We will demonstrate that these laws are based on mythology intertwined with naiveté about political processes and false assumptions about environmental processes.
Popular political ecology is based on a flawed understanding of ecology. This misunderstanding is best described as the "balance of nature," which holds that when nature is left undisturbed by humans, it remains in or returns to a perpetual state of balance and harmony. The balance of nature belief asserts that if we "let nature take her course," the environment will take care of itself.
If the premises of the balance of nature belief were correct, then one would expect that allowing nature to take her course in environmental policy-making would lead to the protection and enhancement of biological diversity and ecological integrity for natural resources of the United States. If, however, the balance of nature belief is a political and mythological construct, policies and management based on it will fail to produce the desired results.
The balance of nature belief is romantic and emotionally appealing. It is comforting to believe that nature could maintain and repair herself if only humans would stop meddling in her affairs. Unfortunately, this belief is outdated, has been rejected by modern ecologists, and is simply wrong. Policies based on the balance of nature ideology are ineffective and counterproductive; western environmental philosophies based on these outdated, romantic, even religious assumptions are misleading. That does not change the fact, however, that the balance of nature belief is alive and thriving in the United States among university students, the general public, political activists, and politicians.
Furthermore, balance of nature solutions (also called "steady- state" solutions) to environmental challenges are presently at work throughout all of modern U.S. environmental law and policy. Reading the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, or any other major environmental law quickly shows that it is based on equilibrium ecology, which is another term for the balance of nature. Ecologist Norman Christensen, Dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, wrote that such laws are based on "the idea that systems tend toward these stable end points and that they are regulated by complex feedbacks — a sort of balance of nature that is almost Aristotelian."
Environmental Political Entrepreneurship
A second major theme that drives our analysis is political entrepreneurship. Environmental preservation is a fundamentally political enterprise. Legislation, regulation, policies, and evaluations are political actions. We suggest that their outcomes might be better understood if we use the lens of political entrepreneurship.
In 2012 we attended public meetings for President Obama's proposed solar energy zones on public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The zones would supposedly allow for expedited review and approval of solar energy farms. Opponents of the solar energy zones outnumbered proponents by a wide margin, and some members of the public who were attending the meeting were highly emotional. Most of those who spoke were in favor of solar energy in principle, but not in the particular areas proposed by the Obama administration. Speakers opposed a solar energy zone in the Wah Wah Valley in Utah, for example, because it would destroy pristine views. Dark skies proponents opposed sites in central Arizona because of their possible effects on stargazing. Impacts to desert tortoise habitat and fragile ecosystems were stated as reasons for opposing proposed sites in California. Almost everyone at these meetings claimed to be a stakeholder representing some portion of the public interest. A few people spoke out against the proposed solar sites as representing a silly infatuation with an inefficient and therefore wasteful technology. The BLM employees listened politely.
The conversation at the solar energy zone hearing included references to unspoiled ecosystems, pristine landscapes, the balance of nature, and endangered and threatened species such as the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, flat-tailed horned lizard, golden eagle, desert bighorn, and desert tortoise. Later, the Western Lands Project filed a protest with the U.S. Department of the Interior claiming the solar zones would destroy "one of the last remaining floristic frontiers in the United States" and called the proposal to establish solar energy zones as "taking the least enlightened path possible, while attempting to create the illusion of innovation and progress."
The solar energy zone conversation illustrates how political activists attempt to capture policy processes to achieve their goals. Politicians, political appointees, bureaucrats, and members of organized interest groups evoke emotions and make claims about the public interest to promote their agendas. Paradoxically, their efforts result in legislation and regulation that are often designed (unintentionally or even intentionally) to fail. Sometimes the failure results from legislation and ensuing regulation based on ecologically incorrect assumptions and insufficient knowledge. Alternatively or even concurrently, the legislation is the result of a process that allows narrow interests to trump more general interests. This process is known as political entrepreneurship.
We use the term entrepreneur broadly to mean homo agens (the human actor) who "possesses the propensity to pursue goals effectively, once ends and means are clearly identified, but also possesses the alertness to identify which ends are to be sought and what means are available." Political entrepreneurial behavior is "alertness to unnoticed opportunities to achieve policy outcomes." For example, an astute political entrepreneur from an environmental advocacy group may claim in a comment on a National Environmental Policy Act document that impacts to a species have been inadequately analyzed. The resulting reanalysis will cost the project money and may delay its implementation until the analysis is deemed acceptable. Thus, the entrepreneur has achieved an outcome (time delay and cost increases) that may please his or her constituency.
Defining political entrepreneurship as alertness to unnoticed opportunities spreads the area of focus from just the study of heroic figures such as John Muir or Theodore Roosevelt to include bureaucrats, political appointees, members of interest groups or think tanks, and interested individuals. Political entrepreneurs can be those who advocate for proposals as well as those who attempt to block them. Political scientist John Kingdon sums up our notion of political entrepreneurship nicely. He said political entrepreneurs "invest their resources — time, energy, reputation, and sometimes money — in the hope of a future return." We would add that the "future return" might be to preserve the status quo.
Just as ecosystems are characterized by competition, disturbance, and succession as organisms attempt to succeed and even thrive, politics is a struggle by competing interest groups and individuals such as Muir, Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold to impose their ideals on the rest of society. Political scientist Robert A. Dahl summarized the process years ago: "The making of government policy is not a majestic march of great majorities united upon certain matters of policy. It is the steady appeasement of relatively small groups." "The people" do not create environmental legislation. Organized groups do, sometimes achieving private gains at the public expense. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, explained part of what is going on:
Beneath the invocations of the spiritual and transcendental value of untrammeled nature is an argument for using landscapes for some things and not others: hiking trails rather than roads, science stations rather than logging operations, and hotels for eco-tourists instead of homes. By removing long-established human communities, erecting hotels in their stead, removing unwanted species while supporting more desirable species, drilling wells to water wildlife, and imposing fire management that mixes control with prescribed burns, we create parks that are no less human constructions than Disneyland.
The "Disneylands" created by these political processes come at someone's expense, but seldom at the expense of the political entrepreneurs and their followers.
Our claims about political ecology are not new. Everyone knows that acts of Congress are political. That is why there are so many lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and state capitals. What is unique in our analysis is the emphasis on politicized or political ecology and entrepreneurship.
Chapters 2 and 3 lay out in some detail the science and politics of political ecology. Some conclusions are startling, disconcerting, and unpopular: stopping logging in the Pacific Northwest will not restore the forests to their pre-Columbian state; saving an endemic species makes little biological sense; nature must be managed; ecosystems (however defined) are not delicately balanced; today's ecosystems did not result from nature "taking its course"; American ecosystems were not in a state of equilibrium when European settlers arrived; and the ecology of our landscapes is more complex and reliant on human intervention than originally thought. The idea that nature has an idealized and balanced state is mythology. Although many scientists no longer promote the balance of nature, environmental organizations still find it useful, and our environmental laws are still predicated on it.
In Chapter 4 we reflect on the politics of defining terms like nature, wilderness, and natural. "Nature undisturbed" has been a useful myth for political entrepreneurs for many decades. As we will see in more detail throughout other chapters, it justified and animated a long-term political movement to preserve nature, to return much of the United States to an invented state of natural balance, and to create a host of federal laws and subsequent regulations.
Chapters 5 through 9 apply our political ecology analysis to major U.S. environmental legislation: the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Wilderness Act. Chapter 10 is a case study in the political uses of renewable energy legislation. These chapters review history, assumptions, and especially the opportunities for political entrepreneurship in how legislation was created and then applied.
Chapter 11 lays out some basic ideas for redesigning environmental policies. We recognize that political pressures work against such redesign, but we remain pragmatically hopeful.
Finally, we have included an appendix that reviews the history of public land management. It provides background for Chapters 5 to 9 but, unlike those chapters, does not concentrate on a single legislative act.CHAPTER 2
IN HIS BOOK about the relationships between humans and nature, ecologist Daniel Botkin explains that ecologists and other environmental scientists reject the balance of nature or steady-state assumption. He claims, however, that "models, theory, management policies, recommendations, etc., in ecology assume that ecosystems and species are in a steady state and will never change, period." He continues,
If you ask ecologists whether nature is always constant, they will always say, 'No, of course not.' But if you ask them to write down a policy for biological conservation or any kind of environmental management, they will almost always write down a steady-state solution.
Although environmental science may reject the balance of nature ideology (while supporting laws based in it), the general public tends to accept it wholeheartedly. A 2007 study of undergraduate students in the United States showed they "believe this term is descriptive of real ecological systems." In addition, the students continue to believe in the balance of nature even after taking courses in environmental science.
In his book about "reinventing nature," William Cronon claims, "Many popular ideas about the environment are premised on the conviction that nature is a stable, holistic, homeostatic community capable of preserving its natural balance more or less indefinitely if only humans can avoid 'disturbing it.'" This assumption, which he calls "problematic," descends from the work of botanist Frederic Edward Clements, for whom the "landscape is a balance of nature, a steady-state condition maintained so long as every species remains in place."
Central to this belief is the presumption that nature is highly structured, ordered, and regulated and that disturbed ecosystems will return to their original state once the disturbance ceases. This view of nature is an integral part of successional theory, in which species are thought to replace one another in ordered procession culminating in climax communities. It continues to animate many modern activists. On the World Wildlife Fund's website, for example, there is a section titled "Ecological Balance" that contains the following text:
Ecological balance has been defined by various online dictionaries as "a state of dynamic equilibrium within a community of organisms in which genetic, species and ecosystem diversity remain relatively stable, subject to gradual changes through natural succession" and "A stable balance in the numbers of each species in an ecosystem."
The next paragraph begins, "The most important point being that the natural balance in an ecosystem is maintained."
Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, is perhaps most responsible for popularizing the idea of a balance of nature. Although she noted that "the balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment," she also claimed that it is no more possible to ignore the balance of nature than a "man perched on the edge of a cliff" can defy the "law of gravity." Silent Spring promoted the notion that a delicate and static balance of nature stands in danger of being upset by humans. Carson claimed that it took "eons of time" for life to reach "a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings."
A belief in a balance of nature gives a strong moral context to environmental protection. From Rachel Carson to Barry Commoner (who famously said, "everything is connected to everything else"), the Club of Rome, Al Gore, and the deep ecologists, there is not only an acceptance that a balance of nature exists but also a belief that upsetting the balance of nature is morally wrong.
Excerpted from Nature Unbound by Randy T Simmons, Ryan M. Yonk, Kenneth J. Sim. Copyright © 2016 Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 Politics, Ecology, and Entrepreneurship,
2 Political Ecology,
3 Environmental Political Entrepreneurship,
4 The Politics of Nature,
5 The Clean Air Act,
6 The National Environmental Policy Act,
7 The Clean Water Act,
8 The Endangered Species Act,
9 The Wilderness Act,
10 Renewable Energy Legislation,
Appendix: Federal Land Policy,
About the Authors,
Other Books by the Authors,
Praise for Nature Unbound,
About the Independent Institute,
Independent Studies in Political Economy,