Governing the Ecological Society


In this video we’re going to think about ways to govern the ecological society. We’ll start the conversation by thinking about bottom-up and top-down approaches. When we talk about bottom-up approaches what we’re really talking about are organizing the grassroots, or getting everyday people to become mobilized to take action. When we looked at the environmental movement that’s sort of exactly what we were talking about. That kind of solution can be effective, it’s entirely driven by agency and is not necessarily structural. If it’s successful it can lead to structural changes, and in fact, I think that’s what has happened when we talk about top-down approaches or the change from above instead of from below. What we’re talking about is governance and governance can mean many different levels: the local, the state, the national, and in fact, even something at the international level in the form of agreements and so forth exists. So how do we think about making changes from above? These are structural changes rather than agency based changes, and of course when you change the structure that’s going to change the types of agency, the types of decisions people can make, and therefore, the types of agency that can be exercised. There are some who advocate primarily for bottom-up approaches for a number of good reasons. It’s democratic, it’s inclusive, and involves people. But there are problems with relying only on the bottom. In other words, not having some kind of structural component in the portfolio of our ways of solving problems, and some of the problems include the difficulty involved with gathering the necessary resources, and by that we mean time and money. expertise is also sometimes in short supply when we’re just talking about everyday people, so we may need to find scientific experts and a lot of times those work for government, and not always, also universities. Bottom-up can also be divisive, even though it has the potential to be democratic and inclusive, it can go a different way if it’s not done well or done right. That can lead to divisions in the community. There’s not one local community in the world, but many, and so pluralism or this kind of diversity of values that people have can complicate the process and it can become difficult to draw boundaries around who is a relevant stakeholder, who is not. Usually it’s this part that breaks down and can lead to problems and of course if we were to rely solely on structural changes, sort of top-down change model, as was the case with the conservation movement of the early 20th century, for instance. We saw a number of problems there as well, by not involving the public there’s not a whole lot of buy-in from the public, and changes from the top can lead to foot dragging on the part of those at the bottom as a result. If you don’t really believe in the change that’s taking place why would you be motivated to participate in it? So this can also lead to a potential legitimation crisis, where the public sort of loses confidence and faith in the in the government. So what we’re talking about largely is power, right? For the bottom to have power it needs the top and for the top to have power it needs the bottom. We’re going to take a look at what each can contribute to the other. When we refer to governance we’re referring to political power that’s used to change the social structure of a society. That cannot be forced on anybody who is unwilling to accept it. Usually if there’s not public approval or acceptance of whatever kind of structural changes, be it laws or policies that are enacted, usually those tend to get reversed as the public elects and votes in new members of the Congress or presidency. The next person will represent their views perhaps. Grassroots organization arises when society exercises agency against social structure. Then oftentimes, when governance is very top- down and not inclusive or democratic, it can actually mobilize people. As they kind of lose the sense of legitimacy in the power structure. That would result in governance that ultimately changes the social structure again. That’s something we saw with the civil rights movement, as an example. So agency based approaches–here we’re talking about social movements in the context of the environment. Of course the environmental movement in all its different varieties, but usually when we’re talking about the bottom-up, grassroots environmental movement we’re talking about the one from the 70s, and then later on, in the 90s as well. So the second or third waves. To a large degree, this has relied on attitude- behavior kind of model where we try to change people’s attitudes about the environment and we hope that as a result of that attitude change that they will behave differently. The problem is that we have a lot of research on this “cognitive fix” as Heberlein calls it, has a lot of problems. There’s a disjunction between what people value and what they actually do. We’re not always completely consistent in other words, and oftentimes, we actually adjust our behavior. Well hopefully we’ll adjust are behavior to fit our beliefs. Sometimes we adjust our beliefs to fit our behavior– in other words self-justification can come into play. So the main reason is the way our lives are socially organized–way we don’t always behave as our attitudes would dictate because of the way social structures are organized and those social structures can oftentimes severely limit our choices and our agency. This the creation of new constraining influences that shape and guide our lives can have a strong influence on our behavior even when it goes against our attitudes. So the structural approach has the goal to create the kind of environmentalism you don’t have to worry about. So we don’t want to have to rely on cognition or attitude adjustments, we don’t want to have to dig into people’s value systems, and so forth. What we want to do is create a social structure that functions in such a way that it is sustainable and people don’t have to put a lot of thought into it, they just go about their daily lives and so our lifestyles are then structured by what is sustainable. Instead what we have now, is that what’s cheap and convenient is not sustainable, typically, and so we have created an arrangement, asocial structural arrangement, that promotes very unsustainable behaviors. The authors of the textbook, Bell and Ashwood, talk about virtual environmentalism and this is really what we get when we build environmentalism into the social structure. By investing in the infrastructure to support, say bike lanes, or other types of sustainable transportation, or we have forms of urban planning that promote walkability, so we’re relying less on automobile transportation. This will depend as much on our social constructions as on our material constraints and possibilities, and those social constructions– what is a city, what is nature, what is sustainable–those kind of questions need to be answered before we can start building this kind of virtual environmentalism. A big part of the package when make structural changes is considering some type of green economics in combination with some types of green politics. In a different presentation we studied the treadmill of production and some of the problems with the way our economy is organized in terms of promoting profit over environment or other social concerns, in many cases, so the idea of green economics is that we’re going to restructure the economy in such a way that it makes more profit sense, it’s more desirable to do the sustainable thing. So we’re going to rearrange the treadmills in a new way so this will require us to become critical of market- knows-best arguments. Typically the free market, unregulated, leads to monopolies, leads to profit seeking, as to be expected. That’s the main rule of the game–but oftentimes, without regulations that profit seeking is very short-sighted and can lead to long-term problems that are actually unprofitable. Unfortunately short-term decision-making tends to dominate the current economic arrangement, so green economics would would adjust that to a more long-term view. One of the key things in creating a green economy is identifying all those externalities–those things that are not built into the costs of products and services that we have in our current economy. This internalization of otherwise hidden externalities can lead to more realistic and honest pricing. That’s one thing, the other thing we can do, is we can generate green taxes. Now, of course, taxes are never very popular with anyone. You start hiking up the price of goods and services and the public is generally very unhappy and that’s why we have not seen very many of these kinds of things being enacted. But the logic is if we apply some kind of tax for those goods and services that are less sustainable, then people will choose to buy less of that and they’ll buy more of those products that are more sustainable because they won’t have these green taxes. As we said, this is problematic because the public does not always love the idea of being taxed. In fact it’s usually the opposite. Another key idea is in the notion of green economics is treating industry as part of an ecological system. The key idea here would be that pollution is a sign of inefficiency and this is very consistent with the ecological modernization logic– the notion that sustainability is actually profitability. Getting different companies to play by a new set of rules can help them to see that, and so the idea is companies will make a product and they they’ll stand by that product from the beginning to the end. Some companies do currently accept the refuse or the waste byproducts such as when you you drive a car until it breaks down. Well if a car industry’s following this model they’ll accept the broken-down vehicle and they’ll take the parts and use them, and recycle them, and then make a new car. That’s a much more sustainable model. There are some scholars such as John Bellamy Foster who contend that the problem is much deeper and requires a total systemic shift from capitalism to something else. In the case of Foster, that’s a move towards socialism because the argument is capitalism requires infinite expansion of profits and resources, and the earth of course has limited resources, so they’re incompatible systems–the economic system and our biophysical natural systems of the world. Scholars like Foster want to see a shift to socialism because it’s more sensitive to human need. If you look at this quote from Marx, the famous quote, “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs.” Of course the Devils is in the details with this whole thing. Nobody’s really sure what socialism is. It’s certainly not what happened in the Soviet Union although that was the goal, but in any case you know the real critique of this this kind of thinking is feasibility/practicality, when is this going to happen, how’s it going to happen, and is it even productive to carry on this conversation if we can’t answer any of those questions? So that’s part of the problem Governing the ecological society will entail more than just government working behind closed doors and figuring out strategies to solve problems, it’s going to require citizen involvement and indeed requires it. The good model to think about is participatory governance the idea that people have to be involved and they have to be part of the decision-making. In fact, for instance, when the EPA was evaluating the feasibility of hydrofracking they did go out and hold a lot of public meetings and try to get input from from people in society. Of course in some states they decided no, it’s not for us, and the government respected that. The state actually has final say on those kinds of things. In the state of New York for instance, even grants that down to the local level, so that each individual community can actually decide what they want to have happen. This other example of supplying water to a Costa Rican village as you’ll read in the textbook involves local people acting as equal partners in the development project in order to ensure a shared sense of ownership–a sentimental commitment to a project. So that buy-in is a big bonus when you have participatory governance. If you have some kind of top-down government dictatorship, for instance, where the people are not participating they’re not going to have any ownership or pride, in whatever kind of results come about. With green politics, when you involve the public in this kind of participatory governance structure, what you’re doing is you’re acknowledging the value of local knowledge. In the 1950s and 60s that was not really the case. The idea then was that experts would go to less developed countries, impart their knowledge on local farmers, for instance, assuming they their traditional farming methods were valueless, and that they should just adopt the new technologies and ideas of modern science. In many cases, that happened and in some cases that was actually somewhat successful, but in other cases by disregarding local knowledge, the one-size-fits-all policies of the 50s and 60s failed several people and the result was often disaster in the form of lost crops, the loss of soil fertility, deforestation, and so on. So the important idea with green politics is to throw that old model out and start giving credit to local farmers–that maybe they know something about the land they farm after all many of them have been farming this land for decades, if not centuries. Allow farmers to devise for themselves what kind of solutions are best to the local ecological, economic, cultural, and agricultural circumstances. Scientists can still be helpful, but the idea is that they’ll be having conversations and acknowledging some of the value of the knowledge those local farmers have. Finally we can talk about environmental flows. We recognize our world is one fluid world. There are political boundaries but they mean nothing when it comes to environmental concerns, so to do something in one place is probably also to do something in another. Even if one country passes a particular set of policies it can still be impacted by another country that’s upwind or upstream, so we cannot govern entirely the outcomes. We cannot govern our daily lives by considering only the local or even the national level, so there needs to be some kind of combination of thinking hear about the global level, the local level, and different levels in between, and also what we can do as individuals. Since discussions of environmental governance, or governance in general, typically bring to mind, notions of the federal government or the national government, national laws and policies, I like to stop and reflect on what can happen at the community level and give a little consideration to what community level action could actually be superior, in some ways. So community, what do we mean by that, well, we mean it in the widest sense, as we have throughout many of our our discussions and presentations from the beginning. Community is not just people, it’s the environment, it’s all the other inhabitants of the environment, the non-human animals, the nonliving things. We have a few principles to think about as we start considering ways for community action to proceed best. Those are sustainability, as we talked about in other places, environmental justice, and the rights and beauty of nature. An important question to ask here is, why the community would want to take action at the community level. The argument for it is that communities are immediately available. You can go out do things in your community, and make even significant changes in a short period of time, because you are part of the flow of that community, by interacting with other members of the community. You have closer access to officials, elected or appointed officials, who work for say, your local government, or your county government, and are very close within reach. Individuals can can mobilize at the local level and they can apply a lot of pressure to their local officials to make new policies, make changes in zoning, for instance, and those kinds of things. The individuals are the agents of Community Change and as much as communities are the agents of individual change. The thing about federal changes or global level changes, is they often seem too big. It can actually kind of discourage people trying to make those levels of changes. So instead of sitting around and waiting for the top to act, why not do something at a local level? Why community? Because individuals have more power locally than they do at the state or national level and they have more say and more political influence. We’re more likely to regard the environment, the local environment, in a more locally appropriate way when community life is organized and to think about such things. In a lot of ways the community can act as a go-between between the individual and a larger society. Wilkinson makes this case in his theory of the community field which says individuals can really only influence structure at the local level. in fact he says they have very little to no influence at all at higher levels because society is just an abstraction, whereas community is an actual thing that we participate in. Communities, however, can exert vertical influence, so your community–that is your local officials, the municipal, elected elected officials– can in fact have some say at the state level, or even at the federal level. Of course, the state can have influence at the federal level as well or the national level. So communities can exert horizontal influence on each other as well– that is mayor’s talking to each other, or city councils talking to each other. And different partnerships or alliances can form, and resources and expertise can be pooled so we’re not just limited by the size of our community. That is a big advantage. There’s also Community Development. Sometimes this is something that’s built into the local governance and sometimes it’s sort of independent but the idea is in community development, an expert of some kind is hired to facilitate, to act as an expert, or to help organize people to create changes. There’s three basic models for doing that. The first is the technical assistance approach, where experts are identified. Community development specialists will diagnose and solve the problems of a community without much community participation. In the self-help approach, involves the community in a lot of different ways, and is more focused on the process of development than on the outcome. Conflict is an approach used in community development when there’s a high level of social inequality in the community, in order to sort of level the playing field before any other action can be taken. Those are the three main approaches, and of course we could actually spend an entire semester talking about those. In fact, a course on community development is a great idea, as a kind of complement to this discussion. The competing ideas here: we look at solving things from the grassroots level or from above, the governance social structural solutions, is a competition between a conflict approach in general, not just as a community development approach, and a consensus approach which is used in self-help approach in community development. The question is, how is power already arranged, and again, if we have high levels of inequality, we have some powerful elite maybe that is calling all the shots and making top-down decisions. Now that’s one thing, and if we have a situation where power is more equitably shared across people well that’s another, The current arrangement of power is going to dictate the best way to move forward with making solutions. You also need to take a look at structural conditions. The best approach for community development is going to depend on what kind of structural conditions we’ve got, so if we have a power elite as we mentioned through the conflict kind of model, it would be more useful. If we have a more pluralist, widespread distribution of political power, then self-help is more appropriate. Generally speaking, technical assistance will complement one of those other two, it usually does not work very well on its own. When we do have emergency situations, time is very short, and things need to happen, maybe a community is facing some kind of natural disaster, well, then technical assistance may be the best choice. What research has found in practical experience and the field has found, is that depending too heavily on experts, as in the case of the technical assistance approach, can be dangerous, because it’s not democratic. If you allow experts to rule your community, you’re just creating a technocracy, so what they view as risky gets imposed on the community, and a community has little input over what types of risks it’s willing to take. Finally, we need to think about the political opportunity structure, and here the key ideas are openness, and that has to do with the decision-makers in a community. Are they willing to hear the concerns of the public? If they’re open that’s a good thing, and if they’re closed off then that might require some kind of conflict approach to resolve that. Then, there’s implementation concerns. Decision-makers can do something about the concerns that the public raises– that’s what that means. Then there’s a structure of alliances, so that means decision makers must have the freedom to act, for example, some states really limit what local governments can do while other states as I mention New York, for example, really empowers local governments to have a great deal of autonomy. Finally, stability is another key characteristics and that’s going to be related to all three of the other criteria: openness, implementation, and structure of alliances. So that’s basically it. We just took a quick little look here at how we govern the ecological society. In fact we ended up by thinking about governing the ecological community in the widest sense. Thank you for watching!