debating civic environmentalism

Yesterday, I helped to lead a kind of seminar for Tufts faculty at TELI, the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute. We assigned chapter 9 of Mark Sagoff’s Price, Principle, and the Environment, which is entitled “The View from Quincy Library or Civic Engagement in Environmental Problem Solving.” Mark Sagoff tells a great story about a group of citizens–environmentalists, loggers, and others–in a small California forest town who met in the library because people are not allowed to shout there, worked out a management plan for the surrounding National Forest, got it passed as an act of Congress, and were criticized by the national environmental groups (see a collection of documents, here). The legislation was never implemented because of litigation.

We divided the Tufts faculty into two groups to debate–literally–the pros and cons of civic environmentalism as represented by Quincy Library. The debate focused mostly on scale, and whether it is better to set policy at the local or national level. Expertise also came up, because experts tend to work at the national level and laypeople dominate at the local level. Each side cited this difference in its own favor.

I see some other important issues in the Quincy Library Case. Above all, the national policy debate involves corporations and nonprofit groups, each of which has a fiduciary obligation to seek certain kinds of outcomes. Because they have opposing goals, they are drawn to litigation or constant lobbying over legislative amendments. They are better off with unresolved issues than with compromises, because they can keep on fighting as long as there is no resolution. And they use science strategically, commissioning and highlighting scientific findings that benefit their cause.

In contrast, people came together in Quincy Library as citizens with a problem–the forest was liable to go up in flames any day. Although they differed in values and interests, their differences did not define them. After all, they had overlapping as well as contrasting interests. Thus they had incentives to deliberate, i.e., to discuss values and goals, including aesthetic and moral ones as well as the purely means/ends reasoning that science can handle. They reached consensus. That was not inevitable, but they had a motive to try, which is not the case in the national debate.

I could take the critical side in the debate. I would note that the Quincy Library plan was only acceptable because national environmental laws had stymied loggers and forced them to the negotiating table. I might assert the right of American citizens who live elsewhere to influence their National Forest in California. And I might observe that certain issues–such as climate change–are of overwhelming importance and need to be settled by adversarial politics, command-and-control regulation, and science. Yet I think we are unlikely to see good policies at the national and international level until people can do their own civic work to defend the local environment, as they tried to do in Quincy.

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