Think Local, Act Local

By Teles, Steven | New Statesman (1996), August 22, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Think Local, Act Local

Teles, Steven, New Statesman (1996)

US environmentalists are shifting their focus. Give people more power, they argue, and they will use it to create a greener community

Somewhere near the top of new Labour's conceptual heap are the themes of decentralisation and environmentalism. At first blush this might seem problematic. After all, despite the appeal of environmentalists to "think globally, act locally", the former injunction typically overwhelms the latter. Environmentalists tend to organise on a national or supra-national level, and to think primarily about problems that mirror their level of organisation. So what, if anything, does decentralisation have to do with environmentalism?

Quite a bit. Despite the overwhelming attention that global issues such as climate change receive in the media and in intergovernmental forums, the number of environmental issues that are local both in their effects and in their causes is significant. Moreover, there is a serious case to be made that the environmental issues which really matter to people are not the ones discussed between nations, but those of a more local character.

While metropolitan elites tend to be driven into environmentalism by "state-of-the-planet" concerns, most people are more concerned with whether the building they work in is making them sick or the lake they fish in is polluted.

As environmentalism matures, its politics needs to change. In the early days the level of government at which issues were addressed seemed like a side issue. But there are costs to the convenient nationalisation or globalisation of environmental issues that activists typically advocate. Some are environmental, since broad-brush national rules and regulations may incur costs and prevent bargains that can be struck when the jurisdictional canvas is smaller. But the most important costs are political, bearing on how citizens interact with the environment and the political system that is meant to protect it.

In America, after two decades of possibly justifiable centralisation in environmental policy, the voices for decentralisation are beginning to get a more serious hearing. This is in part because many of those calling for more localism in environmental politics have good records of concern for nature. But it is also a result of experience. It is becoming clear that, under the right circumstances, greater local control of environmental policy can yield significant environmental gains while injecting more rationality into how decisions are made, and engaging a greater range of actors in civic life.

This school of thought, whose leaders include Professor Marc Landy of Boston College, Debra Knopman of the Progressive Foundation and DeWitt John of the National Academy of Public Administration, has been called democratic or civic environmentalism. Dewitt John is author of a key text Civic Environmentalism. These ideas may hold lessons for new Labour as it tries to reconcile the various strands of its political philosophy.

The fundamental assumption of civic environmentalism is that the legitimacy question in environmental politics is over. Just as the level of employment, the quality of education or the standard of medical care are permanent issues of modern politics, so, too, is the environment. We are all green now, at least in principle. Companies have found that a good environmental image has ramifications for their bottom line, and politicians across the spectrum find they need to demonstrate their eco-credentials.

But this acceptance of the legitimacy of environmentalism is Janus-faced in its consequences. While environmentalists don't have to argue that the "environment" should be protected, they do need to argue that particular "threats" to it are in fact as bad as they say they are, and that resources are better spent alleviating them than on other matters of public concern. As Gregg Easterbrook argues in A Moment on the Earth, we are entering a post-ideological environmental age.

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