Civic Environmentalism

By John, Dewitt | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Civic Environmentalism


John, Dewitt, Issues in Science and Technology


Informal, local cooperative efforts should replace federal regulation in resolving many environmental controversies.

This should have been the year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became a cabinet-level agency and when four of EPA's seven major statutes were reauthorized. But a revolt against top-down, fragmented regulation has erupted, and these bills have run into roadblocks.

Support for traditional ways of protecting the environment has been eroding for some time. The public has not turned away from green values; polls continue to show strong support for tough standards and a widespread concern about threats to environmental quality. The crisis of confidence is not one of whether to protect the environment but of how to do it.

The search for alternatives to the entrenched approach has produced a promising new model of environmental governance called civic environmentalism. It features an emphasis on dealing with problems at state and local levels and involves a political process in which divergent values are recognized and many individuals and organizations work collaboratively to forge balanced, comprehensive solutions.

Civic environmentalism will not supplant the traditional federal command-and-control regulatory approach, which Is still needed. Already, however, it has proved valuable in resolving problems not easily dealt with by blunt federal regulatory power. The challenge will be to integrate this new approach into the day-to-day workings of EPA and other federal agencies in which traditional regulation is deeply rooted. It will not be easy.

Past as prelude

For the past two decades, environmental policy has been structured around federal statutes. These laws--the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, various wilderness acts, the Toxic Substances Control Act, Superfund, and so forth--have two critical features. First, they are fragmented. Each addresses individual species, pollutants, or forms of pollution and are backed by different constellations of interest groups. Second, they are top-down. They try to provide uniform national solutions, although without reducing state or local power. States implement most federal statutes, and they can set even tougher standards. Because environmental policy has relied so heavily on regulation, its politics has been highly adversarial.

Three policy alternatives exist. Two are familiar: a top-down, comprehensive approach (rational environmentalism) and a bottom-up, fragmented orientation (populist environmentalism). The third alternative--civic environmentalism--takes a bottom-up, comprehensive approach. It uses new tools to address new kinds of problems, and it involves a new kind of environmental politics.

The best example of a top-down, comprehensive, rationalist approach is the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal officials to consider the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of decisions before they act. This is fine in principle, but an impact statement cannot bind all of the decisionmakers who must be involved in order to implement a comprehensive strategy.

Rational environmentalism can work in some situations. The World Bank is in a relatively strong position to frame broad policy guidelines for developing countries and to insist that they be adhered to. Homogeneous nations with a strong central tradition can also write comprehensive legislation with real bite. However, in a dynamic, diverse, market-oriented country such as the United States, the most useful function of rational environmentalism is to provide an analytical framework that helps decisionmakers understand their part in the broader picture. It provides vision, but little action.

The United States is also home to a vigorous tradition of bottom-up, single-issue, populist environmental activities. In the first years after Earth Day 1970, the slogan was "think globally; act locally. …

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