“Beyond Backyard Environmentalism” is more a wishful fantasy than a true analysis of any reorientation in environmental regulation. The authors portray a world in which win-win situations abound, limited only by our willingness to build partnerships and work together through a participatory dialogue. Reality, unfortunately, is not that simple. In making the case that we are moving into this new paradigm, Sabel, Fung, and Karkkainen prematurely reject valuable regulatory programs, mischaracterize the programs used as examples, and misunderstand the motives of well-intentioned citizens whose families and livelihoods are threatened by “progress.”

After centuries of human impacts on the American environment, it is premature to label three-decade-young “traditional regulations” a failure. The need for, much less the emergence of, the “new approach” described by Sabel, Fung, and Karkkainen to replace the current regulatory approach is not recognized by the majority of public interest advocates. Participation by many organizations in these dialogues indicates a need for public involvement. But that does not mean that citizens no longer value more traditional approaches.

Conversely, corporate involvement in, and even initiation of, participatory programs likely does signify an interest in a new approach to regulation. The regulated community has spent billions of dollars to comply with environmental statutes, and millions more to undermine them. A new, non-regulatory approach could help achieve the primary goal of corporations: to minimize costs and maximize profits.

Most environmental advocates would agree that the effectiveness of an environmental program depends primarily on its achievement of environmental goals. Using the authors’ examples, one must ask: Did the TRI or TURA reduce toxic chemical use? Did the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) increase the quality of the Bay? These programs, among others, can be placed on a 1 to 10 scale. Effective programs such as the Clean Water Act’s water quality permitting program are closest to 10; TURA outranks TRI somewhere in the mid-range; and the Chesapeake Bay Program and Habitat Conservation Plans fall somewhere near the low end of the scale.

Through their initiation of public accountability, TURA and TRI are credited with stimulating a reduction of toxic chemical use and release. A closer look at these programs, however, fails to illustrate large-scale reductions resulting from participatory dialogue. In actuality, each of these laws relies heavily on what the authors refer to as “centralized command regulation.” In addition to the fact that TRI has mandatory reporting requirements, much of its perceived success has been attributed to co-existing regulations. For example, large reductions in TRI releases, while indirectly stimulated by public awareness, came about due to mandatory phase-outs of chlorinated fluorocarbons. Other reductions touted as successes in TRI are even less impressive paper reductions, resulting from changes in estimation procedures, or through chemical companies’ successful attempts at chemical delisting.1

Most improvements in the Chesapeake Bay are attributable not to the Bay Program, but to the Clean Water Act permitting program, bans on phosphate detergents enacted by state governments in spite of staunch industry opposition, and sewage treatment plant upgrades.2 None of these efforts boast the type of participatory, non-regulatory process that the authors espouse. Stripping citizens of a regulatory system inflicts a handicap that could only lead to negative consequences for the environment.

The concept of citizen involvement is actually more of a historical construct than a new development. As government evolved, citizens were appointed to serve as environmental stewards and, notably, were compensated for their time. Sabel, Fung, and Karkkainen do not envision compensating today’s citizen stewards for the time and effort expended in the new system they describe–as a result, it confers what corporate lobbyists would call an unfunded mandate. Apparently, the authors envision a shift from citizens trained, compensated, and empowered to act as stewards to a decision-making citizenry that is disempowered, financially strapped, and as such at a severe disadvantage.

This is not fiction. Well-intentioned citizens of my parents’ generation are often invited to the table without any resources to cover their travel or their time, and without support for outside technical assistance. They sit beside high-paid corporate lawyers and engineers, and are expected to out-argue the lawyers and out-engineer the engineers. How could our parents be expected to provide better service to their neighbors in the absence of federal regulations than the federal government provides? Such citizen panels are more likely to serve as smoke screens than as effective advocates. Who better understands complex technical issues–your mother, or the scientists paid by the public to protect them?

In this light, the “participatory approaches” touted by the authors may instead be just another method for corporations to avoid regulations that were developed for the common good but limit the extent to which costs can be externalized and profits maximized. (The new-found prominence of these approaches could also be explained by the influence of campaign financing.) Equally unfortunate, there may be a limit to the endurance of principled, poorly-compensated, and in many ways altruistic citizens. The emergence of these programs is more likely the result of a combination of these factors than of a common belief in the benefits of such efforts.

The proposed shift towards participatory decision-making, which the authors tout as an improvement while admitting it is improbable, stands as a rejection of laws designed for the common good, and a shift away from compensating stewards of the common good. At the same time, it preserves, and even expands, the rights of corporations and individuals to externalize costs in pursuit of profit. The authors suggest that this concept is counter-intuitive. Its environmental benefits also are highly questionable. After hundreds of years of environmental degradation on our finite planet, where the impact of population growth and resource extraction are becoming ever more clear, our hard-won regulatory system should be allowed to work.

 

Notes

1 The Chemical Manufacturers’ Association simultaneously touts Responsible Care and lobbies to weaken the TRI.

2There are other examples. For instance, the benefits of the sulfur dioxide trading program were largely attributable to increased availability of low-sulfur coal.