The Monolith and the Planet
In 2007, House Democrate Ron Kind attempted to push a bill that aimed to reform farm subsidies. The time seemed right: public awareness had been growing about the incredible strain caused on both the earth and its people by industrial farming, which was kept afloat by governmental subsidies. The organic movement was resurging, health food stores popping up everywhere, and books about food, such as Michael Pollans Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, had people squirming at their dinner table. It was clear: people wanted some change.
Change didn’t come. The bill was crushed. What passed instead was a bill crafted to benefit the large food corporations and buy off opposing factions (see TIME’s Why Our Farm Policy is Failing). Years later we still find ourselves demanding change with increased effort; change that has yet to come.
This pattern is one that most people involved or interested in environmental policy are all too familiar with. Its happened over and over again with chemicals, genetically modified foods, carbon cap-and-trade bills, wildlife protection efforts — the good will and desire to protect and sustain this beautiful planet comes at odds with the complicated world of politics. In the end, it seems that, when things do get done, they are mere shadows of the original intentions.
It is easy to lament this ravaged planet, filled with so many people who want to take care of it but who can’t or struggle to because of this large monolith we call our government.
In order to be effective in our efforts for change, we need to come to some understanding of the subtleties of environmental policy. Bettering our knowledge of politics, and understanding opposition to change, will enable us to better fight to protect this planet. Hopefully this article can provide some insights on how to begin.
The Complexities of Environmental Policy
Why is environmental policy so difficult? Granted, all democratic actions are difficult; it is the nature of democracy to sort through the opinions of the vast majority and, through the process of compromise and allowance, come to a mutually suitable action.
Environmental policy is particularly difficult because it is so far reaching and encompasses so many different conflicting worldviews. Actions that are aimed to protect the environment require modifications and restrictions to people’s every day lives. Regulations can often be costly and invasive. Though these regulations may have benefits, those are often unclear or will only be seen some time in the future.
Likewise, the need for policies to protect the environment is not entirely clear to everyone. It is by far easier to see how policies restrict oneself from something than it is to see how one’s actions is helping destroy the planet. In environmental terms, this is known as the "tragedy of the commons," an idea first coined by Garrent Hardin, or by the economic term "externalities."
Both of these concepts point to the same thing: when we are living, producing, and "developing" our world, we cause unintended consequences that are difficult to see. Things that are held in common, such as the sky, rivers, oceans, wildlife, or the sun’s energy, are used without consideration by all. They are viewed as limitless resources and everyone tries to use these "free" resources to their advantage. In the end, the commons are depreciated and we all are worse off for it.
Externalities are the reason why we need government action but it is also why the action is so difficult to approve. Cutting people off from those "commons" by limiting what they can consume, waste, or effect requires an inconvenient, sometimes massive adjustment. It hurts business, it limits freedom, and it often has unintended side effects, such as less, more expensive food–and therefore some people will be impacted negatively.
These complexities are what we face every time we try to institute or fight for a new environmental regulation.
There is a process to handle the difficulties of environmental policy that has been worked out over the past century. It is not perfect and it is ever changing. In the remaining sections of this article I will explore some of these aspects:
This post is part of the series: How Environmental Policy is Made
- How Environmental Policy is Made: Introduction
- How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 2, History of Environmental and Science Policy
- How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 3, Key Players
- How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 4, Process
- How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 5, Role Of Science
- How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 6, Problems and Hurdles