New Thinking on Environmental Policy

Published February 1, 2003

Environmental policymaking in the United States is dominated by a mistaken focus on big-culprit, big-ticket, and big-government solutions.

While disputes over large-scale environmental questions grab the headlines, they obscure the fact that both sides of the environmental debate are missing important national realities. For example, a leading cause of water quality problems is not some industrial behemoth, but “nonpoint source” pollution–i.e., individual polluters, the tens of millions of us who fertilize our gardens or change the oil in our cars.

Civic Environmentalism Needed

It recognizes that “the environment” is not a special realm reserved for experts and professional activists, but an essential aspect of public life–a place for citizens. That kind of thinking may be anathema to the big environmental groups, but it’s the only effective approach to today’s diffuse, varied, and highly local ecological challenges.

Civic environmentalism is a new approach to solving environmental problems. It combines the most effective elements of command-and-control regulation and free-market environmentalism. While regulation succeeds in focusing attention on a particular problem and setting national standards for environmental protection, it often fails to craft effective, cost-minimizing solutions. The free-market approach encourages the most flexible, specialized fixes, but often distributes environmental protection unevenly.

Civic environmentalism would incorporate market-oriented policies to encourage private property owners to contribute to the public good of environmental protection. The approach is designed to provide greater levels of accountability at the local level while allowing better environmental protection at lower costs than federal regulation. Civic environmentalism synthesizes the strengths of the federal government in making environmental policy and the unique abilities of state and local governments.

Web of Regulation

Today, environmental policy is dominated by a network of national “command-and-control” regulations issuing from the centralized policymaking machinery of Washington. This web of regulation, growing over the course of more than three decades, has steadily strangled the ability of responsible citizens to work together to improve the environment. Too often, “grassroots” efforts now mean nothing more than lobbying the federal government. Individual initiatives are confined to symbolic efforts to “save the Earth.” In fact, however, “the environment” is not a special realm reserved for experts and professional activists, but an essential aspect of public life–a place for citizens.

Recognizing this fact, civic environmentalism asks people to think locally and act locally. It claims that serious and responsible deliberation in communities and states, mobilizing the efforts of as many citizens as possible, can improve environmental quality and civic life. This emphasis on local, citizen mobilization is uniquely adapted to meeting today’s complex environmental issues.

In giving real people real authority to do real things, civic environmentalism taps a remarkable resource: local knowledge. In 1995, after decades of failing with a “top-down” approach to managing its valuable lobster habitat, the state of Maine finally empowered lobstermen, through local councils, to develop fishing rules. In two years, the lobstermen settled questions that had been argued in the state legislature for 30 years–setting trap limits that are in almost all cases lower than the state maximum.

Civic environmentalism accepts that there are important matters about which people can reasonably disagree. It does not promise specific ecological outcomes, nor does it guarantee we’ll save money … although it does make it more difficult to implement million-dollar solutions to $100,000 problems. What it does promise is to produce results communities will stand by.

This is especially important as we enter today’s new, more local phase in environmental policy, from nonpoint pollution control to regional ecosystem issues. The federal government cannot control these activities alone. Building effective solutions requires the work of communities and networks of communities in true partnership with national action.

Jeff Kueter is executive director of the George Marshall Institute.