The Principle of Compromise

Everyone understands that the vast majority of environmental policies in this country are a result of compromise and bargaining. But while this situation may be widely acknowledged, it is not as widely approved of. The rhetoric and even the expectations of many environmental activists are premised on the existence of clear-cut solutions to environmental problems ? solutions that can and should be readily implemented. Against the clarity and urgency of these solutions, compromise appears necessary due only to ?politics? in a pejorative sense ? that is to say, to the intrusion of passions and interests into a properly rational decisionmaking process. Yet for civic environmentalism to be civic in a serious sense, it ought to have a different set of expectations about the politics ? and therefore come to some different judgments about the way things do work and should work.

Politics exist because of human diversity. We don?t all want the same things, in the same way, or to the same degree. Politics is a way of settling conflicts that arise, and of adjusting the terms by which we live in common, in ways that are less likely to produce unwanted conflict. From this point of view, compromise and bargaining are the essential means by which policy will be determined, not unfortunate intrusions. Despotism and anarchy are equally antipolitical.

As Bertrand de Jouvenel has pointed out, the very fact that public policies arise from highly divergent points of view means that there will be no solutions to political problems, only temporary settlements. Indeed, speaking of ?solutions? to environmental problems is a kind of category mistake. It treats environmental problems as if they were problems in mathematics or engineering: if we know the right technique, or if we have the proper information, we can find a finite and definitive solution. Of course, environmental policies do have large scientific and technical components, and it is absolutely necessary to develop policies with the best such information available ? including knowledge of the disagreements on the science. But at root, environmental problems are political problems, involving divergent priorities and diverse or competing visions of the kind of world we want to live in.

A Real Alternative

Advocates of civic environmentalism share the thought that it provides a real alternative to the centralized, ?one size fits all,? command-and-control model that has dominated environmental policy to date. The justification for and advantages of appropriate, decentralized, heterogeneous, and less coercive mechanisms of policymaking, however, only become clear when linked with a proper understanding of politics.

Compromises are more readily accepted when they clearly show a consideration of different outlooks, and that is more likely the smaller the scope. Bargains and compromises made in the narrowest appropriate sphere are more likely to satisfy the diverse elements that must go into reaching any such settlement, and likewise provide the most ready ability to watch for any need to reopen a topic. Civic environmentalism would be a poor thing if it simply advocated allowing states and local governments to tinker with national mandates, or substituted local tyrannies of the majority for national authority. The goal, rather, is environmental policies that embody the appropriate diversities of local civic cultures as well as natural places.

Seen thus, civic environmentalism need not simply be a new tool to solve environmental problems or a new vision tying concern for civic welfare with concern for nature. It is a way of accepting diversity as a fact of human life, rather than trying to find ways around it. The civil expression of even strong disagreement may be the best expression of civic environmentalism.

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