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Alternative Culture Magazine

Environmental Democracy: The Missing Agenda

A review of the current state of environmental politics, with its multitude of crises and grim projections, shows one issue at the core: the crisis of democracy. In British Columbia, an unsustainable assault on the forests now threatens domestic watersheds throughout the province. Policy makers, here as elsewhere in North America and the world, continue to push the corporate agenda, deaf to majority opposition voiced at the local level.

Behind the scenes of daily destruction, legislation favoring sustainable ecosystems is quietly blocked or overriden. The government offers public input processes that are nothing more than public relations shams, where concerned citizens are invited to view "development" plans, or wooed into conference rooms to hear assurances from panels of bureaucrats and hired experts. The result, for participants in such processes everywhere, is worse than the mere sense of having negliglible effect: it is being numbed by an oppressive powerlessness.

Grassroots resistance movements are having little effect with direct action tactics, because these movements have been marginalized in the public mind, thanks to their portrayal as a media circus, or worse, as acts of "eco-terrorism." The result is swift "justice" by the police and court system, with charges ranging from criminal mischief or civil liability, to contempt of court for challenging injunctions illegally made against the public at large (as in B.C.'s Clayoquot trials).

Arrests can number in the hundreds or thousands, and still the general public is muted. Why? Because we are disenfranchised by a political system which is heavily weighted to favor corporate and industrial interests. We have come to expect that our ecological concerns, regardless of their scientific underpinnings, will be swept aside, and that our democratic initiatives will be ignored. The long-term public good is not even "on the table" for discussion. And so, as long as there is no change in the dominant structure of power, there appears to be little prospect for positive change on the environmental issues we debate so passionately. The solution for this crisis might be found, however, in a political movement that can transform our fundamental frustration into a vision for change.

Can the Green parties hope to change the balance of power in the political system through their participation in it? Perhaps, if the focus on "environmental democracy" were identified and articulated as a prime target. Present Green party policies, however, downplay this most crucial issue in favor of the usual list of specific environmental crises and proposed remedies.

A great many voters, cutting across all party lines, desire local control and use over resources. This focus on the economic health of local communities was promised in the disastrous "land-use planning strategies" across B.C. However, all these plans are really made at the expense of environmental interests, of true economic sustainability, and of local decision-making. What about communities who choose to engage in economic activities that do not depend on the continued mis-"use of local resources"?

It's conceivable that the best option for us (the public), at this late date in political and environmental history, is to turn the dinosaur of top-down government on its head. To embrace such a position, a political party needs to trust people to make the best ecological decisions in their local areas, and to give them the power to make those decisions. This issue needs to be fleshed out as an election platform in itself.

What measure of protection might the provincial or national governments assert over local resource and development initiatives? What protection can local communities have from the encroachment of outside private and corporate interests into their local lands? What kinds of international and intergovernmental cooperation are needed to care for environmental problems that cross jurisdictional lines? These problems are formidable, as are the problems outlined on an issue-by-issue basis in the current platform of the Green Party of Canada. Who has the legitimate right to make decisions? By default, we Canadians give primary weight to the historic right of the Crown to pronounce law. However, more recently the Crown breaches these laws (e.g., B.C. Forest Practices Code) and gives an unfair advantage to the financial powers to influence the lawmakers--and public opinion itself, through the media--in their favour. Is there not another legitimate source of power, in local communities, which since the era of nation-states has been disenfranchised?

Why not seek a balance of advantages in a new formula of power-sharing? We offer the following model as an example of a power-sharing arrangement that would honour local concerns foremost, while concurrently allowing for the checking influence of larger spheres of influence.

Imagine a series of five concentric circles, with the local Community at the center. Moving out, we find the level of the Region (or Bioregion), the Province/State, the Nation, and the Globe. For an appropriate formula describing the diminishing influence of power, we use the one that governs nature: the inverse-square rule. This rule applies to such environmental staples as gravity, heat, and light. As the distance increases, the intensity of influence diminishes by an inverse of the square of the distance. This sounds more complicated than it is. The model proposed here simply uses the number of rings instead of distance. So, the Region, at ring 2, has an influence of one divided by two squared, or 1/4. The Province, at ring 3, has an influence of 1/9. To summarize in table form:

Concentric Ring Locality Influence on Decision-making
Proportion %
Community 1/2 54
Region 1/4 25
Province/State 1/9 11
Nation 1/16 6
Globe 1/25 4

Totals 1/1 100

Note that the communities' power share (54%) is what is left after the other shares are subtracted from 100%. What could be more natural, as a way of determining proper "spheres of influence," than universal physical laws of nature?

As a further way of giving value to participation at all levels, the above percentages could be broken down to reflect proportional opinion at each level. So when a community is divided on an issue, the minority positons could still carry their portion of the Community Level's 54% into the total tally. On a global issue, such as ozone depletion, the overall formula could be reversed to give the largest share of power (54%) to the global community.

There is more that can be added to the model to make it effective: new and modified decision making structures, voting mechanisms, determination and coordination of overlapping interests and inputs. The effort would be well spent because, once in place, a proper decision-making model would let the nested levels of concern take care of the weight of policy-making that currently occupies political parties. That current effort is now wasted using nebulous terms of accountability, legitimacy, and environmental sustainability, when, in the end, the shots are really being called by remote political, financial and industrial interests that are leading human societies to suicide.

The really basic question still needing answers is, how can we make the vision of local decision-making a reality? Green Parties may eventually gain public favour with their advocacy of environmental solutions. We would suggest that an even larger portion of public support is available immediately: that oppressed part of all of us which would love to be able to say, for once: "My voice matters. The wishes of my community will be respected in the place where I live".

By Nowick Gray (Kootenay Lake North Arm Watershed Alliance)

and Rick Zammuto (B.C. Green Party Forest Critic)

--April 1997

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