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Environmental Governance–Sustainability Approach

Posted Nov 01 2009 12:00am

Environmental concerns have become increasingly significant and there has been a call on government to help regulate the negative externalities of industry. For at least three decades the governance paradigm of command-and-control has dominated. However, new awareness of environmental issues has seen the so called first generation of governance critiqued as overly bureaucratic and adversarial in nature. As a result, there is growing emphasis on the need for a second generation of governance; a need for different approaches to environmental concerns. Sustainability is a principle concerned with long-term maintenance of well-being–the optimization of human well-being. Sustainability as an approach to environmental analysis and policy-making has at its core an objective to study the relationship between economic, social and environmental factors; to achieve a balance in well-being, “strategies that lead to win-win-win outcomes”.

Although there may be little consensus on how the different factors relate, we can advance the sustainability approach by examining the three prime systems that comprise the environments of our well-being: ecological, economic, and human social systems. This progressive approach understands each system as having its own value-laden imperative, where the sustainability approach is used to reconcile each distinct imperative. It is clear that potential conflicts arise, especially when policies dealing with social or ecological concerns come at economic costs. These costs may or may not garner public support and can face resistance as they are dealt with by policy makers. For example, concerns over drilling in ANWR see the clash between social concerns over the impact on native populations, environmental concerns over the disruption of elk migrations and traditional economic concerns over the need for jobs and domestic sources of oil. Regardless, “it is arguably better in terms of equity and environmental protection to have these complex tensions out in the open than simply to assume the existence of a beneficent economic system.” This is imperative in understanding the importance of the sustainability approach.

First, there is no reason to discount an approach that seeks to reconcile the differences in the systems; a balanced outcome can come from an attempt at conscious and collective action. Secondly, a disentanglement of the concepts of economic growth and environmental impact can lead to an eco-efficient adjustment towards maximizing outputs for every unit of environmental damage. Thirdly, the maximization concurrently used with “policy wedges” (taxation and incentive structures) can speed up the dematerialization of consumption. This means we use the same car but it now weighs less and is overall more efficient. Resistance and political ‘heat’ will occur due to the institutional inertia of the current governance paradigm; however, it can be reduced with proper information gathering methods (public participation mechanisms, polls) and the use of appropriate indicators (relevance, ease of understanding, reliability, accessibility). These can help reduce informational issues and allow policy makers to focus on the most salient issues; the ones that deal with minimizing environmental costs and maximizing well-being.

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