The Task of Environmental Leadership
Amid the ever rising, discordant, disconnected, coursing invasion of voices and information and interpretations competing to engage our consciousness 24-7, it’s ever more difficult to achieve perspective.
Are we surprised that people retreat to various explanatory ideologies to impose some order… or perhaps, a surcease, a rationalization for disengagement?….
Our evolving environmental consciousness exemplifies the challenge of achieving understanding in our highly connected age.
Earth Day week is an apt moment to make note of some of the spectacular changes underway.
Undertake a thought experiment:
–What issues before us now will appear most consequential fifty years hence?
–What questions that appear to us to be settled, entirely beyond debate, will be viewed as erroneous in the future?
–What issues are taboo, kept from discussion, that will be viewed as central, in the longer view?
What follows are a series of observations and questions intended to stir thought–and spur action.
A Living Legacy of Political Leadership
The 1970s and 1980s saw a spectacular flowering of environmental legislation. Various types of laws, cumulatively covering all areas, were enacted. In retrospect, the era came to a triumphant close with the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
Since that time, the national statutes have been in stasis. The regulatory process has rolled along, increasingly limited by the time-worn, underlying laws.
The laws have been immensely effective in many ways. Dramatic reductions of air emissions, for example, have been achieved.
So, too, the rise of enforcement, combined with the specter of additional regulation, has prompted a great amount of voluntary activity by the corporate sector. As a politically preferred alternative to pollution taxes, regulation and enforcement has altered the cost calculations of enterprises.
This was intended from the start. The environment will be best protected when private sector ingenuity is aligned with our evolving values.
These trends have been accelerated in the digital age. Today, as recounted in Serve to Lead, advancing the values of customers creates value.
All is not well, however. By relying on institutions that are out of date in structure—even out of date in conception in some cases—we are foregoing major opportunities for future leadership.
Are we satisfied to be a successor generation to the accomplishments of earlier decades? Or will we create a new era of leadership?
21st Century Governance Challenges
Among the fundamental questions before us:
–What is the appropriate government role in the next phase of environmental and energy policy? How will it evolve to reflect the decentralization of information in our digital age? Will state agencies be accorded greater authority and discretion?
–Should federal agencies’ jurisdictions and structures be reconfigured? How would this be done in conjunction with relevant congressional committees, whose own missions are tied to existing executive branch arrangements?
–To the extent that traditional governmental functions migrate to the private and NGO sectors, will accountability follow?
–How will evolving scientific understanding be incorporated into future environmental statutes and regulations?
Inert Environmental Politics
In 1992 a major British politician expressed to me the hope that “the environment can become an honorable political practice.”
In the intervening two decades far too little progress has been made.
There are numerous reasons for this. In the United States, a succession of presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have asserted that energy and environmental issues are among their top priorities. Regrettably, their actions have illuminated their actual priorities. They have tended to trade away energy and environmental issues as necessary to advance their fundamental goals. The results have been as one would expect.
American environmental politics is characterized by interest groups in contention on all sides. The result often resembles trench warfare in the First World War: advantage to the defense, to the status quo. When the smoke clears one finds that the ferocity of combat has been costly yet has accomplished little.
Perhaps in part reflecting the worldview of the first-wave Boomers who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the dialogue is offered on moral grounds: one side must win, another must lose. Further, the focus is often on intention as much as results. The resulting negativity and suspicion can hobble prospects for new thinking, new coalitions, new solutions.
Environmental Leadership Opportunity
Will environmental politics be rethought, rebooted in the coming years?
There are reasons for optimism.
Millennials continue the trend of rising generations who assume that environmental values are primary. To be sure, they may not envision or express them in the same ways as predecessor generations. They may not feel the commitment to longstanding arrangements and arguments sustained by their parents and grandparents. That does not mean they’re not committed to doing their part. It does mean they may be more open to innovation.
Not surprisingly, the dysfunction of recent environmental politics has not yielded a crop of experienced officials moving into wider responsibilities.
Will that soon change? In Pennsylvania, two former secretaries of the state environmental agency are vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor in 2014. So, too many young people who have private, NGO and government experience may begin to enter decision-making precincts in all sectors.
If change in America is not coming from Washington, it may well come from outside. Companies, NGOs, and state and local governments are undertaking unprecedented, innovative ventures, including international. This is consistent with the strong decentralizing currents of the 21st century. Nonetheless, there is a major role for Washington.
How will it emerge?
History suggests that Congress is institutionally ill-equipped to offer consequential leadership in energy and environmental matters. Regional interests are disparate and well-represented. It’s difficult for Congress of any partisan composition to reconcile them into a coherent whole.
Our environmental future awaits a president who reflects our nation’s evolving values, updating our politics and institutions accordingly.
In the meantime, more institutions than ever can make progress, and lay the groundwork for the next breakthrough moment for environmental political progress.
21st Century Environmental Leadership | Part III