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Changing the Culture of Government - August 2011


The Networker
I. Changing institutional culture Nancy Myers
II. Government's noble purpose  Carolyn Raffensperger


  I. Changing institutional culture TOP

 by Nancy Myers

One of SEHN's staff members was recently explaining his work to a family member. After listening attentively the relative said, shaking his head in wonder, "So what you’re really doing is working for cultural change."

Working for cultural change can seem like a vague, overly ambitious goal. It's easier to explain concrete, short-term projects with measurable results. Big-picture, long-range, visionary work can be harder to justify. What makes us believe we can change the way people think and act?

Actually, we can't afford not to work for cultural change. Our work is shortchanged if it is limited to short-term, doable projects. These must be tied into visionary goals for cultural change. But those goals, too, must be real and concrete, something more than mission statements.

SEHN's goal is to bring the ethical and practical implications of the precautionary principle into public policy. That moves us into a particular kind of cultural change.

There is popular culture, youth culture, religious culture, ethnic culture, political culture--and we would like to influence them all. But there is another culture that is seldom defined and that lurks behind the way individuals and groups behave in our society. This is the culture of institutions—the way decisions are made, priorities set, services delivered, and power wielded. It is the culture of the very infrastructure of society that governs, limits, or expands what individuals do and how they live their lives. It is not totally abstract; it is as human as any other aspect of culture. It is embodied in the behavior of individuals and groups that make up these institutions and the laws and norms that govern their behavior.

When you move into policy work you must influence the culture of institutions. This is the culture that a reviewer of Kari Norgaard’s book, Living in Denial, says is, along with our own way of life, "thoroughly enmeshed with a growth economy based on fossil fuels." Liberating the policy community from these cultural bonds must be our first priority because they are formed by outdated and destructive assumptions.

The precautionary principle is a simple iteration of the change we seek. It performs an ethical shift: giving first place to human and environmental health. It represents a philosophical and practical shift in both law and science. It suggests a way forward, given what current science tells us and the difficulty of resolving scientific uncertainty. And this ethical and practical shift gives government a particular role to play—see Carolyn Raffensperger's essay, which follows.

Our work begins and ends with the precautionary principle. In between is a large and growing body of concrete science that continues to document the case for the precautionary approach and policy that paves the way for implementing it. This work demands and produces major cultural shifts in social infrastructures, from city ordinances to new academic fields; from the greening of business and agriculture to the empowerment of government agencies to do their jobs based on science, not the pressure of industry.

This vast, in-between territory is filled with many concrete projects with measurable results, such as the work SEHN and others are doing to

  • Hammer out ways in current law and if necessary new law to allow regulatory decisions that take into account cumulative impacts and environmental justice;
  • Embed the interests and rights of future generations and other species into our decision-making structures;
  • Strengthen the public trust function of government and its responsibility for the commons;
  • Make the case for a realistic economic bottom line that recognizes the wealth of the shared commons;
  • Develop new infrastructures to protect future generations from our legacies of harm.

The good news is that signs of change abound in the institutional culture. More and more, the work we do is not ours alone but is carried out in collaborations of NGOs, professional groups, academia, scientists, business groups, and all levels of government. Real people in these institutions are embracing the ethic, methods, and vision of precaution.

  II. Government's noble purpose TOP

 by Carolyn Raffensperger

A government is just as secret and mysterious and sensitive as any human sinner carrying a load of germs, traditions and corpuscles handed down from fathers and mothers away back.--Carl Sandburg

Sitting in a candle-lit restaurant two hours before a talk he gave at Iowa State University, the writer Barry Lopez said that the US form of government is a 200-year-old experiment and that it has failed. Lopez went on to say that the government of the United States had been constructed with three branches of government but now it had a fourth, corporations. The checks and balances inherent in the three branches no longer worked.

I am haunted by the problem Lopez posed because I am an environmental lawyer and think a lot about what the law is and what it must become to so that I can fulfill my responsibilities to my clients who are, to my mind, the future generations of all species. Over the past decade and a half I along with many colleagues worked on this idea of the precautionary principle to prevent harm to the future ones. Our indigenous allies like Tom Goldtooth, a SEHN board member and executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said that the precautionary principle was another expression of the Haudenoshaunee precept that decision-makers should consider the impact of decisions on the 7th generation.

During the winter of 2011 I was invited to participate in drafting principles of perpetual care for the Giant Mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. This abandoned gold mine is filled in with massive quantities of toxic materials, primarily arsenic, which make it a gigantic, permanent mess. As I researched long-term care plans for places like Chernobyl, the WIPP site in New Mexico for nuclear weapons waste, and what we will need for Fukushima and the Giant Mine, I was stricken by the realization that we are no longer operating in the timeframe of the 7th generation but the 10,000th generation. The WIPP site, for instance, will be hazardous for 250,000 years. We have littered the planet with these toxic and radioactive disasters. This fact alone is enough to pronounce this experiment in government a failure.

How did we get to this place? Let's assume that the U.S. government was designed to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that the model that the founders were rejecting was that of the monarchy. Citizenship was based on owning private property. It was the farmer standing on his own land, beholden to no king, who could practice free speech and religion and vote. Private property was the foundation of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, if not life.

Accordingly the U.S. government was shaped around the defense of private property and evolved into a government of and for the free market. It is this experiment that has failed.

Evidence of that failure, beyond the legacy of harm we are leaving the 10,000th generation, surrounds us. Recently Congress faced a meltdown over the federal budget. Unable to agree on the mechanisms necessary to keep capitalism, the free market, and private property moving in the directions believed paramount—endless growth—Congress was at a stalemate. If our leaders cannot agree on the rules of money how can they agree on the potential catastrophes that actually threaten life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Things like preventing further climate chaos, or stopping pollinators’ slide towards oblivion, or another Fukushima?

Nowhere in the last political debates or elections have politicians articulated a coherent theory of government. The discussion has been about the question of how big or small government should be, which is a stand-in for the implication that government should be small because its primary role is to promote the free market and private property. Taxes and government regulations get in the way of that.

Private property is not the ultimate basis for life or liberty. Without the things we share, the commons, there is no life or liberty. Without fresh air, freely available, we cannot live or move or have our being. Without wildlife and clean water, we cannot survive. Nor can we have the connective tissue of community without the cultural treasures of parks, sidewalks, museums, public schools, the internet. Without the commons we cannot have a market. The ports and public roads are commons that enable businesses to move their goods to market.

The founders of the U.S., rejecting monarchy, neglected to develop a robust theory of the commons, in part because in Britain the commons had been primarily a restriction on the rights of the king. After the Magna Carta, the king could not deny commoners access to the means of living—the shore, pastures, and woodlands. In a democracy, given the power of private property as the basis of liberty, who needed the commons? If you owned land that could not be taken from you, you theoretically had the ability to practice true citizenship, including dissent.

But times are different now. Most people in the United States are employed by businesses and no longer have the means to survive all on their own. Dissent under these conditions is far more complicated than if you stand on your own ground and produce your own food.

The most serious flaw of our government, however, is taking the rights of private property to the extreme. We socialize the harms of private property but privatize the benefits. For instance, when pollution fouls the land and water, the polluter reaps the benefits of the product that polluted but the public reaps the harm. It is time we had a Magna Carta that restricted the rights of private property owners from harming the commons.

In an interview with Christian Martin, Lopez repeats his assertion that this form of government was an experiment. He says: "We pride ourselves in this country on having the greatest democracy in the world, but it's still an experiment. And—snap!—just like that—we could be living under a totalitarian regime. We're primed for it to happen. The enemy we must defeat at all costs—terrorism—has been evoked, and government is asking for the suspension of laws and rights that have long ensured a democratic existence for us. So in this situation resistance becomes a set of questions. What is the nature of this enemy? What exactly is the threat? Could you explain why the suspension of these laws is necessary?"

If this experiment in government has failed perhaps the next questions for us are: So what is government for? What is the new experiment? What corrects the failure of this experiment in government?

A first step in answering those questions is to claim the primary role of government as expanding and defending rights. The federal constitution and the constitutions of the 50 states and various tribes lay out the rights that are currently ours. The 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights lists others. The Declaration has risen to the level of customary law in most countries. However, the constitutions and the Declaration, for the most part, were written before environmental problems were fully apparent.

Accordingly the central right that must become a universal right is the right to a clean and healthy environment. This right must be extended to future generations and widened to the community. Essentially this individual right to a clean and healthy environment is also a right of community. That is, it can only be understood as a right with each other to the commons, rather than the private property right to something. These community rights are rights of inclusion vs. the rights of exclusion that attend private property. This means that nature itself has rights. We humans have rights with the rest of the biotic community. We are plain members and citizens of the community of nature, as the ecological ethicist Aldo Leopold described.

This lays out the work of government. If government is to defend these rights then it must serve as the trustee of the commons—those things we share—and leave them in better shape to future generations than this generation inherited. It means we tailor the budget to the commons that need protecting and to the rights that need defending. Do children have a right to food, health, and water? Do they have an equal right to share in the commons? If so, then government's responsibility is to guarantee those rights. What about air and water? If they are threatened in quality or quantity due to the polluting habits of industry, it is government's sacred charge to prevent it and to restore the commons for the benefit of present and future generations.

The most effective way to guarantee those rights of equality, liberty, and fraternity, and the commons that are essential for those rights, is to use the precautionary principle, which does not rely on tools honed to support the free market, such as cost-benefit analysis, discounting, and risk assessment, but on the profound ethic of preventing harm to the ecological community and future generations.

Many of my environmental friends argue that we do not have enough time to change laws because the planet is in such peril. It is true that time is short. Yet we need all of our acts of beauty, resistance, and imagination. We need political imagination and we need to intervene in the experiment of government in order to pave a way forward if, though all our tactics, we actually do forestall disaster.

I'm in. Will you join me?