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Vol 56 No. 15 | Nov. 2004
Featured Stories
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Frank Baber
Environmental Policy
and Democracy,
An Interesting Mix

The combination of consumption and democracy can be dangerous for the environment. But the Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration's Frank Baber is exploring ways to reconcile genuinely effective environmental policy with robust democracy.

“They can be mutually exclusive,” said Assistant Professor Baber, a 1975 graduate from CSULB with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. “The assumption seems to be that if the majority gets what it wants, then everybody will get more of everything but to the detriment of the environment.”

It doesn't have to be that way. Baber has just finished a book for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press about community-based policies and their impact on the environment. One of his focuses is on “watershed partnerships,” of which there are several hundred across the United States. “A watershed partnership is a voluntary group,” he said. “Look at the Columbia River Valley. Their watershed partnership represents developers and environmental groups in one group. They develop management plans and get local state and federal governments to sign on. And anybody who wants to give up their Thursday evenings to go to the library and talk is welcome to join.”

In many ways, the partnerships operate like clubs, and it may be useful to see the environmental movement as a club of clubs.

“Utilities have service areas that span three or four states,” he said. “They realize they cannot regulate well at the strictly state level, so they organize themselves into regional agencies. That is like a club of clubs. It seems to me the same logic applies to watershed partnerships. They also deal with ecologically distinct areas that involve more than one state.”

But a note of caution is in order. While political theories might sound great in Congress, they often have trouble when they bump into the environment.

“The environment has a way of telling you when you are wrong,” he said. “That is what distinguishes environmental issues from most others. Something will end up smelling bad or tasting bad if your ideology is mistaken. So if the environment won't change, what may have to is our concept of democratic governance. The environment is not going to be different for us simply because we're disappointed in it.”

Even at its most appealing, nature can pose serious problems for the cooperation between government and environmental interests. Take the example of sea lions returning to their homes in San Francisco Bay. What began as a media event as the resurgent sea creatures created Kodak moments at Fisherman's Wharf soon began to lose its appeal.

“When sea lions vomit all over everything, it diminishes their charm,” Baber pointed out. Seattle tried to deal with similar problems with killer whales sounds and feeding the sea lions fish filled with nauseating ingredients and taking them out to meet female sea lions. Unfortunately, the females that were the target of this amorous adventure inhabited the San Francisco Bay area. Clearly, San Francisco and Seattle cannot tackle the problem on their own. They need to recognize that they can profitably form a club of clubs.    

Baber earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Juris Doctorate at the University of San Diego. He served as a law school administrator and adjunct professor of political science at the University of San Diego before joining CSULB in 2001.  

How does this idea of a club of clubs affect our concepts of leadership?

“The idea of grassroots organization is not amenable to the 'Great Man' theory,” he explained. “Great men (and women) may make better biographies but they rarely make better environmental policy. The most important product of collaborative, community-based politics is the deliberative capacity of the citizens themselves. So we need to develop new kinds of environmental leadership, and new ideas about leadership in general, that are more amenable to community-based politics.”

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