Sabel, Fung, and Karkkainen offer a promising and, for the most part, astute vision of the future of environmental policy in this country. After nearly three decades of building an elaborate regulatory apparatus and further centralizing authority in Washington, policy makers are responding to demands for greater autonomy, flexibility, and participation. There are even signs that our adversarial approach to environmental regulation will eventually become more cooperative.

Many of us find this post-backyard environmentalism appealing. It is a world in which conflict is replaced by consensus. Citizens engage experts and administrators on vital issues. Regulatory agencies relax their technical-rationalist mode of operation in favor of a more populist orientation. Powerful national bureaucracies and activist organizations cede authority they have accumulated during the past thirty years, allowing local governments and citizens’ groups more control over their environmental destinies. Traditional adversaries from industry, government, and environmental groups set aside years of distrust and work together for a better environment. And everyone engages in a kind of national learning seminar, in which goals are set, information on their achievement spreads throughout the policy system, multiple actors adapt their behavior in response to information, and goals are tightened as the capacity to meet them improves.

This is an appealing vision. And it is not the only such vision we have seen. The 1996 report of the President’s Council for Sustainable Development made the case for a policy system that is more cooperative, participatory, collaborative, flexible, and decentralized. In two recent reports commissioned by Congress (in 1995 and 1997), the National Academy of Public Administration urged a shift toward a more performance-based,
result-oriented policy system, and urged that we create the flexibility, state-local authority, and citizen capacities needed to achieve it. And in an ambitious effort to build consensus among a range of influential stakeholders, the Enterprise for the Environment Initiative offered a vision of environmental policy making that was based on the same principles of participation, collaboration, and flexibility. Still, the policy response to each of these visions, and in many cases some fairly specific recommendations, has been less than resounding.

Greatest progress toward the kind of policy regime outlined here has been in regional or community-based environmental protection. The Chesapeake Bay experience is an excellent example. Many of the issues regarding non-point pollution, local land use, and economic growth were not addressed by national regulation, and there was ample room for the emergence of an adaptive, flexible, learning-based approach to the problem. In areas where regulation is more extensive, such as in industrial air, water, and waste pollution, the efforts to move toward a more flexible, responsive, performance-based approach have been far more difficult, as participants in Environmental Protection Agency’s Common Sense Initiative and Project XL have found. In these efforts, a prescriptive legislative framework and traditionally adversarial relationships among parties, among other factors, presented barriers to the process of change.

The authors attribute the growing interest in flexible, decentralized, participatory approaches to the rise of ‘backyard environmentalism.” This activism was essentially reactive: citizens rose to protect their neighborhoods from threats (such as the siting of a waste treatment facility) or to demand attention to an existing threat (such as an abandoned industrial waste site). The authors argue that this movement laid a foundation for a new citizen activism, and with it demands for greater local autonomy and participation. But they give little attention to other factors that have contributed to the demands for change, such as the trend toward a “greening of industry” among leading firms, the change from a manufacturing-dominated economy to a services-dominated economy, and the growing impatience from nearly all quarters with a rigid, complex, and often inefficient regulatory system. What they call backyard environmentalism is part of the picture, but these other factors also drive the demands for change.

Some more specific points deserve comment. The authors note the limits of a command-and-control approach, in particular its demands on the knowledge held by regulators. For a top-down regulatory approach to work, regulators need lots of information about processes, costs, technologies, and other factors. They simply cannot be expected to stay current on all aspects of all sectors in today’s dynamic, global economy. Although I agree that the benefits of marketable permits often are oversold, they do remove some of the information demands made on regulators by traditional regulation. Instead of government making all of the decisions about process changes, investments in new technologies, and levels of production, each firm is allowed to make its own decisions within the context of the marketable permits trading and allocation system. A well-designed permit trading program may serve as a building block of the decentralized, learning model of environmental policy making espoused in this article.

As to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), it has become known as one of the great unintended successes in the recent history of American public policy. It is seen as the stimulus for substantial reductions in pollution releases by a range of industrial firms who, sensitive to their public image and often surprised at what they did not know about their own releases, undertake to improve their performance in areas that are not required by existing regulation. While I agree that the TRI has been an impressive and innovative policy tool, I think we should keep it in perspective. First, the TRI might not have had the same effect had it not been for the backdrop of often stringent regulation. Some of the reductions may even have been in anticipation of future such regulation. Second, we do not know how widespread, deep, or lasting the effects of the TRI have been or will be. Firms react to bad news by acting to reduce emissions (or at least the larger, visible firms do). Before we stake the future of US environmental policy on mandatory disclosure, however, I would want more information on the actual effects of the TRI.

The section on Responsible Care highlights an important and promising trend. Industry sectors are beginning to take collective responsibility for the effects of their activities on the environment. This trend is most pronounced in the chemical and nuclear power industries, where public scrutiny and potential for environmental catastrophe have stimulated industry self-regulation. But it is happening in other sectors as well, such as forest products and textile manufacturing. My own view is that these sector codes of environmental practice, issued by trade associations, offer a potentially powerful mechanism for improving environmental performance. They certainly deserve a role in the new kind of environmental policy regime that the authors lay out in this article.

The author’s vision for the future leaves several issues unaddressed. For example, what is the role for technical expertise and bureaucratic authority in an essentially democratic, populist policy regime? Is the public willing to take on this expanded responsibility for determining environmental outcomes? If outcomes are based on local priorities and negotiations, what is the role of national standards? If national standards are not present, will local citizens have the political clout to maintain high levels of environmental performance? How will national regulatory agencies and national environmental organizations (both of whom derive their power from federal legislation) be convinced to turn over significant authority to local government and citizens groups? What we get here is a vision, but little sense of how it might be translated into a new environmental policy regime.

These reservations aside, I heartily agree with the authors’ fundamental premise: The world is changing and environmental policy must change with it. Government no longer will be able unilaterally to impose its will on powerful firms, especially those with a global reach. As the origins of backyard environmentalism show, the public will not defer lightly to technical experts and administrative officials who claim authority on what is in the public good. The pace of change and complexity of modern manufacturing and the rise of service industries–which have environmental consequences as well–render traditional regulatory strategies obsolete. Just as economies and political systems modernize, so must institutions and capacities for solving and preventing environmental problems must modernize as well. The vision of a learning model of policy-making that is participatory, flexible, adaptive, and decentralized is clearly the way to go. Now if we can just figure out how to get there.