A turgid but well-meant attempt to decentralize environmental standards, embellish grassroots activism, and tap industry goodwill to fashion a new blueprint for environmental action, from academics Sabel, Fung, and Karkkainen.
If the national government either overregulates or underregulates when it comes to the environment, and local groups lack scale or encourage a myopic parochialism, what, the authors ask, is an effective middle course? Their proposal: “Local units set their own environmental performance targets and devise means to achieve them. In return, they provide detailed reports on actual performance and possible improvements to overarching public authorities.” They suggest this “rolling-rule regime” will stimulate vast public participation in the process, provide a face-to-face forum for polluters and victims to hammer out solutions (“disciplined consideration of alternative policies leads protagonists to discover unanticipated solutions provisionally acceptable”), and have the immediacy of a perpetual feedback loop to tinker with the system as it needs adjustment to set new standards, targets, and pathways. Their format is call-and-response: Sabel, Fung, and Karkkanien present their idea, offer evidence, and then a panel of experts attempts to shred their grand proposal. The experts usually win here, although they are far from a cohesive group. The sharpest is DeWitt John, who sympathizes with civic environmentalism but worries about cross-border conflicts, and whether people have the time or money to invest: Mr. Practical. The dimmest bulb is Theodore Lowi, who squawks “Propaganda” like Chicken Little and then smacks his lips over Milton Friedman’s 30-year-old inanity: “How much pollution can we afford?” Most respondents simply point out that industry goodwill is not to be expected at this juncture, and why should government abrogate its responsibility to protect the health and safety of its citizens?
The book comes full circle, right back to “What now,” and is best fit for those who delight in zero-sum policy wrangling.