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Adaptive Management and the Philosophy of Environmental Policy
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In the United States, environmental policy is a complex and fragmented undertaking that grows out of a specific philosophy of government. In particular, the progressive institutions introduced in the early 20th century were based on a political model in which legislative action established the broad goals and values that should guide policy decisions. Under this model, the tasks of management and regulation should be transferred to administrative agencies charged with the pursuit of prescribed goals through the application of objective technical expertise (Norgaard 1994). Delegating regulatory power to these agencies is of course necessary in a complex world where legislative bodies lack the structures and capabilities necessary to manage the myriad details of regulation and enforcement. Moreover, the focus on objectivity places limits on the discretion of regulators and, therefore, the capture of administrative agencies by special interest groups. Nonetheless, the progressive model of government has distinct limitations in the analysis and design of environmental policies. Bryan Norton's book Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management provides a diagnosis of the problems and a compelling agenda for restructuring and change.

According to Norton, the dysfunctions of U.S. environmental policy are symbolized by the phenomenon of "towering" at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA was created by an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon in the summer of 1970. From the beginning, the agency stood as a fragmented network of separate offices addressing seemingly separate environmental issues such as air quality, water quality, and hazardous waste management. The EPA's line offices had distinct histories in different departments of the federal government and (until 1998) were located in separate high-rise towers at the agency's first headquarters at the Waterside Mall in Washington, DC. As Norton describes, the building's physical organization presented strong impediments to communication and coordination between offices. To complicate matters, each office had a distinct culture that was linked to a particular set of disciplinary fields and, therefore, academic traditions.

In Norton's view, the problem of "towering" is not merely spatial and organizational but also (importantly) intellectual. Statutes such as the Clean Air Act, for example, stipulate that the EPA shall promulgate air quality standards at the level required to "protect public health." This statute stipulates that air-quality standards must be set using an approach that is thoroughly grounded in objective science. Accordingly, the EPA has evolved a policy-making framework that draws a sharp line between science and values. Values are supposed to play literally no role in the generation of technical information to support decision making.

The rub is that environmental policies have multiple and often conflicting goals that are not always easily reduced to narrow technical criteria. Under the Clean Water Act as administered by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, for example, the destruction of natural wetlands must be offset through the creation of artificial wetlands that meet certain design standards. This approach has led to the replacement of ecologically rich and aesthetically pleasing natural environments with manufactured systems that satisfy narrow technical guidelines regarding hydrological functioning and water quality. It is an open question, however, as to whether and when constructed wetlands can adequately substitute for natural communities and ecosystems as viewed in terms of a broad conception of social and moral values (National Research Council 2001).

Problems arise when experts assert that they have arrived at scientifically sound and objective approaches to policy and management, only to be confronted by angry citizens who feel that their values and knowledge have been excluded from the policy process. A policy process that privileges expertise might with good reason be viewed as out of step with community values and the public's conception of the "public interest." This is indeed a major problem if one believes that democratic governance requires policy decisions to meet with broad public approval.

An advocate of the progressive model of government might argue that problems of this sort could be resolved through electoral politics and statutory change. By writing laws more in keeping with public values, Congress could help the EPA and other agencies design better decision-making processes that achieve better results. As Norton makes clear, however, the broad...

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