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  • The Civic Environmental Approach
  • Özgüç Orhan (bio)

The concept of environmental citizenship has drawn much attention among environmental scholars lately. There is, however, already another concept in the environmental literature that conveys a similar idea: civic environmentalism. Both appear applicable to any discussion of green constitutionalism, but the relationship between the two is not clear. Are they basically the same or do they refer to completely disparate phenomena? A quick survey of the relevant environmental literature would suggest that there is not much intercourse between the communities of scholarship which make use of these two concepts. Environmental scholars who comment on either of the two concepts seldom discuss the other or cite the literature grown around it. This is curious as these two concepts, even if not identical, resemble one another not only in terminology but also conceptually.

I shall discuss below why there is a disconnect between the two discourses and then explain how they can actually converge both conceptually and practically. To establish the convergence thesis I shall first draw attention to the Aristotelian background shared by both discourses, and then argue that both discourses have been constructed in the last fifteen years or so to address a practical problem, namely, the failure of the modern environmental movement in bringing about the social transformation it has called for. I begin with the contingent differences between the two discourses—civic environmentalism and environmental citizenship—based on how they are conceptualized in their respective scholarly literatures. The second section examines the Aristotelian common ground between the two discourses, and the concluding section situates these two discourses within the practical context of contemporary environmental debates.

The Discursive Divergence

To understand how and why the environmental discourses of civic environmentalism and environmental citizenship differ from one another, we need to look at the particular issues the two discourses address. Doing so will allow us to realize that the general framework and the specific terminology of these discourses are determined by their discursive contexts, which are in turn shaped by the practical agendas of their proponents. The term civic environmentalism was coined in early 1990s in the US and is still more often used there, while the term environmental citizenship is the preferred idiom in the rest of the English-speaking countries such as Canada, Britain, and Australia. It was coined by the Canadian environmental agency in charge of environmental policies and programs (i.e., Environment Canada) and has been recently adopted by a number of British environmental scholars.1 Environmental scholars who opt to use them interchangeably are indeed very few.2 Given the terminological and conceptual affinity between the two, the current disconnect between the academic literatures grown around each concept is striking and calls for an explanation.

Admittedly, this geographic difference is conceptually inconsequential by itself. Nonetheless it is illuminating when considered in light of the political agenda defined by the proponents of each discourse. The civic environmentalism literature responds to a specific policy debate peculiar to the American context: what the best policy on environmental protection is given the federal administrative structure of the US. Is the regulatory framework (the so-called command-and-control system) or the frequent resort to litigation by mainstream environmental organizations an effective method in protecting the American environment? Civic environmentalists in America think neither tool is effective on its own. They would rather see local governments, non-governmental actors, and market-based instruments be given greater role and say in responding to environmental problems. Civic environmentalists recognize that the environment is not "a special realm reserved for experts and professional activists, but an essential aspect of public life—a place for citizens."3

The proponents of civic environmentalism (in the US context) approach the federal government with suspicion. This sort of skepticism resonates with the American political tradition which views the state as a necessary evil. The regulatory framework of environmental governance at the federal level is often claimed to be ineffective, counterproductive, and even authoritarian. The preference for local solutions to environmental problems among civic environmentalists can be explained through the [End Page 38] distinct American institution and habit of voluntary association and decentralism. One major historical and theoretical source of inspiration...


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