Changing Institutions

by Grant A. Mincy

KXLFOCThere are a growing number of complex wicked problems facing natural ecosystems and human civilization. In recent years we have seen that social movements can advance and uphold public welfare, seek justice and progress society. Throughout history, people’s movements have challenged institutions and power structures. Today these movements are beginning to address our most urgent need – the environmental crisis. No longer can we as a species afford to allow those with authority to utilize resources to serve self interests. The growing importance and success of worldwide collaboration and social partnerships indicates the need for an informed and engaged citizenry to change our institutions.

Being that natural resources are a public good and that said resources are neither rival nor excludable, our government institutions perhaps hold the most authority in regard to resource management (Armsworth 2010). This power requires of government, then, to stimulate the supply of these resources in a sustainable manner and to preserve the natural world while providing for the societal needs of today and future generations. If only this were the case.

bureaucratWith a wide range of astounding resources, all tiers of government have become involved in environmental policy (Armsworth 2010). Institutions at the multilateral (World bank, IMF, UN, EU, etc), national (federal government), regional (state governments) and local (city council, municipalities) all work to manage natural resource issues. Using the United States as an example, all branches of government are also involved in Natural Resource Management (NRM). The legislative branch creates resource policy and authors laws that dictate the use of our resources (Armsworth 2010). The judicial branch interprets and decides how these laws are to be applied. Finally, the executive branch with its multiple environmental agencies practice and enforce resource policy (Armsworth 2010). With this system of checks and balances (centralized authority) what could go wrong? Just a few examples of major federal reforms enacted because of social movements are the Clean Water Act (CWA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) – among many others. These mandated policies directly effect NRM. The government also purchases and manages public lands. The federal government owns 650 million acres of land in the United States. This is approximately 25% of the countries total landscape (Armsworth 2010). This has major implications for NRM – as evident by the case of Tim DeChristopher and the auctioning off of public lands to oil and gas companies.

MTR_protestGovernment policies do not always garnish desirable results and in fact, can be absolutely devastating, especially in our globalized neo-liberal world. For an example: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Bush administration in 2002 reclassified mining waste as permissible fill material under section 404 of the CWA. Because of this redefinition, the process of valley fill has been deemed legal and dangerous pollutants such as arsenic, sulfates and selenium found in mine waste have made their way into the streams, tributaries and wetlands of Appalachia. This change in the interpretation of the law has allowed the massive acceleration of mountaintop removal permits and allows mining waste to be dumped into Appalachian waters. Aside from the environmental concerns, this has devastated the Appalachian rural poor by creating mono-economies. This captured markets are controlled by the coal industry, as poverty and mortality rises in Appalachia, billions of dollars are extracted from these communities to line the pockets of special interests. The relationship between our government and corporate special interest has a history of exploiting innocent people and our natural resources. Peoples movements across the country have been evoked due to this relationship.

This brings me to the rise of the civic sector. In recent decades, the environmental movement has strengthened greatly by the formation of both large and small non-profit organizations (Armsworth, 2010). The non-profit movement has been very efficient in promoting the sustainable use of resources at the local level. Their subsistence is imperative to the changing world of resource management. As they can become well-known and respected in their communities, non-profits can implement conservation strategies more effective than the government (an allow them to force government to take sustainable positions).

The non-profit sector has gained considerable power in the past few years as more organizations develop. Environmentally oriented non-profits are growing at a larger rate than any other civic sector initiative (Armsworth, 2010). These organizations have effected many aspects of NRM as there are multiple organizations, with diverse management objectives. The civic sector is composed of large organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, whom operate both internationally and nationally, to local organizations such as the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

PaticipatoryThe growing importance of the civic sector cannot be ignored. Bill Bradly, a former democratic congressman, has repeatedly stressed this importance. In a 1998 article to the National Civic Review, Bradley states: “Never has a real vision come out of Washington and never has a real vision stemmed from just one of our political parties.” Bradley stresses that the civic sector is more effective in defining a common purpose with their local community members and stakeholders. This allows non-profits to negotiate consensus on, and agreements to, resource management issues at the local level. Non-profit organizations are most effective because of their independence from the state controlled market and with the freedom to build consensus (Bradley, 1998). This has allowed non-profits to work for the benefit of the environment and society without requesting or expecting anything in return. The ethos of these organizations have greatly prompted public trust in their approach to NRM and has made them an effective force in the environmental movement (Bradley, 1998).

The rise of non-profits are also very important politically. These organizations, especially at the local level, are composed of everyday citizens that are concerned about the well-being of their cultural and natural heritage. This allows for folks at the local level to organize and discuss NRM in terms of environmental sustainability, public health and the concept of environmental justice. Many non-profits are products of, and continue to build, peoples movements against destructive resource agendas while advocating smart management initiatives to protect our environment, land and people.

Though there have been many accomplishments achieved by the civic sector, these institutions too must be closely monitored by society. New reports suggest that a number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) are, in fact, not actually NGO’s (Schott, 2010). Instead, these organizations have been classified as GONGO’s or rather Government Organized Non-Governmental Organizations. These particular groups are not only funded by, but fully staffed and supported by government (Schott, 2010). What is most striking about GONGO’s is that being a government operation, they do not seek to bring change to the system, but to control and manage change (Schott, 2010).

“Market” institutions also heavily influence NRM. The current market system includes small business’s and large multinational companies that have corporate policies that directly affect our resources. Some of these institutions consider sustainable resource management as a social responsibility, most enforce policies that are detrimental to our land, water and air.

Though investment in sustainable NRM is on the rise, the current (captured) market and economic globalization have had detrimental impacts to natural resources around the planet. Wendell Berry (author, cultural and economic critic, and farmer) often explains how the growth of factory farms and agribusiness have taken jobs away from local farmers. As industrialization continually forces locally owned farms and business’s closed it removes the ability for communities to produce their own food and other necessities (Berry 2002). In terms of natural resources, Berry explains that rules imposed on farmland from mega-corporations has resulted in soil loss, genetic impoverishment of our crops and contamination of our groundwater. In many cases, industrial economies impoverish communities they move into (Berry 2002). As natural resources in an area are exploited by large industries, the local uniqueness and cultural heritage of the area simultaneously diminishes (Berry, 2002). This is certainly a theft of liberty! For a current example, just recently a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of the corporate giant Monsanto over a local farmer in a patent case. This is yet another example of state privilege granted to a corporate behemoth – and also an example of the state enacted privilege of the four monopolies.


Perhaps in the United States, our greatest benefit is that we live in a fairly open society where folks can (theoretically) sway opinion in their institutions. So we are told. The public’s power to change policy would be very empowering because this responsibility calls for everyday people to become an active force in the advancement of their communities. Although people benefit from having the power to engage their institutions, throughout history, society has been negatively impacted by the power its institutions wield.

A great trouble today is that the public occasionally gets to vote at the ballot box but is forced to vote with their dollar everyday. Government and “market” institutions respond to lifestyle choices – though they hold a monopoly over the choices we can make. People who cannot afford to be environmental are forced to buy products from corporations, protected by laws enacted by the government, that continually oppress the poor. People ignorant to natural resource and societal issues, voting with their dollar, too encourage our institutions to develop policies and practices that further oppression. Our current economic system is responsible for great gaps in wealth and power throughout society. Furthermore, influenced by special interests, government often uses its power to enact and enforce laws that benefit those who possess power and wealth. In order to break this cycle, society must continue to question the myth of a “national interests” and actually existing (state) capitalism/corporatism.

A reconstruction of both public and private institutions is necessary to allow future generations to inherit a world of social responsibility and environmental sustainability. History is full of peoples movements achieving great victories against institutional oppression. Social movements must progress society towards an economic system that does not seek to achieve maximum profit; instead, economic systems should be built by the public, for the public good. Democratic intervention of the economy will allow people to influence the means of production, thus advancing our civil liberties and awarding individual freedom from state/industrial tyranny. Institutions need to use natural resources rationally and equalize their distribution to benefit all people. In a truly free market system, said markets will lead to perfect liberty and a more egalitarian society. If a movement truly engages the market, and frees itself from state intervention and corporate privilege a people’s movement would attain a social, economic, and environmental world that is responsible and rooted in justice.

Mayday-DCThe most important change to be made is to no longer allow corporate and government imperialism to wage war for the attainment of natural resources such as coal, oil or water. There is no greater conflict between people and their institutions than that of war because war ends lives. Utilizing natural resources to build weapons of war for the conquest of more natural resources can no longer be accepted. War as means of resolving conflict must be eliminated because technology today allows for the indiscriminate killing of mass amounts of innocent people. No longer can a “just” war be waged because human beings cannot protect themselves from military’s in possession of great machines and weapons of war. The only absolute way to solve this problem is to transition from, and then abolish the use of fossil fuels as a means of energy production. The United States military is the biggest consumer of fossil fuels in the world. Fossil fuels are also the governments excuse to secure energy resources around the planet. Endless war consumes natural resources and utilizes them in ways that can only destroy and never create.

People need to be continually suspicious of authority and abolish unjust policies. This will create a world in which individuals are free from the ill effects of government and corporate power. In his essay, “The Long Legged House,” Wendell Berry makes the argument for citizens to confront unjust institutions on the grounds of morality, Berry writes:

Since there is no government of which the concern or the discipline is primarily the health of either households or of the Earth, since it is in the nature of any state to be concerned first of all with its own preservation and only second with the cost, the dependable, clear response to man’s moral circumstance is not that of law, but that of conscience. The Highest moral behavior is not obedience to law, but obedience to the informed conscience even in spite of law. (1965)

Berry argues that social movements have the power to create institutions whose primary concern is the health of people and the Earth. This world is, of course, not immediately achievable but the goal can be obtained over time. Global justice should not be viewed as an unworkable utopian view, but rather a philosophical movement of liberation to be achieved in the long-term.

In addressing the environmental crisis, natural/social scientists will play a vital role in progressing social movements forward. This brings up ethical considerations in the sciences that will be the topic of another blog post, but there are scientists (most recent example is Dr. James Hansen) that are becoming outspoken about data, and are treating conservation as a crisis oriented and mission dominated science. This is important because surveys suggest that the general public places great trust in science and further believes that science can solve societal problems while improving the quality of life. Though the public holds scientific information in high regards there is great social apathy, which has led to political gridlock, in the face of problems that affect the survival of human beings as a very species (Ostermier, 2010). The lack of public concern over environmental issues in the age of climate change suggests a great dis-communication between the scientific community and the public (Ostermier, 2010). This is again, a topic for another time, but I would suggest that the media treats the Vulgar Libertarian groups such as ALEC and Cato (along with other front groups) and scientists equally – even though there is overwhelming consensus about anthropogenic climate change in the scientific community. The corporate media is after all, all about debate and entertainment. Scientists must be able to address public misunderstanding or denial of these issues in a way that society begins to recognize the complexity of the problems that must be solved.

The role of communication for new professionals is of utmost importance as humanity will soon have to deal with effects of climate change in our everyday lives. Climate change will impact every facet of global society from NRM to immigration to health care. Incoming professionals need to adopt a communication strategy that pertains to, and inspires, the human spirit such as the message within the closing paragraphs of Arthur C. Clarkes, Profiles of the Future:

One thing seems certain. Our galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life—a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and, on a more humble scale, our own Sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.

It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infrareds of dully glowing stars that would be almost invisible to our eyes; yet the sombre hues of that all-but-eternal universe may be full of colour and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it. They will know that before them lie, not the millions of years in which we measure eras of geology, nor the billions of years which span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in the trillions.

They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command. But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of creation; for we knew the universe when it was young. (1963)

What this passage describes in such a brilliant way is that as a species, one day, humankind will cease to exist. Whether we are awarded the opportunity to evolve into a higher species, or if a cataclysmic event forces our extinction, in time, humanity will be nothing but a memory of space and time. In the great history of an infinite universe and other worlds unknown, perhaps incomprehensible by humankind, we have but one bright and shining moment in time to achieve something great together. The triumphant nature of the human spirit must be inspired and the strategies of all resource organizers, especially new generations, must work to build social movements that progress human civilization towards sustainability.

The current environmental movement is a vast, worldwide movement that deals with complex social and economic issues on a seemingly inconceivable scale. The environmental movement also holds its place in human history as the largest and arguably most important political issue ever undertaken by our species (Roszak, 1995). Beyond the human race, the movement holds great implications for all flora and fauna, mountains, rivers, and all of Earths most vast and wondrous landscapes (Roszak, 1995). As the human race alters and utilizes natural resources we claim a great responsibility in the consequences our anthropogenic use imposes on our land, water, air and biosphere. Human dimensions will continue to grow in importance as we extract, utilize and manage Earth’s natural resources. John F. Kennedy once said: “We all inherit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures and we are all mortal.” From issues as small as reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park to the complex issues such as climate change that threaten the very existence of our civilization, as a species we must meet these challenges. As a species we must engage and fundamentally change all of our institutions, ensure they move beyond private interests and work together to achieve global peace and sustainability. It is time for humanity to achieve greatness.



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