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Environmental policy concerns the attitudes that states, representing their people, adopt toward the environment and the need to protect or exploit it in different ways. These range from the desire to maintain nature in a pristine state to the desire to exploit all resources of the land and atmosphere without regard for the future or side effects.
Most ideologies, in common with most forms of organized religious belief, derived from a period in which agricultural lifestyles, featuring sustainable use of resources as part of folk wisdom concerning husbandry of the land, were dominant. This might have been expressed either through sacred texts outlining the role of man as part of nature or through practical education such as that provided by Buddhist monks in forested parts of East Asia.
Political ideologies that have derived from more modern history, such as communism or libertarianism, tend to have been created in periods in which industrial activities dominated agricultural activities. They are therefore more likely to support extraction of resources to facilitate more production. In these cases, the purpose of nature is generally seen as supporting mankind’s development and ascension.
As modern life has become more complex, environmental policy has both become a more recognized area of concern in its own right and broadened to engage with numerous issues. Solid waste management, apportioning fishing rights, controlling industrial pollution, and addressing global warming are all issues now included within environmental policy. Governments around the world have established specific departments to formulate and implement policies and to monitor changes. Evidence of global warming and the effects of pollution have sparked worldwide interest in environmental issues, leading to increased involvement in voluntary organizations and growing pressure on elected politicians to adopt what are perceived to be environmentally-friendly policies.
Religion and Environmental Policy
Most large religions posit that the universe and all the aspects of nature within it are created by some kind of supernatural figure. Consequently, they deem it appropriate for mankind to respect nature and not damage it heedlessly. However, in the case of a religion such as Christianity, the sanctioned sacred text of the Bible explicitly gives wardenship of the earth to humanity and, hence, provides justification for exploitation of the world, although not to the extent of damaging it. Nevertheless, when there is controversy over the meaning of sacred texts and the means of interpreting them, there may be diversity in attitudes toward nature and its use.
Most religions embrace the concept of sacred areas or lands that should be sequestered from public use; these include taboo areas such as graveyards, sacred mountains, and areas where supernatural events are said to have occurred. In some cases, this is manifested in the building of sacred edifices such as cathedrals or temples or the preservation of the area in its original state. In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, state-sanctioned sacred places are preserved, while those from other traditions are suppressed.
These religious practices demonstrate that belief patterns are held to be directly related to acceptable and unacceptable uses of the environment. Related to this are religious dietary practices and food taboos. Historical patterns of technology use and understanding probably helped inspire beliefs that some foods were taboo. This has led to different patterns of land use insofar as some animals are excluded from entering sacred territory or, as in the case of cows in Hindu India, are allowed to wander freely.
Humanist philosophies or natural religions have often featured a profound reverence for nature that is to be manifested in the unchanging worship of the land and the life that resides within it. The philosophies of Henry David Thoreau may be considered in this light, as might the English poets William Wordsworth and John Keats. The great visionary poet William Blake saw nature as God’s expression of paradise on earth and, hence, it was all the better left in an unimproved state.
Chinese painting often depicted the harmonious relationships possible between mankind and nature. This was linked to the concept that the Chinese emperor was provided with legitimacy to rule through the Mandate of Heaven and could only rule as long as the mandate was maintained. Environmental phenomena were powerful signals from heaven that the mandate was at risk or might already have been withdrawn. Earthquakes, disease, or famine could all be symbols that the temporal, the environmental, and the spiritual were all linked. Across most cultures of the world, astrological phenomena such as eclipses or comets were also believed to betoken some kind of important temporal change as mandated by supernatural forces.
A final example of a quasi-religious philosophy is that of James Lovelock’s Gaia, which posits that nature and indeed the planet exist in a kind of holistic and self-regulating system. This system can manage itself sustainably within certain parameters, but there are limits to what can be managed. The impact of man upon this system is believed to have exceeded the self-healing limits, making it time for more radical policies to remove or at least nullify that influence. In extreme cases, this has led some people to the position that no more use of environmental resources should be permitted and that all forms of industrialization are now unsustainable and should be ended. This policy would call for a huge reduction in the standard of living of the developed world so as to protect what remains of environmental resilience.
One of the central aspects of environmental policy is the concept of externalities. This concept refers to all of the additional impacts on the environment that a physical change can have. In terms of environmental change, forests provide a facility for sequestering carbon from the air and for providing aesthetic and recreational services for people. This is in addition to the physical impact of the forest, which provides valuable logging resources and a habitat for wildlife.
Understanding, documenting, and evaluating the existing externalities related to a physical phenomenon and understanding the impact of change and interaction with other physical presences is complex and only partly completed. Since ecosystems have been known to collapse quite suddenly, it is clear that the interaction can be unpredictable and complex. In terms of policy, therefore, the role and value of externalities is contested because of the difficulty in quantifying their importance and value. Simplistically, interests who wish to develop or exploit environmental phenomena on a commercial basis will tend to argue for a low value for externalities, while those opposed to commercial exploitation will argue in the opposite direction.
Attempting to quantify the value of environmental resources has been a difficult and complex task and the various attempts have not been accepted uncontested. However, economics presents some concepts that have been useful in this attempt. This has been assisted by the recognition that many of the world’s resources are not only finite, but their final depletion can now be foreseen. In particular, projections that oil resources will be exhausted within 100-120 years, based on current rates of extraction and assuming (as seems likely) that no significant new finds will be made, has focused attention on the need for substitute fuels within a generation.
While practical implementation of policies to address these issues are only beginning at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, attempts have started to be made to place extra tax on airplane travel and the use of overly large, fuel-inefficient personal automobiles. Tradeable carbon permits are the instrument most commonly used in international agreements; these are starting to become viable, although generally only developed countries are currently expected to have to participate. There is a need for these schemes both to broaden in scope and to become more effective-this will form the basis of many future policy debates.
The 21st Century
As it has become increasingly apparent that global climate change and warming are having an enormous impact upon the entire world, environmental policy has focused on both the struggle to persuade climate change deniers of reality and the search for solutions to which all major parties would be willing to contribute. The Kyoto Protocol Treaty, for example, was an attempt to institute a carbon trading scheme to which all developed states could subscribe. The plan was that once leading states had so subscribed, then the treaty details could be expanded in terms of geography and the cost of carbon emissions. However, the refusal of the George W. Bush administration to sign the protocol has hamstrung the agreement, since the United States is the world’s leading polluter. Further, it has become difficult to persuade important developing states such as China and India, where pollution and emissions are high and increasing, of the commitment that Western countries have to mutual reduction of emissions.
In the years since the 1960s, the majority of the developing countries of the world have entered into an economic paradigm that focuses on export-oriented growth, generally supported by import-substitution. Almost the sole measure of success has become growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), although there have been some exceptions. The consequence has been the dismissal of claims for the environment in promoting growth. Instead, the environment has been viewed as a stage on which GDP growth can be effected.
A coalition of different interest groups has formed to resist this way of thinking, including some faithbased groups who have allied with those ideologically inspired to campaign against the relentless exploitation of the environment. At the same time, as cities around the world develop to the extent that they can provide wealthy lifestyles for their middleclass residents, their populations become increasingly concerned about such problems as access to services for people with disabilities, road safety, and the need for public spaces for aesthetic and recreation purposes. In cities such as Taipei and Seoul, for example, much debate centers on the need to improve not just the immediate environmental vicinity of the cities, but also their hinterlands. There, awareness of the interdependence of environmental systems is beginning to permeate the public consciousness.
- William J. Baumol and Wallace E. Oates, The Theory of Environmental Policy, 2nd (Cambridge University Press, 1988);
- Nick Hanley, Jason F. Shogren, and Ben White, , Environmental Economics: In Theory and Practice (Oxford University Press, 1996);
- James Lovelock, Ages of Gaia (Oxford University Press, 1988);
- Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 1994).