Bill Ruckelshaus, a leader of the effort to save Puget Sound, pens a valuable essay in The Wall Street Journal, today, reflecting on the efforts to curb pollution in the 40 years since Earth Day. His main point: What worked a generation ago (mostly attacking single-point pollution sources) needs to be dramatically refashioned for our new problems (non-point pollution like runoff, and climate change).
Some of this is simply a result of success. Most of the single-pipe sources, such as mills and city sewage outfalls, have been plugged or cleaned up. Meanwhile, non-point pollution, which had been 15 percent of the problem for bodies of water such as Puget Sound, is now 85 percent of the problem. This is a tougher problem not just in engineering, but because it involves getting millions of citizens to change their habits. It means getting people and politicians beyond their lip-service to these goals to actual behavioral change. So far, little luck.
This leads Ruckelshaus to a broader point. We need to shift from a top-down regulatory model to one that engages the citizens much more in finding solutions, and therefore vesting in them. He writes:
My own experience in a variety of posts over the past 40 years leads me to certain conclusions.
First is that people affected by change have to be deeply involved in the crafting of solutions—they are going to pay for them either economically or through changes in how they live. We need more democracy, not less. Trying to enact rules centrally to control the behavior of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in a watershed when their individual contribution is minuscule, but collectively overwhelming, is futile. We have been trying a command-and-control, top-down approach for the past four decades to control non-point sources of water pollution. The examples of the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Puget Sound are grim testimony to our failure. If one solution doesn't work, the answer is not to push it harder but to look for new approaches.
Second, we have to get better at both involving people in the process of change and providing them with enough information to make that involvement useful and worthwhile. My experience recently helping with salmon recovery efforts in Puget Sound tells me that when people understand their self-interest in solving a problem, they are more than willing to agree to the trade-offs necessary to come to a solution.
These exercises in collaborative decision making also require a new way of thinking about the science involved in highly technical topics such as salmon restoration. Ruckelshaus recommends muting the natural scientific disagreements by getting the parties off on the right foot — finding solutions — rather than setting out with clashing, adversarial stances. He's been trying this approach in the Puget Sound Partnership discussions, with some success. (The problem in Puget Sound is a shortage of money.)
Disclosure moment: Ruckelshaus is a member of the board of Crosscut Public Media, publishers of Crosscut.com.
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