Catastrophe as a matter of choice

The Politics of Environmental Discourse
June 28, 1996

This is a study of the development of environmental policy and problem perception that uses comparisons between Dutch and English policies on acid rain to prove its argument. Maarten Hajer frames his analysis by pointing to the development of "ecological modernisation" in the 1980s - the belief that the environmental crisis could be solved within the bounds of normal politics, that "pollution prevention pays".

He argues that even within the past ten years there have been major shifts in our problem perception. Acid rain lost its status as worst problem after about 1986 - why is not clear - and more global issues, such as the greenhouse effect and global warming, took its place. Hajer makes the intriguing suggestion that national environmental policy plans, which start around 1990, were stimulated by photos of planet earth. Both the British and the Dutch policy plans had exactly such photos on their covers.

Hajer's point is that problem perception is a social construct. Policymakers have to prioritise problems. But while many environmentalists assume that it is natural that their proposals should be chosen, Hajer shows that there is no consensus on the ranking of environmental problems, and that the change in "worst problem" from acid rain to global warming typifies this. So how are the priorities drawn up? Hajer argues that the environmental debates of the 1990s rely on computer projections and complex extrapolations that disqualify the layman. This excludes the democratic process and favours the lobbying scientist who, quoting Jerry Ravetz, calls for "hard decisions based on soft evidence". As Hajer says, the "discursive construction of reality creates a realm of power".

Governmental environment policy develops as a result of problem perception, institutional factors, and lobbying pressure. As with all governmental policies, problem perception and action are not always well matched, perceptions can be out of date, exaggerated or unfounded.

Because of Hajer's functionalist framework, there is an unresolved tension in the book at this point between his belief in the "truth" of the environmental problematic, and his undermining of environmental interpretations which claim to have the "truth". If the problem is regarded as relative, can the catastrophe be absolute?

The two case studies of approaches to acid rain make fascinating reading. Essentially, "policymaking in the UK was to be entrusted to the state entities", who foot-dragged about pollution statistics. There was no consistent country-wide monitoring, no actors concerned about tree health and policy decisions were made on a pragmatic and incremental basis. The Dutch threw out this approach in the late 1980s and adopted a critical loads policy approach with quality targets for environmental media. The Dutch approach was, if you want healthy trees, start by finding policy targets which if met ensure that trees will be healthy.

The development of Dutch policy flags up some interesting distinctions between the continental and British approach. The former was less analytical and more consensual, the latter analytical and oppositional, hence indecisive. It is hard to tell which achieved the better results (Hajer does not really tell us whether the Dutch emphasis on critical loads and ambient quality has started to work). Nonetheless, the account of British policy makes for painful reading. He remorselessly but emphatically tracks the amazing secrecy and sloth of our policymakers. When they did act, they did so with a wild disregard for cost-effectiveness.

Now that ecological modernisation has become a more accepted style of government policy and corporate behaviour, where is the improvement in pollution? How are our trees doing? Hajer cites one recent survey as estimating that over 50 per cent of British trees are dead - I found the section on tree health in Britain almost too painful to read.

Hajer, on the side of the Dutch, sees tree ill-health as a fact, rather than as a social construct. He ends with a plea for ends-based, ongoing inquiries and commissions; which look not into specific issues or costs, but into what society wants and how to get there - the Dutch approach again. Well, Holland is a more consensual society than the UK. But we could have a more effective demand for dissemination of information, and less of the secretiveness, while retaining our political identity.

The acid rain controversy had political implications. It confirmed the Scandinavian idea that Brits were anti-environmental and anti-holistic, while the British refusal to examine transboundary pollution problems have been justified post-factum by the naughty Norwegians' refusal to join the EU, and their continued eating of whales.

In the early 1970s, millions of elm trees died in Britain, followed by a hot summer, that left burnt fields, waved over by dead trees. They were not replaced and their bone-hard stumps still haunt our fields. Dutch elm disease! Take that, Mr Hajer.

Anna Bramwell is author of The Fading of the Greens.

The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernisation and the Policy Process

Author - Maarten A. Hajer
ISBN - 0 19 8969 8
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £30.00
Pages - 332

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