Governance Matters

Yves here. This post illustrates how dominant the neoliberal paradigm has become all over the world, and how it fails to acknowledge, much the less address, the well-known failings of markets, such as externalities.

By Sunita Narain, the Director of Centre for Science and Environment and the Editor of Down To Earth, an environment fortnightly magazine. Originally published at Triple Crisis

It is time we recognised that the current ways of fixing the environment are not working. Rivers are more contaminated; air is more polluted and cities are filling up with garbage we cannot handle. The question is: where are we going wrong? What do we need to do?

For this, we first need to recognise that India and countries like ours have to find new technical solutions and approaches to solve environmental problems. It is a fact that the already industrialised world had the surplus money to find technologies and fund mitigation and governance, and they continue to spend heavily even today. We have huge demands—everything from basic needs to infrastructure—on the same finances and will never be able to catch up in this game. So, we need to build a new practice of environmental management, which is affordable and sustainable.

In this way, environmental management options will have to be explored carefully and leaps made.

Take river cleaning. For long we have invested in sewage treatment plant technologies that were adopted by the rest of the world. We hoped we would clean our rivers the way other countries did. But we forgot that most of our cities do not have sanitation systems or underground sewage networks. Even if flush toilets of a few urban Indians are connected to the underground drain, and their waste is pumped for some length and transported to sewage plants and treated, it does not clean rivers. The reason is that the rest—in fact, the majority—do not have the same connection. Their waste goes to open drains and then to the same river or lake. The end result is dirty water.

Pollution control measures must be affordable to meet the needs of all. They must cut the cost of water supply and the cost of taking back wastewater. This would require reworking sewage management so that we can intercept wastewater in open drains and septic tanks, and treat it as cost effectively as possible. It would also require strategies to make sure that rivers have enough water to dilute wastewater.

All this can be done. But it will require backing new solutions, ensuring that they are put to practice and scaling them up.

For this, we also require the ultimate investment in our institutions of governance. Without them we cannot have arbitration or resolution of difficult conflicts. For too long in our environmental journey we have neglected this aspect. The rot has, in fact, accelerated in the past 10 years, even as environmental issues have been mainstreamed. This is because governance has never been on the agenda.

As a result, governments and civil society have invested all their political capital, bureaucratic time, energy of committees and media airtime into airing differences on project and policy designs, and not on the capacity that we need to implement these in the real world. We continue to churn out notifications and policies for regulating environmental degradation—everything from battery rules to hazardous waste management to plastic disposal and clearance for every building or shopping mall or penalties against illegal dumping of waste—without any consideration whether we can actually do this on the ground.

It is time we focused firmly and squarely on strengthening the capacity of regulatory agencies. For instance, even after years, the pollution control boards remain understaffed and grossly neglected. The problem is that this is an agenda nobody wants to touch. Governments want to downsize or outsource governance to the private sector or civil society. They do not believe they can fix what is broken, and high-profile environment ministers do not want to touch this as it brings them little kudos. It is a hard job and it is not immediately recognised. Civil society does not push for this because it distrusts the bureaucracy and believes that strengthening it will further corrode the power of the people. So, the agenda is unattended and institutions, abused.

This has to be the biggest lesson of the past four decades. We cannot fix what is broken till we make an attempt to fix it. There is no doubt that we cannot have the same “inspectors”, but we can have new-age tools of transparency, data analysis and do everything that builds public trust and credibility. Similarly, we cannot have the same “sticks” but we do need even stronger enforcement systems that can make deterrence work.

This is the real environmental agenda, but one that is inconvenient to handle. It is about change that matters.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    As someone who works in the regulatory sector, I can only echo the importance of this. Laws are irrelevant if there are no structures to fairly enforce them.

    This website focus a lot on the problems of Greece (and to a lesser extent, Spain and Italy) within the context of Europe – one issue sometimes touched on, but rarely examined in detail is the fundamentally different way laws are seen in southern Europe compared to the north. We like to think of the Germans, etc., loving rules and laws – in truth, the Italians and Spanish seem to love them more, because they have far more of them. The difference is that in northern Europe there is a tendency (sometimes to excess), to follow the letter of laws precisely – while in the south there are seen at best as general guidelines. Its instructive sometimes to compare laws and codes in the countries – in the northern countries, they tend to be short and precise, while in the south they go on and on and on, but really represent waffle. This creates huge problems when EU Directives (which are normally surprisingly short and precise) are implemented country by country.

    Of course, this cultural difference can also result in the north in an almost ridiculous lack of pragmatism in how the laws are applied, while to some extent in the South it is more humane. The differences are as much cultural as legalistic. But it is a fundamental problem which the EU has, despite vast efforts, never been able to really reconcile.

    Anyway, that is a little off topic – the general point though is that in countries like India the focus needs to be on administrative capacity. The laws and rules are generally there, it is the capacity that is the problem. While progressives fight to enact, or protect, important laws and rules, corporations and their lackeys know the real fight is about how to hamstring the regulatory and administrative functions to ensure they are never properly implemented. Or best of all, they are implemented on the weak, while the strong just act with impunity.

  2. James Levy

    This article neatly echoes Francis Fukuyama’s new book about the dangers of eroding the power and autonomy of government bureaucracies either in the name of corporate “freedom” or “the people.” To his conservative credit Fukuyama sees the threat today to governance as largely a function of corporate and oligarchic power. It troubles his Hegelian heart seeing laws twisted like pretzels for special interest purposes and private gain. He’s a “Northerner” in Plutonium’s typology (above), but not a foolish one.

    I’m reminded of one of those rare occasions when I agreed with George Will. He said that democracy was a lot like baseball–you’ve got to be inured to losing to embrace it (as even a terrific team loses 60 times a season). Well, we’ve spawned now two generations of Trumps who have no time for losing. They must win, win, win, and will use any means they can muster to do so. This makes regulation, in the traditional sense, impossible. Thus all laws that interfere in profit maximization must be suborned or neutered through campaign contributions, lobbying, the courts, or just accepting the fines as a cost of doing business. William Greider showed this ugly process 20 years ago in his book “Who Will Tell the People?” Things have only gotten worse, and so the rule of law, and respect for the law, has eroded, perhaps past the point of no return.

  3. John Merryman

    Basically it all boils down to the fact that money functions as the economic circulation system of society, just like roads. Not a commodity to be hoarded. It is like blood in the body. The brain might need more than the feet, but it can’t hoard it to the detriment of the feet. Nor can the heart, as the circulation mechanism, be treated as a rent extraction process, as the banking sector is currently doing.
    This isn’t socialism. There has to be structure and levels of and in societies. They just can’t be at war with each other and still function as a whole.
    Until we get that right, we will be living in the dark ages.

  4. Oldeguy

    Dodd-Frank for example ?
    Eric Holder’s Dept. of Justice for example ?
    Superb post and excellent commentary.

  5. allan

    Globalization trumps national regulations:

    WTO Ruling Against India’s Solar Push Threatens Climate, Clean Energy

    The World Trade Organization (WTO) on Wednesday ruled against India over its national solar energy program in a case brought by the U.S. government, sparking outrage from labor and environmental advocates.

    As power demands grow in India, the country’s government put forth a plan to create 100,000 megawatts of energy from solar cells and modules, and included incentives to domestic manufacturers to use locally-developed equipment.

    According to Indian news outlets, the WTO ruled that India had discriminated against American manufacturers by providing such incentives, which violates global trade rules, and struck down those policies—siding with the U.S. government in a case that the Sierra Club said demonstrates the environmentally and economically destructive power of pro-corporate deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

  6. susan the other

    France 24. Last nite’s debate discussed the garbage crisis in Lebanon. It would be amusing if it weren’t a microcosm of neo-liberal globalism. Lebanon’s land fill is full. So the government, which contracts out garbage pick up, has let the garbage pile up. The problem one panelist saw was abdication of responsibility by the government because Lebanon has no political mechanism to call for a new election to get the government to actually make decisions and take action on the mess. The government is dithering about a new dump site and letting new contracts to their cronies for kickbacks. It can’t be long before all the beautiful Mediterranean beaches are awash in garbage debris at this rate. And political responsibility? Nada.

    1. heresy101

      A new dump site? That is so 19th century. If it were not for “environmental” groups like GreenAction, dumps and landfills would become extinct. After recyclables of paper, glass, aluminum, organic materials, and most plastics are removed and sent to a recycling stream, there is still “trash”. The organic materials can be put into anaerobic digesters to create biogas for electricity generation, compost, and other usable byproducts:

      Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) uses pyrolysis or plasma to make a syngas which is used to make electricity. Plasma breaks molecules down at 5000+ degrees to the component atoms.
      A web search gives WSPP (which I know nothing about) that has a very good description of the process:

      No need for anything to wash up on any beaches.

      1. Synoia

        Plasma breaks molecules down at 5000+ degrees to the component atoms.

        Yes it does. How much does that cost in energy consumption?

        An engineered solution is a solution which is affordable. Anyone can propose un-affordable solutions, especially when they do not have to pay for them, and do not understand to operating costs.

  7. Gio Bruno

    Pollution control measures must be affordable to meet the needs of all. They must cut the cost of water supply and the cost of taking back wastewater. This would require reworking sewage management so that we can intercept wastewater in open drains and septic tanks, and treat it as cost effectively as possible. It would also require strategies to make sure that rivers have enough water to dilute wastewater.

  8. Gio Bruno

    Pollution control measures must be affordable to meet the needs of all. They must cut the cost of water supply and the cost of taking back wastewater. This would require reworking sewage management so that we can intercept wastewater in open drains and septic tanks, and treat it as cost effectively as possible. It would also require strategies to make sure that rivers have enough water to dilute wastewater.

    I’m in complete agreement that government regulation is a requirement for environmental policies to function. However, environmental regulations are sometimes based on faulty reasoning. Clean water is very expensive to make once it’s polluted. (Tertiary treatment is becoming the standard in California.) While the sanitary sewer system is well-regulated, the non-point urban run-off (pet poop, auto drippings, lawn pesticides) introduced into the street storm system is NOT.

    Most street systems send runoff to rivers and ocean. The levels of pollution that folks can come in contact, despite dilution, is astounding. Algae growth, for example, is catalyzed by phosphorus (usually in ionic form) at a multiplier of 500 to 1 (One unit of phosphorus can create 500 units of algae.) and hyper-trophic (excessive algae growth) water bodies create conditions that upset ecologic balance (trophic levels). While phosphorus has been removed from detergents, it is found in feces (all types) and continues to pollute the waters of the world. So where’s the enforcement of this runoff? Well, it’s made at the municipal level (U.S.) and they are underfunded (so it doesn’t get done).

    And algae is often just a nuisance. The real danger is virus/bacteria transmission. And with pet poop and homelessness growing in the US, be afraid. And steer clear of near-urban beaches and river banks. Because the only sure- fire method of mitigating pollution is through natural environmental processes. Which are currently being overwhelmed by the human population!

    There are limits to growth.

  9. ewmayer

    No mention in the piece about governance with respect to population growth – is that somehow a discussion taboo?

    No matter how good one’s governance might be, no amount of wise planning can cope with an exploding population, which in India and so many other places is conflated with ‘economic development’ via usual specious economic reasoning:

    1. Economic development requires GDP growth;
    2. The surest way to grow GDP is to grow production and consumption;
    3. The surest way to grow production and consumption is to increase the number of workers and mouths to feed.

    Though I should note that the population growth rate appears to have roughly stabilized at a ‘mere’ ~170 million per decade. But then one runs headlong into the other issue, which
    is the combination of the above disastrous logic with the other gauge of ‘development’, western-style exorbitant per-capita consumption, and you’re headed for disaster no matter how otherwise good your governance is. Bad government is merely the icing on the cake.

    So yes, by all means better governance and planning and enforcement, but even with that one is left with the elephant in the room that proper infrastructure (e.g. for sanitation) requires significant energy and material inputs. The Chinese are running into the same conundrum with regard to per-capita consumption/standard-of-living, albeit in the context of a drastically lower population growth rate.

    1. Synoia

      Any form or growth on this planet is no solution.

      Any solution involving growth requires us to become an establish off-planet civilization – and the heat excretions (used energy is always excreted as heat) required to get us to an off planet civilization most probably hastens our climate catastrophe, unless the heat is excreted above the biosphere.

      We need to move off planet, and expend little energy in the biosphere to achieve this. The energy has to be consumed and the heat dissipated, outside the biosphere.

      We are looking a large set of orbital hoists, solar or nuclear powered. Arthur C Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise comes to mind.

  10. Synoia

    This post illustrates how dominant the neoliberal paradigm has become all over the world, and how it fails to acknowledge, much the less address, the well-known failings of markets, such as externalities.

    Long Comment Warning.

    Maybe. However I don’t believe that Governance is close to a solution. My (unpaid) interest is in systems, systems theory and application of feedback within systems, and has been so ever since being taught second order differential equations, the theory, and the rule of thumb – don’t use a feedback loop over three stages of (tube or analog) amplification, it will not work.

    The theory, second order differential equations, is clear, proven and workable only in specifically limited circumstances. The specifically limited circumstances, rule of thumb, are chosen to minimize the effects of non-linearity in the system. Engineers make things work, and do so very well.

    Which leads to the best, or worst, theory of control systems we have – chaos or catastrophe theory. Theory based on non-linear feedback.

    There was my “aha” moment. All system are non-linear. Some may appear linear, some may be constrained to be linear, and may be “engineered” to be linear, but all are non-linear, and all will fail catastrophically when used out of a safe working range. Then I went about my IT and Engineering profession, and earned large fees and getting repeat business making systems work within safe working ranges, knowing my customers would break their system either by excessive volumes of traffic or by side effects of changes (especially changes I’d never anticipated, generally expressed by “You did What???!!!), and I’d be hired again to restore stability to the systems.

    The ecosystem in which we live is being stressed – stressed so much that one could assert we have moved our ecosystem out of the safe operating range, and I see no way of going back to the safe working range – possibly expressed by the world in the 1700s or 1800s, or even back to Neolithic times.

    Which leads to catastrophic failure.

    And in my mind now raises an answer to the question sought by SETI (The Search for Extra-terrestial Intelligence), – Where are the other intelligent civilizations in the Universe?

    There may be none – “Intelligence”, as we define it, pushes the underlying ecosystem into catastrophic failure and the intelligent civilization fails almost immediately, choking in its own excrement (in time frames measured in million of years).

    So I disagree, respectfully, with Yves, about a failure or lack of governance – because it makes the assumption that some form of governance can impose some solutions cause by our civilization – when it is out civilization itself as a heat engine which is pushing our ecosystem beyond its safe working limits.

    The solution to our problem is to turn our civilization off. Aka: Killing about 6.5 Billion people. Such a die of will probably happen involuntary, that is without governance, by a series catastrophes, because the system will seek a new equilibrium, a stable operating range, which is inherent in systems.

    I’d like to be wrong. I fear I’m not.

    1. Susan the other

      Well, Synoia, that was sobering. Logic is not coming to our rescue. How did we let our own population get so out of control? Must think about ourselves as little organic factories. Reclaiming the world gone bad. But if we kid ourselves much longer we will be “overcome by events” – as the military likes to say.

      1. Synoia

        How did we let our own population get so out of control?

        We invented agriculture, cities, and reduced infant mortality.

        1. Knute Rife

          The first made the second possible, but it was the third that made population take off and also made cities truly viable. And it isn’t so much that we invented agriculture and cities and reduced infant mortality but that we have simply and stubbornly refused to believe in, or at least provide for, the consequences.

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