Environmental Justice in an Era of Devolved Collaboration

42 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2001


This Essay examines the move by environmental and natural resources agencies to devolve decision making influence to local, multi-stakeholder, collaborative groups. The emerging use of such decision making mechanisms - such as forestry and watershed partnerships and community advisory committees - reflects the need for more creative solutions to the current generation of environmental problems and for improved decision making processes for identifying and equitably distributing the costs and benefits of environmental decisions. In seeking more participatory, local and holistic decision making mechanisms, the move toward devolved collaboration intersects and converges with another prominent movement, environmental justice, in ways that are crucial for the future of environmental decision making.

This Essay examines the points of convergence and divergence between these two important currents in modern environmental decision making. On the one hand, the interest-convergence of these two powerful currents in modern environmentalism has been a crucial element shaping the direction of environmentalism from the 1990s into the new century. There are now more voices than ever calling for the creation of democratic, sustainable communities and for a more comprehensive approach to environmental problems that address the connections between environmental, economic and civic health. Yet, despite the interest-convergence of these two powerful currents in modern environmentalism, there are dangers lurking at their intersection. This Essay argues that while devolved collaboration can theoretically ameliorate some regulatory inequities, it may also add renewed legitimacy to racial and class distributional inequities, further entrenching them in the landscape of environmental decision-making. Perhaps as importantly, devolved collaboration will introduce new equity problems in environmental decision-making by modifying current patterns of participation and representation in unforeseen ways. Like its predecessor decision making approaches, this evolving model, thus far, is indifferent to (or innocent about) the social structural and institutional conditions necessary to realize its own promises, including its aspiration of more equitable decisions.

This Essay concludes that the movement toward devolved collaboration should best be regarded as the collective expression of a core set of normative principles that can guide the shaping of environmental decision making processes in a context-specific fashion. These normative principles can be used to tailor a mix of decision making mechanisms to specific environmental problems in particular ecological, social, economic, and political contexts. This contextualized approach brings with it the additional virtue of preserving the accountability of centralized authorities for ensuring fidelity to these principles in specific contexts instead of leaving this task to unaccountable, fragmented local groups.

Suggested Citation

Foster, Sheila, Environmental Justice in an Era of Devolved Collaboration. Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 26, 2002, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=291510 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.291510

Sheila Foster (Contact Author)

Georgetown University ( email )

Washington, DC 20001
United States

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