A Whale of a Pattern of Thought: Subsidiarity & Environmental Management

Right whales off Massachusetts. CreditL NOAA, FlickrCC.

Off the coast of Maine, an explosive exhalation of air swept my attention over the sailboat’s starboard rail. A broad stretch of hide rose like a pebbled sand bar the length of the 27-foot boat. The right whale wheeled forward, sliding into opaque water while I stammered and pointed.

I was alone at the helm steering with three people in the cabin below decks. One ascended the gangway enough to see on the surface of a passing swell a circle of water that once held whale.  All my ocean sensibilities had been breached. My mind, informed by sea experiences and ocean literature such as Rachel Carson’s “Under the Sea Wind,” was inexplicably altered.  Where did this come from? How could this be? What does such life mean for an unfathomable dynamic complex system that we simply call ocean ecosystem?

That experiences changed me and I now wanted to know all about whales and searched the course listings of the five colleges in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley to no avail.

The following summer found me not at sea but in Amherst, MA working with the colleague who had been first up to see the whale’s fluke print on the waves. We worked on a stipend to gain the competencies to teach a course on whales to our college peers. The college was practicing a most basic form of subsidiarity by supporting two college students and assisting by funding a college professor to meet with us frequently.

Subsidiarity is a very old concept and pattern of thought that one does not hear of in America. It’s an organizing principle for community-based governance in concert with larger forms of government. Just as the surfacing of a whale changed my way of knowing the ocean, I suspect the principle of subsidiarity can change for the better our understandings of community-based environmental management.

Subsidiarity calls for close and respectful partnerships amidst all levels of government be it local, regional, state, federal and international. Working with some deference for those closest to the community, we can restore diverse wildlife, healthy ecosystems and even our quality of life.

Subsidiarity is a two-fold principle. First, any task should be decentralized to the lowest level of organization with the capacity to conduct it satisfactorily.  Second, while the higher level of organization reframes from undertaking tasks that could be performed by the smallest group, it is still responsible for the skill training and competencies of the group carrying out the task to the extent that the lesser groups perform as well as the other. Credit goes to the grouping closest to the resource while responsibility is borne by all according to the principle of subsidiarity.

The college practiced the principle by delegating to two students the task of teaching and at the same time, building the competencies needed for the specific task. As a student teacher, I was recognized (and got credit) while responsibility for the quality of the college courses was borne by the college.

The subsidiarity concept goes back to Aristotle stating that government should be subsidiary to citizen, meaning secondary. By this he meant government must serve the people and not the other way around.  Subsidiarity is silent about specific purpose, direction or content.  Subsidiarity was further articulated 400 years ago as “a conviction that each human individual is endowed with an inherent and inalienable worth, or dignity.”  All social groupings should ultimately be at the service of the individual.

Today, ours continues to be the “seed time” for addressing environmental challenges.  We practice subsidiarity at all levels of government, from individuals and groups closest to the resources on up.  There is now a growing realization of the power citizens have and the responsibilities borne by all levels of government. The practices of environmental subsidiarity become more effective and more significant, with each action and with every day.

Environmental Subsidiarity

Environmental subsidiarity combines the organizing principle and pattern of thought (subsidiarity) with the context of environmental studies and natural resource management. Subsidiarity is the policy design; environmental recognizes the policy choice.

Environmental subsidiarity calls for two actions. First, give power and authority to the frontline groups, those people closest to the natural resource.  Second, subsidiarity calls for holding all groups behind the front, most particularly higher authorities often state and federal responsible for the competencies and apportioning of powers for all the special forces from front to back.  Subsidiarity averts environmental forlorn hope by giving more control and pride to the local groups. Despair is thwarted by all stakeholders and interest groups working in coordinated partnership with diverse groups of multiple and increasing capacities to achieve significant undertakings together.

Abraham Lincoln most clearly evoked the spirit of an American subsidiarity. To paraphrase Lincoln, government must do for an environment, and for that environment’s “community of people whatever they need to have done but…cannot so well do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities. “

Credit is due to those who do the most. Responsibility for environmental management, restoration and conservation belongs to all, from the most local to the most national, near and far. Bringing multiple groups with differing competencies from many levels of authority to manage an environment, and to then bear the burden of responsibility broadly, environmental subsidiarity betters, makes more democratic and competent, the work of environmental stewardship.

Dr. Rob Moir is a nationally-recognized and award-winning environmentalist. He is president & executive director of Cambridge-based Ocean River Institute, a nonprofit providing expertise, services, resources, and information unavailable on a localized level to support efforts of environmental organizations. Please visit www.oceanriver.org for more information.